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Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Witch
In popular culture, the witch hunt is a popular trope. Rooted in actual witch hunts in early modern Europe and colonial North America (15th through 18th centuries), it's a seemingly generic feature of human behavior easily extrapolated into nearly any moral threat. The U.S. roots in Salem were renewed in the 1950s Red Scare, and so on. We've all seen such stories in movies and television, but writer/director Robert Eggers' The Witch is a fascinating take on the matter. Spoilers aho, fun ahoy.

Set in early 17th century New England, it tells the story of a puritan family struggling to survive on their own. Towards the beginning of the film, the youngest member of the family (an infant) is abducted and the family begins to suspect evil forces from the woods next to their farm as the explanation for their woes. It isn't wrong before members of the family start casting suspicion upon one another. A witch walks among us.

Eggers took care with the historical realities, and his background doing the grunt work of production design, set carpenter, etc... served him well. He apparently spent five years researching the colonial setting, consulting primary source documents on everything from architecture to period language. Indeed, most of the dialog is directly culled from Puritan prayer manuals and period diaries, making the speech a little difficult to follow at first, but the mood of which suits the film perfectly. All of this lends a sense of verisimilitude, except for one key detail: the witches themselves!

It's clear, even early on in the film, that the witches are real. These days, most witch hunt stories are completely one sided. For instance, I recently watched a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called The Drumhead, in which a retired admiral investigates and explosion aboard the enterprise, quickly jumping to accusations of conspiracy and treason. It's a good episode, but it's one in which there's never any real doubt as to the outcome. Most examples of a witch hunt in pop culture focus on completely unfounded accusations, but in The Witch, such accusations actually are founded. There really are witches in the woods tormenting the family. One of the insidious things about witches is that they lurk among us, waiting for opportune times to do us harm and often throw suspicion on others. Because of their nature, we tend to abandon our principles and our morals in our desperate attempt to find our foe. The Witch understands this, and because of its staggering period authenticity, we must acknowledge the supernatural's existence, even as our protagonists have no way of rooting them out and end up turning on one another. This sets the movie apart from the typical witch hunt tale, while not excusing the resultant behavior. Despite the setting of the film, it's clearly aiming at more contemporary witch hunts than actual historical accounts.

If someone were to make a movie about, say, Joseph McCarthy, much would be made of the near total lack of concrete evidence for his anti-Communist crusade. As it should! But little would be made of the fact that, despite his deplorable methods of intimidation, his rants about "Communists in the State Department" were basically true. Of course, most of the people and organizations that McCarthy accused were unsupported by evidence, making the topic decidedly muddled. Again, a movie attempting to tell this story would probably bypass this complexity to focus more on the lack of evidence and the persecution than the actual communists that were deploying their Gramscian weapons on an unsuspecting public.

Even today, the concept applies to our national obsession with terrorists. At its core, fighting terrorism is a witch hunt. But since we know that terrorists actually exist, it's not your typical witch hunt narrative. Sonny Bunch sees The Witch as a radicalization narrative:
...I think The Witch has done something far more interesting. Or, at least, more unique. It's not peddling a traditional witch hunt narrative. It's offering a radicalization narrative. Thomasin's tale is the story of how a young person, marginalized by society and her family, comes to join a radical group. It's a story you see in the news today relatively regularly, one that usually focuses on disaffected young Muslims who, alienated by their perceived mistreatment at the hands of Westerners and languishing in poverty, leave their homes to join ISIS and other terrorist groups. They seek belonging and fellowship. And if they happen to find it amongst killers and psychopaths, well, so be it.
The Witch is a horror film. One in which the witches actually exist, even. But the horror in the film is not derived from cheap jump scares. The environment is creepy on its own and the film does an admirable job of slowly building tension through visual techniques, but the real horror is not that the witches exist. Rather, it's that we have no way to fight them and that traditionally, we've resorted to morally compromised methods that easily lead to our downfall (and potentially strengthening our enemy in the process). I'll leave the application of this to current events as an exercise for the reader.

The film is deliberately paced and the dialog takes some getting used to, but it never descends into a slog, and once you start thinking through its implications, it becomes more chilling and fascinating. It's beautiful, well composed, well acted, and more relevant than I ever expected. It's not an easy sit, but it's a worthwhile one that has only grown in my estimation as it continues to occupy my thoughts.
Posted by Mark on March 13, 2016 at 01:45 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Comments Are Working Now!
At least, I think they are, hence this test post which you can safely ignore.
Ignore Me!
I've confirmed that the two most popular login types are working, so Google OpenID and Wordpress users are free to fire away in the comments. It looks like the new version of Google ID (now that I've got it working) actually shows a relevant name and even links to Google+ (formerly, you got a username at best, and a weird string of characters at worst). Go forth, ye readers, and comment. Also, why are you reading this? I said to ignore this post. IGNORE ME!
Posted by Mark on March 09, 2016 at 11:25 PM .: Comments (7) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen
One of the great things about Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan novels is the sheer variety of genres and stories that she manages to wring out of her universe. It speaks to how well the worldbuilding in the series works, but also to her breadth as a writer. I'm sure you could generally categorize the series as action/adventure in the mold of Horatio Hornblower, but when you start to narrow it down, you find a wide array of sub-genres: military SF, spy thriller, drawing room intrigue, political conspiracy, mystery (of many kinds), legal drama, and even straight up romance. As the series has progressed, she has trended away from the more action oriented aspects and more towards interpersonal dramas and romance. Most of the series is told through the eyes of the pint-sized force-of-nature that is Miles Vorkosigan, though the series (chronologically) began with his mother Cordelia Naismith and father Aral Vorkosigan. It's been 25 years since Cordelia headlined a novel, but she has returned in Bujold's latest novel, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen. Spoilers, I guess, more from the series rather than just this book, though I guess some of that might pop up too.

Three years after her husband's untimely death, Cordelia Vorkosigan thinks it's time to resign her post as Vicereine of Sergyar and move her life in another direction altogether. Along the way, she ensnares the unsuspecting Admiral Oliver Jole in her schemes, and he suddenly finds himself contemplating possibilities he would never have dreampt up on his own.

This may not sound like much of a plot, and truth be told, there really isn't one. There's no grand political conspiracy driving the events, no dead bodies, no explosions, no Cetagandan invasion fleets, just a rather well executed character piece. This usually isn't my sort of thing, so I think it speaks volumes about Bujold's worldbuilding and capability of producing lovable characters that I really enjoyed the novel. Part of this is certainly that this is something almost completely new to the series. The books it most resembles would be A Civil Campaign and indeed, there are some light parallels between the stories (I'm thinking primarily of an unexpected family visit). But even A Civil Campaign had the structure of an adventure, even if it wasn't strictly so. The centerpiece of that novel was a dinner party for crying out loud. And what's more, it was fantastically exciting. No such disasters here.

There are subtleties here that Bujold has yet to explore in the series. Since most of the series was seen through the eyes of the young, we don't get a lot of insight into what was actually going on with the parent's generation. It turns out there were some, er, interesting relationships being built. This novel reveals many of these things, and concerns itself with the concept of dealing with the grief of losing a loved one. Aral's loss is keenly felt by most of the main players, and Cordelia's plan to course correct her life is her way of acknowledging that she must move on.

For reasons I'll leave unclear, Admiral Jole felt the loss of Aral nearly as much as Cordelia, and her plans have suddenly given his late-life a hope that he never really considered. Jole is not strictly a new character, having been briefly mentioned in several previous novels, but his part was always as a handsome, competent aid to Aral Vorkosigan. As usual, I'm left wondering if Bujold always had this story in mind and was peppering hints to this obscure side character in order to lay groundwork for this story, but this generally speaks to her ability to craft lovable characters.

The pairing is a good one, and it deals with late-life issues in a way that most stories never dare. This being a science fiction universe, a 76 year old woman deciding to change careers and have more kids does not seem so far fetched since she can expect to live to 120 years old. Similarly, a career military man can find other uses for his keen observational skills, and maybe have some kids of his own. Interestingly enough, Bujold is still wringing new and intriguing implications out her concept of a Uterine Replicator, even now, thirty years after she began writing these stories.

The usual coterie of side characters pepper the story, both new and old, and as per usual, they are all delightful. Despite a wide cast of characters, it never falls into an unfocused, episodic trap, and generally remains deceptively compelling.

It's a fascinating book primarily for what it doesn't do. One of the things I cherish about this series of books is how frequently Bujold manages to subvert expectations. I often find myself thinking This can't be right!? Is she really doing this? and then being utterly enthralled as Bujold sooths whatever stupid reservations I may have. I have learned that you must simply go with the flow and trust in Bujuold. In this case, I suspected that we might see some political intrigue or inciting incidents, but as the novel progressed and the story stubbornly refused to indulge my predictions, I started to get a feel for something different and interesting. Like Cordelia and Oliver, you have to be willing to let the story go its own way.

In a recent interview, Bujold noted that sort of difficulty in certain audiences:
Bujold, 66, remarks she was once part of a book club discussion of her fantasy novel, The Curse Of Chalion, with a group of junior high students, "where it gradually became apparent that the hero was far more alien to them by being an old man of 35 - practically like their parents! - than by being a demon-ridden medieval fantasy nobleman."
I suspect Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen would garner a similar reaction, though I think ones experience in SF/Fantasy greatly reduces any complaints you might have about the exploration of late-life challenges this novel confronts. After all, if you're willing to consider the implications of a "demon-ridden medieval fantasy nobleman", why not a 76 year old widowed Vicereine and her desire to raise a new family? Or maybe I'm just getting older and wiser...
Posted by Mark on March 06, 2016 at 01:47 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Oscars
The Academy Awards are strange in that it's extremely popular to whine about them and how they're so irrelevant, and yet, we all spend time and effort whining about them. I'm including myself. Take my intro to last year's Oscars post:
The funny thing about the Academy Awards is that your opinion about them is pretty boring. You think the Oscars are just a cynical circle jerk of self-satisfied Hollywood elites? Boring! You're outraged at [insert snub here]? Super fucking boring! You're genuinely excited about seeing films receive the recognition they deserve? You are both naive and boring! But the one thing that unites us all is the abject hatred of the short films categories. I think we can all agree on that.
Culture warriors have done their best to liven things up with the whole #OscarsSoWhite thing, and you have to be at least a little interested to see what Chris Rock is going to do as the host this year, but it's still pretty boring.

Personally, I have a decent enough time because I think it's fun to mock celebrities and drink alcohol. I also like parsing the weird politics of Hollywood to make pointless predictions (usually scoring in the 80% range). Back in the before time, the long long ago, I used to do this thing called "liveblogging". For you youngsters out there, back in the dark days before Facebook and Twitter, people would just update their blog every 2 minutes during an event like the Oscars and we'd just sit there hitting F5 to see what people were saying. A few years ago, I finally got with the times and took it all to Twitter. And to be honest, I'm not that funny, so I usually end up just retweeting a bunch of people who are funnier and more incisive than I am. But hey, if you want to chat, I'll be on Twitter @mciocco saying dumb things. If, for some ungodly reason, you want to see a decade's worth of previous predictions and commentary on the Oscars, check them out here: [2015 | 2014 | 2013 |2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004]
  • Best Picture: The Revenant. The academy is fickle, but The Revenant seems to have the momentum. Early favorite Spotlight probably deserves the statue, but it's been sinking under the weight of (unfair, imhbco) complaints about its "workmanlike" nature. Still a chance, but it seems unlikely. The Big Short is probably the only other realistic contender. Mad Max: Fury Road would probably be my choice, but it seems unlikely to tweak the Academy's fancy. Bridge of Spies seems like a perfunctory nomination, and the indies like Brooklyn and Room are supposed to be happy just getting nominated, and The Martian is probably in the same boat. A bunch of others probably should have been nominated: Creed, The Hateful Eight, Ex Machina, and of course, Bone Tomahawk.
  • Best Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu for The Revenant. Back to back wins? Looks like it. Potential spoilers from Adam McKay or George Miller, but they seem unlikely. Should have been nominated: Ryan Coogler for Creed.
  • Best Actress: Brie Larson in Room. Of the 10 films nominated for Actress/Actor, I've only seen 3. I'm not usually one for acting showpieces, I guess, but Larson seems like a lock for this one (and she is indeed excellent!) Charlotte Rampling had a chance, but she's a racist and the academy is taking a lot of flack for that right now, so I'm guessing she doesn't have a chance. Maybe Saoirse Ronan, but Brooklyn has a reputation for being slight, and clearly Larson is doing more heavy lifting. Should have been nominated: Charlize Theron for Mad Max: Fury Road.
  • Best Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant. I'm thinking it's finally Leo's year, and his competition doesn't look like it'll put up much of a fight. Maybe Bryan Cranston for Trumbo, but did anyone see that movie? It's supposed to be about how awesome and brave Hollywood is, and the Academy certainly has a high opinion of itself, so there's that, but I don't think it'll be enough to overtake The Revenant. Should have been nominated: Michael B. Jordan in Creed.
  • Best Supporting Actress: Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl. Vikander is the "it" girl right now, and she was in, like, 20 movies last year, all of which adds up to an Oscar win. Personally, I'd go for Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful Eight, and I suppose she could upset Vikander for this one. Should have been nominated: Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina (heh).
  • Best Supporting Actor: Sylvester Stallone in Creed. Because nostalgia. Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies has a decent chance of spoiling, but I think this is Sly's to lose. Should have been nominated: Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation. I mean, come on, I like Christian Bale as much as the next guy, but he has no business being nominated in this category at all, let alone when Idris Elba is giving performances like this. I guess the Netflix aspect of the film's release doomed it or something, but still.
  • Best Original Screenplay: Spotlight. Compensation for not winning best picture. Inside Out has a chance, I guess, but it'll also garner the Best Animated Feature and that will probably give the edge to Spotlight.
  • Best Adapted Screenplay: The Big Short. Also compensation for not winning best picture. I'd love to see Drew Goddard get it for The Martian, but that doesn't seem likely.
  • Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road. I expect Mad Max to clean up on some of the less prestigious technical awards, but you never know, The Revenant might run the night or something.
  • Cinematography: The Revenant. Poor Roger Deakins.
  • Visual Effects: Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens. This tends to go to a blockbuster, but I guess you can't rule out the bear from The Revenant. And one can hope for Mad Max: Fury Road here too.
  • Makeup: Mad Max: Fury Road. Yup.
  • Costumes: Cinderella. Could also go Mad Max, but this tends to go more historical period than dystopian SF, methinks.
  • Musical Score: The Hateful Eight. Ennio Morricone will take this one down, seems pretty much a lock.
  • Best Song: "Til It Happens To You" by Lady Gaga from The Hunting Ground. This one has all the buzz, I guess. I'm not good at the music categories though.
  • Best Animated Film: Inside Out. Duh. Betting against this is one of the classic blunders: Never go in against Pixar when the Oscars are on the line!
  • Best Documentary: Amy. Maybe The Look of Silence could creep up, but Amy's got the momentum.
  • Best Foreign Language Film: Son of Saul. Always a crapshoot, but this has the buzz.
So there you go. Follow me on Twitter @mciocco to see what I'm saying during the show itself.
Posted by Mark on February 28, 2016 at 12:36 PM .: Comments (1) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Link Dump
As per usual, interesting links scrounged from the depths of ye olde internets:
  • Make the Censors Watch 'Paint Drying' - A wonderful Kickstarter for the best kind of censorship trolling. The basic idea is that the British censors have to watch whatever you send them, so this guy made a 10 hour video of paint drying and forced them to watch it. (via Chizumatic)
  • That Time Ronald Reagan Visited Star Trek: The Next Generation And Took The Captain's Chair - These sorts of things are always funny. I like how Reagan reacts to Klingons "I like them, they remind me of Congress." Also, Reagan was correct, Star Trek III sucked.
  • How to Cook Prison Spread - Delving into the culinary delights of prison food.
  • What Errol Morris Thinks of Making a Murderer - Morris is always interesting, and immediately gets at what makes Making a Murderer worthwhile:
    I think it's a mistake to assume, however, that all of these stories are doing the same thing, because they're not. They're doing different things. And... you see more and more criticisms of Making a Murderer because they say it's biased-it leaves out this, that, and the other thing. To me, it's a very powerful story, ultimately, not about whether these guys are guilty or innocent-but it's a very powerful story about a miscarriage of justice.

    There's so many themes in it that are relevant to investigation. But what is powerful in Making a Murderer is not the issue of whether [Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey] are guilty or innocent. It's the horror of the courts and how that story was handled the first time around and subsequently. I can never ever forget Dassey’s attorney and the investigator. The attorney with the catfish mouth and the investigator crying—unforgettable.
    If you liked Making a Murderer, do yourself a favor and check out The Thin Blue Line (it's on Netflix streaming).
  • How to Make Eggs - A simple subject, but this is a great little reference...
  • PHYSICIST: Here's why blowing up the Death Star would have killed all the Ewoks - The trend of Star Wars revisionism that's been sweeping the internets is amusing, and it's funny that people keep finding new angles. This one is interesting, though it's also exactly why Star Wars isn't really Science Fiction (and why that's ok).
  • Grandmaster Maurice Ashley plays NYC trash talker - Grandmaster vs. Chess Hustler, and they trash talk. It's glorious.
That's all for now, see you next week for the Oscars!
Posted by Mark on February 21, 2016 at 02:58 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Favorite Films of 2015
It's hard to believe, but I've reached a decade of top 10 lists. Only a month and a half late! It is, of course, a completely arbitrary exercise, one that has vacillated between a "best of" list and "favorite" list, but I like lists. Lists are American! What are you? A communist? For reference, previous top 10s: [2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006]

Alyssa Rosenberg recently posed a question on twitter: "if you like rankings of movies, or albums, or whatever, what is it that you like about them?" There were a few schools of thought. One was about how fun it is to argue and play petty status signaling games (which is emphatically not my draw). Another was as a means to discovery, finding something obscure that you've never heard of, but might love. Then there's the list-writer's perspective, where you're forced to clarify your thinking in order to generate a meaningful list. In terms of my strategy in building a list like this, there's definitely a bit of the second thing there, I really do try to highlight some movies that don't get typical love in other year-end lists. Sometimes I'm more successful at that than others (less so this year, actually). Mostly, though, it's the third one that I struggle with. I try my best not to let my biases dominate the list, but on the other hand, I want to make sure I actually like the movies in the top 10. It's tricky. You want some variety, but you don't want to force it. I like to include a documentary, which has the added bonus that my favorite documentaries tend to be less activist focused than the ones most people choose, but again, I don't want to force something unworthy on the list. Similarly, I have an affinity for SF, horror, action, and other genre fare that tends to get overlooked in most top 10 lists... but I also don't want to make it purely genre, because there are other, better movies that must be considered too. It's a balancing act, and it can be extremely difficult to line up a top 10 that is coherent, represents my tastes, but is also filled with worthy movies.

Especially in a year like 2015, which is filled with excellent choices. I'd make this a top 13 list if that was a thing, and I guess nothing's stopping me, but again, the value in putting together a list like this is to force a decision. This was a genuinely jam-packed year full of wonderful movies, from the lowliest indie film to the biggest Hollywood blockbuster, the great films just kept coming. Identifying emerging themes is always a silly proposition, but there were a couple that struck a chord with me. The more obvious one is the long-gap sequel, or what Matt Singer called Selective Sequels. Two of the best movies of the year, Mad Max: Fury Road and Creed, were clearly of this mold. Ostensibly sequels, kinda reboots, but both were excellent. Less successful attempts happened this year too, like Jurassic World and Terminator: Genysis, even if one of them was a box office behemoth. The other trend I'm spotting is particularly welcome, and that is the rise of serious science fiction. The past decade has seen a marked rise in quality for cinematic SF, but it's also often used as window dressing rather than embracing the heart of SF. Several movies this year actually dared to engage with their ideas in ways that most cinematic SF does not, which I judge to be a very good thing.

As of this writing, I have seen 80 movies that could be considered a 2015 release. This is about on-par for me, more than your typical moviegoer, but less than your average critic. Not exactly comprehensive, but enough such that a top 10 is actually a meaningful segment. Standard disclaimers apply (as touched on above), so let's get to it:

Top 10 Movies of 2015
* In roughly reverse order
  • Predestination - This Spierig Brothers' time-travel flick constitutes the best adaptation of a Heinlein story ever put to film. Of course, there are strangely few Heinlein adaptations, but this one embraces the sense of wonder that SF is known for (which is more than can be said about most SF films). It's got some flaws for sure, but they're endearing ones, and worth it for the payoff (which I'm certainly not going to ruin here).
    This is the wildcard on my list, the one you're not likely to have seen. Go check it out, then head over to a diner with a friend and spend the day making time-travel diagrams with straws. Paradoxes abound, but Heinlein never let that get in the way of a ripping good yarn. In his words: "A Paradox May Be Paradoctored."
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Movie Award Winner]
  • Finders Keepers - Starting with a decidedly macabre premise, this documentary about a mummified leg found in a smoker grill at a storage auction manages to pivot into a surprisingly moving story. The true stories of John Wood and Shannon Whisnant are darkly comic, for sure, but there's a lot of pathos here. Wood's struggle with survivor's guilt and drug addition, Whisnant's quest to become famous at any cost, both are played against each other, but it's not exploitative as the initial premise makes it seem. Call it a bait and switch, but in a good way that's ultimately more satisfying than you'd ever have thought.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Room - My heart was literally pounding as I watched a certain sequence in this film, moreso than any horror or suspense film of the year. In a way, I suppose this is a horror film, one that is more grounded and emotionally draining but oddly uplifting in the end. I don't want to give anything away, but while this will put you through the wringer , even moreso than you think it might as you watch, I found it worth the heartbreak. Exceptional performances all around, but especially from Jacob Tremblay, who plays the child in the story. Not for the faint of heart, but excellent nonetheless.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Ex Machina - Movies haven't quite caught up with the full implications of artificial intelligence, but they're inching closer, as this film amply demonstrates. It is a bit contrived, but there are enough red herrings and misdirects bolstered by programmer philosophizing to keep you guessing and even surprise you a few times. First time director Alex Garland keeps things ominous and tense, coaxing excellent performances from the three leads. Especially Alicia Vikander's chilling take on a manipulative AI, one of the year's best performances.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Movie Award Winner]
  • The Hateful Eight - Tarantino has a way of producing conflicting emotions in me that I feel is somewhat underrated in the general discussion of his work. In particular, I'm frequently struck by the way Tarantino manages to juxtapose horrifying violence with comedic timing or thrilling action that results in a sorta delayed conscience reaction once the action subsides. Most pick one side and rail on Tarantino for that, but I cherish the ambiguity and confusion it produces in me. It's something I've noticed all throughout his work, but it is certainly on display here as well.
    Samuel L. Jackson in The Hateful Eight
    This may very well be Tarantino's darkest work, a bit of a sucker punch after his previous two historical epics. In some ways, it's a difficult movie, but it's hard not to respect what's going on here. It's very, very Tarantino, talky and indulgent, and I love it for that.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Arbitrary Award Winner]
  • The Martian - I can't help but love this movie for bringing my favorite parts of the written SF genre to the screen. It's one of the few movies that really emphasizes problem solving, competence, can-do attitudes, and genuine cooperation. Such attitudes are often seen as jejune and unsophisticated by our literary betters, but they are the beating heart of the SF genre, and only a few movies have ever really engaged with this core the way The Martian does. Optimistic, inspiring, gorgeous, and even funny, this movie tackles lots of complicated math and science and puts it on display with an uncommon clarity (which, to be fair, is mostly drawn from Andy Weir's book, but kudos are still due to Drew Goddard for maintaining the tone and clarity in his adapted script). I don't know that this will usher in a new era of throwback SF optimism, but a man can dream.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Movie Award Winner]
  • Spotlight - The subject matter here, a look at the journalists who broke the story of decades of child abuse by an alarmingly high number of priests, would normally lead to histrionics, but director Tom McCarthy takes a restrained approach. And this is the best kind of restraint. It's a movie where you could have created a single character who would be an amalgam of all the people working at a newspaper, had him discover perfidy and make grandstanding speeches to oppose it. But McCarthy plays it straight up, like a journalism procedural, highlighting all the little people digging around in cellars with dead rats, looking for obscure evidence. Many of the actors here are known for their scenery chewing, but once again, McCarthy pulls restrained performances out of them, and the movie benefits greatly from this approach. Oddly, this restraint seems to be painting the movie with terms like "unsexy" or "workmanlike", which is bizarre because that's exactly what the story needs. If McCarthy sexed it up, it would not be anywhere near as good a movie. I was tremendously impressed by this movie, perhaps because I just wasn't expecting what it really delivered.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Inside Out - After some lackluster sequels and troubled original productions, Pixar had a delightful return to form with this movie. It took a simple premise, personifying various emotions inside a young girl's brain, and embraced the emotional complexity that life requires. Like the best of Pixar's efforts, it is fun, imaginative, and deceptively insightful.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • What We Do in the Shadows - Comedy gets short shrift in these sorts of lists, so it's always great when I can point to a genuinely hilarious movie that manages more heft than just a few good lines. This mock documentary about four vampire roommates in New Zealand hits the nail on the head. It's very funny, but it's also a loving tribute to old-school vampire lore. Most new vampire movies try to subvert the tropes and as a result, vampires are overplayed and boring, but this movie revitalizes the concept by embracing the commonly accepted lore. It's a spoof, yes, but it's also an excellent vampire film on its own.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Mad Max: Fury Road - This is the most propulsive action film of the year. Visually impressive, it relies primarily on practical effects and communicating more through action and visual cues than dialogue or exposition.
    The Doof Wagon in Mad Max: Fury Road
    Plus, it has something called the Doof Wagon, a giant truck that has a bunch of stacked speakers and a guitarist who is bungie corded to it so that he can provide a diegetic heavy metal soundtrack for the militia's attacks. Oh, and his guitar doubles as a flame thrower. How can you not love this movie?
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Movie Award Winner] [Capsule Review]
Alternate #10s
I had a really hard time with the #10 choice above, and frankly #9 and even #8 were in question, especially when I had three movies like the below to consider. On any given day, one of these may have snuck on the list, depending on how whimsical and capricious I was feeling.
  • Creed - The best movie in the series since the original Rocky, primarily because it is literally reckoning with the idea of living in the shadow of the legends of the past. It's a clever conceit, and director Ryan Coogler gives the film a visual dynamic that really sets the film apart from its predecessors. Perhaps it leans on its predecessors a bit too much, and there are some Rocky tropes that aren't quite as effective here because they feel a bit perfunctory, it's hard to fault it for such reaches because there's no real way to win that battle. This movie does as good as you could ever expect though, and again, it's something I could have seen in the top 10 if the mood struck me.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Arbitrary Award Winner]
  • The Big Short - Sharp, incisive, damning portrait of the 2008 economic collapse, as told through the eyes of a bunch of dudes who could see the disaster coming and decided to profit off of it. It's a bit loose, and yet its focus prevents certain aspects of the story from being told. That being said, it's still one of the best explanations for the crash that I've seen, all while maintaining a darkly comic tone.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Bridge of Spies - Sometimes I think we take folks like Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks for granted. This movie was generally well received, but I feel like it's one of the more underrated movies of the year (the irony of this not making the top 10 is not lost on me, but I take that more as the strength of the year than a reflection on the movie itself). In a year with tons of excellent action-packed spy adventures, this one takes a more grounded, real world approach. It's all deftly put together, filled with excellent performances, and you can even see the Coen brothers' influence in a few scenes. Not action packed, but a great movie nonetheless, worth seeking out.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
Honorable Mentions
* In alphabetical order
  • Ant-Man - You've got to respect Marvel's commitment to trying new and unexpected things, and while I don't think this year's efforts were as good as 2014, they did a few interesting things, like resurrecting this obscure character and producing a well executed little heist film. Tons of fun, lots of nice visual gags, and a decent enough introduction to a new hero. Certainly not perfect, but the stage is set for something I could see working well.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Bone Tomahawk - This one was close to an alternate #10, but I figured that I already had a Kurt Russell western where he's sporting a bitchin' frontier beard on the list, so this one ends up here in the honorable mentions. It's a fascinating film though, excellent script, and the gruesome payoff is worth the early deliberate pacing (if, uh, that's your thing - this is mostly fine, but the violence towards the ending will turn a lot of folks off). I really loved this movie though, and it's worth checking out for some excellent performances (I mean, Matthew Fox guys, he's great in this) and dialogue alone.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Arbitrary Award Winner] [Capsule Review]
  • Cartel Land - This documentary depicts two conflicts with Mexican cartels, one of which is utterly fascinating, spellbinding, and in the end heartbreaking. The story of a Mexican citizen uprising against the cartels is enough to make this a riveting watch. The other conflict, on the American side of the border, is much less compelling. It's still interesting, for sure, but it just pales in comparison to what's happening in Mexico, such that I'd almost rather see these be separate movies. Still, this is well crafted and heady stuff.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • The Final Girls - Cheeky self-aware slasher horror has been a thing since Scream, but this movie takes it a clever step farther by not only having its heroes steeped in slasher movie knowledge, but by actually inserting them into the movie (Last Action Hero style). It's breezy and fun, a bit derivative, but with just enough of a tweak on a played-out theme to give it the honorable mention it deserves.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Capsule Review]
  • It Follows - This movie has the best pure-horror premise of the year, and while it does get presented in a visually interesting and tense way, it later becomes clear that the filmmakers didn't really have anywhere to go with it. That being said, there's enough here to highly recommend it, and it features some of the scariest stuff of the year.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Arbitrary Award Winner]
  • Kingsman: The Secret Service - In a year with many (many!) action-packed spy adventures, this one takes the cake. Energetic, propulsive stuff, adventurous filmmaking, and some expertly choreographed action sequences. In particular, the long takes in the Church sequence are truly impressive, filled with conflicting emotions, confusion, slow motion, and an excellent usage of Free Bird. There are some unfortunately juvenile shots that might take this down a peg, but it's overall quite a fun updating of classic British spy action (certainly moreso than the most recent Bond installment).
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Arbitrary Award Winner]
  • Krampus - Delightfully mean spirited take on Christmas lore that really embraces the darker side of these things. It's clear that writer/director Michael Dougherty just gets the darker side of holidays (his previous film, Trick 'r Treat is quickly emerging as a Halloween classic). It's not especially satisfying, of course, but that's the point, so it's really hard not to respect the hell out of a movie like this, even if it's not something I could see myself watching every Christmas...
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Magic Mike XXL - Take the original movie, remove the obligatory romance and seedy thriller side-plots, and you end up with this episodic road trip movie that basically just treats sexuality as a thing worth celebrating. There's no real plot or conflict here, just good old-fashioned sexytimes and fun. There's some overarching themes about finding oneself and whatnot, if you're willing to look for it. I have a lot of respect for this, but truth be told, it's not really my kinda movie. Dance, music, no-plot, etc... I can respect what it's doing, but it's emphatically not my bag. But that's cool! That's why list-making exercises are interesting, because if we all loved the same stuff, that would be pretty darn boring.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation - This is the little franchise that could, improbably getting better, movie after movie. This is arguably the best in the series so far, thanks to writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (a Kaedrin favorite, for sure), some excellent stunt-work, and the incomparable Rebecca Ferguson. It's not redefining the spy adventure genre, but it's a superbly executed version of it for sure.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • The Nightmare - Director Rodney Ascher's chilling documentary about sleep paralysis and how terrifying such an experience can be is extremely well done. A little more straightforward and less layered than his previous effort, Room 237, it is nonetheless one of the best documentaries of the year, one that I really connected with (such that it nearly made its way onto the top 10 - in a weaker year, it very well might have).
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens - I have to admit that a large portion of my enjoyment of this film is purely nostalgia, but enjoyment is enjoyment, and while this may have perhaps been a bit too derivative of its predecessors, it's still a whole boatload of fun, and the new characters are so fun and engaging that I can't wait to see where they go next.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Full Review]
  • Victoria - It takes its time to get going, but this is nonetheless an incredibly impressive film. It's over two hours long and it's shot in one single take. This isn't one of those cheats like Birdman where the filmmakers use clever cuts and CGI to make it seem like a single take. No cheats, no cuts, just a very, very long single take. And it's not a boring single-location shoot either, there's all sorts of machinations going on here that makes the whole thing that much more impressive. The pacing is a bit deliberate and you can quibble with some of the choices, but it's a worthwhile movie nonetheless.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Full Review] [Kaedrin Arbitrary Award Winner]
Just Missed the Cut:
But still worthwhile, in their own way. Presented without comment and in no particular order: Should Have Seen:
Despite having seen 8o of this year's movies (and listing out 30+ of my favorites in this post), there are a few that got away. Or never made themselves available here. Regardless, there are several movies here that I probably should have caught up with: So there you have it. That's a pretty damn good year for movies right there. Stay tuned for the Oscars coverage in a couple of weeks. After that, it's onwards and upwards to 2016 movies...
Posted by Mark on February 14, 2016 at 02:02 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Monday, February 08, 2016

Link Dump
Many apologies for the lack of posting of late, and this one is coming a day late because I basically just forgot to post it. Something about a big sportsball game last night. Anyway, as I prep my Best of 2015 movies list, I have some links to keep you busy:
  • Guy annoys girlfriend with puns at Ikea - This is made me laugh more than I would have thought.
  • Celebrating the Invisible Artistry and Great Direction of "Spotlight" - Matt Singer valiantly defends the honor of this great, restrained movie:
    Spotlight certainly doesn't have the visual panache of The Revenant or The Hateful Eight, but that doesn’t automatically make it a lesser film. Lavish cinematic style is not an automatic and objective good. It needs to suit the material. And it would not suit the material in Spotlight. ...

    Spotlight's direction is "unsexy" because it depicts a world that is unsexy; it is "workmanlike" because it depicts a world of work. If the Boston Globe reporters’ jobs were fun and exciting, everyone would do them and the newspaper business would be thriving. The whole point of the film is to show why these journalists' efforts were important in spite of the fact that what they did was, by and large, boring, tedious, and monotonous. Gussying up this film with elaborate camera shots and eye-catching angles would be a betrayal of everything Spotlight represents. In the same way that the Spotlight team keep themselves out of the story, McCarthy keeps himself out of the movie.

    But that doesn't mean he's not there, or that film direction is purely the sum total of a movie’s flashy camera moves. Careful consideration of Spotlight reveals McCarthy's subtle but brilliant direction, not just in terms of cinematography but production design, art direction, and editing as well. Little of it is showy and most of it is easy to miss, particularly if you get caught up in the riveting drama of the Globe’s investigation into the Catholic Church and its unseemly practices.
    Singer then proceeds to back it up with several examples. Very insightful, though it does appear that Spotlight has lost its frontrunner status.
  • I'm STILL Not Sayin' Aliens. But This Star Is Really Weird. - You remember that star that had really weird dips in radiance? It turns out that it's even weirder than originally thought, especially when taking into account historical observations. No real explanation has made much sense (even, dare I say, the alien hypothesis, however much we'd want it to be).
  • 'Dirty Grandpa': The Most Important Movie Ever Made - Well that's a hot take:
    Strangely missing from Oscar consideration, Dirty Grandpa would be a serious contender if it had not, bafflingly, missed the Dec. 31 cutoff date. As you've most certainly heard, there's an online petition demanding the White House take action on this travesty. Another curious decision is Lionsgate releasing Dirty Grandpa, a movie that offers no laughs, as a comedy. Instead, it’s an indictment on our society as a whole - a no-bones-about-it, heartbreaking, devastating takedown on this cesspool of society that Dirty Grandpa thinks we have. And it might just be The Most Important Movie Ever Made.
    It turns out that Dirty Grandpa inspired some pretty good writing, including this next link:
  • Dirty Grandpa review - This one goes weird:
    A couple of weeks ago I had the strangest dream. I dreamed that this movie, "Dirty Grandpa," was the talk of the nation. Not because the Robert De Niro/Zac Efron/Aubrey Plaza raunch comedy was particularly good, but because, apparently-I didn't see any of the movie in my dream, just had conversations with people about it-it didn't do that thing that studio-produced-raunch comedies do, which is take things so far and no further. No. In my dream, "Dirty Grandpa" was spinning heads because it broached John Waters/Harmony Korine levels of outrageousness. The sex scenes between De Niro and Plaza had a "Last Tango In Paris" level of explicitness, for instance.

    Now you just have to take my word for it that I had this dream, but honestly, I did. The question is WHY did I have this dream. As the author of a book on De Niro, I'm frequently (okay, not that frequently, but more often than would be the case for a guy who hadn't written a book on De Niro) asked what I make of his various career moves. So maybe the dream speaks to my critical desire to see De Niro go back to surprising his audiences with audacious performances. Or maybe I’m just a perv who wants to see Aubrey Plaza naked. I don’t know.
    I think we all know the answer to that question.
  • After Dark in CSS - Some genius reimplemented those oldschool After Dark screensavers in CSS. Flying Toasters man. Flying Toasters.
That's all for now...
Posted by Mark on February 08, 2016 at 11:31 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, January 31, 2016

2015 Kaedrin Movie Awards: The Arbitrary Awards
We announced the official 2015 Kaedrin Movie Award winners last week, but those awards are skewed towards certain types of movies. Sometimes movies are weird or flawed in ways that don't fit well into a traditional awards setting (let alone the Kaedrin awards!), but they also deserve recognition. The point of the Arbitrary Awards is to highlight these oddities. A few of these "awards" have become an annual tradition, but most are just, well, arbitrary. Let's roll:
  • The "You know what happens when a toad gets struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else" Award for Worst Dialogue: Chappie. "I've got blings?... I've got blings!" This award is often difficult because, you know, it's not like I go out of my way to watch bad movies, and good movies with a particularly bad line of dialog (such as the film this award is named after) aren't that common. I suppose one could make a case for Mad Max: Fury Road, actually, but there's so little dialog and during those scenes you're so busy catching your breath that it never quite registers as bad dialog. Anyway, Chappie is pretty clearly the winner, though I almost gave it to Point Break for the dialog that shows up in the trailer alone ("I believe that like me, the people behind these robberies are extreme athletes, using their skills to disrupt the international financial market."). Alas, I never actually saw the movie, so it's hard to really go for it.
  • The Proximity to Jason Vorhees Award for Heroic Stupidity: Jurassic World. This movie has some ok bits, but dear Lord, these characters are all pretty dumb. Honorable mention goes to the dumb toaster plan that is devised in It Follows.
  • Best Villain/Badass (Non-Human Edition): The demon from It Follows. One of the great premises of our time, and the way the demon is used visually in the film makes it the obvious choice for this award.
  • Best Long Take/Tracking Shot: Victoria. In a year with a lot of great long takes, this one really takes the cake. The entire movie is a single take, and this isn't one of those cheats like Birdman where the filmmakers use clever cuts and CGI to make it seem like a single take. It's actually one single take. This is incredibly impressive.
  • Most Ostentatious Long Take: The church sequence in Kingsman: The Secret Service. Alright, so I can't let some of these other long takes go. This is also an impressive long take, involving more action and ornate choreography than Victoria (though I'm sure Victoria's choreography was just as impressive, now that I think about it). It's a really fascinating scene, full of conflicting emotions, confusion, slow motion, and an excellent usage of Free Bird. It's ostentatious and showy, but that doesn't make it any less brilliant.
  • Least ostentatious Long Take: The fight in Creed. Not the title bout, the one before that. It's fabulous filmmaking, but it doesn't call attention to itself like the Kingsman one does. In fact, you barely even realize it's a long take while you're watching it. It's the sort of thing that sneaks up on you, and that is no less impressive or brilliant.
  • Achievement in the Field of Gratuitous Violence: Bone Tomahawk. Surprising, because the rest of the movie seems kinda restrained, but you know the scene I'm talking about. *shudder*
  • Best Original Score: The Hateful Eight by Ennio Morricone. I'm certainly no expert in this arena, but I love this tense, ominous, grand score from Ennio Morricone.
  • The About Face Award: Maggie. It's a zombie movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and yet it's nothing like you'd expect from such a premise. Certainly an about face for Arnold.
  • Tensest Border Crossing: Sicario. The movie as a whole didn't quite come together for me, but director Denis Villeneuve sure knows how to create a tense set piece like that border crossing.
  • Best Short Film: The Chickening. I always give short films a hard time when Oscars season rolls around, but this is a must watch short film. You should totally watch it. Runner up would be World of Tomorrow, which sort of lost me at the end, but which was interesting nonetheless.
So there you have it. Look for the top 10 in the next couple weeks (depending on what last minute viewing I can squeeze in), followed by some Oscars roundup.
Posted by Mark on January 31, 2016 at 11:29 AM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

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