The movies I saw in 2017

Hello, and welcome to the first part of my 2017 wrap – the movies I saw at the cinema. In a later post, I’ll discuss the notable games I played.

The movies can be divided into several tiers, from great to bad:

 

The Greats

Blade Runner 2049 – Overall, my movie of the year. An excellent piece, succeeding on multiple levels: (1) as a cyberpunk thriller; (2) as a thematically rich story about one person’s search for identity; and (3) as a commentary on humanity’s relationship with technology.

La La Land – My surprise hit of the year: beneath the catchy songs, I found a deeply resonant story about what it takes to fulfill a dream: hard work, setbacks, and ultimately, sacrifice.

 

Honourable mentions

Dunkirk – A war movie that eschews bombast for quiet heroism.

 

Entertaining time-killers

Star Wars: Rogue One

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

While not very deep, Rogue One succeeds as an action-oriented return to the original timeline. The highest compliment I can offer is that it made me yearn for a good Star Wars game!

Like The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi is a remix of the original trilogy, but compared to its predecessor, it’s smarter, more self-aware, and more willing to diverge from the originals. It does stretch on too long.

 

Valiant defeat

Ghost in the Shell – Visually striking anime adaptation (drawing especially on the 1995 movie and the Second Gig TV series), brought down by a reliance on cyberpunk cliche.

 

Avoid

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – A mess of a movie, missing much of the original comics’ charm.

 

 

Wreck-it Ralph lives up to the hype

Over the weekend I finally caught Disney’s Wreck-it Ralph on TV, and wow, I’m glad I did. In many ways it’s typical family movie fare, but of course it’s more than that; packed with  in-jokes, homages, and a fair few cameos, it’s a delightful love letter to 30 years of video games. If you’re part of its target market (and if you’re reading this blog, you probably are), then I heartily recommend it. Go in blind — don’t read synopses, don’t watch trailers — and I hope you have fun!

New trailer for Sherlock Holmes 2: Game of Shadows

I don’t remember being that impressed by the first trailer for Sherlock Holmes 2: Game of Shadows, but the second one is a different story:

 

 

For my part, I liked the first movie not just for its camerawork and action, but also for its vivid characterisation of Holmes as the fallible genius who lived for the intellectual fulfilment he could only find in difficult cases, and Watson as the long-suffering sidekick. Looking forward to the December release!

Guiltless Pleasures: Conan the Barbarian

For some viewers, Conan the Barbarian (1982) is something to watch while intoxicated: entertaining but not good. While I agree it’s flawed, I think it deserves better than to be thrown into the “guilty pleasures” bucket.  True, the movie is not finely nuanced, morally ambiguous, or character-driven. Its revenge-centred plot is as simple as they come. There is never a moment’s doubt as to who is the hero or who is the villain. It’s often melodramatic, it’s gory, and it doesn’t even resemble the original short stories.

 

What rescues the movie is its ambition – it tries so hard to be a serious, gritty, low-fantasy epic. It doesn’t quite succeed, for the reasons I named above, but it comes close enough to nail the feel of what it would be like to live in such a world. Conan’s foes – slavers, witches, demonic snake cults – imply how cheap life would be, both through their nastiness and through the suddenness with which they intrude. The visuals hint at an untamed world in other ways – the wilderness is vast and harsh, the cities are worn, teeming, chaotic. The soundtrack, stirring and bombastic during battle, gentler when Conan and sidekick are travelling, is worth the price of admission all by itself. The various bodybuilders cast in the movie – led by Arnie, the living, breathing embodiment of physical power – fit perfectly into the setting. Even all that fake blood serves a point – this is not a dainty world. The movie’s final image, a brooding, older Conan sitting on a throne, promised a sweeping story arc just waiting to be told.

 

We never saw the rest of that story. Instead, we ended up with Conan the Destroyer (now that would be a guilty pleasure, if I thought it were any good) and now the new Jason Momoa vehicle, which I haven’t seen but which the critics hate. There have been other good fantasy movies in the last 30 years, but none of the ones I’ve seen have brought a world to life quite as well as the original Conan the Barbarian. This was a movie that excelled at worldbuilding, and for that reason, I feel no shame for holding it up as an example of the genre.

Trailer’s out for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Well, the trailer is out for the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, On Stranger Tides. It automatically gets one star from me for being about Jack Sparrow rather than Will Generic Protagonist Turner, and a second star for having the licence to Tim Powers’ novel of the same name. I doubt the movie will have much to do with the novel and I haven’t read the book, but I’d like to — I enjoy Powers’ other works, such as Declare, and a movie adaptation would make it much easier to get hold of the novel.

 

As for the trailer itself? Yes, I know “trailers always lie”, but this lie was quite sweet in my ears. Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush chewing the scenery? Self-consciously ludicrous action scenes? That glorious “ba-dah-dah-da-dum” music? Yes, please!

 

Now, please live up to the standards of the first movie…

One sign that our geeky hobbies have gone mainstream

How do we know when a favourite, but hitherto niche, hobby has gone mainstream? I’m sure there are many indicators. The most obvious is, have its sales skyrocketed? There are others: has it featured on a talk show? Are our co-workers discussing it?

 

But lately, I’ve noticed one more: How widely is it being advertised? In particular, is it being advertised in public places?

 

Using this litmus test, gaming has definitely gone mainstream. In the last few months, I’ve seen the bearded special operator from Medal of Honor, the scowling cowboy of Red Dead Redemption, and “Super Mario 25th Anniversary – Part of the Family Since 1985” all staring down at me from the sides of buses. A couple of years ago, I remember seeing LittleBigPlanet posters at the train station, in which an adorable-looking Sackboy proclaimed, “On my planet, the stock market isn’t so scary.”  And I could be mistaken here – this was years and years ago – but I seem to recall seeing CivAnon brochures at university, in which case even turn-based strategy can be mainstream..

 

Speculative fiction movies and TV are also mainstream by this definition. Most recently, I’ve seen posters at the train station advertising vampire TV shows, but pretty much any speculative-fiction blockbuster would count.

 

On the other hand, speculative fiction NOVELS are most definitely not mainstream. Neither is anime (well, in Australia, at any rate). No real surprises in either case…

“The golden age of science fiction is when you’re 12”: when do you have the most fun with a hobby?

There is a saying, attributed to one Peter Graham, that “the golden age of science fiction is when you’re 12”.

 

Now, assuming “12” is a metaphor for “when you first discover it”, I can understand the argument. I discovered most of my favourite anime in the first couple of years after I came to the hobby: Cowboy Bebop, Crest of the Stars, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Legend of the Galactic Heroes, etc. I suspect this is due to my relatively narrow tastes in anime – in other words, it didn’t take me long to come close to exhausting the pool of anime that are to my liking.

 

But it’s not true when it comes to the games I’ve played. Oh, I whiled away endless hours playing games when I was a kid. And I was willing to spend more hours on any one game than I am now: the two that first spring to mind are Civilization II, which I played and modded ad infinitum, and the original X-Com, which I never bothered to finish because I was having so much fun stomping around on Earth, but there are undoubtedly many, many others. From an “amount of free time” perspective, any time you don’t have to hold down a job will be your golden age.

 

Yet many of my favourite games, or the games I would consider ‘the greatest’ or in some way the best, or those that had the biggest impact on me, are ones that I only played in the last 3-4 years: Fallout 3, Star Control 2/The Ur-Quan Masters, Okami, etc. And I think coming to them with a grown-up’s eyes is a major reason why. For now I have had the benefit of years and years of reading books and playing games and absorbing stories. And now, I can better recognise originality. I can now dissect games well enough to see how they bring together individual building blocks, analyse them in terms of theme and character arc and worldbuilding. In other words, I can appreciate games on more layers than I could when I was younger.

 

Perhaps, then, the golden age of science fiction, or gaming, or anime, or movies or TV or any hobby, is when you’re sufficiently well-versed to understand why you like it.

Rereading books and re-watching movies

I’ve previously mused about the extent to which game-playing habits reflect real-world habits. That said, there must also be plenty of cases where the two don’t match. Take, for example, rereading books vs replaying games. As I noted yesterday, I don’t replay games; however, I read the same old books and watch the same old movies and anime over, and over, and over again (as anyone who lives with me could attest…).

 

Not only that, but I never re-read (or re-watch) cover-to-cover after my first time. In the case of a book, I either just pick it up and start a re-read session at a random page, or else I just beeline for my favourite chapter. In the case of a movie or anime, I go straight for my favourite part. In either case, I skip any scene that I found excessively gory, depressing, or boring the first time around. You could say I’m like the two webcomic characters who described their favourite way of re-watching Episode I: “Pod race, saber fight, pod race, saber fight – our faith in George Lucas is almost restored!”

 

How about you?

A wretched hive of SCUMM and villainy

Remember the classic LucasArts SCUMM adventure games, such as Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Monkey Island and Manic Mansion? This entry in the Star Wars Uncut project (fifteen-second fan enactments of individual scenes from Star Wars) is an awesome homage.

If you liked it, you can see the main Han Solo Adventures project here, and the Star Wars Uncut project here.