Category Archives: Films

Aside

Over the weekend, I walked up to the Georgetown theater to see Denial. I sat near an old married couple, near enough to hear him quietly give her his one-word opinion on each trailer. Skip or see. He’s apparently a tough critic because everything got a skip, but she contradicted him on Loving and Collateral Beauty. And the way she said “see” made me think that he is definitely going to have to sit through those two movies.

Despite the highly emotional nature of the controversy at its heart, Denial is a cerebral pleasure. To watch it is to view an inflammatory topic as an invisible member of a highly skilled legal team, dispassionately and strategically. I enjoyed it, but probably will not revisit.

Quick Comparison

Jurassic World Poster

Franchise: Jurassic Park
Years since previous installment: 14
My opinion of previous installment: Utter bullshit.
Reaction to new sequel: Mind-blowingly excited. Can! Not! Wait!

Terminator Genisys Poster

Franchise: Terminator
Years since previous installment: 6
My opinion of previous installment: Solidly entertaining.
Reaction to new sequel: Exhausted. Bored.

I  make zero sense.

The Movies of 2014

Whoops. Totally forgot about this back in January. Also, totally forgot about updating this blog for, like, six months or so.

The System (only for theatrical viewings):
* Good enough to justify the ticket price
** I genuinely liked it
X I hated it
+ Number of repeat viewings at the theater

Theatrical List:

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
Midnight Revival Show: Legend **
The LEGO Movie **
About Last Night *
2014 Oscar Shorts: Animated **
Frozen **
Divergent *
Captain America: The Winter Soldier **
Only Lovers Left Alive *
Screening Event: The Room *
The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Godzilla *
X-Men: Days of Future Past *
Maleficent * + 1
Edge of Tommorrow **
Mel Brooks Film Festival: Blazing Saddles *
Lucy
Guardians of the Galaxy **
The Giver *
Chef **
This is Where I Leave You *
The Boxtrolls *
The Book of Life **
John Wick **
Nightcrawler *
Interstellar *
Big Hero 6 **

Home Viewing List:

Elysium
MST3K: Future War
Prince of Darkness
MST3K: Horrors of Spider Island
MST3K: Warrior of the Lost World
MST3K: The Phantom Planet
MST3K: Night of the Blood Beast
Pacific Rim
Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain
Europa Report
The Way, Way Back
Justice League: War
Rapture-palooza
Hell Baby
MST3K: Werewolf
MST3K: Beginning of the End
MST3K: The Starfighters
Arthur (2011)
The Conjuring
Dune
Scarface (1932)
Let’s Go to Prison
MST3K: Final Justice
Goon
Tales of the Night
Batman: Assault on Arkham
MST3K: Hercules and the Captive Women
BoJack Horseman (series)
MST3K: Gamera vs. Guiron
Necessary Evil: Super-Villains of DC Comics
R.I.P.D
MST3K: Gamera vs. Barugon
Marvel’s Iron Man & Captain America: Heroes United
MST3K: NInja Master 1
Insidious
22 Jump Street
Oculus
Coherence
Jack Reacher
Insidious Chapter 2

On John Wick

John Wick surprised me. Not in its content. What you see in the commercials is what you get in the theater. Instead, it startled me with how much I enjoyed it.*

John Wick is what it is and nothing more, but it’s a masterful example of what it is: a straightforward action flick that would’ve starred Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal back in the day. If that interests you, then you’ve probably seen before everything John Wick has to offer. I know I’ve lost track of all those retired bad-asses drawn back into the game by the need for revenge. I’ve also seen mentor and mentee assassins, and I’ve known plenty other Russian mafiosos with callow sons. **

But despite the retro plot elements, the movie achieves its own unique, modern vibe. Had John Wick been filmed in the 80s, it would have been as loud and ugly as it was dumb and violent. Instead,  first-time director Chad Stahelski has created something a little bit dumb and entirely violent, but also smooth and stylish.

It’s frankly amazing how posh this genre has become. John Wick stops short of the Sin City-level of stylized, but it has a toe slightly over the line. So many sleek, powerful cars. So many natty suits. Keanu Reeves looks as much like a Prada model as ever. Such a civilized and urbane veneer disguising the underbelly of the beast.

A key to the movie’s success is that it’s as much about the shadowy criminal society Wick navigates as it is about Wick’s quest to kill the man who killed his dog. It’s a world where you trade one solid gold coin for each dead body you need professionally adios-ed. And that’s just one of many delightfully weird moments that transpire in a wholly matter-of-fact fashion.

Speaking of dead bodies, I admit I entered the theater with an attitude about the basic premise. To my mind, no dog – no matter how cuddly and lovable – is worth taking 60+ human lives (at least). They’re conveyed as meaningless henchmen deaths, but if we don’t care about them, why do we care about Wick exactly? He once was what they are currently, and if he can redeem himself, why can’t they? But I gradually came to understand that the puppy isn’t the point.

Yes, a puppy is clubbed to death (off-screen, with far more discretion than is afforded to several humans receiving bullets to the face). But that isn’t really why Wick goes on a killing spree. I don’t even really buy into the rationale that it’s the metaphorical meaning that Wick attaches to the puppy. I personally see this as a movie about widower working his way through the anger phase of his grief cycle in a hail of bullets. You either get on board with that or you don’t.

The well-staged fight choreography will help with that. The action looks and feels real and brutal. Elegant as it is, it also seems satisfyingly difficult. Action movies always seem to have at least one scene in which a bad-ass breaks someone’s neck with just a swift, little twist. This usually looks like it takes less effort than twisting off a bottle cap. Not here. Wick does overpower many of his enemies within seconds, but it always still manages to look like a job of work.

 

* Particularly because a convenient matinee time factored more heavily into my decision to buy a ticket than any real desire to see it.

** My first recorded sighting: 1997 in The Saint.

 

 

Hello, Mr. King

Tomorrow night I will attend a Q&A event with Stephen King. He will perform a reading from his latest novel, Revival, and, if I’m very lucky, I will go home with a signed copy.

I’m terribly excited. In anticipation, I’ve been re-reading King’s autobiography (which is also a brilliant guide for aspiring authors), On Writing. I’ve also been thinking about my favorite movies based on his works. I’ve collected the following list. Keep in mind these are simply the titles for which I feel the greatest amount of affection, not necessarily the best examples of high-quality cinema.

Continue reading

Deathmatch: Animation Domination

The Boxtrolls vs. The Book of Life!

Posters for The Boxtrolls and The Book of Life

Images from IMDB

There is no real competition here. I loved BoL. I loved it the same way everyone else in the known universe who is not me reacted to Frozen.*

In contrast, I appreciated Boxtrolls more than I really liked it per se. I respect how it expressed a uniquely weird vision. And make no mistake, it is seriously weird. That isn’t precisely a complaint considering I bought my ticket hoping for something as weird-and-wonderful as Coraline and ParaNorman.** The good folks at the Laika stop-motion animation studio aren’t afraid to go scary and unpleasant, and that’s exactly what I like about their product. But this maybe crossed a threshold for me.

While I mostly enjoyed the look and the feel of Boxtrolls, I found some parts almost unendurably ugly and repellent. The icky look of the villains undermines the story’s message of tolerance. I do firmly believe our culture needs more stories about learning to love things that aren’t cute, but this one features trolls that are far cuter than the humans. I spent more than half the running time terribly afraid the movie would go full Jungle Book, but it course-corrected in time to make a nice point about choosing your own path in life. However, that doesn’t completely make up for the fact that the plot jags off on a bizarre, cross-dressing-related tangent, which I wouldn’t mind except that they treat the subject so negatively.

Other than thematic concerns, I just didn’t get swept up in the tale, and I didn’t fall in love with the characters. Frankly, the bratty ginger “heroine” has few redeeming qualities.­ And it felt overly long even at a slim 96 minutes. It would’ve been an amazing short film, though.

As for BoL, I find I don’t have a lot to dissect with it, so I can mostly sum up my feeling with an enthusiastic recommendation. BoL is definitely more conventional, but it still feels like a breath of fresh air. I loved the colorful visual style that felt textured and almost touchable. The soundtrack is a brilliant mix of original songs and pop music arranged in a traditional mariachi style. And it manages to effectively convey a layered narrative without confusing children. It’s not just a love story, but also manages to have something meaningful to say about family ties, the nature of heroism, and how to draw inspiration from folklore to live a better modern life. All strands weave together magically into a lovely tapestry. If I had one small quibble, I do wish we could’ve spent more time with Maria to get to know her better, but perhaps then the movie would’ve overstayed its welcome with the youngest audience members.

* Note: I actually quite enjoyed Frozen. Please don’t send me hate mail.

 ** ParaNorman was once itself the subject of an October animation deathmatch, wherein it cleaned the floor with Disney’s shallow re-imagining of Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie.

Delicious

Last weekend I saw Chef on the recommendation of my best guy friend, a.k.a “BFF.” And as he predicted, I did indeed love it. I loved it as a searing metaphor for writer/director Jon Favreau’s relationship to the Hollywood machine, and I loved it for itself: a savory-sweet concoction of joyfulness. Such a happy-go-lucky little movie. And I really appreciated seeing a story about an adult taking the time to teach a child things that are worth knowing.

As I sat watching the credits and absorbing what I’d just watched, I realized during the credit cookie that Chef amounted to an easy slam-dunk for me not just because it’s good, but also because it’s way up my alley. There are certain types of movies that are hard to ruin for me. One is a twisty amnesia mystery. Another is any movie that involves lovingly filmed scenes of food preparation.

This is a Cuban sandwich. There's no avoiding eating one after you see Chef. Do yourself a favor and get one lined up in advance. This one comes from Paladar in Rockville, MD.

This is a Cuban sandwich. There’s no avoiding eating one after you see Chef. Do yourself a favor and get one lined up in advance. This one comes from Paladar.

I make no claims to “foodie” status. I enjoy squirt cheese too much for that. But, for better or worse, I am an emotional eater. Scenes that imbue food with that sensibility hit me where I live. It’s not just movies either. My favorite scene in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon is where Pilate teaches her nephew how to cook a perfect soft-boiled egg. I still vividly remember reading that book in my twin bed in my college dorm. After I came to that passage, I got no farther on my reading assignment that night because I just kept re-reading that part over and over again. It triggered the sweet spot in my brain.

To hit the sweet spots in your brains, here are some other food-centric movie moments for your viewing pleasure:

Continue reading

Tidbits

In no coherent order…

I took a trip to Savannah, an incredibly cinematic location as evidenced by the number movies that have been filmed there. I had originally intended to write a rather ambitious piece about the various movies set in Savannah, but I don’t know if that will ever actually happen. I’m such a deadbeat blogger. However, I still managed to earn a handful of film buff points on my vacation. I visited a beautifully restored, 1920s-era movie house, the Lucas Theatre. In the midst of a Mel Brooks festival, I finally saw Blazing Saddles for the first time. Young Frankenstein is probably still my favorite, but I like Blazing Saddles a lot more than I thought I would. Madeline Kahn is the bomb and always will be.

I’ve been watching Penny Dreadful on Showtime. I really love premium cable television series because they frequently cater to my minimal attention span with super-short seasons. Even I can commit to eight episodes. Penny Dreadful is wonderfully atmospheric and features some top-shelf performances, particularly by Eva Green. I’m not obsessed with it or anything, but I do find it entertaining enough to keep watching. The finale airs tonight, and if they don’t completely drop the ball, I expect to tune in for its second season. But I do wonder if it can maintain its grip on its audience after the novelty wears off. In the meantime, I’ve also been quite enjoying the episode recaps on The Mary Sue.

The “found-footage” trope continues to pursue its doctrine of manifest destiny. Now the darkness is creeping even into kids’ movies. Good luck with that, parents. Hope you remember to take an air sickness bag.

I really looked forward to Edge of Tomorrow, but it wound up a mixed bag. Most of it I did enjoy. It delivered fairly on the trailer, but the ending wussed out harder than Tom Cruise does at the beginning. It reminded me heavily of the way Source Code (a movie I also mostly admired) went for the super-happy-joy-joy ending when going out on a bittersweet note might have served the material better.

Does anyone else remember a shitty early 90s comedy called My Boyfriend’s Back? As it turns out, it was simply ahead of its time. The trailer for Life After Beth proves that.

 

I’m back with The Way, Way Back!

Watching The Way, Way Back called to mind those Diary of a Wimpy Kid books*. How can that be when one is a tenderly vulnerable coming-of-age drama and the other is a series of deliberately unpolished, brashly misanthropic illustrated books for the elementary school set? I know it’s an odd connection to make, but bear with me.

Once upon a time, I worked as a children’s librarian, and that was during an era when the Wimpy Kid was A) insanely popular and B) controversial. The series drew scorn from a certain type of parent for all the usual reasons:  It isn’t a “timeless classic” they read as a kid. It models inappropriate behaviors. It’s completely insubstantial (i.e., “they’re just cartoons”). It’s junk food for kids’ brains. Blah, blah, blah, hell, hand basket, something, something**.

Anyway, because it was my job to have an informed opinion on such things, I read all of the books that existed at that time (I think there are at least twice as many by now). And I actually thought they were terribly clever, but at the same time, I found them too frustrating to be truly entertaining. And here’s where we arrive at the point. What TWWB and the Wimpy Kid share is keen observation of the reality of youth. They remind me of the lives children really lead every day, and they put me back in a kid’s shoes. And that is somewhere I never want to be again. Ever. I’ve heard so many otherwise seemingly intelligent adults claim that they wish they could go back in time and be a kid again, and that level of delusional nostalgia blows my mind.

For starters, how can they not appreciate this? When I was a kid, I thought being a grown-up would be completely awesome. And I was correct. Spare me your whining about jobs, bosses, bills, and taxes. To me, it all seems like a fair trade. You don’t have to win the Nobel Prize. All you have to do is manage to achieve a baseline level of functional adulthood. Provide for yourself, and cooperate with the rest of society. That’s it. And in exchange for that, there are cars. And meals in restaurants. Vacations. Pets that you get to name. Relationships with people who actually choose you. Making your own decisions. Taking naps in your own living room on a couch you paid for. And reading whatever books you like, dammit.

Secondly, and more importantly, childhood blows. Yes, adulthood involves chores, but I remember having chores as a kid. Yes, adults have problems. But I had just as many problems when I was a kid, compounded by no control over my own life and thus zero ability to solve them. You could never in a million years convince me to go back to that. And that’s why it’s so uncomfortable when a piece of art can truly make me see life again through younger eyes with all the tiny injustices and huge misunderstandings. And that’s TWWB.

Look at his face if you don't believe me.

Look at his face if you don’t believe me.

The first half-hour of TWWB is cringe-worthy. I literally watched some parts through my fingers like it was a horror movie. Because isn’t that an apt descriptor for the life of a 14-year-old trapped in a beach house with his meek mom and overbearing would-be step-father? But it’s worth sticking with the film for the sweet and believably low-key transformation the main character undergoes, as portrayed by Liam James. His Duncan will never be a cool kid, but he can find his crowd. And amazing performances abound with a cast list filled with notable character actors. It’s impossible to talk about this movie without bringing up the great Sam Rockwell, but everyone contributes in their own way to a memorable experience. I’m quite fond of this movie. I seriously doubt I’ll ever re-watch it, but it’s probably going to stick with me all the same.

 

* The movies based on them are unwatched by me.

** You folks at home can’t see it, but I’m making a jerking-off motion with my hand. I’m allowed to do that now because I am no longer a public servant.