Red Sparrow

I want to talk about the fact that the last three movies I’ve seen theatrically[1] have touched on the action genre and had female leads, but I’m not certain Red Sparrow is the movie best suited as a capstone to that rare achievement. Because Jennifer Lawrence’s dancer[2] turned honeypot spy is explicitly free of any kind of agency. I mean, that is what the film is about, start to finish.

Please don’t take that as spoilers; it’s theme. (It’s not even revealed theme, it has been hammered home before the end of the first act.) Within that framework is a taut spy thriller full of head fakes and direction changes that could as easily be set in 1988 as 2018, save only some pieces of technology that indicate one direction over another.

So if you like that kind of movie, it’s a fine example of the genre, and I enjoyed the roller coaster; plus it’s nice that it doesn’t feel too modern, considering Russian spycraft and its effect on modernity. If you don’t like this kind of movie, it does not rise above its type. But that’s okay! It fills a niche I hadn’t visited in quite a while, and fills it well.

Also: if you want to pretend that the character’s name is Natasha Romanov, I do not believe that hurts the film one whit, so go to town. But it is guaranteed that Marvel could never have made this movie.

[1] without going out of my way to make it happen, is a key aspect of why that matters.
[2] A thing that impressed me is, they took an entire other take on the psychological thriller genre and compressed it down into ten minutes when it would easily have supported an entire move all on its own. This is a dense one!

Tomb Raider

The single biggest problem with Tomb Raider as a movie is that it’s based on a video game. I mean, it’s based on the truly outstanding reboot of the original series, and that helps a lot. But it’s a really solid modern take on the 1930s pulp adventures serials, in much the same way that Raiders of the Lost Ark was a really solid modern take on those same serials when it came out in 1981, but this is nearly two generations later and so the modernism is taken up a few notches, is all. (Also, it’s not set in the 1930s, which, good call.) And to the extent that it was rushed and messy, that extent is because it was following the broad script of a game that you play for twenty plus hours, and yet was given only two hours to tell that story.

The story is this: Lara Croft is a wealthy young heiress to a fortune about which she cares nothing; her only interest is in finding her missing father, who she refuses to accept is dead even though his estate is about to dry up from underneath her since nobody is in charge of it due to his years’ long absence. And she goes looking for him, but it’s one of those “goes looking for” kinds of stories where the person you really find is yourself. Will Lara Croft, rebellious twenty-something who spends her time kickboxing and racing bicycles become Lara Croft, globe-trotting, er, tomb raider? I mean, duh, but not in this movie. This movie is how she finds out those things about herself, while in the midst of drive-in movie mayhem. I wish I’d realized soon enough to keep up the drive-in totals, Joe Bob style, but I can assure you that there is a body count, faces melt, dicks get punched, the whole shebang.

But since she starts off as a novice and ends up far from that space, two hours is maybe not enough time to really buy into her ability to survive on her own, take down an army of mercenaries, and solve archaeological and literal puzzles along the way. To be fair, that’s not entirely what the movie is about the way the game was, but it’s a little close for comfort. My prediction is that the sequel I’m hoping for will do better, since it won’t have to spend any time establishing her credentials, and since it maybe won’t be based on a different game (that I have yet to play, but maybe this year?).

My point is, there’s a great series here, and if they realize it, it will be better than the pretty good movie I watched last night.

The Walking Dead: Lines We Cross

I find that Walking Dead graphic novels come out at the right pace. Twice a year, six issues each (which okay, that’s a pretty obvious rate if you pause to think about it), and whenever I get one in the mail it’s just about exactly the time that I think it’s been a little while since I read the last one. I wonder if I would itch for them more, if the show wasn’t also coming out on about that schedule (eight episodes instead of six, and closer to the turn of the year than an even split, but nonetheless) to fill in any extra itchings.

Sometimes I can tell what they were going for from the title, and other times (like now), not so much. I mean, Lines We Cross is a rich mine for the entire series, certainly, and most of the individual characters have a lot of story dedicated to that question. But this specific book? Nah, not seeing it.

That said, it is an introspective, quiet, rebuilding book, in which people have time to take stock of lines they have maybe already crossed, regrets they have, relationships lost and found. And I will never get tired of the parallel story arcs between two characters that would be very spoilery[1] to call out. But if introspection is not your thing, there’s a new hilarious character (right on the cover!) and the promise of a brand new storyline springing from the culmination of the radio conversations that built throughout the Whisperers arc. So, Kirkman’s definitely not out of ideas yet. And, at least for now, I’m not tired of hearing them yet.

[1] For a lot of reasons

Aftermath: Empire’s End

If you are looking for a book that explains why there’s wreckage all over Jakku in The Force Awakens, then Empire’s End is the book for you! If, however, you are looking for information on where Leader Snoke and the First Order came from, well, you’ll hear somewhere between one to five percent of that story, tops. (Which to be fair, at least until the trilogy of movies is over, you had to know that nobody would be allowed too close to direct backstory, in case the writers wanted to do it on film instead. I mean, you had to know that, right?)

On the bright side, I’m still very much enamored of the characters in this trilogy, and it’s nice to see someone telling a full-sized story in the Star Wars universe where Skywalkers are relegated to a side role at best. (There have been other such stories prior to 2015, but really not very many.)

Just in case there’s confusion, I should note that the book does a lot more than explain Jakku wreckage. But it’s the third book of a trilogy, so why go crazy with spoilers? It continues to do well what the other books also did well: present a living, breathing galaxy reacting to Palpatine’s demise and the birth of a new Republic, while telling a personal story about several people on both sides of the lingering conflict. In other words, if you care about Star Wars, this has star warsy stuff worth caring about.


Thanks, random invite to a sneak preview from Alamo Drafthouse! The last one of these I got was for Mother!, which I liked quite a lot. This time, Annihilation. Which, like the last one, is pretty hard to describe, but unlike the last one, doesn’t hold together quite as well on reflection. That’s not a big criticism, mind you. I really liked Mother! a lot. Just not in a rewatch it kind of way, whereas this one I think I could.

See, Natalie Portman, because reasons, is going on a mission into a weird area of land called the Shimmer, in which (per the sentence long description on IMDB) the laws of nature don’t apply; and also previous missions have not ever returned. From there, a movie length mind trip[1][2] ensues, in which Natalie is accompanied by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jane the Virgin, and the Valkyrie on a quest to solve the mystery of the Shimmer.

That’s quite enough to say, I suppose. It’s nice to see a movie with very few men just a few days after seeing a movie with only one white person. It would be I guess nicer if it didn’t also have the feeling of being bread and circuses while I ignore the shitshow outside.

[1] As you can tell from the poster’s color palette alone
[2] One reason for a rewatch, besides that I’m not afflicted with underlying disturbed feelings from this movie, is that I know I missed a lot of things and would find the second time rewarding towards deciding if I think they stuck the landing or not.

Black Panther

It took me until Monday night to see Black Panther, which was in a way annoying but in another way heartening. Tickets all Sunday afternoon and evening were sold out down to the front couple of rows, you see. This pleases me, both for the studio and the character. And not having seen it on Thursday night, it’s not like my review was going to factor into much of anything at all, so.

The thing is, T’Challa is a compelling character and Wakanda is a compelling nation. There is a book that I have not read called Guns, Germs, and Steel that lays out an (as I understand it) compelling case for the idea that European dominance of the colonial and modern world has a lot more to do with geography and resources than with any innate superiority of its peoples. Enter Wakanda, a small African nation whose technology is far ahead of any part of the world not personally owned by Tony Stark, because that happens to be where a huge chunk of vibranium[1] landed lo these thousands or millions of years ago, and the Wakandans happened to get there first. And you can say that this is so much wish fulfillment. Probably that’s true? But it’s awfully comfortable saying that if you happen to be the person whose wish was fulfilled by reality instead of the person whose wish was not.

And to a large extent, that’s where my review ends, because as cool as the Black Panther is, and as fun as it was to see him rushing around the world fighting some of his biggest name enemies from the comics, and as well realized as his fellow Wakandans each were, and as socially and historically relevant as Killmonger’s origin story is, the real star of this movie was Wakanda. And they did that country up right, every bit as well as Asgard or Ego have been presented in previous MCU flicks.

[1] It’s what Captain America’s shield is made out of. More to the point, it’s virtually indestructible and has a number of rather intriguing properties in addition to this that make it a boon to scientific and military advancements over time. It’s, y’know, handwavium.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Did you know that they are still making Harry Potter movies? It’s true! But I got distracted and never actually saw Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them until now. (Not Black Panther like you’d think. I tried, but all the theaters with assigned seating were sold out down to the front rows today, so I still don’t get to go until Monday. That’s like five days of avoiding spoilers, you guys. Then again, I managed to go more than a year with functionally no spoilers on this Harry Potter thing I’m nominally reviewing, and that includes steadfastly ignoring the newest third of the Harry Potter exhibit on the Warner Bros. studio tour.)

So, a thing worth mentioning is that this technically was not a Harry Potter movie, seeing as how it was set in 1927, some 50 odd years before the boy who lived was even born. There’s this guy Newt Scamander, who wrote a book called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and this is a story of him hanging out in America with a suitcase full of fantastic beasts, back when nobody really liked them (the beasts, not suitcases) and they were illegal to have instead of worthy of being studied and written about, and also there was a pre-Voldemort wizard bad guy that everyone is nervous about.

So if you care about cool magical creatures (you should) or how American wizardry differs from British wizardry in time as well as space (maybe you should?) or about characters who all share a sense of wonder about this whole magic thing even though they were born to it instead of being thrust into it as a cipher stand-in for the reader, and also they all care about each other and have genuine undeniable chemistry, both as actors and as characters (you definitely should, as this kind of thing honestly doesn’t happen that often), this is the movie for you. In a way, it’s better than its source material.

Not that I don’t like Harry Potter, but chosen ones who learn about the universe as the reader or watcher does with constantly ratcheting stakes are kind of a dime a dozen these days, whereas successful post facto world-building is a rare gem indeed.

Rider, Reaper

I liked this Deathlands book somewhat less than usual, for a variety of reasons, which I will now elucidate.

1) The plot was not organic, and instead was in service of a clear goal that took me out of the writing. See, albino knife-throwing murder machine Jak Lauren left the group a long time ago, to start a life on a ranch in New Mexico. Yet, the in media res opening of Rider, Reaper immediately took the happy ending away from him, solely so the series could have him back. Clumsily enough so that I didn’t even realize it was that style at first, and instead thought I had accidentally picked up the wrong book. (On the bright side, I like him. But man, the clumsiness. Maybe if his family had been murdered during one of the stretches of time when everyone else hadn’t been right nearby, and then found him along the way instead? I dunno.)

2) Due to circumstances, they team up with a group of Navajo warriors to take down the bad guys of the week, and those warriors are portrayed as hot-headed savages worthy of a team-up with 19th century cowboys showing that the white way is manifestly the correct one, instead of 22nd century survivors of a society-ending nuclear war. It was just so bad, and all the moreso for me being used to this series’ shockingly common egalitarianism. Ugh. I am pretty sure the author hasn’t changed yet and won’t for a long time, so I hope it is a one-off problem, and not a sign of things to come due to editorial changes or some other permanent shift.

All that said, the set up of the next few books is pleasing to me, and I continue to look forward to where things are going. Please oh please let this be merely a small bump in the road.

Hush (2016)

I’m excited by the Olympics, because it apparently means nobody is airing any opposing television, which means I have time to watch movies! Hence Hush, the random horror movie on Netflix I picked to watch a few nights ago when Mary had already fallen asleep but it was very early.

Premise: deaf-mute lady author in the woods. Later, a guy in a creepy mask shows up and stalks her, because sometimes shitty dudes with crossbows gonna be shitty. Then, seventy minutes of ratcheting cat and mouse tension. Tiny cast, ironically great sound editing, and otherwise, either you like this kind of thing or you don’t, y’know? Obviously I do, and this was an excellent example of the genre with basically nothing to disrecommend it.



When I was in LA in mid-December, I saw posters everywhere for a Netflix movie called Bright, starring Will Smith. It was to be released in like a week, but I had never heard of it before that weekend. No idea why, really. I mean, I suppose the fact that 90% of LA billboards are advertising for the screen instead of like 20% here in Dallas could account for part of the reason?

Anyway, it looked interesting. See, it’s the modern world as we know it, except orcs are the stand-in for the downtrodden classes, elves are the stand-in for the wealthy and powerful classes who don’t want to be bothered with having to acknowledge that there even is an underclass who got a raw deal, and humans are the stand-in for, y’know, whoever fits in between the two extremes I just detailed. Oh, also, there was a Dark Lord a long time ago, and people hate orcs because they were on his side then. Institutionalized racism at its finest, folks!

And, frankly, that’s the problem with the movie in a nutshell. Someone decided that, oh, cool, we can highlight the massive race and class problems in America by using fantasy race stand-ins! …and then they didn’t really do anything else with the idea except point at it over and over again. For example: at one point, cop Will Smith and his orc partner (who is the first ever orc policeman, and if you guessed that both every orc and every cop hates him, then you already see my point here) are interviewing some hispanic folks in a house, and they’re speaking Spanish, which Will Smith knows and the orc does not. But it’s okay, because Will Smith doesn’t speak orcish when they’re in the orc gang hideout, and, oh, wait, why do elves speak elvish and orcs speak orcish, but humans have all the same languages we’re already used to since it’s regular earth? It’s possible this shouldn’t bother me as much as it does, but it’s just so damned shoddy!

Anyway, yeah. Buddy cop movie with high tension between the nominal buddies, and there’s a lot of magic floating around via all-powerful wands that most people can’t touch without just exploding to death, and of the people who can, mostly they’re only elves, but also the world is so shitty that people would go ahead and grab a wand anyway if they were just laying around because hey, if you don’t explode, cosmic power is yours for the wishing. And I’m pretty okay with that as a setting, but man, the clumsily (and, worse) lazily-handled race stuff ruins the whole thing for me.

But I hear it did well and there’s a sequel, so maybe they can focus on Dark Lords and magic next time, or at least have someone set them straight on how to not build ridiculous caricatures that we’ve all seen before. (I should say: the opening credits of the movie highlight the tensions and problems of both their world and ours extremely well, so much better than the plot or dialogue ever came close to.)