Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

“Five Favorites” – Review of 2014 Best Picture Nominees

Thursday, July 10th, 2014

Donna: Welcome to this month’s edition of “Five Favorites” with Mike Siegel! This month we’re abandoning our formula of fives to bring you a review of the nine Best Picture nominees from the 2014 Academy Awards. Now that all nine nominees are available for rental we’ve both seen them all and will be ranking them in order of how much we liked them, starting with the ones we liked least and moving up to our favorite of the nominees. Before we get going, I’d like to tip my hat to a few films that I feel deserved a place on this list, in particular “Blue Jasmine”, “August: Osage County”, “Rush”, “Kill Your Darlings” and, for my daring outsider pick, “Upstream Color”, which should have at least gotten nominations for Best Director and Best Cinematography. I’ll know Hollywood has finally caught up to the burgeoning indie scene when films like “Upstream Color” gets the award nods they really should.

Mike: So, in going over the list, I first wanted to mention a few films that got snubbed. “Rush”, “Before Midnight” and “Fruitvale Station” were all among the best films of 2013 but were not nominated. And I have yet to see “The Wind Rises” and “Blue is the Warmest Color”, which I suspect might end up on my top films of 2013 list. Still, the overall Oscar selection was not horrible. While some of the films were not my cup of tea, I can see why each was nominated and none was a horrible selection.

Onto the nominees! We both rank them in reverse order of our opinion.

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Donna’s #9: “Nebraska” – I’m just going to start by saying I have no idea how this film made in onto the Best Picture list. Sure, it’s a good film, well acted and well scripted. But there’s nothing extraordinary about it that makes it jump out at me. I have a hard time remembering details about it, and that alone knocks it out of Best Picture contention in my mind. It’s good, but not great, and just not strong or compelling enough to be on this list.

Mike’s #9: “The Wolf of Wall Street” – I feel this film was massively over-rated, as Scorsese films tend to be when he returns to his oeuvre of awful people doing awful things. Dicaprio is great and the film certainly has a lot of energy. Matthew McConaughey has a wonderful five minutes as a guest star. But it way way too long, spending far too much time reveling in the supposed excesses of its main character. And as I wrote in my long-form review, I am uncomfortable with glorifying a narcissistic convicted financial criminal.

Donna’s #8: “Captain Phillips” – I seem to be in the minority of people who weren’t incredibly moved by “Captain Phillips”, but I believe I know why. You see, before I saw “Phillips” I watched “A Hijacking”, a Swedish film about a strikingly similar true story of pirate capture. I was incredibly moved by “A Hijacking” – I found it poetic, heart breaking, well acted and edited to a devastating conclusion. So when I saw “Phillips” I couldn’t help but compare it to “A Hijacking”, and I found it lacking in every single aspect. Perhaps if I had seen “Phillips” before “Hijacking” I would feel differently, but as such, knowing a very similar and superior film is out there, I just can’t rank “Phillips” any higher than this.

Mike’s #8: “Nebraska” – I enjoyed it this film, mainly because of the acting. It’s a solid film with good characters and some humor (although a bit of it feels forced, especially with Kate). But while I like almost everything by Alexander Payne, I didn’t see why people *loved* it. It seems like the critics read a lot more into his films than I see.

Donna’s #7: “Dallas Buyers Club” – Let me be clear – as a film, “Dallas Buyers Club” wasn’t strong enough to be nominated for Best Picture. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a solid film, but for me the plot wasn’t compelling or drawn well enough to deserve a nod for the best film of the year. The reason “Dallas Buyers Club” is here is because of the incredible acting of Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey. Both men were absolutely marvelous in their roles, with Leto putting in one of the best performances of the year as Rayon. Both men deserved their Oscar nods for acting, but as far as best picture goes, it wasn’t enough for me. Good, but not extraordinary, and thus the low placement on my list.

Mike’s #7: “Dallas Buyers Club” – The main reason to watch this was McConaughey, who thoroughly dominated the film. It also has an appealing anti-establishment story about the buyer’s clubs and provides very strong insight into the early days of the AIDS crisis without being heavy-handed. Definitely a cut above the first two and worth the investment of time.

Donna’s #6: “Philomena” – The impact of this film didn’t quite hit me for a few days after I saw it. My initial reaction to “Philomena” was that it was good, but not good enough to make the Best Picture list. But, like all good films, this one sat with me for a long time, and I feel now upon reflection that it really was worthy of this nod. I’m a huge Coogan fan so it was lovely to see him in such fine form, and Dench is always magnificent. Frears really did himself proud with this film – a powerful story indeed.

Mike’s #6: “Philomena” – The brutal and cruel history of Ireland’s mother-child homes (and the Magdalene Laundries) cannot get enough attention. The tacked-on confrontation with the nun, which did not happen in real life, was the only real false note. I was reminded of the equally false and equally flawed scene in Schindler’s List where he breaks down. That having been said, the film builds itself around two very well-developed characters played perfectly, incorporates its low key humor well and builds its sense of outrage slowly and convincingly. This may stick with me for a while.

Donna’s #5: “Her” – Spike Jonze created something intensely beautiful with this lovely little film. It’s another simple story told well, and it’s the nuances of the script that make it such a powerful statement on love, lust, and power in relationships. I’m an enormous fan of Phoenix and it was gratifying to see him shine in this film. I was honestly quite shocked he didn’t get an Oscar nod for Best Actor for this performance. The only major flaw to this film was its length – it could have easily been about twenty minutes shorter. The story raises so many great questions about the dynamics of love – I feel this film will be talked about for quite some time.

Mike’s #5: “American Hustle” – I think the 70’s palette and styles caused this film to be a bit over-rated. I am not a huge fan of David O. Russell and don’t think Bradley Cooper is that great. That having been said, the film is very good, with solid dialogue, energy, style and some great performances, particularly the female leads. Frankly, I would watch a film about Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence reading the newspaper.

Donna’s #4: “The Wolf of Wall Street” – I actually debated for a while whether this film would wind up above or below “Her” as I liked them both rather equally, but “The Wolf of Wall Street” was compelling enough of a film for it to take the #4 spot. As much as I love McConaughey, I think DiCaprio should have taken the Oscar for his portrayal of the seedy Jordan Belfort, as he was quite amazing in this. I loved the direction of the film as well, although it certainly suffered from about thirty minutes of bloat. A strong film by Scorcese and a worthy contender for Best Picture.

Mike’s #4: “Her” – This is a bit long, but is quite a lovely film. The idea is intriguing even if the plot kind of fumbles around with it a bit. It takes a much more mature and realistic approach to its ideas than most sci-fi, making the world feel very real and very likely (example: almost all sci-fi films avoid the subject of sex; this one doesn’t). The two leads are excellent. Phoenix got all the attention but Johannson’s voice work anchored the emotional threads. As I’ve said before, if you look beyond the banner franchises, we are getting some very good sci-fi these days and “Her” is a perfect example.

Donna’s #3: “American Hustle” – This was easily one of my favorite films of the year for a whole host of reasons. I loved all of the acting in it – Bale, Cooper, Adams and Laurence were all exceptional. The direction and pacing of the film was stylish and flamboyant in all the right ways. The script was quite compelling and kept my attention throughout. Even the music was note-perfect. I truly enjoyed everything about this – it’s honestly only a tick below my #2 choice on my list.

Mike’s #3: “Captain Phillips” – This had me on the edge of my seat for two hours. It features another great “everyman” performance from Hanks but also excellent performances by the Somali cast. It was so enthralling, I didn’t mind Greengrass’s ridiculous shaky-cam style.

Donna’s #2: “Gravity” – To me, there’s nothing like a simple story told well, and that’s exactly what “Gravity” is – a straightforward tale told with incredible finesse. Cuaron allowed Bullock and Clooney to simply do their jobs, and both acted quite well throughout. But it was the astonishing directing that stole the show here, with the exquisite long opening shot setting the tone for the film (a Cuaron trademark, perhaps, as he did the same in “Children of Men”, one of my favorite films of all time). To top it off, given how much bloat most films seem to carry these days, the ninety minute length of it was just perfect. A beautiful film in every way.

Mike’s #2: “Gravity” – You know the best thing about “Gravity”? It’s only an hour and a half long. That sounds like faint praise or even damnation. But in an era where seemingly every Oscar nominee could easily be trimmed by 15 minutes to an hour, this is the only major film in recent years that had no fat. It is tense from beginning to end, the performances are great (Bullock has matured into a first-rate actress) and the filming is simply gorgeous. The opening unbroken shot is one of the most spectacular sequences in recent memory and I desperately wish I had seen this on the big screen. The science is bit questionable (orbital dynamics doesn’t work like that) but the film was so good that I didn’t care.

Donna’s #1: “12 Years a Slave” – Honestly, this wasn’t even a contest for me. In my opinion, “12 Years a Slave” was far and away the best picture of the year for a number of reasons. All of the acting was incredibly solid – not just the leads but all of the supporting actors as well. Fassbender, Dano, Giamatti and Cumberbatch were especially strong, and Chiwetel Ejiofor was a revelation in the lead. The direction by McQueen was unflinching and riveting with good editing that moved the story along. The script was very solid, believable and so gut-wrenching it was impossible not to cry. Outside of Brad Pitt’s appearance, which to me felt hammy and overwrought, I can’t think of a real flaw in this film. It utterly deserved to win Best Picture and I’m glad it took the top prize this year.

Mike’s #1: “12 Years a Slave” – When I look over an Oscar list, I like to think about which films people will be watching ten, twenty, fifty years from now. This and maybe “Gravity” are the only ones I think will really last the test of time. “12 Years a Slave” is transcendent. Many films have taken on the issue of slavery; few with as much resonance and power as this one. The performances are excellent all around — Ejiofor, Fassbender and Nyong’o especially (Fassbender is establishing an incredibly broad range; comparing this to his performance in “Prometheus”, you wouldn’t think it was the same actor). Even the supporting cast are outstanding. McQueen’s directing shows the brutality of slavery without wallowing in it or being exploitative. And it keeps the focus on the characters and the situation. I need to watch this again to confirm my initial thoughts that it might become a classic. But it was definitely my top film among the Oscar nominees.

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Thanks for joining us for another edition of “Five Favorites” and we’ll see you again next month!

Five Favorites – “Five Most Overrated Films of All Time”

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

Cross-posted from Donna’s wonderful FTRQ blog.

Donna: Welcome to another edition of “Five Favorites” with myself and Mike Siegel! This month we’re straying from our favorites format to tackle a different sort of list – what we think are the “Five Most Overrated Films of All Time”. We wanted to look at films that are revered or considered truly great cinema, and yet seem to us to be either fundamentally flawed or just plain bad. Our inclusion criteria for this list was that the films in question had to be either on the AFI Top 100 list, a best picture nominee or winner, or on the IMDB top 250. In other words, we only wanted to consider films that have been truly lauded as landmark, important, or extremely popular.

For myself this was a difficult task. Because I haven’t seen a lot of classic cinema or recent popular films, I found that I had seen maybe seen fifty percent or less of the movies on each inclusion list. On one hand this made my selection easier as I simply had less to work with, but on the other I feel Mike will have a far more comprehensive list than I will because of my lack of knowledge in this area. I also wanted to make sure I wasn’t simply picking movies I didn’t like. Quite honestly there are plenty of movies I just don’t like on these lists – “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “A Few Dollars More” or “V for Vendetta” are good examples. But I can recognize that all those films have true goodness and even genius in them, even if I don’t enjoy them. It was important to me to only pick films I felt were either truly flawed or ones that defied my every attempt at understanding why they are so loved. In the end, yes, whether or not I liked a film was part of the equation, but I did my best not to make it a popularity contest.

Mike: My approach was identical, although I’m probably not as versed in classic cinema as Donna likes to think! J I’ve already done a long series of posts on my own site where I went through the Oscar Winners one at a time to see which ones were bad. So I excluded Best Pictures from that list. One tweak I put in was to recommend better movies, when I could think of them. I also, like Donna, left off movies that I think are over-rated but where I can see why people like them, such as “Donnie Darko” or “A Christmas Story” or “Forrest Gump”. I found that a number of my picks were stand-ins for general categories of movies I think are over-rated.  You’ll see what I mean when we get there.

Donna’s #5: “The Green Mile” – At the time of writing, this film was #45 on the IMDB’s Top 250 list, and I have never ever understood why this film was so loved. I know I am treading on somewhat sacred ground for putting this on my list, but hear me out. I read “The Green Mile” books when they came out – I think most every fan of King did given that these were his first releases after a long spell of silence. I adored the books and have always thought that the detail of them was their genius – it was possible to live in and fully understand the world Kind created in this tale. Most importantly, there was a “why” for everything. Nothing happened in these books for no reason – King always gave us a “why” for each and every moment. When I saw the film, I was angered beyond belief at it, as was my husband, so much so that we had to keep pausing the film to yell and complain about it. Why? Because all that precious detail, all the “whys” that made the book so believable, was missing from the film. Now, I realize that most book-to-film adaptations suffer from a loss of detail, but in this case I feel that loss is egregious. The “why” for nearly everything that happened in the film was omitted, and without that “why” the film made little to no sense. In the world of the film, there was simply no reason given for most of what took place, and that, for me, destroyed the integrity of the story. I would start a list of examples but honestly I would be here all day. The only reason I felt I could even follow the film was that I was filling in the missing details from my reading of the books. I believe that is why most people don’t notice how many things have been stricken from the film – they remember the books too well. Without those books this film would have no context or rationale to it, and that is why I feel it is one of the most overrated films of all time. I could go on, but I won’t – I’ve ranted enough as it is I think.

Mike’s #5: “Rope” – Regarded as a marginal classic, rated #242 on IMDB and praised effusively for inventive technique of using long unbroken takes, I find this film to be over-rated like a lot of Hitch’s early stuff. I haven’t seen it since college, when I reviewed it for the Carletonian. But I found the characters to be wooden, the suspense to be a bit trite and Stewart’s character to a bit of a snotty professor type.  It’s not a bad movie and I would recommend seeing it.  But IMDB gives it an 8.0 and many critics give it four stars.

Donna’s #4: “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale” – At the time of writing, this film was #189 on the IMDB Top 250 list, and this entry on my list probably needs far less explanation than my last. I mean… seriously? “Hachi”? Sure, it’s a cute enough movie. It’s sweet and sappy and sentimental and based on a true story, so I get that people enjoy it. But a Top 250 movie? Not a chance. It just isn’t good enough in any way. The acting is stiff, the plot overly saccharine, the directing absolutely average. In fact, “average” is probably the best way to describe this film – there is simply nothing extraordinary about it. So why is this film so beloved? It’s honestly beyond me. If you want to watch a tearjearker animal move, why not “Black Beauty”, “Old Yeller” or “Lassie Comes Home” – they are all superior films and will certainly make you cry. I simply have never understood why this film seems to hit people as hard as it does, and I certainly cannot understand how it wound up on the IMDB Top 250 list, so I am including it as my #4 pick.

Mike’s #4: “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” – This is another pick that isn’t a bad movie, per se. It’s been 20 years since I watched it and I probably should watch it again. But it’s status as a classic (on the AFI and IMDB lists) is unmerited.  It drags in the later parts and I didn’t care for the characters. This is representative of a class of movies from the 60’s and 70’s that are badly over-rated.  Movies like “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Six Easy Pieces” and “The Graduate” are frequently over-rated because, in their day, they were revolutionary.  Now that the language of cinema has evolved, they’re still good, but not amazing. “Butch Cassidy” is not bad and IMDB gives it a sterling 8.1 rating. I just don’t think it’s that good. I’d give it a 6, maybe. You’d be much better off watching The Man With No Name trilogy, which is truly great.

Donna’s #3: “Bringing Up Baby” – This film appears at #88 on the AFI’s Top 100 of all time list, and I know I’m not alone in not understanding the appeal of this movie. This film has divided audiences from the start. Some think it a hilarious and side-splitting romp, while others find it contrived, unbelievable, silly and inane. I’m solidly in the latter camp – I disliked this film immensely. I didn’t enjoy the comedy, I hated the acting, and I found the whole setup ridiculous and cringe-worthy. I do not understand what about this film is appealing or funny, I really don’t. And it’s because I, like so many others, just cannot understand the appeal, I have to put this on my list.

Mike’s #3: “Django Unchained” – #51 on IMDB and regarded by many as the best film of 2012, this is really a stand-in for over-rated Quentin Tarantino films in general. “Reservoir Dogs” is good; it’s not a classic. “Pulp Fiction” might be great. “Kill Bill” is a great 150 minute film squeezed into four hours. “Ingorious Basterds” is a great two hour film squeezed into 150 minutes.  And “Django Unchained” is a great two hour film squeezed into 165. It pains me to write this because Tarantino has a very real talent and an extraordinary feel for the language of film. His dialogue is fantastic, his characters memorable and the look of his films is amazing. In every film, there are at least a half dozen shots that make me say, “Wow, that’s great cinema.”  But he badly needs an editor. If his last three films were each about half an hour shorter, I would regard them as classics, rather than bloated. The line between classic and over-rated can often come down to editing.  (There are a lot of recent films you could throw into the pile of “awesome if half an hour shorter”, including both Hobbit movies and the Dark Knight Rises.)

Donna’s #2: “Duck Soup” – This film appears at #60 on the AFI Top 100 list, and again I realize I may be ruffling feathers with this pick. But, honestly, I cannot stand this film, nor can I even begin to understand the appeal of it to anyone. When I started trying to watch more classic films I saw how highly this movie was regarded. I has a vague memory of not enjoying the Marx Brothers as a child, but gladly rented this to see what it was all about. I hated it so very much I could barely finish it. It was the single most inane and insufferable film I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying a lot. I seriously do not understand how this film is funny for anyone, I really really don’t. I grant I’m not a slapstick, screwball comedy fan, but I can appreciate pretty much anything in one way or another. Not this. Never this. I don’t get it and likely never will. I grant that this film is landing at my #2 spot due to a sheer hatred of it more than a quality issue, but that’s how strong my dislike for it is.

Mike’s #2: “Birth of a Nation” This was originally on the AFI list but was eventually removed in favor of Griffith’s “Intolerance” likely because the voters became uncomfortable with the racism apparent in the film. It seems odd to compare this to Butch Cassidy above but it’s in a similar boat.  The methods and techniques it invented were revolutionary; but they don’t stun the senses as much almost a century later. What we’re left with is a film that glories the antebellum south and the Klan. Defenders will tell you to put aside the racism and admire the technique.  But it’s difficult to put aside the racism, especially when the technique is no longer that revolutionary. If you want a silent classic, Griffith’s “Intolerance” and “Broken Blossoms” are much better. And “Wings” has all the beauty of a silent epic and the captivating Clara Bow.

Donna’s #1: “Easy Rider” – This film appears at #84 on the AFI Top 100 list, and I have long felt this must be the most overrated film of all time. This film is loved and revered by so many and I have never understood why. What happens in this film? What plot actually exists here? If someone knows please tell me as I still have no idea. Fully half of this movie is long shots of Fonda and Hopper riding motorcycles, which simply bored me to tears. The acting was nonexistent, the directing ridiculous, the plot absent. Why is this a cinematic masterpiece? For what reasons? There is nothing here of value in my opinion, and I just don’t see how it got included in the AFI list. Considering I generally like films with very little plot you’d think I’d love this, but it just annoys me to no end. Putting this film at the top of my list was a no-brainer to me.

Mike’s #1: “Easy Rider” – Honestly, Donna and I did not coordinate our answers on this!  But I agree with everything she says and then some. One of the first negative reviews I wrote back in my college days was of Easy Rider.  And it has not improved with age.  It barely has a plot.  The symbolism, such as it is, is obvious (I could see Fonda was the Christ figure about 18 seconds in).  The fates of the characters is not foreshadowed at all but just occurs randomly (and I didn’t care anyway).  It glorifies dim-bulb hippie “culture”.  The LSD sequence set the stage for every incomprehensible drug montage to come. The film is frequently praised as “revolutionary” and “ground-breaking” – like just about all the films in my list.  But the difference that elevates it to #1 is that the ground it broke was almost everything that went wrong with film for the next ten years.  I really can’t understand why this movie is so well-regarded other than people’s misguided fascination with the lifestyle depicted. (Interestingly, IMDB does not regard this as a classic, giving it a 7.4 rating — good but not great.  I would say even that was over-rating. I’d give it a 4 or a 5.)  The soundtrack is OK, I guess.  But I mostly watched this movie with a look on my face saying, “Really?”

Thanks for joining us again for another edition of “Five Favorites” and we’ll see you all next month!

Long Form Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

Purely considered as a movie, The Wolf of Wall Street is another excellent film from Scorsese. Although it is too long by about an hour, it is engaging and never really boring (just repetitive — I mean how many shots of people snorting coke off of call girls’ asses do we need?). It has a tremendous amount of energy in some sequences. It’s difficult to call the acting “good” since everyone involved gets into the spirit of things and chews the scenery with relentless abandon. Dicaprio is fine, Hill is fine and newcomer Margot Robbie is great as Naomi.

On its merits, I would probably give the movie an 8 out of 10.

But …

The Wolf of Wall Street is not a fictional tale (at least not completely). Jordan Belfort is a real life person who went to real life prison for bilking real life investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars with penny stocks and pump-and-dump schemes. The movie barely touches on this. In fact, in a condescending fourth wall scene, the movie Belfort simply waves off the details by saying the audience isn’t interested. The vast majority of the movie simply revels in the excesses of drugs, booze and sex that Belfort’s millions created (although I suspect some of that is exaggerated). Large parts of the movie play like a high-power rave.

Dicaprio and Scorsese, perhaps having realized the danger of glorifying the hedonistic lifestyle of a stock swindler in the current economy, have claimed it is a cautionary tale. I didn’t see any caution. I never saw that Belfort suffered for his crimes or was ever really undone by his lifestyle. The movie portrays his life as a non-stop party and even serious problems are cast in a darkly comic light. The only time the movie turns even a little bit grim is when his second marriage breaks up. I doubt even Belfort thinks his life was that awesome.

Frankly, I’m tired of movies that glorify Wall Street brokers. I’m tired of the glorification of Wall Street, full stop. I do not regard the high-powered end of the financial industry as something worth celebrating. There’s an early scene — probably the best in the movie — where Matthew McConaughey, in another great performance, explains how the stock broker industry works. The goal is not to make money for the clients. The goal is to keep them trading and paying commissions. No stock broker ever beats the markets consistently. This has been obvious for thirty years. Michael Lewis wrote a book about his time on Wall Street (Liar’s Poker) and speculated that the industry could not possibly last because people would eventually figure out that it was all a sham — that the brokers making massive commissions weren’t any more clued in than the clients. In fact, 20/20 (I think) once did a bit where they had a stock broker pick stocks, had a kindergarten class pick them and had a monkey pulls cards out of a rollodex. The broker came in last place and not by a little. Why is this an industry worth glorifying? Is it because it is a shadowy parallel of the equally empty and vainglorious entertainment industry?

There’s a tendency — and the movie encourages this — to say that the primary victims of Wall Street are rich and can afford to lose their money. There’s some truth to that. Some time ago, I got into a debate over Bernie Madoff’s victims. Some people insisted they had to know that his returns were ridiculous and there was something fishy going on. I agreed but pointed out that they probably didn’t know it was fraud. My basic take on human nature is that we are good but we are easily tempted. It was just so easy, with so much money being made, to persuade themselves that it was legit.

But the thing is, rich people aren’t the only victims of guys like Madoff and Belfort. Financial schemes like pump and dump affect an open market that is invested in by hundreds of millions of people, including mutual funds and pensions. Swindles undermine confidence in the entire system. Maybe you could argue that some of the victims deserved what they got. But they weren’t the only ones.

The movie doesn’t even hint at this. There’s a phone call, possibly fictitious, where Belfort persuades some middle class guy to sink his life savings into a penny stock, but even that is portrayed as triumphant.

No, I’m sorry. The context matters in this case. The movie itself I give an 8/10. But for glorifying a convicted financial criminal and, more importantly, the environment of recklessness that has sent our economy on a three-decade-long roller coaster ride while Wall Streeters made billions, I have to knock at least a point off.

Five Favorite’s: Best Action Films Since 2000

Sunday, March 30th, 2014

It’s time for another Five Favorites post with Donna of From the Rental Queue!

Donna: Welcome to the newest addition of “Five Favorites” with Michael Siegel! This month we decided to take on our “Five Favorite Action Films released since 2000″. For this list we wanted to focus as much as possible on pure action films. For that reason we decided to exclude the vast majority of superhero, sci-fi, or martial arts films, as we were really trying to focus on pure action. However, if we felt that
the action in a excluded movie was just too good we agreed that we would allow its inclusion. We capped the release date for this at 2000 – anything released before that year was also excluded. We wanted to focus on what the genre looks like today and not be tempted to fill our lists with old favorites.

We pooled our thoughts and came up with a short list of 30 films. Narrowing that down to just five was tough for me and I found myself unable to not pick one sci-fi film for my final list. Honorable mentions for me go out to “Valhalla Rising”, “Machete”, “Unstoppable”, and “Kick Ass”.

Mike: This was tough for me, as most of the action movies I watch slide into science fiction or superhero categories. Maybe it’s my perception, but we don’t seem to be getting the kind of pure action movies we did twenty years ago when Schwarzeneggar and Stallone ruled the box office. Almost everything these days is part of genre franchise.

Nevertheless, here is my list, with only a little bit of rule-bending. I do want to make an honorable mention of “Kill Bill”.  Kill Bill is a great action movie.  Unfortunately, that great movie is wrapped up a bloated 2-volume package.  If you edited them down to one movie and cut the total run time by about 40 minutes, it would probably be near the top of this list. Its action scenes are excellent, the acting is great and the dialogue solid. But it is a prime example of what I’ve disparaged as action movie bloat.  I also decided, at the last moment, to drop “Master and Commander” from my list because it is as much drama as action and I’ll hold it back for a post on criminally-underrated films.

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Dune … Desert Planet … Arrakis

Sunday, March 2nd, 2014

I’ve been intending to write this article for some time but Cracked’s recent article about five dream film projects that turned into nightmares provoked my digital pen. The five films they cite as having been nightmares for their producers are: Battlefield Earth, Dune, Toys, Pirates and Howard the Duck.

One of these things is not like the others.

Dune‘s production was famously troubled culminating with David Lynch refusing to lend his credit to the extended cut. But the movie is quite serviceable. And IMDB seems to agree. Here are the IMDB ratings of these five troubled productions:

Howard the Duck: 4.5
Pirates: 6.1
Toys: 4.9
Dune: 6.6
Battlefield Earth: 2.4

You can see that for all its problems, Dune is considered a decent flick. Certainly not in the same category as Battlefield: Earth.

It’s hard to overstate the difficulty of bringing a book like Dune to either the big or the small screen. Much of the novel occurs in the minds of the characters and the action depends heavily on their intellectual and physiological skills. The Dune universe is so intricate and complex, you could spend an entire movie just setting it up. (In fact, the Duniverse is often so abstract and complex that it’s hard to follow on the written page.)

But for all that, I would argue that we have gotten not one but two quite serviceable adaptations. Neither is perfect. Both have flaws. But they are very watchable and do a fine job of bringing out the essentials of the book.

The Lynch/De Laurentis version was absolutely savaged by critics when it was released and is still regarded by many as a gigantic flop. I really don’t understand why. Granted, I’ve read the book so I understand it (a friend who worked at a theater said they had to give out pamphlets explaining all the terms in the movie). But, if memory serves, I had not read the book when I first saw it and still didn’t understand the hatred.

Visually, the movie is a feast. Some of the FX are a bit dated, but the set design, costumes and navigators are wonderful. Toto’s score is very good, even it gets a bit repetitive. And the casting is top-notch. Jurgen Prochnow is outstanding as Leto Atreides. MacLahan, Annis, Stewart, Jones and Dourif are all great. Even at times when the movies is struggling, the actors pull it through.

The script has some issues but the conflicts are perfectly clear and the themes laid out quite plainly. Even on first seeing it, I found the plot intriguing and the idea of winning conflicts through political, religious and psychic power drew me in. And Dune itself is depicted quite well.

I think one reason for the hatred is that the original cut is a lot less comprehensible than the extended cut which I saw on TV the first time and now own on DVD. The extended cut, which Lynch disowned, has a massively superior opening narrative that explains the background and politics. It has a lot more scenes that flesh out the narrative and give the complex script room to breath. Much as I respect David Lynch as a film-maker, I think the long cut is far better than his (even if the special effects are still not quite finished).

(Of course, in later years, the critics would decide that Lynch’s opaque narratives and befuddling plots were a sign of his genius. I guess that stuff just wasn’t acceptable in the science fiction genre. It would be another thirty years before incomprehensible science-fiction films would be hailed as works of genius.)

I also have a high opinion of the sci-fi channel’s miniseries, which I also own on DVD and have also watched multiple times. With six hours to work with, the miniseries is more coherent and adheres better to the book (and doesn’t have the embarrassing weirding modules). The portrayals of Chani, Irulan and the Harkonnens are far superior. Fremen culture — the keystone of the book — receives a far better treatment. I know a lot of people prefer the monstrous baron of the Lynch movie. But I prefer a Baron (and a Feyd and a Raban) who are smarter and deadlier. The Baron is supposed to be a formidable opponent, a skilled tyrant, not a cackling imbecile. Feyd is supposed to be nearly Paul’s equal in a lot of ways. The Sci-Fi miniseries nailed it, making the Harkonnens dangerous and deadly. It also, in my opinion, does far more with the female characters — an important aspect of Herbert’s writing.

The sci-fi channel version has its own flaws, of course. William Hurt is somnambulant as Leto. Alec Newman is good, but not as good as Maclahan. The effects are conspicuously poorer because of the budget.

Still, you really can’t go wrong with either. I would give both 8/10 (fan rating). I suppose I should hold out hope that one day we’ll get a perfect adaptation. But I really don’t see that happening any time soon. In the meantime, both versions of Dune are worth the time of any science fiction fan.

Five Favorites – “Five Favorite Films We Saw in 2013″

Monday, February 17th, 2014

I’m cross-posting this from my friend Donna’s wonderful From the Rental Queue blog. When I joined Twitter, I noticed that Donna was posting quick tweet reviews of movies she watched. I immediately liked the idea of posting 140 reviews of the movies I saw and began doing so. Donna graciously invited me to put up a joint post on the five best movies we saw in 2013. Here it is, hopefully the first of a series.

Welcome to what will hopefully become a regular feature here on “From the Rental Queue” – “Five Favorites”!

Fellow blogger and all-around gentleman Michael Siegel of “Mike’s Meandering Mind” also posts regular #FTRQ potted movie reviews both on his Twitter feed and on his blog. I’ve always been a great admirer of his taste in film so I asked Mike to join me in creating review columns based on the idea of “Five Favorites”. The idea is to pick a topic – action thriller, 80′s comedies, found-footage films, anything at all – and discuss what our Five Favorite films in that category are and why. To start off the new year we decided to create our first list – our “Five Best Films We Saw in 2013″. This isn’t a list of the best films of 2013, but rather the best films we each saw *for the first time* in 2013. For a film to be included in our list we would have to have seen it for the first time during 2013.

I made an additional caveat for my list – I excluded all “Best Picture” nominees/winners from 2012 and 2013 from my inventory. I wanted my list to be more focused on lesser-known films so personal favorites “Amour”, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Cloud Atlas” – all of which were among the best films I saw last year – are excluded from my list. Of the 312 movies I reviewed last year 19 made my short list, and, after much rumination, I whittled it down to these five favorites of mine that I saw for the first time in 2013.

Mike: I obeyed this caveat. I agree, however, that “Amour”, “Beasts…” and “Cloud Atlas” were three of the best movies I saw last year.

I saw about 55 movies this year; mostly on Netflix, two in the theater. About 10 of those made my preliminary cut. I should give an honorable mention to “Frozen” which was my daughter’s favorite movie and is probably the best thing Disney’s main studio has done in about twenty years.

Donna’s #5) “Antiviral” – This is the first feature from Brandon Cronenberg, which he both wrote and directed, and in one film I feel he has surpassed the best things his father ever did. It is, quite simply, one of the best sci-fi films I’ve seen in a long while and, along with “Upstream Color”, one the most innovative ones in years. The writing was marvelous, engaging, sinister, and disturbing, without ever breaking its own rules. The star of the film, an unknown to me Caleb Landry Jones, was sheer
perfection. Most everything about this film was just that – sheer perfection – and I feel sorry for the many on Netflix who gave this poor reviews after just not grasping the plot. This is the type of film ardent movie fans should be supporting, which is why I immediately bought it on DVD. I encourage anyone who likes visually stunning, dark, cerebral sci-fi films to watch this with haste – you will thank me.

Mike’s #5) – “All Quiet on the Western Front” Yeah, I’ll go old school with my first choice.  I’ve been slowly catching up on old Oscar winners.  “All Quiet” has aged very well and is still one of the most devastating portraits of war ever committed to film.  I did a long series on the Academy Awards on my site and this was one of the first ones the Academy absolutely nailed.

Donna’s #4) “Oslo, August 31st” – This dark drama marks the second collaboration of Norwegian director Joachim Trier and actor Anders Danielsen Lie – the first being the powerful drama “Reprise”. Lie is simply marvelous as a struggling addict searching for forgiveness and redemption on one fateful day in his life. This is a powerful, tragic film made all the better by Trier’s poetic direction. I remember feeling punched in the gut when it ended, and it’s not easy for a film to take me in as this one did. A darkly lovely film that should get more attention in this country.

Mike’s #4) “High Noon” -Yep, another classic.  Well, there’s a reason they are called classics, isn’t there?  High Noon broke the mold for westerns, establishing tension and pacing above action and violence.  Gary Cooper underplays his role perfectly; Grace Kelly is luminous.  All Hollywood movie directors should be forced to watch High Noon as an example of how to build the kind of tension that makes an action scene thrilling instead of boring.

Donna’s #3) “Monsters” – When Gareth Edwards was revealed as the person to helm the reboot of “Godzilla”, the sumptuously directed “Monsters” was touted as the main reason he got the job. The pacing and storyline are far more like a cerebral drama than a monster movie, which I think tends to throw people off. It is, however, the very definition of ominous, with an ending that hit me like a lightning bolt. The revelation of the end jolted me so hard I restarted the film, searching for a particular moment in a particular scene just to see if I had gotten all the implications of it right. When I realized I had I was struck by equal parts tragedy and awe at the repercussions of it all. I’m so glad Gareth Edwards is remaking “Godzilla” – if this is anything to stand by it will be amazing.

Mike’s #3) “Before Midnight” – I am a big fan of the “Before …” movies.  I’ve always liked Linklater’s work and while I’m neutral on Ethan Hawke, I like Julie Delpy quite a bit.  But with these three (and hopefully more) movies, they have broken new ground in chronicling a relationship between two characters.  “Before Sunrise” might be one the most romantic movies ever. “Before Sunset” was a wonderful and unexpected return.  This one is much harder than the others, chronicling what amounts to a mid-life crisis in Celine and Jesse’s relationship. For married couples, the barbs and slings during the climactic scene will feel all too painful.  But the script, hashed out between the director and the two leads, rings true and has the wonderful dialogue of the first two films.  Hawke and Delpy don’t act; they inhabit roles they’ve known for 18 years.  Linklater’s low-key directing is perfect, once again using long unbroken takes to let the actors relish the dialogue.  This was easily one of the best films released in 2013.

Donna’s # 2) “Frances Ha” – I’m a huge Noah Baumbach fan so I was looking quite forward to this film, and it didn’t disappoint in the least. Greta Gertwig was masterful as Frances, who is a delightfully well-rounded character about whom I genuinely cared. Baumbach’s subtlety and minimalist style worked wonderfully in black and white and gave the film a charm I didn’t expect. This is a real, heartwarming portrayal of a young woman in flux and I loved every moment of it.

Mike’s #2) “Looper” – The banner franchises of science fiction are rubbish, for reasons I’ve detailed on my own blog.  However, if you look past them, there are a number of sci-fi gems out there and Looper is one of them.  The time travel plot holds together reasonably well (which is not always the case for time travel plots) and turns on a profound moral quandary.  Willis and Gordon-Levitt are fantastic, with the latter having developed into a capable leading man. The technology is integrated naturally into the fabric of the setting, not shown off for its own sake. Nick Meyer said that great cinema is born from limitations and Looper exemplifies this: eschewing big special effects and long insane action scenes.  Instead, it builds itself on character, plot and ideas. Even the supporting cast is strong. This was probably the best film of 2012.

Donna’s #1) “The Imposter” – When I first saw this film I wrote that it was “hands down the single greatest and best documentary I’ve ever seen – absolutely masterful and gripping.” I stand by those words as “The Imposter” truly breaks new ground in the world of documentaries. The style is utterly unique – I have never seen or heard of anything like it, and it was done so expertly I’m still amazed at how well it all came together. The subject itself is utterly fascinating as well – I still think of the story and all the questions it raises. This is a marvel of a film and one not to be missed. Easily the best film I saw all year save for perhaps “Amour” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild”.

Mike’s #1) “The Up Series” – There are documentaries, and then there is the “Up” series, which chronicles the lives of 14 British children from the 1960’s on every seven years.  What is odd is that what started as a social commentary in the end becomes about itself.  We become fascinated by the people in the film and it is inspiring and uplifting to watch their lives and see how many were able to make happy lives for themselves, how many were able to overcome adversity, how many went in unexpected directions.  This is truly one of the most remarkable achievements not just in documentary, but in all of cinema.

Star Trek, Prometheus and the Death of Sci-Fi Storytelling

Thursday, December 26th, 2013

Note: this article contains major spoilers for the Star Trek movies and minor spoilers for Prometheus. You might thank me, but just in case you want to discover them for yourselves, read carefully.

Ulysses is the worst book ever written.

There, that got your attention didn’t it? In saying that, I don’t mean that Ulysses is a bad book or even not a great one. What I mean is that it is one of the worst books every written because it is opaque, difficult and complex. It is unapproachable for most readers. This would be fine as far as Ulysses goes but its difficult style has persuaded many writers — and many critics — that being opaque, difficult and complex constitutes genius. So truly awful works like Gravity’s Rainbow are assumed to be brilliant because they are incomprehensible. The logic seems to be that a book that bad must be brilliant.

The Problem of the Mystery Box

In the last few years, I have noticed this aesthetic bleeding into science fiction. There are and more science fiction films and TV programs, including mainstream ones, that make no damn sense at all. Defenders of these movies and TV shows see their incomprehensibility as a sign of their brilliance. But I see them as a sign of lazy writing.

Take Lost, for example. I never watched it, but many people vented frustration because its plot wasn’t understandable. In fact, JJ Abrams has boasted about this with his routine about how wondering what’s in a mystery box is better than finding out what’s in the box. Battlestar Galactica, which I did watch, followed the same pattern. In the end, a shaky arc emerged but there were tons of red herrings and contradictions on the way.

Both series were proclaimed as brilliant. But I think this has less to do with actual brilliance than in mistaking incoherence and lack of planning for brilliance. Contrast them against, say, Babylon 5, which had a lot of mystery and intrigue but, in the end, holds together pretty well. Having watched the series multiple times, I can see how ideas are put in place years in advance, how everything is relevant to the plot and how, ultimately, it all makes sense. The reason it does is because Stracyzinski, unlike creators of Lost and BSG, was not just throwing random mystery events on the screen and then, toward the end, trying desperately to reconcile them. He had written out the plot in advance on 3×5 cards. He knew exactly what was going to happen so that events in Season 1 were directly related to revelations in Season 4.

And that’s the key difference. One series had a complex labyrinthine plot that was in view from the start. The others were put together by writers doing random things and pretending like it made them smart. In BSG, for example, the writers didn’t know who the Final Five Cylons were until Series 3 and practically drew names out of a hat. The Lost writers admitted they didn’t have a series bible and that the early days especially had random bits thrown out that they eventually dropped.

I’ve heard, but can not confirm, that several recent sci-fi series like Fringe, Terra Nova, Under the Dome and Revolution are even worse. In these cases, however, it seems more like plain bad writing than ham-fisted attempts at “mystery”. According to the online criticisms I’ve read, the series’ contradict themselves routinely even when the plot is straight-forward. However, this may be an offshoot of the aesthetic built by Lost, BSG and later seasons of 24 of doing a series with a running arc but no bible or advanced planning.

It’s fine to have a mystery box. It’s even fine to not necessarily reveal what’s in it. What is not OK is for the writers to not have an idea of what’s in the mystery box. Because instead of having plot developments that hint consistently at what’s in there, you end up with a maddening collection of red herrings that lead nowhere. You end up with a muddled plot that contradicts itself and punishes rather than rewards the attentive viewer.

Moving to film, a recent example of this trend toward incoherence is Prometheus. The early scripts made sense. But the version on the screen doesn’t. To cite Franklin Harris again:

Unfortunately, it isn’t just that “Prometheus” is ambiguous, which can be a virtue, but that it doesn’t seem to know where it’s going with any of its ideas. And when it comes down to the basic stuff, it fails miserably.

Can anyone tell me what the plot of Prometheus was? Can anyone say, for certain, that there actually was something in the mystery box?

Character as the Source of Drama

A good plot emerges naturally from the responses of characters to a situation. A bad plot emerges when you decide in advance what you want to do and twist the characters to follow those points. Lost and BSG, despite their narrative problems, at least had reasonable characters. But there is an even lower tier of sci-fi these days that combines an incoherent plot with idiotic or inconsistent characters.

Back to Prometheus. The characters in the movie frequently do nonsensical things because the plot, such as it is, requires them to. A character previously scared of the situation takes off his helmet and approaches a menacing tentacle. Why? So it can attack him. A pilot who could care less for one of the characters effectively commits suicide at her urging. Why? So the ship can be destroyed. Hell, the Star Wars prequels had more consistent characterization than this.

Kurt Vonnegut said that in a good story every character should want something, even if it’s a glass of water. In Prometheus, what do people want? What are their motivations? What drives them? A few of the characters have clear motivations, but the plot turns on characters whose motives are opaque if they exist at all. Say what you want about Abrams’ mystery box, at least he wasn’t putting the characters in there.

It’s fine to make a character morally ambiguous or to make his motivations somewhat opaque. One of the best characters in TV science fiction was Kerr Avon of Blake’s 7. Avon claims to be entirely motivated by self-interest, wanting to be safe, rich and secure. But over the course of the series, his actions often betray his self-proclaimed motives. He risks himself, even sacrifices himself for others. In my opinion, his cynical self-interest is who he wishes he were. He sees the idealism in others and finds it childish and even, in the case of Blake, fanatical. But he can’t quite be that selfish person he wishes he were.

But the thing about Avon is that he remains a compelling character even though his motives are unclear. Unlike the characters in Prometheus, he actually has motives besides advancing the plot. There is something he wants. There are reasons behind the things he does. He is consistent in his actions, even if his actions are not always consistent with his words. He doesn’t abandon the crew to death in one episode and then take on a full squad of Federation troops in the next because the plot says so. If Avon is a mystery box at least there’s something inside it, even if we never find out what it is.

The motivations of Hal 9000 in 2001 are opaque. But there is clearly some reason behind them, even if it is not explained until the next movie (or in the book). If 2001 were made today, Hal would kill some people, spare others, pilot the ship to Mars, send laser beams down the hallway and no explanation for any of it would be given or even possible. Defenders would say, “well, he was a crazy computer”. He was, but even crazy computers act in certain ways. And once we find out what drove Hal mad, his actions make sense.

In a recent post, I talked about conspiracy theories. I noted that the difference between a real conspiracy theory and bogus one is that real conspiracies tend to be pretty straight forward (“let’s kill Hitler”), even if the mechanics of them sometimes become complex. Fake conspiracy theories are like Rube Goldberg engines because they are not built up from ideas (“let’s assassinate JFK”) but from perceived holes in the conventional explanations (“a magic bullet”).

The problem with some of the worst science fiction plots these days is that they tend to devolve into Rube Goldberg engines for the same reason. No one lays out the plot in advance and thinks about how Character X would accomplish Goal Y given situation Z. They decide they want to have events A, B, C and D happen and so wrap the characters around that. They then proclaim that we’re too simple to understand the complex plot. Maybe this is the result of our paranoid times: the X-Files‘ absurd plot was born from Watergate paranoia. It was never intended to make sense but to reflect vague conspiracy theories. But for most science fiction, it makes no damn sense. (And the X-Files has well-developed characters with clear motives even if the overall plot was nonsense.)

Star Trek: Spoiler Warning

What brought this post up — and perhaps it’s because I care about it so much — was the recent Trek films. While I liked them, I was ultimately disappointed because it seemed like they were built less around character than around set pieces and action sequences. This is a big letdown for a series that was always built around character.

For example: in the first movie, one of the most problematic sequences occurs after the destruction of Vulcan. Spock throws Kirk off the ship, Kirk runs into Spoke Prime on Delta Vega, they then run into Scotty and then transwarp beam back to the Enterprise.

The number of coincidences and plot contrivances in that portion are staggering. That’s because the script isn’t trying to make sense or be consistent with anyone’s character; it’s trying to gin up a bogus conflict between Kirk and Spock, get the action beat of the monster on the moon, get a meeting with Spock Prime and drag Scotty in. It is entirely a plot contrivance that emerges from the bizarre decision of Spock to not put Kirk in the brig but to abandon him on a dangerous icy planet (I’m thinking that would be called attempted murder in Star Fleet regs).

Here’s an alternative off the top of my head that would have accomplished the same thing. While the Enterprise is being repaired, Spock works on rescuing survivors. Among the survivors is a young engineer’s mate Montgomery Scott, who is put to work since Enterprise lost so many engineers in the battle. Spock prioritizes restoring subspace communications to warn Star Fleet while Scotty is given the lesser task of repairing the warp engines. Hearing that the Nerada visited Vulcan’s moon, he sends Kirk to investigate. Kirk finds Spock Prime, who advises him that Spock II is compromised and can not properly command the Enterprise. He also advises him to promote promising young Enterprise personnel such as Ensign Chekov. Returning to the Enterprise, Kirk relieves Spock. When Scotty works a miracle and restores the engines, he sets off in pursuit of the Nerada and also to get close enough to Earth to warn them by normal communications.

Yeah, that’s not a great plot either. But it’s built around the characters taking logical actions to deal with the situation. I didn’t start out with “we want to put in a cool CGI monster because it’s been ten minutes since we had an action beat.” But you could still put a CGI monster in there if that’s your kink.

Star Trek has other problems: the complete lack of any planetary defense on Earth or Vulcan, Nero’s failure to warn Romulus of the coming supernova (something their astrophysicists could check out), the movie not being entirely clear on the distance scales of star systems and planets. But, overall, it holds together OK. Most of the characters are reasonably defined. I was hoping that in movie 2, Abrams would iron out those problems.

I was wrong. Star Trek: Into Darkness is worse when it comes to storytelling. In STID, Admiral Marcus decides he wants to militarize the federation, start a war with the Klingons and conquer the Galaxy. This sort of thing has historical precedent. The path that most warmongers have chosen would be to ramp up paranoia and militarism through propaganda and staged Reichstag fire incidents. Once the buildup is ready, they stage a full-blown military incident on the border of Klingon space to start the war. One way this could play out in film: the Enterprise crew, stationed on the border of Klingon space, finds the lies behind the propaganda thanks to their Klingon-speaking communications officer. This could lead to a huge battle between militaristic forces on both sides and those who want peace (sort of like Star Trek VI did). You could even end it on a cliffhanger, if you wanted, with the Enterprise crew and a few peace-wanting allies as renegades as the two empires move toward war, then resolve that in movie 3. And how beautifully ironic it would be if the ultimate upshot of Nero’s interference in Movie 1 was to bring about peace and understanding between humans and Klingons decades sooner.

Something like that might have been a great Trek movie. Indeed, you can see the outlines of it in the actual film. Or they could have gone in a different direction. They could have left the Klingons out, kept Khan in and made it about eugenics. Or we could have had a totally unrelated adventure. Or we could have had Gary Mitchell.

But no. We didn’t get anything like that. Abrams decided we need to have Khan and we needed to kill Pike and we needed to involve the Klingons and we needed to have the Enterprise badly damaged in an attack. And so we get a Rube Goldberg engine: the Admiral revives Khan (and only Khan), puts him to work building new weapons (because there are no geniuses in the 23rd century), has Khan stage a couple of attacks (maybe; it’s not clear if Khan is still following his orders) then retreat to Klingon space. He then wants the Enterprise to fire 72 torpedoes filled with Khan’s people to wipe them all out (because simply firing them into the Sun or turning off their cyro units would be conspicuous?) and then sabotages the Enterprise so it will be destroyed by the Klingons. Then he shows up in the Vengeance to destroy the Enterprise and claim the Klingons did it (there being no black boxes in the 23rd century).

None of those complications were necessary. None of them make any sense. He doesn’t need Khan to build advanced weapons; Star Fleet has massive troves of engineers, many of whom might be sympathetic to his cause. He doesn’t need Khan to blow up buildings AND flee to Klingon space AND have the Enterprise get destroyed by the Klingons AND send the Vengeance to destroy it. Marcus has a transwarp beaming device. He could transport a bomb to Khan’s location, transport Khan’s people into the Sun and then stage a military incident on any ship near Klingon space. His Rube Goldberg plan doesn’t make him look like a chessmaster; it make him look like an idiot. Pick one conspiracy and stick with it.

And what are Khan’s motivations in all this? Is he helping Marcus? If so, why does he try to kill him? If not, why does he flee to Kronos? Because he was hoping that Kirk would show up with the 72 torpedoes with his people in them and drag the Vengeance along for the ride? That’s not Khan being a genius; that’s Khan being a plot device.

In the climax, the Enterprise and the Vengeance are duking it out over Earth. Does no one notice? Does no one say, “Hey, the flagship of the fleet is getting the shit kicked out of it by a mystery ship. Should we, you know, ask them what’s going on?”

There were moments when I thought this movie was going to go to interesting places. One, pointed out by my brother, was when Kirk asks why anyone would blow up Star Fleet’s records. But instead of following on that, we get an attack by Khan in a helicopter (Starfleet security is apparently terrible). Another was when Uhura confronts the Klingons on their planet. In a previous Trek iteration, she would have talked them into helping. It would have been a shining moment for her. But no, she needs to fail so we can get a stupid action sequence of Khan taking out an entire fleet with a cannon.

I liked Abrams’ Trek movies but that was mainly in spite of themselves. When the movies focus on character and intrigue, they are good. But that doesn’t happen nearly often enough (especially in the second movie). For all Abrams’ talk about character building, intrigue, mystery boxes and how you don’t don’t need the best special effects for a good scene, STID is just another bang-up film in a Star Trek template. It has its moments; but not enough. I liked it; I wanted to love it.

All is not lost, of course. We are in an unfortunate era dominated by people who savor “mystery” over coherence and plot contrivances over character. If you look past the glamor franchises, you will see better things: Inception, Gravity, Children of Men, WALL-E, Moon, District 9, Cloud Atlas. Hell, even The Hunger Games and Avatar are better than some of the recent crap. Her looks intriguing.

So there is hope. You just have to look past the shadowy remnant calling itself Star Trek.

The New Franchises

Saturday, December 21st, 2013

About a month ago, Franklin Harris wrote an intriguing post on the subject of the new movie franchises:

Marvel Comics didn’t invent serialized storytelling, but it may have perfected it.

During the publisher’s formative years, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and the rest of the Marvel “bullpen” created a unified world, in which characters from one comic book might pop up in another, if only for a cameo, with little or no fanfare. Just a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man dropping by to say hello.

Fifty years later, the comics publisher-turned-Disney-owned entertainment juggernaut looks to revolutionize serialized storytelling in ways that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

Franklin goes on to describe the way a movie-TV Marvelverse is being built brick by brick. The movies are no longer movies in the traditional sense; they are stories told in a self-contained universe. And he goes on to argue that Star Wars is about to go down the same path, with the spate of new movies Disney has authorized.

I think it’s an interesting point. Spinoffs are nothing new, of course. Television has been a particular proving ground for spinoffs (Happy Days, All the Family, the X-files). Movies have done it before as well. But what Marvel is doing is something very different. It’s far more cohesive, far more thought out. They clearly started out from the beginning with this sort of multi-media multi-movie universe in mind, laying down the first Avengers movies as prequels toward 2012′s epic.

My only disagreement is that I think he has the order reversed. Star Wars got there first, at least as far as movies go.

Back in the 90′s and early 00′s, the LucasArts studio produced a series of absolutely incredible video games. Set in the Star Wars universe, these ranged from flight simulators that allowed you to refight the battles of the movies (X-Wing, Tie-Fighter, X-Wing Alliance) to first-person shooters that allowed you to be a Jedi in the New Republic (Dark Forces, Jedi Knight) to a first-person role-playing game set thousands of years earlier (Knight of the Old Republic). The video games not only reproduced the movies, they expanded the material there into a larger context. For example, X-Wing covered the rebellion’s desperate flight from Yavin to Hoth. X-Wing Alliance had the plot of Return of the Jedi as only a portion of the larger story of a smuggler family. And characters from the movies — Luke, Lando, C3PO — would pop in for the occasional cameo. This expanded universe included television as well. General Grievous — one of the villains of Revenge of the Sith — was actually introduced in the Clone Wars cartoon. In fact, in 2006, Neal Stephenson wrote that one of the problems with the prequels was that much of the narrative heft had been moved to the video games and cartoons leaving the movies as pure spectacle, the climax to a saga that had been set up on small screens.

Science fiction has spawned this sort of expanded universe for a long time, of course. Besides Star Wars, Doctor Who and Star Trek had lots of novels, spin-offs, etc. But even there, we are now seeing more cohesion. Doctor Who, in particular, has incorporated K-9 and Company, Torchwood and the audio dramas. What Marvel has done is taken this to the next step: create an interlaced franchise of movies, TV shows and comics.

Star Wars is now following Marvel to this next step. But I suspect other franchises are going to as well. The Hobbit could have been made as one movie but has been expanded to three with enormous amounts of extra narrative added, so that Bilbo’s journey is just part of a bigger saga, complete with cameos from the first trilogy. And I suspect Peter Jackson is not done with Middle Earth. Tolkien’s world is especially ripe for a Marvel-esque multi-media approach since he created the world first and the stories second. The Tolkienverse is already fully formed. I suspect a few movies will come out of the Silmarillion in the mid-future. Or maybe a television series.

We really are moving into a different era of entertainment. The rise of the home theater has had a much more profound effect on television and movies than anyone could have foreseen. You’re now expected to watch every episode of a TV series and expected to break out your Iron Man DVD to see some foreshadowing you missed. Thirty years ago, Star Wars was unique in spreading a saga over three movies. Now many franchises are doing it. Twenty years ago, Babylon 5 was unique in telling a television story over a 5-year arc. Now almost every drama is doing it (although usually not as well). One of the most popular shows — Game of Thrones — is unspooling a ridiculously complicated story and HBO is banking millions on the idea that George Martin will give them an ending. Binge watching of TV series and movies is now the norm.

It’s no longer enough to just watch; these days you have to immerse.

The Scourge of Action Movie Bloat

Saturday, December 21st, 2013

(I was going to write a review of The Desolation of Smaug but it occurred to me that there were several relevant movie-related posts that I needed to get off my chest first. And if I did them in my Smaug review it would just get ridiculously bloated and go off on tangents. So here are a few backlogged posts on various subjects related to movies. They don’t need to be read to follow the Smaug review. I just need them around for reference.)

One of the most common complaints about the first Hobbit movie was its length. But Hobbit I was not unusual in having an overlong running time. Almost all movies these days are bloated well beyond any reasonable running length. It’s become unusual to find a movie under two hours in length. This trend has many parents, but one of the most egregious is the explosion of long long action scenes that frequently end with nothing resolved or changed, advance the plot at a snail’s pace (if at all) and frequently exist only for their own sake (or because they are part of pre-programmed action beats).

I became aware of this in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. It was good, but the climactic swordfight had me shifting in my chair. It’s not just that it went on and on. It was that nothing was resolved and nothing could be resolved because the enemy pirates were undead anyway. So the climax consisted of minute after minute of boring, poorly shot, pointless sword-fighting. This tendency toward long, pointless, inconclusive action scenes would blow up badly in the next two movies.

I’ve since noticed this pattern recurring over and over again and getting even worse. Every fight goes on forever, every character has to have his signature moment, every “amazing” stunt they can think of has to be in there. And it has frequently hurt the scenes themselves, which often make no sense. Both sides use nonsensical tactics because these are no longer battles either side is trying to win; they are a series of stunts and gimmicks that the director has decided to string together. And it gets absurd. By the time they’re halfway through, the characters have effectively run a marathon but they’re still able to jump impossibly high, kill bad guys without looking and hurl one-liners. There’s no sense that fighting is stressful on mind, spirit or body.

Quentin Tarantino has become one of the worst at this. Kill Bill I had an endless fight with the Crazy 88′s that just had to include every possible stunt. Nothing could be left on the floor. In Django Unchained, probably the worst victim of movie bloat last year, the climactic gunfight goes on and on and ends with … nothing. Django is captured instead of shot dead on the spot, as he would almost certainly be in any sensible movie.

Hobbit I suffered from this. A lot of criticism of the movie’s length focused on the dinner scene. But while that drags out a bit, it’s mostly humor and character-building, which is fine by me. The Rivendell sequence drags on as well (Weaving and Blanchett, in particular, speak verrrry slowly). But I think that’s also a minor problem.

No, I think people misidentified the primary culprit. To my mind, the movie’s deeper problem is the long action scenes, which go on and on. The climactic fight in the Misty Mountains is particularly egregious, with every character having to get their moment to kick butt, every possible permutation of enemies having to face off and every stunt having to be included. It’s not enough to get Azog fighting Thorin. He has to fight Bilbo, too. He has to fight the other dwarves. He has to fight the eagles. It’s like Peter Jackson couldn’t make up his mind which kick-ass moment he wanted to end on, so he threw them all in. And, in the end, nothing is resolved. No named character is even wounded.

I’ll have a rant about Star Trek: Into Darkness in another post but it suffers from an awful case of action movie bloat as well. It ends with a chase through space, a chase through the streets, a chase through the air. And, in the end, they couldn’t make up their mind about whether Uhura or Spock should kick Kahn’s ass, so they both do. And no one of name is killed (well, Kirk briefly is). You can contrast that against Star Trek II, a massively superior movie that was 20 minutes shorter and had maybe a quarter of the action scenes. The first battle between Reliant and Enterprise is tense, thrilling and brilliant. The strategies are plain. It’s clear why everyone is doing what he’s doing and what they’re trying to accomplish. Although it ends with neither party destroyed, both ships are damaged, a named character is killed and the repercussions are felt throughout the rest of the film, informing the strategy for the second battle. And it takes about ten minutes of total screen time. In a modern movie, Kirk would have pulled his shield trick. Then Scotty would have pulled another trick. Then another ship would have shown up. Then Kirk would have been knocked out and Spock would have used the Corbomite maneuver. It would take 45 minutes and my eyes would be rolling up into my skull.

There is a severe dearth of good editing in Hollywood. Maybe it’s the video era; movies are rarely watched in one full sitting. Maybe it’s that no one cares or has the power. Maybe it’s the international market (action is the same in every language). But no one is willing to cut movies down to an appropriate length. And this is especially obvious with the long bloated action scenes that every movie seems to require. I swear, one of these days we’re going to get a version of Sense and Sensibility with a pointless and inconclusive gun battle in the middle.

The Language of Cinema

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

Yesterday, I stumbled across the video contrasting the scenes of Medusa in the 1980 Ray Harryhausen Clash of the Titans against the 2010 remake.

I love this YouTube video because, to me, it illustrates precisely how Hollywood has gone so very wrong in the last few years. The original Clash is not a classic, although I am very fond of it. But the scene in the Harryhausen version is so much better in so many ways. Let’s enumerate them:

  • In the original, the scene in Hades takes place underground and is darkly lit. Yet, it is always clear exactly what’s going on. The layout of Medusa’s lair, the location of the two Greeks, the way the action plays out, the strategy employed by Perseus — these are all apparent. By contrast, the remake is completely incoherent. Where are they? What is the layout of Medusa’s lair? There’s a brief moment of “strategy” where Perseus gets Medusa to chase him so one of his men can attack her. But it’s not clear how this is accomplished because he appear to be moving away from his men only to have one jump out randomly. It’s hard to follow, sloppily executed and ends with all three of Perseus’ men dead. Moreover, the scene is simply incoherent. Medusa flashes around the pillars like the CGI creation she is with little rhyme or reason. She smashes through pillars that should injure her instead of snaking around them. It’s like a trailer for a better and more coherent scene.
  • There’s one shot in the original I just love, right before Medusa is killed. The camera pulls back to a medium shot to show Perseus behind the pillar and Medusa slowly moving between the rows of pillars, looking for him. That one shot instantly lays out the terrain so we know what’s going on and where everyone is. No such shot is seen in the remake.
  • The original has a palpable sense of fear. Perseus and his men are scared of Medusa and try to avoid her. By contrast, the men in the remake treat Medusa like the boss in a video game. One of them deliberately looks right at her. The other fails to turn to stone but blows himself up (maybe this makes sense if you’ve seen the whole movie).
  • The blood leaking out of Medusa’s body in the Harryhausen version is a bit unrealistic. But in the remake, Medusa’s body falls into a crevice and explodes. Just ‘cuz.
  • In the original, the appearance of Medusa is clear. If I were capable of drawing, I could sketch her out. In the remake, she’s a murky CGI mess. You can see the beautiful face of Natalia Vodianova, the model playing the role. But around her is just waving CGI bracken, snakes moving at light speed, rather than in anything resembling a believable monster. The emphasis modern action movies place on CGI-enhanced speed of movement has taken away any sense of realism.
  • (And please don’t come at me with “Realism? It’s a movie about gorgons and krakens!” Even a fantasy movie has to play by its own rules and be realistic enough that the creatures, the danger and the action draw the viewer in.)
  • Notice the Kraken at the end. In the Harryhausen version, the Kraken is plainly seen and looks like a mythical creature. I could draw him. The Kraken in the remake is a CGI blob, an indistinct mass of flesh and teeth.
  • I want to be clear about something: CGI isn’t the problem here. The way it is being used is the problem. Contrast the Kraken and Medusa against the CGI creatures of Lord of the Rings. The Nazgul and the trolls have a definite appearance. They look like a real mythical creature might look (in part because they are based on sketches by artists who have been drawing Tolkien’s world for decades). I expect Smaug to be the same. Gollum was so well-rendered that people wanted to nominate Andy Serkis for an academy award (although in that case, Serkis was on set to give Gollum a physical reference).

    Those were creatures. They were rendered to act, move and look like creatures. Medusa looks like someone got at their computer and said “more snakes! Make ‘em move faster! Faster! This is so cool!”. The Kracken looks like it’s not finished rendering. It’s the creature equivalent of the spiny spikey CGI spaceships that have begun to clutter sci-fi movies. It’s indistinguishable from any number of other CGI blobs with teeth like Cloverfield. But at least Cloverfield‘s murk made sense in context, since it was found footage. Show me Harryhausen’s Kraken and I’ll recognize it. Show me this one and I’ll have to guess: the Kraken? Cloverfield? Cave troll? Last night’s Mexican dinner?

    Harryhausen’s movie uses the language of cinema effectively. It establishes the scene and the stakes. It gives us a clear idea of where Medusa is, what she’s doing and what she looks like. It treats her like a real monster enraged by her curse and determined to hunt down and kill those invading her lair. Perseus and his men are scared of her and trying to think of a way to kill this dangerous creature. The scene is 90% tension and about 10% effects.

    By contrast, the remake is a video game. Perseus’ men don’t value their lives and don’t act in a realistic way. And why should they? There’s no sense that this is a real monster. She’s a creation that pops out of the shadows at random moments.

    I’ve said this before but it’s worth repeating: a generation of move-goers are growing up not knowing what a coherent movie looks like. This isn’t a style thing or an old-man “get off my lawn” thing. Frequently, when they see movies that are well-made and composed, they notice how much better they are without really knowing why. They are being drowned in a sea of dreck.

    For more on this, you should check out Jim Emerson’s two videos contrasting The Dark Knight and SALT to show how differently they use (or fail to use) the language of cinema. I love The Dark Knight but he does have a point about the way some of its action scenes are laid out.

    The most hilarious part of that, however, is the response from the Dark Knight defenders, which essentially amounts to misquoting Emerson or falling back on the “hey, it’s a movie about a billionaire in a bat suit. You expect realism?!” I referenced above.

    That is is why I love this video. Both movies are about mythical creatures and heroes. But one has tension, clarity and excitement. The other has noise and chaos. The defenders of modern film — not batting an eye from there “hey, it’s fantasy” line — will then claim that, in real life, action is often chaotic and noisy. True enough. But it also follows certain rules (like gravity) and people value their lives and sell them dearly.

    The Worst of the Oscar: Round-Up

    Saturday, July 20th, 2013

    (Parts I, II, and III.)

    In comparing the critics, the Academy and IMDB, I find that, with few exceptions (e.g, West Side Story, Crash, Braveheart) the critics and IMDB are in large agreement while the Academy is more often the outlier. That’s not entirely surprising, given that the Academy judges films in the moment while IMDB voters, for any year before about 1998, have the verdict of history on their side. Their ratings are reflective of the critic’s and historian’s opinions. If you look at the immediate judgement of IMDB — the last ten years, you’ll find some questionable favorites (The Dark knight Rises) but also some times when I think IMDB, even in the moment, did a better job than the Academy. Inception was a better film than the King’s Speech. Intouchables, from what I’ve heard, is better than The Artist. Batman Begins was better than Crash. Eternal Sunshine was better than Million Dollar Baby.

    In short, I think my tendency to use IMDB ratings to judge films is justified provided one accounts for the biases it has. It is certainly less biased than the Academy.

    Overall, however, I think while the Academy’s performance has waxed and waned, most of its picks aren’t horrific. I’ve sorted the Best PIcture winners into four categories:

    Agreement: This is where the IMDB, the critics and the Academy all picked the best picture or the winners are neck-and-neck. Clearly, the Academy did its job. In this category, you would have All Quiet on The Western Front, It Happened One Night, Casablanca, The Lost Weekend, The Godfather, the Sting, The Godfather Part II, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the Deer Hunter, Amadeus, Silence of the Lambs, Schindler’s List, Forrest Gump, The Return of the King, the Departed. That’s 15 out of 85. I have seen all of those films except The Lost Weekend and agree with IMDB and history.

    Defensible: There is some disagreement but the film has a place in the conversation as the best pic of the year. Generally I look for something rated at least an 8.0 on IMDB, in the top five and with either IMDB or the critics agreeing. Any film that makes the AFI top 100 or similar lists is defensible. In this category, you have Mutiny on the Bounty, You Can’t Take it With You, Gone with the Wind, Rebecca, Best Years of Our lives, All About Eve, On the Waterfront, Bridge on the River Kwai, Ben-Hur, The Apartment, West Side Story, Lawrence of Arabia, The Sound of Music, In the Heat of the Night, Midnight Cowboy, Patton, The French Connection, Rocky, Annie Hall, Gandhi, Platoon, Rain Man, Dances with Wolves, Unforgiven, Braveheart, Titanic, American Beauty, Gladiator, Million Dollar Baby, No Country for Old Men, A Beautiful Mind, Million Dollar Baby, No Country for Old Men. That’s another 31 films where the Academy’s choice is defensible. That’s 46 of 85 years where I would say they did their job. So about half the time. I have seen all of these films except You Can’t Take it With You and generally agree with the verdict.

    Meh: A good film, by not a great one. Probably got swept up in some hype. There are better films that could have been recognized that year. There’s a bit of play in this one as a few of these are probably seen as bad picks by some. Ordinary People over Raging Bull is regarded as a bad choice now, but IMDB still regards Ordinary People as a good film. I’m trying to be a bit objective here and leave my opinions out. But the way I see it, the “meh” picks are: Wings, Grand Hotel, the Life of Emile Zola, How Green Was My Valley, Mrs. Miniver, Going My Way, Gentleman’s Agreement. Hamlet, All the King’s Men, An American in Paris, From Here to Eternity, Marty, My Fair Lady, A Man for All Seasons, Kramer vs. Kramer, Ordinary People, Terms of Endearment, the Last Emperor, The English Patient, Crash, Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech, The Artist, Argo. That’s 25 years where the Academy muffed it. I expect some of the recent titles like Crash to eventually slip down into the bad category.

    I’ve only seen ten of the “meh” films, actually, which is why I’m relying as much as I can on critics and IMDB. Does that mean I can’t judge them? Perhaps. My priority when it comes to watching old films is to watch ones I have heard are good or ones I know I will enjoy. For the sake of completeness, I will eventually watch all of the Academy winners and will post on Twitter if I think history and/or IMDB got it wrong. But it will be slow. The limited time I have for movies is better spent on things like Frankenstein than Grand Hotel.

    Bad: Generally, this is reserved for films that rate below a 7.0 but special mention will be made where even a good film nudged out a classic, especially if it was for stupid reasons. The designation of a film as a bad choice is almost entirely objective, based on IMDB ratings and historical consensus. This is because I have only seen five of these to completion and bits of others. As I said, I’m still working my way through the Best Picture winners. And Best Picture winners that history has judged poorly are very low on the priority list. Sorted from the biggest difference between the IMDB rating of the Best Picture winner and that of the film historically regarded as the best, the worst pictures are: Driving Miss Daisy, Oliver!, Around the World in Eighty Days, Chariots of Fire, Shakespeare in Love, out of Africa, Tom Jones, Chicago, Gigi, The Greatest Show on Earth, the Great Ziegfeld, Cavalcade, Broadway Melody and Cimarron. That is 14 years where the Academy completely stunk up the joint, picking a mediocre picture while classic went unrecognized.

    If we designate the first category as an A, the second as a B, the third as a C and the fourth as a D, the Academy has earned 15 A’s, 31 B’s, 25 C’s and 14 D’s in its 85 years for a GPA of 2.55 GPA. Let’s call that a B-. But … I’m kind of surprised to find myself saying this … I think their reputation is worse than their actual performance. We have the benefit of history. We have the benefit of time. We don’t have the disadvantage of studios harassing us to hype their picture. Considering the pressure the Academy is under and the skewed distribution of the electorate, I don’t think they’ve actually done that bad a job. If you’re looking for a list of films to watch, the list of Academy Award winner is not that bad a place to start, especially in recent years where IMDB and history are still a bit uncertain.

    I think the Academy is getting less relevant thanks to IMDB and the explosion of online critics. But as a historical perspective … they’re OK.

    So what is the worst of the worst? As I noted in Part I of this series, I don’t think it’s illuminating to look at the first ten years of the Academy, when they were still sorting things out (even though snubbing City Lights was mind-boggling). That leaves off four pictures. I’m also going to exclude any year where the best picture of the year isn’t regarded as one of the best of all time. The Searchers is rated as one of the best westerns ever, but IMDB only rates it an 8.1 — great, but not historically so. Ignoring it was a terrible snub, but we’re looking for the absolute worst choices. That cuts out Around the World in 80 Days, Tom Jones and Driving Miss Daisy. Next I’ll cut out Oliver!, since IMDB rates it a 7.4 and the brilliance of 2001 and Once Upon a Time in The West became obvious later — a bad choice but not the worst.

    That leaves us with six finalists for worst picks of all time. Of these, I have seen five and bits of the sixth. And I’ve seen most of the films they snubbed. So without further ado.

    Actually, you know what? I like good numbers, so we’ll make this is a list of seven with the seventh being:

    #7 – Lifetime Achievement Award: Cimarron over City Lights, The Great Ziegfeld over Modern Times and Broadway Melody over The Passion of Joan of Arc. The first decade of the Academy was terrible, far worse than we will ever seen again.

    #6 – 1981: Chariots of Fire over Raiders of the Lost Ark, Das Boot, On Golden Pond, Gallipoli, Excalibur(!!) and Body Heat. Chariots is actually a decent film. But it won in a strong year over far superior films.

    #5 – 1985: Out of Africa over Back to the Future, Ran, Brazil, The Purple Rose of Cairo, The Color Purple, Witness and A Room With A View. IMDB regards Better Off Dead as a better movie than Out of Africa. That’s Gen-X bias, of course. But … I’m not entirely sure they’re wrong.

    #4 – 1998: Shakespeare in Love over American History X, Saving Private Ryan, The Big Lebowski, The Truman Show, Run Lola Run, Dark City, Lovers of the Arctic Circle, The Thin Red Line, Elizabeth. Yes, that’s right. SIL wasn’t even the best film that year about Elizabeth I.

    #3 – 2002: Chicago over The Two Towers, City of God, the Pianist, Talk To Her, Lilya 4-Ever, The Magadalene Sisters, 25th Hour, In America, Road to Perdition, Adaptation, Minority Report, the Whale Rider, Gangs of New York, The Hours, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Far From Heaven, Dirt Pretty Things, About Schmidt, Insomnia. If you lower the vote threshold to 10,000 votes, Chicago was ranked 50th out of 184 films that year. This is not just about The Two Towers. This was a very strong year and the Academy picking a truly mediocre film. Appalling. I didn’t expect I would see this as worse than Shakespeare in Love. I originally ranked this choice #4. But the more I looked at it, the worse the pick looked. Another reason why I did this exercise. I’m aware of IMDB’s bias against musicals. Chicago was still a bad choice.

    #2 – 1958 : Gigi over Vertigo, Touch of Evil, A Night to Remember, Auntie Mame, The Fly. I went over this before. Gigi is a bit of a stand-in for the snubbing of Hitch. I’m aware that it swept the awards and is regarded by many as one of the best winners. Those many are wrong. It wasn’t even close to the best picture of the year. Look beyond the number of awards it won and it’s an awful pick.

    #1 – 1952: I’m probably over-correcting for my bias against bad picks in my lifetime. In time, Shakespeare or Chicago could take over this spot. But consider what The Greatest Show on Earth (the only bad pick I have not seen in its entirety) stomped on to win the statue: Singin’ in the Rain, Ikiru, Umberto D, High Noon, Limelight, The Quiet Man, Othello, the Importance of Being Earnest, Moulin Rouge, Monkey Business, Ivanhoe. Some of those are over-rated, I grant you. But in 1952, you could have wandered into a theater at random and seen a better movie than The Greatest Show on Earth.

    The Worst of the Oscars: 1953-1977

    Thursday, July 11th, 2013

    Let’s just dive right back in, shall we?

    This exercise turned out to be very revealing about the biases built into IMDB ratings. IMDB tends to over-rate science fiction, westerns and movies by certain directors (Tarantino, Leone, Kubrick). It tends to underrate musicals and movies with women leads. This is not entirely surprising if you know about the internet. But it is fascinating to see it in such fine grain.

    (more…)

    The Worst of the Oscars: 1928-1952

    Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

    Some time ago, I got into a Twitter discussion about the worst films to be tabbed by the Academy as the Best Picture of the Year. The usual nominees were bruited about but I wanted to approach it in a more systematic way.

    So what I did was go through the list of Academy Awards winners for every years since 1928. What I was looking for was the answer to several interlocked questions: Was it the best picture of the year? If not, what was the best picture of the year? How is the film regarded historically?

    I’ve talked about the limitations of IMDB ratings before, especially when it comes to films over the last 20 years. But my feeling is that comparing the films within any single year can be illuminating. This took a little bit of work since movies from early years don’t have a lot of votes. I’ve also taken the liberty of figuring out which movie for any particular years is the “consensus” best film, based on perusing the AFI and other critics’ ratings. I think the method to my madness will become clear once we get going.

    The short story is this: the Academy has rarely done a great job, has sometimes done a horrible job but has mostly done an OK job. They rarely select the best picture but huge snubs are kind of rare. They clearly have biases: against silent movies, against comedies, against certain genres like science fiction. They clearly favor “important” movies that make them feel smart or politically aware and they are very prone to the flavor of the month. There’s a reason all the Oscar nominees are released in December.

    Let’s go year-by-year. To save some sanity, I’ll break this up into three posts with a fourth to sum up.

    (more…)

    2012 in Review

    Friday, July 5th, 2013

    I’m getting better at this. It’s only July. Last year, my “year in review” came out in September. The year before in December. My review of 2009 didn’t come out until June of 2011. Hey, I got a kid. Maybe when she’s off to college, I’ll post my year-in-review while it’s still winter.

    We’ll start in the usual place. Here are the list of films that were nominated for Best Picture:

    Argo: I’m liking Affleck more as a movie maker than a movie star. While this was somewhat fictionalized, it was still tense and enjoyable. I’m not sure if it was the best picture of the year, but it was very good. 8/10

    Amour: This is not yet out on DVD.

    Beasts of the Southern Wild: I really liked this motion picture for its magical realism and excellent low-key acting. I was reminded of the equally excellent Winter’s Bone, which used local actors and a great performance from Jennifer Lawrence to craft a great low-key film. Had I been an Academy voter, I might have picked this one. 8/10

    Djanjo Unchained: Django, like Tarantino’s previous picture, is beautifully shot with excellent acting and some great writing. But the ridiculously excessive violence, the great length and the completely unnecessary final half hour dragged this down. Tarantino need an editor badly. 7/10

    Les Miserables: OK, maybe I would have tapped this for the Academy. It has its flaws, as I noted in the long-form review, especially an editing style that wastes the visuals. But I love the story, so … 8/10

    Life of Pi: Visually excellent with great acting. It just manages to walk the tightrope of not being ridiculously pretentious. 8/10

    Lincoln: This has faded a bit but I still found it very enjoyable, mainly for the performance of Lewis and Jones. A movie is doing a good job when you’re tensed up about a conflict where you know the outcome. Apollo 13 was the best at that; but Lincoln does pretty well. What makes this movie good is that it eschewed a “Highlights from Hamlet” approach to Lincoln’s life and focused on one specific event that illuminates everything. Its flaw — the unnecessary coda — is fatal precisely because it departs from that, making us feel we’re watching a History Channel special. (Note to Spielberg: we know that Lincoln died). The movie should have ended with Lincoln walking down the hall. I was reminded of Munich, which was excellent … right up until the unnecessary and uncomfortable closing sex scene, complete with flying sweat beads and Eric Bana’s horrifying orgasm face.

    Ugh.

    8/10, in any case.

    Silver Linings Playbook: I would not have liked this movie, most likely, had it not been for Jennifer Lawrence. I found the script a bit weak and a lot of the acting hammy. But Lawrence is just so damned good in the lead role that she makes the movie worthwhile. 7/10

    Zero Dark Thirty: Jessica Chastain is her usual excellent self and the directed is taut. One problem I had with the raid scenes, however, was that they were so dark I could barely see them, even on my plasma. Other than, it was enjoyable. 8/10

    Looking at the IMDB rating for movies with over 20,000 votes, we add the following titles.

    The Dark Knight Rises: I’ll return to this in a second, but this is why any IMDB rating from the last decade or so needs to be taken with some salt. DKR is the top-rated film of 2012 on IMDB. I liked it, but it was long and not nearly as compelling as the Dark Knight. I give it an 8/10 now, but it probably deserves more of a 7.

    The Avengers: One of my favorite movies from 2012. Great action, yes, but leavened with really good writing and acting that is suited to the task. Joss Whedon needs to do more. 8/10

    The Hunt: I have not seen this.

    The Hobbit I: I wrote a long form review. I’ve now seen it four times and still like it a lot. Again — this seems to be a recurring theme — the movie is too long. But it does a lot right. 8/10

    The Perks of Being a Wallflower: This movie hit close to home. While I didn’t have the protagonist’s mental health or life issues, I was a very lonely kid in high school. That was an improvement over elementary school, where I was relentlessly teased and bullied. While I did form a few friendships among outcasts, there was nothing like the group depicted in this tale nor did I know a teacher like the one played by Paul Rudd (who’s showing a bit more range these days). The only teacher who got involved with students’ lives was involved in a Christian prayer group. They invited me to things but … you know. Still, the movie surprised me by avoiding the worst cliches and managing to be original. The acting is uniformly good; the kids seems like real kids. The dialogue works. I gave it a 7/10 out of Twitter, but don’t be surprised if I raise that in the future. This might grow on me. (And … seriously? Not one nomination for this movie? Just in case you didn’t already think the Academy Awards were stupid).

    Wreck-It Ralph: My daughter loved this movie. I found it clever and appealing, certainly a better film than Brave (which was a fine film). 7/10

    Moonrise Kingdom: I’m not a big fan of Wes Anderson, but the two leads made this work well. 7/10

    Skyfall: Also in the running for my favorite movie of 2012. The best Bond since Casino Royale. 9/10 (fanboy rating).

    Cloud Atlas: I put up a long-form review. I should watch this again. 8/10

    End of Watch and Conquest 1453: Have not seen these.

    Looper: This was a really good science fiction movie and really should have gotten a lot more respect. This is the sort of classic sci-fi that is slowly emerging from the rubble of the Action Movie Era: a movie about ideas and people more than it is about action and CGI. 8/10

    One thing you may have noticed: the movies of 2012 were ridiculously bloated. Almost every movie on that list ran a bit long and some ran long by more than half an hour. I don’t mind a long movie when it earns that length; Cloud Atlas earned it because of its complexity. But several movies — The Hobbit, Dark Knight Rises and Django in particular — could have been hoved down with no real loss. The biggest villain here is endless action scenes. It’s no longer enough to have a good action scene; now every possibly stunt you can think of has to be included; everyone has to get his moment to kick ass, everyone has to get their one liner. Writers used to make up their mind about how they wanted a movie to be resolved. Now they don’t; they just resolve it both ways by some ridiculous plot twist.

    But here’s the big thing. Of the movie on that list, the only ones I currently own on DVD are Hobbit, The Avengers, Skyfall and The Dark Knight Rises — all fan purchases. If money were no object, I might add Les Mis, Looper and Cloud Atlas to that. But none of those movies screams for me to buy them.

    I noted before that the Dark Knight Rises is the top-rated picture of 2012. That’s fan-bloated; it will sink. But right below that is Django, which is also fan-bloated. You have to get down to Life of Pi before you find a genuinely well-regarded movie.

    In short, while 2012 was a good year for movies, it was not a great year. I don’t believe any of those films above are destined to be classics. I would frankly rate Before Midnight, which I saw two weeks ago, over any of them.

    Now it’s tough to guess the judgement of history. But I’m not seeing the kind of classic that people watch for generations coming out of Hollywood these days. Look at IMDB’s top films since 2000. Almost all of them are action movies. Now Lord of the Rings may be destined for classic status, but is The Dark Knight? Inception? City of God?

    OK, OK, IMDB is bloated by fan boys. Fine. But even if we strip those out, we have Memento, Spirited Away, The Pianist, The Lives of Others … Look at Roger Ebert’s Great Movies and narrow it down to the last decade. Not a lot there and not a lot that I think he’s absolutely right about.

    Look, it’s Friday, I’m tired, I have a summer cold. I’m 1200 words in. Maybe I’m being too pessimistic. But I’ve been thinking this for a long time. I see a lot entertainment. A lot of solid popcorn movies. But the only time in recent memory I’ve watched a film and said, “Wow, they’ll be watching this for the next fifty years” was when I saw Lord of the Rings. OK, maybe a couple of Miyazaki or Pixar titles, too. But I have no inclination to rewatch Argo or The Artist or The King’s Speech or The Hurt Locker. Slumdog Millionaire maybe.

    Well, as I said, it takes a long time for history to judge. No one thought 2001 was a classic when it came out and the Academy once awarded Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan. Ask me in a decade and maybe I’ll be saying that one of those films above was truly great. But at my desk at 11:35 at night? Doesn’t seem like it.

    Update: Yes, I’m aware that people have been saying the above since movies became talkies. Maybe I’m in a “get off my lawn” mood. But it honestly does feel like the great artists are moving away from film and more toward other media.