THE OLD GUARD is good–and here’s what could make the sequel even better

Yes, there will be a sequel to THE OLD GUARD, which is crushing the competition on Netflix right now. Click with your mousity mouse thing to watch the trailer.

Cool, right? Furiousa is back and she’s kicking butt.

If you haven’t watched the movie, spoilers ahead. If you have watched it, let’s talk about what worked, what didn’t, and how they could amp this thing up in the sequel.

The general feel of this movie worked well. It’s a fun time, and the acting is great for an action movie.

I like the premise–immortals who may randomly lose the ability to heal–though if you called this HIGHLANDER WITH GUNS, that feels pretty accurate, too.

The trouble with any type of immortal hero is you run into The Superman Trap, which is the fact the audience never worries about the hero being in danger because they basically can’t die. What’s good about HIGHLANDER and vampire movies is there are clear rules of how this all works. Vampires are vulnerable to sunlight, garlic, and such. Highlander and his fellow immortals die when they lose their heads, gaining the power of whoever they vanquish, except it’s not clear what power they really get. Are they faster or tougher after the light show? Can’t tell. Can they fly or do card tricks? Dunno. We’re just told they get more power, which is defined as the ability to do work, except we never see Highlander and his fellow immortal sword fetishists do anything other than swing blades at each other.

It is a nice twist for the hero, Furiosa (okay, her name in this movie is Andy, but does it really matter?) to lose her immortality toward the end. Because it raises the stakes and makes us worry.

What I didn’t like was the villain, who’s a dweeby pharma bro CEO, and yes, he’s despicable, but not scary. And certainly not a match for Furiosa and her fellow immortals.

The ending if an action movie should always have the main character, not a sidekick, take out the villain. That villain had better be just as skilled, powerful, and scary as the hero. Otherwise, snooze city. Check out the ending fight of HIGHLANDER, which featured a great bad guy, totally imposing and scary. Loved him.

There are two real villains in these Furiosa with Guns movies, which is plural on purpose because there will be more. First up is the bearded dude immortal frenemy who betrays his friends, then helps beat the bad guys only to get banished for 100 years as punishment for the original betrayal that you should have figured out ten minutes into the story. Who set up the first job that went wrong? Oh, that guy. Yeah, he’s it.

THE OLD GUARD neatly sets up the top villain in the next film, the woman who Furiosa hung out with for centuries but couldn’t save when they drowned her in an iron coffin at sea, thinking she was a witch. Then she spend hundreds of years drowning, dying, and coming back only to die again. Dreadful, right?

There’s a great stinger ending scene where the Bearded Frenemy, spending his 100 years in exile drinking all the alcohols in Europe, is surprised by the Big Bad Frenemy of Furiosa who somehow escaped the iron coffin at the bottom of the ocean. She’s certainly set up to be scary, with a totally understandable motivation for revenge and a license from the French government to do wacky psycho villain things, seeing how spending all that time drowning and coming back to life, endlessly, would warp any of our minds.

What bugged me is compared to the Big Bad Immortal Frenemy, all the little villains who died in the previous two hours feel insignificant. Especially the dweeby pharma bro.

So I hope and pray the sequel sticks with a villain who is as powerful, or more powerful, than Furiosa and her immortal friends. Because this should be the First Law of Storytelling: a movie or novel is only as strong as the villain.

Is the hero so skilled and amazing that it requires an entire division of bad guys to slow him down? Is the villain equal to that or even more skilled? You see far too many movies and novels where the villain is no match at all for the hero. And it makes it boring.

A series that completely tilts the playing field in favor of the villains, and does it incredibly well? THE BOYS on Amazon Prime (I swear this sounds like a planet in the Degobah System or whatever). The superheroes everybody worships are actually villains, and the small band of people trying to take them down are–with one exception–average people with zero powers. They’re total underdogs and it makes every victory they have so worth it.

VERDICT

Yes, it’s accurate to say THE OLD GUARD is sorta HIGHLANDER with guns, but it’s a fun time, and well worth watching.

On a related note: EQUILIBRIUM is pretty much THE MATRIX crossed with FAHRENHEIT 451 and 1984, and you’d think that mix wouldn’t work, but it does. They overdo the gun-kata nonsense a bit, sure, yet there’s a lot of great action scenes in this Christian Bale movie.

 

Why ANNA violates three laws of action movies

I come to praise ANNA, not bury it.

My love for Luc Besson movies is strong. THE TRANSPORTER is beautiful and completely rewatchable, THE FIFTH ELEMENT is creatively wild, and pretty much anything he does is worth checking out.

ANNA is another action movie with KGB spies, the CIA, John-Wick style gun fu and a lot to recommend it. You should fire up the interwebs and watch it when you’ve plumbed the depths of Netflix.

Yet there are laws for action movies, laws carved into our brains and souls by the sweat and blood of Action Movie Gods, and woe unto those writers and directors who willingly break these laws.

ANNA is good.

Unbreaking these laws could have made it great, and there’s always hope for a Special Edition Director’s Cut or whatever.

THE FIRST LAW OF ACTION MOVIES: SAVE THE BEST FOR THE CLIMAX

The exact genre doesn’t matter. Gunslinging westerns, martial arts films, spy thrillers, and Let’s Catch The Genius Serial Killer films all need to do one thing: escalate.

This rule actually applies to every movie and novel. Start strong, but end stronger.

It’s just easier to see and quantify with action movies, because you can do things like count bodies.

What do you want to avoid? The opposite, which would be starting out with your absolute best action scene, then a middling one, and finally an appetizer–or no action scene at all.

That’s basically what ANNA does. There’s a beautiful fight scene in a restaurant that happens early. You’re going to google the thing, so here it is:

Crazy good, right? It makes you expect something even bigger and better at the end.

Except you don’t get that. The climax kinda switches to pure spy thriller instead of action movie, giving the audience get triple-crosses and disguises and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE kinda stuff.

And it feels like a let-down. You’re cheering for our heroine to do the restaurant thing again on the bad guys, except everybody is basically bad and double-crossing each other.

THE SECOND LAW OF ACTION MOVIES: STICK TO ONE TIMELINE

When was the last time you saw a flashback that worked in a movie or book?

They don’t work. I hate them with the fire of a thousand burning suns.

Bad action movies give us a couple flashbacks of the Dead Mentor training the hero and imparting wisdom, right before being killed by gangsters or the villain. Good thrillers avoid flashbacks entirely.

ANNA gives us flashbacks and flashforwards out the wazoo, and it kills the story. Because really what they’re doing is going back to give the audience setups after they just watched the payoffs. It’s not surprising or fun–it’s a lazy way to patch holes in a story. “Hey, here’s three months earlier, which will explain why that just happened.”

No. Just no.

Keep it linear. One timeline, straight through.

THE THIRD LAW OF ACTION MOVIES: GIVE US A VILLAIN

Whatever you think of Tom Cruise, the last MISSION IMPOSSIBLE gave us a great, great bad guy: Superman/The Witcher.

Sure, there was an overt baddie, but he was a puppet of Superman/The Witcher, who was pulling all the strings. And since thrillers are about betrayal, especially spy thrillers, this was a great twist.

ANNA doesn’t give us a villain. There’s no final faceoff and beautiful fight. She slips away.

I’d argue that the most villainous character is Helen Mirren’s, who you can see in the trailer for a bit.

She does all sorts of Very Bad Things, and deserves to get completely Restauranted–but instead, Anna helps her take control of the entire KGB.

So yeah, not a very satisfying ending. Bad guys kinda win while the hero disappears.

VERDICT

Hey, this thing is still fun and completely watchable. Well worth firing up, and there’s nothing wrong with the actors. The lead actor does an amazing job–put her in more movies.

It simply could be much, much better with some structural tweaks. Save the best for last, Luc!

The problems with PICARD

star wars vs star trek

Listen: I adore Patrick Stewart, who’s a brilliant actor and a beautiful human being.

And I’d pay cash money to watch P-Stew (a) go grocery shopping, (b) walk his dog, or (c) drink a few pints and talk smack with his best friend, Gandalf the Grey.

HOWEVER: We’re talking serious business here, a new STAR TREK series on the televisions, and these things are so rare and beautiful that five got announced while I made some fresh coffee. But a Trek series with Captain Picard? That’s special.

So yeah, I watched the entire series, start to finish, as a public service.

Here’s the deal: it’s a hot, hot mess.

Let’s start with the ending

You don’t need to know the entire plot. Going right to the end explains a lot of why PICARD went south.

For the entire series, we’re told there’s a secret society of Evil Romulan Spies who want to kill artificial life forms like Data, who’s already dead. Bear with me here. Data secretly had twin daughters, and the Evil Romulans killed one because they believed she’d kill all life forms by summoning the Angry Robot Monsters From Another Dimension or whatever.

In the last episode, we learn THE VILLAINS WERE RIGHT, because Data’s daughter and her android friends do build a beacon and summon the Angry Robot Monsters, who start bringing their 1987-style graphics robot tentacles through the portal until Picard convinces She-Data to shut it down.

 

So…we spend all these episodes fighting the Romulans who turned out to be completely right.

As a special bonus, there are about a half-dozen deus ex machinas and stupid plot holes in the same final episode. A partial list:

  • She-Data’s twin may have died in the first episode, but look, there’s another android on the robot planet clearly played by the same actress, but she’s not exactly her twin, though she is evil, and kills to get her way and start summoning the Tentacle Robot Gods.
  • Riker is totally retired and hanging out with Troi, so when Picard stupidly takes on the entire Romulan Bad Guy fleet of warships with a ship he’s never flown before, Riker magically re-enlists in Star Fleet and shows up with 5,000 identical starships to scare off the Romulans, who I want to remind you WERE RIGHT THE ENTIRE TIME.
  • Picard is dying from some brain disease, so when he does sacrifice himself by flying up there to fight, it doesn’t totally hit you in the feels because he’s dying anyway, and yeah, that stinks–but after he dies, and hangs out with Data in the Matrix, boom, they stick his mind and soul into a robot body that looks exactly like him, so no big deal, bring on Season 2!

If you’re going to kill a character everybody loves, and make them feel, you have to do it forever–or make the resurrection very, very hard. STAR TREK 2: THE WRATH OF KHAN killed Spock and made us all cry, then spent an entire move searching for Spock and bringing him back, making us cry more. You don’t get to do the old death switcheroo in, like, five minutes.

There are other stupid aspects of the finale that I won’t even get into.

The finale just feels sloppy, especially the static shots of a giant fleet of identical Romulan ships standing off against a giant fleet of identical Star Fleet vessels, like the director just told the CGI boys to hit cut-and-paste five hundred times.

STAR WARS knows how to do a space battle the right way.

 

STAR TREK, STAR WARS or LORD OF THE RINGS?

Half of the episodes, it feels like they’re trying to be Star Wars, with a big fight in a casino full of weird-looking cantina aliens and dusty, desert locations.

There’s are three common ingredients in every STAR TREK series, good or bad: a captain, a ship, and a crew.

These ingredients are incredibly weak in PICARD, where he’s not a captain, but a passenger. The ship is hired, and the crew is half holographic for some reason, with the actor playing the man who owns the ship also playing the ship’s medic, engineer and a bunch of other parts to show off how many accents he can do. It’s confusing and weird, and this scruffy captain’s ship is far too gigantic and squeaky clean. What STAR WARS got right is the Millenium Falcon is a dirty piece of junk, and Han Solo is always broke and in debt.

Other times, I swear the writers were dropping acid and binge-watching LORD OF THE RINGS. On a Romulan refugee world, Picard picks up some kind of elf-samurai Romulan man, I kid you not. It does not work.

Who’s on first?

Even though I’m not a Trekkie, or Trekker, or whatever the right name is today, I’ve seen enough movies and TV shows to know a Klingon from a Vulcan from a Romulan. For decades, Vulcans have had a specific style of dressing, speaking, and acting. Same with Klingons, those short guys with the big ears who love money.

Not in PICARD, where I can’t tell the Vulcans from the Romulans, who are all over the place. Some have deep forehead ridges, kinda like Klingons, while others look like elves and still other Romulans are shaggy hair dreamboats who sorta look like tall hobbits. And don’t start with the accents and speaking styles. Some of the Romulans had posh British accents and others talked like gangsters from LA–they were just all over the place. It kept throwing me off.

How to fix this dumpster fire

Hey, you’ve got Patrick Stewart, who I’d say is the best captain ever to put on the uniform. Absolutely beloved.

He doesn’t sneak around like a common criminal. That’s not his style.

Give him a ship–but make it a relic, obsolete, something Star Fleet was going to junk. Make his crew total newbies from the Academy, cadets who are on the edge of dropping out, and he’s only getting them on the promise that he’ll get them coached up and passing their exams after a little shakedown cruise.

Those are the three crucial ingredients to any STAR TREK series: a captain, a ship, and a crew.

After you have those three things in a way that makes sense, it’s a lot easier to fix the plot holes and random stupidity.

Exactly why THE MANDALORIAN crushes all three STAR WARS prequels

Listen, the short and Cheaty McCheatypants answer to this question is simple: Baby Yoda is TOTES ADORBS.

Yet the real answer goes a lot deeper than that, and there are lessons here in terms of story and structure. As somebody who grew up watching the original trilogy and hating the prequels, it gives me joy to see THE MANDALORIAN doing everything the opposite of the silly prequels.

Warning: this post is full of spoilers. I mean, completely packed with them, like chocolate chips in a gooey cookie. 

Reason No. 1: Sparse, Memorable Dialogue versus The Worst Dialogue in the History of Cinema

The Mandalorian doesn’t talk much, and The Child (Baby Yoda) doesn’t talk at all. And mostly, they don’t need to, with a lot of storytelling done through visuals.

But when there is dialogue, it’s interesting and memorable. Two simple phrases are already being spread around IRL: “I have spoken” and “This is the way.”

In the three sequels, the dialogue is wooden, long and terrible. Nobody in the office is riffing off “I hate sand” unless they’re making fun of the sequels.

Reason No. 2: Gritty and Real versus CGI Fakeness

You can’t immediately tell what’s CGI and what’s a practical effect in THE MANDALORIAN, and they’re clearly leaning hard on practical effects and settings that are real, gritty and dirty.

Mando’s cape is torn. He’s always getting muddy, dusty or shot up.

In the sequels, everything is CGI’d to death. It feels too clean, too perfect, too fake.

Reason No. 3: Atmosphere versus Spectacle

Sure, there are giant battles and amazing special effects in the sequels. George Lucas put all his special effects people to serious work. 

THE MANDALORIAN is about atmosphere, mood and characters that you care about–which makes the action smaller in scale and far more important to the audience. 

Reason No. 4: Natural Humor versus Forced Dad Jokes

I love how there’s a lot of physical humor in the new series, along with unexpected surprises like the Jawas, who are a real problem after scrapping Mando’s ship but also a great bit of comic relief. You need that when Mando is basically the Man With No Name (Clint Eastwood) in all those spaghetti westerns.

The humor reminds me a lot of what we saw in the first few Indiana Jones movies, and in the original trilogy. 

In the sequels, what passed for humor were essentially flat lines of dialogue–dad jokes–and the physical humor we got were things like Jar-Jar Binks being incredibly clumsy. No. Just no.

Reason No. 4: Making Us Care and Want More versus Telling Us Too Much and Expecting Us to Care

Exposition is ammunition. We hear just enough about Mando through dialogue from other characters and from his actions.

That taste, and the mystery about him, makes us want to know more.

In the sequels, we got lectures about senate politics and midi-chloridians. It was not pretty. 

Reason No. 5: Real Surprises versus We Know Exactly What Will Happen

There are constant surprises in THE MANDALORIAN, but each payoff has setups that make sense. 

In the sequels, we knew where the story would wind up, even when the setups weren’t really there, and there weren’t a ton of surprises on the way there. Nobody really suffered or changed except Anakin and Padme; all the other characters were flat. Obi-Wan and the Emporer didn’t really change from the first movie to the last. Neither did anybody else.

Mando is really an anti-hero. He does his job as a bounty hunter brutally and efficiently, including capturing The Child, and his decision to go back and save CUTE BABY YODA from the stormtroopers is not quick or easy. In fact, how they do it is rather neat, and done completely through visuals when he makes that decision. Beautiful.

Other characters also make surprising choices that do make sense, like the Jawas agreeing to trade The Egg for all of Mando’s ship parts. A less skilled writer would have had Mando hunt down the Jawas in their sandcrawler and shoot his way to those parts. 

Verdict

The acid test for me is, “Would I watch this again?”

If you want to get completely serious, expand on that scale with, “How much would you have to PAY ME to watch this again” compared to “How much would I willingly PAY to see this again, whether it’s in a theater or on a magic smartphone?”

I’ve already watched all three episodes again. Did not get tired of them at all, and would happily watch all three again tomorrow. They’re fun and interesting. 

The three sequels? You’d have to pay me to watch even one of them again. 

Well done, Jon F., Deborah Chow, Pedro Pascal, Nick Nolte (what?!!), Carl Weathers (yes!) and everybody else involved in this show. You’ve restored my faith in Star Wars. 

JESSICA JONES repeats the same storytelling mistake as GAME OF THRONES

So the last season of GAME OF THRONES went sideways, according to All the Fans–and as somebody who’s now watched all three seasons of JESSICA JONES, the writers and showrunners make the same storytelling mistake with the ending.

And listen, the ending is everything.

How can a gritty, superhero series screw up in the same way as an epic with swords and dragons? 

Here’s how. (Warning: this whole post is Spoily McSpoilerface.)

Reason No. 1: Always save the Big Bad Guy for the finale

For five-point-seven billion years, GAME OF THRONES built up the icy blue Avatar-looking guy, the Night King, as the Big Bad of the series.

At the same time, the show served up the Mother of Dragons and her cousin/boyfriend Jon Snow as heroes, as far as what passes for heroes go in a story where everybody is a murderous nutbag.

But there’s no real protagonist in this giant cast, and Ayra is the one who offs the Night King long before the final episode.

Same thing with the last season of JESSICA JONES.

For all of Season 3, the Big Bad was this serial killer known as Salinger.

But instead of saving a confrontation with the villain for the finale, we get meh from both series.

The Night King’s death should have been saved for the last episode, with the Mother of Dragons or Jon Snow being the fan favorites to sit on the Iron Throne.

Instead, the Night King got killed and the show became a hot mess. Nobody was aching to see Emilia lose it and have her dragon fry the city, or see Kit stab his former lover, or have Bron-whatever take the throne for some random reason after Tyrion goes all Jar-Jar in the Galactic Senate on us. No. Just no.

JESSICA JONES repeats the same mistake. Salinger gets offed before the final episode.

Reason No. 2: Once the Big Bad is dead, your momentum goes buh-bye.

Let’s talk about other movies we’ve all seen for a second and play this out.

RETURN OF THE JEDI — Instead of Vader tossing Emperor Wrinkly Face down the bottomless pit and the Death Star getting blown up, all that happens in Act 2, with the entirely of Act 3 all about how Luke has to hunt down and fight Han Solo after he went nuts and helped the Ewoks slaughter and barbeque 15,000 Imperial stormtrooper prisoners.

Terrible, right? This is much better.

You have to save the Big Bad for the final act, the final episode, the last thing. Anything else makes the story out of order and flat.

Reason No. 3: If you’re going for tragedy, you have to fully commit

A mixed ending can be amazing. Some of the best movies and books have mixed endings.

CASABLANCA has the hero giving up the girl for a greater cause–beating Hitler and winning World War II.

But a mixed ending is also tough to pull off. 

When you get audience rooting for a character, and seeing them as a hero, it’s tough to see those character take a heel turn at the last minute.

In fact, audiences reject it. 

This is why tragedies fully commit.

They show the full fall from grace, from beginning to end, with the protagonist serving as both hero and villain. And the protagonist falls due to their own hand, via hubris.

BREAKING BAD did this perfectly. Sure, you saw things from Walter White’s point-of-view, and rooted for him a lot of time, but his ending felt absolutely right. He’d definitely sinned, and his downfall was deserved.

If you’re going with a tragedy, do it from the beginning with the protagonist. Not a side character like Trish.

It can work for the main character hero to sacrifice themselves for the sake of a secondary character. That’s not a tragic ending; it’s noble and heroic. See PRIVATE RYAN and ARMAGEDDON and five zillion other movies.

 

Random Review: ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE will make you snort coffee through your nose

For far too long, romantic comedies were in a rut. They found leading men like Hugh Grant or Matthew McConaughey and ran those actors into the ground, with movie after movie after movie, and Matthew always leaning against his blonde co-star.

Hollywood Law requires that Matthew McConaughey leans on his female co-star, in this case, that woman from SEX IN THE CITY who I do not enjoy watching in anything.
Hollywood Law requires that Matthew McConaughey leans on his female co-star, in this case, Kate Hudson.
Hollywood Law requires that Matthew McConaughey leans on his female co-star, in this case, Kate Hudson.

So now we have a Netflix original, ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE, that remembers the hardest thing in a romantic comedy isn’t the acting or kissing. It’s the comedy.

Because comedy is incredibly, impossibly hard.

This movie will make you laugh–and cry–because the writing is great and the leads are true comedians. Ali Wong is perfect as the female lead, and you might remember Randall Park for small, memorable roles in giant hits like ANT MAN AND THE WASP and AQUAMAN, and possibly other superhero movies that start with A. 

Check out the trailer, then we’ll chat.

OK, so from that, you expect a little cameo from superstar Keanu Reeves, right?

No. One of the biggest surprises was how much he was in this film, and how committed he was to playing himself as an entitled villain. Seriously. Check out the dinner scene, and a later fight scene at Keanu’s insanely huge hotel room:

What’s great about this movie is there are constant surprises like those two scenes, bringing you on a tour of all the important human emotions.

VERDICT

This is one of the rare movies where I won’t spoil it by digging into the story structure and how it works. 

Because you should fire up Netflix and see it. 

Random review: THE SPACE BETWEEN US is on Netflix–should you fire it up?

If you get on Netflix, Amazon Prime or whatever and wander around, there are 5.8 gazillion movies that pop up that you never knew existed, like THE SPACE BETWEEN US.

Check out the trailer, then we’ll chat.

 

Will you rage-quit after five minutes?

No. The opening is solid and keeps your interest.

How’s the acting?

Alright, so you’ve got Commissioner Gorden with an English accent (yes, Gary Oldman is actually British, so this may actually be the one time he doesn’t have to transform his body and voice for a role).

The cast is pretty small and I didn’t recognize the actors except for Oldman and B.D. Wong, but they’re all pretty good. I believe, deep in my soul, that the biggest problem with movies like this with a lot of relatively unknown actors is keeping the performances even, and making sure great actors don’t completely overshadows newcomers. They keep it even here. 

I don’t know the names and am not going to cheat by looking them all up on google: you have what kinda looks like Young Anne Hathaway as his astronaut mom, who does a great job in the first part of the film, then Sarah Connor as his astronaut stepmom on Mars and later Earth.

Two young actors playing the lead, the First Boy Born on Mars and his pen pal and love interest, the Young Blonde Misfit Who Steals Cars and Doesn’t Believe in Motorcycle Helmets.

What about the story?

They pack a lot of plots and subplots into this. The most fun part of the film is toward the middle, with the two teenagers on the run. They’re clever and you can watch the relationships grow in a way that makes a lot more sense than big-budget movies featuring ageless and powerful Vampires Who Sparkle falling in love with dumb teenagers.

There is a story mistake toward the end of the movie that almost did make us quit the film, and I won’t give away what happens, only to say THE SPACE BETWEEN US already seemed a little too much like THE FAULT IN OUR STARS based on title and premise. But if you stick through the moment when you’re tempted to hit HOME on the remote and find out the latest happenings with the Great British Bakeoff, the ending redeems this movie.

VERDICT

Sure, go ahead and fire this up on Netflix with your favorite person on the couch next to you. it’s worth your time.

The careful genius of COBRA KAI’s season 2

The last season of GAME OF THRONES went out in a fiery train wreck packed with dragons and stupidity–but here we have the opposite, a low-budget show on Netflix about dueling karate dojos.

Roughly 28 gazillion people are watching COBRA KAI, and they’re loving it. Shockingly, the critics are all over it, too.

Because unlike the Season that Must Not Be Named that Did the Night King and Mother of Dragons Wrong Wrong Wrong, the writing and plotting of COBRA KAI is carefully and horrifically good. (Warning: spoilers spoilers spoilers.)

Building on Season 1

In the first season, it’s really the story of Johnny’s redemption. He rises from the depths and finds a purpose again, and truly tries to reform Cobra Kai to give kids like Miguel some help. Not that Johnny becomes a complete goodie-goodie. 

By comparison, Daniel struggles, and its a bit of a rich jerk. But he’s not a complete villain, either.

I kid you not, the series feels a bit like BREAKING BAD in that most major characters aren’t heroes or villains. They’re beautiful shades of gray.

Season 2 doesn’t try to continue the character arcs in the same direction, which would have been the easy narrative choice.

The showrunners and writers went bigger. They raised the stakes and added twists, reversals and revelations throughout the season that changed everything around again.

This season, Daniel is the underdog and Cobra Kai is the big, dominant dojo, the winners of the All-Valley Tournament.

Except it gets more interesting than that.

Setups, payoffs and echoes

Though the show is funny, it’s not a comedy. 

Comedies poke fun at an institution–sitcoms go after marriage and family and suburban life, MASH took on the military, THE OFFICE hit corporate bureaucracy–and in a comedy, heroes can’t succeed except by accident.

COBRA KAI is a drama, with things happening for a reason. You could argue the last season of GOT was a melodrama, with things just kinda happening and fans immediately asking each other on Twitter and Reddit why why WHY?

For every payoff, there’s a setup. And the biggest scenes feature echoes of previous scenes.

A genius ending that sets up Season 3

There’s a lot packed into the final few episodes, and what the showrunners and writers did here is fun to take apart.

The beginning of the final episode has a sweet call-back to the original movie, playing Cruel Summer on the first day of school, then you get a slowed-down, sad version of the song at the end of the episode. Beautiful. How many rock songs can rock the xylophones? NOT MANY.

There are a lot of reasons for our characters to be moping around:

A giant brawl in school happens after Miguel’s new bad-girl girlfriend, Tory, hijacks the school PA system to say she knows what Sam (Daniel’s daughter) did–kissed Miguel at a party–and is coming for her.

Everybody fights everybody, tying up a lot of relationships. Hawks gets surprisingly beaten by his old friend Demetri, Tory cheats while fighting Sam, sending her to the hospital for cuts, while Robby fights Miguel, who gets kicked over a stairwell and is in the hospital with spinal injuries.

All of that leads to the apparent end of the romance between Johnny and Carmen (Miguel’s mother) and a “no more karate” edict from Daniel’s wife as they’re in the hospital room with their daughter.

It gets worse for Johnny, who loses control of his dojo to Kreese, after (a) giving Kreese a second-chance and (b) kicking him out of the dojo.

In a great scene that echoes imagery early in the season, he chucks his cell phone and the keys to the muscle car he repainted into a black-and-yellow Cobra theme. Giving up on his old life, right? Then the camera cuts to the cell phone in the sand, showing that his old flame (and Daniel’s former girlfriend) responded to his friend request. 

Guesses on Season 3

I don’t believe the writers will truly let Johnny and Daniel give up on karate forever. But I doubt they make a return to it in the first episode or two.

Five bucks says Kreese’s new, purely evil Cobra Kai will force them to come back to teaching–and though I’m not counting on it, I could see the end of Season 3 featuring a real truce, if not a partnership, between Johnny and Daniel to team up and beat Kreese for the sake of their kids and the community. 

Then again, they’ve surprised us episode after episode.

VERDICT

If you haven’t watched Season 2 yet, binge watch that sucker. 

If you haven’t watched Season 1, watch that first.

POLAR has promise, then the weird piles up

Good trailer, right? And there’s a good movie buried in here. Mads Mikkelsen is a great actor. His whole performance is perfect. It just feels like Mads is in a different movie than everybody else.

POLAR is best described like this: picture a bunch of screenwriters or studio execs watching JOHN WICK and saying, “What if we did that, but had Quentin Tarantino direct the thing, like KILL BILL?”

Except they couldn’t book Tarantino and decided to turn up the cray-cray up to 11.

I’m a huge fan of action movies, so sure, it was fun. There was just a disconnect between the gritty performance of Mads and the villains chewing up the scenery.

Since this silly blog is all about taking things apart and seeing how they work, or could be fixed, here’s what went wrong and how to fix it.

Three easy fixes, one small and early, one middling and the final fix big and late:

1) Lose the dog

Early on, Mads retires and buys a puppy, which was way too on-the-nose for me with the movie already super close to the plot of JOHN WICK. 

Soon after, Mads has a nightmare and accidentally shoots the puppy. No. Don’t even go there. 

In fact, action movies need to spike any scene where the bad guys kill the retired killer’s dog, cat or favorite horse, because JOHN WICK slayed that forever.

 

2) Keep the same tone

Scenes with Mads and the girl he later protects feel like part of the same gritty movie.

All the scenes with the villain and his minions feel like they were written, shot and directed by somebody else–a younger director who spent every night binge-watching Miami Vice and hanging out in strip clubs as he wrote these scenes.

Pick a style and stick with it. As in, pick the style that fits your lead actor, not your side characters.

3) Give us a villain as strong as Mads

Mads is a great character and we get to see him in action multiple times. A fast, powerful killer. The main villain, the boss of a pack of bad guys, is far less scary. In fact, his minions are stronger and better than he is.

This turns the villain into a joke, and he really only shows up for comic relief.

In the climax, when Mads enters the villain’s lair for the final confrontation, it’s a boring mismatch the director chooses to not even show. We just see the villain’s head fly through a window after Mads chops it off.

That’s a huge disappointment. An action movie’s climax needs to be, I don’t know, climactic. There were tons of other set pieces earlier in the film that were far more interesting and exciting, so it left a bad taste at the end.

VERDICT

There are good ingredients here, especially the performance of Mads.

It’s just overcooked and feels like two different movies.

Where ROBIN HOOD went wrong

Listen: I love cheesy action films and B movies of all types, as long as they don’t take themselves too seriously. Feed me summer popcorn flicks, meant to entertain, instead of pretentious nonsense.

ROBIN HOOD is meant to entertain.

It’s got a good lead actor (Taron Egerton, famous for THE KINGSMEN films), a solid sidekick (Jamie Foxx) and a great villain (Ben Mendelsohn from THE DARK KNIGHT RISES and ROGUE ONE)–plus a big budget ($100 million).

Add to that a built-in audience who loves the story and character of Robin Hood. 

This is like chocolate chip cookies, right? Hard to go wrong with those ingredients. Everybody will like it.

Except this movie bombed at the box office. A dumpster fire.

Why did this film go so wrong, so fast?

Act 1 is a good start

There’s a lot to like in the first act. see Robin’s ordinary life and get a good introduction to Marian when she tries to steal Robin’s horse…and he lets her.

His life gets upended when he goes to war during the Crusades and comes back to find his estate confiscated by the Sheriff of Nottingham, who’s taxing everybody to death.

It’s an effective start, and the training sequences with John and Robin are great.

So how does the movie go sideways? I mean, this film makes Kevin Costner’s terrible British accent look like a minor problem in an epic masterpiece.

Why the middle turns meh

Act 2 gets confused. The scenes with the Sheriff of Nottingham are decent, letting him chew up some scenery. 

Yet the middle gives us a Robin Hood movie that seems to switch time periods, as if the director wants to mash up medieval Crusades action with huddled masses working in Victorian  factories and mines along with 21st century antifa protests.

There’s a big dinner where all the wealthy people show up, with women dressed in furs and high heels (I kid you not), and a giant CGI action sequence set up with horses and carriages that feels more Ben Hur than Robin Hood.

You CAN mix things up like this–A KNIGHT’S TALE with Heath Ledger threw in modern rock songs and other craziness, and it worked. The degree of difficulty is simply really, really high.

Basically, Act 2 is a hot mess.

How the climax isn’t climactic

And then we get to Act 3, where things truly go south.

The first rule of storytelling: save your best scenes for last. 

There were great scenes in Act 1–the battles from the Crusades, the training montages with John–that simply eclipse anything offered in Act 3.

The Sheriff of Nottingham meets his end, and not at the hands of Robin, but John.

Taking his place as Sheriff is the romantic rival, the lover Marian took while Robin was believed to be dead. And hovering over everything as the Biggest Bad Guy of Them All is the cardinal, or the pope–I forget. Plus there’s a bad guy soldier, the same man who clashed with Robin during the Crusades, brought in as a mercenary to catch the Hood.

Confused? Yeah. Let’s count the bad guys: (1) O.G. Sheriff, (2) Hired Mercenary, (3) Corrupt Cardinal/Pope and (4) New Sheriff.

Here’s the deal. That’s four separate villains, and I can’t remember their actual names. 

Fixing this movie

Hey, you don’t need Michael Bay explosions to have a tense, exciting movie. The ending of Michael Clayton is one of the best Act 3 climaxes in history, and there isn’t a gun, knife or explosion in sight. Just two people talking. No amount of CGI could improve this scene. 

HOWEVER: If you’re making an action movie, you need action in the climax, and what we get in Act 3 is a let-down from what showed up on the screen in Act 1.

A bow and arrow is a great tool for Robin Hood, and fun when he uses it for heists and hijinks. Yet it’s a terrible weapon, as a storytelling device, for confronting the villain. Which should be singular. Give us one main villain.

Which leads me to the two simplest fixes for this movie: (1) combine the four villains into one capable, scary, tough Sheriff of Nottingham and (2) end with Robin fighting the Sheriff of Nottingham, one-on-one. 

There’s a reason why the best movie fights tend to be bare-handed brawls or swordfights. 

Swordfights are just great cinema, and that’s what I expected for the climax of ROBIN HOOD.

Think about THE PRINCESS BRIDE and every STAR WARS movie ever made: the duels with swords or lightsabers are beautiful and essential to the stories. Edit those out and they’d really hurt. 

So I’ll leave you with the kind of thing ROBIN HOOD should have put into Act 3: a long, evenly matched duel.