Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

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

    (This is the last part of a series looking at the Best Picture award through the years. 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.


    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.


    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.


    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.

    Cloud Atlas

    Saturday, June 29th, 2013

    Cloud Atlas is, if nothing else, ambitious. Clocking in at just under three hours, it actually earns that length (unlike a lot of recent bloated movies) because it tells six related stories spanning a time of half a millenium, ranging from a 19th century slaving ship to a 24th century post-apocalyptic tale. It uses a small group of actors to play multiple roles in the various stories and the tagline is that all these stories are connected.

    I liked Cloud Atlas quite a bit and intend to watch it again. In time, I may grow to love it. But, for right now, I admire it more than like it. I feel it falls just a bit short of its lofty ambitions.

    The biggest problem is that the connections between the six stories seem kind of weak. My understanding is that the book has nested stories, where each one is being read or watched by those in the next story, so that it becomes a story within a story within, etc. six times. The movie seems to be trying to do something grander and more imaginative: have the stories play off of each other or feed each other in a karmic sense so that we feel we are seeing the same souls interact as they try to reach a glimmering future. But … and maybe I need to watch it again … I felt the connections were between the stories were tenuous at best. Doona Bae and Jim Sturgess are lovers in three of the stories, but this isn’t really revealed until the end. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry only interact in two of the stories and their connection seems tenuous. The birthmark seems to link the six protaganists — Adam, Robert, Luisa, Timothy, Sonmi and Zachry. But their stories are different and the six actors who play them don’t seem to be playing reincarnations of the same character. The over-arching plot doesn’t seem to have the resolution and catharsis that the eloquent voice-overs promise. So, in the end, this seems less like six interconnected stories spanning 500 years than six stories juxtaposed together. I felt like one more pass through the script might have tightened those connections and made a much more emotionally deep picture.

    However, although the film’s reach exceeds its grasp, it’s still a very good movie and at least it’s reaching. All six of the stories are compelling in some way. Reading through the reviews, I’ve noticed that the critics always napalm or praise different segments, never the same ones. That’s probably because all six works pretty well. Even when the script is a bit weak (the Luisa Rey sequence), the acting and directing carry it. And when the story is strong — Sonmi 451, the Pacific Crossing and Sloosha’s Crossing were my favorites — it’s very good.

    All three directors do a fine job: the film is always visually and narratively compelling. The acting is strong, even if the makeup that allows the actors to change races and genders isn’t always up to par. But it is rarely outstanding. It’s fun to watch the actors slip in and out of roles (although that muddies the supposed karmic connections between the stories). And watching Hugh Grant and Hugo Waving slither through six villains is a treat. But no performance in the film really grabbed me as particularly inspired.

    As has become par for the Wachowskis, there are many striking visual images: Luisa’s dizzying plunge into the river, the Abbess’s eyes changing color, the chase of Sonmi and Hae-Joo. Thankfully, the visuals are mated to good stories and good acting, so they never grow tiresome.

    So, overall, a good film. Maybe, in time, a very good one. But it falls just short of greatness for me, so I have to give it an 8/10. It will probably rank as one of my Best of 2012 in the post I’ll cook up over the next few days.

    You know what excited me most about Cloud Atlas, though? It hints that the Wachowskis have at least one more great film in them. The Matrix is a great film, of course. Its sequels are a bit disappointing but have their moments. V for Vendetta is a visually excellent film and has a strong narrative. Speed Racer was a commercial and critical flop that I have yet to see. But Atlas hints that they have something great in them, that their talent for visual flair an imaginative ideas is going to come together into something really jaw-dropping in the near future. Maybe it will be Jupiter Ascending. Or maybe Jupiter will stink and we’ll have to wait ten years for it. But I think there’s greatness there. And perhaps Cloud Atlas is where we’ll say we first saw it.

    Saturday Linkorama

    Sunday, June 23rd, 2013
  • This visualization of the Right of Spring is seriously seriously cool. Seeing the music like that, you start hearing the subtleties that elude you when you just hear it. This is one of the reasons I like to see classical music in performance. There is so much more going on than the ear can take in.
  • This map of linguistic divides in the United States, is something I could spend an entire post on. I match most of the pronunciations from Georgia except for “lawyer” and “pajamas”.
  • This story, about charities that just exist to raise money, should be getting national attention. It’s a disgrace.
  • I’ve used some of these.
  • Roman concrete was apparently better than the shit we’re using.
  • I think this is more or less true: the financial industry has stopped being about enabling economic progress and more about itself. When engineers can make more moving piles of money around than inventing things, we’ve got a problem.
  • Teenage boys killed the sex scene.
  • Les Miserables Review

    Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

    I have never seen the musical Les Miserables. I’ve never actually seen any film or stage representation before. I have however read, and deeply loved, the book by Victor Hugo.*

    (*I recently discovered, to my horror, that the version I read so long ago was, in fact, abridged. So I may have to read it again when I have a month to spare.)

    So my expectations were medium to high going into the recent Les Miserables film. I can say that while I didn’t love it, I liked it quite a bit. There are times when it creaks. It has a very serious editing problem, with lots of rapid cuts that distract from the sumptuous visuals, the serviceable singing and the excellent acting.

    But this is compensated for by the things the films gets right. The art direction is fantastic; 19th century Paris is recreated so well I felt like I needed antibiotics. The music is fine. I’m not as enamored of the score as most fan but it gets good when there is polyphony. The story, while stripped to its bare bones, retains the most important parts including the emotional wallop at the end. And the acting is uniformly good. Les Miserables has a great ensemble cast. One particular performance of note is that of Sacha Baron Cohen. His singing is OK, but his acting is a lot of fun. Between this and Hugo, he’s showing the makings of an excellent and versatile supporting actor. The more he does this and the less he does his characters, the happier I’ll be.

    The thing I kept thinking as I watched it, however, was that I wished it weren’t a musical. I’m not slamming the music or anything. As I said, it works great sometimes. And Les Miserables is such a massive sprawling tale that perhaps musical numbers are the only way to advance the plot and the emotional threads fast enough to squeeze it into three hours. But I think the spectacle and the singing sort of take away from the excellent actors that populate the film. Many of the film’s flaws — Hooper’s preference for quick cuts and extreme closeups — are the result of doing it as pure musical rather than pure drama or drama punctuated by the occasional song. A distillation of this problem can be found in Russell Crowe. Many critics napalmed his singing. I found that he lacked dynamic range but was perfectly adequate. His flaws as a singer only stand out because the rest of the cast are better. But the complaints about his perfectly serviceable singing distract from his excellent acting. A little less singing and a little more acting and he would really have nailed Javert. The same can be said for many of the cast. Only Redmayne, Barks and perhaps Jackman are really able to pull off the singing and acting simultaneously.

    One thing Hooper did right, however, was record the singing during filming. There is verisimilitude to the singing that is unique. Sometimes it’s distracting — Jackman in particular has a tendency to sing with a very open mouth. But I’m hoping the technique can be refined in the future because it really works much better than lip-synching.

    Overall, I would probably give it a 8/10. I have to think about it a little bit. I love the story so dearly that the film redeems its sins with the occasional great moment.

    Trekkie Thoughts

    Thursday, May 16th, 2013

    We’re getting a new Star Trek film tomorrow. I’ve been trying to avoid any expectations, but I can’t help it. I’ve been a fan for as long as I can remember, since watching reruns of the original series on Channel 17.

    Given tomorrow’s launch, I thought I’d finally publish my blog post on the Trek movies.


    Thursday Linkorama

    Thursday, January 24th, 2013

    I think I’ve spent the entirety of this week either on the phone or having a meeting or curled up in bed with a migraine. Sigh. Some weeks are like that.

  • I can’t say that I enjoy the retuning of some songs to different keys, per se. I do, however, find it utterly fascinating how important key is to the mood and feel of a song or musical piece. I knew a woman back in college who had a variety of health issues that would eventually take her at a young age. But she was an amazing pianist who could shift the key on a song instantly and play it perfectly. Somehow, it never changed the tone like these retunings do.
  • Cracked looks at lines censored by TV. My brother and I used to get great amusement from watching movies like The Breakfast Club and Police Academy on Channel 46. The dubbing was so bad and the lines so hilariously stupid, we almost preferred them. My favorite comes from Police Academy: “Mahoney …. nobody plays with me.” with “plays” delivered about an octave and a half lower than Bailey’s register.
  • This article, which tries to argue that Southern dominance of Miss America is a result of racism, is so idiotic, so filled with PC bullshit and is such an inaccurate assessment of Southern history, culture and tradition, that it could only possibly have been published in the New York Times.
  • Eerie pictures of Chernobyl and amazing pictures of World War I.
  • Jacob Sullum details some of the concerns about allowing the CDC to do research into guns. I’m in favor of lifting restrictions on scientific research, even if it does mean politicized work. I just hate restrictions too much. But it is worth noting that the public health experts have a bad history of cooking the books to reach their conclusions, as seen in the EPA’s study of second-hand smoke and the CDC’s own study of obesity deaths.
  • A woman drives 900 miles out of her way and through several countries due to a supposed GPS error. Maybe it’s me, but I doubt the GPS was the only malfunctioning thing in that car.
  • An environmentalist admits he was wrong on GMO’s. Thanks a lot.
  • How much do you want to bet that most of the people involved in these idiocies were not fired?
  • I can’t vouch for the accuracy, but if these people really have recreated a hairstyle from the Roman Empire, that’s pretty damned cool.
  • The Hobbit Part I

    Saturday, December 15th, 2012

    The Hobbit is not the Phantom Menace.

    I feel like I have to say that leading in, even though I liked the Star Wars prequels. But since that is the gold standard of disappointing sequels, I’ll just use it as a marker. The Hobbit will not disappoint. Casual fans may find it a bit boring in parts. Tolkien enthusiasts, however, will probably love it despite the liberties it takes with the text. Jackson has fleshed out the book with so much detail and backstory, that you can’t help but get swept up in the labor of love this clearly is.

    As I said on Twitter, the movie is good. Sometimes it is very good. But it if were a half an hour shorter, it would be awesome.

    Let me unpack that a bit. The biggest problem the movie has — in fact, I would almost say its only problem — is that it’s too long. If you’ve got me checking my watch during a Middle Earth movie and continually wondering, “OK, is this where they’re going to end it?”, you’ve got a problem with running time.

    It’s hard to pin down exactly where the movie bogs down because there is simply so much new material. New stuff has been larded in everywhere — the battle with the goblins, the chase to Rivendell, the “out of the frying pan” scene. This is not all bad: Jackson has put a much more tangible villain in the piece who works very well. And, as noted above, the backstory fleshes out the movie to be much more epic than the book.

    No, I don’t think the new material is the problem. The problem is that some scenes just drag on. People are complaining about the party at Bilbo’s house, but I didn’t find that to be much of a problem. I kind of liked it actually as it did a good job of introducing and defining the characters (Balin, in particular, does well). But the part of the prologue with Frodo just drags on. Gandalf’s introduction is almost verbatim from the book. The consultation in Rivendell really drags with Blanchett and Weaving intoning each syllable verrryy slowly. And a number of the battle scenes just go on for far too long (a growing problem in modern action films). In the end, the movie doesn’t really feel like it has an arc; it feels like a series of incidents that just … at some point … kinda ends.

    Personally, I would have ditched all the stuff with Radagast (although it does produce one extremely chilling scene). But I actually think that sharper editing could have kept everything in the movie that’s there and still cut half an hour off the running time. The result would be a great two hour movie that would leave the audience breathless.

    And that’s the rub. The reason I’ve spent most of this review complaining about the running time is because Jackson does so much in the film that’s just so right. The prologue about Erebor is excellent. Thorin’s backstory is great. The new villain is excellent and deepens the significance of Thorin’s return to Erebor. The “riddles in the dark scene” is the highlight of the film. Bilbo’s journey from timid Hobbit to hero is done better than Tolkein did. Middle Earth itself is, once again, rendered with such beautiful, loving and fiddling detail. And there are images in the film — the appearance of the necromancer, the “into the fire” scene, the eagles — that just work really really well.

    The actors are all well-chosen and do jobs ranging from good to excellent. And Jackson shows the talent he’s shown before for letting actors act.

    So, yeah, I liked it, despite its running time. I will probably see it again because, as with the second two LOTR films, my anticipation and worry impinged my enjoyment. But it’s definitely worth $8. Especially on a big 2-D 24 fps screen.

    I’ve rated it 8/10, which is provisional. The reason it’s provisional is that a) I’m a fan; b) I rarely rate films higher than 8 on initial viewing; and c) I have to see the other two films (and I really don’t want to wait two years for them). I initially rated the LOTR movies as 9′s but elevated all three to 10′s as they were one long epic rather than three films. So Hobbit I’s legacy will depend on how Hobbit II and Hobbit III go.

    The Girl Who Set the Dragon’s Nest on Fire

    Friday, November 23rd, 2012

    My thoughts on watching the movies of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are too long for a tweet, so I’ll spell them out in a few hundred words.

    I read all three books of the Millenium Trilogy last year. They are quite good: Larsson was a talented writer. His characters are believable (up to a point) and he is a master at building suspense and mystery. The three books are compelling page turners and featuring a plethora of strong female characters. And Lisbeth Salander has to be one of the better literary characters to emerge in recent years.

    However, there were a number of things that bothered me about them. There is the Gary Stuish protagonist who seems not far removed from Larsson himself and spends much of the books sleeping with a series of great women. There is the stark moral color-coding, where all the antagonists are sexually abusive misogynistic dinosaurs. But what bothered me most was the way the books almost seemed to revel in their sexual depravity and trafficking hysteria. There is a strong “rescuer fantasy” undercurrent to the books that is subverted in Dragon Tattoo but keeps poking its head out in the next two books.

    The books were a giant hit and have since been turned into a Swedish television miniseries and a Big Hollywood Film. I have now watched the Hollywood version (albeit a bowdlerized version on a transatlantic fight) and the first two parts of the Swedish miniseries.

    On balance, I like the Swedish version better. I do need to see the American version in full at home to be completely sure about that, but I think my judgement is unlikely to change. The American version has definite advantages — a more filmic look, sharper direction, an even darker atmosphere. But the Swedish version is a little more complete and a little less slick, which I think are advantages.

    One striking thing about the two movies is that the American version features much more handsome actors. I think this is actually to the film’s disadvantage. The Swedish actors look more real, more worn down, more in keeping with how I envisioned them (and, uh, more Swedish). It made them easier to identify with and easier to believe. To put it bluntly, Daniel Craig is way to handsome and way too British for Mikael Bloomquist. He does a great job, no question. If I didn’t know the Swedish version existed, I’d think he was definitive. But Michael Nyqvist is just a bit more suited to the role. The same goes for the lead role: Rooney Mara is excellent; but Noomi Rapace is just a bit better.

    However, you really can’t go wrong with either one. Both are good. Both are suspenseful. Both do the book justice. Both come with my recommendation. They are both somewhere between 7/10 and 8/10, with the Swedish version a little higher. Was the remake, strictly speaking, necessary? I think it was. Because there a lot of people who simply will not watch a Swedish miniseries, no matter how good it is. The Craig film, by being slicker, more filmic and in English is more approachable and therefore allows more people to enjoy the story. I really don’t have a problem with that. The American film is utterly worthy of its Swedish predecessor.

    Important note: the Swedish movie versions are cut by about half an hour from the full television miniseries versions. Netflix now has both available for streaming and I strongly recommend the miniseries version, which fleshes out the story and includes a number of small details and subplots that, in my opinion, make for a fuller viewing experience. This review is based on the full version.

    (Really Serious Spoiler Warning: I’m about to reveal the end of the story, so please don’t read if you have not seen/read the story and want to maintain suspense.

    There is one thing that I hated about the book: that Lisbeth destroys the evidence of Martin’s crimes. The reason it bothers me is that the families of all the girls he murdered deserve closure — not to mention the cops who investigated those crimes. I realize that Lisbeth would not appreciate this, but Mikael would. This is one sense in which the Swedish TV series was better than the novel: Mikael agrees to keep the murders out of the press but he and the Vangers agree to notify the families. I found that much more satisfying than the books “we’ll destroy all the evidence if you donate money to women’s causes” social engineering resolution.)