2021 Kaedrin Movie Award Winners

The nominations for the 2021 Kaedrin Movie Awards were announced last week. The overall awards season is in a bit of a shambles these days, for numerous reasons. The pandemic certainly plays a role, with numerous publications and even the Oscars delaying their ceremonies. The Golden Globes has nearly disappeared from the zeitgeist, though that’s at least partially due to numerous controversial scandals and corruption. But the Kaedrin Movie Awards chugs along on the same, slightly delayed schedule that befits my status as “not a critic with access to screeners”. January is generally a time when I can finally catch up with poorly distributed movies that only received qualifying runs at the end of the year, and so on. Also, I’m sometimes lazy and/or have other things going on in my life. I know, I’m sorry. Anyway, that’s enough preamble, let’s get to the winners!

Best Villain/Badass: Bob Viddick, played by Gerard Butler and Anthony Lamb, played by Toby Huss in Copshop (tie). Yes, it’s a cheat, but the way this sort of thing usual goes is that movies with multiple nominations in the same category split the vote, leading to something else winning. Since there’s only one vote that matters here, I figure I can get away with this pretty easily. Copshop was a movie that sorta fizzled at the box office and it has that Joe Carnahan sheen of macho posturing that will turn off some viewers, but I greatly enjoyed it. And the best part was the villainy.

Gerard Butler in Copshop

Gerard Butler is swaggering around in full Den of Thieves scumbag mode, while Toby Huss steals every scene he’s in as a gleeful lunatic rival dirtbag. The movie falters a bit towards the end, but it’s quite entertaining.

Toby Huss in Copshop

The other nominees are all well and good, but this wasn’t an especially accomplished year in villainy. Tony Leung in Shang-Chi was a possibility, but I didn’t love the way that plays out. Similarly, Michael Myers is an accomplished villain, but I genuinely disliked Halloween Kills to the point where I was kinda rooting for him (a win here would be more like a “lifetime achievement” award, the sort of symbolic gesture common in the Oscars that I’d like to avoid).

Best Hero/Badass: Sam, played by Karen Gillan in Gunpowder Milkshake. In accordance with the “Everyone gets a John Wick” Act of 2014, this last year arguable saw 5 to 10 examples of this sort of thing. Indeed, three (arguably four) were nominated for this award. I’m giving it to Gillan because she’s great and Gunpowder Milkshake has three memorable action set-pieces that are fantastic. The movie is a bit flawed in its self-conscious copying of Wickian ideas, but Gillan and the rest of the cast (including Lena Headey, Carla Gugino, Michelle Yeoh, and Angela Bassett) are absolute badasses that carry the day.

Runner up goes to to fellow Wick Act nominee Bob Odenkirk in Nobody, which is also excellent. Honorable mentions to Daniel Craig’s send off of James Bond in No Time to Die (who won the very first Best Hero/Badass Award back in 2007) and Alexis Louder in Copshop (it turns out that good villainy breeds good heroism – if the heroic competition wasn’t so strong and villainy so weak, we could have had a reverse situation…) All in all, an excellent year for heroics, which given the state of the world, is probably a good thing.

Best Comedic Performance: Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo in Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar. One of the challenges of this award is that comedies are so often reliant on interactions between an ensemble for the laughs, and nothing exemplifies this concept as well as Wiig and Mumolo here. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like this pair of performances… Indeed, they are so in sync with each other that it almost becomes a singular, joint performance that single handedly justifies this win. The movie itself is a weird, silly, insane delight that requires those core performances.

Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo in Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar

There are a couple other pairs in the nominees that are worthy, but the real runner up is a sole performance, and that’s Eric André in Bad Trip. Dude is really going for it and largely succeeding in a Borat-like farce. Other nominees are also worth checking out, but either I didn’t seek out enough comedy this year or people aren’t making enough comedies… Ideally, this category would have more nominees!

Breakthrough Performance: Jodie Comer in Free Guy and The Last Duel. She’s had quite a year, and these two performances are excellent and distinct, requiring different things in each case. This demonstrates an impressive range, from the subtlety of The Last Duel to the bombast of Free Guy, and she succeeds admirably. Strong, agonizing runner up from Alana Haim, who put forth a remarkable performance in Licorice Pizza. Overall, it’s a pretty solid list of nominees, and here’s to hoping they all pan out with great careers…

Most Visually Stunning: The Green Knight. This is one of those movies that is so gorgeous that nearly any shot, even any frame, is worthy of recognition. The movie is a tad long and episodic, but it’s never boring and visually impressive.

The Green Knight

The other nominees are no slouches either, whether it be Dune‘s desaturated but still effective palate or Wes Anderson’s trademark quirkiness in The French Dispatch or Edgar Wright’s manic camera in Last Night in Soho, there were a lot of visually nifty movies last year…

Best Sci-Fi or Horror Film: Dune. After two quasi-failures in adapting Frank Herbert’s epic novel, it was tempting to claim it was an unfilmable story. And now we’re proven wrong, or at least, half-wrong, as this is one of the best first halves of a movie I’ve seen all year. Director Denis Villeneuve sometimes has a tendency to become overly ponderous and slow, but he struck an almost perfect pacing and tone with this movie. Here’s to hoping that he can stick the landing. Runners up all worthy, especially Malignant, which I get will rub some folks the wrong way, but I kinda loved. Another category I feel is kinda light this year, this time almost certainly due to my own viewing habits. I need to catch up with a bunch of other stuff…

Best Sequel/Reboot/Remake: The Suicide Squad. I can’t get over the gulf between this movie and its predecessor. Dark but still fun and just ridiculous enough to match the premise. Obviously Dune is the strongest contender here and probably the better movie, but I wanted to spread the love, and technically you could argue that Dune is more of a new adaptation than a remake or reboot, but whatever. Also of note: Zack Snyder’s Justice League was also much better than expected, though obviously it’s still indulgent and far too long. That said, it almost justifies its choices and is clearly far superior to the original cut.

Biggest Disappointment: Without Remorse. This movie had so many factors going for it. A screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, based on one of the better Tom Clancy novels (that isn’t Jack Ryan centered), starring Michael B. Jordan? This should have been a great action thriller, but the whole thing feels fumbled and sloppy. The other nominees are all mixed bags that aren’t necessarily terrible, but nevertheless scored poorly on Joe Posnanski’s Plus-Minus Scale. I suppose part of that is a me thing, but Without Remorse really took this award by the largest margin.

Best Action Sequences: One Shot. Call it a gimmick if you like, but it’s a pretty impressive gimmick. This is another one of those movies that is made to appear as one continuous shot. There have been a few of these, but none that have incorporated anywhere near this much action. And it’s not small scale stuff either. The action ranges from large scale gunfights and explosions to stealth missions across the compound to martial arts battles. Scott Adkins stars in his fair share of DTV junk, but a few of those really stand out, and this is one of them. He’s a great action star and it would be nice to see something like this on the big screen someday. Tons of great action to choose from in 2021, a really solid slate of nominees here (one that I caught up with this week that would have made the list: The Fable: The Killer Who Doesn’t Kill, which has an exceptional set-piece on scaffolding that works incredibly well.)

Best Plot Twist/Surprise: The Trip. As usual, just noting that these movies have twists and surprises in them is a bit of a spoiler, so read on at your own peril. But this Scandanavian thriller doesn’t just rely on one big twist at the end or something, instead favoring a steady stream of surprising developments throughout the entire movie. One of my favorite discoveries of the year, and well worth checking out (it’s one of those foreign flicks that Netflix has that you will never stumble on because algorithm or something). Lots of other good twists in the nominees, and even some better overall movies, but when looking at just the twists, The Trip has it.

Best High Concept Film: The Last Duel. What appears to be a spin on Rashomon turns into something that distinguishes itself quite a bit by the end of the film. It’s a great film, and the concept of telling the same story through three different perspectives seems like one thing that somehow still manages to pull the rug out from underneath you in the end. It’s a remarkable film and one we’ll be seeing more about in the top 10. The other nominees have their moments, ranging from a high concept you have still probably seen before to things that are still pretty unique.

2021’s 2020 Movie of the Year: The Empty Man. I was really taken with this horror flick that got dumped due to being the last movie produced by Fox before it was gobbled up by Disney and also the bad timing of the pandemic. I’ve already said my piece on The Empty Man so I’ll leave it at that for now. Of the other nominees, I was really quite taken with The Kid Detective and annoyed with myself for not catching up with it last year. It would have certainly made my Honorable Mentions, if not the top 10…

So there you have it, please congratulate all the 2021 Kaedrin Movie Award winners! And stay tuned, for next week the awards get arbitrary!

2021 Kaedrin Movie Award Nominees

Welcome to the 2021 Kaedrin Movie Award season, which we’re kicking off with nominees in our standard categories! The idea is to recognize films for achievements that don’t always reflect well on top 10 lists or traditional awards. There are lots of formal award categories and nominees listed below, but once those are announced, we’ll also leave some room for Arbitrary Awards that are more goofy and freeform. Finally, we’ll post a traditional top 10 list (usually sometime in early/mid-February). But first up is the awards! [Previous Installments here: 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2017 | 2018 | 2019 | 2020]

Standard disclaimers apply: It must be a 2021 movie (with the one caveat that some 2020 films were not accessible until 2021 and are thus eligible under fiat) and I obviously have to have seen the movie. As of this writing, I have seen 94 films that could be considered a 2021 release. This is a tad below where I’m normally at by now and below what many critics have seen, but probably a lot more than your average moviegoer and certainly enough to populate the awards…

The pandemic is obviously a driving factor here, though things were a lot better in 2021 than in 2020. Streaming services stepped up, including some major releases (notably Warner Bros. entire slate being released on HBO Max), but theatrical seems to be experiencing a slow rebound. This will most likely take a hit as omicron variant works its way through the US, but I started returning to theaters after being vaccinated and look forward to the coming year. But I digress, let’s get back to awards talk:

Best Villain/Badass
Not the greatest year for villainy, though the category did round itself out nicely enough. It’s just that standout villains were rare, and in some cases, I found myself kinda rooting for the villain, which isn’t usually a good thing. In accordance with tradition, my picks in this category are limited to individuals, not groups (i.e. no vampires or zombies as a general menace, etc…) or ideas. I’m kinda expanding this to include creatures, even individual creatures (we’ll get to those in the Arbitrary Awards).

Best Hero/Badass
A better year for heroism, with plenty of good choices here. Even in situations where I nominated a movie to have a best villain and best hero, it still feels like things were balanced towards heroism this year, which given the state of the world is probably not the worst thing. Again limited to individuals and not groups/creatures.

Best Comedic Performance
This is sometimes a difficult category to populate due to the prevalence of ensembles in comedy movies (this year being no exception). As such, I’m kinda breaking with tradition here by including some nominees with two names/performances. In both cases I could technically break them out into separate noms, but their interactions with each other are a key part of the humor, and so I’m including both in one nom.

Milana Vayntrub and Sam Richardson in Werewolves Within

Breakthrough Performance
This used to be a category more centered around my personal evaluation of a given actor (rather than a more general industry breakthrough), but it’s trended more towards the youngsters breaking through as time has gone on…

Most Visually Stunning
Sometimes even bad movies can look really great… but this is actually a pretty solid list all by itself.

The Green Knight

Best Sci-Fi or Horror Film
It’s always nice to throw some love to genres that don’t normally get a lot of recognition in end-of-the-year lists. As an avid SF fan, it’s sad that the genre usually has to be combined with Horror in order to come up with a well rounded set of nominees.

Best Sequel/Reboot/Remake
Always an awkward category to populate, especially given my normal feeling on this sort of thing.

Biggest Disappointment
A category often dominated by sequels and reboots, but the pandemic and delayed releases means that some original stuff has to pick up the slack. Note that these movies don’t necessarily need to be “bad” in order to be a “disappointment”. Basically, these movies scored poorly on Joe Posnanski’s Plus-Minus Scale.

Best Action Sequences
This award isn’t for individual action sequences, but rather an overall estimation of each film. This has been a pretty great year for action movies, and there’s a fair chance I’m going to catch up with even more action movies before next week. Will we get the rare (but not unprecedented) win by a movie that wasn’t nominated? Only time will tell.

Best Plot Twist/Surprise
I suppose even listing that there is a twist is a bit of a spoiler, so I guess we’ll just have to risk it.

Best High Concept Film
A bit of a nebulous concept for this one, but I think the category fills out nicely, with a couple of standouts.

2021’s 2020 Movie of the Year
This is a weird category that is sometimes difficult to populate, but apparently not during a pandemic because this is a fantastic crop of nominees. Some of this is due to the weird way movies were released during the pandemic – an exclusive theatrical release pre-vaccine was not going to due well. Others were just things I neglected to catch up with. I don’t know that any of these would knock something off my Top 10 from last year, but definitely some honorable mentions here. There are some years when I think this award should be removed, but it’s obviously a banner year here…

So there you have it, please congratulate all of the 2021 Kaedrin Movie Award nominees. I realize most publications have already done their year in review stuff, but we like to take our time here at Kaedrin and hey, at least we’re more prompt than the Oscars. Er, during the pandemic at least. Stay tuned for the winners (probably next week, but you never know), followed by the Arbitrary Awards and Top 10 list. I’m still catching up with various flicks, because as usual, those 9 and 10 slots in the top 10 are a little difficult to fill (not, I should add, because there aren’t worthy candidates, but more because there are so many vying for those slots)…

Vintage Science Fiction Month: Slan

Vintage Science Fiction Month is the brainchild of the Little Red Reviewer. The objective: Read and discuss “older than I am” Science Fiction in the month of January.

Not long after Superman made his debut in the pages of Action Comics in 1938, A.E. van Vogt was pitching a more scientific version of the idea to John Campbell, the infamous editor of Astounding magazine (the resultant novel Slan would be serialized in that magazine in 1940). van Vogt had already been exploring the idea that humans would need to transcend themselves in order to better explore the universe. He proposed a novel wherein a new species of Homo Superior emerges out of humans as we presently know them. Because van Vogt proposed that the story be told from the perspective of the new, higher order being, Campbell initially rejected the idea. His main point was that you couldn’t tell a superman story from the superman’s viewpoint… unless you were a superman yourself!

In what Campbell would later describe as a “beautiful trick”, van Vogt’s solution to this conundrum was to tell the story from the point of view of an isolated, immature superman who had not yet come into his full powers. As Slan begins, nine-year old Jommy Cross has just seen his mother captured and killed. Young, vulnerable, and on the run, he spends the rest of the novel seeking to learn more about himself and his kind.

Slans are the next phase in human evolution, named after their creator, one Samuel Lann. They are stronger, faster, and more intelligent than their human counterparts, and even exhibit fantastic psychic powers, including the ability to read minds. Humans, lead by the dictator Kier Gray, are fearful of slans and plotting ways to exterminate the entire population.

I won’t get into more specific plot points because part of the joy of this novel is the way in which van Vogt continually recontextualizes information that has been laid out earlier in the story. He accomplishes this through a tightly connected series of episodic conversations. Sure, there are the occasional action setpieces involving daring escapes, spaceships, and secret passages, but the real fireworks are in the scheming battles of wits between various characters. Whether it be young Jommy Cross guardedly interrogating a suspected fellow slan or dictator Kier Gray fending off political foes, these conversations constitute the bulk of the novel.

I certainly wouldn’t characterize van Vogt as a tremendous prose stylist, but he does have a tendency to employ a dreamlike vagueness in the way he constructs his sentences. This sometimes comes off as a clumsy turn of phrase, but it can also provoke a creative response if you get on its wavelength. So the story initially appears to have a lot of open questions or silly elements, but there is an almost mystical method to this madness, such that the nitpicking parts of my brain tended to be overcome by the more imaginative impulses that a good story can induce. A steady stream of twists and turns coming at a rather fast pace also doesn’t hurt… Not everything works perfectly (I’m thinking of a particularly abrupt death that, while certainly surprising, also felt a bit cheap – especially at the very end when you get those final couple twists that call back to this moment), but it puts on a good show.

One recurring motif that occurs several times throughout the novel is the scene of mutual recognition. When Jommy finally meets a fellow Slan and they both experience a simultaneous rush of discovery, it’s quite well done (there are several similar sequences throughout the book). This apparently struck a nerve with early fandom, with people jokingly referring to their communal living spaces as “slan shacks” and developing the slogan that “fans are slans!” Again, this was more of a joke than anything else, but it does bely early fandom’s comradery, pleasure at discovering a fellow fan of SF, and willingness to aspire to something more (i.e. slanhood!)

Reading this novel 80 years later, I’d say that it’s a fairly representative example of what made Golden Age science fiction so popular. Lots of ideas and twists, awkward prose that nevertheless possesses a deceptively clever underpinning, short and sweet. It is not a perfect novel, but it is interesting that as a novel about the the next stage of evolution amongst humans, it’s also a clear step forward for the science fiction genre. I enjoyed catching up with it…

2021 in Movie Watching

2021 was an odd year in all respects, and my movie watching was no exception. Since time continues to march on, I figure it’s time to take a look back at the year that was… in movies. I know that this sort of navel gazing is perhaps too trivial given that we’re in the midst of a pandemic and assorted social strife, but that’s what makes it sort of fun. In accordance with tradition, we’ll be doing a much deeper dive on the movies of 2021 including the Kaedrin Movie Awards and the usual Top 10, but it’s also instructive to take a look at overall movie watching for the year.

I keep track of all my movie watching on Letterboxd, so if you’re reading this and are a member, we should be friends there. They also provide some stats, which I’m going to dive into below…

Overall Stats

This is what I watched in 2021:

  • 384 films watched
  • 725.2 hours watched
  • 32 movies a month on average
  • 7.4 movies a week on average

Breaking that down by decade:

Movies by Decade

While this is a lot of movies, it is basically returning to pre-pandemic numbers. Last year’s record 445 movies watched is great and all, but it was set while the world was fighting a pandemic with lockdowns and social distancing. In other words, ideal conditions for sitting around and watching a bunch of movies. I honestly wouldn’t be too surprised to see these numbers continue a decline, though it might be nice to see an uptick in pre-1980 movies…

This year did see the conclusion of the 1978 project, but I only watched 11 of those movies this year (the bulk of that project was covered in 2020). Not sure if I will be embarking on another effort like that this year, but they are a good way to provide structure to the media diet. I’ve considered doing a 50 from 50 (watch at least one movie from 50 different countries), but I probably come pretty close to that without even particularly trying (more below). I could do another year, or perhaps a companion to 50 under 50 that would be for movies between 1950 and 2000… but again, I kinda do that already. Well, there’s no requirement to start this at the beginning of the year (the 1978 project was started mid-year and lasted nearly 2 years, for what it’s worth), so we don’t need to keep speculating about it now.

Films by Week

More variability by week than last year, but pretty consistent throughout the year. A few spikes driven by various events throughout the year (like The Six Weeks of Halloween), but pretty much on par with pre-pandemic levels of viewing. In terms of day of the week, Tuesday and Wednesday continue to lag behind the rest of the week (at least partially due to a group of friends and I maintaining a remote RPG game night over discord). The biggest divergence from previous years is that Saturday dips below Friday and Sunday. I suspect this is partially driven by a halting return to normalcy and a bit of a social life on Saturdays. Go figure.

Genres, Languages, and Countries

Genres, Countries, and Languages

The usual dominance of US and English language presents itself here, with a solid showing from other anglosphere countries like UK and Canada. South Korea and Spain make the top 10 in countries, while Australia and Hong Kong fall off the list (the latter probably because the 1978 project concluded, and thus the inexhaustible supply of Hong Kong martial arts movies made in the 1970s was temporarily skipped in favor of other stuff). The top 10 genres are basically the same, but the ordering is different (comedy stumbled from the top spot in 2020 to #6 in 2021)

World Map of movies watched

The map this year has pretty good global coverage, though obviously the number of movies from each country is relatively small. The map is also a little odd in that there are lots of movies that have broad financing and that you wouldn’t necessarily think of as a movie from that country (i.e. a large proportion of Chinese movies are co-productions with Hollywood, etc…) That said, the grand majority also have real movies made in that country as well.

Ratings and Other Patterns

Ratings and other patterns
  • 24.2% of my watches were a 2021 release, a big increase from last year (which was 16%). This is partially due to last year’s higher volume of movies watched, but also because studios held back a lot of releases until this year, which sorta gave me a double bump this year. This number usually hovers around 20%, so the variance isn’t that high, and I certainly still have a lot of movies to watch before I do my top 10, etc… but anecdotally, this year felt more packed with new releases, even during the pre-vaccine times…
  • 24.2% of my watches were actually rewatches. Not a typo – same number of rewatches as 2021 release (93 movies). A minor decrease over last year, but pretty much on par.
  • Ratings continue to resemble a bell curve centered on the 3 out of 5 star rating. Slightly lower than the past due to an increase in 3.5 star ratings, though the numbers are surprisingly even above and below 3 and 3.5. I suspect part of the higher rating bias has to due with rewatches (i.e. I tend not to rewatch low rated movies, though there are certainly some!)
  • Letterboxd has a watchlist where you can add movies you want to watch (or at least, not lose track of). This year wasn’t so bad – almost parity between movies added to that list and then subsequently watched (though at least some were added long before this year). The list continues to grow. Some of this has to due with availability – I might want to watch a movie, but it could be out of print or only available via physical media, etc…

Stars and Directors

Most Watched Stars

Keanu and Tom take the top slot this year, mostly driven by rewatches (particularly of the John Wick and Mission Impossible franchises), though there were new watches from both. I did go on an Eddie Murphy kick earlier this year, which was really a lot of fun and recommended if you haven’t seen his early movies recently. Jamie Lee Curtis is the lone woman on the list, something that has been sadly prevalent in these year end roundups. It strikes me that a lot of the people that show up on this list are there more because of franchise rewatches, which is fine, but doesn’t really capture the breadth and depth of what I watched over a year.

Most Watched Directors

In terms of directors, I’ve tended towards white and male in the past, but while still plenty of white dudes, there’s a woman this year, and a few men of color too. Not going to claim I’m the most diverse dude out there, but I’m moving the in the right direction I think. As with last year, I followed along with the Blank Check podcast a bit this year, so some of these folks are certainly there because of them. Onwards and upwards.

Highs and Lows

Highs and Lows

Welp, the highest rated movie I watched all year was… a tv show. A glorious tv show, but still. I know it seems a bit tacky to track tv shows as movies on Letterboxd, but there are a handful that make sense and this is one of them. Lowest rated was actually an MST3K watch, but before that it was Abduction, a not so great thriller with a surprisingly good cast that was directed by John Singleton. Again, not good, but also almost certainly not the worst thing I watched all year. Knives Out takes most popular for the second year in a row. I don’t know why, but I’ve rewatched that movie quite a few times the last few years. Finally, the most obscure is actually a short film about a real-life 1996 tornado which hit a drive-in movie theater that was playing the movie Twister.

So there you have it, 2021 was a fun year in movie watching here at HQ. Not record setting, but again, that’s probably a good thing.

2021 in Books

As time marches inevitably on, it’s usually a good idea to take a look back at the year that was, and while it’s arbitrary and something of a cliché to do this at the end of the calendar year, it is the natural time to do so. After another year of pandemic fun and other political and cultural strife, it’s actually somewhat of a relief to take a closer look at something as mundane as the books I’ve read over the year.

I keep track of my reading at Goodreads (we should be friends there), and they have a bunch of rudimentary statistical visualization tools that give a nice overview of my reading habits over time, especially now that I’ve been logging books there for over a decade.

Graphs

I read 63 books in 2021, slightly off the pandemic fueled record pace set last year (69 books, nice), but there are always complicating factors that we’ll get to.

Graph of Number of Books Read

You can see the full list on Goodreads. This falls short of last year, but is otherwise still far above previous years. While pandemic restrictions eased a bit this year, things are still not back in full swing, so that still drives plenty of reading time. Or listening time, as audio books still comprise a pretty significant proportion of the list.

Average page length clocks in at a measly 312, far below last year’s robust 343 and the previous year’s 345, not to mention my personal record of 356. This was mostly driven by the inclusion of a serialized series of short stories and novelettes that pumped up the overall count of books while dropping the average page numbers (the count of books would probably still be above pre-pandemic numbers, but this certainly had an impact).

Graph of Number of Pages Read

Of course, we must acknowledge the inherent variability in page numbers, but this still feels about right. Still better than pre-pandemic numbers, but not as overwhelmingly so.

The Extremes

The Shortest and Longest Books of the year
The Most Popular and Least Popular books of the year

The obvious clarification needed here is that the “Least Popular” book is Pain Don’t Hurt, by Sean T. Collins, a non-fiction book where a film critic decided to write about the Patrick Swayze film Road House every day for a year. It gets a bit repetitive and it could use more pictures (especially when discussing the minor side characters and mostly unnamed trustees of modern chemistry), but it’s an amazing book worth reading for any fan of that film. I suspect it would be more popular if Collins actually released this book through more traditional means (it’s not really available at major retailers – you can find it online, but it is pricey, even though it’s a signed edition). For the record, Pain Don’t Hurt is also the highest rated book I read all year, though that’s most likely due to the low number of ratings.

Anywho, I’m glad to see that Project Hail Mary was so popular. It’s probably my favorite Science Fiction novel of the year and if I were participating in the Hugos this year, I would definitely be nominating it.

Assorted Observations and Thoughts

At this point, I’d normally show the graph of books read by publication date, but ever since I read Twelfth Night, by Shakespeare, the chart’s Y axis got so large that the graph is essentially ruined. I’ll try to make up for that with some observations below.

  • Slan by A.E. van Vogt was the oldest book I read in 2021. Published in 1940, I was actually trying to get ahead of Vintage Science Fiction Month and just finished it a couple days ago.
  • 20 non-fiction books in 2021, a minor increase over last year but given the lower count of overall books, it’s proportionally higher too. A little less than 1/3 non-fiction feels alright, but I suspect we’ll continue to see this number go up over time.
  • 18 science fiction books in 2021, a significant decrease over the past few years. The difference this year was mostly due to an increase in thrillers, horror, and crime fiction. I suspect not formally participating in the Hugos also has something to do with it.
  • Only 8 books written by women in 2021, which is a significant decrease over the last few years. Of course, this was not intentional at all, but maybe I should pay some attention to that in 2022.
  • Without doing any formal analysis, despite a few vintage reads, this year was mostly above 1990 in terms of age, and recent releases were a higher proportion than usual I think. Nothing wrong with that and again, nothing intentional here, but maybe worth looking into older reads in 2022.

So it’s been a pretty good year in books. While I’m a massive introvert and greatly enjoy reading books, I’m still happy to see that the pandemic appears to be easing a bit, though who knows what Omicron will bring (I suspect the next month or two will be ruff, but after that…). Still, while I love staying home and reading or listening to audio books on long walks, it would be nice to get out into the world again in 2022. Unless we see a significant worsening of the pandemic, I’m guessing the reading numbers will decrease a bit again in 2022… (and as much as I love books, that will still be a good thing!)

Hugo Awards 2021: The Results

The Results of the 2021 Hugo Awards were announced last night, so it’s time for the requisite joyful celebrations and/or bitter recriminations. At this point, I’ve fallen off of the Hugo bandwagon from a formal participation standpoint, but still like to keep an eye on things. Populist awards like this go in waves, so they tend to get repetitive, as we’ll see. In any case, congratulations are due to all the winners! For those who want to geek out and see instant-runoff voting in action, the detailed voting stats for the 2021 Hugo Awards are also available (.pdf).

Best Novel

Network Effect, by Martha Wells wins! It’s the one novel of the nominees that I actually read last year and I’ve very much enjoyed the whole Murderbot series to date. For the uninitiated, you’ll want to start with the original novellas (beginning with All Systems Red) before getting to this novel, but it’s a fun, action packed series with a compelling protagonist, some interesting ideas, and a nice cast of regular side characters.

Network Effect

Of course, this is part of a long running series that has won before (although this is the first novel), which speaks to the repetition I was speaking of above. The other nominees didn’t hold much interest for me, seeing as though I’d either read previous novels in the series or enough work from the author that I wasn’t especially excited to read more of. The one exception might be Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke, but I’m not in a rush there either.

Short Fiction

I didn’t even dip my toes into the shorter fiction categories this year, but I do see a lot of familiar names here, even among the winners. However, The Empress of Salt and Fortune, by Nghi Vo did win the novella category and that’s a new name, so there is that. Sarah Pinsker and Ursula Vernon took home the other two fiction awards, and they’ve been mainstays of the past few years. Despite (or because of?) the controversy around Isabella Fall’s Helicopter Story, it did not do so well in the voting.

Best Series

The Murderbot Diaries, by Martha Wells wins here as well, proving once again that the original intentions of the series award aren’t really being served here. Don’t get me wrong, as previously mentioned, I love the Murderbot series and it’s eminently deserving of praise… but it’s already won multiple Hugo awards. This is just an also-ran for that series, while other series languish in obscurity (or, er, lack of recognition? They all seem pretty popular.)

I always thought the point was to recognize series that didn’t already get recognition in the other awards. The idea being that hey, maybe we can include more one-offs in the best novel ballot because entries in a series can be recognized here. Or series that people love that nonetheless don’t have standout individual entries can still be recognized. But in general, the award has gone to hugely popular series that had already been recognized, sometimes in the same ballot (like this year, with the novel and its series winning).

As I understand it, this award narrowly passed a vote considering its future, so it will continue to show up in future years. I remain a little skeptical of this one, not least of which because I don’t think it’s likely that most voters have read all the series nominated (not to mention the logistics of reading that many stories in the time allotted).

Best Dramatic Presentation

Always a weird award, and this year is no different. The long form award goes to… The Old Guard? A little surprising, as I didn’t realize that movie was particularly loved. I mean, I enjoyed it plenty and it was great pandemic watching, but it doesn’t strike me as particularly original or great SF. Of course, the other nominees aren’t especially accomplished either. I’m still quite baffled that Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga even made the ballot in the first place. It’s not especially surprising that Tenet didn’t do very well, though it would probably be my favorite of the nominees (at least, as SF it would – I think Tenet does have its flaws). For whatever reason, Hugo voters tend to go lower-brow when it comes to movies. Anyway, pour one out for The Invisible Man, PossessorThe Vast of NightColor Out of SpaceArchive, and The Wolf of Snow Hollow. There are always great works left off of a given awards ballot, but this year seems particularly egregious (I mean, come on, Eurovision?).

Short form goes to The Good Place. Again. I really enjoyed The Good Place, but it has won the award four times in a row, which seems silly. I would have probably gone more Mandalorian on this ballot, though perhaps the vote got split because there were two different episodes nominated (but then, the whole instant-runoff thing kinda mitigates some of that and looking at the actual numbers, The Good Place had a really strong win here – it wasn’t even close.) The Expanse ended up taking a distant second place. Now that The Good Place is over, it’ll be interesting to see where things fall next year. I suspect we’ll see a strong showing for Marvel TV shows…

Other Thoughts on the 2021 Hugo Awards

It wouldn’t be Hugos without some sort of controversy, and this year had no shortage of questionable events. Personally, this stuff gives me the hives, but near as I can tell much of the controversy surrounded China’s bid to host Worldcon in 2023. Naturally, there were some concerns there because of, you know, the genocide, censorship, and high profile disappearings. But then a competing bid from Winnipeg pulled out a big ol bag of dirty tricks to try and win, which wasn’t great either. I mean, not genocide-level bad, but not great. Then of course you get the whataboutisms and how the US sucks (and I guess so does Canada?) and Raytheon sponsored a part of this year’s Hugos (which I can kinda see why someone would want to sideye and all, but still) and the whole thing is just a garbage fire at this point. I don’t really want to delve more into it.

Next year’s awards could be interesting though. I’m already curious to see if my two favorite novels from this year make next year’s ballot, and I actually think there’s a fair chance that both will. It might be enough to get me to dive in again. (Of course, one of these books comes from a popular author that’s been nominated several times and even won before, so there is that, but still.) I suppose time will tell. Anywho, congrats again to all the winners of the 2021 Hugo Awards!

Link Dump

The usual spin through the depths of ye olde internets:

  • SR-71 Pilot tells an LA Speed Story – It’s really cool being an SR-71 pilot, great story
  • Juice That Makes Your Head Explode – I’ve explained this before, but back when bookmarking services like del.icio.us were still a thing, I had a tag called “idontknowwhatthefuckisgoingoninthisvideo” and this video would have been tagged as such.
  • Kids more inspired to work harder while dressed as Batman, study finds – One presumes the study breaks down when kids dress as batfleck
  • Loving Lies – Stephen Glass’ biggest lie. I don’t know what I expected, but it was not this level of cosmic irony.
  • The Quorum – One of the fun things about the movies used to be weird horse race analysis of box office stats. This activity has taken two hard hits in the past few years. The obvious one is the pandemic, which makes comparisons and analysis more difficult. The other is that Box Office Mojo was redesigned and isn’t anywhere near as useful as it used to be. The Quorum is a new data site that is based more on pre-release awareness, which is something that is especially volatile now in the pandemic and thus quite interesting.
  • Here’s Why Movie Dialogue Has Gotten More Difficult to Understand (and How to Fix It) – Ironically, improvements in sound technology make it harder to do sound better because filmmakers are so used to being able to fix sound in post (and other similar stuff)

That’s all for now…

2021 Movie Catch-Up, Part 3: The Unseen

Around this time of year, I usually make up a list of unseen 2021 movie releases I want to catch up with in preparation for the annual Movie Awards and Top 10. Last year was an odd one due to that whole pandemic situation, which has obviously bled into this year. Recent activity has accelerated (for me, at least), and it seems like theaters are starting a long, slow rebound. As of this moment, I’ve seen 76 movies that could be considered a 2021 release – a significant increase from last year at this time. While this is mostly lead by more accessible streaming drops, the recent glut of theatrical releases has been heartening.

After a quick look around, there are still quite a few movies I’d like to catch up with. Lots of movies haven’t come out yet, but others are things I just never caught up with from earlier in the year. Standard disclaimers apply: I consider some 2020 movies a 2021 release if it didn’t get distributed in the US until 2021. This list is not comprehensive. I probably won’t watch everything on this list. I will probably watch things not on this list. And so on. Let’s goooo:

Blockbusters

West Side Story – I must admit that this does not tick many of my boxes. I’m not a big fan of musicals, I tend to be stricter when it comes to remakes (especially when the original is a classic), and the casting doesn’t do much for me (even before Ansel Elgort’s rumors, I wasn’t a huge fan). But it does tick one rather important box, which is that it’s Spielberg and I always want to watch what he puts out.

West Side Story

Spider-Man: No Way Home – I’ve been good at keeping up with Marvel, and this looks like it’s going to be a huge hit, but I’m somewhat guarded about it. For one thing, it seems like all the Marvel Spider-Mans involve more franchise service than I’d like (i.e. prominence of Iron Man in the first two movies, Dr. Strange in this new one, etc…) For another, it looks like they’re venturing into the Spider-Verse, which is something that’s already been done well and recently. I’m sure this will still be fun.

Nightmare Alley – I know very little about this other than that it’s Guillermo del Toro, which is basically enough for me.

The Matrix Resurrections – I guess it’s enough of an event that I’ll check it out, but my expectations are not especially high. This might work in the movie’s favor! But there’s a very real chance that my expectations are still too high, which is concerning.

Streaming Exclusives

To be fair, many of these will have some sort of theatrical qualifying run… that probably won’t be widely accessible unless you live in NY or LA, so I guess I’m using the term “exclusive” loosely.

The Beatles: Get Back (Apple TV+)- Peter Jackson’s 8 hour long documentary about the Beatles is one of those annoying TV/Movie hybrid things people love to argue about. I’m not entirely sure it will justify the runtime, but it seems to be garnering lots of buzz, so I’ll at least give it a shot.

Oxygen (Netflix) – Small scale genre thriller that doesn’t sound particularly great, but Alexandre Aja always manages to pull more out of tired premises than I expect, so I’ll certainly give it a shot.

The Power of the Dog (Netflix) – Jane Campion directed this Western drama starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Jesse Plemons, seems interesting.

Don’t Look Up (Netflix) – Adam McKay, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, the lunatic who did… that… to Jennifer Lawrence’s hair, and a premise involving a comet that could destroy earth… could be fun!

The Tragedy of Macbeth (Apple TV+) – Joel Coen sans his brother Ethan, adapting Shakespeare with Denzel in the lead? I’m in.

Space Sweepers (Netflix) – This Korean Science Fiction movie came out earlier this year, but for some reason I never caught up with it then. But it’s been on my radar…

Independent & Art House

Licorice Pizza – New Paul Thomas Anderson, always an event (at least, amongst film dorks).

Pig – This Nicolas Cage flick came out in limited release earlier this year and got great reviews, but is now available on Hulu so I’m going to give it a run. Update: I have seen it, and lo, it was good.

Pig

Benedetta – Paul Verhoeven’s already infamous “horny Nun” movie has certain segments of film dorks quite excited. Seems like it could tread similar ground to The Devils, but maybe I’m just being pessimistic.

Agnes – Another Nun movie. It’s all Nuns, all the time in 2021! Seriously though, this seems like one of those horror movies that critics call “elevated”, whatever that means. I’m looking forward to it (honestly, probably more so than Benedetta).

The Humans – Another A24 elevated genre thing, but it looks interesting.

‎The Beta Test – Jim Cummings co-wrote and co-directed this skewering of Hollywood. I don’t know a lot about it, but Cummings is always unusual and interesting…

The Green Knight – Definitely want to catch up with this gorgeous looking fantastical retelling of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight…

Titane – I don’t know much about this French flick other than that it was directed by Julia Ducournau, which might be enough!

Miscellaneous, Genre, &c.

Stillwater – Tom McCarthy and Matt Damon quietly released this crime drama early in the year, but it’s something I’d like to catch up with.

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain – This documentary about Bourdain garnered some notoriety due to a weird CGI recreation or somesuch, but I definitely want to catch up with it at some point.

Copshop – Joe Carnahan directed and Gerard Butler (in what appears to be full Den of Thieves dirtbag mode) stars in this crime thriller. Not expecting anything crazy good, but for whatever reason, Carnahan always entertains me (and often adds some uncomfortable bits that make you think).

Well, that’s 21 movies, which is probably enough for now. Again, I almost certainly won’t see all these, and will probably watch other stuff not on the list. It’s been an interesting year, and there’s plenty of interesting stuff coming (or that I need to catch up with)….

2021 Movie Catch-Up, Part 2

Just continuing our catch-up of 2021 movie releases seen in theaters and streaming.

2021 Movie Catch-Up: Theatrical

The French Dispatch – Wes Anderson deploys his particular brand of weaponized quirk in service of a tribute to magazine journalism. Structured as an anthology of articles with a wraparound story about the editor, it suffers a little from the usual anthology problem of unevenness. The first big story, about an imprisoned artist, was my favorite. It’s odd in a way that is complemented by Anderson’s fussy style, and Benicio Del Toro, Léa Seydoux, and Adrien Brody are giving great performances. The second article, some sort of revolutionary nonsense, didn’t work for me at all. Timothée Chalamet and Frances McDormand give it their all, but it fell a bit flat for me. The third story rebounds a little. It represents the classic New Yorker article trope of a story that starts out about one thing, but quickly morphs into something completely different. In this case, a simple profile about a chef transforms into a whole kidnapping plot. I appreciated it for what it’s doing, though it didn’t entirely connect.

The French Dispatch

In reading and listening to reviews of this movie, one thing I found interesting is that the editor character, played by Bill Murray, strikes a chord with a lot of critics… because they are writers (or editors themselves), and can appreciate the dynamics at work here. There are a couple of smaller segments throughout (like Owen Wilson’s short travelogue), and Murray’s editor ties all of this stuff together, much as you might expect. Anderson’s style is in full effect, and while I get that some people find it tiresome (sometimes I do too), I enjoyed it quite a bit here. In this age of generic Netflix mush and grey sludge color correction, a truly distinct but still formalistic style like Anderson’s is a welcome change of pace. It’s not Anderson’s best or my favorite, but I’m glad I saw it in a theater. **1/2


Eternals – I’ll give it points for ambition. For all the discourse around Marvel, they have always taken chances around obscure properties like this. For the most part, they paid off… until now. I can appreciate what they’re going for, but there’s almost too much going on here. Too many characters, too many subplots, too much worldbuilding, too much Marvel continuity service and sequel planning, far, far too long. Not entirely unusual for a superhero franchise, to be sure, but Marvel can usually offset any deficiencies on those fronts with charismatic actors who have chemistry with each other.

Gemma Chan and Richard Madden are ostensibly the protagonists, but there’s just nothing there. A big part of that is writing, but their performances and chemistry (or lack thereof) don’t do it any favors. Another part of the problem is that there’s, like, ten Eternals. Even with the bloated runtime, they couldn’t find any focus or depth with the characters. Some of them work… by themselves. Kumail Nanjiani and more importantly his valet played by Harish Patel are shouldering the comedic burden and mostly succeeding, but it feels like they’re in a different movie. Angelina Jolie and Ma Dong-seok seem to actually have some level of chemistry (moreso than our leads, that’s for sure) and I wouldn’t mind seeing them go on adventures… on their own. As it is, we get about five minutes with them sprinkled throughout. Other Eternals get more or less screentime, but none of it feels cohesive.

It doesn’t help that the story kinda paints the Eternals as villains. Spoilers, I guess, but even as they seek to reject their role in Earth’s fate, it all seems morally muddled. This sort of ponderous morality play is the sort of thing DC has tried and intermittently succeeded at, and Eternals feels like it has similarly mixed results.

As with any Marvel production, there’s a base level of competence here that makes it enjoyable enough while you’re watching. It is definitely too long, but director Chloe Zhao knows how to frame a shot and she’s really good at the nature photography and the requisite landscape shots that come with this glob-trotting story. The action is far less effective. I suspect this is not Zhao’s fault because Marvel has that whole assembly line of pre-vis action choreography and effects houses that were probably already in motion before Zhao even signed on (but who knows – this sort of second unit action speculation is a common Marvel criticism, but I’m not entirely sure how valid it is.) Regardless, the action comes off as generic and weightless, and the story can’t quite justify what’s going on anyway, which just means the stakes are also somewhat lacking (this is one of those things where the stakes are so high that they paradoxically become meaningless). So yes, it’s a fine watch that doesn’t hold up to any level of scrutiny and sorta gets worse when you realize how well Marvel was able to do similar things before (the Guardians of the Galaxy movies do a lot of this stuff much, much better.) Marvel has had misfires before and will no doubt bounce back… **


Venom: Let There Be Carnage – There’s not really much to say about this sort of movie. If you liked the first movie, you’ll like this well enough. Neither movie is particularly good, but there’s just something magnetic about Tom Hardy and the weird bickering odd couple relationship he has with Venom. So while a lot of this movie comes off as just a sorta garden-variety superhero flick, Hardy’s almost unhinged performance elevates things well enough. It definitely won’t convert anyone to start liking superhero flicks, but it’s more entertaining than I expected. **


Ghostbusters: Afterlife – I went into this with the lowest of low expectations. As such, I was mildly surprised that I enjoyed the early proceedings as much as I did. Then there’s this scene in Walmart, after which the movie falls off a repetitive cliff. I tend to be much harder on sequels than most folks, especially blatant nostalgia grabs like this one, so your mileage may vary.

Still, there’s plenty to like here. Paul Rudd and Carrie Coon are having lots of fun. Young Mckenna Grace gives a great performance, even if the script doesn’t really have an arc for her. Logan Kim is actually doing well considering that they saddled him with a character named “Podcast” (not “Twitch” or some newfangled platform young people actually use), but heck, I chuckled a few times. The early nostalgic bits are fine – some of them aren’t even stressed much (like, I didn’t need to see the stack of books, but they didn’t make a big deal out of it either). There’s this bit with a chess board that I really liked, even if it was almost immediately abandoned in favor of more clunky sequences.

But all of that curdles in the final act as everything grinds to a halt so we can watch something we’ve already seen before happen again. It makes a sort of sense, I guess, I just am so sick of beat-by-beat retreads like the end of this movie. They try to do something more heartwarming and I can see it working for folks, but I was so out of it by then that it didn’t really matter (and there’s something to be said about CGI characters who probably shouldn’t show up at the end). Ultimately, it’s kinda harmless and makes you appreciate the original all the more. **

2021 Movie Catch-Up: Streaming

CODA – This is a coming of age weepie about a family of deaf people and their daughter, who can hear and loves singing. A sorta reverse Mr. Holland’s Opus, while this does feature unconventional character dynamics involving family connections and dependencies, it is extremely formulaic. You can see all the beats coming before they happen and yet, all the clichés are harnessed and executed extremely well. I may be hard on sequels, but original movies that are formulaic and cliched still work for me if they’re really well executed, and this one absolutely is well executed. I’m not sure about the movie’s history, but it feels like a stereotypical Sundance sale, and now it’s on Apple TV+. Worth a look if you’re into this sort of thing. ***


Red Notice – Generic Netflix programmer elevated slightly by the sheer starpower and charisma of its three leads: Ryan Reynolds, Dwayne Johnson, and Gal Gadot. I only saw it a few weeks ago, and already the details are fleeting. There’s a few jokes that land and while it’s shot in the flat, digital Netflix house style there are some visual flourishes that worked for me. The camera sometimes swooped around in longish takes, almost like one of those drone demo shots (though perhaps not quite as impressive as that – someday someone will really leverage drones to make a great action movie, and this isn’t that, but it seems like it can be done). There are some twists and turns, but it’s all aggressively mediocre. That’s a death sentence to most critics, but I mostly enjoyed it for what it was. **1/2


The Trip – Another Scandinavian thriller (this time out of Norway) that I really enjoyed. A couple take a trip to their isolated lake house. Each of them is planning to murder the other. Hijinks ensue. I certainly don’t want to spoil anything, but this is stylish, with good performances, a great soundtrack, and a very well plotted story.

The Trip

It’s made by the guys who did the Dead Snow movies, and while this doesn’t quite reach the ridiculous levels of those Nazi zombie flicks, it does have a similar darkly comedic sensibility that sometimes veers into gratuitous violence. This might end up being one of my favorites of this year (it’s on Netflix). ***


The Sparks Brothers – Edgar Wright made this documentary about Sparks, an influential band most are not particularly familiar with. It’s mostly talking heads and archival clips or well edited montages of movies, but Wright approaches this sort of thing with much more style and wit that you might expect. The opening of this film encapsulates this approach really well, and I was fully onboard from moment one. It ultimately settles into a checklist format as we proceed through each album in Sparks’ long career, so the sheen wears off a bit by the end, but it’s still better done than most of this sort of thing. At 141 minutes, it is far too long, but it’s also hard to find fault with that. Certainly worth checking out (It’s on Netflix). **1/2


The Harder They Fall – Stylish western featuring a mostly black cast that is far better Netflix fodder than you normally get. At its heart, it’s a heavily plotted revenge story with a likable cast, some bravura filmmaking from director Jeymes Samuel, a menacing villain in Idris Elba, and a pretty great script. I feel like we’ve seen the whole anachronistic use of modern hip hop music in a western before, but this approach is very well executed here. The dialogue has a similarly anachronistic but well calibrated mixture of modern patois and old fashioned frontier gibberish.

The Harder They Fall

It might be a teensy bit too long and the middle drags a bit, but it’s always entertaining and the action is well done, especially in the finale. The plot hints at some deeper themes that are perhaps not fully explored, but that’s a minor complaint. I really enjoyed this and look forward to seeing what Samuel does next… ***


There’s a lot of interesting stuff out there these days, but only if you’re seeking it out. Interesting movies like The Harder They Fall tend to fade into the Streaming ether rather quickly. Anywho, maybe one more post on the usual catch-up plan (of things I have not yet watched)…

2021 Movie Catch-Up, Part 1

The theatrical movie experience has suffered under the strain of the pandemic. Many theaters were simply closed for a while, and even once opened, box office receipts were way down, followed by delayed or limited releases with almost no marketing (if those movies were distributed to theaters at all). Media corporations were already shifting towards streaming, which has only accelerated. Even would-be blockbusters were being released on streaming, sometimes included in a subscription (witness: Warner Bros. entire 2021 slate released simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max).

That said, I think we turned a corner about halfway through the Six Weeks of Halloween. All the sudden, there were exclusive theatrical releases. Long delayed blockbusters finally hit theaters, new indie fare made it to multiplexes, and crowds actually started showing up. We’re not back to pre-pandemic numbers, of course, and marketing efforts have not served some films well, but theaters are back. My Regal Unlimited account is suddenly becoming a good investment again.

As such, after the aforementioned Six Weeks of Halloween, I started to catch up with all the non-horror movies released in October. This involved a lot of theatrical, but the shift to streaming is real, so we’ll cover both here. While my normal media diet consists of a healthy mix of old and new, I’ve spent most of November catching up with 2021 movies, so this will be spread out across multiple posts.

2021 Movie Catch-Up: Theatrical

The Last Duel – Ridley Scott’s overlooked and underseen Rashomon-esque medieval me-too movie didn’t get a ton of play, which is a real shame because it’s quite good. A story told from three differing perspectives, this sets itself up like it’s going to be a spin on Rashomon, but then it pulls that rug out from under you when it goes and labels the third and final perspective as “The Truth.” The differences between the three stories are surprisingly minor, and they do a good job of not being too repetitive. Still, the details that change are exactly that; perhaps something a simple as shoes falling off during a pursuit rather than shoes being taken off. The story is touching on more modern concerns, and there are clear references to, for example, Bill Clinton’s controversies. Also, one can’t help but wonder if Affleck and Damon are grappling with their association with Harvey Weinstein by telling this story (they wrote the script along with Nicole Holofcener).

Matt Damon and Adam Driver in The Last Duel

Of course, the film looks great, and while I wouldn’t characterize this as an action movie, Scott’s eye for action serves the story well. The titular duel that caps off the movie is a real corker, much more brutal than you’ve probably ever seen such an event portrayed. I know that Game of Thrones fans might argue against that, but perhaps because the stakes here are so well established, I found it effective. Performances from the three main leads, Matt Damon, Adam Driver, and Jodie Comer (she’s having a good year and will certainly be nominated in the Kaedrin Movie Awards for Breakthrough Performance), are excellent, but Ben Affleck, of all people, steals the show as the privileged, blond-haired Count. It’s not a happy-go-lucky blockbuster type of movie and the runtime is a tad long, but it is worth checking out and may find a place on my top 10 list at the end of the year. ***


Last Night in Soho – 2021 is turning into a year in which someone makes an interesting and weird little film, and people start calling it Giallo-inspired, and I’m sorry, but I just don’t see it. This Edgar Wright jam is filled with his usual craft and leans heavily on music-inspired sequences, and while there are some murders at the core of the story, this ain’t Giallo. I don’t get why people keep doing this (the other big one was Malignant, also not remotely a Giallo). If you want to see movies that influenced this, you’d be better off with Repulsion or Carnival of Souls.

Sadly, while it’s well made, I just don’t think this is my kinda thing. This isn’t meant to take away from Wright’s skill, and I can respect what he’s doing here, but there are a few things that hold me back. One is that I’m just not as inspired by the music as a lot of fans of this movie are. I can respect the way Wright deploys visual and audible components to achieve something that’s more than the sum of their parts, but it just doesn’t inspire me as much because the story at the heart of this is a bit muddy. Second is that I really couldn’t get over just how passive our protagonist was. As a psychic medium (or whatever), this passivity is sorta baked into the plot, but even when she tries to go active, she doesn’t accomplish much.

Thematically, I like the whole beware nostalgia or don’t view the past with rose colored glasses vibe, but for whatever reason, this packaging of those themes didn’t quite work for me. I have a ton of respect for what Wright is trying to do here and I don’t hate it or anything, but there are some missteps here that are holding it back. **1/2


Dune – It’s a pretty great first half of a movie, which is the only real complaint I have here: it just sorta ends (with a character literally saying “This is only the beginning.”) That said, the gamble paid off, and it looks like we’ll be getting the second half of the movie soon enough. Dune is one of those books that feels unfilmable due to the large amount of weird worldbuilding and made-up jargon needed to tell this story. Director Denis Villeneuve has a tendency towards overly deliberate, ponderous style that I didn’t care for with Blade Runner 2049, but are much better calibrated here. I can’t get over how well he balanced the various difficult components of telling this story. Visually spectacular without feeling like a boring CGI-pixel stew, thoughtful without being insufferable, I’m really looking forward to the second film. ***

2021 Movie Catch-Up: Streaming

Finch – Tom Hanks in a post-apocalypse world building a robot to take care of his dog when he inevitably dies. Well balanced sentimentality that never crosses over into an overly saccharine or maudlin mode, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this. Hanks kills it, as usual. I mean, this is so obviously an exercise in acting (not quite as much as Cast Away, but still) and yet, it still works. Perhaps because despite what the premise might imply, the motion capture performance by Caleb Landry Jones as the robot is surprisingly effecting. His performance is filled with subtle grace notes that indicate how quickly his learning robot is maturing. Plenty of special effects here, but they’re not the weightless spectacle you get from superhero movies, and are much better deployed here. (Available on Apple TV+) ***


Riders of Justice – Danish revenge flick starring Mads Mikkelson as an army vet who befriends three computer nerds to take revenge on a motorcycle gang who caused a train accident that killed his wife. A well calibrated, darkly comedic reflection on acceptance and forgiveness and the patterns in the chaos of life.

Riders of Justice

You can drive yourself crazy looking for meaning in random events, whether you’re doing so explicitly or building an algorithm to sift through massive amounts of data. It’s unconventional, but really interesting and quite entertaining to boot. Worth seeking out (it’s on Hulu). ***


The Guilty – Set entirely at a police dispatch center, this tells the story of a demoted police officer trying to help a woman in an emergency situation. By the numbers stuff, and apparently it’s a remake of a much better Danish film, which I didn’t realize when I started this. Antoine Fuqua and Jake Gyllenhaal deserve better, as does Riley Keough, who does amazing voice work as the woman on the other end of the line. It’s fine, but I’m guessing it doesn’t play particularly well to American audiences after the last year. **


Stay tuned for Part 2 of this 2021 Movie Catch-Up, and it appears there’s plenty more films coming to theaters soon (looking forward to Licorice Pizza!)