Tag Archives: entertainment

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

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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.

 

 

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

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.

On Elysium

Neill Blomkamp makes ugly movies set in ugly worlds filled with awful people. He presents ham-fisted sci-fi morality plays about hapless protagonists. He always includes at least one utterly nasty scene with someone vomiting*, and he employs an epileptic camera to boot. These are not all automatically negatives, but I must admit I find nothing about this combination of artistic trademarks particularly entertaining. I did enjoy Elysium quite a bit better than District 9, but that really isn’t saying much considering that I straight-up hated District 9.

Like, can I actually shoot at this?

Like, can I actually shoot at this?

Elysium’s blessing and curse is that Blomkamp downshifts slightly on the bile. He still skewers humanity with all the subtlety of a Tyler Perry joint, but there are occasional moments where you invest in some characters. However, he seems confused about exactly how to graft some hopefulness onto his “people suck” schtick, and so the overall narrative winds up somewhat incoherent. But at least I can understand what’s happening in the action sequences despite the shaky cam. They’re all actually really well-staged.

Judging from interviews with Matt Damon about his Bourne movies, the actor clearly finds grim, blank action roles like this one interesting. Elysium’s Max De Costa is beaten down by life, but remains determined to keep going. And I have no complaints about Damon’s performance as Max; he is solidly effective in the role. At the same time, I can’t help but think that they should have cast a Latino actor. It certainly would’ve added some extra oomph to the immigration parable with a non-white hero. Plus, almost all of the secondary Earth-bound characters were cast as people of color.

I tried to go back to the coverage from Elysium’s release to see if there was any mention of originally considering anyone other than Damon, and all I found out was that Blomkamp originally considered both Eminem and another, lesser-known white rapper for role. Ultimately, Damon was cast just for his higher profile and his nice-guy accessibility. That strikes me as weird because I would’ve guessed that the character was originally written as Latino and then changed to accommodate Damon. Seems like a missed opportunity.

And now for a discussion of the ending with SPOILERS.  Continue reading

Dept. of Random

Last night (or possibly early this morning) I dreamt about Almost Human. I don’t have specifics to share. All I know is that I woke up thinking about it, and so I believe that something to do with the characters, or maybe the premise, or maybe just the title of the show figured into what I was dreaming about. Somehow. I know that sounds vague, but it’s pretty amazing by my standards because, as a rule, I never remember my dreams.

And this is particularly weird because I haven’t even watched Almost Human yet. And until now I wouldn’t have even characterized myself as anticipating watching it. Seriously. It was not on my list of new shows that I wanted to try out this television season. I have ambiguously positive feelings about Karl Urban, but I’m certainly not a true fan.* And nothing I’ve seen in the approximately 12 zillion commercials that have aired during football games wowed me. On top of which, I honestly don’t even really like watching television episodes as they air as much as I like to marathon old seasons.

But I spontaneously decided to set the DVR to record Almost Human only a couple hours before it premiered entirely because one television spot happened to mention its tenuous connection to Fringe.** And Fringe happens to be my current Netflix obsession (more on this later).

So maybe my dream is a sign that I should actually sit down and watch Almost Human sometime this weekend even though I hadn’t planned on getting around to it anytime soon. I don’t know.

Also, Simon Pegg talked movies with The Guardian, and it was pretty great. It reminded me that I do totally need to get around to reading his book. It’s been on the to-read list forever.

 

* In my opinion, Karl Urban is a reasonably good actor, possessing of a certain level of charisma. I find myself disappointed that he doesn’t enjoy a higher profile, and yet I also understand it because when he’s not playing a supporting role in some major franchise’s ensemble, he tends to select shitty projects more often than not.

** J. H. Wyman, creator of Almost Human, served as a writer, director and executive producer on Fringe.

Seriously?

Calum Marsh over at Esquire recommends that you watch Lockout. I vehemently disagree.

While I sympathize with a wistful admiration for Guy Pearce’s rare lead performance (I really do wish he didn’t always play weaselly villains) and a fervent wish for the movie-that-might-have-been, the movie-that-was sucked. A lot. It was probably the worst thing I saw at the theater in 2012.* It was so incredibly silly and nonsensical from start to finish, and it didn’t even really manage to be bad in an entertaining way. I found myself bored for most of the last half of the movie. The only “modest revelation” I encountered was my realization that Maggie Grace was obviously cloned in a lab to fill Bridgette Wilson’s vacated spot in Hollywood.

Photos of Wilson and Grace looking identical

Can you even tell which is which?

But I can’t really criticize Marsh too harshly. After all, I have loved — enthusiastically embraced — some genuinely shitty movies in my time. And I find myself intrigued by Marsh’s assertion that Lockout is a “contemporary film noir.” I own no claim to expertise in that genre or style or mode or label or however we’re defining that this week, and maybe Marsh does. Even so, I wouldn’t have ever made that connection, and I’m not really buying it. But it could be a perfect example of something I’ve believed for a long time:   It’s not what you see on the screen that counts; it’s what you think about it.

Some people just relax in front of video and absorb. I don’t get that at all. My partner doesn’t grasp how I can be “too tired to watch television,” but if I can’t focus and actively engage at all times with the material, then it’s a pointless activity for me. And even with bad movies I find myself filling in the blanks they’ve left empty on my own. The end result can be that my experience of the story winds up entirely different than another viewer’s experience. And so from a particular perspective, you could argue that I simply failed where Marsh succeeded. I allowed Lockout to leave me hanging, but Marsh was able to latch onto something interesting. And, in turn, he inspired me me to read a bunch of articles about film noir that I probably wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. Cool.

 

* Probably. But that was also the year of Snow White and the Huntsman and Dark Knight Rises. So that’s a tough call.

Recap: Summer 2013 Roundup

Even though I was too busy the last couple months moving and working and traveling and whatever else to broadcast my reactions on the Interwebs, I still wasn’t too busy to make it to the movie theater. I’m very rarely too busy for that. So here is a quick run-down of the new releases I’ve seen recently, along with the 30-second version of my verdicts on them. I do feel wistful that I’m not taking more time to engage in meaningful conversation about some of these titles – particularly Man of Steel. My complex emotions about just that one could probably fill an entire book. But realistically, more movies get released each and every weekend, I’ve started watching a new-to-me show (more on this later), and this fall television season just might see a genuine attempt by me to watch a current show or two for the first time in a very long while. So this is all you get.

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True Story

The office where I work has lunch catered for employees on Fridays. At the most recent Friday lunch, a boss was relating to me how much he enjoyed his experience of revisiting The Blues Brothers after many years. This led to following exchange:

Boss: And it had that actress in it. Oh, what is her name? The one with the Curl Up and Dye salon.
Holly: Carrie Fisher.
Boss: She was so good in that. That was probably her greatest role.
Holly: Nope. Incorrect.
Boss: What?
Holly: No.
Boss: Well, then what is her greatest role?
Holly: Oh, my God. Princess Leia!
Boss: Bah!
Holly: Seriously. You wait. Some day Carrie Fisher will die, and you watch. What is the lede of her obituary? Actress best known as Princess Leia dies.

That actually happened. Given that it was the Chief Operating Officer of the entire company, it probably would’ve behooved me to show some more diplomacy. But c’mon! How can you be diplomatic in the face of such egregious error?

I’ll admit that I am a Star Wars fan. But I don’t think you have to be one for this scenario. You just have to look at Carrie Fisher’s IMDb page and ask yourself out of all of her roles, which one is a pop culture icon? I don’t care what country you’re in or what language you speak, when you hold two cinnamon buns against the sides of your head, everyone in the room will catch the reference.

End of debate.