Review: The Modern Faerie Tales

Over the past few decades, many urban fantasies with a similar theme came up – some girl discovers that she’s part/all faerie and becomes enmeshed in that world. Success varied.

But of particular note is the trilogy that helped popularize that trope – Holly Black’s “Modern Faerie Tales: Tithe; Valiant; Ironside,” a darkly glittering collection of clever, entrancing urban fantasies that spin up spellbinding stories of the fair folk… and then add a little grime and blood to the mix, without sacrificing any of its beauty.

“Tithe” introduces us to Kaye, a young girl who has spent years traveling with her mother’s rock band… until one night when her mother’s boyfriend/guitarist tries to stab her. With nowhere else to go, Kaye and her mother return to her grandmother’s New Jersey house for the time being, which brings back memories for Kaye of the imaginary faerie friends she had as a child.

… except it turns out that faeries are very, very real, as she finds a wounded faerie knight named Roiben, whose life she saves. Soon Kaye finds herself enmeshed in the secret world of the faeries, and discovers a shocking fact about her own life – she is a changeling, a faerie girl swapped out with a human baby, under a glamour so strong that no one knew what she really is. Unfortunately, finding out who she is comes with a lot more danger.

You might be expecting the second of the Modern Faerie Tales to deal with more of Kaye’s adventures, but instead “Valiant” switches the narrative over to Valerie Russell, who runs away from home when she discovers that her mother is having an affair with Valerie’s boyfriend. She makes her way to New York city, and falls in with a gang of teenage subway-dwellers.

She also finds out about the magical underbelly of the city, since it turns out the kids are friends with a troll named Ravus, who makes a mysterious drug that makes faeries temporarily immune to iron… and allows humans to use magic. Unfortunately, a lot of faerie exiles are being poisoned, and Ravus is suspected of the crime. Only Val can save him by uncovering the true murderer.

“Ironside” returns the action to Kaye and Roiben, as the faerie knight is about to be crowned. But when a drunken Kaye declares her feelings for him, he gives her an impossible task – find a faerie who can tell a lie. Devastated, Kaye tells her mother the truth about what she really is – and then begins a personal quest to find the “real” Kaye Fierch, who was kidnapped as a baby.

Meanwhile, Roiben has become tangled up in Silariel’s schemes, and so Kaye also becomes involved in a forthcoming battle for the throne of the Unseelie Court. In order to be together with the man she loves – even if he seems cruel to her at first – Kaye will need all her wits and strength – but even that might not be enough to stop the Bright Court’s queen.

The Modern Faerie Tales are stories that very much deserve the label “urban fantasy,” primarily because Holly Black’s writing feels like a genuine blend of the fantastical and the gritty. Faerie ethereality and glamour is mingled together with grime, wire and subway tunnels of New York; there’s both a delicate timeless beauty to the stories, and a sort of raw rough punk aesthetic.

The same goes for Black’s writing – it’s dark, it’s wild, and it’s studded with moments of poetry (“red and gold flames licked upward. A sea of burning oil and diesel fuel spread to scorch everything it touched”). And she never turns away from the uglier facets of her world — the faerie courts contain casual brutality against the weak and helpless, and Val ends up addicted to a magical drug.

Her heroines are no less compelling, even if they have little to do with each other. Kaye starts the story feeling a little too edgy, fey and immature, but Black smoothly causes her to grow up as she learns who she truly is, and demonstrates her selflessness and love for her family and Roiben. Val is more of an awkward tomboy than a rock’n’roll girl – a wounded girl losing her way and herself, as she struggles to find a place to belong. And there’s a variety of likable supporting characters, like a hunky troll, the icy knight Roiben, and the nerdy gay friend Corny.

Amongst the stories about “I’m a faerie and never knew it,” Holly Black’s “Modern Faerie Tales: Tithe; Valiant; Ironside” stands out as one of the best – darkly glittering, dramatic and perfectly blending the urban and the ethereal.

Review: Lord of the Rings Movie Trilogy

J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was considered unfilmable for a very long time – the story was too big, too fantastical.

But in the late 1990s, New Zealand director Peter Jackson got the green light to shoot the “Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy: a sprawling fantasy epic that chronicles the tipping point of the mythical Middle-Earth, and the humble hobbits who change the world. The richness of J.R.R. Tolkien’s world is translated exquisitely into a movie trilogy full of beauty, horror, hope, humor and vibrant characters.

“The Fellowship of the Ring” introduces us to the hobbits. Eccentric old Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) leaves the peaceful Shire at his 111st birthday, leaving all he has to his young nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) — including a golden Ring that makes the wearer invisible. But the grey wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) reveals that it’s actually the One Ring, which is the source of power for the demonic Dark Lord Sauron. So Frodo and his best pals leave the Shire and join a band of elves, men, and dwarves to take the Ring to the only place where it can be destroyed.

“The Two Towers” picks up immediately after “Fellowship” ends, with Frodo and Sam (Sean Astin) lost on the path to Mordor, and being stalked by the murderous Ring-junkie Gollum (Andy Serkis). Elsewhere, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) make a desperate stand with the kingdom of Rohan, but must face off against the evil wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) and his orc armies.

“Return of the King” brings the trilogy to a dizzying head: Frodo and Sam’s friendship is threatened by Gollum’s trickery, leading Frodo into a potential fatal trap. Gandalf and Pippin head for the city of Gondor, while Aragorn summons an ancient army that might be able to turn the tide against Mordor. But no matter how many battles they win, the war will never be won if Frodo is not able to destroy the Ring once and for all.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” is one of those stories that is too big to fit into one movie – it’s almost too big to fit into three. While Jackson had to streamline the story considerably, the heart of the original novels is still there, with its message about how misfortunes can become blessings, and even the smallest and least imposing person can change the world. Despite the richness of the world-building and the complexity of the characters, it all boils down to that.

Changes are certainly made, such as altering and adding to the characters of Arwen and Faramir, as well as obviously having to leave a lot of events and characters out. Certainly the trilogy doesn’t need Tom Bombadil. But the overall story is remarkably faithful to Tolkien’s tale, and Jackson’s script with partner Philippa Boyens is a masterpiece of storytelling – full of humor and dramatic moments, adapting Tolkien’s richly-archaic prose into powerful speeches (such as Sam’s powerful final speech in “The Two Towers”).

Furthermore, it’s a beautifully-constructed movie – the exquisite sets and expansive New Zealand landscapes are breathtaking; the battle scenes are bloody and exciting; the different cultures of Middle-Earth feel deep and well-lived-in. All the trappings — clothes, jewelry, even beer mugs — are realistic. And the special effects are almost entirely convincing-looking, especially the gruesome Gollum. He’s the first fully convincing CGI character, and after awhile you’ll forget he is made digitally.

It also has a cast who give the performance of their lives – Elijah Wood as the wide-eyed, wounded Frodo Baggins; Sean Astin as his steadfast best friend Sam, who supports him no matter what happens; and Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd as the mischievous but brave Merry and Pippin. Ian McKellen’s Gandalf is the prototypical wizard – kindly and grandfatherly, but capable of anger and fear when confronted by the Ring – and Viggo Mortensen is outstanding as the noble king-in-waiting Aragorn. Orlando Bloom and John Rhys-Davies round out the cast as the elegant elf Legolas and doughty, down-to-earth dwarf Gimli – and there are a bunch of other great performances by actors such as Christopher Lee, Sean Bean, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Miranda Otto, and many many more.

The extended versions of the movies are even better than the theatrical versions — plenty of cut scenes that fill out the characters and plotline are put back in. As a result, the extended versions cleave more closely to the original books. Not to mention TV specials, featurettes, cast commentary on everything in the movies, Sean Astin’s sweet little short film “The Long and Short of It,” and extensive behind-the-scenes footage that will inform viewers about special effects, sets, direction, and everyday life filming “Lord of the Riings.”

The movie adaptations of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy are classics for a reason – while they have some flaws, Peter Jackson managed to adapt a brilliant story into brilliant, beloved movies. Powerful, gripping and full of beauty.

Review: The Old Kingdom Trilogy

Necromancers are usually the bad guys in fantasy. When you can control dead bodies, it’s a given that people might not like you.

But Garth Nix turned that little trope on its head with “The Old Kingdom” trilogy, three interconnected fantasies about a family of necromancers who lay the dead — and forces of evil — to rest. His richly-realized world, elaborate magicks and brilliantly detailed writing give this wry, horrific high-fantasy a special quality that few other fantasy books have. Each of the three books about the Abhorsens is definitely a deserving classic.

“Sabriel” is the story of a teenage girl living happily at a girl’s school, while her necromancer father (the Abhorsen) roams around putting the dead to rest. All that changes when a sending brings her father’s sword and bells, meaning that he is dead or incapacitated. So Sabriel takes on her father’s duties, accompanied by a Free Magic cat and a mysterious young prince, and battles the specter of a horrible evil creature that is reaching out from death to snare her.

“Lirael” takes us to the cold citadel of the Clayr, a race of seers to whom the Sight is everything. Young Lirael is depressed because she doesn’t have the gift of Sight yet, even though everybody else her age does. But things take a sinister turn when she sets a horrifying, bloodthirsty creature loose, and must work — with the help of the mysterious Disreputable Dog — to get rid of it. But what Lirael doesn’t know is that the outside world is in danger too, from a sinister new enemy — and her destiny may take her out of the Clayr glacier, to where Sabriel’s family is struggling to keep their kingdom safe.

“Abhorsen” brings the series to an explosive conclusion. Lirael and her nephew Sameth — along with “cat” Mogget and the Disreputable Dog — are in danger from the invading Dead, and the Destroyer Orannis has escaped from his prison and is being assisted by an evil necromancer and the Dead called Chlorr — and an unfortunate pal of Sameth’s, who was mistaken for the young prince and his now be bespelled. Now Lirael must face her true destiny — not as a Clayr, but as the future Abhorsen.

Garth Nix had only written a couple of books, one of which was an “X-Files” novelization, when the first Old Kingdom book burst onto the fantasy scene. Now he’s one of the most respected, prolific and well-liked fantasy writers in years — and his tales of the Old Kingdom are undoubtedly his best work. They are a perfect example of dark fantasy, with its grotesque dead zombies that occasionally lurch out to attack the heroes, magical bells, and shadowy beasties that can (sometimes) be restrained.

Nix’s invented world is a seamless blend of the modern and the medieval, each ruling one side of the Wall — and he handles this complex world and its magical Charter with the deftness of a master storyteller. He draws everything in exquisite detail, whether it’s the labyrinthine Clayr glacier or the slightly eerie house of the Abhorsen, a bombed-out bunker or a sunny boarding school. And his command of atmosphere is great enough that his depiction of Death’s grey river is enough to chill.

And he comes up with the brilliant concept of the Abhorsen necromancers — who have power over dead and/or magical creatures, manipulate magic with little effort, and bind malignant creatures with Charter marks and a series of magical bells. Got it — binding, not raising.

Virtually all of Nix’s characters are likable, especially the gutsy Sabriel, the strong-willed Touchstone and their nervous teenage son Sameth. Even the annoying Ellimere elicits some smiles. It takes a bit longer to warm up to Lirael, since she spends several chapters in the same-named book moping about her differentness, but once she gets moving she’s unstoppable — and quite likable, once she figures out who she is. And the animal characters are the most brilliant — Mogget and the Disreputable Dog steal the show with their sharp wit and humorous quirks, although we’re constantly reminded that these are magical beings.

Dark fantasy was redefined and reimagined in “The Old Kingdom” trilogy, and these first three books of Garth Nix’s series are a clever, action-packed, magical journey through the Old Kingdom. Definitely a must-read.

Review: Star Trek: The Original Series

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations… to boldly go where no man has gone before!”

It would be hard to find many TV shows as wildly influential as the original series of”Star Trek,” which inspired a devoted fandom, several spinoffs of varying quality, a string of films, and most recently an alternate-timeline reboot directed by J. J. Abrams. And despite the late-sixties bright colors and miniskirts, there’s a bright-eyed yet intense quality to the series — it’s a smart, well-written series with a few duds, headed by a trio of memorable and lovable characters.

In the twenty-third century, mankind has spread out among the stars, and established a Federation of like-minded worlds. The starship Enterprise is part of their Starfleet division — and it does pretty much everything, from fighting hostile aliens like the Klingons and the Romulans, ferrying diplomats and alien dignitaries, and exploring planets with weird and freakish creatures on them (including a furry creature that sucks salt out of its victims).

The captain is James T. Kirk (William Shatner), who is assisted and guided by his two trusted friends, the logic-driven, half-Vulcan science officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and the crusty, blunt-spoken doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Deforest Kelley). With the faithful crew of the Enterprise behind them, they travel through time, encounter godlike aliens, fall prey to some weird diseases (including one that makes you drunk!), get caught in countless planetary wars, deal with a suspiciously large number of crazy/evil computers, and encounter countless strange creatures (a rock monster, brains in jars, a hostile lizard-man, flying brain cells, Jack the ripper, tribbles…).

Yes, it has those bright colors, beehives and chintzy sets that you expect from a late sixties show, especially a science fiction one. But what made “Star Trek: The Original Series” such an enduring show was that it was a depiction of a brighter future, full of exploration and wonder, without becoming too starry-eyed to take seriously. And it had a good balance of “Big Moral Message” stories (“racism is stupid,” “war is bad,” “don’t trust computers blindly”) and solid sci-fi stories that featured some truly weird, out-there alien life forms.

Simply put,”Star Trek: The Original Series” tended to have very well-written, intense stories that relied on a mix of action (usually involving Kirk losing part of his shirt), well-written dialogue and plenty of powerful emotion (a guilt-ridden starship captain becomes obsessed with destroying a machine that killed his crew). This allowed some of the stories that would otherwise seem rather silly (Spock getting a pancake-sized alien cell embedded in his back) to have some serious tension, but not in a way that precluded some actual humor (the entire episode about tribbles — chirping little furry balls that reproduce exponentially — is side-splittingly funny, especially when poor Kirk gets buried alive in them).

It also has one of the most cohesive casts ever to be seen on TV, even though actors like Nichelle Nichols, George Takei and Walter Koenig were underused. For all the gags about Shatner’s acting, he plays Kirk as a man of both brains and passion — he’s driven and emotion, with a love for his ship, his crew and the unexplored crannies of the galaxy that rules his life. But he’s also intelligent and canny, and more than once we see him outwitting a foe, whether it’s making a primitive gun by hand or playing the ultimate bluff against a vast alien ship.

And he has uniquely solid chemistry with Nimoy and Kelley, so that you can really believe that these three characters are fast friends who bicker, joke and advise each other… well, mostly Bones and Spock snipe at each other, while Kirk sits there smiling. Nimoy gives a brilliant performance as the half-Vulcan, half-human Spock, struggling with the emotions that his Vulcan nature doesn’t allow him to express, even though his relationship with his people is rather tempestuous. Kelley plays McCoy as the exact opposite — a fiery Southern doctor whose determination to do the right thing sometimes clashes with his duty. Yes, he boozes it up while on duty, but who doesn’t want a doctor like McCoy?

Flaws? Well, like any TV show, “Star Trek: The Original Series” had some dud episodes, often involving space hippies, Abraham Lincoln and brain theft. And some of the attitudes towards women are… seriously problematic, especially in the final episode. The series briefly dabbled in the idea of a female first officer, and Nichelle Nichols’ Uhura is depicted as strong, gutsy and smart when she gets to do something (which is admittedly rare), but it’s still heavily weighed towards the men.

Few TV shows have had the impact on nerd culture that “Star Trek: The Original Series” has had, whether it’s transporting to a parallel reality or catchphrases that everyone misquotes. Despite some episodes that veer off into the silly and/or stupid, it’s still an excellent, enjoyable series with a bright, idealistic view of the future.

Review: Malignant

“Malignant” is one of those movies that is… hard to judge. It’s hard to judge because the intent of it is not entirely clear, and so you’re left unsure whether the filmmaker responsible for it was successful in their ambitions.

Specifically, it’s hard to tell if it was meant to be funny or not.

In the broadest sense, “Malignant” is a horror movie, by the current king of horror, James Wan. And for the first two acts, it serves as a perfectly serviceable buildup to some kind of horrifying revelation, with distinct overtones of the gothic and giallo. Then… the third act happens, and somehow the drama, the absurd action and the bizarreness of it all splatters across the screen like so much CGI blood. It’s absolutely gutsplitting.

When her abusive husband cracks her head against a wall, pregnant Madison Lake (Annabelle Wallis) locks herself in her bedroom. But she’s woken in the night by the murder of her husband – and an attack by a mysterious figure with long hair over his face, which leads to her losing her baby. Detectives Kekoa Shaw (George Young) and Regina Moss (Michole Briana White) investigate, but the only evidence to be found is bizarre and inexplicable, so they suspect Madison.

Upon returning to her home, Madison begins having visions of the killer hunting down and murdering other people – and it turns out that yes, her visions are coming true. The problem is, it’s all tied up in Madison’s mysterious childhood, before she was adopted by her parents… and she can’t remember that. To find out who “Gabriel” is, and how to stop him before he murders again, Madison will have to uncover a horrifying truth about herself.

I’m going to be blunt about this – “Malignant” is not a good movie. It has plot holes up the wazoo, a massive plot twist that can be easily figured out in the first ten minutes, and countless unanswered questions. For instance, why doesn’t Madison have a scar? How is Gabriel able to control electricity? Why does he wear a leather coat? Why does he have superhuman agility? All of these questions will not be answered, because the plot comes unraveled like a cheap sweater when you think about it for more than a few minutes!

But at the same time, there’s something strangely lovable about the movie. It has the innate drama and striking, haunting visual artistry seen in old giallo movies, right down to the copious gore, mingled with a kind of bad 1990s horror-movie aesthetic that just isn’t seen anymore. The opening sequence alone is a block of pure cheese, and it’s beautiful.

This gives the movie a rather inconsistent tone – during most of the police work and Madison’s daily life, we’re given a fairly realistic, subdued directorial style from Wan. Then Gabriel appears, and suddenly everything is crashing lightning, gothic castle-hospitals, and medical awards being used to brutally stab people to death. And of course, there’s the third act, where everything is dialed up to eleven – the sentimentality, the cheese, the bizarre plot twists.

This includes a scene that seems like it was made to be hilarious, but I honestly can’t tell if it was – a scene in which “Gabriel” carves his way through the police station, with superhuman acrobatics, snapped spines and rivers of gore… all performed backwards. James Wan, what exactly was your intent here?

Annabelle Wallis is merely passable as Madison – she’s okay when the role demands she be scared, and her crazy-eyes stare is pretty solid, but most other emotions just make her look like she has a stomachache. Maddie Hasson gives a pretty good performance as Madison’s younger sister, and Young has a striking presence as the police detective who looks beneath the veneer of the obvious to find out what is happening.

If nothing else, be glad that James Wan got the chance to make “Malignant” – an original horror movie that isn’t part of a glossy franchise, and which wears its niche influences like a badge of honor. It’s not a good movie, but it is an entertaining and memorable one.

Review: Injustice

Imagine what would happen if Superman went bad. Not a mustache-twirling villain, but a frighteningly powerful fascist who demands loyalty and obedience from…. well, everyone. Sort of like a Twitter warrior with godlike powers.

Hence we get “Injustice,” an animated movie loosely based on the hit video game and the long-running comic-book series that served as its prequel. Sadly, it’s a bare-bones, rather shapeless kind of film, and it’s kind of shallow both in plot and theme – the moral issues raised by the source material are boiled down to “taking away people’s freedoms and rights is bad.” The voice acting is lackluster and the need to fulfill a three-act structure leads to a very rushed and somewhat anticlimactic ending.

The Joker decides to give Superman the “one bad day” treatment – he kidnaps the pregnant Lois, attaches the trigger of a nuclear bomb to her heart, and tricks Clark into killing her. The bomb goes off, destroying all of Metropolis. Enraged and grief-stricken, Superman murders the Joker in front of Batman. Then, with the support of Wonder Woman, decides that he is going to bring peace and order to the world…. whether the world likes it or not.

Only a few heroes, antiheroes and Harley Quinn dare to oppose Superman’s new regime, with Batman as their leader. But as their resources and numbers dwindle – including a loss that forever fractures Batman’s family – Superman makes a Faustian alliance with a villain who promises to help him achieve his dream of peace, and descends further into murder and tyranny as he kills those who offend him. The only hope that this Earth has is for Batman to free Mr. Terrific, and find someone who can stop Superman.

It was always going to be a challenge to reduce a long-running, years-spanning comic series and a full-length video game into a movie that isn’t even ninety minutes long. That’s a lot of character development, subplots, battles and important events that need to be trimmed away. So needless to say, the story is very bare-bones and loses a lot of its narrative oomph – as well as the expansive cast of characters one would expect of the Justice League. I’m still not entirely sure why Harley Quinn is involved except as comic relief.

The story also seems to not have much depth – the main message of “police states and fascism are bad” is a good one, but it isn’t presented with much complexity or nuance. The movie also suffers from having to neatly wrap up everything in a bow after a third-act battle… which it utterly fails at. Lots of plot threads are left hanging when it slams into the credits, only seconds after the whole superpowered-tyrant-controlling-the-world issue is resolved in a very, very anticlimactic way. And whenever a hero is killed – which happens frequently – there’s barely time to register it. Most of the many deaths just don’t matter, and some characters just walk right out to never be seen again (such as Aquaman and Shazam).

It also inherits some original sins from the source materials, and despite many changes, it makes no attempt to explain them. For instance, Wonder Woman is strangely hostile to Batman and all-too-eager to turn Superman into a super-tyrant, apparently being too stupid to see how all this could escalate. Why is she so different from the usual Wonder Woman we know and love? No idea. She just is.

The animation is…. okay. Not the best I’ve seen, but not offensively bad. The voice acting is resolutely mediocre, through – most of the actors range from okay-but-not-very-good (Anson Mount, Justice Hartley, Gillian Jacobs, a strangely stiff Janet Varney) to this-is-just-really-bad (Faran Tahir, Kevin Pollak’s Joker). Derek Phillips is admittedly quite good as Nightwing, and Oliver Hudson is pretty fun as Plastic Man.

The one good aspect of “Injustice” is that it reminded me that I’ve been meaning to watch “Superman Vs. The Elite,” an animated movie that delves into the morals of superheroes and what happens when they throw aside laws. Consider that a recommendation, and give it a watch instead of this halfhearted, fatally-flawed adaptation.

Review: Kinky Boots

Women’s heeled shoes aren’t made for men’s feet. Not only are men often heavier, but their feet are actually a different shape — they have wider heels and narrower forefeet.

And that dilemma spawns a brilliant new idea in “Kinky Boots,” a clever little comedy about the transvestite boots that may save a struggling shoe company from extinction. It’s a little predictable in the lessons that are learned (I wonder if the straitlaced factory folk will come to respect Lola!), but it’s also charming, flashy, clever and unexpectedly vulnerable in all the right places — while also having a rather sweet friendship at its core.

Charlie Price (Joel Edgerton) and his materialistic fiancee Nicola (Jemima Rooper) have just moved to London when they have to go back to Northampton — his dad has died, leaving him the family’s Northampton shoe factory, which produces high quality men’s shoes. But because the shoes aren’t selling, he’s forced to fire two dozen employees.

While drunkenly wandering the streets of London, he comes across some guys harassing a woman… and after getting knocked out defending her, discovers “she” is actually a drag queen, Lola (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Lola’s difficulties with the sexy boots she wears inspires Charlie to embrace a wild new idea — embracing a niche market by creating a new line of women’s shoes aimed at men (and presumably women born with men’s bodies). He rehires an outspoken worker named Lauren (Sarah-Jane Potts) to help him out with this new approach.

Lola is scornful of the first efforts (“Please, God, tell me I have not inspired something burgundy!”) but soon joins the factory as their new designer. But the new line is threatened by personal problems — Charlie’s fiancee is enraged that he refuses to sell the factory to a developer, one of the employees (Nick Frost) starts harassing Lola, and Lola (or “Simon” out of drag) feels nervous about being a drag queen in a smaller conservative city. With only days to go before their big show in Milan, they will have to churn out some really gorgeous kinky boots, or the company is finished.

Despite the title, “Kinky Boots” is not really a kinky movie. It’s a feel-good movie with all the sorts of twists and turns you would expect from it — the whole situation with the fiancee, the single employee who is nasty to anyone who challenges the whole heteronormativity thing, the fight with Lola, the “will they or won’t they show up?” dilemma at the climax when it seems all is lost. So yeah, it’s kind of predictable in that regard, and many of the plot developments are ones you’ve seen elsewhere.

However, it’s a nice feel-good movie. While most of the story is in the grey grit and grime of a Northampton working-class factory, director Julian Jarrold splashes it with glitz and bright colors (“Red is the color of sex and fear and danger and signs that say, Do. Not. Enter. All my favorite things in life!”) and a sense of wry humor that plays off well with the brash, brassy approach of Lola (“Sorry to be presumptive. ARE you a mister?” “I’m a Charlie. From Northampton”). The dialogue is clever and often snappy, interspersed with rather awkwardly charming conversations.

Jarrold doesn’t shy away from issues like homophobia (though Lola/Simon’s sexuality is left ambiguous), or the cruelty that may be lavished on people who don’t fit gender norms. A lot of Simon’s issues with places like Northampton comes from a lifetime of rejection for being who and what he is, and we see his fragility under the Lola armor when he confides in Charlie about his awful childhood. But he also weaves in the idea that these differences don’t matter if you’re a good person underneath — one charming scene has Lola’s landlady cheerily asking “Are you a man?” just so she’ll know how to leave the toilet seat.

And as such, the central friendship is a rather sweet one — Charlie is a kind-hearted, rather introverted man who doesn’t care about shoes so much as he cares about helping people, and Lola/Simon is an brassy, limelight-loving drag queen who comes to like and befriend the people he previously feared. They have a lot in common, having had childhoods overpowered by fathers who quashed their true selves in favor of what they wanted them to do (make shoes or be a boxer).

And the actors all do good jobs, especially Chiwetel Ejiofor — he blasts through musical numbers, arm-wrestling competitions and the occasional fight with robust charm, and seems to be having fun in his wigs and sexy dresses. He never holds back on the brash and brassy, but he also can play Simon’s fragile, painful awareness that other people don’t think of him as normal. And Edgerton plays the exact opposite — a timid, pleasant young man who doesn’t seem to have any particular drive, but who discovers his own backbone when he finds something to fight for.

“Kinky Boots” is not particularly kinky, but it does have a lot of boots — sexy, glitzy boots that change the lives and hearts of the people making them. A fun, funky little movie… especially if you like seeing Chiwetel Ejiofor sing “I Want To Be Evil.”

Review: Mortal Kombat (2021)

While the 1990s Mortal Kombat movie was cheesy fun, it wasn’t quite the film that fans of the game franchise wanted… primarily because it was PG-13, and thus bloodless and tame. It didn’t help that its sequel, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, was one of the most legendarily bad movies of all time.

And so, nearly twenty-five years later, we have been graced by a new Mortal Kombat reboot which promises the fatalities, the gore, and the endless swearing from Kano. Its biggest problem is that it’s a build-up to a tournament that will apparently happen in the sequel, meaning that it’s mostly a lot of people running around fighting with little purpose… but hey, it’s mindlessly entertaining, bloody and acrobatic running around.

The main character is Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a past-his-prime MMA fighter who regularly gets beaten up for $200 a pop. The glaring problem with this character is simple: he’s very boring and generic. There’s really not much to him except his family lineage – he is Completely Normal Guy who serves as an audience proxy.

But then he and his family are attacked by a cryomantic Chinese ninja known as Sub-Zero, who really wants them dead. They’re rescued by Jax (Mehcad Brooks), an ex-soldier with the same dragon marking that Cole has, although he loses both arms in a fight with Sub-Zero. Fellow ex-soldier Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) explains that the dragon marking is a sign of being chosen for a great interdimensional tournament known as Mortal Kombat.

After an attack by a reptilian monster, Cole and Sonya convince a scummy criminal named Kano (Josh Lawson) – who has also acquired a dragon marking – to lead them to the god Raiden’s temple. Once there, Cole and Kano begin training under fellow champions Kung Lao (Max Huang) and Liu Kang (Ludi Lin). However, the evil soul-eating sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han) is determined to kill Earth’s champions before the tournament even begins, and invades Raiden’s temple.

If there’s one word to describe the Mortal Kombat reboot, it’s “setup.” The entire movie is essentially a setup for the actual Mortal Kombat tournament, and everything that happens within that movie is a setup for some kind of epic fight scene. And in that regard, it works pretty well – the third act is almost wall-to-wall mortal kombat, with plenty of exploding heads, bodies sawed in half, and the occasional evisceration.

And as far as the plot is concerned, the “setup” status is perhaps its weakness – there’s not really much plot here, just the heroes getting together, trying to develop superpowers, getting their butts kicked, regrouping, and then fighting with the myriad colorful bad guys. The closest to a true plot is the feud between Sub-Zero and Scorpion that spans centuries and dimensional boundaries. That subplot is the powerhouse of the movie, and the epicness of their eventual clash is almost cathartic.

It has a fairly good cast as well – Tan does as good a job as anyone could with his nondescript character, and it has solid performances by Brooks, Lin and Huang. McNamee is a strong female character of the type we need more of – intelligent, fierce, smart, compassionate and moral – and Hiroyuki Sanada is absolutely brilliant in his brief screen-time. Lawson’s Kano is also a complete delight to watch – he is so unabashedly, over-the-top vile that it makes him almost lovable.

It’s light on story and heavy on gory, making the “Mortal Kombat” reboot a film that is best appreciated with your brain turned off. It’s an entertaining spectacle for people who want some gore and guts, but you’ll have to wait for the sequel for any actual tournament action.

Review: Godzilla Vs. Kong

This movie is a tour de force – an intricate and sensitive tapestry of thought-provoking questions and exquisite metaphors, which forces the viewer to reexamine their relationship with the world at large. It is a story that questions our humanity in the face of natural disaster, our place in the universe, and the uncertainty of life in a modern context…

… just kidding. It’s a movie about a giant lizard and a giant monkey punching each other.

And that really is all you need to know about “Godzilla Vs. Kong,” the long-awaited fourth entry in the Monsterverse franchise. This is the long-awaited, official meeting of Japan’s greatest kaiju with his American counterpart – and while some parts of the movie don’t make a lot of sense (where is the sunlight in the Hollow Earth coming from?) or exist just for exposition, the monstrous beasts themselves keep us invested.

The movie opens with conspiracy podcaster Bernie (Brian Tyree Henry) infiltrating the obviously-evil megacorporation, Apex. Coincidentally, Godzilla decides to attack the facility during Bernie’s time there, which baffles the humans. Why has Godzilla, generally a benevolent figure, attacked humanity unprovoked? Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown) is convinced that Godzilla had a reason for attacking, and sets out to find Bernie in order to find answers.

Meanwhile, Apex is funding an expedition into the Hollow Earth, and they want Kong – imprisoned by Monarch on Skull Island – to lead them down there. The problem is, venturing onto the ocean puts him on Godzilla’s turf, and the big lizard will naturally attack any rival for the role of alpha Titan. So not only do they have to chain Kong up and transport him from the tropical Pacific to Antarctica, they have to deal with Godzilla attacking — which he does.

But getting Kong to Antarctica is only the first step, as the humans now need to follow him into a realm dominated by vast beasts – and some kind of power that Apex wants to get their hands on. And on the surface, Bernie, Madison and Madison’s friend Josh uncover the reason that Apex was attacked by Godzilla – and the horrifying possibilities if it’s ever used.

It has plot holes. It has inconsistencies with previous films. It has stuff that doesn’t make much sense. Yet there’s a refreshing kind of purity in “Godzilla Vs. Kong” that comes from knowing exactly what it is, and being happy with being just a popcorn blockbuster about two kaiju beating each other up. If that is what you expect – a sci-fi tale about giant monsters – then it’s likely to be an entertaining watch.

So there’s plenty of spectacle – boats explode or are overturned, buildings are smashed or blasted into glassy splinters, and the city of Hong Kong is more or less flattened for our amusement. Perhaps the only area where spectacle falls short is in the Hollow Earth itself – what we see is pretty spectacular, but we don’t see enough of it. The movie could have used another half hour of Kong’s adventures in the center of the Earth, the ancient civilization there, and the many monsters.

And make no mistake – despite an infestation of human characters, Kong himself is the main character here, a vast melancholy ape who occasionally bursts into chest-thumping, teeth-bearing rage. The CGI is exemplary, causing you to feel Kong’s isolation, his homesickness, his triumph and his pain. Godzilla is more of an antagonistic presence looming throughout most of the film. He has the power of a force of nature in the opening scenes, but up against someone as big as he is, he snarls and claws in a far more down-to-earth, personal manner.

The various actors in it do a decent job serving as side-characters to the CGI stars of the show – Alexander Skarsgard, Rebecca Hall and Brian Tyree Henry all do good jobs, Eiza Gonzalez and Demian Bichir are solid as smugly corporate overlords, and Julian Dennison steals the show as Madison’s hapless yet street-smart sidekick… and who ultimately turns out to be more plot-essential than she is.

Yeah, Millie Bobbie Brown’s character doesn’t really have a good reason to be in the story, and she’s so obnoxious and condescending that you end up wishing she hadn’t been. Kaylee Hottle’s character at least serves as an interpreter for Kong, even if children in kaiju movies are generally a bad sign.

If you expect “Godzilla Vs. Kong” to provide exactly what the title suggests, then you won’t be disappointed – it’s a big, robust movie that revolves around kaiju hitting each other. And in troubled times, don’t we need more of that?

Review: Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Back in 2017, Warner Brothers released Joss Whedon’s Justice League, supposedly the springboard to a shared universe of spinoff movies. But the movie cratered, and in the years since, it has been widely considered to be a creative disaster.

But another version of the movie was widely rumored to exist – a cut by the original director Zack Snyder, before it was sliced and diced by the studio and Whedon in an effort to make a more marketable blockbuster. And after years of fans demanding that the studio release the artist’s vision, the fabled “Snyder Cut” was finally released, completed and four hours long. Was it worth the wait?

In a word, yes.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League covers roughly the same territory as the Joss Whedon Cut – Batman (Ben Affleck) brings together several superheroes to fight an extraterrestrial warlord named Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds). This includes the immortal warrior Diana (Gal Gadot), young speedster Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), the gruff water-warrior Arthur (Jason Momoa) and a traumatized young cyborg named Victor (Ray Fisher). In their quest to keep Steppenwolf from uniting the three Motherboxes that will spell the Earth’s doom, they realize that they need the help of Superman (Henry Cavill) – and they may have the means of returning him to life.

But whole the overall plot – and some scenes – are familiar, the movie has whole swathes that are new and enriching. Characters are massively fleshed out, poorly-conceived comedy is notably absent, and the rich lore of the DC universe is woven into the tapestry of the plot – most notably in the malevolent Darkseid and his courtiers, who give some reason for Steppenwolf to conquer Earth other than “he just wants to, okay?”

In short, with four hours to expand into, the Snyder Cut has the ability to be a richer, more compelling narrative. Snyder’s vision here is a muscular, smooth, flowing expanse of scenes that all interweave neatly – nothing here could be trimmed without diminishing something else. This even includes some beloved DC characters who don’t play much of a role here, but were clearly intended to contribute more to a shared universe.

Snyder also strikes an almost perfect balance of action, comedy and tragedy here. There are some moments of understated comedy woven in (“This is Alfred. I work for him”), but it’s kept sedate and appropriate to whatever is happening. There are some great action scenes as well (such as the tragic battle of Steppenwolf against the Amazons), though Snyder makes sure to weave subtle characterization into them. But he delves deep into the loss and pain of the characters here, especially Cyborg’s misery and anger over being turned into… well, a cyborg. Yet he also shows their nobility and their desire to help others.

Furthermore, the Snyder Cut simply feels… bigger and more epic than Whedon’s cut. Whedon’s film always seemed flimsy and small in scale, but this actually feels like our heroes are going up against an apocalyptic threat. This is particularly true in the Justice League’s final battle against Steppenwolf, which is turned from a standard superhero climax into something dazzling – time is bent, space is torn, battles are fought in body and in the mind, and it feels like no other heroes could possibly do what the Justice League is doing.

Furthermore, the characters are finally done justice by this cut – Snyder’s Batman is intelligent and competent, his Superman is a stern but kind and good person, and his Wonder Woman is fierce and magnificent. Even Steppenwolf is given more character dimensions here – in just a few lines, Snyder makes this horned alien monstrosity feel like a real person, who desperately wants redemption and a welcome home. You almost feel sorry for him, even if you don’t want him to succeed.

But the greatest character development comes for Barry and Victor. Barry is shown not just as a funny quippy kid, but as growing into his role as a hero and completely devoting himself to saving the entire world. And Fisher does an outstanding job as Victor, whose raw pain and misery are recognizable in any person who’s suffered a life-changing injury or disease, but whose compassion for others is never dimmed.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League has some flaws, but it is a wildly different – and far superior – cut to the disaster that was released in theaters. It combined slam-bang action and a lore-rich script with a lot of heart and soul – all you could ask from a superhero movie.