Historical drama film review, pt 3 of ?: Der Untergang (Downfall)

Now here’s a heavy subject, just about the heaviest featured on the site in a while. I couldn’t pass by this historical drama review series without bringing up the German film Der Untergang, or Downfall, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. I saw this in the theater when it aired in 2004 and remembered being extremely impressed by the whole film: the acting, atmosphere, everything seemed perfectly done. I rewatched it not long ago, so I can report to you on whether I think it held up.

Downfall is set in Berlin in April and May of 1945. If you know your history, you’ll know this wasn’t a great time for the city. After over five years of constant war throughout Europe, Asia, and the Pacific, a war that at least in Europe was sparked by the aggression of the Nazi government based in Berlin, the German capital was finally having that war brought home. The film recounts many of the important events of this brief period, mostly surrounding the political situation — while some of the action takes place in the streets in the thick of the Battle of Berlin, more of it occurs in the Führerbunker, Hitler’s underground hideout in the center of the city’s government district.

This focus makes sense, since the story itself is based largely on two primary accounts, the memoirs of Nazi architect and minister of armaments Albert Speer and Hitler’s personal secretary Traudl Junge, both present in the bunker and around Hitler just before and in Junge’s case after his suicide. Both survived long past the war, with Speer living until 1981 after serving twenty years for his crimes at Spandau Prison. Both were also apparently very open about the monstrous nature of the regime, and if Downfall is any indication of the personally monstrous nature of Adolf Hitler as well.*

Not that Hitler needs any introduction. He’s one of the few guys in history whose name is automatically used to mean massive, unimaginable evil. One of the most impressive aspects of Downfall then is how it humanizes the dictator while not pretending he was anything other than horrifically twisted and evil. Famous German actor Bruno Ganz plays Hitler and does an amazing job at transforming into the man, and the version of him by the end of the war suffering from nervous ailments that left him a shaking mess.

This “humanization” again shouldn’t be mistaken for sympathy. I think people do a real disservice to history and to all the people who suffered through the war and its crimes and persecutions by treating Hitler like a sort of storybook monster or demon instead of what he was: a man. Again, a twisted and evil man, but I think people sometimes want to brush over the obvious fact that Hitler was a man out of a belief that no human could really be so evil (and the same goes for his nemesis Stalin, or for any other murderous and oppressive dictator.) Downfall forces us to look at the man as he was, at least according to the accounts of two people very close to him in different ways.

The other aspects of the film are also excellent. Downfall isn’t just a recitation of events but tells several stories revolving around the central character of Hitler and the regime built upon him and that would die with him. Many of the events in the bunker are shocking enough, with Hitler’s lieutenants and functionaries and his long-time girlfriend Eva Braun doing their best to cope with their imminent deaths or arrests. Downfall starts with a brief prologue in 1942 in East Prussia, right around Germany’s period of greatest territorial gain and before it started getting rolled back, but the main part of the story begins around Hitler’s final birthday on April 20, 1945. Despite the Soviet Red Army rolling in and shelling Berlin to hell, Braun and the remaining inner circle still hold a small party in his honor while the man himself is holed up in his office.

Meanwhile on the streets above, Berlin is being treated as a “front city”, and with Hitler’s remaining regular forces tied up fighting off the Soviet wave, the city’s children and old men are pressed into service carrying out street-to-street battles. Much of the early part of Downfall is centered on the impossibility of the Nazi regime’s survival contrasted with Hitler’s delusional hopes that it can stand — that one of his generals will coordinate an attack that somehow throws the Soviets out of the city and back to the east. Even after his hopes are dashed, however, he has no mercy for his own people and refuses to surrender, instead planning out his own suicide and the transfer of his powers to his remaining highest loyal officer, the infamous propagandist Joseph Goebbels.

If you were around on YouTube ten years ago or so, you’ve probably seen one of the hundreds of parodies of the above scene (or of the Fegelein scene) in which Hitler rants about being banned from XBox Live or a furry convention or whatever he happens to be angry about that day. Even though Bruno Ganz wasn’t a big fan of these parodies from what I’ve heard, and I completely understand that, it might be a testament to just how immersive this film is that people loved these scenes enough to use them for purposes totally unrelated to World War II. There’s something fascinating to me about watching a world crumble like the Nazis’ world does in Downfall, even if that downfall was truly deserved and far too long in coming. Even in this world, with some of its well-deserved deaths, there’s some true tragedy — see the fates of the Goebbels’ young children at the hands of their own parents.

Then there are the civilians of Berlin. It’s an interesting point that might not be obvious just from watching this film, but Hitler by all accounts disliked Berlin. He made his real home in Bavaria after leaving his native Austria and even makes a point of hiring Traudl Junge in the film’s first scene because she’s from Munich. Berlin by contrast was long resistant to him, a center of “decadent art” and of democratic and left-wing politics during the Weimar Republic era before the Nazis rubbed out all non-underground opposition in 1933-34. Hitler’s ultimate plan for the capital was its complete rebuilding into a neo-classical monster called Germania, the plans for which we see in an early scene still above ground between Hitler and Speer.

Considering all that, it might make more sense why Hitler was so willing to sacrifice Berlin, even if he did stay in the capital himself to die. Or maybe not — maybe Hitler would have just as readily sacrificed any people around him to hang on for another day before ending his life. I’m not a historian, but it’s an interesting question. All Germans in any case, whether they’d voted for the Nazis when Germany still had free elections or not, and whether they supported Hitler’s violent policies against the Jews and others he considered undesirables or not, fell into the hands of the Allies after the war ended, experiencing various fates depending on whose hands they were in (i.e. hopefully not the Soviets’, though considering how Germany treated the Russians and allied nations on the eastern front, some brutality in return had to be expected.)

To me, that’s just another mark of the evil of Hitler and his top officials, that in the end they didn’t even give a damn for their own people’s lives. One of the mitigating facts that saved the high Nazi official Speer from the death penalty or a life sentence when he went on trial in Nuremberg in 1946 was his sabotage of destructive orders as Germany lost the war that would have caused further suffering. I don’t think you can call any single person in Hitler’s inner circle anything near a “good” person, but there are different degrees of amorality and evil, or at least enough that the court at Nuremberg recognized a difference between them.**

Whether such matters of honor made a difference to the millions of already dead victims is a different question, but that question doesn’t go ignored in Downfall even if it’s not directly addressed by it, with Goebbels declaring to Junge his continued belief that it was all the Jews’ fault, everything. Nothing like blaming your victims for your own destruction.

So it’s a heavy post today, but I do recommend Downfall to anyone interested in the time period. I just wish we had more works set in Weimar-era Germany — now that was an interesting time, and also a tragic one considering how unstable it was and how the fragile interwar German democracy was brought down from the inside. Not a bad lesson for the future, either.

 

* Important to note here that Speer has been accused of fabricating parts of his memoirs to clean up his own reputation and image. As far as I’ve heard, the parts of Downfall based on his memoirs are pretty much accurate, however — there would have been enough people also involved who survived, like Junge, to corroborate those parts of the story.

** From a legal standpoint, the Nuremberg trials are also fascinating. I’ve heard arguments that they were illegitimate because they applied human rights principles retroactively, or ex post facto in legal jargon, to the Nazi defendants. However, there’s plenty of argument to make that the Nazis were well aware of the horrific nature of their crimes to the extent that the “superior orders” defense shouldn’t have been sufficient to save them — see all the way back to the 15th century and the trial of Peter von Hagenbach. Was Nuremberg victors’ justice? There might have been some of that involved, but the extraordinary nature of the crimes committed demanded this response. That’s my argument, anyway, and it’s not an especially brave or out-there stance to take.

Why live-action adaptations don’t generally work for me (featuring the newly announced Gravity Rush film)

A few days ago, news came out on Twitter about an upcoming Gravity Rush film to be directed by Anna Mastro. I don’t know anything about Mastro’s work, so despite some nerves surrounding the announcement, I don’t want to just write off this new project even considering how poor game-to-film adaptations tend to be. Part of that may just be wishful thinking, though I’ve also heard Mastro is pretty fine at directing (not that I’d know right now since I have no interest in whatever Secret Society of Second-Born Royals is, but people seem to like her anyway.)

My concern right now (aside from the fact that Sony dismantled Japan Studio and effectively killed the game series this film is based on) is that the Gravity Rush film is going to be live-action. According to the articles I’ve read so far, nobody knows yet whether this is an animated or live-action project, but looking through Mastro’s resume on IMDB doesn’t give me much hope that it will be animated. It could be, but would Sony take on a director who works on live-action projects to helm an animated one? Maybe they would, but it seems like a weird choice if so.

Kat exploring her new home city, from the remastered Gravity Rush made for the PS4

For those who haven’t played the games, the Gravity Rush series opens with the protagonist Kat, a girl with amnesia who has the power to bend gravity around her, allowing her to float and fly through the air. Technically she’s falling up/sideways, but she also has plenty of special moves in the games that are useful in combat. Kat is tasked with using these abilities to protect her new home from a mass of alien-looking creatures that show up to attack it, and she soon becomes famous as the “Gravity Queen” despite her wish to remain low-key. She also has a rival, Raven, with similar powers who shows up in the first game and features more prominently in the second.

So then what’s the problem with a live-action take on these games? Aside from the extremely long track record of abysmal game-to-film projects running for decades now, I’m afraid that the style of Gravity Rush just won’t translate into live action. The game’s setting is an interesting mix of halfway realistic-looking sort of steampunk and fantasy — I’m not sure whether you’d call it science fiction, but either way it has a unique look that I’d much prefer to see in animation.

Casting is also a concern. Gravity Rush has a sort of cult popularity: fans love it, but unfortunately the series doesn’t seem to have found broad appeal, maybe in part because it debuted on the Vita (a system I still swear by, but then I’m a JRPG fan.) Partly for that reason, whatever actresses are signed on to play Kat and Raven in particular are going to have to fit the bill perfectly, both to satisfy old rabid fans (and I include myself as rabid, sure) and to attract new ones. I don’t have anyone in mind just because I pretty rarely watch live-action movies and don’t follow the Hollywood scene at all, so maybe there are actresses who would be perfect fits, but they sure as hell would have their work cut out for them. Again, I think going with animation would just be a better idea in general.

Flying through the air. I only had screenshots from the first game around, but the second one looks amazing and is a lot of fun to play as well. And yeah I used Kat’s catsuit costume about 80% of the time I played the first game, what did you expect?

I’m not saying Gravity Rush absolutely can’t work in live action, because I don’t know that for a fact. Despite being Japanese-made, the games take some influence from American comics, even featuring western comic book-styled dialogue and action cutscenes between each chapter. Marvel’s done an excellent job translating their comic characters and stories into live action over the last decade plus from what I hear and from the few of them I’ve seen myself, so maybe a live-action Gravity Rush would also work, though it doesn’t have quite the same style as those western comics have. We’ve also seen a couple of movies out recently that actually pulled off the game-to-film transition decently, shockingly including Sonic the Hedgehog (and I still haven’t seen the sequel yet — it’s on my list to watch.)

Whether the film turns out to be animated or live-action, I’ll watch it if it comes out. I want to be positive about something for once, holy hell. And maybe, just maybe, this new Gravity Rush project is a sign that we might get a Gravity Rush 3, and hopefully from the same people who did such a bang-up job with the first two? Now I’m feeling like replaying the series from the start. See you tomorrow with a new post.

Historical drama film review, pt 2 of ?: The Lion in Winter

Why can’t I find any good covers in English? Whatever, here’s the German version

For the second film in this historical drama review series, it’s a festive one. A family Christmas movie, what could be nicer than that? Except this is about possibly the worst, most uncomfortable family Christmas holiday in history.

The Lion in Winter, directed by Anthony Harvey and filmed in 1968, is an adaptation of a stage play about King Henry II of England, his wife Queen Eleanor (aka Eleanor of Aquitaine), their three sons, Richard, John, and Geoffrey, and the fate of Henry’s Angevin Empire, stretching throughout England and much of modern-day France. Over Christmas 1183 near the end of his long reign, Henry calls his three sons to his main base of operations in Chinon for a feast, also sending invitations to Queen Eleanor (locked away in a castle after she tried to overthrow him) and King Philip II of France. The purpose of this feast naturally isn’t just to eat and get drunk and celebrate Christmas, but really to resolve the question of succession and sort out some long-running territorial disputes with the French king.

Henry wants his favorite son John to inherit his throne, but he knows he won’t have his way easily. The French king has his own demands to make, both relating to lands held by Henry bordering his own and the status of his sister Alais, currently Henry’s mistress but promised to marry the future English king in exchange for a dowry. But Henry’s greatest rival is his wife, Eleanor, who wants Richard as king instead. Despite her status as a woman in medieval Europe, not the best time and place to be a woman, Eleanor was famously formidable and influential, a political match for Henry, and years of luxurious imprisonment in a castle seem to have made her all the more determined to get her way instead.

The Lion in Winter is a legendary film and rightfully so. There’s a massive amount of acting talent here, from the leads Peter O’Toole as Henry and Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor to the supporting cast Anthony Hopkins as Richard, Timothy Burton as Philip — the two guys I’m more familiar with — and John Castle as Geoffrey, Nigel Terry as John, and Jane Merrow as Alais, the three I’m not so familiar with. They’re all excellent, most of all O’Toole and Hepburn, who get the opportunity to depict two giant personalities and do such a great job that it’s hard not to imagine the two as the real Henry and Eleanor if I ever read about them outside the context of this film (and O’Toole also played a younger Henry II in Becket, so he’s absolutely confirmed as Henry anyway.)

The quality doesn’t stop at the acting — the script is near-constant scheming and counter-scheming, broken up by a few excellent monologues and one unexpected fight scene at the very end, but all gripping. The score is great as well, from the opening theme (I know “Dies irae” but the rest of the Latin is over my head, extremely fitting though) all the way to the ending.

I highly recommend The Lion in Winter to anyone. You don’t have to have any background in medieval European politics to get what’s going on in the film; it’s all explained, and even though it involves politics and war, it’s really a family drama. If you thought the British royal family in the 21st century was dysfunctional, they’re nothing compared to how they were in the 12th. Once again I can’t speak much to the historical accuracy of the film, though this time it doesn’t feel like it matters so much. It’s more historically accurate than Disney’s Adventures of Robin Hood anyway, and that film was the only exposure I had to Plantagenet England as a kid.*

I don’t have much personal experience to tie into the film this time given the fact that I’m not English or French nobility and wasn’t around anywhere close to 800 years ago, so I’ll leave it there. Watch this movie, there’s my judgment. There was a remake released in 2003 starring Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close, and while they’re both also excellent actors, it’s hard to imagine anything living up to the original. But maybe it’s good too. Hard to imagine it’s not, considering Stewart and Close and the quality of the script.

 

* For a look at how influential that movie apparently was, when I ran a search for The Lion in Winter in Google I got this:

Let’s set aside the fact that Audrey Hepburn wasn’t in the movie (yeah, it’s confusing her with Katharine for some reason — both great actresses but come on Google.) King John gets so little respect that he doesn’t even get a proper portrait, instead being relegated to his pathetic lion form from Robin Hood. I’d say poor guy, but he was a shitty king anyway. Though his brother Richard wasn’t the best king either from the accounts I’ve read, so whatever. History gets all mixed up with myth and legend, especially after 800 years.

But fun fact: Henry II was responsible for a lot of legal reform in England following the general assholishness of William I and his kids and the Anarchy that followed Henry I’s death, to the point that he helped establish a lot of the English common law that American legal standards are based on. That was certainly a step up in terms of kingship, but it also means he’s the reason our profession is so full of weird old Norman French and why I had to learn about the fucking confusing fee tail in Property that nobody uses anymore. Thanks Henry.

Historical drama film review, pt 1 of ?: Gettysburg

This is the cover of the Italian version, first one I could find that wasn’t 100×150

Something entirely new this month to go along with this Blaugust challenge, why not? I love history, and I’ve seen some historical dramas I have opinions about, so here we go, starting with 1993’s Gettysburg.

When I was a kid, Gettysburg was one of my favorite movies. This epic-scale Civil War film was a massive undertaking, an ambitious made-for-TV production headed by director Ron Maxwell and TV mogul and producer Ted Turner, back in the 90s when such films didn’t have anywhere near the resources film projects on streaming services do now.

I rewatched Gettysburg recently after probably 20 years out of curiosity, partly to see how well it would hold up. For non-Americans who didn’t grow up with this story (or for Americans who slept through history class) the Battle of Gettysburg was a major turning point in the American Civil War, a bloody three-day battle in July 1863 that ended in over 50,000 casualties altogether and the defeat and retreat of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces out of Pennsylvania and off of their path towards Washington D.C. — one of the very few times the southerners were able to fight into the north and threaten northern cities and the national capital itself. While the war continued for two more years, the rebels were almost entirely on the defensive from that point until their ultimate defeat at the hands of the new Union commander Ulysses S. Grant (and his friend General Sherman, most infamous in Georgia for his ruthless effectiveness.)

Sounds like it would make for a good film, and it mostly does. Gettysburg features a lot of excellent acting, among the best Martin Sheen as Lee (apparently a controversial choice but I thought he was great — doesn’t look much like the man himself but who cares), Tom Berenger as his chief subordinate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, Jeff Daniels as Col. Joshua Chamberlain, and Stephen Lang as the flamboyant and doomed southern divisional commander Maj. Gen. George Pickett.

The film also did a nice job of balancing the northern and southern perspectives, though my favorite scenes are those involving the 20th Maine regiment commanded by Chamberlain, the very guy who ordered a last-ditch bayonet charge that saved the second day and potentially the entire battle for the Union. Most of the battle scenes don’t feel like they hold up all that well, with a lot of what looks like milling around/light jogging, but I think the acting carries it all well enough, and plenty of the film focuses on personal relationships between the higher officers anyway both within and between the two sides.

This film is based on a historical novel I haven’t read, The Killer Angels, and apparently both that novel and this film were so popular that they went a long way towards rehabilitating the military reputation of Longstreet, who objected to and argued against the disastrous Lee-ordered massive charge on the final day of the battle but was nevertheless long blamed for the loss.

It’s surprising just how much drama still surrounds this battle and its figures even to this day — the above-mentioned charge (only led in part by Pickett despite its popular name) ended in slaughter for the southerners, and it’s interesting to think about how history might have changed if they’d succeeded against the odds that day or had been able to break through and flank the 20th Maine the previous day.

For obvious reasons, it’s a good thing they failed that day considering the possible consequences of a Confederate victory at Gettysburg, but even so it’s still a sore spot with some southerners. I speak even from personal experience here — most of my American family is from the South, and I know for a fact I had ancestors who served in some Confederate army or other, though none as the kinds of high officers depicted in Gettysburg (they were dirt-poor farmers who would later in the century end up in county court records for illicitly producing and/or trading moonshine, a family tradition I’m far more okay with.) I never heard any complaining about this stuff from my own family, but I’ve lived around a few parts of the South and you see and hear shit, enough to understand there’s some leftover and certainly misdirected bitterness that’s mixed up with modern economic stress.

I can’t speak too much to the accuracy of the film. From what I hear it’s pretty faithful to the events of the battle, even if it doesn’t depict all the important engagements, though considering just how many engagements took place over those three days it couldn’t possibly do so anyway. But I’m not a Civil War expert, so I leave that aspect of the analysis to those guys. The more important point for me is that Gettysburg in general feels pretty honest, with at least some focus on the bigger political picture. From what I’ve heard, Mr. Maxwell’s followup Civil War drama Gods and Generals might fail on this point by lionizing the Confederate cause and Stonewall Jackson in particular. Jackson is a strange and fascinating figure and was an impressive military talent and so he’s well worth a look, but any puffing up of that cause he fought for at all has to ignore the fact that preservation of slavery was the driving force of secession — that’s entirely what the “states’ rights” issue rested on.

But that’s still a whole massive debate here in the States that rages on to this day, no fucking joke. And this is coming from a sort-of southerner here, or at least halfway a southerner by experience and family connection, and plenty of us say it’s well past time to move the hell on. It’s a tragedy that a ton of soldiers died in any of these armies, but I guarantee the people using the war for political purposes today don’t give a shit about that. Especially not when a few of these very same assholes are likely going to be representatives in the party controlling the House next year according to the polls, God help us.

I’d say “not to get political” here, but it is political; it can’t be avoided — rewriting of the history books to paper over past American injustices is quite literally part of their platform, and there are related and extremely heavy problems mixed up with that I won’t get into in this post. But it’s worth noting that historically the memorials went up and the state flags were changed to commemorate the old “Lost Cause” when the civil rights movements were gaining momentum.

Anyway, I haven’t watched and can’t speak directly about Gods and Generals — all I can say is that Gettysburg doesn’t really fall into that trap too much, maybe aside from one exchange (the guy from Tennessee who’s just fighting for his rats — if you’ve seen it you know the scene) and a bit of complaining from a few southern generals in conversation that you can imagine they would have done anyway, so it’s placed in its proper context. Gettysburg is a good period piece with great acting, and I’d say it’s still worth a watch, even with some of its more dated aspects.

Now I wonder how many readers I’ve pissed off somehow, since this is a controversial subject. Or maybe nobody actually cares? I have no idea, but it’s probably fine — I know how cultured everyone who reads this site is. But put in a comment and we can talk if you feel like it. Tomorrow I’ll get back to something lighter, but I’m not done with the historical dramas.

Live-action film retrospective (2021)

Before I continue with the anime and games, as well as the usual end-of-month post, I have one more piece of old business from last year to complete: the live-action film retrospective. I did it last year, and I’ve seen a few more live-action movies since then (well sort of live-action in one case; you’ll see at the end) so I guess this annual post is a tradition now. These aren’t movies that were released this year, just movies that I’ve seen this year — although one was released just a few months ago, so at least I’m staying one-third current in this post. In no particular order:

Dune (Denis Villeneuve, 2021)

I went into Dune about as blind as anyone could — I’d never read the novel or seen the 80s David Lynch adaptation, the one everyone seems to hate. All I knew was that there was something called spice, and the spice must flow for some reason, and something about people with blue eyes. All that said, I was able to easily follow the story watching this new adaptation without any of that prior knowledge, which I appreciated. The novel is famously dense and full of background and lore, but the movie distills all that into something that’s enjoyable and understandable (not that the novel isn’t enjoyable — I’ve just started the audiobook, and I like it, but it sure isn’t a casual read/listen.)

Unfortunately, thanks to the constant threat of COVID, I didn’t get out to see Dune in the theater as it was probably intended to be watched, given just how impressive it looks, but I still enjoyed it enough on my relatively small TV. The acting is also great, with Oscar Isaac even making a return from my live-action post last year (he was the billionaire tech executive in Ex Machina, and after that and the Star Wars prequels I was happy to see him in something I liked for a change.) It was also fun to see a guy as slight as Timothée Chalamet playing the protagonist Paul Atreides and beating the shit out of way bigger guys than him, though that also seems to suit the character.

I’m just hoping Dune doesn’t turn out to be the usual “chosen one saves the universe” kind of story, but my understanding from what little I know about the novel series is that it isn’t that at all, despite how this film ends. This is only the first part of two — not sure why the Part One that flashes on screen in the beginning isn’t more prominent, because just calling it “Dune” is a bit confusing. But Mr. Villeneuve did a great job with it, and I’m looking forward to the second part to see where and how Paul and his friends end up. Though I’ll probably learn about that once get through the source material soon, considering how much time I’ll be spending in the damn car. Fucking commutes.

1984 (Michael Radford, 1984)

Now for a film based on a novel I have read. Since people won’t shut up about how our world is literally 1984 now (kind of understandable considering there’s a new wave of book-banning and possibly burning in our future) this is a timely one to watch, though you could argue that’s been true for a long time — really since Orwell wrote the novel in the 40s.

But I’d recommend reading the novel over watching this film if you’re only going to do one. Not that this film is bad at all — I guess someone had to put out a film version of 1984 in 1984 after all, and this is probably about as good as an adaptation of the novel could be, with excellent actors including John Hurt as protagonist Winston Smith and Richard Burton as O’Brien. I also like how well the film gets the horrible, sickening feel of the dystopian world of Airstrip One down, depicting the London of 1984 as it’s described in the book, impoverished and miserable and with surveillance screens everywhere for the Thought Police to watch and listen through at any time.

The problem with the film 1984 is that it loses out on a lot of context. Considering just how much of the novel is told through Winston’s inner monologue, that probably couldn’t be avoided, so I wouldn’t blame the director or anyone else for it. Still, if you haven’t read the novel first, you might end up missing out on a lot. I’d recommend watching the movie after reading the source material, though, because despite my criticism, I think it is worth seeing just for how well put-together it is. You’d better just be in a lousy mood already before watching it, because it’s naturally dank and miserable and it might ruin your day. But then that’s partly the point.

Sonic the Hedgehog (Jeff Fowler, 2020)

And ending with a wacky film after two that are deadly serious. Yeah, I finally watched the Sonic movie, and my opinion isn’t that different from the general consensus: it’s a lot better than anyone could have possibly expected a live-action adaptation of a video game movie to be. People said the same about that Detective Pikachu movie that came out a bit before this one, but I think the quality of this movie was more of a shock considering the missteps Sega’s taken with Sonic in general over the last two decades, as well as Sonic’s original horrific-looking nightmare demon model that the studio reworked after the public backlash and mockery it got.

Even aside from that comparison, I think Sonic was a pretty good take on the franchise. I like that it does its own thing, creating an entirely new backstory for Sonic as an alien who jumps through a ring to a small town somewhere in the US, and for Dr. Robotnik aka Eggman as an eccentric genius inventor hired by the government to track him down (though it is a bit weird to see a thin Robotnik — but Jim Carrey does a good job hamming it up in just the way Robotnik/Eggman has done in a bunch of Sonic games and shows, so no problems there.) The setup of Sonic befriending/going on a road trip/flight from the law with a well-meaning cop was also nice, if also a little weird. I guess Tails will have to earn his “Sonic’s best friend” spot in the sequel, because in the movie universe it’s occupied by James Marsden’s character right now.

So I thought Sonic the Hedgehog was pretty fun. Good for the kids, probably, but there’s plenty for fans of the series to enjoy as well (which I guess I’d count myself as, even if I kind of fell out of it after Sonic Adventure 2.) Sonic is appropriately scampish without being annoying, and the movie is aware enough of its own goofiness to work. I liked it, and I’m interested to see how Tails and Knuckles turn out in the next movie coming out in just a few months.

And that’s it for the live-action stuff — I’ll be returning to the anime after the end-of-month post coming up next. Happy new year, and let’s hope we actually do see a change for the better in 2022.

Live-action film retrospective (2020)

What?! AK watches live-action films? Yeah, on occasion I do. I don’t watch too many of them anymore because I have such massive game and anime backlogs, both of which would take up several lifetimes to get through. However, I don’t have anything against live-action movies, despite what you might have thought from the total lack of anything about them on the site up until now.

So I thought, why not write an almost-end-of-year post looking back at that stuff? I just want to highlight the films I’ve watched this year that I liked or didn’t like. Each end of the spectrum from love to hate, both of which I felt strongly. As with my upcoming end-of-year game post, I’m not counting what films were released this year but rather what I saw this year. All three of them. But I found all three very memorable (though not always for good reasons; keep reading for more on that.)

Parasite (Bong Joon-Ho, 2019)

Here’s an opinion that won’t be surprising at all: I liked Parasite. This film depicts two families living in Seoul: the rich and very detached Parks and the impoverished Kims. The Kim family is extremely talented at conning others, though, and each of them, father, mother, son, and daughter, manages to lie and scheme their way into the service of the Park family as tutors and household servants.

The first half of the film plays out like a dark comedy, but the second half takes a turn that I won’t get into here — just watch the movie, because this is a solid recommendation. I know Best Picture winners at the Oscars are sometimes actually boring bullshit films, much like all those horribly dull novels you had to read in elementary school with the golden seals on the front (does anyone else know what I’m talking about here? Is this just an American thing?) But sometimes the Academy gets it right, and Parasite was one of those times. It’s also an example of social commentary in a movie that doesn’t feel way too basic, hamfisted, or preachy. Good stuff.

The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci, 2017)

I love history, and I love dark comedies when they’re done well, so I thought I’d like The Death of Stalin. And I did. This is a dramatized and sort of fictionalized account of the events following the death of the Soviet tyrant Joseph Stalin. In the immediate aftermath of Stalin’s death by stroke in 1953, his lieutenants began jockeying for power, most notably the feared chief of secret police Lavrenti Beria — but if you know your history, you know who ended up on top.

Not that The Death of Stalin tells it straight. It condenses the real-life series of events that played out over several months into a matter of days, and obviously all the secret, scheming conversations between all these guys could only be guessed at. But this isn’t a documentary, and this kind of condensing/fictionalizing really works for a dark comedy like this.

The Death of Stalin is also all in English, which you could have guessed if you recognize the people on the poster, a set of British actors and Steve Buscemi. They’re all excellent, especially Buscemi, who takes one of the lead roles as Nikita Khrushchev. Another big recommendation.

Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2014)

If you’ve read my extremely long-winded post on the visual novel Planetarian, you already know how I feel about this film. I watched Ex Machina because it had been on my list for a long time anyway, and I thought it might make an interesting contrast with Planetarian since they’re both speculative sci-fi dealing with human-AI relations. Red Metal’s review of the film wasn’t able to warn me off of it either (if you’re not following his site by the way, go do that: he goes into insane depth and insight in his film and game reviews.)

I should have listened to him, though, because Ex Machina sucked out loud, with one of the worst endings I’ve ever seen in a work of fiction. The premise is interesting, with a weird reclusive genius inviting one of his employees to his house in the wilderness to communicate with his newly developed advanced AI robot girl for testing purposes. The actors are also good, and the movie certainly looks nice with a lot of interesting settings and shots and all that (I’m no expert anyway, but it looked pretty good to me.)

However, the most important part of a film like this is the writing, and the writing was hot shit, with all its flaws exposed in the ending that I think was meant to be clever and thought-provoking but simply came off as bizarre and disconnected. I get into a lot more depth in the part of my linked piece where I contrast it with Planetarian, and of course Red Metal goes into far more depth in his review, so if you don’t mind being spoiled or have already seen Ex Machina and want to read these perspectives, feel free to check them out. I found the movie itself a waste of time, though. Most of the professional film press loved it, but they’re wrong. I know, opinions and everything, but my opinion is that this movie doesn’t deserve its accolades.

And that’s the whole list. Barely enough for a proper end-of-year retrospective. But again, I’m not a movie guy. There are plenty of great film reviewers and analysts around the community though, and I post their stuff sometimes in my monthly recaps, so I recommend looking up their excellent work. Next post, you can expect a return to the usual, whatever that means.

It may take a while, though, because I’m doing my absolute best to power through a couple of games before the year is out. So just know that if I’m away for a while, that’s what I’m doing (or else I’m being crushed by work, but what’s new.) Until then, happy Christmas or holidays or whatever, and all the best.