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.