- The 10 Best Movies of 2017 - Christopher Orr's list is nice and all, but this is worth reading for all his cheeky categorical awards later in the post. I will be shamelessly ripping some of them off for my Arbitrary Awards.
- The Ten Best Films Of 2017, And Other Films - Glenn Kenny's extended list always has stuff I've never heard of, but would probably like.
- This Year, Make a Movie-Related New Year's Resolution - Matt Singer makes a good point:
Want to know why most New Year’s resolutions flame out by February? Because they’re always about doing things that suck. Losing weight, drinking less sugary soda, reading a bunch of books: All of these things are awful. Even painful! No wonder no one ever follows through.Except for the part about reading books. Anyway, one of his suggested resolutions is to watch 50 films made before 1950. Looking back at my viewing last year, I only had 5 (and 2 of those were movies I'd seen before). This seems like a decent idea. I should get on that.
That’s why, every year, I make a New Year’s resolution about movies. In my experience, a person is much more likely to commit to self-improvement when self-improvement involves watching a lot of films.
- Disney's Fox Acquisition Likely Won't See Original 'Star Wars' Trilogy Released - It turns out that the whole Fox rights aspect wasn't really that big of a hurdle. It's still George Lucas' fault.
Vintage SF Month is hosted by the Little Red Reviewer. The objective: Read and discuss "older than I am" Science Fiction in the month of January.
A common trope in Science Fiction is the discovery of some sort of vast, enigmatic structure, often affectionately termed a "Big Dumb Object". The stories revolve around deciphering the structure, who built it, and so on. While there are earlier examples of this sort of thing, Larry Niven's 1970 novel Ringworld is generally held up as a gleaming example of the sub-genre, a trope codifier if not a ur example.
Louis Wu, a 200 year old but restless Earthling, is recruited for a mysterious deep space mission by Nessus, a three-legged alien that sports two snake-like heads mounted on long necks (they're called Puppeteers). Nessus also recruits Speaker-to-Animals, another alien, this one from an aggressive feline race called the Kzin, and Teela Brown, who seems to have been chosen for luck. What? Yeah, more on this in a bit. Nessus is annoyingly vague about the details of his mission, but it eventually turns out that the ever-cautious Puppeteers have spied a rather massive object in a distant star, the titular Ringworld, and this expedition is going to investigate any possible threats.
The Ringworld itself is a megastructure that doesn't so much orbit a sun, but rather surrounds it. Unlike a Dyson Sphere, it doesn't completely encapsulate the sun, but forms a ring around it. The one in the book is said to be approximately the diameter of Earth's orbit, which means it contains a surface area equivalent to approximately three million earths.
The opening of the novel is quite enjoyable. The character introductions and recruitment are ably handled and the initial discovery and explanation of the Ringworld (and its scale) provides that sense of wonder hit that SF fans clamor for (even if I was already aware of what a Ringworld was, which does blunt the impact a bit, I guess, but that's not the book's fault). Once they crash land on the Ringworld and start exploring the surface (looking for a way to repair their spacecraft), things are more uneven. Some of the episodes that take place here are done well and interesting, others are not quite as effective.
The characters are typical SF fodder, meaning that this isn't a particularly deep dive into their personalities and interactions, but there's enough there to keep things moving. Some aspects of the characters go over better than others. Louis Wu is mildly bland, but makes for a good everyman protagonist. Speaker-to-Animals is amusing, but comes off as a Star Trek-like alien race (i.e. a human being with certain traits exaggerated). Nessus is a bit too unpredictably passive, but interesting enough.
Teela Brown's raison d'etre is a bit odd for an SF novel. You see, she was bred for luck, which seems like a strangely irrational thing for a SF story to focus on. That concept is, however, explored in interesting ways. For instance, the crew is initially confused as to why they crash landed, considering they were traveling with the benefit of Teela's luck. But then someone mentions that if she was really lucky, Nessus would have never discovered her in the first place. It later turns out that her luck has served her (and only her) well, but in unexpected and unpredictable ways. So it's sorta like a SF exploration of a not so SF idea.
One of the more annoying things about the story, though, is that we learn almost nothing about the Ringworld Engineers, those who actually built this megastructure. We do see some of their descendents, but after some sort of past tragedy, they are mere shadows of their former glory. Some speculation is made about how their downfall came about (something about alien mold), but little is really known about them. Also, they are distressingly similar in appearance to humans, something that isn't really delved into very much. This undercuts some of the wonder present in the premise, though it doesn't wholly diminish it.
Thematically, Niven does a reasonable job exploring the concepts around playing God and the hubris of certain projects. And the novel has been incredibly influential. As previously mentioned, it's among the first Big Dumb Object stories, and most of what followed used a similar structure to the plot. I read Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama a few decades ago (ugh) at this point, but I actually remember that as being a slightly better take on the concept. Though they share many similarities and neither are perfect, Ringworld is missing that perfect last sentence stinger that punctuates Rama.
This is an interesting book, and I can see why it's so influential, but I do suspect that this ultimately winds up being the sort of thing that only students of the genre can really love. Too many of the stories that this inspired have made improvements, such that going back to read this afterwards might seem like a bit of a letdown. Basically, I should have read this 20 years ago when my brother did. It was sitting right there on his shelf, why didn't I just grab it? Fortunately, I do consider myself a bit if a student of the genre, so I did find this rather interesting. Next up on the Vintage SF Month list is a pulpy tale from Leigh Brackett, so stay tuned.
Update: I have been corrected! The Puppeteers are not quadrupeds, but rather three-legged. A thousand pardons. The post has been updated.
- 264 movies watched
- 477 hours watched
- 22 movies a month on average
- 5.1 movies a week on average
And finally, here are some movies I'm hoping to catch up with in the next month or so before I post my traditional top 10.
- Molly's Game - Aaron Sorkin's latest, I'm cheating a bit here because I literally just watched this yesterday (I started compiling this post last week). It's great! Typically witty Sorkin dialogue, and good procedural chops.
- Personal Shopper - Another one that I just caught up with (I started compiling this list last week), I put it in my queue because the Fighting in the War Room podcast kept mentioning it in conjunction with Hitchcock. I liked it a lot, but comparing it to Hitch is a bit of a stretch. It's far too languid and unevenly paced for that. Still, there's some great texting sequences and Kristen Stewart gives a phenomenal performance.
- Wormwood - Errol Morris' latest documentary was released on Netflix as a six part series. I've started it, and it's good so far (a little heavy on the re-enactments, though they're done really well).
- Blade of the Immortal - I'm hit or miss with Takashi Miike, but this one seems interesting and is next up on the chopping block.
- The Post - Steven Speilberg's latest, don't need much more incentive than that.
- Phantom Thread - Paul Thomas Anderson's latest, I'm not sure how wide this release will be or if I'll be able to get to it, but it's PTA, so it's worth keeping an eye on...
- Faces Places - Similarly, I have no idea if I'll be able to see this in time (or even when it will be released in the US), but it sounds interesting.
- Sweet Virginia - A neo-noir thriller that seems like my sorta bag.
- Take Me - A weird high concept thriller, I might take a flier on this if I can find it...
- The Ballad of Lefty Brown - Bill Pullman plays a sidekick in a Western that is forced into the spotlight when his more famous partner is killed, sounds interesting enough...
- The Florida Project - Sounds interesting, but not sure when it'll be available for me, so I may not get to it...
- It Comes at Night - I've been hearing mixed things about this all year, it doesn't really seem like it would be my favorite, but I might give it a shot since it's available on Amazon Prime Streaming...
- Dave Made a Maze - Goofy high concept film about a guy who gets lost in a cardboard fort he built in his living room.
- Ingrid Goes West - Aubrey Plaza plays a social media stalker, sounds interesting enough...
- Wolf Warrior 2 - Apparently a massive success in China, it didn't get much of a release here...
- Only 7 non-fiction books for 2017, which is lower than it should be and will need to be rectified in 2018. I know I said something similar last year, but I mean it for reals this year.
- 27 of the 54 books were written by women, with an additional two co-authored by women (so 29 total), which I'm pretty sure is a record to me. Also of note: this happened almost completely by accident and without any real plan. Go figure.
- The oldest book I read last year was 1953's Mission of Gravity, by Hal Clement, which was fabulous.
- A quick scan of the list reveals that only 19 of the books were Science Fiction, which seems a bit unusual (and I was being pretty generous, for instance including Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., which is borderline). A fair amount of this was driven by the Hugo Awards (which seemed to be more fantasy focused than usual), though also Lois McMaster Bujold published three Penric and Desdemona (i.e. fantasy) novellas this year, and I read more stuff for Halloween than normal... which might have driven my SF numbers down. I suspect this will revert to the norm this year.
- Many of the best things about this movie are also the worst things. The overarching theme of the film is the value of failure, which is a pretty bold stance to take for a series focused on fun adventures (though perhaps not an entirely unexpected one for a middle entry in a trilogy). You'll notice I said "value", as the film's ultimate point is that there is a certain nobility in failure, provided you learn and grow from your mistakes. The three major plotlines are all about failure. The A plot, which follows Rey's struggle with both Luke Skywalker and Kylo Ren is steeped in failure. Luke's failure to recognize Kylo's path to the Dark Side, his failure to stop it, and his failure in retreating away from the Force (and his friends) to hide at a remote Jedi temple. Kylo's failures are myriad. Rey tries to turn Kylo, but fails. The B plot, with follows Poe Dameron as he attempts to lead the rebel fleet's escape from the First Order. At first his efforts seem successful, but then you realize that he sacrificed the rebel's entire bomber squadron on what was ultimately a pyrric victory. He's demoted and must find a way to redeem himself, perhaps not in such a hot-headed way. The C plot concerns Finn and new friend Rose Tico as they, um, go to a casino and try to find a codebeaker or something? Whatever, this is the one part of the movie that is almost completely pointless. Yes, it's also about failure, but it does so in a way that is largely redundant and ham-fisted. Like, prequel levels awful. The A and B plots work reasonably well though, and there are enough parallels that it manages to tie together in the end. The structure isn't particularly elegant, but it ultimately works.
- All of my big issues with the series stems from the need to incorporate our heroes from the original trilogy into this new story... 30 years later. This implies a lot of backstory that has to be skipped over, but it also means that all of our heroes have to regress in one way or another. Luke was flying pretty high after saving the Galaxy and redeeming his father's soul in the Jedi. Han and Leia were in love and would clearly become leaders in the New Republic. And if these new movies were made in the 80s, you might be able to pull off some stories (a la Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy, which I think I enjoy more than these movies, but I digress), but now that it's 30+ years later, options are more limited. You have to either make them tiny side characters with little actual influence, or you need to generate some sort of conflict that pulls them down from the success they achieved in the original trilogy.
We can't have the New Republic be super successful, because how then will the First Order be any threat? JJ dealt with that by creating a more powerful Death Star and destroying the New Republic's stronghold planets, thus making the rebellion into underdogs again. Many of the complaints I've seen about The Last Jedi also stem from this imperative. Luke's seemingly uncharacteristic retreat from his failure in training Ben (an event that also precipitated the break up between Han and Leia, after which they also regressed to their original character traits - but for some reason no one cared that Han reverted back to a careless smuggler in the previous movie. At least Leia was still trying to fight, even if that's where she was at the start of the series too.) To me, the conflict generated by Luke's failure was natural and logical, if not exactly what we want from the character. Luke has always been somewhat hubristic, as his failures in Empire demonstrate. Yes, he eventually made the right decision in the Emperor's throne room, but he was clearly in over his head. I think his failure in training Ben followed by his retreat into isolation is perfectly cromulent. There's a convincing argument to be made that he should have perhaps come around sooner once Rey explained how dire the situation had gotten, but I was fine with the way it played out. We also don't get a ton of backstory here, just enough to see that Luke's failure with Ben was traumatic to him. Of course, he eventually does the right thing and helps save the rebellion. But Luke isn't the main character in this Trilogy, Rey is. She's the eponymous Last Jedi, not Luke.
- I was initially a little annoyed by Snoke's unceremonious dispatching at the hands of Kylo Ren, but the more I think about it, the more I like it. Yeah, I'd like to know more about how Snoke turned Ben into Kylo Ren (wasn't Knights of Ren supposed to be a thing? What is that?), but then I realized - we didn't know anything about the Emperor in the original films. He looked and acted evil and Darth Vader bowed to him, which was good enough at the time. There's a whole throne room sequence in The Last Jedi that recalls the Emperor scene in Return of the Jedi, but with the added and frankly unexpected twist that Kylo Ren kills Snoke not with the intention of saving Rey, but for his own selfish purposes (the way Vader was encouraging Luke to kill the Emperor so that they could rule the Galaxy as father and son). For her part, Rey does not give in to this temptation. She failed to convert Kylo Ren, but at least she didn't destroy herself in the process. We also get an explanation as to Rey's origins, solving a mystery that turned out to be a red herring - she's a nobody! Taking into account where this information is coming from, this might not be true, but even if it is, I think it works. The Kylo and Rey dynamic has been the best part of this new trilogy so far, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how it resolves (as it clearly won't resolve the way the Luke/Vader relationship did).
- I've already pointed out how bad Finn's plotline is, but it's worth reiterating that it absolutely doesn't work. The whole trip to the Casino was at best redundant and at worst pointless and distracting. Benicio del Toro's character was confusing and weird, and the whole didactic income inequality bit was unnecessary. You could probably excise the entirety of this little episode without losing anything from the story. The pairing with Rose could be fine, but it just falls flat because their task is pointless (and that whole relationship culminates with the biggest groaner line of the movie). Another challenge of incorporating the older characters with new ones is that we're now juggling a lot of characters. This sort of ensemble thing is possible, but it's really, really difficult, and Johnson couldn't pull it off. It would have been better if they just found a way for Finn and Poe to collaborate or something.
- Captain Phasma continues to underwhelm, in part because she's just part of Finn's story, so she felt shoehorned in for no real reason. Laura Dern's Vice Admiral Holdo was fine and her sacrifice towards the end is a great, badass moment. Still, if she had just told Poe the plan earlier, or even that she had a plan at all, that might have been nice. Also, I think it would have been better if Admiral Akbar was the one to perform that badass turnabout maneuver, but that's a minor point. Maz Kanata's little sequence was pretty funny, actually, but it doesn't fit at all with the movie and it's part of Finn's plot, so bleh. I loved the exasperated Jedi temple nuns who kept having to clean up after Rey. For the most part, I thought the humor in the movie worked well too. The Porgs were cute.
- From a pure craft standpoint, the movie is beautiful and it sounds great. I need to see the movie again to really break down the visual language and make sure it's not just style with no substance, but there's a lot of standout sequences. The red salt sands were a nice touch (i.e. Luke's projection doesn't disturb the salt, a subtle hint at his nature) and quite beautiful. I'll say the casting and all the performances were also very good, even when something isn't working.
- Some of my friends were complaining about the new Force powers in this one, and that apparently no one needs to be trained in the Force anymore. For the latter one, well, that was a problem that originated in The Force Awakens. For the former complaint, duh, the Force is just magic. No one complained when the Emperor started shooting lightning out of his fingers, they just thought it was cool. Similarly, I thought Luke's projection was pretty badass. For all the spaceships and lasers, this isn't science fiction, folks. If you try to come up with some sort of scientific explanation for it, you end up with bullshit like midichlorians.
- Like The Force Awakens, there's a lot of callbacks in The Last Jedi, but Johnson managed to put more of a twist on it. This isn't wholly new, but it's also not entirely reliant on nostalgia or rehashing the same old ideas and beats. This is exactly what I was looking forward to with new Star Wars movies, and one of the reasons I wasn't in love with the inclusion of the original trilogy cast (along with the difficulties mentioned above). I would certainly like more originality in the future, but I think this gradual move is fine for now.
- I really enjoyed the movie, but it still falls somewhere in the middle of the pack. The original trilogy still occupies the top, with these newer movies in the middle and the prequels way down at the bottom. I know this movie seems somewhat divisive, but I'm not entirely sure how widespread that is. Two of my friends were pretty annoyed with the movie, but everyone else I know seemed to enjoy it a lot (though all agree that Finn's story blows). Critics seem to love it too, though the aggregate audience scores are more mixed. Also, while I like this a lot, it's still my least favorite Rian Johnson movie. I am genuinely curious to see what he does with a new standalone Star Wars trilogy, one where he's not bogged down by mandates and baggage from previous films... but I'd also he rather be making his own wholly original projects too.
- Slightly off topic, but why hasn't Disney released pristine, restored original cut Star Wars trilogy on Blu-Ray yet? The special editions have really not held up at all, and it would be great to have a good copy of the originals... (Update: I have been reliably informed that this was held up by rights issues, but now that Disney bought Fox, this might actually happen for reals. Godspeed, you greedy corporate goons!)
- How Boilo Became a Coal Country Obsession - Forget mulled wine,
do it like Pennsylvania's coal country and make a mulled whiskey for the holidays. Traditionally served hot in "anything that will hold liquid". I love Wikipedia's notes:
Attend Christmas Eve Mass prior to drinking. Christmas day mass is generally out of the question.Heh. The recipes seem to mostly be kept under wraps, but the one referenced in the article was posted on twitter by the author...
- Voyager 1 Fires Up Thrusters After 37 Years - Amazing. Also of note, a documentary about the Voyager program called The Farthest has just been added to Netflix streaming. Well worth a watch.
- Report: Quentin Tarantino's STAR TREK Will Be R-Rated AF - I don't think I'd ever have picked Quentin Tarantino to direct a Star Trek movie, but somehow, he's interested. And Paramount might let him. This is, well:
Remember last week when we learned that Quentin Tarantino and JJ Abrams were teaming up for a new Star Trek movie and we all assumed we were hallucinating? Well, that actually happened, and now there's a new update on the situation.I still think I might be hallucinating. This can't be real, can it? Do I even want it to be real?
- Postmortem: Every Frame a Painting - One of the best Movie-related channels on YouTube is finishing their run. I can't believe that I've never linked to any of the videos, but they are great (this one about Jackie Chan is great), and this postmortem goes into how the channel was created and just how much work it takes to make even one of these short videos (i.e. an obscene amount of time).
- The 25 Best Films of 2017: A Video Countdown - David Erlich does these every year, and they're amazing even if, as a critic, he can sometimes be an insufferable snob and many of his choices reflect that. Still, always interesting...
- This interview with a zamboni operator is brilliant. Not quite badminton rant brilliant (watch the whole thing), but still worthy.
- PoLaR bEaR mAsCot SLiPs On Set ANd SuFfErS dEvAsTaTiNg PoLaR bEaR iNjUrIeS - This might be the dumbest thing I've seen all week. I love it.
- Tucker Carlson looks at all his guests like they're eating mayonnaise straight out the jar - Ok, no, this is the dumbest thing I've seen all week. Sometimes I love the internet.
- The God of the Snooker Table - I always find it amusing when something obscure, like Snooker, has some sort of bizarre underground following with magazines and millions of dollars of prize money, etc... To be sure, I know almost nothing about Snooker, but I do know this article is great.
Dennis Cozzalio of the Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule blog has posted another of his famous movie quizes, and as always, I'm excited to participate. Previous installments answering questions from Professor Hubert Farnsworth, David Huxley, Professor Fate, Professor Russell Johnson, Dr. Smith, Professor Peabody, Professor Severus Snape, Professor Ed Avery, Dr. Anton Phibes, Sister Clodagh, Professor Arthur Chipping, Miss Jean Brodie, Professor Larry Gopnick, Professor Dewey Finn, Ms. Elizabeth Halsey, Professor Abraham Setrakian, Mr. Dadier, Professor Abronsius, and Professor Moriarty are also available. Let's get to it:
1) Most obnoxious movie you've ever seen
Lots of candidates, but I keep coming back to Batman & Robin, for what I must assume are obvious reasons.
2) Favorite oddball pairing of actors
For some reason, this answer quickly resolved into a question: Which Robert De Niro pairing should I choose? It's also a tough one because the writing and story can accentuate differences that might not be there if just comparing the actors themselves. Ranging from not so great movies like Flawless (De Niro with Philip Seymour Hoffman as a drag queen) and Showtime (De Niro and Eddie Murphy) to good movies I'm not so fond of like The King of Comedy (De Niro and Jerry Lewis) to that Goldilocks zone: De Niro and Charles Grodin in Midnight Run.
3) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Ken Russell?
I would be curious to see Russell's take on Alejandro Jodorowsky's films like El Topo or The Holy Mountain. I mean, sure, it'd probably still end up as an indulgent mess, but it would be a different type of indulgent mess, which is interesting. (The other idea I had was Dune, but I suspect that would have ended up as... an indulgent mess.)
4) Emma Stone or Margot Robbie?
Emma Stone for now, but only because I feel like she's more established at this moment. Robbie certainly has the potential to overtake and is charging hard, but has not quite reached that level just yet.
5) Which member of Monty Python are you?
I will not presume to insult any of the members of Monty Python by comparing myself favorably to them (also, I have no friggin idea).
6) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Vincent Minnelli?
Minnelli is famous for his musicals, a genre I am not overly fond of, so this is a weird one for me as I'm not sure I'd pay money for him to remake a musical (or to turn something else into a musical).
7) Franco Nero or Gian Maria Volonte?
The trick here is that I like Volonte's spaghetti westerns better, but he was not the lead in said films (that would be Clint Eastwood), whilst Nero was often the lead (as in his most famous role as Django). I will go with Nero for that reason, but it's close.
8) Your favorite Japanese monster movie
The original Godzilla, and it isn't even close.
Lots of Kaiju movies are fun and I certainly haven't seen all of them, but they mostly due pale in comparison to the original. Also, I feel like it's unfair to pick a MST3K version of these movies (I'm particularly fond of their Mothra takes).
9) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Stanley Kubrick?
Kubrick is one of my favorite directors, but the open endedness of these questions makes them really difficult for me. My first thought was A.I. Artificial Intelligence, but maybe that's too obvious since it's the film he was working on when he passed away. I really would be curious as to how different his version of the film would have been though.
10) Hanna Schygulla or Barbara Sukowa?
I am sadly not familiar enough with either actress and must thus take a mulligan on this question.
11) Name a critically admired movie that you hate
I feel like I've answered this question before, so in the interest of not repeating myself with Easy Rider, I will go with Breathless. Undoubtedly important and influential, but really unpleasant to watch (could be a contender for #1 question above) and kinda a slog.
12) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Elia Kazan?
Alright, so Kazan is famous for drawing great performances out of actors ("he directed 21 actors to Oscar nominations, resulting in nine wins"), so I'm thinking something like a big ensemble piece that doesn't quite click. My first thought was something out of David O. Russell's filmography. Another director who is known for getting good performances from his actors (and getting folks nominated for same), his movies never quite get to where I find them fully successful beyond the performances. Maybe a dumb choice, but let's just say Joy.
13) Better or worse: Disney comedies (1955-1975) or Elvis musicals?
Having already confessed my distaste for musicals in general, I feel like the answer reveals itself readily enough: Disney comedies. Son of Flubber, The Parent Trap, The Love Bug, and lots of other fun choices.
14) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Alfred Hitchcock?
The streets are littered with the bodies of Hitchcock imitators, all of which made movies that would be rather fascinating if Hitch actually took them on. I feel like Brian De Palma's early stuff, which was strongly informed by Hitch, still stands well on its own and doesn't really need to be remade. Richard Franklin made some movies that might have been interesting if Hitch remade them (how about Patrick?) It might be interesting to see what Hitch would do with a M. Night Shyamalan flick. Or we could go the other way, and see what Hitchcock would do with a remake of Diabolique (a film I believe Hitch had a lot of respect for...)
15) Ryan Gosling or Channing Tatum?
Another tight race, but I'll go with Channing Tatum, who seems to have a little more charisma and range on his side at this point...
16) Bad performance in a movie you otherwise like/love
Most of the performances in Phantasm technically qualify, even if I still love that movie to death and would never change a thing about it in a million years.
17) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Howard Hawks?
Hawks was pretty damn versatile, which means I'd pay money to see him remake almost anything, though preferably something that has a good idea that needs the elevation a great director can bring. That still leaves this pretty open-ended. Damnit, I can't think of anything (or rather, every movie I think of works, to the point where none do). If I cheat and look at other people's answers, the two the jump out are True Grit (but that already has a great remake) and Captain America: The First Avenger (whose second and third acts could use some work, for sure).
18) Tippi Hedren or Kim Novak?
19) Best crime movie remake
20) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Preston Sturges?
I don't hate Intolerable Cruelty like a lot of folks do, but I suspect Sturges would be able to whip it into better shape than the Coens managed.
21) West Side Story (the movie), yes or no?
Despite my repeated statement of indifference to musicals, yes. Just because I don't like a thing doesn't mean it has no right to exist, and I generally find myself answering "yes" to all of these types of questions (of which, there is always at least one on these quizes).
22) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Luchino Visconti?
Not having seen any Visconti movies, I'm going to have to take another mulligan here.
23) What was the last movie you saw, theatrically and/or on DVD/Blu-ray/streaming?
Theatrically (and ironically given the seeming theme of this quiz), it was Lady Bird, which was delightful, well observed, moving, and funny, just like everyone sez (though I suspect we'll see backlash soon enough - it's a very good movie, but let's not get too carried away).
At home, it was a rewatch of Elf. What can I say, I've been battling a head cold and ear infection, so I was in the mood for some holiday season comfort food. Like a lot of Will Ferrell movies, it's the sort of thing that somehow improves with multiple viewings.
24) Brewster McCloud or O.C. and Stiggs?
Alright look, it's not like I haven't seen any Robert Altman movies (I've seen many of them!), it's just that I haven't seen these two particular Altman films.
25) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Luis Bunuel?
I feel like I already wasted a decent answer to this in question #3. I must admit to being not terribly familiar with Bunuel either, and aside from his reputation for Surrealism, I'm not sure where else to go (um, Doctor Strange?)
26) Best nature-in-revolt movie
I mean, it's Jaws, right? That's the answer.
27) Best Rene Auberjoinois performance (film or TV)
Look, I'm sure most would go with one of those Altman movies and it's also true that I never really got that much into Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but he will always be Odo to me.
28) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Ingmar Bergman?
Boyhood is talky enough might benefit from something more hefty that Bergman can certainly bring, but then, I probably still wouldn't love the end result.
29) Best movie with a bird or referencing a bird in its title?
Hitchcock's The Birds is far too obvious and has already been mentioned, so let's try to find something else. Maybe Three Days of the Condor, but really I want to go with Where Eagles Dare, though it's a film I should probably also revisit.
30) Burt Lancaster or Michael Keaton?
I certainly enjoy some Lancaster performances (big fan of The Killers and I just got sucked into Field of Dreams yet again the other night), but as a child of the 80s, I'm kinda obligated to go with Keaton on this one. Beetlejuice, Batman, and lots of other favorites...
31) In what way have the recent avalanche of allegations unearthed in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal changed the way you look at movies and the artists who make them?
I've always tried to separate the art from the artist, but it's only natural that in some circumstances this will become more difficult. For instance, Roman Polanski is a filmmaker whose films always call to mind the whole "fugitive child rapist" thing, even if they're sometimes really good films. I totally understand the impulse to avoid these sorts of movies, even if I don't always do so myself. I will say this though: the prospect of memory-holing huge swaths of film/TV because one member of the production did something despicable makes me uncomfortable. I'm not the censorious type, as partially evidenced by my answering "yes" to every question like #21 above, and while I don't blame anyone for not especially wanting to view some of these movies, I also think the option should still be available. Context matters, and censorship won't solve anything. That said, these assholes absolutely need to go down, and while many have lost jobs and whatnot, some should be facing much stiffer penalties (I'm looking at you, Weinstein). I suspect we'll see more house cleaning in the coming years, which is apparently as it should be.
32) In 2017 which is “better,” TV or the movies?
I don't watch enough TV to give a good answer here, but I will say that a scant 20 years ago, there would be no question that movies were better. I've seen enough TV this year to say that you could probably make a convincing argument that TV is better, which is, again, something that wasn't possible not all that long ago. So TV is most definitely much improved, while movies seem to be treading water. I still prefer movies, but I still watch more TV than I ever used to...
Phew, that was a tough one. But these quizes are always great, and I'm already looking forward to the next one...
- Brawl in Cell Block 99 - S. Craig Zahler's follow up to the gruesome Western/Horror mashup Bone Tomahawk, this one is perhaps not quite as great, but is still a very well done film. Vince Vaughn plays a surprisingly badass drug-runner with a sense of honor who gets caught, goes to jail, and gets caught up in a scheme to kill a prisoner. Like Bone Tomahawk, this one takes its time to get going, and you don't even really get to the eponymous Cell Block 99 until late in the movie, but Zahler has a talent for making this sort of slow burn work. I mean, yeah, there's a bout a half an hour of plot here that is drawn out to over two hours; something that rarely works for me, but Zahler pulls it off. Perhaps by punctuating the film's beats with some severely gruesome action, he kept the pace moving just fast enough without overwhelming with gore (but keep in mind, I'm a little jaded on that front, so it's worth calling out that this is not a film for the faint of heart). Vaughn plays the part well, a little disconnected but full of rage. It's a physical performance such that we haven't seen from him before, and the action is staged and choreographed well. This ain't no martial arts movie though, the title's "brawl" is a more apt descriptor here, with the fighting being a sort of sloppy mix of boxing and MMA brutality. It's again very gory, especially towards the end of the movie, but it all works well enough in the end. Well worth checking out for those who can stomach this sort of thing. ***
- The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) - Noah Baumbach's tale of a dysfunctional family, oops, well that describes a lot of his movies, um, this one is in New York and follows three children of a moderately talented sculptor and teacher who gather in New York. As these things go, it's a well done story, perhaps because Baumbach isn't as interested in just wallowing in the dysfunction as he is with letting some of the characters at least attempt to find a way out. It's still not exactly my favorite thing to watch and these aren't really characters I love spending time with, but it wasn't as excruciating as some of Baumbach's earlier efforts. Dustin Hoffman plays the smarmy, judgmental patriarch well, of course. Adam Sandler (one of the brothers) always manages to surprise whenever he shows up in a movie like this because he actually seems to be trying, something that's not exactly true of his other Netflix efforts. Ben Stiller (the other brother) is his usual self, sort of reprising his role from Royal Tenenbaums only not as neurotic. Elizabeth Marvel is fantastic as the sister, and she's not given nearly enough to do (though she does at least get a monologue, she is mostly dismissed throughout the movie, which might be the point). And the supporting cast is also pretty great (of particular note, Sigourney Weaver in a cameo as herself, and Adam Driver has a funny little cameo too). This sort of aimless day-in-the-life (or months-in-the-life) story isn't really my thing, but this movie moves along at a reasonable pace and is leavened by enough humor and goodwill (amidst all the angst and ennui) that I found myself playing along well enough. I know Baumbach isn't particularly happy with Netflix's rollout of this movie (they are notoriously bad at theatrical releases), but I'd probably never have watched this if it wasn't on Netflix (and if I didn't get sick). **
- Okja - Another Netflix release from a well respected arthouse director, this one comes from South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, a filmmaker I've never managed to fully connect with. He's certainly talented and puts out interesting movies, but something about the way he mashes tonal inconsistencies together never really flows right. I gather this is part of his appeal, but I also tend to find his messages delivered in a clumsy, ham-fisted way. This film about a little girl's relationship with a "super-pig" owned by a corporation who hopes to use it to launch a revolution in food or somesuch. This touches on a lot of themes that Joon-ho has explored in Snowpiercer and The Host (environmentalism, class, etc...), and it's pretty rote and didactic on those fronts, but the story is at least well executed and moves quickly enough that it didn't feel overbearing. That tonal weirdness is certainly here in full force (especially in Jake Gyllenhaal's manic performance) and some of the elements don't feel like they fit, but this is par for the course here. I had a good enough time with the movie and it does have some entertaining set-pieces and the kid's relationship with Okja (the super-pig) is endearing, so I'd say this is worth a watch if you're looking for something rather odd to watch. **1/2
- Justice League - DC's struggles continue with this latest, but it's also a much more enjoyable experience than most of their other offerings in the cinematic universe era and they appear to be improving, which is a good thing. It comports itself well enough as an action packed spectacle, actually, but it still can't shake the feeling of being an inferior also-ran. It feels like a lot of these DC movies try to pull out a template from a previous success, without actually understanding why that previous success, um, succeeded. For instance, Man of Steel was very much patterned after Nolan's The Dark Knight. Use the more ominous moniker, go darker and more brooding, and so on. But this doesn't really fit with Superman, at least, not yet (it's the sort of thing you do when you run out of ideas and people are sick of Supes). Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (the actual title they used, guys) doubled down on this darker, grimmer approach. This time around, they're looking to emulate The Avengers. Villain with horns and an army of faceless flying monsters is seeking power cubes to take over planet earth. Sounds familiar, eh? Now, this isn't exactly a new thing, nor is it unique to DC. As I understand it, comic books are rife with blatant copies of popular superheroes, and this sort of thing can be fine. But DC didn't do the legwork that Marvel did, they just delved into the team-up without actually establishing a bunch of the characters (and no, Diana Prince watching trailers in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (the actual title they used, guys) doesn't count), and the result feels a little weightless and half-baked. That being said, all the right elements are here, and the movie hits all the beats it needs to. It's so close to a really good movie that it's a little frustrating that it only manages to be an entertaining way to spend a few hours. The cast is great though, and the new folks are all good additions (if only we knew more about them before the movie started!) Credit where credit's due, this is still a huge improvement over previous installments (Wonder Woman aside), but the troubling thing is that this movie isn't doing so well, and DC always seems to cave to complaints about their films, so I'm just hoping they keep the tone here and maybe let the next few movies work as standalones so that the next teamup can feel justified. In the end, this was actually quite enjoyable and well worth checking out, even if it's flawed and a little lacking. They're trying, people. **1/2
- A Cure for Wellness - Gore Verbinski's trippy tale of an ambitious young executive sent to retrieve his company's CEO from a mysterious wellness center in the Swiss Alps. As per usual, the remote wellness center is more menacing than expected. Dane DeHaan plays the lead here, and is much more suited than he was as the Han Solo type in Valerian. His gaunt, sleepy face is perfect for his creepy descent into possible insanity. The rest of the cast does an admirable job selling a rather overwrought story and the movie is visually beautiful. It's about an hour too long though and it hits a lot of standard tropes along the way. It does so well enough to recommend it though, so there is that. It's all a bit much, but fun enough in the end. **1/2
- Wheelman - Another Netflix original, this one stars Frank Grillo as the wheelman and the movie is mostly presented as an in-car view of him driving around and talking on the phone, trying to resolve a job that went awry. It's sort of like that movie Locke, but with a crime and action component. It's perhaps less ambitious than the previous few films in this post, but it hits its mark better than they do as well. It's not going to win any awards or anything, but I greatly enjoyed it. ***
- Murder on the Orient Express - Kenneth Branagh's take on the fetted Agatha Christie mystery manages to carve out an identity of its own while leaving the core of the mystery intact (I think; I've never actually read the book, but this matches up well enough with what I already knew from cultural seepage). His performance as Hercule Poirot is memorable and the character is well established with the opening mini-mystery. Once the film settles in on the train, with all its flashy opulence, things pick up well enough. The solution to the mystery is well presented, and I gather that Branagh added a little moral conundrum to the ending that adds a little weight to the proceedings. Very well done, if a tad staid. ***
- King Arthur: Legend of the Sword - Guy Ritchie's take on King Arthur is certainly interesting, if not as successful as the previous movie on this list. Ritchie puts an epic fantasy spin on the proceedings that is welcome, and adds in a sorta crime component (early Ritchie style) that is perhaps less successful, but still functional. You already know the King Arthur story, and this does an admirable job hitting the basic beats while adding plenty of complications and tweaks along the way. Jude Law is great as the villain, and Charlie Hunnam manages well enough as Arthur, and it's all very well and good. This movie got savaged by critics and audiences alike, but I rather enjoyed it and find it underrated (even if it isn't exactly my favorite movie of the year). **1/2
- Too Funny to Fail: The Life & Death of The Dana Carvey Show - It's all right there in the subtitle. I do remember the Dana Carvey show's short run from when I was a kid, though I clearly didn't watch all of it because I don't remember a lot of the bits referenced in this documentary. I had no idea about the talent involved though (Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell both started there, amongst others) and the film gets all the appropriate talking heads (except Luis CK, for some reason). The show was perhaps not as great as everyone is saying (all the episodes are on Hulu now if you want to check it out), but the show was singular and unique, clearly ahead of its time in some respects. The bit where they show the commercial of a very special episode of Home Improvement followed by the ad for the Dana Carvey show is priceless. Otherwise, this is pretty standard Oral History of a TV Show type documentary territory. Enjoyable enough. **1/2
- The Belko Experiment - Eighty Americans are trapped in a high rise in Bogata, Columbia and ordered by an unknown voice on the intercom to participate in an escalating series of murders. A hoaky premise, to be sure, and somewhat derivative, but reasonably well executed for what it is. There's not really much to say about this, but it's an enjoyable enough diversion for horror fans. **1/2
- Thor: Ragnarok - I've always enjoyed the Thor movies, much more than I gather most people do (I even liked the second one!), and this third entry in the series is indeed very good. Thor discover's Loki's trick from the previous film and the set off in search of their exiled father, who it turns out is ready to pass away. Once he does so, Thor and Loki's sister, Hela the goddess of death, is freed from her bonds and seeks to, I don't know, take over the universe (or the 9 realms or whatever). Along the way, Thor gets captured and has to fight in a gladiator battle on a trash planet. The extent to which the movie works is the extent to which Taika Waititi’s goofy sense of humor goes on display, which mostly happens in the second act. The first and third acts feel mostly like franchise-service (both Thor and larger MCU) and are a little disconnected and perfunctory. The action is a bit weightless and while Cate Blanchett is clearly relishing her role, the character simply isn't given enough meat to fully work (but I attribute the entire extent to which it does to Blanchett's performance). The humor is much more successful, especially in the second act, which feels like the part where they let Waititi do whatever he wanted. Jeff Goldblum brings a lot to another thin villain, and is hugely entertaining, and some of the new side characters work well too (especially Korg, voiced by Waititi himself). Mark Ruffalo returns as Hulk, who is always great, and Tessa Thompson's Valkyrie is a welcome addition (and has a fun little relationship with Hulk). It's not quite top tier Marvel, but it's maybe top of the second tier? Very entertaining and funny. ***
Martin Scorsese recently penned an oped for The Hollywood Reporter where he expounds on the nature of criticism in the digital age, with particular scorn heaped on obsessing over box-office results, Cinemascore, and Rotten Tomatoes. There is, of course, a nugget of truth to what Scorsese is talking about here. Discussions of film are too often sidetracked by box-office numbers or aggregate scores. On the other hand, it's 2017, and a lot of this article comes off like Scorsese has only now discovered that the internet is a thing that exists.
He even mentions that Cinemascore started in the 1970s (almost 40 years ago) and it's worth noting that Rotten Tomatoes isn't exactly a recent phenomenon (it began in 1998). And Scorsese isn't alone. Hollywood had a really poor summer, with many big tentpoles flopping or at least underperforming. Their scapegoat? Rotten Tomatoes. This makes no sense. Several highly rated movies (War for the Planet of the Apes and Logan Lucky are both at 93% fresh) still managed to do poorly at the box office, while many "Rotten" films found audiences (The Hitman's Bodyguard is at 39% and yet it's the only film to be #1 at the box office for three weeks in a row).
Even Darren Aronofsky's ambitious and divisive mother!, ostensibly the movie that drove Scorsese to write the oped in the first place, ends up certified "Fresh" on Rotten Tomatoes (albeit, not overwhelmingly so at 68%). Of course, Scorsese seizes on that film's "F" Cinemascore in that instance, but most of what I've seen about this dreaded score is that while it's devastating for a movie to get that grade (as it means the marketing wholly failed to represent the movie and thus pissed off audiences, usually resulting in poor box office), it's also something of a badge of honor. If you look at why this movie received some polarizing scores, you find that most people are responding to exactly the sort of things Scorsese values in the film.
It was so tactile, so beautifully staged and acted — the subjective camera and the POV reverse angles, always in motion … the sound design, which comes at the viewer from around corners and leads you deeper and deeper into the nightmare … the unfolding of the story, which very gradually becomes more and more upsetting as the film goes forward. The horror, the dark comedy, the biblical elements, the cautionary fable — they're all there, but they're elements in the total experience, which engulfs the characters and the viewers along with them. Only a true, passionate filmmaker could have made this picture, which I'm still experiencing weeks after I saw it.Most reviews, even the harsh bloodsport ones, don't deny the skill and craft of the film. I certainly don't! I'm super happy that the film got made at all, and that I got to see it at a local theater (rather than making the long and expensive trek to an art house theater). I have a lot of respect for a filmmaker who swings for the fences like this, and again, the skill on display is astounding, but the film still falls into the realm of "interesting failure" for me. That doesn't mean it shouldn't exist or that you shouldn't watch it though, and it's probably worth checking out over many of the bland pixel stew blockbusters out there. It doesn't surprise me one iota that this film did poorly. It's a difficult film to watch, almost by design.
Much of this comes down to a matter of perspective. As a filmmaker, much of this data is used against someone like Scorsese. He mentions how preview screenings can give studios license to meddle, which must be frustrating. I assume he gets slapped with other aggregate measurements used to undermine his efforts too. I'm not sure if it's still a thing, but there was a time when Video Game companies would actually judge their employees based on their game's MetaCritic score, which seems like an awful idea. But as a viewer, I'm able to recognize the usefulness of something like Rotten Tomatoes. It's true, those scores shouldn't be treated as absolutes, but as a starting place, there is indeed some upside here. Similarly, people are interested in things like Box Office performance because they want to see more of what they like, and if a movie they like does well, it means that perhaps we'll get more of that (or conversely, when a movie they don't like does poorly, it hopefully means we'll see less of that). This summer has been brutal for huge franchise efforts (that aren't superheroes, which seemed to be the lone bright spot for Hollywood), but a lot of smaller or more ideosyncratic films like Dunkirk and Baby Driver found audiences. I think it would be great if we saw more of those sorts of movies next summer, rather than yet another Transformers or Pirates of the Carribean movie.
Scorsese's rumblings are nothing new. Indeed, much of the current marketing landscape around films has evolved as a way to combat once-powerful critics. Back in the day, you could argue that movies were made or broken by the thumbs of two critics, Siskel and Ebert. Hollywood reacted to powerful criticism and growing online sentiment by front-loading movies and leaning heavily on marketing, so much so that many movies that severely disappoint audiences still manage to do well at the box office because the film was released in 3000 theaters and word of mouth couldn't spread fast enough, even in the digital age. Rotten Tomatoes is partly a response to that, and Cinemascore is a purely marketing-focused metric.
Criticism has been around since the dawn of art itself. Find a 30,000 year old cave painting, and there was probably some moron named Grog who complained about it. The state of criticism today is probably different than it was ten or twenty or a hundred years ago, but there will always be great critics and worthless hacks who just want to tear things down. In the end, audiences just want to watch a movie they'll enjoy. Scorsese doesn't seem to care about audiences though:
Good films by real filmmakers aren't made to be decoded, consumed or instantly comprehended. They're not even made to be instantly liked. They're just made, because the person behind the camera had to make them.Personally, I don't think you need to be so narrow in defining what is "good" in film. When I first consumed Taxi Driver (99% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes!), I instantly liked it. That doesn't mean that after years of rewatching it and decoding various aspects of the film, I didn't find additional depth there. Yes, some of these things can't be instantly comprehended (I had to decode them first!), but not everything needs to be that way, does it? There's not one type of good movie, is there? It's possible to make art with the audience in mind, right? Sometimes it feels like movies have bifurcated into Hollywood fluff and heavy, artistic slogs, with that middle ground of well-crafted entertainment suffering as a result. Of course, they're still there, you just have to hunt them down. Hey, maybe if enough people supported those movies, we'd get more of them. Let's go check Box Office Mojo...
- Teller Reveals His Secrets - Always fascinating to see what the guy who doesn't speak has to say. Some neat observations about misdirection and magic, this one being my favorite:
Make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth. You will be fooled by a trick if it involves more time, money and practice than you (or any other sane onlooker) would be willing to invest. My partner, Penn, and I once produced 500 live cockroaches from a top hat on the desk of talk-show host David Letterman. To prepare this took weeks. We hired an entomologist who provided slow-moving, camera-friendly cockroaches (the kind from under your stove don’t hang around for close-ups) and taught us to pick the bugs up without screaming like preadolescent girls. Then we built a secret compartment out of foam-core (one of the few materials cockroaches can’t cling to) and worked out a devious routine for sneaking the compartment into the hat. More trouble than the trick was worth? To you, probably. But not to magicians.This sort of thing doesn't just apply to magic. How many people assume security in situations when someone could painstakingly figure out a workaround? Think about those tedious CSI recreations or even how the Allies were able to identify German radio operators based on each operator's distinctive style of transmitting Morse code. It seems like more trouble than its worth, but it turns out that such machinations are worth quite a bit.
- Why is there cardboard in Dracula? - I never noticed this before, but there's an ugly piece of cardboard attached to a lamp in a series of shots in the movie. It was always assumed to be a mistake, but it's hotly debated, and there's a surprising amount of discussion about why it would or wouldn't be a mistake...
- Matt Talbot's Horror Movie Posters - Every year for Halloween, this artist does a bunch of alternate movie posters for horror movies, and they're fantastic.
- Come on, Stranger Things, no one ever got that far in Dragon's Lair - This is so very true:
In a premiere episode that saw titanic hellbeasts looming over a fire-choked horizon, a young boy perilously trapped between reality and a grim alternate dimension, criminal teens evading the cops with their psionic abilities, and a high schooler driving a bitching Camaro, Stranger Things’ second season has already strained credulity with a single, ludicrous scene: There is no fucking way anyone ever got that far in Dragon’s Lair.Damn straight.
- Why I keep being concerned about the rise of streaming services - MGK went through Edgar Wright's list of his 1000 favorite films to see how many were available on streaming services. Spoiler, only 200-300 are available on a service, with another 400-500 or so available for "rental", leaving a couple hundred completely unavailable. A couple of caveats: This is in Canada, and things are a little better in the US. And it's worth noting that Wright's taste can be somewhat... eccentric. I'm sure some of those movies aren't even available on DVD. However, none of this changes the original point: Streaming services are nowhere near comprehensive, even when you add them all together (and trust me, the fragmentation and difference in quality between the top tier of these services and the rest is pretty high). We are still a long, long ways off from a comprehensive service.