Mortal Kombat (2021)

I’m late to the party. I never played the arcade version, I don’t own a gaming platform, and I skipped the 1995 film. None of it seemed like something I would be interested in, but the world changes and I have changed incrementally along with it. I won’t be driving to Best Buy to get a Play Station or X-Box, but I will be watching this again on HBO Max, because it was a ton of fun. 


The Red Band Trailer above is frankly what sold this to me. There is a bucket full of CGI violence that will appeal to a certain audience element (that includes me) and the trailer gives you a taste. I understand that there were some gruesome images in the primitive version of the original game, and even the 1995 PG-13 film managed to make some people look twice. I’m afraid that when the steel hat that gets used as a Buzzsaw, bisected one of the villains, I cheered a little. No apologies though, because that was the kind of stuff I was looking for.

For a movie that builds up the importance of the Tournament, it was a bit discombobulating that there is no actual Tournament in the story. This whole movie is a set up for the sequel, which I have no doubt will be ready soon and should feature even higher amounts of decapitations, heart plucking and assorted dismemberment. There is plenty of martial arts style combat but much of it is infused with super powered effects and enhanced visual imagery. My personal favorite was in the opening of the film and featured samurai/ninja sword play and a flying spike on a rope. 

This is basically a violent cartoon for adults, that will probably be seen by kids anyway. The gore is not lingered over but it is in your face so if you are a parent, try to use a little discretion in deciding whether to take your kids to see this. We had a six or seven year old in the audience and he seemed a little frightened and upset at times. It did not enhance my theater going experience. There is a deep dive episode of the Lambcast [which I did not participate in] where you can get details about your favorite characters and some criticism of the story elements. None of that is essential however to understanding what is going on. You can pretty much tell the good guys from the bad, and the characters are a bit wooden but they are all based on a video game after all, so Shakespeare it is not. 


Go have a good time, eat some popcorn and support your local theaters. Then you can watch it again at home.

Wrath of Man

Director Guy Ritchie has managed to entertain me  repeatedly with his blend of hard cases, colorful language, non-linear films. As a matter of fact, my favorite film of the previous year, during which we were locked out of theaters for far too long, was his movie “The Gentlemen“. That film had a star studded cast and a convoluted plot that mixed hipster drug culture with high finance and then threw in a substantial dollop of violence. That is pretty much the Ritchie formula. “Wrath of Man” forgoes many of the tropes of a Ritchie film. As a consequence, it feels a little more generic and definitely not the film I expected.


That’s not to say I was disappointed, this movie largely delivers an action packed, violence leaden crime drama. It eschews the wisecracking criminals, and the absurdist moments that make Ritchie’s other films so unique. The one signature element that is utilized involves the non-sequential story structure. This plays out with a series of flashbacks, repeats from alternative perspectives, flask forwards and time shifting.  That structure however has become it’s own cliché, and it is used not only in films but television programs and commercials, so that freshness, is not going to be a selling point for the movie. 


The main selling point is going to be Jason Statham. If you look up movie tough guys, Statham will show up with the Dwayne Johnson, Lee Marvin, Kurt Russel and a dozen other well known actors who made their bones kicking ass and taking names. He has made more than thirty of these hard action films in the last twenty years and has built a career out of being a badass even among other badasses. So what happens here? Statham gets quiet, skips most of the fisticuffs and shoots the hell out of anything that moves. There was a sequence here where machine guns are used in combat and it was one of the more intense combinations of sound and photography and direction that I have seen. No headbutts or neck snaps or flying kicks, just a lot of sharpshooting and massive spraying of bullets. These kinds of films are not hard to find, Gerard Butler, Sylvester Stallone, Nic Cage are all making two a year these days. There is nothing wrong with that, it’s simply that there is nothing special.

To borrow a description from another movie, every magic trick has three acts,  The Pledge, The Turn, and the Prestige. Ritchie has been great about that last act in all of his English crime dramas. The pieces fall elegantly into place at the end and we are impressed by how well they all fit together and explain what happened. “Wrath of Man” fails to stick “the Prestige”. There are unclear relationships and confusing explanations, which instead of being elegantly detailed at the end, have to be worked out after everything has happened. You will probably be able to make sense of it, but we want the magician to do the trick for us, we don’t want to work it out after dinner two hours later. 


The actors are solid. Statham has that thousand yard stare down pat. Holt McCallany, who I knew from “Mindhunter” is an appealing presence as well.  Jeffrey Donovan shows up late in the movie, dominates all his scenes and should have been a bigger part of the plot. Scott Eastwood’s character will make you angry, which it is supposed to do and you will wonder why Josh Hartnett doesn’t have more to do. This movie will be satisfying for a moment but it is not rewatchable the way so many other Guy Ritchie films are.  There is nothing wrong with it except it is not what I was hoping for. 

Jim Steinman and the Movies

As a child of the 70s, it is of course inevitable that I would be infected by the virus that was “Meat Loaf, Bat Out of Hell”.  The original album was a late 70s antidote to Candy Pop, Disco and novelty music that made up so much of the decades music. Heh, I fully embraced all that stuff so that is not a criticism, merely an observation. I knew the singer Meat Loaf  from the movies. Yes I was one of those regulars at “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” Saturdays at Midnight. When the inaugural recording project came out, it could not helped but be noticed by the stylized cover art. 

Also on the cover was an additional credit, right at the bottom, “Songs by Jim Steinman”. That is where I first heard the name of the mad genius who practically invented the Power Ballad for the next generation of hard rock acts. I remembered reading a story about Steinman who said in the article, that one of the ways he was inspired to write the music for the album was by listening to the complete Ring Cycle by Ricard Wagner, in one sitting. That’s more than 14 hours of opera in a row. I thought that was a great idea so I went to the library to check out recordings of the Wagner Operas. I did not succeed. I listened quite a bit, but not all four operas and not all at one sitting. My failure convinced me that Steinman was crazy and also brilliant. Listening to the music on this album showed me how the scale and scope of an opera piece could be distilled down to a single musical segment (although a heck of a lot longer than most three minute pop songs). 


The follow up to the album was complicated by Meat Loaf having vocal issues and some falling out between the two over artistic issues (probably money too). They would reconnect years later, but in the interim, Steinman released a collection of his works that he recorded himself. 

I bought the LP while I was in grad school, at the record store in the University Village, right across from college. Once again I was drawn to the overblown passages, soaring melodies and humorously dark lyrics. There is definitely a style that is identifiable as a Jim Steinman work. 


This last week, Mr. Steinman passed away at the age of 73. You might think his overblown songs were relics of a particular time, that is until you go to a movie or watch one at home streaming, and suddenly, there they are again, the distinctive building structure or repeated musical runs as they crescendo behind a booming voice that suddenly becomes softer, lulling you in until it slaps you again with an operatic outburst. Steinman’s work lives on in dozens of movies. Frankly, there are many that I have never seen, and some even slipped by that I have seen but I forgot.
In concert with a Roll Your Own Top Five Lambcast, i now present an inventory of Jim Steinman music in films. Let me star with one that I was really surprised about and doesn’t seem to fit with his usual oeuvre. 

No Matter What-From Notting Hill

This is a love song, that is smooth and melodic, and soft. It is actually performed by a boyband from the era that I never heard of, Boyzone. They were an Irish singing group that had substantial success in the U.K. and Ireland. The reason the music is atypical is because this was a collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Weber. Steinman is credited with the lyrics.  It is an appealing enough song for a rom-com, and the montage of scenes form the movie suggest it was probably used to promote the film. I’ve seen Notting Hill a few times but I had never noticed this credit until this week.

The next three pieces were not written specifically for movies. The first of these is another soft rocker that is atypical of Steinman’s bombast but the lyrics and the sad melody betray him as it’s author. It was in fact a substantial hit in the U.S.  for a band from Australia.

Making Love Out of Nothing at All

As you listen to the chorus build, that is the main clue to the authorship of the song. The lyrics have the vaguely sad and empty emotional component that Steinman can be known for. 


The song was used in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie action film from 2005. It is apparently used in the Dumb and Dumber prequel that no one saw.


A more appropriate vocal for the Steinman style is found in the Bonnie Tyler version.

Paradise by the Dashboard Light

The ultimate car make out opera was of course a hit from “Bat out of Hell”, so it was not made for the movies but it has been used in them a few times

I have never seen “This is 40”, but this song is apparently used in it and I bet I can imagine how. It also was used in “Leap of Faith” which I have not seen since it came out 1992. I do however remember the brief reference to it which was a little spot on with the lyric, in “Josie and the Pussycats”. It did make me smile however so it was worth it.

Total Eclipse of the Heart

Not technically written as a song for a movie, but Steinman plundered his score for the 1980 film “A Small Circle of Friends”, to make this song’s verse melody. Bonnie Tyler became something of a muse for him when she sang this song and took it to the top of the charts (incidentally keeping the “Air Supply” song listed above from reaching number one). 

The backing vocals are credited to other singers but if you listen to the first “turn around bright eyes” it sure sounds like Steinman from “Bad for Good”. He also said he started it as a song for a musical version of Nosferatu. So while it was not written for a specific film it has been used prolifically in a hell of a lot of movies, including:
Urban Legend

Old School

Party Monster

Harold and Kumar go to White Castle

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Some Days are Better Than Others

Dead Snow 2 Red v. Dead

Trolls

Gloria Bell

Stage Mother


The remaining songs for this post were all tailored for the movies. 

Original Sin-The Shadow

As was typical in the 90s (and probably still is) a pop song was desired to play over the closing credits of a movie. “The Shadow” was a less than successful, although highly watchable take on the pulp character from the 1930 radio show and comics. The score from the film was by the great Jerry Goldsmith, with a big orchestra supplemented by synthesizers. It includes the usual innovative sounds of a Goldsmith work. The pop song for the credits is completely separate from that except that it has some of the same dark, lush melodies that might be found in the score.  No Bonnie Tyler here, instead the song was performed by dance music diva Taylor Dane.

Holding Out for A Hero-Footloose

Dean Pitchford who is the screenwriter for the movie Footloose, has a writing credit on every song in the movie, including this one. I can’t say what his contributions were, but I can say the song is unmistakably a Jim Steinman epic. 
Wikipedia quotes The A.V. Club’s William Hughes as stating that the song “displays some of the worst of its decade’s (and composer’s) typical excesses: The lyrics are laughable, and the heavy-handed synths and piano riffs come dangerously close to cheese”, but adds, “The sum of those parts transcends their limitations, hooking directly into pure emotional need like only the greatest of torch songs can.


So even harsh critics can see the transcendent nature of a Steinman song’s passion.
Once again, Bonnie Tyler is the muse that brings Jim’s song to [larger than]life.

Tyler’s original version has featured on several soundtracks, including Footloose, Short Circuit 2, Who’s Harry Crumb?, Bandits, Regular Show , The Way Way Back and The Angry Birds Movie 2.


Jennifer Saunders recorded a version for Shrek 2. 


The last two songs I’m going to mention are both from the same movie. 

Nowhere Fast-Streets of Fire

This may be my favorite song on the list (at least until I listen to the next one).
Streets of Fire is a film that was a misfire from a narrative point of view but from a stylized visual perspective it is absolute genius. 

The chorus is pure Steinman 


“You and me are going nowhere slowly

and we’ve gotta get away from the past

There’s nothing wrong with going nowhere, baby

But we should be goin’ Nowhere Fast”


The song was performed by a studio group called Fire Inc. with Laurie Sargent as the lead vocalist. Diane lane is the on screen singer Ellen Aim, the lead of her own band. This is the dramatic opening song for the movie. It has a hard driving intro and takes off from there. The last song in the movie goes the other direction.

Tonight Is What It Means to be Young-Streets of Fire

The song is led into by the big single from the film [Not a Steinman song, “I Can Dream About You”] but you can tell it is the climax of the film. The story is that the film makers expected to get the rights to the Bruce Springsteen song “Streets of Fire” and they even shot an ending featuring that tune, but the rights to use that song were denied. Steinman was asked to come up with something quickly and he gave them this song which he wrote in two days. 


According to the wiki version:
So I wrote this song that I loved and I sent it to them and he and Joel, I remember, left me a great message saying, I hate you, you bastard, I love this song. We’re gonna have to do it. We’re gonna have to re-build the Wiltern Theater, which they had taken down, it was a million dollars to re-do the ending… and I felt all his hostility for Universal. A guy named Sean Daniels, who was head of production, one day said to me, well there is hostility because we understand you waited about eight months to come up with that final song and you never did it. I said, where’d you hear that? I did it in two days. He said, Jimmy Iovine. So I went to Jimmy Iovine and I said all that to his, yeah it’s true, I know. I blamed you but you can’t be upset with me. I’m not like a writer. I’ve gotta make my way with these people. I had to have a scapegoat.


Regardless of it’s origins, it’s a great song, again by the studio band this time with vocals by Holly Sherwood. She had a solo career in the seventies and sang backup vocals on many Steinman projects.


So there you have it, a list of some great songs from movies by an artist who was incredibly successful but was not the frontman for most of his career. His Wagnerian brand of Rock music calls to mind certain emotions that mesh well with a lot of films as you can see. 


Today Jim Steinman is the angel on the beach, his hair flying out in ribbons of gold and his touch has the power to stun.

Nomadland

So this review is late in coming because I did not see this until after we did our Oscar Preview show on the Lambcast. The others who were on the show recommended it and everyone seems to agree it is the likely Best Picture winner. In our current times, with the limited releases we had this last year, and the way the Academy has consistently trended for several years toward honoring smaller movies, I can 100% understand why this will be the case. It may be limited in scope, and plot and technical innovation, but it is beautiful and it contains another marvelous performance by Francis McDormand.


I am sure that someone, somewhere will find themes in here that will offer a social criticism. In the long run, I don’t think that those ideas are what the movie is about or how it should be processed. This is a character study of a woman, who stands in for a number of like minded people, who can’t quite adjust to living a rooted life. It seems apparent that she did so for a number of years to be with her beloved husband, but the fact that her whole town vanishes seems to suit her. She is happy to be an itinerant worker, moving from job to job and place to place, in order to satisfy a need for independence that seems to define her and the others she crosses paths with.


As a travelogue, the film shows us some truly beautiful parts of our country, without simply becoming a travelogue. The vistas, sunsets, and roadside stops are all photographed in a way that draws us in but without being showy or self reverential. It is a crisp and efficient way of seeing things and the only time it seems to be drawing attention to itself is when it lingers on an image.  Otherwise, we are seeing the world the way Fern, our main character, would see it. 

While there is a sense of melancholy that hangs over Fern and the other “Nomads”, none of them seem to be bitter or unhappy. They are functioning in the moment and who thinks that every moment has to be uplifting for life to be worth? Sure Fern is a displaced person, but she never sees herself as a victim. She has multiple opportunities to settle into a more comfortable lifestyle but rejects those repeatedly because of her wanderlust and desire to be unfettered. As someone who treasures way too many things, quilts, pictures, dishes and even furniture, I know I would have a hard time with her life. McDormand shows Fern to be resourceful, and capable of managing herself. She is friendly but does not want to be encumbered by her friendships. In a number of ways, including the wandering lifestyle, she reminds me of my late sister-in-law Darla. They want to have friendships but they want them on their own terms. Comfort is less important to them than control. The ability to choose for yourself is more important than the consequences of some of those choices. 

The director Chloé Zhao, has a good eye for those things that make the character personal. I don’t think the film is a technical marvel or innovative in any way, it is just put together in a manner that works for the kind of movie it is and I think restraint in choices may have much to do with the acclaim that her work on this has achieved. McDormand is a natural for a role like this, she is less fiery than she has been in other pictures where she is the central character, but I think that shows her range pretty well. This is a graceful movie that has a lot going for it. It is contemplative without telling you what to contemplate. It can be read in a number of ways which will probably inspire a thousand think pieces in magazines and cinema schools. The best thing about it is that it seems genuine and true to the person at it’s center. 

Voyagers

“Voyagers” is a perfectly fine science fiction morality tale, that goes off the rails about halfway through and devolves into an average action film in space. The big ideas that it starts with get left behind for a replay of issues from some very familiar material. I think if they had stuck to the questions concerning the morality of the entire enterprise instead of becoming “Lord of the Flies” in space with sex, this could have been something special. As it is, you can enjoy it as a passable theatrical experience that will not sit long in your head.


Let me begin by telling you what I thought was intriguing about the concept in the first place. In order to allow the species to go forward, scientists have devised an ark, that they will send forth to populate a new planet. Since it will take 86 years to get there, and unlike other films in the genre, there is no hibernation technology, the decision is made to seed the galaxy with children derived from genetically manipulated and selected materials. The kids get raised in isolation so they do not know what it it is they are leaving behind. This is to spare them the emotional trauma of separation anxiety. Right there, you could stop and develop that storyline and have an interesting picture. That’s not what the script does. Instead, we go on an accelerated launch with only one adult to manage things for the three or four dozen four year old who are being set afloat. OK, that would make an interesting film also, but that section lasts five minutes and we then enter into teen world. Here. the emotions and biology of the passengers is being manipulated to sustain  resources, space and to avoid potential emotional conflicts. The ethics of that choice would also be a worthy trail to follow. Instead, we get the consequences of a rejection of the process and what we end up with is “teens going wild”. 


Much of what happens does not make sense given that the kids have been immersed in a controlled environment their whole lives. How do the genetic offspring of geniuses, go from docile well oiled parts of a grand plan to sex crazed maniacs within a short period of time. The story shortcut seems to be a little too quick. It also appears that in spite of their intensive education, starting practically out of the womb, they never studied ethics, philosophy, theology or any system that would justify a moral code. Some of these kids shed the veneer of civilization as quickly as taking off your coat. The main villain is practically leering with evil intent five minutes past a key point in the movie. His naked ambition remains hidden to almost all of the rest of the kids with the exception of our two or three heroic figures. There is one idea that works for a while, the rebel maniacs start exploiting fear and uncertainty among the whole crew about a possible outside threat. “The Thing” vide works well at building animosities but everyone gets pushed over the threshold so easily that it feels a bit laughable. 

The young cast is attractive but sometimes a little too mechanical. The characters are supposed to be somewhat level headed but it’s not until some really bad things happen that they wake up from the growing threat.   It was not clear why there was not more than one sustaining hand to guide these kids through the early part of their development, in fact at one point is seems as if they were going to be launched on their own. Fortunately Colin Farrell does go along for the ride, adding some credibility to the start of the whole process. I know it would be difficult to imagine him as impotent in the face of the growing problem, but the catalyst for the escalation seems to be a shortcut. Farrell certainly has a charismatic impact on the film, and that could dwarf the focus on the kids. Tye Sheridan has been solid in the things I have seen him in, and once the movie gets to the outburst of violence, he is a little more active, but early on he is playing it as a somnambulant. Lily-Rose Depp is new to me but she seemed very familiar as a type, I think if the movie was better this could have been a breakout part. As it is, she is simply the best in a largely bland set of performances. 


Production design for this movie feels a bit trapped in pre 1970s sterility. Most of the sets consist of well lit hallways with some trim on the doors. The ambient lighting reminds me of THX-1138 and 2001. The exteriors of the space vehicle are vague and brief, suggesting that the budget here was not quite as big as it might have been originally. It looks like someone who was trying to project something futuristic, but they never got past modern minimalism. There were only two of us in the theater for this screening, which suggests to me that the future is not long for this world.  

Godzilla vs. Kong

This mish mash of film ideas is all over the place. The movie has moments out of Transformers, Thor, Harry Potter and of course past Godzilla and Kong films. It creates some of the most implausible ideas to explain it’s own implausible ideas, and then shows us some amazing footage that looks like it could be two guys in suits wrestling among miniature models. So how is it that I don’t really hate this movie? It’s simple, it’s because this movie is designed to be stupid fun, based on old Japanese movies about a guy in a big green dragon suit destroying property. 


Maybe the original Godzilla from the 50s had something to say about atomic weapons and it was played straight for the most part. My guess however is that people who fondly recall these movies think of the later films, that featured Mothra, Baby Zilla, Rodan and other rubber suit characters. If the 1990s “Power Rangers” TV episodes are a delight to you, then this will be a gas. CGI monsters that act like rubber creatures in combat are just as entertaining. 


At least this time, Millie Bobbie Brown has something to do, although Kyle Chandler might as well not be in the movie. Watanabe and Hawkins are long gone, and it’s not that they were bad in the earlier films they appeared in, they were unnecessary, not the actors, the characters. Alexander Skarsgård and Rebecca Hall replace them as unnecessary characters and we are just fine as a result. Brian Tyree Henry brings the funny and Julian Dennison is the requisite non-threatening friend who assists Brown in whatever it is she is doing. 

Two stories play out, the first involves finding a secret place for the titans to have originated, and for some reason to take Kong there. The second story involves corporate shenanigan’s at “APEX” which is mysteriously linked to provoking Godzilla out of a three year non-active space. Fans of the old Toho films will know what is coming, everyone else will probably not be surprised, but let’s just say there is a reason that “Pacific Rim” exists.  


I have had serious doubts about movies that portray mass destruction on the scale depicted here. If you started adding up all the dead, you will end up with a figure that is likely to out do the dollar gross for this movie in theaters on opening weekend. Here is the thing though, there is almost no attempt to show casualties that result from the mayhem. The sailors in a fleet are almost non-existent, and the citizens of Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated spaces in the world, are invisible. Thank goodness because a lot of building get knocked over and any sense of reality would be disquieting enough to turn us off.  

It looks pretty funky, there are a few amusing moments, and the battles between the combatants are staged in a way that is so much clearer than other giants fighting each other movies. I was happy to see a solid turnout in the theater, even though this is also playing on HBO Max. We picked a Dolby Cinema experience and the sound mix was worth it. Do yourself a favor. If you have any real interest in this, see it in a theater. I watched it at home the next day and fell asleep. This is one of those foilms that needs theatrical to really work, and it does as far as it goes. 

Nobody

Ok, let’s see here, nondescript older guy, precious family possession taken away, fearful looks from Russian mob figures when they discover who is after them, a secret horde of gold, flamboyant car stolen, yep, this is indeed from the producers of John Wick. They have taken a number of components from that series, transported them to a different context, rearranged them in the story and produced this film from the mix. You know what, in this case I’m alright with it. A little photo copying works sometimes and if you have the right lead to carry it off, the audience will follow. Done.

Bob Odenkirk has the quiet voice that sounds like a man defeated. Very quickly we learn how he finds himself in a rut. He has lost intimacy with his wife, respect from his son and the daughter who still looks up to him is the apparent real victim of a home robbery that he lets go by without taking a violent action. In addition to his voice, his face is hangdog frustrated and the routine that we see tells us that the domestic tension is mounting. A quick view of the trailer reveals that there is more to him than can be seen on the surface. It takes this random act of violation to tip him back into a life that he has tried to leave. 

Conveniently, he takes his frustrations out on a group of drunken thugs who board a bus that he seems to be trolling for the purpose of releasing his pent up frustrations. Naturally, they turn out to be associated with the Russian mob, and a vendetta ensues. One man against an army of gangsters, hey it was no match for Keanu Reeves and for the most part, Bob Odenkirk, who is not known as an action star, manages to sell us on the concept.

At first, Hutch Mansell, Odenkirk’s character, has to work hard at making the combat successful. He is not built like a superman, he is older and a little more weary, and the bad guys rough him up quite a bit in the process. About mid-way though the story however, the director and writers just give in and make him into the implacable foe that the story demands. There are a couple of nice sequences with Hutch and his wife , played by Connie Nielson, which suggests that there is some personal drama to what is taking place, but for the most part the adrenaline mainlining starts and it is the focus of the rest of the film. 

Maybe Hutch doesn’t kill quite as many mobsters as Keanu in John Wick 3, but it is still an impressive number and for the most part, Odenkirk is up to it. The Dolph Lungren doppelganger who leads the Russian mob in this vicinity, is an extroverted narcissist who really does not care about his partners but knows that they will not tolerate his failure to extract revenge for the insult that has been tossed in his lap. This is basic macho posturing done with the stylized balletic movements that the action films of the last two decades have been mining repeatedly, and it looks great. 

So there is nothing very original here, but what is presented is very satisfying. Both Michael Ironside and Christopher Lloyd show up in the movie, and someone cleverly thought to switch their obvious roles for one another. RZA, a guy who can’t really act but has managed to turn some hip hop cred into a film career, shows up near the end, with just about as much screen time as he can carry. The next day I suffered a little from Popcorn belly because I finished the whole tub, and that was completely worth it. I will be looking forward to watching large chunks of this movie at random in the future. I think anyone intrigued by the trailer will feel satiated. 
 

Raya and the Last Dragon

In the last few weeks, I have revisited a number of animated films that I remember having a solid emotional connection to. “Ratatouille” works like the devil and it has an emotional wallop to it at the end. Pixar has thrived on the “Toy Story” films and manages to get us with them almost every time. “Moana” and “Tangled” worked for me very well. “Frozen” was a moderate success from my perspective whereas it’s sequel is a disaster .  “Raya and the Last Dragon” is perfectly fine in a number of ways and I can heartily recommend it to animation fans, but I must acknowledge a reservation. I felt more detached from the film than I should have. 


This is an original story, with a production design that pays homage to a culture that is under represented in American animated movies. Let me start by complementing the artistry of the backgrounds and the inventiveness of the landscapes and nations that are presented in the story. The people who populate each segment of the lost nation of Kumandra, look distinct enough for us to identify but also they look as if they can share a culture as well. We don’t really get to spend much time in a couple of the segment nations that are labeled by the part of the dragon topography we see on the maps in the story. Fang, Heart, Spine, Tail and Talon each end up with a piece of critical gemstone that can be used to resist a mysterious plague that turns the living residents into stone. The mythology feels genuine for the cultures that the story is based on, even if they are invented. 


Raya takes her place as a Disney Princess, and she is closer to Mulan than Elsa. This is a warrior who moves from being a little girl at the start of the film, to a woman on a crusade for the majority of the story. There is a turning point near the end of the film which feels completely appropriate given the set up of the story, so it should resonate well but for some reason it doesn’t quite hit for me, and I can’t really explain why. The character arc is right, the plot points lead us to this conclusion, and we have had a variety of character to relate to so we should feel invested. I just did not and that is a disappointment for me in spite of all the excellent work that the film makers did, apparently most of it from home under the pandemic rules. 

One of the major characters in the story is the Last Dragon of the title, Sisu, voiced by Awkwafina. Her take on the voice and characterization reminded me of Phyllis Diller and the animation style, while certainly in keeping with the production design, made this character feel a little too cartoon like. I enjoyed her attitude but in the context of the story it feels like some comic relief being imposed on the proceedings. There is also a baby character that seems designed for humor and heart but who also undermines some of the tone of the film. The character of Tong as the sole survivor of his nations populace was actually fun and tragic in the right proportions. Namaari is an antagonist that is also well thought out and the nickname she is given at one point is one that I will be adopting for my oldest daughter, Allison, get ready to be referred to as Princess Undercut. 

This movie has everything going for it, and if I’d not seen every Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks/Fox film in the last thirty years, it probably would have worked for me a little better. Those of you with kids can safely assume they will be fine with this because it will probably feel fresh to them. 

Chaos Walking

The advantage of being an older adult is that I don’t feel compelled to try to know everything by searching the internet constantly. I had only a vague notion that this movie existed, and I had no idea that it was based on a YA novel series. As a result, I was mostly uncertain of where much of this was going or even what the hell was happening at times. The concept of “The Noise” gets introduced fairly early, and that is the key twist in the story. I don’t think it is a spoiler to say that the men in this world are basically displaying their thoughts out loud and visually to those around them. This makes secret keeping and lying difficult. It also sets up the main flaw in the premise which you will probably identify before I get to it below.


The two young leads might have been a tell as to the YA origins of the film if I had been paying attention. Daisy Ridley is a rising actress with the latest Star Wars films under her belt. Tom Holland is of course the current “Spider-Man” and his winsome manner and somewhat nasally voice are perfect for the kind of character he is playing in this film. This is a combination western/sci-fi/fish out of water story. Daisy’s character is Viola, a space traveler who in a scouting mission to the new world her group is traveling to, crashes into an environment that is not only unfamiliar to her but presents a communication scenario she never could have imagined. Tom is Todd, a native of the new world who’s family immigrated but died long ago. He is also out of water because in his world there are no living women. 


Once the story starts rolling out, the plot line has only a few surprises. The two leads have to go on the run, they are pursued by an implacable foe, and there are complications along the way. Despite being set in the future, the setting feels like a western. Maybe because there are horses involve (and there is even an explanation of why there are horses on this new world). So Butch and Sundance have to evade the posse, and reach an objective. I suspect that the film has compacted many elements of the novels. As I listened to some of the teen girls in the audience chat with each other after the film, it seems the story has material from all three source novels and not just the first. It ends in an open enough way that sequels could be possible, but if another film is never made, the conclusion is perfectly acceptable, it does not leave us dangling. 

The director Doug Liman, is a competent action director who has made a couple of films with Tom Cruise, a Bourne movie and Mr. and Mrs. Smith. He keeps enough chase scenes and fights with the influence of “The Noise” to make the movie feel like it is active, but some of the complications from the thing that distinguishes this story from all other dystopian YA, “The Noise”, gets lost in tying to keep things moving. “What Women Want” was a movie that took the same premise essentially and made it intp a comedy concept. This is a more serious story but it is still trying to avoid being too dark. All of us have had abhorrent thoughts in our heads that we are glad that no one else can know, What would the consequence be if those thoughts could not be hidden. This movie does not come close to that. “The Noise” becomes a trivial inconvenience that allows some mental magic, but that’s about all. The one character who makes it potentially dark, David Olelowo’s Aaron-the Preacher, mostly lurks in the background and arrives as a boogeyman to commit the most horrendous act of the story, but his demon’s are never really explored. That is probably the main difference between an adult sci-fi story and this YA concoction. 


Visually, the movie works well. The effects masters have come up with an interesting way to share “the Noise” so that we don’t just hear a continuous  internal monologue. There is a combination of traditional frontier living and space age colonization, but there is not a very clear explanation of why the technology process has largely been abandoned. An alien race is introduced, and I suspect it plays a much bigger part in the books than it does in this movie. The landscape that the story takes place in is shot beautifully and there are just enough f/x elements around the edges to suggest a different planet, but that is barely part of the story. 

At the heart of the plot is a secret that drives the main villain, the Mayor of settlement where Viola’s craft lands, played by Mads Mikkelsen. As I said in opening paragraph, there is a flaw in the premise of this plot. If everyone knows what really happened before Todd grew up, how is it that they have kept that knowledge from him? The Mayor is the only character who seems to have the strength to hide some of his thoughts, but the settlement is populated with a variety of other men, two of whom have raised Todd. How did they keep the secret from him? The Preacher is openly antagonistic, why would he have kept this a secret? It does not make any sense and as a result, we are required to dip into out bag full of suspension of disbelief and pour a cupful on this story for it to make any sense.  As the plot plays out there are a number of intriguing events that feel like they would make a better story than the one that we are following at the moment. 

Overall I enjoyed the movie in spite of the flaw that I saw. The actors are engaging and well cast. There is enough action to keep us hooked on what is going on, and the movie looks great. I will end with one warning. If you are more sensitive to animal deaths on film than human deaths, this is a movie you might find to be challenging. There are at least two moments where that scenario plays out and one of them is haunting in a way that some of us might have a hard time with it. 

“Its Still Strictly Personal” : A Book Review

It’s been two years since my on-line friend and fellow blogger Eric, published his first book, “It’s Strictly Personal“. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it to any of my readers as a way of looking at movies in a slightly different perspective. As I said at the time, it’s an autobiography of someone that you don’t know but it is a story that all of us know. Eric has attempted to talk about movies in the most personal way possible, by showing us the things that the movies he loves say about him. Anyone who is a movie lover will be able to relate to this concept.


The time has arrived for the inevitable sequel. It is a bit ironic since Eric frequently has distain for Hollywood’s insistence on repeatedly going to the same well. The dearth of creativity in film making is one of the points that the author tries to convey in his work. However, there have been plenty of sequels that are worthy and even occasionally outshine their predecessor. The question in today’s review is whether he has managed to do with his second book what others have failed to do with their second bite of the apple. 

Comparisons are always problematic because the things being compared are going to have differences and the fear that apples and oranges are being looked at the same way is a real one. “It’s Still Strictly Personal” is different from the first volume in some important ways and I think those differences matter to a large degree. The original volume is heavy on nostalgia for the era that the films discussed were released in.  There is a childlike enthusiasm for going to the cinema and experiencing the culture in a new way for a kid. Eric’s first book centered on his life from eight to sixteen, when, in spite of some family turmoil, childhood remains a fairly innocent time. The neighborhood kids that you were friends with and the adventures you shared with them seeing movies in a theater or surreptitiously on cable after your friend’s parents went to sleep seem warm and fuzzy memories. When we get to high school and college however, all bets are off. I’m willing to guess that most of us experienced the greatest degree of upheaval, personal drama, and emotional tragedy in our adolescent and young adult years.


This volume of the autobiography is a more challenging read because we have to identify with someone who is struggling to find himself as a person. The thing that makes this story relevant to us is how the author manages to use the movies to accomplish that. The simplest example I can think of from Eric’s story is the bookend films that match up with his parents turbulent second shot at marriage.  “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “The War of the Roses” are not stories with soft landings. Even though the former has a hopeful conclusion, it was hell to get there. Ten years later, Eric sees the later film as being particularly relevant if not exactly literal, to his families own circumstances. The analogous emotional upheaval in these stories is how Eric relates to us, and he finds movies as a key to the cipher of growing up. 

The eight year period this part of the story covers includes for instance the teen focused works of John Hughes. Teens could relate to some characters in those films. You might see your life as being parallel to John Bender, the sullen outcast from “The Breakfast Club”. It’s possible you admire the gumption and attitude of Ferris Bueller as he outfoxes the school authorities and his parent in pursuit of a perfect Spring Day. Eric doesn’t accept any direct connection to a character, but he does see the shy and awkward Brian, the so called “brain” in detention that day, as someone he does share personality traits with. All of we movie fans have seen those kinds of connections. When we see part of ourselves on a movie screen, we are being exposed to that section of the Johari Window that is referred to as the blind area. Movies let us in on who we are sometimes, without us even being aware that that is who we are. 


Over the years that I have followed Eric’s Blog, “My Movies, My Words” , he and I have agreed on many films. There are of course some movies that we have very different thoughts on, and those examples in the book are some of the things that make this read more challenging. Eric never apologizes for his opinion, why should he, that’s how he feels. There are times in the story here however when his distain for a film seems to not be limited to the movie but to the people who have made the film and anyone who actually enjoyed it while he did not. Part of this comes from the experience he was going through at the time. If your romantic life is frustrating, that may bias the way you view an actor or story.  Eric’s book is organized by films as the chapter references. He has Eighty six movies that he talks about in some detail, I have seen all of the films he mentions except four. We are simpatico on the vast majority of them. There are however eight or nine that I feel quite differently about than he does. Nothing wrong with that, but sometimes the negative view he has of a movie is flippant, and I don’t always see how it adds to our understanding of his personal growth. Usually, these are just minor incidents rather than major events in his story, so I sometimes think they might have been left out and then I would be able to accept the rest more easily. Let’s not forget that for the reader it is personal also. 

I like the fact that Eric ties events in his life to the movies that he is seeing. Sometimes they are moments of revelation, such as discovering a foreign language film that moves you when you have not been immersed in that world before. I appreciate when he connects the dots between a film makers style and the movie he is writing about at the time. Often the movie is just background for the personal story of his college years and disappointing romantic entanglements. Even if you are indifferent to Eric as a person, which I don’t think I can be, you will still find merit in the story he tells about the times. I think he is honest as hell about the women in his life. That sort of thing matters so it is relevant. I did sometimes feel short changed by not hearing more about the friends in his life. I know some of their names, but I don’t always feel like I know how they influenced Eric. A couple of exceptions occur when he has a vastly different reaction to a film than his companion does, and I wish I’d been more of a fly on the wall for the conversations he had with them about the movie. The problem is that he is in his fifties, recalling events from before he was twenty one,  and who can remember what we said over coffee thirty plus years ago after a night at the movies?

One of the most unusual reactions I had to his story came from a movie that his family saw together several times, and that I would require a big incentive to sit through again. “The Woman in Red” is a small blemish on the career of Gene Wilder. I dislike the film but I do like how Eric explains his families fascination with it. I like that his folks wanted to sit through it a second time. Whenever I went to the movies with my family, and that happened, it was a special moment for me. A story like this is a bit like watching the lives of your neighbors through the living room window. We get a glimpse into how others live, and it is often very different from the way we live ourselves. That’s the value of a book like this. I never lived in Manhattan, I never had to trade schools midway though my education, I never went to summer camp for weeks at a time. This is a life very different from mine, but I still understand it because movies let us share references and feelings and the ability to empathize is enhanced as a result.

Someday, Eric and I will meet in person. I hope we can take in a James Bond movie together and then talk about it afterward at a diner that he knows or a Mexican restaurant like El Coyote. We are movie lovers who tell the story of our life through the films that shaped us. I feel like we are old pals because I know his history of hurt and success. Life is not all sunshine and cupcakes, and we all have to grow up. “It’s Still Strictly Personal” let’s us see how we are doing that. And there were movies…