Friday, July 26, 2019

Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood (2019) - Review

Quentin Tarantino's ninth movie is a love letter to Hollywood and filmmaking. Tarantino the director is at his very best in constructing beautiful long shots and getting the best performance from his actors. Tarantino the writer, however, has written a fan fiction with inconsistencies, non-organic tonal changes, and unearned subversion of expectations.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays the character of Rick Dalton, a former A-list TV actor who is past his prime and has been relegated to guest appearances as the villain in other TV shows. His loyal stunt double, Cliff Booth - played by Brad Pitt, has his destiny tied to Dalton's star power. Besides these two fictional character, the rest are real people acting or residing in Hollywood in 1969.

The first 90 minutes out of the 161-minute runtime of the movie is very much about how movies and TV shows were (and still are) made, rise and fall of fame, and the struggles of show business. As a life-long fan of movies, I very much enjoyed this part and I simply couldn't get enough! Not tonally, but spiritually, it was similar to Coen brothers' Hail, Caesar from 2016. DiCaprio was phenomenal acting as an actor on a production (very meta!), and how he dealt with an identity crisis. Brad Pitt also made me believe he had been a stunt performer all his life! As the trailers have shows, there are short appearances by other prominent Hollywood figures from 1969 (including Bruce Lee, Roman Polanski, and James Stacey).

The latter hour of the movie transforms from a character study to a horror film when Brad Pitt's character visits the Spahn Movie Ranch after giving a ride to a member of the Manson family. The horror and thriller aspects reach their peak with Manson's disciples trip to Hollywood. This section is where the tone changes unexpectedly with a rather long narration by Kurt Russell.  What was disorienting most about this narration was the fact that Kurt Russell had appeared earlier as a stuntman, and really had no reason to be the omniscient narrator 90 minutes into the movie!

We also spend a few minutes looking at Margot Robbie (acting as Sharon Tate), watching a Sharon Tate movie! It's bordering on spoilers territory, but inclusion of Sharon Tate in "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood" did not contribute to the plot one iota other than subverting an expectation near the end!

Tarantino has expressed in interviews that he was a huge fan of Sharon Tate in his childhood, and this gives the impression that he simply wanted to write a fan fiction to appease his teenage self. I'm sure almost everyone has created scenarios about their childhood celebrity crushes in their minds. Of course, only an infinitesimal portion of us have the power and resources to make a movie based on the fan fiction. Quentin Tarantino is among that select few...

The movie's high points are its actors' performances as well as the beautiful shots of Los Angeles. Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood is still a pretty good film, but I'd rank it seventh out of the nine that Tarantino has made (above Hateful Eight and Death Proof), and give it a 7.5/10.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019) - Review

Calling the last five years a Spider-Man renaissance would be an understatement! Tom Holland's rendition stole the show in Captain America: Civil War in 2016. We saw his solo movie - Spider-Man: Homecoming - in 2017.  It was followed by Spider-Man's major role in Avengers Infinity Stone and Endgame, and now we have the character again in Far from Home. In addition, alternative versions of the character starred in the magnificent PS4 game and also the spectacular genre-bending Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in 2018... In this particular (and rare) situation, too much of a good thing is still good!

Far from Home picks up a few months after Avengers: Endgame and shows the world in the aftermath of that event. Considering the huge personal toll of those events on Peter Parker, our hero needs a vacation more than ever, and luckily, his school is going to take the class on a tour around European. Keeping up with the spirit of the comic books and every prior portrayal, Spider-Man can never have an easy time and something needs to go wrong... The emergence of the "Elementals" in Europe makes Nick Fury draft Spider-Man into action to assist Quentin Beck - the stranger from another Earth! Beck or "Mysterio" is indeed a mysterious character with mind-bending powers. His full set of abilities manifest after the 75-minute mark, and in my opinion, this film's portrayal of those powers blows everything that comics and cartoons had done in the past right out of the water - this by itself is a truly commendable feat to make live-action more fantastical than animation!

Since this review is intended to be spoiler-free, I'll avoid discussing the plot twists, which may not be too surprising to those familiar with the lore, but even for them, there are still quite a few pleasant surprises! Once the twists were fully revealed, I saw parallels with Iron-Man 3 and Batman Forever, but as always, Marvel and Kevin Feige take escapism to its highest level and give the audience a truly fun and pleasant experience. There are also two after-credit scenes that give you a different perspective about the film and somewhat warrant a second viewing...

Taking a step back from this particular movie, I never saw any part of myself in Spider-Man (even as an idealized fantasy); hence I never wanted to be him. But he is a great character that I always enjoyed; whether it was the cartoons or the video games. Going back to something I had written in the past, a good protagonist is someone that you either want to be, or be with (not necessarily in a sexual way) - better say spend time with... Tom Holland gives the best live-action portrayal of that character, and the fact that we can still enjoy that many appearances of the Spider-Man within the last four years is a testament to how great his interpretation is!

Going back to this particular movie though, it was a solid a 9/10!




Friday, June 28, 2019

Good Omens (2019) - Reivew

The TLDR review of Good Omens mini-series: zany comedy, bromance, biblical!

It is rare in Hollywood when the writer of a book gets to adapt it to screen. Neil Gaiman, who co-wrote Good Omens with Terry Pratchett, is continuing his conquest of the small screen (after the fantastic American Gods) with another societal commentary with dark comedy undertones in the mini-series co-produced by Amazon and BBC.

The story starts at the Garden of Eden when Crowley, in his snake form, tempts Eve to take a bite from the forbidden fruit. We all know that the fruit of knowledge came with a hefty price, which was exile from heaven. To help them survive on vicious earth, Aziraphale, the guardian of Eden's east gate, gives Adam and Eve his flaming sword for protection. The show sets its tone when Crowley the demon and Aziraphale the angel (masterfully played by David Tennant and Michael Sheen) stand by the walls of Heaven and debate whether they acted according or against their nature; that is, did the demon actually perform a good deed for Adam and Eve by offering them the fruit of knowledge? Did the angel actually doom humanity by giving them the flaming sword?... These moral questions continue on throughout the rest of the show, particularly in the fantastic episode three, where we see how the angel and demon became best friends during the 6000 year biblical history.

Aziraphale and Crowley are merely ambassadors of their respective head offices on earth. Heaven and Hell are of course at constant battle, which may come to an end soon with the birth of Satan's son, the Anti-Christ. Aziraphale and Crowley have grown fond of life on earth, hence, want to prevent armageddon at all costs. They keep a close eye on Anti-Christ -- ironically named Adam -- and constantly ask us whether there is such a thing as absolute good or absolute evil? What is the role of nature versus nurture? Are we supposed to understand every plan or should we accept "ineffability" of the Almighty's plans? As I mentioned, the show is strongly rooted in biblical mythology, but does not take a religious stance with regards to its underlying message.

While the show sets up a possible sequel, it is still a self-contained story with fantastic acting by the leads and a phenomenal soundtrack (well, all Queen's songs). My only gripe is with some of the computer-generated images that look outdated for 2019, but the story is interesting enough that the CGI does not distract at all.

Good Omens is a solid 9/10!

Friday, May 31, 2019

John Wick 3: Parabellum (2019) - Review

John Wick and the highly stylized world of suave assassins and sophisticated murderers have not lost their appeal yet! Actually, the deep lore of this universe is ripe for the picking in future instalments of the franchise. Needless to say that John Wick Chapter 3 is not a dramatic movie with a touching story, but a purely entertaining experience with new genre-defining standards for stunt work.

The movie picks up mere minutes after the previous chapter with John Wick (Keanu Reeves) on the run from all the assassins in New York - who are interestingly a significant portion of NYC's population. Winston (played by the incomparable Ian McShane), the manager of the Continental Hotel in New York, declared John exocmmunicado from the guild, but gave him an hour head start. Once the grace period is up, a bounty of $14 million is placed on his head and goes up by the hour.  John reaches out to different factions of the guild, who all still operate under the supervision of the High Table, and cashes in all the favours they owe him in an attempt to buy in more time...

As I mentioned, it is not a deep story and can be simply summarized as 'John Wick fights to save his life'. But the visual spectacle of Keanu Reeves going through hordes and hordes of increasingly tougher enemies is a sight to behold. Very much like Mad Max: The Fury Road, it is a cinematic experience that needs to be seen on the big screen. Stories of John Wick and Mad Max may not make the best and most rewarding reading material, but they saturate your visual sensory channels in the most pleasing way!

My two minor gripes with John Wick Chapter 3 - Parabellum are the following: i) John's reason for wanting to stay alive was thin and was not really necessary to express in the first place, and ii) some of the fights in the last act dragged on for a little too long and desensitized me to the stylized violence - maybe it was just too much of a good thing... But these two minor issues aside, John Wick chapter 3 "has served and it will be of service" to the fans of the genre.

Hats off to Keanu Reeves for his dedication to the craft, and Chad Stahelski - the director - for the magnificent visual experience. Despite minor flaws, it was a 10/10 for me.
Si vis pacem, para bellum! 


Monday, May 20, 2019

Game of Thrones - S08E06 Recap and Review

SPOILERS follow...

Picking up from sacking and burning of Kings Landing, we catch up with Tyrion and Jon Snow who are visibly shaken and in shock. Queen Daenerys finally lands on the ground with Drogon in the background taking off shortly, giving the image of Daenerys spreading her wings. She addresses her unsullied and Dothraki soldiers and tells them that the conquest of Kings Landing was just the beginning, and she plans to 'liberate' every city and kingdom on the map. Jon Snow is not quite comfortable with these sentiments, but as a man of his word, he does not dare question his queen. Tyrion, though, takes off the hand-of-the-queen pin and throws it away in disdain. Daenerys is of courses offended by this insult, and orders her unsullied soldiers to take Tyrion to a cell (rather than burning or executing him right there, which she should have).

Jon visits Tyrion in the cell. Both are concerned with the mental state of their queen. Jon is in love with Daenerys and is also loyal to her by oath. He remembers Maester Aemon (a Targaryen by blood) of the Nights Watch and his quote of "love is the death of duty". Tyrion flips it around and says sometimes "duty is the death of love". This wordplay, along with a reference to Sansa, is enough to turn Jon against Daenerys. He goes to the throne room and meets up with Daenerys. She is walking towards the Iron Throne and examining one of the thousand sword hilts that formed the throne; this image is an exact recreation of a vision that Daenerys had back in season 2... Jon voices his concerns with Dany's "liberation agenda", but she tries to convince him that they (the Targaryens) know best... Jon tells her that she is and will always be his queen and then proceeds to kiss her. Daenerys suddenly pulls back in horror and we see a knife piercing her heart. Jon's duty to the realm made him end the life of the woman he loved.

Drogon shrieks and comes to his mother's side. He nudges Daenerys hoping to wake her up, but soon realizes that it's too late... He contemplates burning Jon (or Aegon Targaryen VI), but decides against it and instead melts the iron throne with his fire breath. Maybe he sensed the Targaryen blood in Jon and couldn't bring himself down to executing him considering the fabled blood connection between Targaryens and dragons... Drogon grabs Daenerys and flies away, hopefully to Volantis where the red priests and priestesses believe in her and might be able to bring her back to life...

We catch up with an unkept Tyrion, supposedly months after the death of Daenerys, as he is escorted by Grey Worm to the dragon pit. All the lords and ladies of the big houses are there to decide the future of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Tyrion takes the stage and says that the most important qualification for being a king is having a good story (and not benevolence, governance experience, or a competent track record...). Among all the people we know -- including Jon Snow the rightful heir who was thought to be a bastard for most of his life and served as the Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, who once died and came back to life to lead the war against the undead, or Arya Stark the master assassin who travelled the world and then single handedly killed the Night King -- Brandon Stark (or Bran the Broken)  is the person with best stories, and hence, he should be king. Bran's character development in the show included being thrown out the window in the very first episode, and from that point on has only been a plot device for flashbacks, In the books, Bran is a point of view character, so we get to hear his inner thoughts to some extent. But in the show, he has been merely an empty vessel. Even a few episodes ago, he said that he was not human anymore... Only a storage device for keeping the past history...

Tyrion asks Bran the Broken if he will accept the crown, and Bran responds "why do you think I came all this way down here?" (or something equally stupid to that effect). Starting with Samwell Tarley (whose proposal of a democracy was rejected a few minutes earlier), everybody pledges fealty to Brandon Stark. The only house that refuses to accept Brandon Stark as king is the Stark house. Sansa says that the North had been independent for thousands of years and it deserves to be independent again, to which Bran gives a nod. This logic applies to the six other kingdoms as well, as they all had been independent until 300 years ago when Aegon 'The Conquerer' Targaryen united all of those kingdoms. Hence, this was a legitimate enough reason for all the other lords to ask for independence as well. Moreover, why should they accept a member of a separatist house (or the citizen of a foreign country) as their new king? Wouldn't citizenship be a necessary requirement for ruling the united kingdoms? Obviously the plot armour is thick enough, and nobody bats an eyelash.

Bran the Broken is dubbed the King of the Six Kingdoms (Seven minus the Winterfell) and forms his small council (or cabinet) with Tyrion as the Hand, Bronn the sellsword as the Master of Coins, Sir Brienne (who had pledged to protect Sansa till her death) as the new Lord Commander of the King's Guard, Samwell Tarley as the Archmaester, and Sir Davos as the Master of Ships. Like an office sitcom, they gather to bicker and banter with one another about whether to rebuild the brothel or fund the navy. Bran the Broken decides that his top priority is wargging into (or hacking into the brain of) Drogon rather than concern himself with the boring chores of ruling the realm... Considering Bran's ability to see the past, present, and future, and also controlling animals and humans, I wonder why he did not do anything to stop Daenerys from burning all the innocent citizens of Kings Landing in the previous episode? Was it all part of his plan to become the king in the end? Is he any better than Daenerys who was accused of being a power hungry tyrant?

The show ends with a montage of Arya sailing to west of Westeros on a ship with a direwolf figurehead, Sansa wearing a weirwood themed robe and crowned Queen in the North, and Jon Snow (whose real identity did not matter at all during the whole show) arriving at Castle Black. He finally pets Ghost (his direwolf) and then rides with the wildlings beyond the wall. Is he fleeing from Castle Black to finally live a normal life with the wildlings, or is he just escorting them to their now-safe lands? This is left to interpretation by the viewers.


Final Words:
After the showrunners (David Benioff and D.B. Weiss) had lowered my expectations gradually with each episode of season 8, my disappointment is only moderate! Daenerys' extreme change of character in the last episode made no sense. She was not a merciful ruler, as she executed anyone who refused to bend the knee and refused to forgive mistakes, but neither was Ned Stark - the epitome of morality in the show. Daenerys was a pragmatic ruler for 71 (out of 73 total episodes of the show), and then suddenly turned into a blood-thirsty tyrant. Even Emilia Clarke (the actress playing Daenerys) thought it came "out of f**king nowhere" (according to this interview). Isaac Hempstead Wright (the actor playing Brandon Stark) was also caught off guard by the plot and thought Bran becoming king was a prank (see this article). The actors who embodied these characters for almost a decade know them better than almost anybody (except for George R. R. Martin who knows them better), and yet, these plot points did not make sense to them either, let alone us the viewers... I'd give this episode a 4/10.

I have been a fan since Day 1, and read all the books back in 2011. So, I consider myself in (at least) the 95th percentile of the fans who know more than enough about this universe. The poor execution of this final season (from illogical character changes to #woke agendas and thick plot armours saving all the major players till the end), ruined the whole show for me. There are also many plot points that were left unanswered, including but not limited to Children of the Forest, the Azor Ahai prophesy, the three heads of the dragon, the spiral shapes that white walkers left behind, and many more... Game of Thrones was a 10/10 for me, but these last few episodes knocked it down a couple of points to an 8/10.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Game of Thrones - S08E05 Recap and Review

SPOILERS follow...

Following Missandei's death and learning that her advisors plotting against her, Dany is clearly shaken. She scolds Tyrion for his loose tongue and making too many mistakes. The only person who could have consoled Dany was Jon, but he instead walks out after just saying hello, and hence, makes Dany feel worse... I wish I knew what Kit Harrington (Jon's actor) had done to the writers of the show. It seems they have an agenda to ruin Jon, who was the hero of the story until the previous season, and portray him as the most useless and insignificant character.

Within the campgrounds, Tyrion keeps defying his queen and frees his brother who was recently captured by the unsullied. Tyrion makes Jamie promise to persuade Cersei to surrender the throne and flea the city. The viewers of the show know how unlikely it is for Cersei to accept that proposition; the fact that Tyrion doesn't know his own sister is mind boggling to me.

Besides Jamie, we also see Arya and the Hound sneak into Kingslanding while Dany's army are lining up outside the gate. When all the pieces are in their rightful place on the chessboard (from Dany's unsullied and Dothraki to Cersei's Golden Company and the Iron fleet), we suddenly see something penetrate the clouds making a hole for the sun to shine, and descend towards the sea... It's Dany riding Drogon who is ready to set the whole Iron fleet on fire. Euron Greyjoy shoots Scorpion arrows at Drogon, but Dany has learned her lesson from the previous encounter and knows how to dodge and take out the enemy without taking damage. The dragon also blows up the gate and kills the Golden Army troops lined up in the front. The battle seems to be over, and we hear the bells ring as a sign of the city's surrender. But suddenly Dany decides that surrender is not enough, and the whole city (military and civilian) has to pay for Missandei's death and maybe also for her own hardships earlier in life. Dany and Drogon set the whole city on fire and destroy most of the Red Keep (the king's castle). At this point, Cersei, Qyburn (hand of the queen), and the Mountain realize that they have lost and need to escape and save their lives.

On the grounds, we see Arya and the Hound in the Red Keep. Hound pulls Arya aside and asks her to reevaluate her vendetta lest she becomes like the Hound. Seems the words land well with Arya, and Arya thanks the Hound after calling him by his first name, Sandor. They go separate ways, and we see Hound run into Cersei's entourage. Sandor 'The Hound' Clegane challenges his older brother, Gregor 'The Mountain' Clegane, to a duel. Cersei runs to the lower levels of the castle and lets us watch the much anticipated Clegane Bowl. Our friend, the Hound, takes the upper hand in the beginning, but the Mountain is an undead zombie and there is no killing him with natural means. As a poetic climax to the Hound's revenge story, he tackles his brother off the ledge and both jump into the fire. This is a poetic ending since it all began when the Mountain pushed the Hound into the fire when they were children. This incident had scarred the Hound for life (physically and mentally).

Jamie also manages to find a way into the castle. He has to go through Euron Greyjoy first, but a few stab wounds are not enough to hold Jamie back from finding his way to Cersei. The twins / romantic lovers have an emotional reunion, and try to find a way out. All the exits are blocked with debris though, and the dragon is tearing down the castle. Cersei cries and says she doesn't want to die. Jamie holds her and says nothing matters but them. They seemingly die in each other's arms under the ruins of the castle.

We catch up with Jon, who has a crisis of conscious and looks to his left and right with utmost confusion. The least valuable player of season 8 decides to gather a handful of his followers and get out of the city. Arya is also on the grounds. The most lethal and fearless assassin in the land is also shellshocked. She runs from a few stampedes, dodges debris, and drags people with her to their deaths!

From a filmmaking point of view, these stampede scenes and the scale of dragon attacks are simply marvellous. But I was bored looking at Arya running away from a different stampede every few minutes. Instead of showing debris, rocks, and stampedes, perhaps more character development with other characters would have been useful... This was the only episode this season that I looked at my watch hoping that it would end sooner.

I am seriously losing faith in the writers (David Benioff and D.B. Weiss) and their ability to conclude the series the way it deserves. The books spent a lot of time justifying each character's actions and motivations. In this season, though, characters turn on a dime. Dany is an empathetic leader who wants to free people from tyranny, and then in a split second, decides to burn them all. Arya, for the second time, becomes a scared little girl despite years of training as a faceless man.  Jon, the pragmatic hero of the story, has turned into a bumbling idiot whose absence from the scenes wouldn't change the plot one bit. Or Tyrion, the smartest person in the realm, also becomes an emotional fool who doesn't have a goal or a plan.

I read that George R. R. Martin (the author of the books) had given the showrunners an outline of how he wanted to end the saga. As we all know, the journey is almost as important as the destination. The show may take us to that destination, but so far, I'm disappointed with the route that they have taken us on in the last few episodes. Despite the impressive shots and spectacular filmmaking, I'd give this episode a 7/10.

Game of Thrones - S08E04 Recap and Review

SPOILERS follow...

The episode starts with saying goodbye to the fallen heroes of the battle of Winterfell. The mourners hold a wine-filled wake for the lost and party the night away. After sufficient libation, Jamie and Brienne take their relationship to the next step and spend the night together. As a result, Sir Brienne is not a girl anymore... Dany also talks to Jon and asks him not to share his true identity (Aegon Targaryen VI) with anyone, but Jon insists that he cannot lie to his sisters. Later, Jon gathers Sansa, Arya, and Bran under the redwood tree, and after asking them to swear secrecy, he nods to Bran to tell Sansa and Arya how Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen were married and hence, Jon is the true heir to the throne. I get Jon being as honourable as Ned Stark and not being able to lie, but I don't consider this act "not lying". It was basically voluntary disclosure of irrelevant information. Moreover, if the identity of Jon Snow had given him title to a land or position, then I could see how the burden of a lie could become too cumbersome for him. But as a bastard with no entitlement, why did he need to overshare and set a crisis in motion?

The next day, the forces set for Kingslanding: Dany and the unsullied by sea, and Jon's army on foot. Once Jamie hears the news, he decides that he needs to be with Cersei and turns his relationship with Sir Brienne to a one night stand - which breaks Sir Brienne's heart. Another former couple, Sansa and Tyrion, also say goodbye to one another. Sansa's last words to her former husband are Jon's secret (which she had sworn to protect). I don't understand Sansa's angle here. Is she trying to sow the seeds of mistrust between Jon and Dany? Or is she just trying to weaken Dany's claim out of spite? Or maybe she wants these two remaining Targaryens to eliminate each other at the same time? Sansa has become too Machiavellian just for the sake of being Machiavellian and no other logical character or plot-driven reason.

The saddest and most anti-climactic goodbye was between Jon and Ghost, his loyal direwolf. Jon simply nods at Ghost and asks Tormund to take Ghost with him north of the Wall. After all Ghost had done for that ungrateful piece of excrement, couldn't he pet the poor direwolf at least once??

On Dany's ship to Kingslanding, Tyrion leaks Jon's secret to Varys, the self-proclaimed martyr of the realm. While these two are still discussing Dany and Jon's claims to the thrones, Euron Greyjoy attacks the fleet from his hideout. He kills Rhaegal the dragon, drowns most (if not all) of Dany's ships, and takes Missandei hostage.

Once Dany's unsullied army regroups, they walk to the gates of Kingslanding to give Cersei one last chance to surrender. Cersei knows that Dany's dragons are not hard to kill and also that most of her army are dead after the battle of Winterfell. Thinking that the odds are mostly even, she refuses to surrender, and in order to send a message, she orders the Mountain to behead Missandei. Missandei's last words were "Dracarys", which mean fire in High Valeryan. The episode ends with Dany furiously walking towards her camp.

This episode was a return to the earlier format of plotting, scheming, and playing games for the throne of the Seven Kingdoms. As I mentioned above, characters' actions and Jon's in particular (insisting on sharing the "secret" and leaving his allies behind) were frustrating, and didn't make much sense. But still, as a form of escapism, the show still manages to hold the viewer's attention and keep them invested in the characters and plot. I'm concerned about how the show is going to end, but I'd like to keep an open mind... This episode was a solid 8/10.