Posts Tagged ‘Movies’

Long Form Review: The Force Awakens

Sunday, April 10th, 2016

So it’s been four months. I’m finally going to post my long-form review of Stars Wars: The Force Awakens. I wrote a lot of this back in December but didn’t post it because … well, because I didn’t trust it. I was so excited to have a new Star Wars movie, least of all a good one, that I needed to take some time for my impressions to set. I just bought in on blu-ray and watched it again with Abby. And my impression is largely unchanged.

It’s a good movie. It’s a very good movie. It’s not quite as good as Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back, which I rate as rare 10′s on IMDB. But it’s better than Return of the Jedi and Revenge of the Sith, which I rate as 8′s or 9′s, depending on my mood. Right now, I have it rated an 8, but it’s a strong 8 and could become a 9 in the future, depending on how Episodes VIII and IX shake out.

Spoiler warning for the movie that everyone saw four month ago:

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Oscar Update

Thursday, February 25th, 2016

A few years ago, I wrote a series of posts going through the Oscars year-by-year to compare the Best Picture selectees to the films preferred by either IMDB users or the consensus of history as the best picture of the year.

Part I went from 1928 to 1952 and covered the very shaky early years of the Academy.

Part II covered 1952 to 1978, from the days when the Academy went out of their way to snub Hitchcock to the 1970′s, when they did a very good job.

Part III covered 1978 to 2012, which has been a shaky period for the Academy as they struggle to adapt to the broader palette of films that has opened up. Occasionally, they make a good choice, but then they scuttle back to safe fare like The King’s Speech.

Part IV summed up and ranked the worst Oscar picks in history. I concluded that the Academy had done an OK job, mostly, but was slowly becoming irrelevant.

That was a fun series of posts to write and even now, I like to go through it occasionally. A few updates are in order though:

In the post, I stopped tapping films as “Consensus Picks” in 2001, saying that not enough time had passed. It’s been three years, so I’ll bring that up to 2005.

Year: 2002
Academy Pick: Chicago
IMDB Rating: 7.2 (41 out of 132, minimum 25000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: The Two Towers
Consensus Best Picture: City of God
Comment: You can check the original post for my comments on Lord of the Rings. City of God continues to be held in high esteem, deservedly so. Chicago, however, keeps sinking. I rated this as one of their worst picks, even given IMDB’s bias against musicals.

Year: 2003
Academy Pick: Return of the King
IMDB Rating: 8.9 (1st of 111, minimum 25000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Return of the King
Consensus Best Picture: Return of the King
Comment: A number of good pictures are creeping up in the IMDB ratings but I think most people would conclude that LOTR was the best movie of 2003.

Year: 2004
Academy Pick: Million Dollar Baby
IMDB Rating: 8.1 (7 of 143, minimum 25000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Consensus Best Picture: Still unclear. Sunshine might be it. But I suspect The Incredibles will be history’s favorite.

Year: 2005
Academy Pick: Crash
IMDB Rating: 7.9 (18 of 143 for 2004, minimum 25000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Batman Begins
Consensus Best Picture: Still unclear.
Comment: I thought maybe I’d exclude this year as being too recent, but … 2006 has Pan’s Labyrinth and 2008 has The Dark Knight. So I’m coming to think it was weak year.Crash remains well-regarded by IMDB but its reputation is terrible.

Not much has changed for the other years. The Departed, Like Stars on Earth, the Dark Knight, Inglorious Basterds, Inception, The Intouchables and The Dark Knight Rises still rule their respective years.

For the years since, with the threshold raised to 50k votes:

Year: 2013
Academy Pick: 12 Years A Slave
IMDB Rating: 8.1 (3 of 127, minimum 50000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: The Wolf of Wall Street

Year: 2014
Academy Pick: Birdman
IMDB Rating: 7.8 (17 of 96, minimum 50000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Interstellar
Comment: There’s a lot of fanboyism in recent IMDB ratings, so I might discount Interstellar, a movie I really like, and pick Whiplash, which is the #2 IMDB-rated film and might have been my pick for the best movie of the year. I know it’s only been a year, but Birdman’s ranking is terrible for a recent Best Picture. I liked it but I think it was a poor pick. Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood and acting. Three of the recent Best Pictures were about Hollywood. But give it five years and I think Birdman will start showing up on lists of bad Academy picks. Still, it could have been worse. They could have gone with The Imitation Game.

Year: 2015
Academy Pick: TBA. Right now, The Revenant is the favorite.
IMDB Rating: 8.2 (4 of 58, minimum 50000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Baahubali: The Beginning. But that’s Bollywood again. The top-rated American IMDB film is The Force Awakens, but that’s fanboyism. Inside Out is #3. We’ll go with that for now.

So has anything changed in the last three years? I don’t think so. The Academy has still shown that are vulnerable to Oscar bait. They are nominating more action movies like Mad Max but they clearly aren’t going to be giving out the top prize for those movies. They’ve made at least one pick — Birdman — that may soon join the ranks of poor Oscar picks. And they continue to ignore alternative fare like Straight Outta Compton or Ex Machina.

So … if you like award ceremonies or you like the horse race or you like glamor, by all means watch the Academy Awards this weekend. But don’t watch it because you want to know what the best movie was. There are so many more resources available now, of which IMDB is just one.

Long Form Review: Predestination

Thursday, December 31st, 2015

Another clearing the decks post. This is a hint of a big Heinlein post to come. I hope..

Heinlein adaptations have been somewhat thin on the ground. I don’t know if this an aversion to his perceived right wing beliefs or what. But if you look at the movies based on Heinlein’s prolific work, it boils down to:

  • Destination Moon: an OK hard sci-fi film that Heinlein was directly involved with. Decent but not exceptional. More educational than anything else. I’d give it a 6 or 7/10.
  • Project Moon Base: Disowned by Heinlein. Very poorly regarded.
  • The Brain Eaters: A bad movie basically stolen from “The Puppet Masters”. I have not seen it.
  • The Puppet Masters: Suffered from ditching the nudity aspects of the original story, which would have given it an edge since, by the time this story reached the silver screen, almost all of its elements had been stolen by other lesser films. It’s decent though and has some genuinely creepy moments. 7/10
  • Starship Troopers: I really a need a long-form review of this one. It’s OK. But its determination make Heinlein’s world seem fascist, the removal of the mech suits and its dependence on stars with lots of looks and few acting chops (and entirely white) made for a mediocre film. Heinlein would have been fine with the mixed gender military. That wouldn’t have flown in 1959. 6 or 7/10.
  • That’s pretty much it. There’s a supposed coming adaptation of The Moon is Harsh Mistress — one of my favorite Heinlein novels. But for some reason, Heinlein’s extremely filmable works have been largely ignored.

    Well, until last year, when we got Predestination, an adaptation of Heinlein’s mind-bending time travel short, All You Zombies.

    Predestination is basically everything a Heinlein fan could ask for. It takes the plot of the story more or less verbatim, with an added loop that doesn’t add much but doesn’t hurt the movie either. The directing is solid and the look of the film perfectly aligned with Heinlein’s mid-century sensibilities. And the acting of the small cast is excellent. Hawke is the headline grabber. And he’s good. But the real star is Sarah Snook, who is just dynamite in an extremely-challenging role. She simply makes the movie, switching without apparent effort through the various iterations of Jane.

    This is the first adaptation of a Heinlein work that I would say makes the grade. It got very little attention but it was easily one of the better films of 2014. I highly recommend it, especially for fans of sci-fi or Heinlein. But, really, you’ll like it if you just like good movies.

    8/10.

    Movie Review: The Martian

    Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

    I rarely get to see movies in theaters anymore, thanks to a combination of work and two young children. But I am occasionally able to make an exception and the rave reviews for The Martian quickly moved it to the top of the “If I get a chance” list. A three hour break between the arrival of my plane and the arrival of my student’s plane gave me the chance to sneak out and catch it.

    I’ll just assume you know the basic plot and tuck in.

    The Martian is probably not the best film of the year but it is very good. The plot is clear, well-explained and, refreshing, doesn’t hinge on idiots doing idiotic things or Evil Bureaucrats stopping the good guys. Everyone in the movie is smart and, in principal, on the same page. There are some conflicts but they are over how precisely to rescue Watney, rather than whether to rescue him. And the disagreements are portrayed fairly and intelligently. This is exactly how I would expect things to go down if this happened in real life.

    Weir made tremendous efforts to make his book as realistic as possible and it shows. Almost everything they do in the movie is reasonable and realistic. I’m used to, during a sci-fi movie, that NASA part of brain going “yeah, right!” That didn’t happen once. Afterward, there were a few nits I could pick. And I think the last 15 minutes dragged a bit with “oh, here’s another thing”. But overall, the plot is solid.

    The movie’s characters are well-defined and the acting is uniformly solid. One thing that has been noticed is that the movie eschews the usual approach of making everyone an old white man. I’m no SJW, obviously, but it was nice to see a movie reflect what things are really like at NASA and what things are likely to like in the future: tons of smart people, from all backgrounds, who are competent and hard-working. It’s so well done, I didn’t even notice until someone pointed it out to me.

    The humor is frequent but low-key, mostly dark humor revolving around Watney’s attempts to keep himself alive. It uses a video diary device to develop Watney’s character, drive the narrative and explain, in very clear terms, the often sophisticated technological concepts.

    And the movie just looks gorgeous. Mars is portrayed in stunning detail. All the spacecraft look beautiful. Ridley Scott knows what to do with a camera.

    I’ve praised it a lot, but my current rating is 8 out of 10. It does drag a little bit at times and, as I said, the ending has a little too much of “and another thing” going. But I could see myself raising that to 9 in the future.

    As I’ve noted many times, we have moved into a mini golden age of good sci-fi. If you look at the best sci-fi movies of the last ten years, you find things like Interstellar, Her, District 9, Moon, Gravity, Ex Machina, Looper, Predestination. These are good movies, yes. But they’re also serious about having good science, being reasonably realistic, presenting sophisticated concepts and having smart characters instead of dumb ones.

    It’s a good time.

    Jupiter Ascending Review

    Saturday, September 26th, 2015

    The Wachowski’s have had an … interesting career. They had a dynamite blockbuster in The Matrix, a movie which is still enjoyable a decade and a half later (wait, seriously? OK, then). But they’ve followed it up with unimpressive results. The first Matrix sequel did well, mainly because of the name, but got mediocre reviews. I enjoyed parts of it, but it was a bit long-winded. The third was lambasted and deservedly so. I haven’t watched it since my first viewing in the theater and don’t really feel a pressing need to see it again.

    Speed Racer has its defenders but is generally poorly regarded. I have not seen it. Cloud Atlas did not do well even though, in my opinion, it was an excellent movie (my opinion has improved since that review with a second and third viewing).

    Which brings us to Jupiter Ascending, one of this year’s biggest flops. Jupiter was flogged by critics and it’s not hard to see why. It spends enormous amounts of time on exposition. The dialogue is frequently poor. The plot is complex and confusing and turns on two nearly identical threads. And it ends on a weird note, with Spoiler Warning Jupiter returning to her grungy job while massive crimes against humanity continue across the Galaxy.

    However, despite all this and despite the negative reviews, I did actually find a lot to enjoy about the movie. The visuals are simply gorgeous. It’s not just that the effects are great, it’s that they are used well. This feels like a real fleshed out universe. The actors do their best with the material (with the exception of Redmayne). The ideas driving the plot are original and the plot unfolds like a poor man’s Dune, with plenty of intricate politics and personal strife. There’s a really nice sequence where Jupiter goes through the Galactic bureaucracy that gives you a feel for how ancient and complex the Universe is.

    In fact, the universe Jupiter creates is so interesting, I find myself agreeing with what James Berardinelli says in his review:

    One of the key aspects of any science fiction or fantasy saga is world (or universe) building. This process refers to the creation and development of the reality in which the story transpires. More than mere background, it informs plot development, character motivation, and nearly everything that transpires during the course of the narrative. Jupiter Ascending, the latest eye-popping stepchild of the Wachowskis, excels at universe building. The problem is that the backstory is too large to contain what appears on screen during the course of a 127-minute motion picture. Put another way, Jupiter Ascending feels like a truncated, Cliffs Notes version of something that might have worked a lot better as a mini-series. Two hours is too short for this tale and the end result suffers greatly because of that restriction.

    The more I’ve thought about this, the more I think James is onto something. Jupiter Ascending is an OK movie. But I think it would have made a great TV series. In a TV series, the narrative would have had time to sprawl. The characters could develop more naturally. The complex politics would have room to ebb and flow instead of being introduced with the subtlety of a bazooka and resolved with a repetitive series of last-minute rescues. Jupiter could have been introduced to the Galactic civilization gradually, with the layers peeling away bit by bit rather than being ripped off every 15 minutes.

    Most importantly, a TV series would have solved the huge problem with the ending. There’s no way to talk about this without spoilers so don’t read this until after you’ve watched the movie or if you have no plans to.

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    Of Miracles, Men and Red Armies

    Wednesday, September 16th, 2015

    By sheer coincidence, I happened to recently watch two documentaries about the Soviet Union’s hockey team. The first, Red Army, is good. It focuses mostly on the team after the Miracle on Ice and how they entered the NHL.

    The second, Of Miracles and Men, revolves around the Miracle on Ice as seen from the Soviet point of view. It interviews most of the Soviet principals with a particular focus on Viacheslav Fetisov as he returns to Lake Placid with his daughter. It is simply excellent, describing the rise of Soviet hockey, the way they reinvented the game and going blow-by-blow through the Miracle on Ice. Even for someone who is not a particularly avid fan of hockey, I found it fascinating.

    Joe Posnanski has a great review of it, particularly one of the most important moments:

    For instance, almost in passing, the documentary shows Bobby Clarke’s famous slashing of Valeri Kharlamov in the 1972 Summit Series putting the Soviet Red Army against Canada’s best player. Now I’ve always had just one perspective on that slash, and it comes from a friend, a big hockey fan, who often refers to it as one of his favorite ever hockey moments. From his viewpoint, Clarke’s slash — which broke Kharlamov’s ankle and was apparently ordered by assistant coach John Ferguson — was something close to heroic. The Soviets were on the verge of winning the series, they were embarrassing the Canadians in their own sport, something had to be done. Bobby Clarke did it. He knocked Kharlamov out of the series, and Canada came back to win. “Hockey’s a rough game,” my friend likes to say. “And Bobby Clarke did what had to be done.”

    The doc shows the slash, instead, through the eyes of the Soviet players. The way they saw it was like this: The Soviet Union was playing a new kind of hockey, a beautiful brand hockey, one of passes and angles and teamwork, a huge contrast in style from the rough-and-tumble, drop-the-gloves game the Canadians played. The irony of this contrast is rich, of course. It was the Soviet Union that had a reputation of steel and tanks, and Canada with a reputation as the nicest country on earth. But seeing Clark purposely crack Kharlamov’s ankle, seeing the way the Canadian’s bullied and punched, seeing the gorgeous passing of the Soviets … well, let’s just say you can almost hear a tender hurt in the voice of Kharlamov’s great friend and teammate Boris Mikhailov when he says, “Yes, Kharlamov plays better than you, but why injure him? Why hurt a person so brutally?

    One of the many reasons to be glad the Cold War is over (and hope Putin doesn’t start it up again) is that you can appreciate just how amazing the Soviet hockey team was. They were playing a game that was a level beyond what anyone else was doing. They were beating teams — good teams — by football scores. In the 1980 Olympics, they won games by scores of 16-0, 17-4, 8-1 and 9-2. Their average margin of victory was eight goals, which is insane. The year before, they defeated an NHL all-star team that included 20 future Hall of Famers. Sports rarely see that kind of utter total dominance.

    The beauty of the documentary is that by showing how dominant the Soviet team was, it shows just how miraculous the Miracle on Ice really was. The US team played well, yes. They played much better than they had earlier when they got stomped 10-3. But even with that improvement, the Soviets totally outplayed them, dominating possession and peppering Jim Craig with 39 shots (to the US’s 16). An unlikely goal at the end of the 1st period and two great goals in the second gave the US one of the most unlikely wins in sports history. On such things does history turn.

    Granted, the Soviet juggernaut was only possible in a totalitarian country where hockey players could be ordered to train incessantly (Louis CK has a routine where he talks about how countries can achieve great things if they just don’t give a crap about people). And for the Soviet team, which did nothing but practice 11 months of the year, to be called “amateurs” was ridiculous. But there was beauty in that terribleness. Which, of course, made it all the sweeter when the US beat them. And “Of Miracles and Men” does a really good job of driving home both of those points.

    Inside Out and Pixar

    Monday, August 31st, 2015

    So it seemed like, in the wake of Pixar releasing their latest feature film, everyone and their grandmother was ranking Pixar movies.

    Hey, I like movies.

    And I like Pixar.

    And I like lists.

    So … I wrote this about two months ago, then forget it and now I’m finally posting it. Stop looking at me like that.

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    Movie Review: Interstellar

    Saturday, May 9th, 2015

    So far, I have seen five of last year’s Best Picture nominees — Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game and Whiplash. I’ve also seen a few other 2014 films — Gone Girl, Guardians of the Galaxy and The Edge of Tomorrow — that rank well on IMDB. I’ll have a post at some point about all of them when I look at 2014 in film. But right now, they would all be running behind Interstellar, which I watched last night.

    I try very hard to mute my hopes for movies but I was anticipating Interstellar since the first teaser came out. I’m glad to report that it’s yet another triumph for Nolan. The film is simply excellent. The visuals are spectacular and clear, the characters well-developed, the minimalist score is one of Zimmer’s best so far. The ending and the resolution of the plot could be argued with but it’s unusual for me to watch a three-hour movie in one sitting unless it’s Lord of the Rings. I definitely recommend it, especially to those are fans of 2001 or Tree of Life.

    That’s not the reason I’m writing about it though.

    One of the remarkable things about Interstellar is that it works very hard to get the science right. There are a few missteps, usually for dramatic reasons. For example, the blight affecting Earth works far faster than it would in real life. The spacecraft seem to have enormous amounts of fuel for planetary landings. The astronauts don’t use probes and unmanned landers to investigate planets before landing. And, as I mentioned, the resolution of the plot ventures well into the realm of science fiction and pretty much into fantasy.

    But, most of the film is beautifully accurate. The plan to save Earth (and the backup plan) is a realistic approach. Trips through the stellar systems take months or years. Spacecraft have to rotate to create gravity (including a wonderful O’Neill Cylinder). Space is silent — an aesthetic I notice is catching on in sci-fi films as directors figure out how eerie silence is. General and special relativity play huge roles in the plot. Astrophysicist Kip Thorne insisted on being as scientifically accurate as possible and it shows.

    And the result is a better film. The emotional thrust of Cooper’s character arc is entirely built on the cruel tricks relativity plays on him. The resolution of Dr. Mann’s arc is built entirely on rock solid physics including the daring stunt Coop uses to save the day. The incredible sequences near the black hole could be taken right of a physics textbook, including a decision that recalls The Cold Equations.

    We’re seeing this idea trickle into more and more of science fiction. Battlestar Galactica had muted sounds in space. Moon has reasonably accurate scientific ideas. Her had a sound approach to AI. Serenity has a silent combat scene in space, as did, for a moment, Star Trek. Gravity has some serious issues with orbital dynamics, but much of the rest was rock solid.

    I’m hoping this will continue, especially if the rumors of a Forever War movie are true. A science fiction movie doesn’t need accurate science to be good. In fact, it can throw science out the window and be great (e.g., Stars Wars). But I hope that Interstellar blazes a path for more science fiction movies that are grounded, however shakily at times, in real science. This could breath new life into a genre that’s been growing staler with every passing year.

    I don’t say this as an astrophysicist (one available for consultation for any aspiring filmmakers). I say this as a movie buff. I say this as someone who loves good movies and think great movies can be made that show science in all its beautiful, glorious and heart-stopping accuracy.

    Post Scriptum: Many of my fellow astronomers disagree with me on Interstellar, both on the quality of the film and its scientific accuracy. You can check out fellow UVa alum Phil Plait here, although note that in saying it got the science wrong, he actually got the science wrong. Pro Tip: if you’re going to say Kip Thorne got the science wrong, be sure to do your homework.

    The Imitation Game

    Thursday, April 16th, 2015

    When I went through my year-by-year breakdown of the Oscars, I said this:

    Here’s the thing that strikes me about the last 35 years of film history. Over that span, the IMDB ratings for individual years have become populated by a much broader variety of films than ever before. Surprisingly, traditional Oscar fare does well. For all the lashing IMDB gets, great films are popular there. IMDB loves Scorsese, loves Kubrik and loves good film. The difference is the variety — IMDB also loves foreign films, actions films, art films and animated films. These are things the Academy tends to ignore as they pick the same shit every year. Oscar bait has pretty much become its own genre. In other words, the problem is not so much that the Academy has regressed, it’s that they haven’t kept up.

    If there is a movie from 2014 that defines “Oscar bait”, it’s The Imitation Game. It’s a good film and I recommend it, especially if you’re over 60. The directing is solid. The acting is superb (although anytime I saw Charles Dance, I thought, ‘don’t help him! It’s Tywin Lannister!’). The script is fine. But it has a a flaw in that it screams “give me an Oscar!” at 100 decibels. At times, it’s like watching a movie by a precocious 16-year-old: “Look how good this movie is! Isn’t Benedict Cumberbatch awesome! Look, Keira Knightly! You love Keira Knightly! Conflict! Homophobia! Sacrifice!”

    The Imitation Game doesn’t have the confidence to be its own movie. Instead, it’s a descendant of A Beautiful Mind. Instead of portraying Alan Turing as the eccentric but perfectly sociable person he was, they make him an autistic savant, not far removed from Russell Crowe’s John Nash. Instead of showing the years-long struggle to break Enigma, we get the sudden breakthrough from picking up girls in a bar, a scene so similar to the breakthrough scene of A Beautiful Mind, it’s almost insulting (and stupid; the technique that “breaks” Enigma in the movie is cryptology 101). It’s got plenty of good dialogue and the characters are well-defined. But the plot is surprisingly weak.

    (Spoiler Warning: The worst part of the film, for me, is when Turing’s team starts holding back information so that the Nazis won’t know the code has been broken. That decision was real but it was made way higher up the chain of command. Portraying it as Turing’s decision was so unrealistic it jarred me out of the film. I think it would have been better for him to see how little of his intelligence was used and get frustrated.)

    As I said, the movie’s fine. I give it a 7/10. It’s worth a rental. I was happy for Graham Moore when he won the Oscar and his acceptance speech was amazing. But like a lot of movies, The Imitation Game is a shadowy reflection of an even better movie: one that tries less hard to win an Oscar and, ironically, would have been a better candidate for one. I hate to go all nerdboy, but I think sticking closer to history: where Enigma was a long struggle, where Turing was the eccentric but brilliant leader of a massive team, where the decision of when to use Enigma decrypts was made by higher up, would have made for a better and more satisfying film.

    As it is, this one will likely be forgotten in a few years. Just another piece of Oscar bait. That’s a pity. Cumberbatch, Tyldum and, to some extent, Moore, deserve better.

    The Princess Bride, at 28

    Friday, March 27th, 2015

    One of the great pleasures of being a dad is introducing my kids to the things I like, especially movies. About a year ago, I showed Abby Star Wars for the first time1. And just recently I showed her The Princess Bride

    I hadn’t seen Bride for a very long time because I got kind of sick of it for a while. Seeing it after so long, I had a few thoughts on why I would now regard it as a clear classic and easily the best film of 1987.

  • The action scenes in the Princess Bride are few, but they are remarkably well done. There is a clarity and a flow that is missing from a lot of modern action scenes. It’s obvious what’s going on and what’s at stake. This really jumped out at me when I was watching it with Abby. During the duel between Inigo and Westley, she actually gasped when Inigo was backed up toward the cliff. It hit me that she understood the terrain and the danger Inigo was being forced into. Many modern action films have no clarity like that. You wouldn’t see the cliff until he fell over it in slo-motion CGI and then turned around in midair to jump over Westley.
  • The moral difference between Westley and Humperdinck is critical to the resolution of the plot. Westley wins only because he showed mercy in sparing Fezzik and Inigo. By contrast, Humperdinck’s cruelty and cowardice drive Miracle Max to enable his defeat, leave him with few loyal subjects except the unreliable Rugen, and turn Buttercup against him.

    I once saw an interview with Matt Parker and Trey Stone where they talked about plot. They said that a bad plot is just a series of events — X happens, then Y happens, then Z happens. A good plot flows from what has happened before: X happens because Y happened, which causes Z to happen. The fates of the characters in The Princess Bride do not turn on strange coincidences and kick-ass karate moves; it turns on their character and the decisions they make.

  • It’s disappeared into the internet, but Joe Posnanski once wrote a great piece about the decline of Rob Reiner’s directorial career. Here are the movies Reiner has directed, with IMDB ratings and my comments:

    This is Spinal Tap (8.0) – Regarded as a classic comedy. And is.

    The Sure Thing (7.0) – I haven’t seen this but have heard good things.

    Stand By Me (8.1) – Good adaptation of King novella.

    The Princess Bride (8.2, #183 on top movies of all time) – Recognized as a classic.

    When Harry Met Sally … (7.6) – Very good romantic comedy.

    Misery (7.8) – Excellent thriller. Made Kathy Bates a household name.

    A Few Good Men (7.6) – Very good film. One of my dad’s favorites.

    North (4.4) – Ouch. This is where it all seemed to go wrong. Roger Ebert famously said he “hated, hated, hated” this movie and said that Reiner would recover from it faster than Ebert would. He was wrong. After making seven straight good to great movies, Reiner would never make another great movie.

    The American President (6.8) – Haven’t seen it; never will.

    Ghost of Mississippi (6.6) – How do you put James Woods in a movie about civil rights and come out mediocre?

    The Story of Us (5.9) – Haven’t seen it; never will. This was the impetus behind Posnanski’s post: he hated The Story of Us, especially as he went in anticipating a good movie.

    Alex and Emma (5.5) – Haven’t seen it; never will.

    Rumor Has It … (5.5) – There was some noise at the time that represented a return to form for Reiner. It didn’t.

    The Bucket List (7.4) – This IMDB rating seems weird to me. It was savaged by critics. But it did make some money and people seemed to like it, despite its bullshit.

    Flipped (7.7) – This must be IMDB’s recency bias.

    The Magic of Belle Isle (7.0) – This is a very low rating for a recent movie starring Morgan Freeman. That’s three straight 7′s. We’re not back to the days when Reiner was producing minor classic. And given IMDB’s bias on recent movies, I would take this with a grain of salt. Still, it suggested he might be recovering.

    And So It Goes (5.5) – Or maybe not.

    No film has returned to Reiner’s early form. No film has even gotten close. No one goes online and says, “Hey, there’s a new Rob Reiner film coming out!” Posnanski likened Reiner’s decline to a great young baseball player that seems headed for the Hall of Fame based on his first few years but suddenly forgets how to play at age 26. Reiner has rebounded a bit but he’s now a utility player and pinch hitter. I don’t think he’ll ever recover the form he had in the his first few films. And that’s a pity, because his early films were great.

  • I’m not overly fond of the Bechdel test, but Robin Wright is almost the only woman in the cast. The Ancient Booer, however, was pretty awesome (the actress died last year the ripe age of 91). As was Carol Kane.
  • Bride is one of the first movies I can remember that became a hit on home video. It got good reviews. It got a few token award nominations (Oscar for Best Song; WGA for Best Screenplay). But it only did OK box office business. I didn’t see it in the theaters. But then it became a big hit on home video and became a cult classic and then a classic, full stop.

    Looking back on it, the lack of attention the film received was kind of embarrassing and a big demonstration of the lacunae award givers have for both comedy and fantasy. Baby Boom, Broadcast News, Dirty Dancing and Moonstruck were the Golden Globe nominees for Best Comedy. Bride was probably better than all four (although News and Moonstruck were and are well-regarded). Best Picture nominees were The Last Emperor, Fatal Attraction, Broadcast News, Hope and Glory and Moonstruck. That’s not an unreasonable slate but Bride has outlasted all of them. Most silly is the lack of a nomination for Best Screenplay: Bride is generally and correctly regarded as having a classic screenplay, certainly better than the five nominees from that year.

  • Roger Ebert defined a “family film” as one that appeals to both kids and adults. Bride is definitely that. It worked for Abby as a straight-up adventure tale with a beautiful princess, a handsome rogue and an evil prince. But for me (and her, as she gets older), the sly comedy is the selling point. It has affection for the material it mocks. That affection is the key difference between making a funny send-up of fairy tales and an unfunny one.
  • It’s been 28 years and I still get goosebumps when Inigo confronts Count Rugen.
  • Anyway, in a few years I’ll get to introduce Ben to the movie, which will allow me to experience it for the first time all over again.

    In keeping with an earlier post, I showed her the movies in the order of IV, V, I, II, III, VI. I was stunned at how well this worked. It massively improves the prequel trilogy, making the parallels to the original trilogy stronger. And it moves the reveal of Lea to Episode III, where it is much better done than in Episode VI. I hesitated on showing Episode III to Abby because of the violence, but she bore it well. The violence didn’t bother her as much as the psychological trauma of seeing Anakin fall to evil. Anyway, I highly recommend this order if you have any good opinion of the prequel trilogies (and maybe even if you don’t).

    “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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