Ad Astra: A Review

This review was first presented on my Patreon. Please head over and support me there if you can.

I had a chance to watch a bunch of movies recently, and I’m really not sure which to discuss first. I’m going to go with the one that I had the most hopes for, even though those hopes were (spoilers!) dashed.

Please note: I saw this movie on an airplane, and it was apparently edited. One would not expect that anything key would have been removed or altered, but there it is.

Ad Astra is a science fiction drama starring Brad Pitt and directed by James Gray. It’s about an astronaut sent to find his father who is somehow intertwined with a threat to Earth (and—I think—the solar system). That’s the drama part—the family dynamic. The science fiction part is that the father is part of a mission to find extraterrestrial life and is near or in orbit of Neptune. 

Listen, this is a very beautiful movie. It is made with the utmost craftsmanship, and there is a real weight to the action and the sets in which that story unfold. But for all that, it seems sterile.

I found this very much a quieter homage to Apocalypse Now intertwined with the Partridge-Mackey father-son alienation angle of Magnolia. There is a lot of Apocalypse Now in the style of the story and its forward progress—and I mean that movie rather than Heart of Darkness, as there are a lot of similarities to the style of the movie absent from the novella. And while I like both that movie and the novella on which it is based, I didn’t enjoy Ad Astra.

Pitt’s character is almost completely a cypher in a way that neither Marlow nor Willard ever were. There is an in-story reason for this, but it still created a wall that didn’t allow me to sympathize with his character. And I also never really felt there was a connection between him and his father. With both Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness, this is not a problem as Kurtz is a mysterious figure, only partially revealed—even at the climax. But the father is much more Kurtz than the Earl Partridge character in Magnolia. The murkiness of the father’s character and the impenetrability of the son’s left me cold to the very crux of the movie.

And what the heck was with the moon buggy chase? It was like the filmmakers decided they needed some action. The consequences of that scene do not propel the story forward or inject anything of interest, and there is no reference back to it or the situation that created it. It is like it is from a different movie.

My opinions seem to be in the minority, so I may just have been missing something. Pitt’s character is the spine of the movie, and he was inaccessible to me. The other characters that drop in and fall out left no real imprint and seemed much more to be plot devices than actual characters, with odd turns that did not fit with the characters as presented to that point. Even the main character’s motivations—which are very clearly spelt out—ring false given everything else we are presented regarding him.

I do not recommend Ad Astra. I give it 2.5 long, drawn-out shots of beautiful space out of 5. It is a distant, unengaging story with gorgeous visuals. It offered me no emotional connection at all.

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The Mandalorian – A Review

This review was originally posted at my Patreon.

It was like Jon Favreau read my mind and made a show just for me.

And that ain’t the first time that’s happened.

I have become, in case you haven’t heard, a huge fan of the Mandalorian. It’s basically Star Wars as a Western, which is very much in keeping with the frontier-aesthetic of A New Hope. And while it had much of the feel of a Kurosawa samurai-movie, that is likely because there was so much cross-pollination between Westerns and samurai films. The Mandalorian, though, was much more of a gunslinger than a ronin—though the Mandalorian cultural trappings had many intersections with what movies and comics have told us was the samurai code.

The episodes moved forward at their own speed, letting us bask in the story and luxuriate in the characters. It was not slow, because that kind of implies that it should have moved forward faster. It should not have. If the pace was not deliberate, it should have been. It made the later episodes—especially the penultimate and climactic episodes—hit so much harder. Even in those, we are treated to some honestly moving scenes that affected because we had grown to know these characters, especially the titular one. 

As much of a joy as was the titular characters, the supporting cast really shone. These were great characters, and I definitely wanted to see more of them, even the ones who weren’t so nice and weren’t so honourable. They were all interesting. It was through their interactions rather than exposition that you learned about them and gained an understanding of them. 

And they all had a plot purpose, each adding to the story of the Mandalorian in their own way.

The series also introduced us to new locations, and we were allowed to savour these, all of them feeling very fitting for a Star Wars stories. Like the characters and the props, the setting was imbued with the Star Wars aesthetic, something so central to the original trilogy. 

This was a great part of my enjoyment in this series. It really felt like Star Wars. It hearkened back to A New Hope in a way not even the Empire Strikes Back did. This was not nostalgia—though it’s creation was likely set off by that—but as much an homage as samurai movies were of Westerns, which then became homages to them. The Mandalorian has all of that, baked in a delicious shell of Star Wars.  

I give the Mandalorian 4.75 terrifyingly cult Force-wielding babies out of 5—only because nothing is perfect. Also, while I can’t recommend this highly enough, I always worry about overselling something. This is the perfect Star Wars property for me, perhaps not for everyone.

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Hellboy 2019

I am a big fan of the Guillermo del Toro Hellboy movies. I own both of them. I would have been quite happy to see a third, but was not angry or upset when I heard someone else was taking a run at it. How many versions of Spider-man have there been? Having said that, I only just recently finally got a chance to see it.

I don’t mind David Harbour’s Hellboy, but I prefer Ron Perlman’s. I was happy to see Ian McShane, and it kind of felt like a very different take on Dr. Bruttenholm than John Hurt’s. It’s kind of like I can prefer Sean Connery’s early James Bond portrayals, while still enjoying Timothy Dalton or Daniel Craig’s version.

The Bond franchise is kind of useful to illustrate how I think about film series and various incarnations of characters and stories. I prefer aspects of different Bond movies even when it’s not my favourite Bond – For Your Eyes Only would have been a truly great Bond film with a truly great Bond, but instead ends up as a good Bond film and a highlight in Roger Moore’s otherwise abysmal run. That’s kind of how I feel about Hellboy – it’s not that I dislike any of the particular character choices, but unlike For Your Eyes Only which would be immensely improved by having a better actor/version of Bond, I think the various incarnations of these characters could be good if only they had a stronger vehicle.

Unfortunately the writing is just bad. It’s not so much the dialogue, it’s the internal inconsistencies, occasional appearance of idiot plots, and extraneous additions that kill this version. I really like Neil Marshall and have since seeing Dog Soldiers. He’s generally solid and I have pretty much liked if not loved the movies he has directed. I have a strong suspicion that too many fingers spoiled this particular pie, and that Marshall was crowded out by other chefs in his kitchen.

I actually would not recommend the new Hellboy. It’s not a complete waste of time and has some entertainment value but it is not a good movie and can be frustrating, especially if you are a fan of the comic or the previous incarnation. If there’s another one, I just hope the studio picks a director with a vision – as I suspect they did here – and then get the hell out of the way and let that vision blossom.

You can find out more about the 2019 adaptation of Hellboy at Wikipedia or IMDB.

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Venom, A Review

Venom was a movie I thought I’d be interested in seeing because of Tom Hardy’s role in it, but then never really bothered to seek it out. It sought me out, and I can understand, now, my minor but not motivating interest.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with the movie, but there is also nothing particularly right. The fights are infused with CGI – due to them including either Venom himself or something similar – and so (for me) lacked weight or impact. They also were presented with quick edits and the chaotic, close-in style that can work when it is handled by someone who allows the audience to follow the action, but in this case – and so many others – just hides the lack of good choreography.

Everyone involved in the movie does a fine job, but even Tom Hardy seems to lack real investment in his role. This may be due to the writing, which is pedestrian. Sure, there are some good one-liners, but in general is pretty prosaic and lacks anything distinctive. The characters are not particularly well-developed but fit into standard molds, which likely makes it easier for the writers and directors but gives the audience nothing new or special.

So while everything is fine, nothing is outstanding. If you have the time and it’s playing, sure, give Venom a watch. I don’t think you’ll regret it. By the same token, there are a lot of really good movies out there, so choose wisely.

You can find out more about Venom at Wikipedia or IMDB.

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Overlord, A Review

This first appeared at my Patreon on 29 July, 2019

I’ve finally seen a bunch of films I likely would not otherwise have seen, and I of course have opinions of all of them. I want to start with Overlord, which had an intriguing premise for anyone who used to love Castle Wolfenstein or Return to CW.

If you know nothing more about Overlord, just know going in that it’s not a straight ahead war movie, and the reference to CW should clue you in as to how things are going to unravel/roll out. It’s a fine movie for Castle Wolfenstein-esque adventures, but if you aren’t interested in that particular and kind of specific genre, I can only offer a very lukewarm recommend.

The movie falls down on its characters. This is a plot-driven movie and the characters are stock standards rather than thoughtful explorations. An odd facet is the ignoring of the blatant racism and segregation of the period. To me, this may be much closer to how a pulp RPG campaign might treat the subject, and I found it odd at first but not off-putting. However, I am not a person affected by racism, so it’s certainly easier for me to accept that kind of decision, but would be interested to know how it was otherwise accepted.

So if you are looking to see something inspired by Castle Wolfenstein, and if stock characters and the removal of historical racial tensions don’t bother you, you might find Overlord of interest.

You can find out more about Overlord at Wikipedia or IMDB.

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Avengers: Endgame – A Very Late Review

 I finally got a chance to see Avengers: Endgame along with my family. I went in with some spoilers, but that never really bothers me. I can read the same book or see the same movie over and over again, and still be invested, so a few spoilers wasn’t a problem.

This isn’t really a review, because I’m pretty sure I’m the last person on the planet to see this movie, and no one is looking for pros and cons for spending their hard earned cash. Having said/written that, we’re going to call it a review for a lack of a better term.

If you are wondering if this is a good movie (or your wondering if I think it is), it is. If you have been following and enjoying the Marvel movies, it might have even been a great movie, with some really emotional beats as well as bombastic action on a massive scale. The actors really delivered and the Russo Brothers created something involving, exciting, and enjoyable.

I had a few problems – the main one requiring a spoiler to really dig into – which I will do below – but for now, let’s just say that the movie is not really internally consistent. It doesn’t actually make sense without assumptions, and this seems wrong considering the framework they build for the logic of the movie. The system of the movie’s reality is built up, discussed, and drives the main planning, but when it comes time for putting those millions up there on the screen, it’s jettisoned.

That was the big gripe. The second one has to do with Hawkeye’s character arc in this movie. It was really unnecessary, except as fan service. It’s built up then pretty much dropped – except the accoutrements he continues to carry and use through the rest of the movie. It also seemed like a little too much of a fridging of his wife – killing a female character to motivate a male character. Considering the nuance that was put into the exploration for how characters addressed the outcome of Infinity War, Clint Barton’s seemed crude. I think it might have worked better if only some of his family were lost – specifically his children. Think of the dynamic between a key character who has a new family – a young daughter – which that character fears to lose and Clint, who has lost his children. Clint wants his kids back desperately, but is he willing to risk someone else’s to do so? The choice that he and Natasha must make is then even more poignant for him.

And thank you, so much, for sad sack Thor. Ragnarok really helped to create a story arc for him through all three of his solo movies in which he learns about himself. And in this one, he learns some harsh lessons about his ability to cope with failure – real failure. He continues to grow with the help of strong people around him. Maybe he is the strongest Avenger (I mean, he’s not, but let’s just roll with it), raised in a warrior culture, seeing battle as a means to prove his worth, but he has learned to look to others, to value their wisdom and their input. He may not be as bright as Odin, but he is becoming wise.

So I give Avengers: Endgame 5 infinity stones out of 6. It’s a hell of a movie to see on the big screen, but it stumbles on its own convoluted logic and makes some choices that seem lazy to me. Still, it is a must see if you are a Marvel movie fan.

Okay, some spoiler stuff after this image. You have been warned (though I imagine that warning is unnecessary).

The whole plan is based on not changing anything in the past, then they murder 2014 Thanos and his army. And there’s not even a question about it after Avengers HQ gets totaled. Cap, Iron Man, and Thor go after him and they all seem ready to kill him. There’s no discussion of “well, our Gauntlet should be able to alter reality so that even though he is destroyed in the future, 2014 Thanos and his army will continue to exist and time will move forward as it did.” Nope. “Don’t do anything to change the timeline . . . but let’s murder this dude that is basically the prime mover for all that has happened leading up to this moment BEFORE he does any of that stuff.” And then saying “you’ve got to get the stones back exactly when you took them!” I mean, I guess that’s to address the multiple realities problem of which the Ancient One spoke, but there’s also the question of the realities created because Thanos dies during Guardians of the Galaxy so what happens to the reality of Infinity War?

And as to Clint, imagine the scene on Vormir when he and Natasha are arguing about who will sacrifice themselves. Clint desperately wants to see his children, but he can’t let his best friend sacrifice herself in his place. You know there’s a part of him that wants her to do it, somewhere in the dark recesses, so that he can have his family back, but he can’t let her.

And Clint might have had an interesting take on Tony’s dilemma. Again, Clint wants his kids back, but Tony is risking his own child – they are messing with timelines and multiple realities. Again, can he sacrifice others for his own needs? Of course, not, he’s a hero, but he’s the most human of heroes, so we can certainly expect him to struggle a bit with it.

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The Great Battle: A Review

When I saw The Great Battle on the Netflix listings, I was hyped. Most Korean historical movies are set during the Choson era, but I have always been interested in the Koryo period, and The Great Battle takes place during the Gokoryo period, which was a kingdom that could sometimes stand toe-to-toe with the Chinese kingdoms – the last time Korea didn’t accept a junior partner status with the Middle Kingdom.

Unfortunately, I can’t offer up much in the way of compliments to the makers of the film. It allowed “quirk” to replace “character,” and didn’t feel nuance was necessary when you can offer epic battles. The epic battles, though, were epic only in size, and they lacked any real artistry or excitement. Since the characters were so thinly drawn, there were no real stakes. More annoying – for me – every standard siege tactic was dealt with as if no one had ever faced this before.

OMG, they have ladders! How shall we address this completely unique and never before encountered problem?

This is definitely not the worst movie I have seen, though I think it’s the worst Korean historical actioner I’ve seen in my memory. I’m sure there have been worst that I’ve forgotten – as I am likely to forget this in the near future – but nothing comes to mind.

I don’t recommend The Great Battle and give it 2 utterly shocking although totally pedestrian siege tactics out of 5. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

If you are looking for a good Korean historical actioner, head back to Musa: The Warrior from 2001 (more info at Wikipedia and IMDB).

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Buffalo Boys: A Review

I love westerns and I especially love alternative takes on it – I am a huge fan of the Good, the Bad, the Weird, the Korean western set in Japanese-occupied Manchuria in the 1930s. Buffalo Boys is another alternative western, this time an Indonesian western with the colonizers as the villains of the piece.

There is a lot to love in this movie, especially the action scenes. For the most part, these are fun and very kinetic, with a few imaginative moves thrown in. The application of western tropes was excellent. There’s a delicious irony in the oppressed adopting the style of one type of colonizer while fighting against another.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of poorly developed scenes that aren’t really consistent with the story or characters, rather friction and emotions seem to occur when convenient for the plot. This really bothered me, as I was having a great time with the movie. These scenes would intrude, I would groan, then the movie would move on and I’d get back into it. The climax didn’t hit as hard as I think was intended, but I could forgive that.

The acting was fine for the most part, but not outstanding. The actors gave their characters enough depth to propel me along with the story. I can forgive a lot when I like or at least sympathize with the characters. The script didn’t give the actors much to work with, but they kept me involved and invested.

I would actually recommend Buffalo Boys even though you need to manage your expectations. It’s a fun move with an interesting overlap of anti-colonial narrative and western tropes. I give it 3.5 charging buffalos out of 5. See it for the action, but get ready for some bumps in the road.

Buffalo Boys is playing right now on Canadian Netflix (That would be April 2019).

You can find out more about Buffalo Boys at Wikipedia or IMDB.

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This Captain Is Marvelous

This was first posted on Patreon.

Today the family went to see Captain Marvel. I’m lucky in that my wife and kids are almost as excited about seeing the latest Marvel or Star Wars movie in the theatre as I am. We don’t get to go often, but we try to see those two franchises when they come out.

I’m a fan of the cosmic Marvel comics, and was a huge fan of the resurrected Guardians of the Galaxy before they ever made it to the screen. I didn’t follow Captain Marvel with the same interest, but I’m pretty conversant with the character and the character’s powers. I went in with pretty high expectations.

Without getting into spoilers, I really loved this movie and I love the take on Captain Marvel. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that the kind of superhero I love is the one that revels in their power because that power allows them to help people. I love the joyful warrior who seeks to protect the innocent. It’s what I missed about the Netflix version of Iron Fist and it’s what I loved about the Wonder Woman movie.

Thankfully, that’s Captain Marvel. Yes, there is some angst as the character begins with no memories earlier than six years before the movie’s start. Even then, Brie Larson’s version of Veers/Vers who is to become Captain Marvel is a sarcastic smart-aleck, obviously accepting the danger of being an elite soldier with a smirk and a wink. I was invested right from the outset.

The story had some pedestrian elements, but also at least one surprise that I honestly didn’t see coming and kept expecting to be a fake right until the end. Well-played.

The acting is top-notch, as you have to expect from the collection of amazing actors Marvel and Disney brought to this movie. Emotional scenes hit hard, camaraderie came across loud and clear, and I had real empathy and sympathy for the characters. Do you expect the SFX to be anything but . . . stellar? Yeah, they were.

Perhaps I was primed for this movie, as I have no problem with strong non-cis, white male protagonists, but I honestly think they hit this one out of the park. There is some feminist messaging in the movie, but there should be. Carol Danvers was a competent, capable character before becoming a superhero, and the prejudices of the day restrained her from reaching her true potential. There’s nothing wrong with that message. It’s a fact that so many people have to face every day, and it’s wrong.

This is a fun movie about a great hero who revels in her ability to help the innocent and oppressed. That’s the kind of hero I love.

Spoilers following the image.

Those who have seen the movie will know that Carol Danvers retrieves at least most of her memories, enough to reconnect with her old friend and colleague. Enough to remove the angst of not knowing who she is. And the fun, sarcastic character who existed before that, gets even better as she reconnects with her past. There remain serious issues in the movie, but she gets to be the joyful paragon which is a trope I love. I can’t wait to spend more time with this character.

And the surprise? Okay, maybe others saw the turn with the Skrulls, but I did not. Especially since Talos was played by Ben Mendelsohn, who is having a bit of a run on playing villains. I really liked it, taking the “scary” aliens and having them as the oppressed by the very attractive aliens with the society that tries to avoid emotionalism.

And I really hope Goose is in Avengers: Endgame. Fury should have had him ready during Civil War. Would have changed that movie entirely. 😉

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Dawn of the Horse Warriors: More Like Dusk . . Amirite?

Noble’s Dawn of the Horse Warriors: Chariot and Cavalry Warfare 3000-600 BC discusses the introduction of the chariot and its evolution as an instrument of war in Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean region. While the book strongly suggested the author was very well-versed in the subject, I found that it lacked clarity and its structure tended to obscure rather than illuminate the topics it presented.

I am sure that Noble is extremely knowledgeable regarding the development of the chariot and the domestication of horses. That is certainly clear from the text. If I took away nothing else from this book it would be that Duncan Noble knows about ancient chariots man’s interaction with horses. I would imagine that Noble’s previous works must have been well-received or that he is a known expert within the community that studies ancient Mesopotamia. In my mind, there must be a reason for his authorship of this book and the publisher’s decision to present it. I assume there must be a reason because I can find no such reason in the text.

To be blunt, I found this an extremely poorly written book. This work desperately needed an editor. I don’t want to be too harsh, but the best summation of my experience with the book is that if it were not assigned reading, I would have put it down after the first chapter.

From very early on in my readings, I was concerned with what I perceived as a lack of linear thought. Too often in Noble’s writings, pieces were dropped in – a paragraph on a different region, a sentence or two looking at a different era – that has no relation to the topic being developed. While sometimes these diversions had an impact later in the work, there was no apparent or logical reason to include these digressions at the place in which they are presented.

An example of one such diversion is the first appearance of Sintashta (p10). Noble includes a paragraph on the settlement of Sintashta in his chapter on the domestication of the horse. The paragraph before it discusses changes in the region of European-Eurasian interchange. There is no discussion of such changes in the paragraph on Sintashta. The paragraph following is part of the conclusion of the chapter, in which Sintashta plays no part. Sintashta is not encountered again until the chapter on wheeled transport before the Sumerians (p22), but the settlement is not introduced, perhaps assuming one remembers the previous introduction.

There was no logical reason to provide a one paragraph introduction on the settlement that has no bearing on the topic of the chapter, especially when the subject of the paragraph is not again discussed until 12 pages later. I would have assumed the introductory paragraph would have been better placed leading into the paragraph that discusses the settlements significance. And this is only one example of a trend that greatly annoyed me.

Unfortunately, the rest of Noble’s writing does not help to provide clarity to his thoughts or analysis. In fact, I found that the writing obscured whatever information he might be trying to convey. At one point, Noble writes: “The language of the Assyrians was Assyrian, . . . All eight dialects of this Semetic language are now extinct, although well-known to modern Assyriologist linguists who call them collectively Akkadian.” (p41) It seems, from this section, that it might have been more correct to write ‘the language of the Assyrians was Akkadian,’ but perhaps Assyrian was a dialect of Akkadian. I’m honestly not certain, because it seems to follow logically that the language is called Akkadian, but then I am left to speculate on why Noble did not simply write that. As he didn’t, I am left wondering if my understanding is correct.

And this is reflected in the contradictions that are far less common, but no less a problem. In discussing Nuzi chariots (or possibly all Hurrian chariots, it is not clear), Noble indicates that that “a chariot” was “rather Egyptian in style” (p38) which, on first reading, I took to mean that the average chariot identified at Nuzi was of the Egyptian style. Later, though, Noble writes regarding the information the Nuzi tablets provide on the Hurrians, and of their chariots he states “. . . we do not know whether their design tended towards that of the light Egyptian pattern, . . .”(p39) This led me to re-read the section and then wonder if the Hurrian chariots were different than the Nuzi chariots, or if there was a specific kind of chariot which was the Egyptian pattern. It is unclear and this is incredibly unhelpful when one is attempting to research the introduction and evolution of chariots in warfare.

In the end, I recognized that there was a wealth of information which Noble could offer and it is unfortunate his is not a strong enough writer or did not have a strong enough editor to make his book less of a challenge to decipher. Noble likely brings exceptional value to the discussion of chariots in ancient warfare but unfortunately, I found his writing unclear, and the structure of the prose unsound.

I’m going to give Noble’s Dawn of the Horse Warriors 2 Hurrian (or is that Nuzi) chariots out of 5. It’s obvious the author knows his stuff, but this books desperately needed a strong editorial hand.

This review is also published on Good Reads, here.

You can read all my Good Reads reviews here.

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