Thursday, January 7, 2021

Thursday Movie Picks - Oscars Winners Edition: Best Picture

Wandering Through the Shelves hosts a fun series Thursday Movie Picks. Every week spotlights a different theme for bloggers to choose their picks. I've seen this around the blogosphere before and thought I'd join in this year. 

This week is Oscars Winners Edition: Best Picture. 

There are so many Best Picture winners to choose from, but I chose what I consider to be underrated winners. I didn't necessarily choose these in comparison to what was potentially snubbed that year. I decided to look at winners versus what else was officially nominated that year and how far movie goers' reception has changed since.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

So, Tenet (2020) Happened

CIA Agent and the Protagonist (John David Washington) is given a word – tenet – and the objective to  trail a Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) who communicates with the future. As Sator sets his sight on obliterating humanity, the Protagonist does everything he can to save the world with the help of a fellow agent official Neil (Robert Pattinson) and Sator’s estranged wife (Elizabeth Debicki).

“Don’t try to understand it,” as scientist (Clemence Posey) declares in Tenet, the most concise way to approaching a Christopher Nolan film. You know that you’re going to get characters navigating a timey-wimey unraveling plot filled with exposition, amazing stunts, an ear-blasting score, and a suitable cast to carry it all on their shoulders. Where Nolan slightly fails with his latest mind-boggling adventure is with the following phrase, “feel it.” 

Ironically, everything here is right out of Nolan’s staple of work. Similar to the clique of Inception led by Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, and Jordan Gordon Levitt (or any of his previous casts), this ensemble meshes well together. John David Washington’s charisma draws out a tedious conflict with Kenneth Branagh, a friendly camaraderie with Robert Pattinson, and trusting warmth with Elizabeth Debicki. Despite the heftiness of Nolan’s script, they make a suitable crew who are easy to watch as their various cahoots unfold. Nolan also always packs his films with tactile stunts you won’t find anywhere else. With a story that helms the concept of moving forward and backward in time, there are sequences here that are on the same level of “the kicks” in Inception or the race to dock the Endurance in Interstellar - they'll baffle you with their practical effects yet ingenious execution. And instead of a dynamo score by the always-reliable composer Hans Zimmer, Nolan steps out of the box with Ludwig Gorannsson, who crafts an action-packed futuristic score that also blows out the dialogue.

Even though Tenet has these elements that are fun on their own, where the film goes “wrong” is how little there is to care about anything. While Nolan's plots are always a source of confusion for movie goers, I hate to flex I've never particularly struggled with them. So, Tenet isn't that hard to follow when the concept boils down to a cat and mouse chase locked in a time loop. But the script is too concerned with battening down the hatches to drop exposition and a completely forgettable subplot of an arms dealer using The Protagonist for their own means, that the story is left dry and cringe-worthingly cliché. 

What works in favor for Tenet also works against it. Unlike his previous films where the hero had some semblance of humanity tying him to the world outside of saving it or a decent redemption arc, The Protagonist is the hero not because of some special inner calling to care about anyone’s particular fate but mostly it’s his duty and he’s the best at it; Neil shows up to begin and continue their beautiful chaotic friendship whenever he’s needed; Andre comes across as terrifying until his punishment via global annihilation falls down the trap of a 1960s Bond villain; Katharine is limited as the abused wife who is treated as a damsel-punching-bag for 2/3 of the story until she can “save herself” and the world (honestly one of the most offensive female roles I've ever seen). The cast does well with their roles but mostly because of they're given to work with. The action scenes are good, but they’re also too sparse to outdo what other end-of-the-world flicks have done before and more entertainingly. 

Tenet is memorable for Nolan continuing his reputation to conjure a labyrinth of ideas, and there’s nothing wrong with the fact that this is his niche. But a complex film is not necessarily smart if the most resounding reaction is either confusion or accusations that everyone else who dislikes the film is  not smart enough to understand. Contrary to common film bros' defense of Nolan, some to most movie goers understand what he’s delving into - we've just learned to accept that intricate concepts without a satisfying pay-off aren't always worth our time.
Rating: ★☆☆
Have you seen Tenet? What did you think?

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Evermore (2020) is a fitting sister album for folklore

During the summer of the 2020 apocalypse, nothing surprised Swifties more than when Taylor Swift dropped a surprise album. folklore received some of the best reviews of the year and her career so far – inspiring fans and critics about the type of art that can spring out of such a crushing pandemic. And then fast forward half a year later, and Swift with Aaron Dressner dropped an early holiday bombshell with a sister album called evermore.

If folklore showed Taylor Swift in all of her folksy might, evermore takes a twist for a mix of old-fashioned whimsy and witchiness-inspired country. Evermore doesn’t quite pick up where folklore left off – it’s not copying or continuing stories from her previous album but parallels can be drawn between tracks if you want to dig deeper - and us Swifties have been trained to dig deep. This time around her music takes more of an upswing than a haunting melancholy with tales about Hollywood stars coming home for the holidays (tis the damn season), a small town crime between friends (no body, no crime), and bandits falling in love (cowboy like me). She also uses a similar storytelling technique with heftier imagery sprinkled throughout the chorus and verses, and packing in the bridges with everything she’s got.

To describe the two albums together, I’d say folklore feels like a foggy winter morn. It’s an album of reflection and reminiscing about rage, euphoria, young love, and trying to find stability in the middle of jagged relationships and crazy times. It maintains a 1970s feel in a lot of ways like Joni Mitchell and Carole King, where her cadence blends in with the beat and one-of-a-kind melodies. Evermore, on the other hand, captures melancholy in the summer as it fades into fall, describing stories in the present moment rather than looking back with as much woe or angst. At first, it doesn't feel like a country album, but over time, it will become more obvious just how much it can be considered a more mature sibling to Red. Evermore might still maintain a running theme of unrequited love or broken relationships, but the rhythm allows the lyrics to mold to the beat or act as poetry over the music. The two together are a dynamo duo - it's only a question of which on you prefer.

Though the two share a lot of similarities, the biggest difference for me is how it's taken me longer for evermore to resonate. When folklore dropped, I was instantly emotional about several songs on the initial and subsequent listens. Even though my top 5 rankings are much the same, I don’t skip any tracks and even my least favorites have grown on me. It's a perfect album. That type of progress is a  struggle with evermore. The themes of yearning for a loved one, the fundamental differences between two people that divides them, finding closure, etc. with self-recriminating insight starts to feel repetitive no matter how many poetic ways Taylor expresses herself. Half of the album become definite re-listens, while I don't seek out other songs or might skip halfway through them.

Swift and Dressner manages to produce a sound that is light on the ears as well as in-depth storytelling that makes you reconsider all of the different angles, and will certainly define the holiday era of the pandemic. And that's perhaps the hiccup evermore runs into - Taylor's so ahead of her own curve it becomes a sphere, where a lot of the tracks hit a comfortably catchy groove but don't land as surprisingly or as uniquely as folklore. In true companionship fashion, plenty of songs fit alongside each other but you'll left wondering how the runner-up compares to the original. While it's harmless to want more of a great thing, it doesn't mean it will be great itself.

Have you listened to evermore? What did you think?

My thoughts on the individual songs with a ranking of faves is below.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Wild Mountain Thyme (2020) Is Just Plain Wonky

Going by social media reviews and hype, it seemed like director and writer John Patrick Shanley’s latest film was a perfect runner-up to a crazy it’s-so-bad-it’s-good hit like the notorious Cats. If you hear a flick is bad enough you got to check it out for yourself – almost as a litmus test of how much pain you can put yourself through. While Wild Mountain Thyme doesn't feature floating-heads-on-cat-bodies, it does get a Serenity for sheer wonkiness.

Out in the Irish countryside, Rosemary Muldoon (Emily Blunt) has had the hots for her next door neighbor Anthony Reilly (Jamie Dornan) since they were kids. The problem is he’s never made a move. His lack of romantic interests is so disheartening his father Tony Reilly (Christopher Walken) threatens to sell their farm to an American nephew (Jon Hamm) instead of his own son.

This review contains spoilers…

Friday, December 18, 2020

Velcro: The Egg Hunters by Chris Widdop

Four books ago, I was introduced to the world of Velcro: The Ninja Kat by Chris Widdop. His anthropomorphize world of animals using magic and the ensuing conflict of corruption was a real treat to start reading. Now, his series is  coming to a close with the fifth book Velcro: The Egg Hunters – which he gave me a copy of in exchange for a review.

Following Tails Mask's widespread fiery attack that had brought an abrupt end to the Polluted War, the world has fallen into chaos. And in the ensuing confusion, many key players have gone mysteriously missing, including the villainous Tails Mask, as well as our hero, Velcro the Ninja Kat herself. 

Having now seen just how powerful and dangerous Magic can be in the wrong hands, war has once more been reinvigorated, as a new military faction known as the Phoenix Corps has arisen with the express task of eradicating all remaining Magicians the globe over, and have set their sights on those harboring solace in the Country of Rath. And meanwhile, several bands of bounty hunting Egg Hunters have also set out in order to cash in on the heads of the Magicians that have gone into hiding.

As every sequel picked up relatively where the last installment concluded, The Polluted War asks enough open-ended questions about the next phase of Velcro’s journey. The Red Easter left all of her friends in various locations and in the throes of heated one-on-one-battles, letting everything that they fought for burn down seemingly for good. As the country hangs in the balance the end of one war and the origins of possible another, there's time now to ask what is peace and how can that be accomplished instead. Similar to not necessarily starting where the last book left off, Widdop starts to thread new ideas of what it means to start over. I expected The Egg Hunters to pick up where it left off, but it defies a lot of expectations by not necessarily letting the same battle continue on forever.

Since the plot consistently set Velcro and her allies in motion to thwart evil schemes, The Egg Hunters features a new crew rising to take the place of The Devil Corps but it doesn’t feel like its repeating the origins of the war Velcro and her friends just faced. One of the common threads of the series so far was its theme of war and how it divided or united the characters – how it affected their decisions and actions to cast revenge or avenge friends and family, or believing in a cause that turned out to be nothing but empty promises. Without war so much at the forefront as much as it was in the past, this book is able to slow down more. This next part of his world seems like it has another fight up his sleeve of his characters, but it’s also more reserved than the one that came before. 

In many ways, this final book feels like a return to the start of the series when we were first introduced to Velcro and she was just starting to expand her knowledge and use of magic. After the previous books explored the feud with her brother Charlie and the training to become a masked vigilante, she’s now able to try to understand her own role with the resurgence of pro and anti-magic rhetoric, and as well as what she can do with magic now - to cast revenge for what happened with The Red Easter, to end magic for good, or save her friends by staying in the shadows. Since I’m trying to avoid spoilers, I’ll just say her discovery of how her disappearance had an impact on the world, and how her mythos continued after she was seemingly gone, was a real treat to see the typical defeated hero thrust back into their world of saving turned on its ear. Widdop’s always managed to create good backstories for his wide range of characters and ramping up all the stakes between them. With that part now taking more of a backseat, he’s able to continue building his heroine and give her a heartwarming and emotional end to her arc.

While Widdop definitely shows a gift for expanding Velcro's story, it is difficult to depart with how the story began and continued to tread for the past few books. Since the beginning, a lot of supporting characters, locations, and origins of magic were introduced and explored - a fair portion of them earned their own backstories and raised the stakes in overall the story. In contrast, The Egg Hunters really dials it back from that approach. Many of the minor characters might have just been smaller cogs in the whole wheel, but they kept the whole machine well-oiled and running. Their disappearance or just the allusion of what happened to them fits the story he was telling. But on the other hand, it's difficult to feel like their arcs matched up to hers as completely and satisfyingly. 

Velcro: The Ninja Kat series offers a fun adventure for readers wanting to look for a unique short set of books to dive into but offers a complete world. Sometimes it’s difficult to get involved in a series because the ending doesn’t always live up to the hype.But Widdop’s story expands and never loses sight of his ideas. Each installment added a new action-packed layer to his world-building and made the battle for magic (or against it) worth it. I enjoyed reading the series and to see the story conclude for now.

Rating: ★★½☆

Monday, December 7, 2020

Deep In Vogue (2019) Gives a Front Row Seat to Voguing

Inclusive spaces where LGBTQ+ and people of color can fully express themselves are an increasing rarity. Yet in pockets of club scenes and houses around the U.S. and the UK, vogue ballrooms continue to offer an exceptional underground beacon of hope and a lifeline. Taking a dive into a radical revolution of diversity and self-expression, Deep In Vogue explores the origins of voguing and peeks behind-the-scenes of the Manchester and Liverpool based houses as they prepare for their ICONS Vogue Ball.