Sonya Blade – Badass Lady Fighter

I have a confession to make: I kinda like the Mortal Kombat movie from 2021.

I mean, it’s not as controversial as saying you’re an unironic fan of Battlefield Earth or something like that. But as I understand it, fans of the video games didn’t like it a great deal, even just compared to the 1990s movie.

And I won’t lie – it’s flawed. Cole is a pretty bland lead character who isn’t from the games, though he’s inoffensive and he avoids the whole Gary Stu character aspect. Kano is lots of fun to watch, and I suspect the actor had a ball playing him. Shang Tsung is not really very intimidating, There’s some eye candy for women and a small number of men (Liu Kang is basically this ALL THE TIME). The special effects are pretty decent. Hiroyuki Sanada and Joe Taslim are basically perfect as Scorpion and Subzero, and there’s a reason the entire climax is about these two whaling on each other.

But I think of all the characters, I enjoy watching Sonya Blade the most, because she is an example of a warrior woman written correctly. And we don’t have a lot of those anymore – a lot of female characters in current-day action movies are essentially written as power fantasies…. which are okay, as long as it’s acknowledged that they’re nothing better than that. These characters are coldly constructed to maximize feelings of shallow empowerment without risking upsetting anyone by making the character look “weak” by having them be vulnerable, struggle to do anything, or need anything from a man.

Disney, I’m looking at you. You gave us Rey, Live!Mulan and Captain Marvel.

Sonya Blade is literally not like the other girls… and for once, that’s a good thing. The first thing to note is that she is always depicted as a butt-kicking badass – she’s a military veteran who’s good enough to fight in Mortal Kombat, and she’s strong and skilled enough to capture Kano and keep him chained up in her house. When Subzero is chasing down Cole, she’s the one that Jax sends him to to keep him safe.

But it’s worth noting that in raw physical power, she’s not the strongest. On average, men are much stronger than women physically, which many movies and TV shows don’t want to acknowledge because… I guess acknowledging it would be considered misogynistic. But Mortal Kombat does implicitly acknowledge it, because Sonya is shown going toe to toe with physically powerful men not based on raw muscle power, but using her brains, her training, and her agility. Her part of the climax is a wonderfully intense game of cat-and-mouse, where she not only has to battle Kano’s physical power but his laser eye, which she manages through manipulating her surroundings as well as physical attacks.

Which brings me to another aspect of Sonya that many other action heroines don’t have anymore – she struggles. Watch the Disney action heroines mentioned above, and you’ll be lucky if they EVER struggle to take down their enemies.

In the shallow minds of the people writing these stories, I think they imagine that a woman struggling would make her look weak… and that idea is bad storytelling. Seeing your hero struggle is part of the experience of wanting them to triumph – you watch them sweat, get punched, collapse to the ground and struggle to get up again, and lose their initial fights. That makes it all the more cathartic and satisfying when they finally triumph – because you know they worked for their triumph over the bad guys, and all the sweat, blood and tears were worth it in the end.

If the hero’s only flaw is “he/she needs to realize how AWESOME he/she is!”, and they breeze through, effortlessly winning the day without breaking a sweat… the only people who find that satisfying are people who just want a power fantasy.

And yes, Sonya struggles. She follows the arc of HERO FIGHTS –> HERO FAILS –> HERO REGROUPS/TRAINS –> HERO FIGHTS AGAIN –> HERO WINS AFTER STRUGGLE, like Luke Skywalker and other classic heroes. Her ultimate triumph over Kano – and gaining an arcana – is narratively satisfying because we watched her grapple with him right to the end, and it was a near thing. So when she looks at her dragon mark and laughs, it feels earned.

I do not get that feeling from a Captain Marvel, a Rey, a Live!Mulan. They don’t struggle to win, so there’s no cathartic satisfaction when they do win. It’s like watching Usain Bolt outrunning a toddler. Who’d find that satisfying?

I also really like Sonya’s relationships with the men around her. She doesn’t really interact much with the female characters – I think she only encounters Mileena, who skips out on murdering her because she wouldn’t get Mortal Kombat street cred from it. I guess she probably meets Cole’s wife and daughter at the end of the film.

Anyway, throughout the movie Sonya interacts mainly with the male characters, and for the most part… they treat her no differently than if she were a man. The only exception of Kano, who is a walking mass of personality defects, who is sexist to her because he’s casually offensive to everyone (and also he’s salty that she chained him up). But the men on her side treat her with respect and admiration, not considering her any less worthy because she’s a woman, and it’s hard to imagine that, say, Cole would treat her any differently if she were a guy.

That also goes for her relationship with Jax. I’m not sure what the age difference is between them, but it seems like they have a big brother/little sister connection, with a hint of mentor/student.

One thing I’ve noticed about movies in recent years is that women are often not allowed to be the mentees/students of men anymore – a woman must either know everything she needs automatically, or she must learn from another woman. See Rey, Captain Marvel, etc. That makes it kind of wholesome when Sonya admits that when she first entered the military, she wanted to make Jax proud, and that was clearly an important motivation in her training and her service.

It’s also worth noting that in the second act, she also spends a lot of time just supporting Jax. She’s told that she can’t train for Mortal Kombat because she doesn’t have a dragon mark that gives you superpowers, and instead of pouting or kicking up a fuss, she decides to go support her best friend, who just lost both of his arms and has been given little dinky robot ones instead. She doesn’t make it all about her, but about her friend who needs help.

On the subject of Sonya not having an arcana, I also liked that she’s demonstrated to have actual morals rather than a vague sense of goodness that is never challenged or confronted with temptation. You see, Sonya wants an arcana because she wants to engage in Mortal Kombat (DA DA DA, DADADA DA DA DA!), but there are only two ways to gain one. Either you are an elite fighter and vague supernatural powers bestow it on you, or you gain it by killing someone else who has the marking.

Kano has the marking. Now, Kano is a person who has done all sorts of hideous criminal things, and killing him would probably make the world a better place. In fact, he keeps taunting Sonya about killing him, even to the point where she fights him but does not kill him, just to demonstrate that she can in fact beat him. But she doesn’t kill him, because at that point he was technically an ally and wasn’t a direct threat.

Does she kill him? Yes. But only after he turns against the group and tries to murder her twice, in self-defense.

The same way a hero has to struggle for his success to mean anything, a hero’s morals have to be challenged for their morality to have any depth. If the hero is never tempted to do the wrong thing, then their morality doesn’t really mean anything. This is especially true in a situation where doing the wrong thing feels like it might be the right thing, such as killing a loathsome murderer who will get superpowers and probably misuse them to kill even more people.

Anyway, those are my scrambled thoughts on the character of Sonya Blade in the Mortal Kombat movie, and why I liked her far better than most action heroines in current-day films. She’s tough, she’s smart, she’s compassionate, she’s skilled, and she fires pink laser beams. Not bad.

Recommendation: Decker Shado

Right now this particular reviewer is getting his butt kicked by the Youtube algorithm, probably because he puts out videos devoted to science fiction, Asian cinema, cult movies and horror rather than… well, I don’t know what does well in the Youtube algorithm, because I don’t watch it.

And of course, Godzilla movies. He’s fun, dramatic and has luscious hair, and seems like a very nice person. So please support him in whatever way you can!

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCsxn3qKFpbnD-8f1d9F5ipA

Cruella and the illusion of genius

Sorry it’s been awhile since I last ranted about something that bothered me, but upon watching JLongbone’s rant about the movie Cruella, I had to talk about it.

Specifically, I had to talk about how… I am not sure how Disney came to the conclusion that Cruella was a genius. The movie is crammed with her referring to herself as a genius, and others talking about her genius, and the narrative acts as if she’s a genius even though she does very little geniusing. The entire movie revolves around the idea that she’s not just an artistic genius, but a criminal mastermind who can dominate and manipulate everyone.

Just… where did this characterization come from?

Because I have seen 101 Dalmations, and she is most assuredly not a genius. She is literally just a rich bitch who hires other people to do minor crimes for her. Even if she did the criminal acts in person, it wouldn’t be genius – it would be breaking into a middle-class London house and stealing baby animals that can be easily stuffed into a sack. That’s not Mission: Impossible. It’s not even Ocean’s 11. Actually, I was never quite sure why Roger and Anita never had the police investigate her, since she was literally the only suspect.

And lest you think that she was a fashion design genius… no, she was a consumer of fashion. There are plenty of bibliophiles who can’t write four coherent words, and there are plenty of fashion enthusiasts who know absolutely nothing about making fashion. They’re called celebrities. Ba-dum-tish.

The point is, wanting a coat made out of spotted dogskin is not the same thing as being a fashion designer of genius caliber. Hell, in the original book, Cruella’s husband was the one with actual fashion knowledge and experience; she just took advantage of his position to get lots of furs. Yes, someone actually married… that.

And of all the Disney villains I can think of off the top of my head, Cruella is arguably the least genius of them all. The closest to her in lack-of-genius is Gaston, and… well, at least Gaston knew how to rile up a crowd and manipulate people. Cruella just screams at them, hits them and throws money at them, and then ends up crashing her vehicle and being outwitted by a pair of dogs.

Who looked at this loony rich skank and thought, “Yes, she is a true genius”?

Maybe its one of those really sad attempts to inspire young girls by telling them that they’re brilliant and brave and talented and all-around glorious when… the majority are not, and likely never will be, and setting them up with big egos and inflated self-image is just going to make things rocky later on. Maybe people think that all girls will be amazing brilliant girlbosses if they have self-confidence, and that’s just not true. Self-confidence is often bestowed on people with nothing to back it up, and they typically make life harder for everyone around them.

And don’t even get me started on how the movie makes Cruella not do evil things. This is a woman that is famous for wanting to skin baby animals – whose bright idea was it to have her be kind to dogs? It’s like Disney wants the edgelord cred of having movies about villains, but they’re too cowardly to have their villains actually… do anything villainous.

Remember that one Justice League episode where the Flash and Lex Luthor switched bodies, and Flash declared that he wasn’t going to wash his hands “cuz I’m evil”? That was more evil than Cruella.

More about the Eternals and why they’re boring (spoilers)

No, I haven’t finished it, but something struck me when I was considering the excessive largeness of the cast and how it probably could have been pared down to at least half without losing anything.

In addition to the fact that none of the characters are developed very well, and there are way too many of them, they aren’t interesting to me because… they all have the same backstory. They all come from the same place, with the same mission and goals, and for about six-and-a-half thousand years they pretty much do the same things over and over with each other around. That gives their characters a sameness that just isn’t appealing in an ensemble cast.

Let’s compare them to the Guardians of the Galaxy, a similarly obscure team who was a rousing success and instantly beloved instead of… whatever the Eternals are. Each of the Guardians comes with a different backstory – they each have experiences, tragedies and struggles that are unique and distinct, but which bind them together when they do finally find friends. Rocket’s backstory is wildly different from Drax’s, and his experiences logically affect the way he sees the world and interacts with other people.

That’s why the Guardians feel like such well-rounded characters by comparison – each one is different. With the Eternals, all the differences feel very shallow and surface-level, because there’s not really anything in their histories to make them stand apart from each other.

I mean, imagine if every single character in the MCU was some variation of a rich, talented, arrogant man who is badly injured and humbled, and ends up becoming a nobler version of himself who uses his power and influence for good. That’s fine for Tony Stark. Some people complained that Dr. Strange was too similar, but their wheelhouses are far enough apart that it’s tolerable. But if every character came from the same background and experiences as Strange or Stark, it would be dull and none of them would stand out.

That’s why Ikaris and Sersi’s relationship feels so boring, dull and flat. What do these characters see in each other beyond “I’m hot, you’re hot, let’s do it”? It’s one of the worst romantic relationships I’ve ever seen, because neither one has any actual characteristics that could lead someone to find them attractive beyond the purely physical. Yet we’re supposed to believe they were so in love that they got married and spent over six MILLENNIA together.

And that’s not including the fact that many things about the Eternals that don’t make sense if you think about them for half a second. If they’re basically fleshy androids designed for their mission, why do they feel attraction? Why are they given the capacity to disobey and think for themselves, rather than being designed and programmed to simply do what they were designed to do? Why not just design them so they value the Celestials above all other life, and humans simply won’t matter to them outside of their function for the Celestials? That seems a lot more efficient than constantly tricking them and mind-wiping them so they’ll never find out the truth.

And if you could design a perfect artificial life-form, one indistinguishable from an organic being and possessing immense superpowers… why would you DELIBERATELY give them a handicap like deafness?

This movie is just very poorly-made, poorly-conceived, and very dull. Marvel has a reputation for putting out shiny, competent blockbusters, but they’ve been very shaky lately – Shang-Chi was just okay from what I heard, and Black Widow was a trainwreck. The Eternals just has so many elementary things that should have been fixed in the early stages of screenwriting, long before it went into production.

I mean, this is a movie where Kit Harington is one of the most dynamic and engaging characters. Kit Harington. A man who made a career out of making puppy eyes and sad mouths, and nothing else.

And yes, I’m going to finish it. I promise.

But I probably won’t enjoy it.

“The Eternals” should have been a TV show (not much in the way of spoilers)

I kind of went off the Marvel Cinematic Universe after Avengers: Endgame, primarily because it bid farewell to most of the original Avengers who made the brand what it was, while ushering in an era of much, much lesser superheroes. It also was when Marvel started spewing out Disney+ TV shows like a geyser, and so far all of them have had serious issues of varying degrees.

But there is one Marvel show that should have been a TV show, and that’s The Eternals.

I admit that I am only about halfway through this Chloe Zhao superhero movie, but I sincerely doubt that it’s going to turn around and suddenly blow me away in the second half. It is, to put it simply, plodding. It just trudges along rather than sweeping the audience in its wake, never making you excited about anything that happens. Even when something shocking or cataclysmic occurs… you don’t feel it.

In the first half of the movie, there is a horrifying revelation about the protagonists, their natures, their mission, their very existence and everything they believed about themselves… and their general attitude towards this is, “Aww, that sucks a little.” It is so anticlimactic, and it just made me even more indifferent to most of these characters, most of whom are generic (Thena, Sersi), bland (Ikaris) or annoying (Sprite, Druig).

Remember when Captain America discovered that HYDRA had been infesting SHIELD for the past seventy years, and had corrupted it completely from within? That was a shocking moment, and it held the weight of its import. But I don’t feel that with The Eternals.

I should care. It doesn’t make me care.

Part of the problem is just that Chloe Zhao’s direction is very uninspired, and the script is extremely meh. It’s just boring. But even if there was some pep and zing in this movie, it would still have some serious issues that need to be addressed… and most of those could have been handled by making it a TV series rather than a movie. Ten, maybe twelve episodes could have told the same story, but with more meat on its bones.

Part of the problem is that the main cast is too large. Look at the Guardians of the Galaxy – they have five members of their main cast, and a small number of supporting characters bouncing off them. Each of the Guardians has a distinct personality that complements or conflicts with every other member, and the cast is small enough that nobody gets lost in the shuffle. This is not the case with The Eternals – there are too many Eternals in the main cast, and thus there isn’t time enough to explore any of them except maybe Sersi. Most of them are extremely underdeveloped, and I just ended up thinking of them as “the Superman clone” or “the guy who looks like Credence Barebone” or “the little annoying one.” The only character traits that really set them apart were that some of them were very bitter and pissy.

This problem would probably be lessened in a TV format, where we could have episodes focusing more on the many different characters and what sets them apart from each other, as well as their feelings about their mission, their history, and the events of the story unfolding in the present. Maybe they could give Ikaris a personality.

The other problem is simple: the scope of the story is too big for a movie with this many characters. The Eternals have been on earth for seven thousand years, and supposedly have been defending and assisting humanity for most of that time. We get some flashbacks to their time in the past every now and then, but again, it feels pretty underdeveloped, and it doesn’t really give the feeling of those seven thousand years. We need more to really grasp it.

A TV show? You could introduce multiple glimpses of the past, all across the world, and you could work your way through those seven thousand years incrementally, all the way to the present, rather than hopping straight from 5,000 BC to the 1600s, with a ten-second wedding detour.

I admit I have not finished the movie yet, but the handling of it so far has not given me confidence that Chloe Zhao is suddenly going to give me a wild, exciting experience. It’s been dull and plodding, and all signs point to it continuing to be dull and plodding.

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: 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: J.T. Leroy

I have a special fondness for the story of J.T. Leroy, a colorful and bizarre hoax that managed to fool not only readers, but editors, authors and Hollywood stars. Specifically, the fact that J.T. Leroy – a fragile junkie-child-prostitute-turned-bestselling-writer – did not exist, but was the concoction of a woman who liked to pretend to be a young boy on suicide hotlines.

With a story that weird and fascinating, it isn’t a surprise that eventually Hollywood decided to take a stab at chronicling it. “J.T. Leroy” – based on the memoir of Savannah Knoop, who “played” the titular personage – is a serviceable retelling of the highlights of Knoop’s tenure as J.T. Leroy, but doesn’t really stray outside its comfort zone by really embracing the weirdness of the tale.

Savannah Knoop (Kristen Stewart) moves to San Francisco to be near her brother Geoff, a struggling musician, and his longtime girlfriend Laura (Laura Dern). Laura introduces Savannah to the books of J.T. Leroy, who also happens to be her alter ego, and eventually convinces Savannah to pretend to be Leroy – first in an interview photo, then a whole shoot, and finally on trips to France and movie sets.

Savannah soon finds herself wrapped up in Leroy’s glamorous life, including a romance with a beautiful French actress (Diane Kruger) who wants to adapt one of Leroy’s books into a film. But her lifestyle of lies begins to bleed into her real one, leaving her trying to find out what is real in her double-life – until everything unexpectedly falls apart when a journalist reveals the cold, hard truth about J.T. Leroy.

As you’d expect from a Hollywood chronicle of real-life events over several years, “J.T. Leroy” is a fairly surface-level skim of what happened during Savannah Knoop’s double life. Various things are streamlined out (Laura and Geoff’s son, the band Thistle) or changed (Asia Argento is made into a fictional French actress), and some stuff is added for dramatic effect, but the overall tale is a fairly good representation of the events of J.T. Leroy’s reign and downfall. Effectively, it’s a cliffs-notes version of the story.

And it’s presented in a… serviceable way. Justin Kelly’s directorial style is perfectly adequate, but doesn’t really embrace the weirdness of the tale. But his scriptwriting feels hesitant and unwilling to fully tackle any of the stuff that is brought up – for instance, it’s suggested by Savannah’s boyfriend that being J.T. Leroy is like a drug to her… but the parallel is effectively dropped after that scene.

And that problem extends to analyzing Laura’s motivations for writing as J.T. Leroy, which he seems to be trying really, really hard to justify. For instance, one scene slaps you in the face with the suggestion that Laura only pretended to be a sexually-abused teen prostitute because she was oppressed by evil sexist men… which not only is wholly made up, as far as I can tell, but which is directly contradicted by a whole monologue at the film’s conclusion. It feels intellectually dishonest, and rather desperate to justify what is, essentially, lying.

Kristen Stewart is a pretty good choice for an awkward, sexually-ambiguous young woman, although it’s a little difficult to tell how much of that was intended. Laura Dern is the real star here as Laura Albert – a cracking bonfire of energy and embroidered realities, who is thrilled to be rubbing elbows with the famous and artistic because of her books, but who is also relegated to the role of “annoying hanger-on” because of her secret.

“J.T. Leroy” is a good introduction to the tale of J.T. Leroy for newcomers, but be warned that it’s a deeply Hollywoodized version of the tale, with much of the uniqueness of the story sanded off. Better to stick with the documentaries.

Women and “The Thing From Another World”

The Thing From Another World is usually dismissed as the “original” version of John Carpenter’s The Thing, and considered to be an inferior adaptation of the original short story. After all, 1950s special effects were simply not up to the task of making a shapeshifting monster, and the direction of most 1950s movies cannot measure up to one of the greatest horror/sci-fi movies of all time.

But despite the carrot monster, I do think this is a good movie seen on its own merits. Not because the story is particularly interesting or unique as 1950s sci-fi goes, but because of the way its characters are presented.

Specifically, the female characters.

The 1950s weren’t the best time for female characters in movies. Not saying they were all bad, because the existence of this movie clearly shows that they weren’t. But there were some extremely misogynistic attitudes in many movies that went unchallenged. These weren’t even hateful in many cases – some of them were just people who couldn’t break out of their mindsets, like in Forbidden Planet or It: The Terror From Beyond Space.

So it’s worth noting that The Thing From Another World has a pretty egalitarian approach to its characters, and treats the women with an impressive level of respect. The most basic level is just the fact that they’re there at this scientific/military outpost, holding important positions. And at no point do they fetch coffee for the menfolk, on the assumption that men will turn to sea foam if they make their own food.

But that isn’t enough to really earn my respect. It’s more that the women and men interact casually as equals – the men don’t treat the women with the casual condescension often found in old movies. In fact, they banter and pal around with the female lead in the same way they would with a male character, including when she teases her male romantic partner.

Speaking of which, the romantic subplot is also refreshing. Rather than a macho hero sweeping a woman off her feet, the two have a cute backstory that involved him falling asleep during a date, and being kind of embarrassed by it, especially since she thinks it’s so funny. It feels much more organic and realistic, and less like a personal fantasy.

Furthermore, the women don’t end up as damsels. Despite the DVD cover, there are no screaming women in peril here… or at least, no more peril than the men are in. There is a woman threatened by the monster at one point, where she is forced to hide behind a flaming mattress, but she isn’t screaming and she actually chose to take this perilous position rather than being transparently corralled into it by the screenwriter so the men can save her.

So while The Thing From Another World isn’t a standout as old sci-fi goes, it does have some qualities that bring it above the herd. It can’t measure up to The Thing, but it’s still worth seeing.

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.