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Alien: Covenant Review

Posted by Jean Valjean , in Movies, Reviews May 20 2017 · 57 views
Alien, Alien:Covenant, Prometheus and 2 more...

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:kaukau: Advertisements have a tricky job to carry out. First, the advertisements must sell a movie, and get people excited. Second, it is a good idea for an advertisement to be aesthetically pleasing and a work of art unto itself. Third, very few people want an advertisement to give away too much. And finally, an advertisement should set audience expectations so that they know what to look for in order to get the most out of its film. Advertisements don't always carry through on that last function, in which case it is the job of the reviewer to give a more exact pitch for the movie and inform people on what desires they should have before going in in order to be as satisfied as possible.

So before I break down the film, allow me to first address the perception of the film that has been built up through its marketing department. There have been some mixed messages. The studio clearly wants people to believe that this is a return to form, and did a lot of marketing with the Alien, knowing that it would make the movie sell. Whoever designed the poster for the movie managed to create a true work of art, one of the greatest posters of the year, indicating that the film had a heavy focus on the eerie proto-religion that the Engineers had with the aliens.

Personally, the trailers for the movie didn't excite me much. It was just another Alien movie, which had been done to death. The only thing that looked different was that people would get gory in the back instead of in the front. That didn't seem particularly inspired to me. Fortunately, I can say that those advertisements did not give away much of the story of the film, and that it wasn't a mere rehashing of the various Alien movies.

As for the poster, I loved it. That got me excited. It hinted at a continuation of the themes of Prometheus, and to take me into the disturbing, occult realm of the Engineer's religion. I really liked the religious aspect of Prometheus and wanted to see a full series dedicated to it, because it was good science fiction. There was something very primal about it that made it so unnerving.

However, that poster, with all the beauty of its themes and its aesthetic design, had nothing to do with the film. Let me repeat: the poster has nothing to do with the film. Nothing in any way whatsoever. Perhaps it gives us an idea of what the director wished it could have been about, and what it might have been in its first drafts, so it may reveal that much about Covenant, but otherwise it might as well be the poster for another film, one that I truly would love to see someday, if Ridley Scott is given a chance to make it.

If you want a proper set of expectations for Covenant, go in expecting something that carries on the tradition of being a genre shift. The first movie was a claustrophobic horror movie about an unexplainable menace. The second was an action movie. The third was an emo film. The fourth was a bad movie (oh, and I think it was trying to be a Western or something). AVP was PG-13 fan fiction. Prometheus was a classic sci-fi commentary on religion, higher powers, and man's place in the universe. Alien: Covenant introduces some very new elements into the mythology, and a new kind of conflict. What that conflict is, I won't say, but I'm telling you to expect a new kind of story.

Covenant does continue some of the deep thinking of Prometheus, but they aren't as relevant thematically because most of the characters aren't out in space seeking answers. These thoughts don't lead to a quest, and they don't strike me emotionally as much as Prometheus did. After seeing Prometheus, I definitely had a lot of thinking to do. What if we were to travel a great distance to seek God, only to find out that not only did God not exist, but His nearest equivalent was the most terrible thing that we could imagine, so frightening that it made us sick, and wish that we had rather not known? I am a huge fan of Prometheus for prompting such a strong emotional and spiritual reaction in me, and discovering a new primal fear that the other films hadn't touched upon. While Covenant carries over some of those themes, it does not exploit them as its main theme, and doesn't use them as a means of accentuating the primal horror.

Instead of being driven by spiritual questions and unknowns, Covenant's main theme has to do with character development. At the end of the day, I actually think that this is what the film is all about. This does involve some discussions on faith and belief, as with Prometheus, but in the case of this movie those questions aren't asked to the audience, but rather to the characters so that we become invested in them. Character development in this movie is important enough that I'd say that you should be more interested in that than the aliens. In my opinion, the aliens are almost incidental. Almost. They're still obviously very important, but if I were to go watch the film again, they would not be the main draw.

That's not to say that past Alien movies didn't have an important human element. All of them did, especially the ones that we all universally like. However, this does approach the humanity of its characters in a new way, and it creates a new kind of conflict. I won't tell you which characters to look out for, because I don't want to give anything away. I went into the movie having no idea how relevant each character was, or who the main characters would be, and I would like people to go in the same as me.

With all that talk about what the advertisements didn't give away, I should admit that they did give away some fairly important things. Some neanderthal in marketing decided to give away many of the death scenes, so right off the bat I knew that certain characters were doomed from the start. That did ruin some of the experience for me. The other advertisement, a web featurette called Crossing, gave away a major plot detail that I would have considered a spoiler, although in fairness is does give people a much more honest portrait of their future viewing experience. I would personally discourage people from watching any of the featurettes, and only watch them later as deleted scenes.

Due the the genre shift, I didn't really consider it a horror film. It is certainly the bloodiest of the Alien films by a slight margin, but I don't consider it as creepy. It will creep some people out, but it didn't scare me even a tenth as much as the original Alien did. So don't go in with the expectation of being scared. If by chance you are, then consider that an added bonus. The advertisements suggested that it might be a horror film, especially when they show death scenes, but it's definitely more sci-fi, and furthermore, because of those scenes in the trailers, it makes it impossible to be scared when characters die.

Even the deaths that didn't occur in the trailers were a bit predictable, because people still walk off on their own. It's excusable at first, before they realize that they're in danger, but after the action gets started, it becomes kind of dumb. It only bothered me at certain points, and overall I would say that the people are smarter in Covenant than they are in Prometheus (perhaps that's because they're have a less obnoxious demeanor and actually act like they're taking their mission seriously), but a lot of people who hated Prometheus for this reason will probably still hate this movie for that reason, so if you're one of those people, just accept it as a fact of life that horror victims will be stupid before going in to this movie. If you don't think you can accept it, then there's no reason for seeing it, and you'd better pass this time around.

My biggest criticism for the movie has to do with Ridley Scott. I liked the job that the writers did, and the actors, and for the most part I really liked the job that Ridley did. After all, the film is beautiful. It has very good cinematography, and he does an excellent job of directing darkly-lit scenes. I always appreciate it when directors can do that. However, it is not tonally as distinct as his previous to films in this franchise. It doesn't have the same sense of cinematic atmosphere. At times, if it wasn't for the cinematography, I thought that you might have changed Ridley Scott with another blockbuster director and found a similar result. Perhaps it isn't Ridley's fault, but the result of executive meddling. I'm not really sure. But in some ways, this definitely feels like a blockbuster film released in 2017 and isn't as distinctly a member of the Alien franchise. That isn't to say that it doesn't have plenty of atmosphere! It's just that it doesn't have as much as Prometheus and Alien. It also saddens me to say that it doesn't have any distinct, memorable music queues, as with Prometheus and Alien, although it does acknowledge those two by using both of their themes throughout the movie, indicating that this film is where the two films begin to meet. As a lover of film scores, though, I wish that this film had its own fully developed theme to go with it, especially one that would emphasize the thematic differences between this and past films.

Speaking of atmosphere, there's a flashback in this film. I don't like flashbacks in general, but since they have never been used in this franchise before, I especially didn't like it here. It's not that the flashback was done terribly, but I do think that it made this movie a little bit more like the average blockbuster and not quite as distinct as the other Alien films.

Overall, I'd say that it has a lot of the atmosphere of Prometheus, and we're getting the Ridley Scott from that film, but people are going to be debating whether or not we are to think of this as a Prometheus sequel or an Alien prequel. It picks up more immediately from Prometheus, and its characters are more closely tied to the Prometheus timeline. It feels like a Prometheus sequel in a lot of ways, but as many fans of Prometheus have pointed out, it answers almost no questions from Prometheus, and reveals more about the movie Alien.

Regarding the answers that it does give us, I would say that the questions are more related to characters and details of the plot of the series, and not so much metaphysical questions that play into the horror. Alien, for example, gave us questions about what we would be better off not knowing as we explored deep enough into space, and Prometheus gave us questions about what we would rather not know as we began to explore ourselves and our origins. Both are a bit disturbing. Covenant's questions aren't quite as mysterious and are things that we can expect more concrete answers on, questions on where the story and the characters are going. Some people might dislike it, but it works for this particular film, since I do think that Ridley Scott understands how this one is different.

Alien: Covenant might not answer all of our questions, and in fact it has sabotaged some of our such hopes, but it does leave a big footprint in the Alien universe, because its story has some far-reaching ramifications. Although I wouldn't say that its themes are as deep as its predecessor's, the actual story is a little more ambitious. In the previous films, the immediate consequences in their stories was the safety of the crew members. Ultimately, once one takes away the deeper themes, they boil down to survival stories. Covenant branches out a little more than that, and it absolutely affects the way that we are to see any films set after it, which is one reason why I think that fans of the series probably ought to see it.

There are a final couple of things for me to say:

First, Michael Fassbender was the best part of Prometheus and Ridley Scott, the writers, and the studios all knew it. That man deserved an Oscar for his role in that film, where he was last seen with his android head ripped from his body, but otherwise still functioning. His role as David is what first brought him to my attention. Yes, he has been excellent as Magneto, and he has received Oscar nomminations for other roles in 12 Years A Slave and Steve Jobs, but I believe that David was truly his best role to date. This is the one role that he takes the most complete ownership of. He wasn't featured much in Alien: Covenant's advertising, but everyone behind the making of this movie knew that fans loved David and made sure to do him complete justice. The last time we saw an amazing character brought back after having his head ripped off, it was in Alien 3 and it was a bit of a disappointment. However, I can assure people that David is a pure pleasure to watch, and that Michael Fassbender is given a chance to shine. Like a god.

The other performance that I must call out is Billy Crudup's. From what I saw in the advertisements, I thought that this actor was going to be completely wasted in this movie, but I was pleasantly surprised. I had seen Billy in some other things, but never bothered remembering his face. However, I fell in love with the movie Rudderless, in which he stars and gives a performance that many actors would kill for. It is also possibly my favorite indie film in the last five or so years. Since then, I've paid attention to all of his upcoming films. He also had the most fortunate opportunity to star in The Stanford Prison Experiment, another great indie film. If there's anyone like me who would have watched Covenant just because of Billy Crudup, but was afraid that his character would be insignificant and forgettable, I think that the writers gave him a decent amount of character, and that this role helps his career. It won't be iconic like David or Ripley, but there's plenty of scenes where I found myself appreciating the character.

Overall, I liked it. The people who want to get the most out of seeing this movie are the ones who will be okay with changes to the formula. There were some changes to what I thought an Alien film should be that, a decade ago, was once adamantly against, and thought that Alien films should never go in such a direction, but surprisingly it did embraced these changes with enough deftness of acting, writing, and directing to pull it off. I'm excited to see where the Alien franchise goes from here. I am also excited to someday see a deeper exploration of the proto-religion seen in Prometheus, because the poster for this movie makes me realize just how cool that would be.



Homeward Bound Review

Posted by Jean Valjean , in Movies, Reviews May 18 2017 · 49 views
Disney, dog, Golden Retriever and 1 more...

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1993 was a good year. Steven Spielberg released two of the best films ever, Jurassic Park and, especially, Schindler's List. Harrison Ford starred in one of his best movies, The Fugitive. Tim Burton directed presented The Nightmare Before Christmas. Child friendly films like The Sandlot became classics.

And there's also this one, Homeward Bound, a Disney remake of their 1963 film The Incredible Journey. I just watched it today, and nearly cried. It's been...a long time. What was I? Five? Four?? To my surprise, I remembered quite a bit.

It's very simple, and so it won't take me too long to review it. It's a simple, feel-good film with a lot of heart. It didn't take a lot of imagination to create, but it did require a personal sense of goodness. I'd say that the film is filled with humanity, but that would be an ironic statement, because in many ways the film is about something that humanity is not.

Shadow, Chance, and Sassy (A Golden Retriever, an American Bulldog, and a Himalayan Cat, respectively), are left behind with a caretaker when their owners go on vacation. The owners take much longer than expected, and after a couple of weeks Shadow gets worried.

You see, Shadow is a slightly older dog, older than the recently adopted Chance. He's had time to develop a bond with his kid. He understands the importance of the relationship between dogs and humans. He is defined by his loyalty for his boy.

Chance, recognizably voiced by Michael J. Fox, is much less mature. He's eager for fun, and impulsive. He's definitely a dog, enjoying life moment by moment, and delighting in gross things like eating smelly old shoes, but he hasn't figured out his relationship with humans yet. He liked it when they take him in, but the relationship has no deeper meaning to him like it does with Shadow.

Then there's Sassy, who lives up to her name. She doesn't like getting dirty, and thinks that cats rule and dogs drool. She's definitely family with the dogs, but her relationship dynamic with them is almost exactly what little kids would expect.

Following Shadow's lead, the three pets leave the farm where they're being kept to travel across the wilderness to find their family. Chance and Sassy can get distracted, but they keep on going because of Shadow's simple love for his boy. At one point, in the middle of a forest of pines, sitting before a river with a sunset reflecting off of it, Chance observes that "Looking at him that night, he seemed so wise, and ancient, like the first dog who ever walked the earth. I just hope that one day I can be like him."

Shadow was always my favorite character. I'm not sure if, when I was a kid, I was aware that he was older. Watching this again in my twenties, that detail doesn't seem familiar to me. When I was a kid, I'm sure that my reason for loving Shadow was that he was of that most beautiful breed, the Golden Retriever. I still absolutely love him for that reason. Rewatching the film, though, I admire his deep appreciation of the purpose of being a dog, and how he made found a home in this purpose.

On the way, they see many great beauties of nature, from river rapids, to waterfalls, to rocky cliffs, to mountains and valleys, panthers, bears, and so on. The film takes no shame in being beautiful. That sums up most of the film: authentic shots of nature at its best, and of dogs at their best. And a cat. Can't forget the cat.

That sums up the movie. You know exactly what you're going to get. It's one of those films that captures the old-fashioned Disney spirit quite well, and has a Normal Rockwellian quality. It's Norman Rockwell for dogs.



Logan Review

Posted by Jean Valjean , in Reviews, Movies May 17 2017 · 62 views
Logan, Hugh Jackman, Wolverine and 2 more...

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This is probably the first time that the main draw for a superhero film (if you can call Logan such) has been its cinematography. For those of you who saw the one-time-only black-and-white showing of Logan, congratulations; you saw something truly beautiful. For the rest of you who missed out, too bad, but at least it will be available on blue ray.

Before I go into Logan itself, the subject of quality black and white cinematography demands some address of color photography. They require two completely different mindsets. It isn't simply a matter of one having color and one not having color. They completely alter the way that a film is made. They each require unique talents from a cinematographer. When you compare amazing color cinematography to black and white cinematography, it's comparing apples to oranges. To me, they are two distinct art forms.

Invidentally, only a week and a half before Logan Noir was released, Marverl released Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. This movie had many strong points that I must praise it on, and when I began writing a review on it, the very first thing that I had to mention was its cinematography. I have nothing but praise for its cinematography. It's a miracle, because this was not something to be expected from an MCU movie. The MCU is notorious among cinematography nerds for being an ugly franchise. The colors are bland and uninteresting, and there are rarely ever any solid black values onscreen. It's still a step up from DC's Man of Steel, which went out of its way to put a lifeless filter on it, but it's still uninspired. Basically, the MCU embodies every bad stereotype of digital cinematography. While they take great care in their special effects department, they severely overlook their regular effects department, that is, making sure that every shot looks special regardless of whether or not there's an effect in it. That doesn't really come naturally, because you have to carefully light the scenes, and then adjust your cameras accordingly. You also have to make sure that all of the colors in the scene are just right.

And you have to have those black values. The camera must pick up actual contrast, and this must include shaded areas that are nearly completely black. Especially if you're creating a comic book movie. The DCU, for all its faults, figured this out after Man of Steel and didn't make that mistake again. Batman v Superman looked like an actual comic-book movies, with actual shadows and contrasts that looked hand-crafted. It was also shot on film, which helped. Marvel, meanwhile, continued to shoot on Red cameras, which have some absolutely amazing capabilities, but they didn't seem to know what to do with them, and they basically used the Red series like they were any other digital camera, only with a higher pixel count. Fans of cinematography had reason to be disappointed, because they know the potential that a superhero gives cinematographers.

Then Marvel finally released Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and something changed. The first Guardians film indicated what it could be, but its sequel took it to the extreme. Vol. 2 is an example of a film that understands color photography down to its core. Every single shot felt vibrant. It used color to its fullest advantage, and without feeling like there was a filter. Yes, there probably was a filter, but the beauty is that I didn't notice it. It felt to me that the world simply was more colorful, and was alive. It also balanced colors with great black values to guide your attention to the form of the colorful things. Director James Gunn not only made sure that the cinematographer did his job right, but ensured that the production value matched this cinematographic vision, and that there was plenty of on-set color to work with. It was everything that I wanted in a Marvel film, in glorious 8K.

I have a great deal more to say on Vol. 2's cinematography that goes beyond just the color, but the point I wish to emphasize is that it had the best cinematography I had ever seen of any superhero film.

Which means that I've been having a really good couple of weeks with cinematography. A great year if you count all those times I watched La La Land in January and February, which is another amazing example of what can be accomplished with color photography, but that's a tangent. I've been having a good week because right after watching Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the comic book film with the greatest cinematography thus far, I drove down to the only Alamo Drafthouse theatre in the Midwest to watch an exclusive showing of Logan Noir, which then immediately replaced Vol. 2's spot at the top. I have never seen cinematography this beautiful in a comic book movie.

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First, I should say that you will not get the same experience that I did merely by turning down the color balance on your television set. Director James Mangold publicly explained why that didn't work, because all that does is turn the film gray. That's okay if you want a gray film, but if you want a black and white film, you need to see the version that Mangold and his crew carefully crafted. They had to edit it frame by frame to ensure that they had the contrast in the scene exactly where they wanted it, to give it as classy of a look as possible, and to ensure the maximum emotional impact. Every single frame of this film is a work of art. When watching this movie, I wished I was capable of pausing after every third shot and taking a screenshot so that I could make what I saw onscreen my desktop background. Logan looks that good in black and white.

In order for you to understand my appreciation of this, I'm familiar with what the film looks like in color. The shapes and the features of the characters' faces didn't stand out at much, or carry as much weight. I can easily imagine how bland that would have looked if one had merely converted this film to black and white by removing the color. It would have been just as bland, just blander. On many occasions, I have taken a color photograph and dropped it into basic photo editing software, where I proceeded to take out the color, add some contrast, and then sometimes apply a filter. The results usually aren't as amazing and as striking as I'd like. In order to get what I want, I literally recreate the photograph in a lifelike charcoal drawing. I used to use graphite, but have since found charcoal ten times superior. Only after all that messy charcoaling, which takes hours and hours of labor over the course of a month, do I finally get a black-and-white picture that really does the subject matter justice. No filter can match the results of that kind of work.

That's how I feel looking at this film. I'm reminded of those times that I've created charcoal drawings. It's amazing. No filter, no formula, was used in order to get these results. The visual editors had to labor in love to create a custom-made frame each time that would deliver the maximum effect. They do all of this while hardly being recognized, because in the end it all looks quite naturally like it was the image picked up by the camera, and that the scenes were originally lit this way.

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There are many moments in the film's original release that don't look particularly visually stimulating, but after their Noir conversion, captivate the eyes. One of them is of Daphne Keene looking out the window while its drizzling. Other times, people are simply indoors, but the light hits their faces in such a way that you completely see their character. Just about every shot of Patrick Stewart's aging countenance, and the deep lines running across it, speaks volumes. When tears well up in his eyes, it looks so surreal. In so many instances, Logan sits alone in the darkness, and you feel that you know what the character is all about. Sometimes light will hit them in ways that give them a halo. Sometimes the characters verge on becoming silhouettes. Daphne Keene's simple features stand out the least of anyone's, but her smooth dark hair takes on a whole new texture when in black and white.

Again, as the film went on, there were so many moments that made me think "I wish I could take a screenshot and do a charcoal drawing of this!"

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One thing that I noticed right away about Logan Noir, is that there's almost always somewhere in the shot that is nearly all-black. In many indoor scenes, a lot of areas in the background are black, drawing your attention to the character. It doesn't feel unnatural in the slightest, or that any visual tricks are being performed, but the trained eye notices it and appreciates it. Good black values do something that many people usually try to accomplish through film editing. Filmmakers often use editing to draw the audience's attention to something, to help set up a narrative. I think that good black values often do that, but in an even subtler way, and often in an even more emotional way.

Perhaps where this conversion is at its weakest is when the characters are in the wide open, in broad daylight. In those moments, briefly, there are no solid black values. It isn't as visually expressive. When I do charcoal drawings, I almost always choose a subject matter with dark values, such as hands playing on piano keys, or an ocean reflecting the Milky Way, or a woman casting a shadow as she's walking across the desert. No matter what, I find a way to have fun with contrast. However, while the scenes that I'm alluding to don't have these shadows, there's still a beauty to them. Sometimes it's the scenery, and other times it's the context of the scene itself that makes it beautiful, without the help of black values whatsoever.

Many people went to Logan Noir for this reason, because the story enhanced the black and white images. They might not have even been connoisseurs of black and white, or have even known the amount of artistry that went into this conversion, but went anyway because they thought that the story of Logan was well-suited for black and white. The very fact that it was black and white, even if it hadn't been the best quality, seemed an appropriate and emotionally pleasing way of presenting the movie. It made it more adult. I concur. This was an amazing decision that caught be serendipitously. If there is one hero film that can pull off black and white, it's this one. And I'll say it right here, that the black and white version of Logan is definitely the preferred one. If you haven't seen the movie yet, but plan on buying it on Blu-ray, make sure to buy a version that has Noir on it, and watch that one. James Mangold said that there is a preferred version, because he shot it in color and then retroactively made a black and white version after encouragement from the fans. Perhaps due to his baises he can't come down and admit just how amazing Noir is, but I'll say it for him. I'm free from the sentimental connection of having it shot in color first: black and white is the version to watch. Not only is it beautiful, but it is truly befitting in Hugh Jackman's heartfelt and vulnerable sendoff for this beloved character.

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In spite of my love of the color in La La Land and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, this was the real treat for me. By now, the reader will have learned that I love black and white art, and almost by default choose to express reality through it. It's one of my loves. I love it so much that I'd rather have the option between seeing a movie in color and monochrome instead of seeing it in 2D and 3D. This should be a more regular thing. Perhaps, just maybe, Logan will win Best Cinematography, and directors will begin to seriously consider shooting films in both color and monochrome in the future. The chances are small, but nothing would make me happier. I can always hope that this art form which is so near to my heart will be rediscovered and resurrected.



Home Review

Posted by Jean Valjean , in Reviews, Movies May 11 2017 · 86 views

Home Review :kaukau: I was going to write my Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 review the other day, but my computer has crashed at least once each day since then, which is really annoying. I don't know what's wrong with it, and it's quite unjust, because I decided to buy the most expensive, advanced computer on the market that Best Buy told me wouldn't have all of these problems. I figured that this computer would last me about six years, but now I'm no longer sure about that. Wow, what a waste of money.

Anyway, speaking of total wastes, Home was a waste of my time. Perhaps you're a fan of Jim Parsons, but when I recognized his voice, which sounded exactly like his Sheldon Cooper voice, I groaned. This was going to be an interesting ride.

Here's some context on why I watched this: I and someone else were trying to figure out a movie to show some kids. The other person really thought that this would be the perfect movie. I figured that you can't go wrong with good animation, but since the kids were high schoolers, I figured that something like Kubo and the Two Strings would be better. I could vouch personally for how good the film is. You can see my review of it elsewhere on this blog. As always, my input on what film to watch was ignored. That's what you get when you make group decisions about which movies to watch and you have a preference for genuine works of art. The B movie wins every time. In fact, I believe once we even chose to watch "Bee Movie." While supervising the kids, I just ignored the film and just kept an eye on them to make sure that everyone was behaving.

Anyway, Home is one of those movies that a studio pooped out because they knew that if they made a toy deal with McDonald's, they could get enough kids to go watch it to make a return on their investment. I remember the McDonald's toys because I worked there during my college years, and this period of my life overlapped with the release of Home.

Anyway, yes, it had to appeal to kids who haven't seen enough movies to realize that they can have higher standards. It had to be cute. It had to be silly. It had to have an inoffensive moral. You had to never truly fear for the characters or feel that anything was at stake. You just enough of that.

Otherwise, when you think about it, those cute characters don't have a lot of depth. They're all one-dimensional, and if you're high school or older, rather annoying. They're defined by a couple of quirks, and that's about it.

The story between O and the girl is done to death.

And to top it all off, all of their dramatic scenes are played to pop songs by Jennifer Lopez, making it impossible to take them seriously. The music never creates a deeper sense of atmosphere. Basically, it's all a bunch of contemporary songs that are either by Lopez or cut from the same cloth as her. Perhaps someone will look back at this and say "Ah, the 2010's. How nostalgic!" in the same way that we look back at The Legend of Billie Jean. Maybe. But I don't think too many people will be watching this in the 2020's or 2030's. It will be forgotten, and it darn well should. This was ultimately just something that some studio pushed out to make a quick buck. Entertaining, but only on a superficial level. With a moral about being brave and not betraying family and friends so that you don't feel too guilty for watching it.

By the way, I'm not even a hater of Rihanna. Yes, she played the main female protagonist. Honestly, she was the best part of Battleship, when it should have been Liam Neeson. But that doesn't change the fact that her inclusion in a movie is usually an indication of its quality. It shows that the film producers are thinking like music producers, who engineer art according to a formula and don't take any risks.



The Interview Review

Posted by Jean Valjean , in Reviews, Movies Apr 15 2017 · 106 views
Kim Jong-Un
:kaukau: Truly, a great film. I remember watching online when it first came out. If only it had had a successful wide release. In an ideal world, everyone would have gone and seen it, and it would have also won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. What a wonderful story!

Also, due the the circumstances surrounding the release of this film, I think that it's destined to become a cult classic.



Anaconda Music Video Review

Posted by Jean Valjean , in Music, Reviews Mar 13 2017 · 186 views

:kaukau: For years, I have heard of this music video, though I never bothered to watch it myself. What I knew of it came from one of those Fine Bros. videos from the series called "Elders React" — which showed me enough of what I needed to see in order to get a basic opinion.

Recently, I was watching a year-in-review video made back when 2014 was freshly in the grave. Accompanying me was an elder. Except for some political stuff, such as Russia's power play in Crimea. One thing that got him curious, though, was this reference to Nicki Manaj. I tried to explain it to him, but couldn't quite find the words. Based off of the "Elders React" video, I kind of knew what it was, but I knew that you really had to see it for yourself instead of having it explained to you.

So when we were done looking through some old news stories from 2014, we decided to check out the music video for "Anaconda".


My jaw dropped. I knew it was bad, but I had no idea. It is so in-your-face about what it is. The best way I can describe it is that it's almost a parody of what the modern music industry has been perverted into, turned up to eleven. It resembles the descriptions moral guardians use when describing just how deplorable popular culture is — you know, those descriptions that are pretentiously hyperbolic and overstating things for dramatic effect, the type of descriptions that are blatant fear-mongering and creating a straw-man. Except this isn't a parody. This isn't a false hyperbole. This is the real deal. This is a truthful representation of culture as it stands today.

And I couldn't look away because it was like a trainwreck. It was hilarious. Do you ever have it when something terrible happens and you just can't help but laugh? That was my reaction. I've never seen a music video that was so...just so. I don't have a word for it. It was almost surreal.

So yeah, what have you been doing with your elders lately?



Retroactively, I don't like Eragon

Posted by Jean Valjean , in Literature, Reviews Mar 03 2017 · 140 views

:kaukau: When I first read that book series, I loved it. In hindsight, I realize just how derivative the whole thing was. Do I regret reading it? No, since it passed the time and kept me entertained, which is a positive for any book, but it still doesn't make them good books. That's like saying that junk food is good food because it tastes good. I'd go through a comprehensive list of everything that was wrong about those books, but in order to truly get into detail, I'd have to re-read them, which I don't plan on doing any time soon, so I'm just going to explain what I remember.

1. Starting with something positive, I actually did like Paolini's concept of how magic works. He had solid concept for how it works and he consistently demonstrated its limitations. That's one for you, Paolini.
2. But getting to the negatives, let's start with the most obvious: the first two books are basically a fanfiction mixing together Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. In some ways, that's not a bad thing, since those are great sources of inspiration, but it definitely prevents this from being its own story, and it definitely makes it feel like a fanfiction. And for all the time and effort and passion that he put into this series, it should have felt like more than just fanfiction.
3. Eragon is a Mary Sue.
4. The relationship between Eragon and Arya isn't...well, I just don't like Arya. It's not just Eragon that seems infatuated with her, but the author as well. This is closely related to Eragon being a Mary Sue.
5. Angela is a bit of a Mary Sue, too. Basically, the author wrote his sister into the story and decided that all of the rules didn't apply to her, and thought that it was a really unique idea to make her quirky. Yeah, very original.
6. The battle strategies are unrealistic.
7. You know, come to think of it, Rohan, who orchestrated a bunch of those battles, was a bit of a Mary Sue, too. Not to the same extent as Eragon, but still.
8. Some of the archaic English is used incorrectly.
9. Paolini is not a linguist. Some of his explanations of the Ancient Language show that he doesn't have a strong grasp of non-English grammar, and the Ancient Language itself is very...fan-fictiony, basically. At times it looks like it's based on Swedish, which is pretty cool, but then he blatantly makes it sound like the Elvish languages from Tolkien, which has an altogether different sound. He especially enjoys diacritics which serve no discernible purpose other than to make it look more Tolkienesque.
10. Galbatorix is clearly based off of Christopher Lee...wait, that's a criticism? No, that's actually a plus. That's another one for you, Paolini. You made us wait forever to see Galbatorix, but when we finally met him, it was worth it. He was cool; he had a philosophy that made sense; he had a real presence; he was worthy of the descriptions that made him sound like Christopher Lee. Way to go.
11. That brings me to the ending...yeah, that ending was poorly conceived. It had a good hundred pages of tying up loose ends which it should have been fit into the rising action of the last book. While it's okay to have some declining action, Inheritance had a little too much declining action, and a lot of those details deserved to play into the plot leading up to the climax. Shoving them at the end showed that Paolini had no idea how to write his story. It was very anti-climactic.

Anyway, that's all. Oh wait, I forgot one.

12. That pretentious purple prose. Holy cow! Only the most insecure of writers write like that.



Best Visual Effects in 2016

Posted by Jean Valjean , in Movies, Reviews Feb 16 2017 · 144 views
Rogue One, Kubo, The Jungle Book and 2 more...
:kaukau: This year's nominees are, in the order in which I am the most impressed:
  • The Jungle Book
  • Kubo and the Two Strings
  • Deepwater Horizon
  • Rogue One
  • Doctor Strange

As it happens, I've seen every single movie in this category, so I'm capable of having a fully informed opinion on this one.

The most likely winner this year will be The Jungle Book. It was simply so amazing, and it was a pretty epic film. At first I thought that it would be absolutely ridiculous if any other movie stood a chance, however, my opinion changes when I saw that Kubo and the Two Strings got nominated. I wouldn't complain if it wins, and I wouldn't be surprised either. There's something cool about seeing a stop-motion animated picture win for special effects. It's never been done before, and if any film should be the first one to do it, it should be Kubo. Also, I think that it has it in the bag this year for winning Best Animated Picture, so it would be pretty cool to get a double-win in that department. I also believe that it should have been nominated for Best Cinematography (I don't think that it would have won with La La Land in the picture, but it definitely deserves it more than some of the films that actually got the nomination).

Even though it's the least likely to win, I was genuinely impressed with Deepwater Horizon. I never posted it on this site, but I made a video review as I was driving from the theatre with a friend, and one of the things that I commented on upon some reflection was that the entire thing felt very real. I've worked in industrial environments, and that movie made me feel like I was in one again. Granted, it couldn't recreate the actual heat or the smells of the workplace, but the visual effects still made it seem very real. To me, it's hard to recreate that environment onscreen, for the same reason that it's hard to recreate a human face with visual effects (more on that later): I know it intimately from real life, and know when something very slight is off.

As for last place, I was honestly torn between giving that honor to Rogue One and Doctor Strange. While they are both pleasing to look at visually, I didn't necessarily think that either of them were quite good enough to be nominated over the likes of, say, The BFG. I think that The BFG wasn't quite as ambitious as Rogue One in the CGI face department, since it wasn't trying to recreate anyone in particular, but what it did have was more convincing than Rogue One, and used far more extensively and enjoyably.

Anyway, BFG didn't get nominated, so I have Rogue One and Doctor Strange to talk about, and compare. The reason why I put Rogue One above Doctor Strange is because while Doctor Strange is visually quite cool, I attribute that more to the concepts than the special effects themselves. Also, Doctor Strange for the most part dealt with inorganic objects, which are easy to render. When it ventured into Dormamu territory, it became very obvious that it was a CG-fest. Rogue One had its obvious moments of CG, too, what with the CGI Cushing and Fisher being not quite capable of escaping the Uncanny Valley, but to be fair, those were at least a fair bit more ambitious than Dormamu. I must give credit where it's due, too, since a fair number of people were fooled by CGI Cushing. Rogue One also ambitiously has to do something similar to what Deepwater Horizon did, which was recreate an environment that we know intimately; that is, we're really familiar with the look and feel of A New Hope, and we've formed out expectations around that, while also simultaneously expecting the special effects to be far more realistic. For that reason, Rogue One inches out Doctor Strange for second-to-last place, and Doctor Strange shouldn't be on the list, because The BFG deserved a nomination.

And that's my opinion. But I'm sure TMD is of the opinion that Doctor Strange should win this year. That guy has a love-affair with Marvel movies, I swear. Remember when he said that The Avengers deserved to win Best Special Effects in the same year that Life of Pie came out? Ah, TMD, you're too cute :P.



Hidden Figures Review

Posted by Jean Valjean , in Movies, Reviews Feb 03 2017 · 107 views

Hidden Figures Review
:kaukau: Last summer, I saw the trailer for Hidden Figures and thought that it looked like one of those simple, feel-good, family-friendly Disney films. You know, like Queen of Katwe, which also had advertisements out at about the same time. Then this movie got nominated for Best Picture, and I wondered if there was something more to it, that it was a serious drama that rose to the level of high art. I was going to watch this regardless of the nominations it received, because it looked like a good non-action, non-franchise film that would nonetheless be entertaining. Also, various people at my workplace had watched it and strongly recommended it. So I wondered, with all of the buzz, what sort of artistic masterpiece I would be walking in on.

As it turns out, my impressions from the trailers were right, and I'm a bit surprised that it got nominated for Best Picture. Not that I'm complaining, because I liked it. It was fun, family friendly, wholesome, and had a good heart. It's just that it's comes off as so modest, and films like this usually aren't nominated. It wasn't particularly ambitious, wasn't directed with much prestige, and mainly succeeded in being a family-friendly drama. I keep on saying that word, "family friendly," since perhaps that's the best way of describing this film.

The type of film that this is reminds me a bit of Miracle, by the way, which was also one of those wholesome, feel-good films about real events produced by Disney. Of all the films that fit into this vaguely defined category that I'm dealing with right now, that one's easily my favorite, and definitely my favorite sports film. It never got nominated for anything, though, and now with Hidden Figures's nomination, I realize that it might have actually had a chance of having academy recognition. Who knows, maybe more films like this will get nominated in the future, but I doubt it.

So yeah, asides from knowing that that it's like "one of those simple, feel-good, family-friendly Disney films," the only other two things that people might be interested in knowing, which is how accurately it depicts real-life stories, and how it treats racial issues.

Let me start with the real-life stuff: the film is set in 1961, but a lot of the advances that the main characters made actually happened a lot sooner than that. Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer, was even promoted to supervisor as early as the Forties. That's pretty impressive. Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson achieved their goals in the film in the Fifties, which isn't quite as impressive, but should still be mentioned. It seems that the director didn't want to make a movie that spanned across several periods, however, and wanted to set the film in the 60's, since there were a lot of famous things going on during that period to add to the atmosphere of the film, most significantly of which was the launching of John Glenn into space. It makes for more of a feel-good movie if the advancement of the black women and John Glenn's history-making flight coincided.

Some of the people in this film were composite characters, based off of multiple real-life people and depicted as one person for the sake of simplicity. For example, the management of the Space Task Group was a bit complicated in real life, and for the sake of the film the whole thing was personified through Kevin Costner. Multiple engineers were represented through Jim Parsons. What was important here was that the ideas behind the true story were represented, and not so much the strict literal truth, which would have been a bit more cumbersome and made for a much longer, much more serious film.

As for the racial issues, Hidden Figures doesn't provide much commentary on contemporary race relations, and it doesn't have much to preach. It definitely has an interest in the racism of its setting, but even then, though it's a central theme of the movie, it doesn't dive into that theme as much as other recent films have, instead choosing to focus mainly on its characters. The director wasn't interested in the broader implications of racism so much as its specific impacts on the main characters. He doesn't paint the social constructs as vividly as some other recent films have, and this movie is hardly avant-garde. However, it doesn't have to be, and in the meantime it isn't like it's whitewashing history. It seems to me that the director was aware that many of the more profound and definitive films about race during that time period had already been made, and that it was redundant to try to be just as profound as them, especially since that wasn't the focus and the feeling that the film was going for. Hidden Figured isn't gut-wrenching, but feel-good. It isn't trying to reinvent the wheel, and instead assumes that people already have seen some of the more provocative material on the subject of race, and that forms the background for this film, which has the luxury of being feel-good and family-friendly.

Finally, I would be amiss if I didn't confess to finding Janelle Monáe, who played Mary Jackson, is incredibly attractive and likable and talented, and on her own made this film worth watching. I might be developing a celebrity crush.



La La Land Review

Posted by Jean Valjean , in Reviews, Movies Jan 30 2017 · 97 views

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:kaukau: Right off the bat, there was something that I loved about this film: a long dance number done in a single take. I absolutely love it when films do complicated stuff like this in one take. It's a dying art. On the subject of cinematography, La La Land also had a painter's eye for lighting, and filled its scenes with the most wonderful colors. So as it happens, I'm really rooting for this film to win Best Cinematography.

The other conspicuously obvious Academy Award that it's up for is Best Original Score, and this is the aspect of La La Land that I'll pay the most attention to, seeing as it's a musical, which makes it a special kind of film that's subject to a different kind of critique than the average film. A musical is to be judged as a musical, and has different standards for quality than everything else you'll be seeing in theatres. Yes, characters and story are important, but that's only a part of the whole. It should be worth noting that I think that the characters and story for Oklahoma! are terrible, but it's still a good musical.

Yes, it does emulate a classical musical from the 40's and 50's, set in the modern era. It has a familiar storyline about two performers who are trying to land their dream careers, which very much fits this genre. The artistry in the editing does a lot to evoke these old films. There's spontaneous dancing, including tap dancing, and people wearing flamboyantly colorful outfits that make me think of the old days when Technicolor was a huge gimmick that every director wanted to take advantage of. All these things are wonderful.

However, at the same time I should note that La La Land focuses more on its characters than its music at times. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I do think that since this is a musical, the characters should have expressed themselves through singing and dancing on a few more occasions than they ultimately did. Near the end of the film, they didn't have as many dance routines, and ultimately, they didn't use as many songs as they could have. There's an upside and a downside to this, and I'll get to the upside later. The downside is that this movie doesn't take full advantage of its medium to express the stories and feelings of its characters. It's a musical, but only part-time. It isn't as immersed in its genre as Singin' in the Rain was back in the day. There are times when it feels just like any other film that you might see, using the same contemporary storytelling techniques, albeit with much better cinematography. I'm personally not sold on the balance in-between the musical portions of the film and the "normal" segments, although this got nominated for Best Editing, so it definitely warrants a second watching before I really make up my mind on that.

Let's look at the upside to this, though: because there are only about five or six original songs, they're much more memorable. They actually reuse much of the music from some of these songs, a lot, so certain key songs really stick in your mind after leaving the theatre. And it's not as if songs are the only things that make this a musical: there are several segments where there's just instruments playing, without any lyrics. Because La La Land makes frequent use of not just its songs, but its score, I'm willing to believe that it will take home the Oscar in that category.

Two of my favorite pleasures in a film, when done right, are its cinematography and its score, and La La Land definitely did them right. It was an experience for me. Unfortunately, since my expectations were subconsciously very high, it let me down somewhat, but not too much. It is indeed the favorite nominee for Best Picture that everyone has been talking about.



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Username: Jean Valjean
Real name: N/A
Age: 23
Gender: Male
Heritage: Half Dutch, 25% Hungarian, 12.5% Swedish, 6.25% German and Irish
Physical description: Looks like the eleventh Doctor
Favorite food: Chicken, turkey, and beef.
Least favorite food: Vegetables of any kind
Favorite band: Queen
Favorite singer: Billy Joel
Favorite song: American Pie
Favorite movie: Schindler's List
Favorite TV show: Smallville & Arthur the Friendly Aardvark
Favorite play: Les Miserables
Favorite color: Silver
Second favorite color: Brown
Favorite board game: Risk
Favorite athlete: Michael Phelps
Lucky Number: 53
Past-times: Writing, reading, politics, drawing
Political party: Republican
Religion: Christian
Language: Not English, but American.

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