Kate (2021)

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is cast as Keanu Reeves in Kate, a movie with fewer characters than John Wick (both in the title and in the story).

I couldn’t resist that sassy intro, but I fear it does the movie injustice. I enjoyed Kate quite a bit.

It’s not quite as incredible as the John Wick movies have been, whether in choreography, cinematography, or world building (John Wick’s world building is literally incredible—I struggle to believe it even as I enjoy it). But unlike the Wick movies this one actually wraps up its story. What’s more, Kate has interesting interpersonal, emotional drama that exists as more than the excuse for new on-screen violence.

Both of those go beyond anything I expect from John Wick movies.

A little context before I go further. I’m fond of action movies, and have a deep appreciation for stunt work, choreography, and cinematography (especially around fight scenes). I’m fully aware that many action movies are poorly written. I cringe at their clunky exposition, their trite plots, their wooden acting. But I appreciate them.

I also very strongly believe that we should celebrate “perfectly fine” movies more than we do, and recognize when movies are “perfectly fine” overall but have some stand out features. There’s space for movies to exist between being magnificent and being garbage.

Back to Kate: Mary Elizabeth Winstead is great as the lead. She takes a cliche and acts the hell out of it, feeling emotionally honest the whole way through. I was surprised to find myself tearing up. Perhaps she caught me off guard.

She also sells the action, passing a crucial test for this genre. And Kate does a respectable job of following some of John Wick’s lead, with solid (and gruesome) choreography and filming. This despite the fact that Kate does not, and I think cannot, do exactly what the John Wick movies do; Kate doesn’t have action sequence shots as long as John Wick’s, nor does Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s action look quite as completely convincing as Keanu Reeves’.

Quick aside: why do I say cannot? Well… Mary Elizabeth Winstead has done some action previously, but she doesn’t have the same background as Keanu Reeves (who has been doing martial arts regularly since the 90s). Furthermore, from what I could find she was cast in April, started filming in September, and finished in November, all of the same year—and lost her preferred stunt double to an injury at the beginning of shooting. I’d be shocked if anyone in that time frame, even with previous stunt training, could have built up the same obsessively in-depth repertoire that Keanu Reeves has developed over his career and honed for the Wick movies. The fact that she and her doubles sell the action, make it feel convincing, make it feel like it belongs in the same space as the John Wick movies, is good enough for me.

And yet.

The few reviews I’ve seen involved critics complaining that the plot is trite and the film is too much like other femme assassin movies. They sometimes acknowledge that Mary Elizabeth Winstead has done a good job, but don’t admit that the genre they’re panning (for being too same-y or overplayed, no less) makes up a tiny slice of action movies overall… nor that the movie is absolutely better than many comparable action films with male leads.

It’s a double standard, or it’s lazy. Or both.

Kate isn’t perfect. It isn’t the best of its genre (I’d probably still give that to Atomic Blonde). But it’s better than several other femme assassin movies I’ve seen, and a damn sight better than plenty of action movies with male leads. If you like action movies, and appreciate some of the aesthetics and attention to high-quality stage violence highlighted by the John Wick movies, you’ll probably enjoy Kate.

One last thing though: I have no idea how well Kate deals with Japanese culture. It isn’t blatantly awful to my woefully uninformed eye, but I’m not the expert here.

Okay, that’s it. Kate was engaging. I liked it. I recommend it. Don’t expect perfection, just go ahead and enjoy it for what it is: a perfectly good action movie with a solid performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead. I’d absolutely watch more action movies with her as a lead. I look forward to seeing what she does next.

Extraction (2020), quick thoughts

You ever have the thought, a few scenes into a movie, that you’ve seen the movie before?

I wrestled with that feeling for all of a few minutes. Extraction feels like a reimagining of 2004’s Man on Fire, but with Chris Hemsworth instead of Denzel Washington.

I liked Man on Fire when I watched it over a decade ago. I have no idea how I’d like it now, but I imagine it stands up as a kidnapping-rescue-revenge action flick. Better than Taken, I suspect. Having Denzel Washington as your lead actor helps.

I can’t say that Extraction is going to stand the passage of time as well as Man on Fire, at least not in my head.

I don’t think that’s an indictment of Chris Hemsworth. I just don’t think this movie is as interesting or original as I thought Man on Fire was when I first saw it. For better or worse, my first impression will matter. 

It’s funny, honestly, thinking about it this way. I’m not pretending to offer any kind of objective verdict; I haven’t seen Man on Fire in ages, and I suspect I’d be more critical of it now. I wonder how it would actually match up with Extraction, side by side.

The element I most appreciated from Extraction (hey look it’s *SPOILERS*) was the parallelism between Ovi and Tyler, established most clearly in the last moments of the movie as Ovi rises from the bottom of the pool (paralleling Tyler’s sitting on the bottom of a river at the beginning) and sees what I can only assume is a phantom of Tyler (the blurry camera here only previously used to show memories of the dead). I liked the way in which this passed on Tyler’s mantle of trauma and loss, showing a little more of the impact the entire experience had on Ovi—but I also wished that Saju had been there too. By only showing one figure (who I assume is Tyler based on costume), I felt like it devalued the painful and tense relationship between Ovi and Saju. I can see why they might have chosen not to do that, especially if they wanted to leave some space in the audience’s mind for Tyler to have survived, but I feel pretty confident from the other choices (that blurry camera, Ovi’s time on the bottom of the pool) that Tyler died. Anyway. I’m just being an armchair director (or editor) at this point, so I’ll stop. *END OF SPOILERS*

If you want to watch a violent kidnapping-rescue-revenge action movie, Extraction is fine. It has good moments. It has a bunch of actors I like, most of whom don’t get as much narrative focus or development for their characters as I’d like. I don’t think it opens any fundamentally new narratives… but it certainly makes things go boom and has some impressive camera work alongside really solid combat choreography.

Overlord

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Overlord is a pulpy, terrifying thrill ride of a B-movie. It feels like an over-the-top World War 2 Delta Green scenario, and an homage to a genre I learned to love through John Carpenter’s films. Having read more about the movie, and learned more about the practical effects used, I’m even more impressed.

As a B-movie it’s quite good, though it rang a bit hollow for me. I think there might have been a little more to the character development arc for Jovan Adepo’s Boyce that didn’t survive to the theatrical cut I saw, and I would have loved to see that. But it’s probably okay: high tension Nazi-killing historical science fiction B-movies aren’t best known for their character development.

I initially wasn’t sure whether to feel happy or miffed about the movie’s portrayal of the 101st Airborne as an integrated force when it was not. Here’s Wikipedia’s article on racial segregation in the US armed forces.

The happy side has won. It’s very easy to explain.

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Killer of Enemies, by Joseph Bruchac

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I know that young adult action stories might not be everyone’s preferred genre, but how about a post-apocalyptic young adult action story that weaves Native American history, lore, and culture seamlessly into other general Americana such that it feels like a fitting piece of a larger tapestry without feeling lost or subjugated by other elements?

I can’t take full credit for that astute observation. It was mentioned by one of my excellent classmates.

Killer of Enemies is a good, punchy story that fits with mythic narrative traditions in a number of deeply appealing fashions. It’s very nearly pulp. And it’s written by a member of the Abenaki Nation, which gives me a wonderful home-feel due to my fond early childhood memories of listening to Wolfsong telling stories around Vermont. It doesn’t hurt that it’s all about the badass warrior woman Lozen, named in honor of the real Lozen of the Chiricahua Apaches. I’d say that this book is pretty good stuff.

Barium Deep Edits

This is the first time that I’ve not written one of Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenges since January (with the exception of the times when I’ve been working at summer camp without internet, but even then I think I got lucky and he didn’t post a challenge).  I feel weird, honestly.  I had ideas for this week’s challenge, but I’ve been so busy for the past few days…

Instead, I offer you the newly edited version of Barium Deep.  It hasn’t been deeply revised, and there are more changes to come, but I think I’ve managed to improve the piece’s clarity and presentation.  Let me know if you like it!

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Flash Fiction: Barium Deeper

More Star Citizen related art, just because.

I wrote this piece for terribleminds, because my last piece was 1000 words too long for this week’s space opera challenge.  This piece sticks with Barium, but is set many years after the previous one.  At least ten years after it.  In case you’re confused by the multiple names, Bury’em = Barium = Barry, and Casi = Cesium.  Enjoy!

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Flash Fiction: Barium Deep

Gorgeous artwork by George Hull, for the game Star Citizen

I didn’t write the following bit of space drama with the above image in mind, but it’s a beautiful fit anyway.  What follows is another piece of “middle grade” fiction, one that holds true to the more classically action-adventure oriented stories that I usually like to tell.  Enjoy!

(Note: There’s now a great deal of other Barium Deep material here. This is the edited version of this same post, and this is the collection of other posts linked to Barium Deep.)

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Flash Fiction: Her Maritime Scowl

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This is a bit late, but this week’s (last week’s?) flash fiction from Terribleminds involved using a randomly generated phrase.  I got “maritime scowl.”  This is what followed…

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Flash Fiction: The Long Way Down

This week’s flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig involved perusing Flickr for interesting photos.  I picked this one.  I haven’t put it at the top of this post because the owner hasn’t given me the right to share it, but I strongly suggest that you go take a quick look.  It’s pretty, for one thing, and it’s also the image that inspired this story.

Funny note; though the character was originally nameless, in one of my attempts at writing this I quickly discovered that I was writing Carmen Sandiego.  The final result isn’t about Carmen Sandiego, but I kept the name because it’s the right image to have for her.  With that in mind, read on! Continue reading

Flash Fiction: Making Bad Decisions Quickly

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This week is car chase week on terribleminds.  Now, I know that this car I have up here isn’t technically from Detroit, despite the words I use later on (I think it’s an Australian Ford model), but I couldn’t resist.  It fit the car I was imagining too well for me to care.  So, with that in mind, I hope you enjoy my story: Continue reading