Strange Vistas


Main characters from extraction

You don't need to waste your time with Extraction. Children of Men did the fake long takes better, and for all of Extraction's bruises and stabs, Charlize Theron had it tougher in Atomic Blonde.

Yes, I'm talking up a movie that I originally wasn't too impressed with. Extraction is the kind of aggressive mediocrity that can cause you to lower your standards. Its phony suicidal sentimentality as the single driving reason for its unshaven hero to keep pushing forward does not help.

Can we stop with the whole dead-kid-as-a-motivator thing? Universal as it might be, the flipside is that it tells us nothing about your character other than “they're sad someone died”. Worse, it's lazy.

There are few better ways to kill good will than laziness.

#action #samhargrave #chrishemsworth #davidharbour

Dark Fate poster

Terminator – Dark Fate did the Star Wars series one better because it had the courage to move on from people named Connor.

That might come across as a little rich, seeing as how the movie finally brought back 64-year-old Linda Hamilton as Sarah, after she hadn’t appeared on a single one of these in the almost three decades since Terminator 2. It does it for context, though, and pulls off a great bit of character repurposing.

Yes, she enters the movie as the Action Bitch, who calmly gets out of a truck and starts blasting quips and rockets at a killing machine. That bit alone on the trailer almost turned me off the whole thing. But she’s also an aimless old woman who has seemingly done nothing in thirty years but sit around, drink, and wait for the next signal telling her where she needs to go blasting. She succeeded in Terminator 2, averting the future where Skynet killed most of the planet and only her son John could save us.

Her success also made her irrelevant.

Killing machines still seemingly rain out of the future, though, because we suck as a species, and if we don’t manage to blow ourselves up, then by Oppenheimer we will build something that does it for us.

So it’s some other girl, this time around, called Dani Ramos. Dani also has a bodyguard from the future, Grace (cyborg Cameron Howe, because God bless Mackenzie Davis, but even Arnie has more range). Grace is better and meaner than Sarah ever was – partly because she has gone through an actual war, instead of just training, but mostly because she’s not all human (“augmented”).

Gotta hand it to them. Sarah Connor, pushed aside from history by her actions, resentful it’s not about her anymore, full of assumptions that make her something of a know-it-all asshole, is not a play I’d have expected them to take.

No major spoilers there – this is like the first twenty minutes of the movie. After, most of it is Dark Fate doing a masterful job of untying the knows that the series has tied itself into, while doubling down on the “unstoppable horror” tropes that the original Terminator movie handled so well. Not only is the new Series 9 killing machine nigh impossible to kill, as you’d expect from a terminator, but it skin can walk away so that it can come at you from two sides. When its skeleton gets up, it does it like something possessed; its cranium has the shape of a half-brained zombie’s.

Dark Fate respects its pedigree, though, full of references to the old movies’ good bits. The skinless arm, the old-timey red vision with big white lettering, the eye, a dog just chilling. They fit. You don’t get a single wink or nudge. You could miss them, if you ain’t looking, but the jokes land.

But you know what? All that would be fun but irrelevant without it doing its core job. You didn’t get Dark Fate for the funnies, or the discourses on finding purpose, did you? You wanted an action movie.

Dark Fate is a damned good one. One of those where you can tell where everybody is during the fights, and where they may end up when the next punch lands. Because, unlike what seems to be the majority of movie directors out there, Tim Miller knows that action works better when you anxiously anticipate what people you like might be thrown against.

Spatial awareness – what a concept!

One of the great things about writing anonymously is that I get to do anything I want. If this will turn into an action movie shitpost blog, extolling the virtues of movies that are two parts explosions and one part references, so be it. It’s not like there is any movie festival going on right now.

Eventually, we are going to get back to more serious stuff. Some documentaries about the state of the world, or the abuses of the Church, or something political. For now, humor me on this. Watch this fucking movie, because it’s both a better sequel and action movie than most other pro-forma shit out there.

And, for everybody involved in the series, please stop here. The last three movies ranged from mediocre to terrible, with quality steadily decreasing. This one raises your success ratio to 50%. It was a nice bow to wrap around it. Quit while you are ahead.

#terminator #darkfate #timmiller #mackenziedavis #lindahamilton ##arnoldschwarzenegger #nataliareyes #gabrielluna #action

Into The Badlands

“Movie wonk me” insists I should not like Into The Badlands, AMC’s post-apocalyptic Chop-Suey Western.

The writing is shoddy. It introduces plot devices, then forgets about them a few episodes later. Characters’ power levels and willingness to kill fluctuate depending on what the script needs them to be. Enemies of some prominence in the world pop in only to get whacked right away, through what comes across as lack of show planning. It is the kind of writing where a character gets handcuffed, both arms behind his back, and stands there resigned... even though he only has one hand.

But then, it has got the best flying kung fu action this side of Yuen Woo-Ping ’s work in The Matrix. Between its flowing fight sequences and the buckets of blood it deploys, it feels like Yimou Zhang directing a Brian Yuzna production. Its design is dystopian wuxia by way of Karl Lagerfeld. It’s so manga; they even do the eye-visible-through-character ‘s-hair thing on episode 2.

Plus, it’s as unselfconscious as something this manicured can be. (The way everyone dresses, you figured there are three tailors for every poppy farmer.) A character can be lost, wandering through the rubble of our world, and find worn but impeccably fitting clothes that fit his preferred color scheme. It’s the sort of world where Nick Frost can use an octopus as nunchucks – with a straight face.

(Remember The World’s End, where Nick Frost being an action hero was a key joke?)

Sure, there is a plot. Our world collapsed for some initially unspecified reason. The Badlands, wherever that is, are ruled by Barons. In (once again) Mad Max-style, the Barons grudgingly collaborate because they each have things the other want. Marton Csokas’ Quinn, playing Discount Eastern European Kevin Spacey, runs the opium trade. Emily Beecham’s merciless The Widow controls the oil fields. Baron Chao’s family specializes in the slave trade (although the other barons still seem to have it as a hobby). The rest of the Barons do... something. It doesn’t matter. It’s background for why our hero, Sunny, a supernaturally efficient clipper (their word for indentured servants-slash-professional killers) under Quinn’s thumb, is having second thoughts and will (inevitably) end up wandering the Earth, Kwai Chang Cain-style. It’s all there to give us an excuse for some gorgeous combat.

Really. The fights are arresting, a thing of beauty. I blame the success of The Bourne Identity for why we ended up with decades of lazy close-up fight photography, where it’s hard to tell what is going on other than “punches being thrown”. Into The Badlands is a return to the craft of fight choreography, where you can not only tell where everyone is but what the space around them is like – which leads to combat that uses the environment in creative ways. This helps respect one of kung fu’s essential unspoken rules – the only weapon deadlier than your heirloom sword is an improvised one – and it means whenever it’s clear that people are picking a fight in an interesting environment, you get excited.

Yes, I’m arguing that a show is worth watching for the combat. The fact that the choreographers manage to sustain our interest and keep the fights fresh during 32 episodes is impressive.

It takes it a bit to find its footing. The first season gives off whiffs of “Game of Thrones, but on a budget.” Luckily they find their voice and choose to embrace their “bloody Journey to the West by way of Roger Corman” DNA instead. At about the same time, it becomes an equal opportunity horniness provider, with thirst-traps for every gender, ethnicity, and age bracket legally allowed. It realizes that the plot might be better served by having heel characters should stick around, so they slow down the antagonist revolving door.

Somewhere along the way, despite the janky writing and boatloads of clichés, you start liking these people. Not all of them, mind you. Some whiny turds remain whiny turds throughout. But characters have arcs (movie-wonk for “grow as people”) and, by and large, behave as you would expect someone in their position to – even when it’s not the nicest thing to do, and you know they will regret it later.

It didn’t last long, with AMC canceling it after three seasons. It’s just as well that it ended – the show had put on too much mythology too fast and the writing was coming apart at the seams. The cancellation seems to have brought some focus to the narration, and Badlands managed to wrap its story well, leaving behind a world that was over-designed but entertaining to spend time in.

So “movie wonk me” can stuff it. It’s not cognitive dissonance if you have different personas. The film purist can nitpick all he wants, but the persona who likes to have fun with fun things enjoyed Into The Badlands.

#action #danielwu #emilybeecham #allyioannides #orlabrady #stephenlang #nickfrost #martoncsokas

Furie movie poster

For a brief moment, the Vietnamese action-drama Furie promises to create something different: a criminal underbelly where vovinam-fighting women control crime syndicates while followed by faceless, ineffectual henchmen who only act as cannon fodder.

It mostly, sort of, delivers on that promise, but only in the most half-assed of fashions, while quickly defaulting to more standard setups.

Ngô Thanh Vân stars as Hai Phuong, who we meet in some village in the middle of nowhere, beating a guy with a brick for a $100 debt. The introduction establishes that she's tough, but not invincible (there's an assignment that she has to escape), nor heartless (she doesn't hit her quota for the day because she gives some people a chance). We also learn she doesn't do this out of greed, but to support her 10-year-old daughter Mai, barely, buying $0.10 worth of food at a time in the market to cook on their crumbling river-side shack. She tries to avoid unnecessary fights, hiding when a drunk comes by to scream at her instead of chopping him up for bait. She is mostly trying to keep to herself, ensuring her kid stays in school, focuses on her studies, and has more options than Hai Phuong ever did.

Until a day when, after she gets distracted at a local market, some people kidnap Mai and flee to Saigon.

This happens at exactly the 30-minute mark. It's the first sign that we have been #sydfielded once again. The movie will then follow her around Saigon, reaching out to old contacts (who can't help), tracking down the people who took her daughter. She learns that she is in a race against time, and has only hours before her kidnappers butcher Mai her organs (because of course she stumbles upon a massive, well-organized organ trafficking ring around 60 minutes in).

Using a known structure of well-established beats is not a problem in and of itself. The Invitation made it work. What matters, though, is what you do between the beats. And Furie doesn't do nearly enough.

While it adds some autochthonous flavor during its first 30 minutes, Furie quickly forgets about it. For the rest of its run, it is content with biding its time until the next beat, cramming whatever filler it can find on the gaps. Some of this works, like her attempt to reconnect with an old colleague at a club. However, most fall on the category of “add disposable family melodrama, so people are free to go pee before the climax.” It's not filler; it's background information!

It is the laziest portrayal of organ trafficking, by the way. The one where the kidnappers cram children into a train for transfer into some dismantling facility. Let's disregard the fact that you can't keep organs around on the freezer for later use like ground beef, nor sell them to the first rando who shows up as if we were all compatible. The movie already established in its first 30 minutes that kidnappers can move kids between cities just fine by using the public bus system. Why have an elaborate network to ship them around by train in bulk, which requires you to avoid authorities at every stop? Why not just use the public bus system, as they did earlier, or rent their own minibus and move them a few at a time?

Because you can't have a climatic showdown inside a minibus, dummy.

Fridge logic would be forgivable if the movie had stuck to its guns and remained centered on killer women, from Hai Phuong, to her boss in the village, to the various ladies managing otherwise shady enterprises in Saigon. But the movie introduces a handsome male cop, who initially seems just going to be an ineffectual foil. Instead, he keeps swooping in at the last minute, looking cool, acting as if he's saving the day. After Hai Phuong has already both done all the research and knocked out 99% of the opposition. And the movie plays this with a straight face.

Or it would be something you handwave if the action is spectacular. But while it has its moments, the camera is often too close to the players, and there are only two scenes where the choreography surprises you.

Furie was what it took for me to appreciate The Raid II's “more is more” excesses. Gareth Evans benefitted from directing a sequel to an already successful film, but both Raid movies brought a clear intent to surprise the viewer that Furie could have used. Instead, it's content with sticking to tired structures and being a lower-budget distaff Ajeossi, without any of Bin Won's charm or style.

#veronicango #levankiet #vietnam #furie #action

Poster for The Night Comes for Us

I'd love to see Timo Tjahjanto take a stab at directing a William Gibson adaptation. He'd need to learn some self-control, because it doesn't seem like he can go three minutes without something that shouldn't be near a body chopping into one, but he would be a fit for the sudden eruption of bloody violence that can come up in Gibson's earlier worlds.

The Night Comes for Us, his latest movie, feels like someone put The Passion of the Christ and The Man from Nowhere into a blender, leaned on the button until their bones mostly stopped crunching, then served it as a script smoothie.

It's a basic setup: Ito, a deadly triad enforcer who is supposed to leave nobody alive, takes pity on a girl after his team massacres the girl's entire village. He's not just any enforcer, but one of the feared Six Seas. The triad takes offense at his disobeying them, and sends the other five dreaded killers to follow him into Jakarta and start a cavalcade of carnage.

Indonesian action movies first broke into the West with Gareth Evans' sensational The Raid: Redemption. Not only The Raid was a hit on its own right, but Pete Travis' surprisingly enjoyable Dredd would later liberally borrow from it. The Raid also put Iko Uwais on the map, as well as (to a smaller degree) his co-star Joe Taslim. Both would end up having small parts as “that guy” on a few Hollywood action movies, before reuniting on The Night Comes for Us.

Their signature was the use of Pencak Silat, a hyperkinetic martial art which makes practitioners look as if Bruce Lee had gone on a meth binge and decided to modify Jeet Kune Do to cause as much damage as possible. Night brings it down to the shantytown dirt floor. Assassins efficiently use their signature tools – two wire-wielding women, combined with the urban grime and pervasive crime, were what triggered memories of Jonny watching Molly Mirrors fight on the Killing Floor – but thugs will charge in with cleavers and machetes and anything they have on hand. The defenders don't have the luxury of elegantly knocking one out before moving on to the next – it is an unrelenting wave of bodies coming at them, and they will use anything around them to stab and gouge as they try to survive.

The fights take place in cramped quarters – ramshackle apartments, crowded hallways, stairwells, inside a police truck. They are so full of combatants that even a warehouse seems confining and, filmed often without a single cut, feel improvised and brutal. I haven't seen a movie this obsessed with the specifics of how an individual can get mangled since Hacksaw Ridge (which, I swear, I'll get to around to writing about at some point).

There is no doubt that Tjahjanto is adept at mixing violence and style. His writing leaves a lot to be desired, with his plots brimming with clichés and action movie logic, such as a stylish assassin which shows to help because, I guess, we all wanted to see Julie Estelle again. He is also not consistently good – Headshot was a dull lump of a movie, at most a practice run for Night. When he gets things right, though, his grisly tableaus can make you forget you are watching a movie and generate a reaction closer to reflexive pain avoidance. He is brilliant at visceral butchery, but should look to collaborate with a better writer – I can only imagine what he'd do paired with an Alex Garland. For now, I'll settle for him bringing Stelle's Operator back for seconds.

#timotjahjanto #juliestelle #ikouwais #joetaslim #williamgibson #action #indonesia

Safe poster

Safe is Jason Statham against the Chinese and Russian mobs, hounded by corrupt cops, punching people in the trachea, vaulting over tables, and shooting bad guys in the head, before going in for a multi-million dollar heist, all to protect a genius girl.

And somehow, it manages not to be that much fun.

Some directors couldn't hit water if they fell out of a boat. Congratulations, Boaz Yakin – it's a select club.

#safe #action #jasonstatham #boazyakin #jameshong #chrissarandon

Guy Pearce and Maggie Grace in Lockout

Sometimes the thing you need is a fun, wise-cracking action movie.

Lockout is what you'd get if you lock Guy Pearce in a room for six months with a set of weights and tubs of protein shake, so he can prepare to play Snake Plissken by watching Die Hard and Last Action Hero over and over.

He plays CIA Operative Snow, caught in a double-cross where his friend gets killed. He refuses to cooperate with a Secret Service he doesn't trust. As a result, he is about to get sent to an orbital maximum security prison when (wouldn't you know it) a shit-show at the same jail ends up with the U.S. President's daughter as a hostage.

Wouldn't you know it, our smart-mouthed jackass gets an offer to rescue her, which he takes because a friend of his also happens to have ended up there.

Yeah, the writers locked themselves up only with Carpenter's Escape movies. But while it hews close to its inspiration, considering it a copycat would be a disservice to how much silly fun Lockout is. Hell, it's a better movie than Escape from L.A. and a significant improvement on how you'd adapt Plissken's first outing to recent times. Sorry, John.

You know the rest. Colorful psychos run amok. Snow gets on the station to chew bubblegum and kick ass (but he's... you know). He cracks wise. He gets in trouble. He blows up things and thugs. He banters with his charge, who has a mind of her own about what they should be doing. He works to prove his innocence. Assholes act like assholes throughout and get their comeuppance later.

Anything science-related makes zero sense, because we wouldn't want to distract from the cinematic goofiness. Don't worry about it – there are about 15 seconds of that in the movie, total.

Lockout is the kind of movie where you can tell almost everything you need to know about it in the first 90 seconds. If the way they introduce Snow doesn't at least put a smile on your face, move on. If it makes you cackle, then grab a beer, pour some mixed nuts on a plate, and plonk yourself down for 90 minutes of quips and action.

#lockout #guypearce #snakeplissken #action

Atomic Blonde Poster

John Wick is a high I'll keep forever chasing. Atomic Blonde kind of gets me there, but doesn't carry me the whole way.

Directed by David Leitch, a.k.a. the John Wick co-director who had more than one movie in him, it feels at times like Michael Mann doing action. Maybe it's the deliberate pacing. Maybe it's all the blue lighting and music and late 80s period.

Lorraine Broughton, Charlize Theron's chic MI-6 agent, has her work cut out for her. She's sent to Berlin to recover a stolen spy list right before the wall crashes down. She's assigned to deal with David Percival, MI-6's Berlin “station chief”, a drinking, random, downright feral James McAvoy. The KGB has her made since she lands. Her bosses have told her to trust no-one. She's being followed. And she's pursuing a double agent.

We know things went south. The movie starts with her debriefing in London, ten days later. Her bosses aren't too pleased. Lorraine herself looks like she's been through the Bruce Willis Late 80s Training Camp, being more bruises than skin. When she starts telling the story, and everything goes wrong the moment she touches down in Berlin, it's no surprise.

For an action movie, though, its steady pace can be slow at first. There are a few sudden scenes here and there, a lot of which the trailer spoiled. Their violence is stylish, choreographed to the centimeter, but sporadic. Later, an impossible 10-minute single take steals the show (it is either digitally composed, or someone added punishing makeup in about 0.75 seconds).

It just doesn't give me the same high. It lacks the focus, the single-mindedness. It adds some fridge logic, which gets worse as it progresses. Theron has poise. She must have trained like a maniac, and both she and her stuntwoman do an excellent job, but outside of the fights she gets little to do but smirking. Sofia Boutella shows up and does her bit (I'm still waiting for a movie to give her as big an opportunity to shine as Kingsman did). McAvoy, though, is a treasure. He devours every scene he is in and, given half a chance, will swagger the limelight away from all involved.

As a drug, the Atomic Blonde rush is entertaining, and occasionally thrilling, and much better than the industrial whisky sameness of John Wick: Chapter 2. I'll have forgotten it in a week, but for a bit, it was a decent way to kill a Sunday afternoon.

#action #charlizetheron #sofiaboutella #jamesmcavoy #davidleitch #johnwick

Spectral promotional photo

Ugh. It seems that Netflix movies are like software – you need to wait a few weeks after release for ratings to stabilize.

Spectral seemed like it would be fun, cheap entertainment. It had a 4 out of 5 rating, which I thought was optimistic, but hey, if it passed a Saturday night, then great.

It didn't.

It's not even that interesting to dissect as a movie, actually. It's a hair above the quality you'd expect out of Syfy. What is interesting is what it might tell us about Netflix' data-driven production approach.

The story of how Netflix decided to produce an American House of Cards is at this point well know, but just in case: with the massive amount of user ratings they have, and no small amount of machine learning, they noticed that people who like the original British series also liked Kevin Spacey movies (and, I would expect, David Fincher). They decided to put them together to target their viewers.

If you squint, you can see where most bits on Spectral came from. Bruce Greenwood is a good choice of inexpensive “that guy” slash authority figure. Emily Mortimer is popular in secondary parts, even if not recognizable by most since she's never had a hit. The set design is so obviously geared to people who liked Terminator 2's future aesthetic that I'm surprised Michael Biehn isn't in it.

Throw in other look-alikes like Discount Ioan Gruffudd and Dime Store Jackie Earle Haley, and you've got yourself a movie.

I wish they sourced better writers, though. You could make a fun B movie with these elements. The idea of Moldova as “future Iraq” is not bad. But it's written without a shred of finesse, filling in blanks on a screenwriting template. You can bet your entire paycheck on there being plot shifts at 30, 60 and 90 minutes. There's a token tough female character who they still manage to turn into both “audience stand-in who needs things explained to” and “human subtitle machine”. You can be 100% sure Bruce Greenwood is there so he can deliver an attempt at a rousing speech before the last charge. There will be a massive face-off – duh! – where we are supposed to feel sorry for the extras sacrificing themselves as a distraction so that Science Boy and CIA Girl can infiltrate the enemy.

From plot to characterization, the script puts in the least amount of effort to even show up.

Not to mention, its shifting, pidgin language identified on subtitles as [speaking foreign] is not nearly as bad as the dialogue you actually do get to understand. It's one of those movies where, after a while, I just can't help but yell at the screen.

For instance, when they encounter disembodied nervous systems near the movie's end:

“How do you know if they can feel anything?” “I can't...”

How about there being an entire nervous system with a brain in that vat there?

“... there are some things science can't answer”

It's a bloody central nervous system! And a spine! And a brain! Which science school did you go to?

I expect in the near future Netflix movies will be written and produced by a convolutional neural network. Maybe then their genre offshoots will get better than this leaky Markov chain.

You have to wonder what the fitness function will be then, though. Right now it's ratings telling them what to produce. Eventually, it may turn to you being engaged, because as long as you are watching Netflix, you are not watching something else. Every two hours they get from you keep you one step further from going to a different service.

If that becomes the case, when in doubt, the only winning move will be not to watch.

Originally published on my old blog

#spectral #action #brucegreenwood #emilymortiner #sydfielded