Posts Tagged ‘Movies’

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.
  • Looking Ahead to 2013

    Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

    Any year you can walk away from is a good one right? I ended 2012 with my family and career intact, so I don’t think I can complain too much. Abby had a great year with her first real birthday party and a good start to kindergarten. I landed a couple of grants and got a couple of big projects off my plate, including the image gallery for the mission.

    On the other hand, I had my gallbladder out and had a sudden awful onset of bad migraines, something I still have not quite gotten control of. My mother-in-law died. My stepmother got cancer. We spent a fortune on fertility treatments and got, for all our pains, one miscarriage and a bad MS relapse. So … yeah, not our best year.

    In sports, my Braves bowed out in ignominious fashion and the hated New York Giants stomped over the Falcons, Packers and Patriots. On the other hand, the Falcons had another good regular season, the Braves have a lot of young talent and Chipper Jones went out in grand fashion.

    Politics? Oh, God. This was one of the most frustrating disillusioning years I can remember. I looked at both parties and eventually slammed my head into the desk and voted for Gary Johnson. We had a huge amount of sound and fury. More digital ink was spilled than ever before. I blogged my guts out over at Right Thinking. And the result? Obama is still President, Congress is still split, Congress is still stupid, the deficit is still huge and the economy is still sluggish.

    But, for some strange reason, I have a good feeling about 2013. 2011 was a the year of false hope — personally, professionally and politically. 2012 was a tough grinding exhausting year. But I feel like things have put in motion that will make 2013 suck a lot less. I can’t put my finger on anything specific. That probably means I’m wrong.

    Oh, well. Without further ado, my bold predictions for 2013:

  • Alabama over Notre Dame; New England over Green Bay; Miami in the NBA, Cincinnati over the Angels
  • Movies look like a mixed bag. Bad remakes and sequels galore (Evil Dead, GI Joe 2, Hangover 3, Die Hard 5, etc.). Beautiful Creatures and Pacific Rim look hilariously bad. And I’m not optimistic about Oz, Man of Steel or The Great Gatsby even though I want to be. I’m worried Hobbit 2 will suffer from Middle Chapter Syndrome (even more than Hobbit 1 does). But maybe something will surprise us.
  • We’re going to have a debt ceiling crisis that will hurt the economy and result in almost no spending cuts of note. Nevertheless, the economy will lumber on. And, for the first time in years, the deficit will notably shrink.
  • The Supreme Court will have another interesting year, likely striking down Prop 8 but on very narrow grounds.
  • Japan and China will rattle sabers but no fighting will break out. We will probably eventually intervene in Syria. The EU will continue to lumber toward a unified state.
  • So, yeah. Even looking at that, I’m not predicting a great year. But 2012 was so lousy, 2013 is almost bound to be better.

    We must always remember that the arc of history is long and, over the last decade, has pointed toward progress. On a global level, things are improving. Steadily, haltingly, frustratingly. But improving. And maybe 2013 will be the year things start improving around here — slowly, haltingly, frustratingly. In the end, the future is what we create. And I intend to bend my shoulder a little bit more this year and push a little harder.

    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.)

    Red Dawn

    Sunday, November 18th, 2012

    This week will see the release of a remake of Red Dawn. The movie seems destined for the rubbish bin and several “worst of 2012” lists but I thought I’d spare a few thoughts on it, since the original Red Dawn was quite a moment in my early teen years. And not just because it was the first PG-13 movie.

    Red Dawn is not a great movie, but it is an iconic one. Apart from the zeitgeist it tapped into, which I’ll discuss in more detail below, it was simply a good film. That characters were reasonably well-defined, their actions not outlandish and it delivered a tremendous amount of action professionally and effectively (today’s audiences are unlikely to understand just how violent this movie was for 1984). I’ll let on that it has a “boy’s fantasy” aspect to it: the idea of teenagers successfully resisting a evil and powerful foe. But it twisted that formula a bit as it became steadily grimmer and grimmer until its inevitable end. I have watched it a couple of times since the theaters and always found myself intrigued. I would probably rate it a 7/10, acknowledge I’ve added a point for personal reasons.

    However, the remake, even it is well-made and well-directed, is unlikely to succeed the way the first film did for many reasons that have nothing to do with film-making. The most obvious and commented upon is that, to avoid tanking the Chinese market, the enemy is North Korea. It is unlikely that North Korea could successfully invade itself, least of all the United States. Maybe they’ll come up with some explanation for NK’s sudden military might. But the absurdity of this is sure to drive audiences away. Even if the enemy were China, the idea is still implausible. The United States has more military might than the next twenty nations combined. And that’s not even counting the millions of Americans who hunt and would, if we were ever invaded, comprise the largest standing army in the world. Hell, Pennsylvania could probably outgun most nations.

    When you get down to it, the essential thing about Red Dawn is that it was a film whose making was only possible during the Cold War, when we had an enemy superpower of significant military might and the very real fear that entire regions of the world — central America in particular — would turn against us. It struck a chord with many people — especially my generation — because it played on the patriotism and paranoia that was so strong during the Andropov-Chernenko years. Unlike the new film, the basic premise of the older film was not completely ludicrous, even if it was far-fetched. Hell, my friend Adam and I used to constantly play at resisting the Russian occupation.

    Red Dawn came with a ready-made audience: tens of millions of Americans who lived under the Soviet threat every day. Critics complained that it seemed like a commercial for the Reagan Administration. These critics apparently missed that Reagan was re-elected in a massive landslide at least in part because of his fierce opposition to Communism.

    Today’s young people are simply unlikely to identify with that. They’ve grown up in a world where America’s military might is taken for granted; where wars are rare things fought in distant countries. They’ve grown up in a world where true totalitarianism — the gulags and secret police type — is in retreat. They’ve grown up in a world where our own country is the one becoming a police state. The zeitgeist that made Red Dawn a cult classic simply doesn’t exist anymore. And so it will just be another loud dumb action film.

    The Force Will Be With Disney

    Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

    So, I was busy yesterday when Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere lit up like a Christmas tree over the news that George Lucas had sold Lucasfilm to Disney. Reaction has been strong, if mixed. Someone on FB said the news was dominated by two events: a huge disaster and Hurricane Sandy.

    I’m not seeing it that way.

    Regardless of what one thinks about the Disney Empire, they provide great entertainment. Their Pixar division has produced some of the finest movies of the last decade (WALL-E, The Incredibles, etc.) Miramax has pumped out numerous Oscar nominees. Their main division has produced solid entertainment in Narnia (first film at least), Pirates of the Caribbean (first film at least) and Tangled. They’ve turned Marvel into a relentless film mill which has pumped out films that are decent (Thor), good (Iron Man) and great (The Avengers). And for all the criticism John Carter got, it was a not a bad film by any means.

    Really, the whole anti-Disney thing kind of puzzles me. Yes, they are relentless in protecting their copyright and making a ton of money with endless merchandising. I have a daughter who is into princesses, so my wallet is very familiar with them. But … is that really such an evil thing? America isn’t a hippy commune.

    Sleeping on it, I’m more convinced that this could be a good thing. “Could” being the operative word. And the reason I think this could be a good thing is that the franchise is now out of Lucas’ hands.

    I don’t mean to slam Lucas. He’s a visual genius who revolutionized film-making. I have a higher opinion of the prequel trilogy than most. And the expanded universe of Star Wars has been excellent, especially from their video game division, which has produced engrossing, well-made, entertaining games that advance the story (and, notably, are not ridiculous resource hogs).

    But I also think Lucas’ success produced some problems that manifested in the prequel trilogy. As I argued before, there were great movies buried within those pretty good movies. The thing that made them almost great movies was Lucas’ vision. But the thing that kept them from being great movies was Lucas himself. His flaws — a tin ear for dialogue, a tendency to overcomplicate plots, a push for the cute, an inability to direct actors — were on display and I think his success and his stature prevented anyone from gainsaying him, from saying, “George, come on … let’s cast Annakin as a teenager, not a kid.” And the expanded universe of video games and books actually hurt the films because much of plot — Annakin’s fall from grace, in particular — had taken place off screen.

    Disney now has the ability to get anyone they want to work on Stars Wars VII. There are directors out there — great directors — who would pay them for the privilege. They can, if they want, get Peter Jackson to write and direct, Kevin Smith to script doctor and the entire cast of Harry Potter to act. And by keeping Lucas on as a “creative consultant”, they can be sure that he brings a bit of vision to the project. If Disney works this right — finds a great crew and gives them the freedom to create a great film — we could be dazzled.

    Ah, but that’s the rub … if. I could just as easily see the studio thinking they have to get something out that’s generic and endlessly marketable to start paying off their $4 billion investment.

    We’ll see. I am often too optimistic about these things. But the Star Wars universe is very rich and deep. It’s still possible for great film-makers to make great films in it. Hopefully they now have a chance. That chance did not exist 24 hours ago.

    Plot Hole Fun and Frustration

    Friday, October 26th, 2012

    Warning: Movie Nerd Post Ahead

    I, like most geeks, have an affection for finding goofs in movies: visible boom mics, plot holes, etc. I’ve made kind of a hobby of it, detailing almost all of the goofs that are currently in’s Doctor Who Classic section. Finding goofs is a bit of stupid nerdy fun, a bit of a wink that reminds us that this is just entertainment, not real life. It’s especially fun with Doctor Who because the wobbly sets and lousy special effects were part of the fun in the early series.

    But you do run into annoyances when you play around in this particular geek pen.

    First of all, you have those who try to explain a goof; who desperately scrounge around for some explanation — any explanation — for why an obvious goof is not really a goof at all; how the license plate on the car changed because it was a clever disguise.

    The worst are Star Trek fans, who are constantly coming up with some quantum tunneling or space warp effect to explain ST’s wild inconsistencies. And sometimes they resort to being flat-out wrong. An example occurs in Star Trek: Generations. When Soren destroys a star, the gravitational field changes instantly. However, according to General Relatively, the change in gravitational field should propagate out at the speed of light: distant objects will still be responding to the initial gravitational field. Yet, ST fans will continue to insist that Trek is right and Einstein is wrong. Over at Movie Mistakes, which is one of the worst-run of the goof sites, you get this nonsense:

    I agree that it should take time for the light from the destruction of the star to reach the planet but not the gravitational effects. Things like planets orbit stars not because there is some kind of particle or energy being exchanged between them but because the gravitational field has warped the space they are travelling through. As a result of this when the gravitational field was changed space would have snapped instantly to its new position producing instant gravitational effects. (see Stephen Hawkins:- A Brief History of Time if you don’t believe me).

    This is … uh … not true.

    But what’s far worse is people who site goofs that don’t exist. The submitters often rely on faulty memory or someone else’s faulty compilation (I’ve purged dozens of these from the Doctor Who pages). Or, frequently, they haven’t paid close attention to the movie and heard someone explain a plot hole they think exists. Gregg Easterbook, oddly, is one of the worst at this. But Cracked has had a series of articles in this vein that are often badly informed, incomplete and just wrong. Here is the most recent, where they list off eight movies made possible only by incompetent characters.

    (I would note that characters acting stupidly, as Movie Mistakes notes, isn’t really a goof. A goof is something that reminds you you’re just watching a movie. Stupidity doesn’t meet that requirement. People sometimes act stupidly. That’s how history is made.)

    Some of the mistakes in the Cracked article are valid: the idiocy of Die Hard 2 scarcely needs commenting on. But several are simply wrong. For example, they criticize Men in Black for not sending backup to deal with the stellar cockroach. But the conceit of that movie is that Earth is constantly under threat and the MiB’s are always busy dealing with it. Then they criticize Mission Impossible for network security, ignoring the elaborate plan the MI team use to get access to a secure computer. The most egregious is bashing Star Wars because the Empire doesn’t scan the Millenium Falcon after they capture it (they do, and it’s stated several times).

    It’s unusual for Cracked to be so lazy.

    Wednesday Linkorama

    Wednesday, October 17th, 2012
  • Distracted parenting is a problem, obviously. But, despite the horrible tragedies described, it’s not clear how big a problem it is. Mobile devices free parents up to do more things with kids and to supervise them more. I will let on, however, that they can occupy your attention. I was at a park when a kid broke his arm and didn’t notice immediately because of my phone. Don’t know if it would have been different with my kid.
  • I’m really looking forward to reading Nate Silver’s book.
  • Statues at the bottom of the sea. Amazing. And heart-breaking, when you think of what they represent.
  • I think this author has a good point that the Star Wars universe is likely illiterate. However, I think it’s less a conscious “where is modernism driving us” thing than a reflection of Star Wars being built on medieval narratives and cliches.
  • An interesting take on one of the more panned documentaries of the year. It does seem that people have a problem accepting that being anti-Big Education is not the same as being anti-education. Or even anti-teacher.
  • This story made my day. This is religion at its finest.
  • Whatever the political fallout of Benghazi, the story of the attack is an amazing one.
  • This is NOT the way to fight global warming. And they say all the greed and abuse is on the skeptic side.
  • 2011 in Film

    Sunday, September 9th, 2012

    Yeah, it’s mid-September. And I still haven’t watched all the 2011 movies that I want to. But do you know how many films I saw in a theater in 2011? Two? Maybe three? Almost everything I watch is on DVD and one of the more praised movie of 2011 just came out. And I’m glad I delayed this post until I could watch it. But I’ll stick a fork in 2011 for now.

    According to Metacritic, the most well-reviewed films of 2011 were:

    Tree of Life: You can read my long review for my detailed thoughts on what is, without question, the most controversial picture of the year. Many people whose opinions I respect hated it. On IMDB, it is rated at the 58th best movie of 2011, indicating that audiences didn’t like it that much (although the vote is very polarized). But having now seen it a second time, I still think it’s wonderful. I still think, in the fullness of time, it will be appreciated. And I would still rate it as the best film of the year. 9/10

    The Artist: While I enjoyed this film, I did not love it the way many people did. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a fine film and well-qualified as Best Picture. But I wonder how much of its appeal is wrapped up in its gimmick. 8/10

    Melancholia: As I said on Twitter, this is the reason we put with Lars von Trier’s bullshit. Melancholia is a little slow at the beginning, but builds toward a shattering finale. Kirsten Dunst is excellent and it a visually and aurally stunning film. 8/10

    Drive: I have not seen this yet but expect to like it.

    The Descendants: I found this to be a little over-rated. It wasn’t bad mind you. It’s well-written and well-acted. I cared about the people in it. But it didn’t grab me the way some of the other best pictures did. It’s my nominee for the “kafeeklatch” movie of the year: appealing mainly to Hollywood insiders. But it’s a step above, say, The Kids are All Right. 7/10

    Hugo: As I said on Twitter, I’m so glad that Martin Scorsese finally won an Oscar. It has freed him up to make the pictures he wants to make, rather than aiming so hard for an Oscar (although this was stil nominated). Shutter Island was good; this was great, carried by its strong actors. I told you to keep an eye on Chloe Moretz. 8/10

    A Separation: I just watched this a couple of nights ago and am still taking it in. As with several other of the top-rated films, it starts slow as it makes the characters compelling and then tightens down. I was, in an odd way, reminded of Winter’s Bone. It may seem odd to compare a picture set in American meth country to one set in Iran. But both pictures deal with good people trying to live in trying circumstances and both feature acting that is so low-key and so real, I didn’t even realize I was watching actors: I only saw the characters. A must see as it provides one of the first glimpses we’ve gotten of real Iranian society. On IMDB, it is the top-rated movie of 2011. It’s rare for a movie with so few explosions to be so well-liked on IMDB. 8/10 (provisional)

    Certified Copy and Take Shelter: I have not seen these. Both are in my queue.

    Moneyball: While I am a fan of baseball, a fan of the book and a fan of the new management in the game, I only liked this one, didn’t love it. 7/10

    So that’s what the critics thought. We can feather that out with the Best Picture nominees, representing the thoughts of an entirely different group of old white men. The nominees this eyar were The Descendants, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, Tree of Life and War Horse. I have seen all of them. Several I mentioned above, but I’ll go through the other ones.

    Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: I can see what they were trying to do. And there are moments when it is really good and uplifting. I love the optimistic take it has on New Yorkers, which I think is far closer to the truth than the more popular cynical view. But it had lots of credibility problems and the way the kids’ mind was portrayed – with loud noises and flash cuts – irritated me. 6/10

    The Help: The acting in this is great and I enjoyed it a lot the first time I saw it. But as time has gone on, the appeal has waned. 7/10

    Midnight in Paris: This movie is typical Woody Allen — charming, funny, endearing but not quite great. Marion Cotillard was great in this, as she is in everything. 7/10

    War Horse: Like Extremely Loud, there are moments when this film is very good, particularly the touching ending. But the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The story is told from the point of view of the horse, but Spielberg tries very hard to tell it from the view of the people. It doesn’t really work that way. I kept feeling like I was watching a highlight reel of the year’s best films rather than one of the year’s best films. 7/10

    So let’s go to the people: looking over the movies at IMDB and narrowing to those with 25,000 or more votes, we find the following list from the users: A Separation, The Intouchables, Warrior, The Artist, Deathly Hallows 2, The Help, The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, Drive, 50/50 and X-Men First Class. Girl with Dragon Tattoo was good. Not quite as good as the Swedish TV series, but very good. Mind you, I saw an edited version on an airplane, so my opinion might improve later from its current 7/10. Deathly Hallow 2 I rate as a 9, but that’s a fan rating, so a normal rating would be 8/10.

    I do, however, want to comment on Warrior, which was simply excellent. Fantastic acting all the way down to the supporting actors, brilliant directing and a great story. I was surprised by this one. I did not expect a film about mixed martial arts fighting to be one of the best of the year. I love surprises and gave it an 8/10.

    Looking further down the list, there are a few more I have seen or want to see. Sherlock Homes II was even better than the first and I fan-rated it at 8/10. Tin-tin was very enjoyable and I rated it 7/10. The Muppets was a fun tongue-in-check 7/10 that my daughter loved. Super 8 was Spielbergian treat that gives me hope that Adams is improving as a director (8/10). Rango was quite fun at 7/10. And Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was an exquisitely tense spy thriller with a fantastic performance from the great Gary Oldman that I gave 8/10. I would still like to see Mission Impossible IV, Drive, Take Shelter, Source Code and The Adjustment Bureau. And I have been talked into seeing Rise of the Planet of the Apes at some point.

    Applying the DVD test, the only films I own are Harry Potter 8a and Sherlock Holmes II, both fan purchases, and Tree of Life. But if money were no object, I would probably buy A Separation, Warrior, Tintin, Tinker Tailor, Melancholia. There are a few more I might throw on the pile once I see them.

    Not a bad year, after all is said and done.

    BFI vs. IMDB

    Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

    The first part of this was taken from a post I’m cooking up on Star Trek movies.

    That’s called a teaser, you see. I’ve never been very good at them but I’m told they can be terribly effective.

    I am a big believer in the Wisdom of Crowds … sorta. When it comes to judging the quality of art, I think mass rankings are more useful than critical rankings. They are not perfect: it often takes time for a work of art to be fully appreciated. And enthusiasm for the new can cause it to be over-rated. But, generally, if you ask me where to look for an objective opinion, I’ll look to the … well, not the mob … but to the large mass of those who are interested enough to form an intelligent opinion.

    That’s why I always talk about IMDB ratings when I talk about movies. IMDB has done an oustanding job of creating a movie rating system that is useful. It allows anyone to vote, but only if they are interested enough to create an account. They can only vote once. And an algorithm tempers the enthusiasm for newer movies. The ratings are not perfect: you’ll usually see new movies rocket to the top of the ratings and then slowly fall. All three Lord of the Rings movies vaulted to #1 in the ratings initially, then slowly fell back to #14, #25 and #10, which is about where they should be. The Dark Knight Rises is currently at #11 but will probably finish outside the top 250. The Godfather and Shawshank Redemption have vied for the #1 spot for more than a decade now and I know many who would agree that they should be near if not at the top.

    The utility of the IMDB rankings is most obvious when you contrast it against those of critics, like the recent revision to the Top 50 Films of All Time, courtesy of the British Film Institute. The big news is that Vertigo displaced Citizen Kane from the top spot. The bigger news should be the ridiculous bias. Consider the way the films are distributed in time:

    1920’s: 6
    1930’s: 3
    1940’s: 3
    1950’s: 12
    1960’s: 15
    1970’s: 7
    1980’s: 1
    1990’s: 3
    2000’s: 2
    2010’s: 0

    (And yes, that’s actually 52 movies in the top 50).

    Now I’m willing to concede that some movie eras were better than others. The 1970’s, in particular, stand out as a golden age for new film-makers like Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg and Lucas. But it is insanity to suggest that the 1950’s and 1960’s produced 4.5 times the number of great films the last three decades have. This is telling you nothing about the quality of those films and everything about just how old the BFI electorate are.

    Even their modern choices are a bit puzzling. Since 1980, the only films they rate in the top 50 are Shoah, Satantango, Close-up, Histoires de Cinema, In the Mood for Love and Mulholland Drive. I have not seen three of those. I would agree on the greatness of Shoah and In the Mood For Love. But Mulholland Drive is an excellent TV pilot with thirty minutes of bullshit sewn on. It’s a massively over-rated movie and I think it’s mainly over-rated because of the great lesbian sex scene that happens right before the movie implodes.

    Let’s compare to IMDB:

    1920’s: 5
    1930’s: 10
    1940’s: 18
    1950’s: 31
    1960’s: 25
    1970’s: 24
    1980’s: 29
    1990’s: 40
    2000’s: 55
    2010’s: 13

    Now there is a definite skew in IMDB toward recent movies. But that skew is not nearly as drastic as BFI’s. The 1990’s and 2000’s contain 38% of IMDB’s top movies. That’s compared to the 1950’s and 60’s containing 52% of BFI’s top films. BFI has only 12% of their movies in the last three decades. There is no three-decade period that has that low a percentage in IMDB. The only period that comes close is the first three decades of film. And that’s for a dynamic polling system.

    The skew is stronger when you narrow IMDB to the top 50 movies. 15 of those are in the 1990’s and none in the 1920’s. But even then, the skew is not nearly as drastic as BFI’s, with plenty of top films in all decade except the 1920’s. And I would argue that this proves the point: IMDB is still better when you take the comparison that is the least fair because of IMDB’s over-rating of recent movies.

    What are IMDB’s favorite movies of the last three decades? Shawshank Redemption, Schindler’s List, Lord of the Rings, Dark Knight, Fight Club, Inception, The Matrix, City of God, Forrest Gump, Silence of the Lambs. I removed The Dark Knight Rises because it is riding a wave of enthusiasm and will certain sink lower (as will Inception and The Dark Knight). I would submit, however, that IMDB’s slate of films is better than BFI’s. It is certainly more watchable.

    Consider the top tens:

    BFI: Vertigo, Citizen Kane, Tokyo Story, La Regle du jeu, Sunrise, 2001, the Searchers, Man with a Movie Camera, the Passion of Joan of Arc, 8 1/2

    IMDB: The Shawshank Redemption, Godfather, Godfather Pari II, Pulp Fiction, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, 12 Angry Men, Schindler’s list, Dark Night, Return of the King, Empire Strikes Back

    I will admit that BFI’s is more artistic and has a better international flavor. It’s less guy-movie oriented. But is it really better? Which of those slates would you rather have with you on a desert island? I thought so.

    That’s why I talk about IMDB. It’s far from perfect, but it’s easily the best thing going. I especially like it is so very useful for relative rankings. It allows one to measure the progress of franchises, as I did last year with the Bond films and as I will soon do with the Trek movies. IMDB gives you an accurate glimpse of what the public thinks at this moment. And I find that far more enlightening than what some old, wizened critics think.

    John Carter

    Saturday, June 23rd, 2012

    Mild Spoiler Warnings:

    An airplane is the wrong place to watch John Carter. Or … maybe it’s the right place. You can’t get overwhelmed by special effects watching a tiny screen twenty feet away from you. Story, acting and dialogue become more important; action less. And so while this review is necessarily of a flawed viewing experience, I think I will probably stand by it after I’ve seen Carter on my big TV.

    I’m a big fan of Burroughs’ martian tales. Although certain aspects are outdated, they are imaginative, thrilling and captivating. Captain John Carter of Virginia and Princess Dejah Thoris of Helium are two of the great characters in science fiction and Barsoom is one of the most fully realized science fiction worlds ever devised. Barsoom doesn’t just have places, people and monsters. It has culture, history and religion; the things that make a world real. I read the books in college and loved them and I keep meaning to return to Barsoom again. For a long time, I wished John Carter’s cave were real and I could go there. So my expectations were high, if tempered by the cynicism of a 40-year-old.

    I can report that while I was disappointed, I was not appalled. The movie is not bad; it is quite watchable. It has some good moments and retains a bit of a sense of wonder. However, I can’t really see myself recommending it to someone other than … me. I have an ability to watch some films and filter out the bad stuff and enjoy the good stuff. This is why I like the Star Wars prequels better than most people in my age group: I enjoy the good parts and ignore the bad ones. I can’t do that with every film, only with films that hit a particular flawed nexus.

    But I can’t recommend to anyone else. I think that those unfamiliar with the Burroughs cannon will find themselves a bit lost and bored, not really caring too deeply about it. And I think most of those familiar with the Burroughs cannon will find themselves outraged. This is Borroughs filtered through the action film genre: over-expositioned, filled with too many action scenes, lacking the emotional thread of the books.

    I don’t regret watching it. There was stuff that irritated me but enough to like that I’m not regretting the investment of two hours of my time . Granted … it was two hours on a plane; not exactly premium time. But I could find giving those two hours again at some point, maybe as background while I worked.

    One big question is how Taylor Kitsch fares in the lead role. Kitsch is actually not bad. He’s not Hayden Christianson out there. But … he’s not that good either. Someone with less looks and more acting chops would have been better. Kitsch’s shortcomings stand out, however, because the rest of the cast is very good. Dominic West does some wonderful scenery chewing (and would have been a better choice in the lead); Willem Dafoe is excellent as Tars Tarkas; James Purefoy has a wonderful two lines as Kantos Kan. But the real gem is Lynn Collins, who simply shines as Dejah Thoris (surprise: I thought she must be English but looked her up and she’s American). She brings intelligence, conviction and beauty to the role, overcoming the writer’s “enhancements” of the character. I actually believed her as the Princess of Mars. Kitsch I could take or leave. But a sequel without Collins would not be worth it.

    The biggest problem with the film is that it simply does too much. It’s like the makers decided that A Princess of Mars didn’t have enough material; they had to pull in entire Burroughs mythology and throw in some pointless action scenes. There are simply too many elements, too many working parts. We are not given time to marvel and awe at the beauty and grandeur of Barsoom. We simply stand there while more and more stuff is thrown at us: a stupid and unnecessary expansion of Carter’s adventures out West; an unnecessary addition to his backstory; the river Is; the Therns; some of the deeper politics — these are all things that were not really necessary and, frankly, smack of fanboyism. Lord of the Rings solved the problem of taking a sprawling story and trimming it down, even if it meant losing some of the good parts (Bombadil, the Barrow-Wights, the Scouring of the Shire). John Carter has the opposite problem — taking a lean story and going too deep. This makes for confusion. And the movie tries to cover up its sins with action sequences.

    Example: introducing and ramping up the role of the Therns created a good enemy and a clever way to end the movie (and Mark Strong is solid in the role of the chief Thern). But it also was part of the general overwhelming confusion. Holding them back for a future movie; hinting at their existence; that might have worked better. Imagine John Carter returning to Earth, then realizing that someone was using that transportation mechanism and devising a method of smoking them out. That would have ended the movie on an intriguing note and set up the sequel. (That said, the entirely original ending of the movie is one of the best parts and left me smiling).

    Really, and I hate to say this, almost all of the movie’s problems would go away if they had just followed the damned book. I don’t say this is a Burroughs purist or any other kind of purist. I haven’t objected to changes made to Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or anything else because I understand that film is a different medium and what works on the page does not necessarily work on the big screen. I get that.

    But there’s something the movie makers forgot: Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the books the way he did for a reason. By sticking with Carter’s point of view, the elements of Martian society are introduced more gradually, with new layers of complexity coming with each subsequent book. We are along for the ride, sharing John’s sense of wonder and excitement as he discovers Barsoom. Sticking with that structure would have made for a much more even and far less confusing film.

    It also would have taken away the movie’s most glaring problems: the over-reliance on action beats to keep the audience interested; the over-exposition; an arena sequence that is basically ripped straight out of Attack of the Clones. People have a tendency to dismiss Burroughs writing skill since he wrote pulpy stuff. That’s garbage. The man’s books are still read a century after they were written. That’s not because of the cover art. Burroughs could fucking write.

    (Aside: I keep referring to action beats. This comes from a Kevin Smith monologue about trying to get a Superman movie made. He recounts a meeting with a Hollywood exec who claimed movies need an action beat every ten minutes to keep the audience interested. If you watch enough movies, you’ll see his philosophy is real. I hate the action beat philosophy and it’s the biggest problem with John Carter. Good films do not need action beats to keep us interested; they build toward action scenes. They don’t rely on them as periodic electroshocks to wake an audience put to sleep by ham-fisted writing.)

    In the end, the ultimate test of any movie is “will I buy it on blu-ray?” “Will I spend my hard-earned money so that I can watch this over and over again?” And with John Carter, the answer is, despite my complaints, “probably”. The movie is far from perfect, not even that good. However, it’s not unwatchable and it has its moments. And, frankly, it is likely to be the only John Carter movie worth watching for the next couple of decades.

    I will watch it again. I’ll watch it because I’ve been in love with Dejah Thoris for twenty years. I’ll watch it because I like seeing Tars Tarkas on the screen. I’ll watch it because I love Barsoom. And any chance to see it, even a flawed one, is a chance I have to take advantage of.

    Your mileage may vary and almost certainly does.

    One final note: it an absolute travesty that this film was a flop. It is not bad. It’s quite watchable. It does have a few really good moments. And most of the people I’ve spoken to found it passable. It’s certainly better and more imaginative that the Transformers, Spiderman or Pirates sequels that rake in billions. It flopped because it was badly marketed: the makers thought everyone knew who John Carter was; they didn’t hype it relentlessly — a stunning surprise for Disney; and they put a review embargo on it (always a bad sign). I read several people commenting that they wouldn’t see it because it looked like a cheap Star Wars knockoff.

    Disney thought it was going to be a flop, treating it like one and then acted all stunned with their self-fulfilling prophecy fulfilled itself. And their lack of vision cost the film the success that could have set up a sequel: a sequel that could have fixed many of the errors, avoided the mis-steps and given us the John Carter movie we have been waiting a hundred years for.

    Oh, well. I’ll just have to cling to my hope that someone will throw a hundred million dollars at Joe Stracyzynski so he can get cracking on the Lensman movies.

    IMDB rating: 7/10. But that’s on a fanboy filtering curve. For most people, it would be 6/10. And for many Burroughs fans, it would be lower.

    Update: One other note. John Carter’s Earth-evolved physique gives him superior abilities in Mars’ lower gravity, both in the books and the film. But this ability is exaggerated to a big and bothersome degree in the film. That’s another thing that could have been fixed in a sequel.

    Firefly and Serenity

    Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

    I should have a feature-length post on this, but for the moment, I’ll like to Agony Booth’s nice video review of Serenity. The thing is, I watched Serenity as someone who had not seen a single second of Firefly. I liked it a lot, enough to make me buy the series and watch it. But I do agree with him: you did have that feeling of being at a great party where you didn’t know anyone. Once I’d watched the series, the movie was even better.