Tag Archives: Movies

Stable Boy

I’ve been thinking a bunch about Star Wars lately which, c’mon, what else is new. But with Disney’s D23 event taking place over last weekend and some sweet new trailers for The Mandalorian and The Rise of SkywalkerStar Wars has been on my mind a little more, especially The Last Jedi.

Particularly how it ends.

Let’s recap.

The Resistance is defeated, the fleet reduced to the Millenium Falcon and those aboard. But they have hope: Luke Skywalker came out of hiding and stared down the First Order, becoming a symbol in the process. The First Order won, but the Resistance, as led by Leia aboard the Falcon, lives on.

But that’s not how the movie ends!

The Last Jedi ends on Canto Bight, with a group of enslaved children Rose and Finn had run into earlier. They’re in the stables we left them in, but now one of the kids is using improvised props to enact a rendition of Luke’s final stand. They are interrupted by their overseer, and they scatter. One of the kids ends up outside, where he reaches out and grabs a broom to start sweeping. He’s distracted by the night sky, and it’s on this kid looking out at space that the movie ends.

And it is such a beautiful ending to the story.

First, there’s the kid retelling the story of Luke Skywalker. Though the Resistance may have lost the Battle of Crait, the legend of Luke’s victory over Kylo Ren has reached even stable kids far away. We believe Leia when she says that the Resistance isn’t over, but seeing the urchin’s retelling is proof positive that the dream lives on. Even though the kid’s speaking in an unsubtitled alien language, we’re still able to understand what he’s talking about and what it means to him and the others. The tale of Luke Skywalker staring down impossible odds is important and relevant to them because even though they’re a galaxy away, it reminds them that, hey, maybe there’s hope yet for them even though they’re at the bottom of the rung. In a moment that certainly has some meta shades, we’re shown the power of stories. Luke’s actions on Crait have reverberated throughout the galaxy, the Jedi are still out there! By including this scene, The Last Jedi offers a coda that lets us know that our heroes’ actions were not in vain, that the stories and myths that someone like Rey believes in are certainly worthwhile.

Then one of the kids goes outside grabs a broom — calling it to his hand with the Force. The visuals here are important, we’re in a wide shot and there’s no cutaway to the kid reaching out to the Force or anything. Notably, in a movie series where just about every use of a Force power gets a close-up and attention, this time it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it beat. Though it’s clear what happened on a second viewing, the ambiguity leaves one wondering if they’d imagined it. By cultivating the ambiguity, the movie offers a sense of wonder and mystery: did that kid use the Force? Can he use the Force?

There are four cutaways in the sequence, and each one is incredibly motivated. The first is of his feet as he sweeps and pauses. The shot focuses our attention on his work sweeping hay, and thus the importance of his stopping — right now this is important, watch. We go back to the wide as he looks up, then we cut back to his face as he stares at space. Next, we see what he’s looking at: stars in the night sky. One of them flickers and jumps to Hyperspace — bound for parts unknown. His hand tightens around his broom, the ring with the Rebel insignia bright on his finger. He’s with the Resistance, and when we cut back to a close-up on his face, the juxtaposition of the stories, Hyperspace jump, and Rebel ring making it easy to read his expression of one of determination to be a part of that story. Like Luke Skywalker watching the binary sunset on Tatooine so long ago, this kid also dreams of bigger things. That’s how The Last Jedi goes out, back on the wide shot of him staring at the sky, his broom raised not unlike a lightsaber as Jon William’s Force Theme swells.

Star Wars is in many ways the story of the Everyman, and with its final scene, The Last Jedi doubles down on the idea that anyone can be the hero, that anyone could be a Jedi. This is a story where you and I could be a hero, one maybe where this kid working in a stable could be too.

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Delicious Stakes

There’s a common maxim in storytelling stating something to the effect of how you should always raise the stakes. Don’t make it just a friend at risk, make it a sibling. Instead of it just being the neighborhood affected, have it be the town. If you’re gonna have to save a city, it oughta be a major metropolis like New York. And why stop at saving the city when you can save the world?

High stakes usually mean high thrills. The Battle of New York at the climax of The Avengers is epic because they aren’t just fighting for the city but the entire world too. Lara Jean’s predicament in To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is so dire because it’s her entire high school reputation at stake. Inigo Montoya wants vengeance because the Six-Fingered Man killed his father, not a mentor or neighbor. 

And yet, sometimes there’s something so much fun about a story where the stakes are low. Too much life-or-death can be tiring; there’s a point where having every conflict with the Avengers being about saving the world where it starts to seem very same-old-same-old.

That might just be why Ant-Man and The Wasp is a movie that’s so delightful: the stakes are just so low. There’s no risk of some powerful tech/weapon falling into the wrong hands (Iron Man, Ant-Man, Guardians of The Galaxy) or some vengeful figure from the character’s past threatening the hero’s life (Iron Man 2, Thor Ragnarok, Captain Marvel). It’s not even the question of a Very Important Friendship that Civil War presents, one with ramifications for near everyone. 

The stakes at the heart of Ant-Man and The Wasp is the question of if Hank and Hope can rescue a Janet from the Quantum Realm. Complicating it is a Scott who wants to help but doesn’t want to violate his house arrest. There are also some villainous black market dealers and a woman named Ava who’s adversely affected Pym Particles. And that’s really about it, there’s no true villain; not in the way that Civil War presents flawed characters warring amongst themselves, but in a way that’s pretty, well, chill. By the end of it, everyone is more or less happy to get along with one another. 

Sure, the day’s been saved, but that just means that Janet’s been rescued from the Quantum Realm and they’re working on a way to stabilize Ava.

In a Marvel universe where the fate of the world is quite frequently at stake, it’s downright refreshing to have a movie where that’s really about it. No cataclysm, no Hydra takeover, just well, a small little side-adventure. It’s refreshing, especially sandwiched as it is between Avengers: Infinity War and Captain Marvel (and then Endgame). Similarly, although Spider-Man: Far From Home does have some pretty high stakes, it feels kinda low compared to the existential threat that was Thanos. Sure, you’ve got these potentially world-destroying Elementals, but far more important is Peter’s relationship with MJ and his friends. These dumb villains are getting in the way of his vacation, man!

Honestly, it does feel like his friendships are the more important stake, and that’s okay. When it comes down to it, stakes only matter if we care about it and one way to make us care about it is to see a character care. When Peter frets about sitting next to MJ on a plane ride, we care about it too because we’ve invested in Peter Parker. Lloyd Dobbler and Diane Court’s relationship in Say Anything… isn’t gonna change the world, but it’ll change theirs. Daniel winning the tournament isn’t a life-or-death thing in The Karate Kid, but it’s the fruition of his relationship with Mr. Miyagi, and so much of the movie’s stakes are within the question of whether or not Daniel will be able to find a sense of belonging in the new town and, in turn, self-actualize.  

Perhaps the maxim is a little misguided. Bigger stakes are really only bigger if they mean something. The Earth is destroyed at the start of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy but that’s not really so much as important as poor Arthur Dent yearning for a proper cup of tea. The Earth is generic, but that cup of tea means everything. So really, the size of the stake doesn’t matter so much as it’s well treated and given the proper time it needs to stew. Then bam, your stake is delicious. 

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Shoes

My favorite part of Netflix’s Always Be My Maybe might just be a tiny beat that happens part way through the movie. It’s hardly a big moment, just a bit of table setting that, for someone like me, holds all the more import.

There’s a party, and a couple kids are chasing each other. They run up the steps to the house and, without pausing to think, slip off their shoes before entering. The camera follows them as they run through the house and to the back door where they put their shoes back on and continue their chase outside. It’s a really small beat, and the whole shoes thing isn’t highlighted — there’s no cutaway to the kids’ feet or anything; the long shot just serves to establish the party in the suburbs.

Maybe you don’t quite get what I’m getting at.

I moved to the US when I was fourteen. There was a lot of little culture shocks, from tax not being included in the sticker price to the fact that I had to drive to get anywhere in the suburbs. A big one was that Americans wore their shoes inside the house. As someone who grew up in Singapore, I was very used to removing my shoes before going into a house. Why would I want to track the outside world into someone’s home? That’d be barbaric.

I got over it, and these days usually ask when I visit someone if it’s shoes on or off (my apartment is firmly shoes off, if you were wondering). Wikipedia has an interesting rundown on the practice of removing shoes inside, surveying the custom in several countries. It’s not common in the US but, as the article notes, “…removing of shoes is common among certain immigrant communities.” Which, I suppose, explains me and mine. But I’ve digressed.

There’s a beat in Always Be My Maybe where a pair of kids, unprompted and without a word, pause their playing to take their shoes off when entering a house, and put them back on when they exit. It’s such a small detail, but one that is absolutely rife with verisimilitude and meaning. It’s something you’d expect to see in an Easy Asian household like the one depicted in the film. Given that the film’s three writers are all of Easy Asian descent and the director herself a child of Iranian immigrants, it’s not surprising that the detail made it in.

And it’s treated as normal to boot. I know this seems like such a small beat to obsess over, but it’s a really big deal for. In all the American media of consumed over the years, nowhere have I seen this tiny but important facet of my life portrayed on screen. And certainly not as casually and matter-of-factly as here. In that moment I felt seen, I felt like this part of me and my life was important and valid. That the habit of taking my shoes off inside wasn’t unusual.

I yearn for stories by different people, I yearn to hear about other experiences and takes on life. I also want to see my own experiences presented in media; I want to see myself represented. Always Be My Maybe may not be the best movie in Netflix’s stable of romcom revivals (that title belongs entirely to Set It Up and if you disagree you are wrong) but it gets a special little place in my heart for how it portrays its Asian American protagonists without making the whole movie about the ‘Asian American experience.’ Sasha and Marcus are presented as fairly normal people, they aren’t ‘foreign’ or ‘exotic,’ they’re just them.

In a few ways, Always Be My Maybe seems not unlike To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before in that both films feature leads who are people of color without the plot being about how they’re minorities. At the end of the day, I want to see little parts of my life portrayed as being, well, normal and not some bizarre thing done by the Other. Movies like Always Be My Maybe and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before do that. And now I want more.

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Bad Taste

I really like Iron Man 2. This is not a popular opinion; the movie is usually listed near the bottom of MCU movie rankings, especially when held up against its predecessor.

But I really like it all the same. I suppose there’s no accounting for bad taste.

Perhaps there’s some explanation for my deep affection for this much-maligned movie when the context with which I first saw the film is taken into account. The summer of 2010 saw my heart acting up with the symptoms of something potentially dire, but without any clear cause. This period of uncertainty was less than fun, to put it mildly, so a movie where the protagonist was dealing with his own chest-related issues struck a very personal cord. I’m fully aware of the film’s flaws, but my opinions of Iron Man 2 will forever be tied up with the circumstances when I first saw it.

I go on and on on this blog about how art is a two-way street, about how the viewer/reader/player affects the work almost as much as the creator. What one brings to the table inherently changes the final effect of the piece. My own medical issues, for example, have had drastic effects on my opinion of Iron Man 2.

In light of that, it’s hard to really provide a framework with which to declare a movie the best. Something I love may not work for you, and vice versa. I found Never Let Me Go to be profoundly moving, but I’m sure there’s someone out there who’d call it melodramatic schlock, just as there are people who loved 50/50 while I found it somewhat hollow. I still love (500) Days Of Summer, but what I like about has changed as I’ve gotten older (and hopefully wiser).

Take the ending to The Last of Us. Without getting too much into it (because even six years on, talking about the ending still feels taboo), Joel has decided that there’s something that Ellie shouldn’t do and he’s going to do whatever it takes to ensure no harm befalls the teenage girl who’s become like a daughter to him. It’s a rampage, against a faction we’d been led to believe were heroic, culminating in the player – as Joel – shooting an unarmed man. Naturally, its response has proven it divisive. In the ensuing discussion, however, it became clear that players who had children of their own were more likely to sympathize with Joel’s choice than non-parents. The player’s own personal life informs their response to the narrative.

So is it a bad ending? I certainly read some criticisms of it, just as I read praises. While I’d say that it is empirically good, I do have to wonder if describing something empirically is even possible. There’s little doubt that it’s well-crafted and, I’d say, well-earned. But that doesn’t mean you have to like it; and it doesn’t matter how good it is, if you don’t like it you don’t like it.

As I said, there’s no accounting for bad taste.

I think we’re too hard on people who like stuff that’s not considered good, that there are too many pleasures we consider guilty. I’m sure we’ve all stories in one form or another that seem childish or shallow now, but once upon a time meant the world to you. I will forever have a soft spot for Lewis Carrol’s “Jabberwocky” and John Betjemen’s “False Security” since they were among my introduction to poetry, and two I took a real shine to years and years ago. Henry V is my favorite Shakespeare play, not because of the St. Crispin’s Day Speech or really any merit of itself, but because it was the first of his plays that I really dig into sixteen-odd years ago. Pretentious as it is, I want to say that Ulysses by James Joyce is my favorite book, not out of an adoration for obtuse literature, but from the delight of classes spent examining the book and finding meaning and, with all of that, falling in love with the work. I’m sure had I read it under other circumstances I would have dismissed it as being overwrought nonsense.

Secondhand Lions has a middling score on Rotten Tomatoes, but I absolutely love the movie all the same. I know that Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel is far from a really great game, but it’s an absolute delight to play on the weekend with your brother and a couple beers. I don’t care what you think, Toto’s “Africa” is an absolutely stellar piece of music.

Maybe I’m too hard on people. I think Batman v Superman is an absolute mess, but y’know what, if you like it, good for you. We can talk until the sky falls about what’s a good piece of art and what’s not, but I think we’re kinda missing the forest for the trees. So long as the story made you feel something and isn’t hurting anyone else, where’s the harm in liking it? I enjoy watching bad movies, I love playing excellent games, and I’ll gladly go to bat for Iron Man 2.

After all, there really is no accounting for bad taste.

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The Wickiness

John Wick has a delightfully simple premise: Retired assassin lives okay life. Punk kid steals retired assassin’s car and kills his puppy (that was given to him by his recently deceased wife). Retired assassin un-retires and goes on a  brutal rampage of revenge.

Simple, effective.

And honestly, when so many action movies are trying to be super smart with overly complex plots and schemes, “dude gets revenge for dead dog” is wonderfully simple. It harkens back to classic action movies like Die Hard, Predator, or even Commando where a straightforward plot serves primarily to deliver thrills. Die Hard’s concept of a New York cop as the sole defender of a captured skyscraper is fantastic and the film uses it — crawling in the ducts, elevator excitement, parking garage fun — to a wonderful extent. The titular alien of Predator makes for a challenging fight in the jungle. Kidnapping John Matrix’s daughter is just Commando’s excuse for Arnold Schwarzenegger to kill bad guys in inventive ways. A hallmark of these classics is a focus on the action over the effects. The Predator might be a stealthy alien, but its final showdown against Dutch is much more about the fight itself than it is a spectacle of effects. John Wick is a movie like these, replete with that personal sort of action, but, y’know, modern.

It certainly helps that John Wick is no slouch in the mythology department. John may be an assassin, but he’s not just any assassin: he’s a member of a secret society, a group with their own rules, currency, and even a sanctuary of a hotel in New York. We’re not told terribly much about this underground world, but we get to see much of it, and a lot more is certainly implied by characters’ responses and actions. The world feels massive, one with reams of untold stories that echo more the Marvel movies or a Sergio Leone western than a typical action movie. John Wick manages to perfectly combine mythmaking with 80s action thrills to create one of the best series of modern action movies.

It’s a step above similar contemporaries like The Expendables and The Transporter, two movies which are great, dumb fun with their own interesting worlds, but don’t quite deliver on the same exhilarating thrills that the John Wick movies do. The fights in John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum are not only wonderfully choreographed, but they’re shot in long, wide shots that allow the audience to watch the fights play out and the skill of the fighters. Void of staccato jumpcuts, Parabellum plays out like a classic Jackie Chan flick, where there’s such emphasis on the artistry of the fight. It helps that these fights are straight up creative. Parabellum features a fight in the New York Public Library (books are lethal) and another where the combatants are surrounded by cases full of knives (which are quickly broken open and so ensues a knife fight). One of the final fights sees Keanu Reeves squaring off against Indonesian actors Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman — guys from the fantastic action movie The Raid. But it ain’t enough to just have these exceptional fighters throw down, Parabellum sets this fight in a glass room with glass walls, floors, and cases. It’s beautiful and decidedly unique.

So much of this relies on how slick the movie is. The John Wick movies have a very clear idea of what they are and it’s played to the hilt. Russian, Japanese, Latin, and Indonesian are all spoken in the movies and have subtitles — that often emphasize words by coloring them in neon purple and making them triple the size. The operators of the assassins’ network are dressed like ‘50s secretaries, but decked out in punk tattoos and piercings, but still using typewriters, switchboards, and old computers. I’ve seen the movies described as neo-noir, and that is certainly true, but toss in influences of every action genre — from anime to westerns to martial arts — and you’ve a fuller picture.

All this to say that John Wick fills a particular niche that we didn’t even know we need, a hyper-violent action movie that pairs its blood and guns with fantastic, imaginative craft. Give me more movies with this Wicky sensibility!

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Of The End

Reaching the end of a good story is always a bittersweet affair. There’s no doubt a sense of joy in the catharsis of resolution, that sense that the story has been completed and all is well. In a good story, its ending will pay off all that came before. But an ending means it’s over; the story and characters that you’ve spent several hours with are done. You don’t get to be a part of their lives and adventures anymore.

It’s certainly kinda weird: these characters are fictional, this world, no matter how similar to our own, is an artifice. Yet there’s such a want to spend more time there. I want to spend more time with the Pevensies in Narnia, I wanna join Luke Skywalker for more of his adventures, I’m really happy that Nathan and Elena got their happy ending, but man, I would love to have another story.

These stories are decidedly done. Uncharted 2 comes to a close and so too does Nate’s adventures in Nepal. Sure, the series counties in its sequels, but there won’t be more of Nathan Drake exploring the Himalayas with Elena and a chronically side-switching Chloe. That moment, that particular dynamic is unique to this story.

Maybe there are stories to be told. There are a couple years between Avengers and Age of Ultron, presumably filled with stories as the Avengers hunt after Hydra. But there’s not gonna be a big movie about that time, featuring the original six doing their thing. That time is past, those stories are told.

Now there is space for those stories to be told; consider the books, games, and comics of the old Star Wars Expanded Universe. They filled the gaps between the movies, introduced new characters, and expanded the world to a ridiculous degree. But even the best books aren’t the same as getting to see and hear Luke, Han, and Leia traipse around the Death Star. Stories lose part of their jazz when translated into a different medium. Maybe it’s the change in budget or creative team; in any case, it’s just not quite the same. Could be good, really good, it just won’t really be the same.

Could the continued Avengers films have maintained the status quo and told more stories of the six saving the day together? Sure. But we’ve already heard that story – it’s the climax of the first movie. There’s little to be gained when retreading old ground, it’s far more interesting to push these characters in wholly new directions. A Thief’s End sees Nathan Drake going on yet another adventure, but this one isn’t after another mystic artifact or following an adventure of Francis Drake. There are the familiar thrills and witticisms — it wouldn’t be Uncharted without ‘em, but Nate’s on a different journey yet again. It’s not the same story as the one before.

It’s frustrating, sometimes. I love the third season of Chuck, and I wish the show could just stay there forever. But at the same time, I’m so glad the series has the chance to grow and for characters to change and so on. It’s one of my favorite shows perhaps because it had the space for that change and progression. I’m sure that had it stayed as its season three self for the entire time it would be tiring and lose what makes it so special. It’s precisely because it doesn’t last that it’s so special.

To all this, Avengers: Endgame is the, uh, end, of the MCU as we know it (give or take a Spider-Man movie coming out in a couple months). It’s quite the feat to resolve ten years of storytelling, but somehow the movie actually does. With that, it’s done. There’ll probably be another Avengers movie, but it ain’t gonna be one too familiar (for a whole variety of reasons), just as no sequel is quite like the original. The old ones can be revisited, yes, and replayed, reread, and rewatched; but they’re over, the story had to end.

Maybe that ephemerality is what makes stories so special. Just because something doesn’t last forever doesn’t make it any less meaningful.

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It’s The Endgame

It’s wild to think that when I started this blog seven years ago The Avengers was only just about to come out. There’s been a regular deluge of movies since taking place in The Marvel Cinematic Universe and it’s all coming to a head this weekend with the release of Avengers: Endgame. It’s hard to overstate just what Marvel Studios has managed to pull off here; 21 interconnected films with crisscrossing characters and story elements.

I still remember when Iron Man first came out. I was in high school and really wanted to see it opening day, but I was taking the SAT the next day and the plan was to watch it after that exam. Iron Man had always been one of my favorite superheroes, owing in no small part to a particularly wonderful cartoon I watched as a child. In any case, the movie was fantastic, a kickass superhero movie with a warm, human core. And then the post-credits stinger rolls around and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury tells Tony Stark about the Avengers Initiative.

As someone who grew up with the superhero osmosis in the ’90s, I knew that these Marvel characters teamed up. Captain America had shown up to fight Red Skull in a Spider-Man cartoon; Daredevil and The Human Torch were both in a Spider-Man video game (Spider-Man got all the good stuff in the ’90s). That’s, of course, not counting the comic collections I’d flip through at Barnes and Noble. So naturally, the idea of the Avengers meant something to me and it meant something very cool.

Think again of how absolutely unheard of the idea of a superhero team-up movie was ten years ago. The Spider-Man and X-Men movies existed in different spaces, and Batman and Superman teamed up, but only in the cartoons. Movies crossing over was limited to the likes of Alien vs Predator. Iron Man teaming up with the Hulk and who-knows-who-else was such a cool, idiosyncratic idea.

There’ve been plenty of articles on the internet about how singular an achievement the MCU is, and as much as I’d like to, I don’t think I can write as good an article in a single afternoon. Leastways I don’t have much new to bring to the discussion that hasn’t already been said a dozen times.

On the other hand, there is the whole idea that Endgame is very much going to be the end of an era. Sure, Spider-Man: Far From Home is coming out afterwards, and there are a bunch of movies in development like a Black Panther sequel and the announced Shang-Chi movie that are yet to be given release dates. But the Avengers as we’ve known them for the past ten years is very much coming to a resolution. This may well be the last time we see characters like Iron Man and Captain America on screen for a long time, and it’s up to this movie to give a fitting farewell.

I’m curious, naturally, as to what form it’s gonna take. There’s a lot of stuff we know, of course. There’s gonna be an inevitable rematch with Thanos, and I’m willing to put money on a big team up with every single Avenger, especially given that Infinity War didn’t feature that moment. Seriously, there has to be a call-back to that iconic shot in The Avengers. But there is the big question of how it’s all gonna look when the dust settles. Will Tony and Steve pass on the mantle of leadership to Captain Marvel? Is someone else going to take up Cap’s shield at the end? What comes next?

Pulling all that off is going to be the real trick of Endgame, but if there’s one thing producer Kevin Feige has proven during his showrunning of the beast that is the MCU is that he’s warranted our trust. In light of that, I cannot wait until Thursday night.

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