Geostorm (2017) Review

Geostorm

5/10

Last year I felt sorry for Gerard Butler. He played in two atrociously bad movies, the completely bonkers vanity project Gods of Egypt and the insultingly blunt London Has Fallen, and both movies got released back to back. By picking such horrible movies, I thought Butler surely murdered his own career. But a year later we have his next film, Geostorm, which is at least as bad as what came before! This can no longer be blamed on casting agents. This is Gerard Butler digging himself into a hole that will be impossible to crawl out of.

Anyways he plays a hotshot inventor who built a satellite system to control the planet’s weather from orbit. He is also a bit of a hothead and gets himself fired from his own project. Three years later, the system is hacked and used for warfare, such as flash-freezing Afghan villages. So now, Butler is brought in again and sent into orbit to check what is going on.

It is hard to take Butler seriously as a world-renowned scientist. It is even harder to believe him living as an unknown hermit three years later, but at least he seems better cast as a hermit than a scientist. And this is supposed to be the near future, but the space program visible in this film is so big that it would take a century to build all these satellites (which wouldn’t happen anyway because the whole project is crazy). This is an impossible vision of the near future, but let’s accept it for dramatic purposes and move on.

Besides Butler feeling very miscast as a scientist and some unfunny conversations, the first half hour of the film is not that bad, until they bring up the nonsensical concept of a geostorm. But, to be honest, it is about time that anything starts happening. For a disaster movie, Geostorm has little to no build-up. One of the chief pleasures of a good disaster movie is that buildup that you get while the story is unfolding. Disasters start happening. Things start breaking down. People don’t listen to the scientists while volcanoes erupt or storms brew. You know, the building up of anticipation. It’s absent.

I suppose that Geostorm chose the wrong focus. It tries to be Gravity instead of The Day After Tomorrow. There’s lots of astronauts floating about in space and Gerard Butler giving bitesize technobabble while there should have been a buildup of tension. They are doing some kind of technothriller plot on the space station that is smeared out far too much. Meanwhile there is a side plot going with Butler trying to fix a broken connection with his brother, who is also his commanding officer, but I can’t work up any sympathy for any of these people. A handful of side characters also all fail to rouse any interest.

Geostorm’s greatest failing is that it just lacks style and class and comes across as boring. It is like a 90s disaster movie, but unlike, say, Armageddon (1998) or Daylight (1996) it isn’t even interested in telling its own story. The writers cooked up some high concept as an excuse for a heavy special-effects-laden film, but then the story gets strangely lost in its own concept while forgetting about excitement. Butler’s role is dry and boring as a scientist for most of the way. Meanwhile, the film just keeps making it harder for us to take seriously by adding silly stuff, like a “countdown to geostorm”. If the film had focused on schlocky action, that silliness could be overlooked, but with its focus on the technothriller parts that’s just impossible.

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Okja (2017) Review

Okja

8/10

In an opening scene that explains the whole backstory in a fast, bubbly way, Tilda Swinton explains how her company Mirando (alternative Monsanto) has bred superpigs to help feed the world. The pigs take 10 years to grow up, and then there will be a contest between the farmers to see whose superpigs has grown up the biggest and tastiest. It’s a pretty common infodump that you’d see at the start of many SF stories but the production value is great and the narration is fresh and funny. Swinton must love these roles, as she did something similar in Snowpiercer (which is by the same director too).

Ten years later, the superpig given to the farmer in South Korea looks more like a crossbreed between an overly large hippo and a dog. It has a name too: Okja, and the animal is best friends with the girl Mija who looks after him. The scenes of Okja and Mija exploring the forests call back other East-Asian films with a love for giant, friendly monsters who befriend young girls, like My Neighbor Totoro. He’s just a big, lovable goof, and pretty smart too.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays his own version of a strange animal. He goes completely nuts as the overly dramatic, high octane TV-biologist Johnny Wilcox. He comes to tell Mija that Okja has to come all the way to New York for the competition, and her grandfather is also happy to see her say goodbye to the pig and start looking for a partner. Mija though had a special connection with Okja, one that cannot be captured or broken by corporate contracts. So, she leaves grandpa to chase after Okja.

Okja2

The actors Seo-hyun Ahn (Mija) and Hee-Bong Byun (grandpa) do a pretty standout job and they’re aided by strong direction and a great visual style. The visual playfulness, odd characters and dry dialogue are instantly recognizable from Snowpiercer. It’s a story full of comedy, well-choreographed action and surprising turns. I loved it. The whole film just bubbles with energy. Visually it is not just playful, it is arresting in the sense of unexpected camera angles and unique action scenes.

And there are so many funny, interesting side characters, like super-friendly vegan terrorist animal liberation fronters, Mija’s wacky grandpa. I’m not so sure about Jake Gyllenhaal’s Wilcox, though. He seems to go for a Jim Carrey impression that is just a bit too far out for this film. Everyone else is so much more restrained. Nevertheless, in this entire mad world Mija is the only sane one and her simple quest of getting Okja home gives us an anchor from which to laugh and marvel and all the craziness she finds in the large world, far away from home.

I am really amazed by this film and think that it is a lot more accessible than Snowpiercer. It has a high pace and a story that kept my attention all the time. The film keeps a very fine balance between wacky comedy, crazy action and emotion and pulls it off wonderfully. Director Bong Joon Ho knows just the right moments to switch from one tone to the other. It is no wonder that Bong Joon Ho draws crowds to his movies in Korea and I’ll be looking forward to his next one.

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Scott Hawkins – The Library at Mount Char (2015) Review

The library at mount char

  • Genre: fantasy / new weird / horror
  • My rating: 9/10

The Library at Mount Char is an inventive, disturbing fantasy, filled with buckets of strange ideas. We could try to categorize it by saying that its themes feel a bit similar to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Yet it is more gruesome and denser in material than Gaiman’s work. The amount of death, blood, maggots and so on feels closer to novels in the New Weird genre such as B. Catling’s The Vorrh and China Mieville’s short stories.

So, what is it about? Good question. I won’t even try to explain the story since it is so strange and dense, and following its twisting paths to see where they lead is one of the pleasures of reading the thing. So, I will just mention the first short chapter to give an impression:

The first chapter introduces us to a rather disturbing family – a pantheon – of gods. They are, however, not in their natural environment, which is a location they call the Library. Instead, they find themselves marooned in the American countryside ever since their Father has gone missing. They also have standard American names such as Carolyn and David, since apparently they were taken as children to study under Father in his Library. Father, however, has strangely disappeared.

After that, each chapter is a new combination of Weird fantasy, some absurdist black comedy, elements of cosmic horror and twisted violence, unexpected turns and interesting dialogues. Each time I started a new chapter, I thought: “I wonder what strange and fascinating new thing will happen next. I know it’s going to be good.” Now, this might sound like a whole bunch of random themes and chaotic storytelling, and gruesomeness purely for the shock value. And occasionally that is true, but the novel felt very fresh and exciting to me as well.

It is the kind of novel in which an author wants to dazzle with his imagination and plot twists, and characters are created only in service of these goals. Carolyn and Steve are the two important ones, but Carolyn seems forever out of reach emotionally and Steve, who is supposed to be the straight human guy and therefore our window into the weirdness, well, he is rather flat as well. Their dialogues are pretty good though and make up for a bit of inaccessibility.

Much of the violence does feel put in just for shock value and this strikes me as a bit of a debut novel syndrome. Other examples of this are Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns and Fletcher’s Beyond Redemption. It brings the strength of the book down in my opinion because it is the literary equivalent of putting extra explosions in a film and feels like the author felt insecure about the quality of the story.

And that insecurity isn’t needed. The story is great! It is rather hard to categorize for it is so unique. It’s not an epic story of good and evil, it is not a heist, nor a fairy tale, nor a dystopian struggle; it is not any of the well-known story structures that the genre overflows with. It’s what I appreciated the most about the novel: its unpredictability.

And what I thought would become a simple story of action, violence and revenge instead turned into a much more interesting story about trauma. The actiony plot reaches its climax quite a way before the end of the novel, and in that last part after the climax the main characters really come to life. Only then is there any room in the story to think about all the harsh violence and about life stories and ways of fixing the past.

It’s the novel’s way of saying that we are allowed to be revolted and sad about everything that happened. I, as a reader, at least don’t want to end up as numb as the characters. A quiet talk in a dark library feels like something unclenching in your chest. What the novel is really about, in the end, remains a bit vague, but it will remain with me for its odd cosmology, absurd situations and feeling of excitement.

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Kazuo Ishiguro – Never Let Me Go (2005) Review

Never Let Me Go

  • Genre: science fiction / mainstream
  • My rating: 9.5/10

Never Let Me Go is one of the best-known examples of the modern trend of so-called “mainstream” authors taking elements of science fiction to frame their story.

The way Ishiguro crawls into the skin of his characters is absolutely stunning. In the first third of Never Let Me Go, he is very empathetic when it comes to describing the inner world of children. We meet Kath and Tommy and Ruth, and the way he has them play games and argue with each other and cook up plans is so lifelike that it takes me right back to elementary school. Kids do things for simple reasons that they only half understand at the time, or they tease and bully others without thinking through the consequences, or they are so focused on certain problems but don’t think about their own reactions. Childhood was a dream world that is painful to re-experience in a bittersweet and melancholic way.

So, when the characters start figuring out that there are strange things going on, which is inevitably the case, they do so as children, and the weirdness seeps into their – and our – consciousness in little steps. Never Let Me Go is not the only dystopian novel that takes this route – novels like The Girl With All The Gifts and many YA novels take the kid perspective – but none of them really nail down the dream world of children in such an affecting, recognizable way as this one.

In addition, for our understanding what is really going on, Ishiguro drip-feeds information in the same measured, deliberate way, step by step with Kathy’s conversational remembrances of her life. It is quite impressive how he manages this in a first-person narrative, at which he is apparently a master. He gives all the information at the right pace and place while maintaining a beautiful melancholic flow of narration.

Kath and Ruth both learn to trust each other with unspoken secrets in a series of emotionally subtle adventures of make-believe. We follow them and Tommy as they grow up, become young adults and move to new locations. Much of their story is about unspoken communication. Ruth is a very dominant personality while Kath often supports her, and their emotional stories of silent agreements and trust that is sometimes broken also tie in to the larger mysteries that form the set course of their future lives. As Kath narrates about conflicts between her and Ruth and other students, those stories always seem to circle back to uncomfortable rules about what is expected of them.

This book shattered me a bit. I kept putting it down every other page because I had to think back to episodes of my own life.

These characters are wonderfully realistic, layered creations, and that is also the main power of the story. They are all flawed people with each their own perspective: Ruth always wants to get her way and Kathy plays the enabler, and while Tommy seems a bit thick sometimes he actually doesn’t want to dive into Ruth’s pretensions. Ishiguro wields empathy for the characters and heartfelt remembrances as honed weapons. He builds up our empathy while a background tension keeps mounting about the outside world and a bad future that awaits the children; he makes us feel and remember before tearing the rug from under out feet.

In this sense, the book is a one-trick pony; a short science fiction exercise with a single theme in mind. Ishiguro just wants us to care and then to think about negative consequences of technology. But now I feel that I am selling the book short. The story has an elegance to it and feels very rich, because it is an emotionally rich tale full of deep, wonderful characters, hard-hitting scenes, subtle storytelling and a pervading upper-class Englishness that feels refined.

And I think Ishiguro has more goals with this book, such as looking at the way people build up identities for themselves, in very recognizable ways, even in outlandish dystopian settings. These characters lack the environment we have and may therefore compensate by making their own rituals and rules. There may be something about humans and the way we work that always floats to the surface.

Ishiguro’s writing almost seems too good for the SF theme of the novel, which is rather basic, really. Read it for the characters and the pathos of their lives.

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Raw (2016) Review

Raw

8/10

Raw is a French movie about a girl, Justine, who grew up in a vegetarian household, but when she eats raw meat at an initiation ritual at a medical school, she develops a disturbing taste for human flesh.

Sometimes cannibalism is just cannibalism, but not when your movie is about a young woman discovering herself at university.

The whole start of the film is about isolation and alienation. Justine (Garance Marillier) is quickly isolated from her parents as they drop her at veterinarian school. At night, the senior students gather everyone for a crazy party and shenanigans and she’s dragged along. The whole thing is filmed as some kind of horror film and quite unsettling at first. In a wash of party chaos, red pulsing lights, medical curiosities and more, she undergoes the initiation. Veterinarian school is like a different world, and she stepped through a portal, down the rabbit hole, where different rules apply than at the vegetarian household she came from.

It’s a coming of age story too, hidden inside a harrowing first year at university. A coming of age story of a cannibal. I felt quite sorry for her, as everything is made so hard for her. Throughout the story, the meat and blood is like a theme cropping up now and then, together with red lights everywhere. Almost every scene has red colors in it, even if it is only a reddish light on the walls. As a film, it’s a very focused, lean film of just 1.5 hours and a tight story.

The film is a bit hyper-realistic in how professors tell her that Justine isn’t wanted. And also in how gross the film is. This film is bloody disgusting, full of animal poop and hair and body horror. It’s full of cows and horses, both dead and alive. It’s also bloody weird, but then again, it’s French. They like the subtler emotions of weirdness where the uncomfortable slides over into comedy and shock. If that all doesn’t scare you away, then the style and quality of the film shines through. The acting and casting is great, and especially the use of light and color is impressive.

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The way Raw handles addiction is actually really lifelike through the combination of social alienation that she feels as a first-year student, and because meat is like a forbidden fruit in the household she came from, and in her mind. That’s an irresistible combination. It’s forbidden, it’s wrong, it feels good, there is nobody to comfort her in a harsh world. She develops a strange fascination that tugs at her like a disgusting addiction that she wants to keep hidden from others. It starts innocuously enough, like any addiction, with eating burgers and so on.

It all gets even more interesting once sibling rivalry and withdrawal nightmares come into it, when initiation rites slide into abusive acts and budding sexuality peeks around the corner. Is the cannibalism one big metaphor for sex? The blood of menstruation? Director Julia Ducournau sure squeezed a lot of material into one movie. Justine starts out as such a childlike, innocent girl, but she explored every dark corner of her soul before the end.

This is actually a very impressive movie. But if you don’t like dead animals being cut open or watch people vomiting on screen, stay away. Or take the challenge and watch it for lunch, like I did.

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Joe Abercrombie – Before They Are Hanged (2007) Review

Before they are hanged

  • Genre: fantasy / grimdark
  • Series: The First Law, book 2

I am totally on board with this series now. Where book 1, The Blade Itself, felt rather basic, Before They Are Hanged is a fine step forwards for Abercrombie’s series.

Back in the world of Logen, Jezal, West and Glokta. Not much has changed, except that King Bethod has started his invasion of Angland, Jezal and Logen have left with the wizard Bayaz to travel to the end of the world, and Glokta arrives in Dagoska to clean out the trash. Where The Blade Itself concluded with all our characters converging in the King’s castle of the Union, Before They Are Hanged starts with everyone going on their separate quests after a thorough reshuffling.

Inquisitor Glokta, the Tyrion Lannister of this series, is the one very much alone, except for his merry band of Practicals. His storyline is a joy, not because I am fond in any way to read about torturers (and thankfully, Abercrombie does not push the gruesomeness over the edge), but because Glokta is a great character to follow. He is thrown into a city full of enemies and he’s sharp and cynical enough to unsettle everyone. There is a perverse pleasure in watching people try to deal with this man. Deep inside he is quite honorable and quickly measures up everyone he has to deal with. He knows how to push people’s buttons and is smart enough to prick through nonsense and false appearances.

Logen is no longer the lonesome barbarian. He is the thoughtful barbarian. In the problematic fellowship of Bayaz, Ferro and Jezal, Logen shows how he is a keen observer with deep experience with travelling in bands. He tries to keep all these difficult people together so that they have a chance at surviving. He becomes the teacher. You’ve got to be realistic about these things, as he would say. I even started caring about Jezal, and West is undergoing a remarkable journey.

What I am saying is that Abercrombie does a stellar job at characterization, especially through pitting difficult characters against each other. They are all flawed and carry a lot of baggage, and there is a general consistency to them that makes them believable and compelling. Not only that, but the arcs that they undergo are perfectly written out. In the sense of character arcs, Before They Are Hanged takes ten strides for every stride in The Blade Itself. The series is worth reading for Logen and Glokta alone.

I can’t say the same about the quest part of the book, which is a series of clunky infodumps. Wizards Bayaz and Quai talk about the past and about the ruins of an ancient empire which Abercrombie modelled on the Romans. This faux-medieval world is so obviously a mirror image of our own, also with the Gurkish Empire (Ottomans) and Dagoska (Constantinople), that I long for greater imagination. It is terribly mediocre; regurgitated stuff from decades of epic fantasy since Tolkien and the history is very shallow. I’m not seeing richness in it. The way the wizards talk about it feels as if this world was created only a few generations ago. And none of it seems relevant information for the reader at the time. The only good thing about these chapters are the development of Jezal and Logen, who grow and become more and more sympathetic.

I hope for the final book, Last Argument of Kings, that the characters remain as compelling as they are now and that Abercrombie finally shakes himself loose from that shallow, cliched world-building. If he can do that, then the result will be stunning. Abercrombie has some real talent, but not all the parts are spinning well yet.

8/10

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Bright (2017) Review

Bright

Bright is a Netflix-produced movie, directed by David Ayer (Suicide Squad) and written by Max Landis (Chronicle, American Ultra). Landis, having a hyperactive imagination and matching personality, is making a name for himself as a writer of quite inventive and rather outrageous scripts that combine a lot of comedy and fantasy. So far, however, most of them seem to fail in the translation to the big screen. Let’s see if Bright is a step up for both Landis and Ayer.

Look at the poster, look at what is going on there. Will Smith playing a cop in what must be a police procedural or a buddy-cop movie. Next to him stands Joel Edgerton playing an orc. Oh well, this must be Max Landis’s influence. Sure, let’s combine Bad Boys with Lord of the Rings. I have a feeling that this is not going to be Landis’ and Ayer’s big break. This could be the pilot of an interesting TV show, though.

So, a buddy cop movie in which Ward (Will Smith) is forced to team up with an Orc officer, Jakoby, played by an always great Joel Edgerton. His wife is worried that it will get him killed because the Orc community isn’t all that happy about an Orc being a cop. Will has to tell his daughter that Orcs aren’t dumb but different, and there are special Elf districts in the city. It is such a thinly veiled metaphor that you would ask it to cover itself up, for decency’s sake.

I’m just wondering… if you were to replace the orcs and elves with normal people and if these characters wouldn’t say things like “fairy lives don’t matter” but replace that dialogue with its real life equivalent, would you still have an interesting movie? No. You would have a tiresome movie that is hitting you on the head with its messages every five seconds. But maybe that is not the way to enjoy and appreciate this movie. By pulling the racism issue into the realm of fantasy tropes, Landis and Ayer create a type of distance towards these issues, a dissociation, that can be quite entertaining.

It gives enough material for hundreds of jokes and references. Ward and Jakoby get tangled up in a large plot in which the Magic FBI is hunting after some renegade Elves who seek a magic wand to bring back the Dark Lord. It’s so horribly cliché, but in the unusual environment of a police station, the fantasy elements only have to be recognizable, not innovative. Some ideas are quite inventive though, like orc graffiti.

The cops in this movie are all horrible assholes, especially to each other. Does all this macho nonsense and yelling and posing serve any purpose or is it just cheap drama? It makes the orc Jakoby look more sympathetic because he is the only one thoughtful and soft-spoken, though that is played for insecurity too. The characters all tried to be “cool” and “though” and they all started to grate on me. All police officers here are trigger-happy jackasses with over-inflated egos.

Even Ward (Smith) is an asshole who only speaks in street. I was hoping that he would have some more rapport with his orc partner but he seems ready to shoot him every other scene. Jakoby also won’t be a particularly memorable character. Part of the problem is the overblown dialogue and the relentless grim action. I’m looking at Suicide Squad, David Ayer’s previous film, and at Max Landis’s previous work and the same limitations keep floating up: bad dialogue and characterization that drags down a film that otherwise would have gotten more mileage out of its premises.

What started out as very interesting broke apart in an avalanche of yelling, machoism, “though” characters and bad dialogue. I lost all interest halfway through, but I kept watching out of habit. There was another hour of Will Smith being a hard-ass and yelling and gangsters shooting stuff up. It felt very long.

6/10

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