It’s been a week since we all watched — stunned — as an army of cultist haters, fascists, racists, and thugs, invaded and raped our Nation’s Capitol. Since then the wind seems to have (at long last) shifted to a new quarter. Nothing in the last four years was enough, but this straw was too heavy.
How real that change is remains to be seen, but the House is set to move forward with a historical second Impeachment, and with McConnell now giving it his blessing, and many Republicans desperately wanting to buy redemption, it’s possible we might see a conviction in the Senate.
Which makes writing a post very hard to focus on.
I’ve said (many times) that when it comes to movies it’s the unexpected small gems I love most. The Art of Self-Defense (2019), starring Jesse Eisenberg, is definitely a small (dark) gem, and doubly unexpected.
Firstly, unexpected in the ordinary sense of having no idea what the film would be or that it would be any good. But secondly, because I’d recently seen Eisenberg in American Ultra (2015), which I saw as another unexpected small gem. This movie’s artwork (as you see) suggested to me it might be similar.
It couldn’t be more different, except that both are really good small gems starring Jesse Eisenberg. I’m thinking he has good taste in picking scripts.
Along with Black Friday, another of the more modern Thanksgiving traditions is the TV marathon put on by various broadcast, and some cable, channels. For example, what is now called the SyFy channel typically ran a Twilight Zone marathon, and BBC America often ran a Doctor Who marathon (I didn’t even think to check for that this year — one more sign of just how disturbing 2020 was.)
This Thanksgiving I decided to create my own marathon after noticing Hulu had all three of The Expendables franchise (although at this point it’s probably better just called a trilogy given how large most movie franchises are).
All three movies, despite being truly dreadful on many — perhaps even most — counts, are surprisingly watchable. Some parts are even really funny (although not always intentionally).
Well they finally made a good Terminator sequel! Granted, the first one is a modern classic and a very tough act to follow. There is also that sequels are almost always necessarily warmed up left-overs, but this franchise has been noted for being especially disappointing. (I know I saw #5, but it left absolutely no impression, and #4 was dismal and awful.)
I’m definitely more of a Terminator fan than a Star Wars fan. That’s even more true when it comes to Star Trek. I’m willing to at least see the Star Wars movies, but I gave up on Trek ever since J.J. Abrams took over (although it had already gotten moribund).
For my money, Terminator: Dark Fate is a nice return to form and a pretty good action movie in its own right.
I planned to post about buying five Erle Stanley Gardner Perry Mason novels Apple had on sale for $2.99 each. I read lots of those in grade school and have loved courtroom dramas ever since. But that will wait for another Mystery Monday, because I’ve got something better today.
A bit after 10 last night; been watching stuff on Hulu and was ready to pack it in. The main screen pushing a movie, Palm Springs. Stars Adam Samberg, to me an Idiot Clown, so first impression this is Hulu’s Just Go With It. (No thanks!) Lucky for me, news feed headlines I’d seen suggested otherwise.
I’m so glad I decided to watch the trailer. And then the whole movie!
Last night I watched — for the second time this week — Jay and Silent Bob Reboot (2019), which is the latest episode of a saga polymath auteur Kevin Smith has been telling since 1994 with his first film, Clerks. The arc of that tale contains one of my very favorite movies, Dogma (1999), wherein we learn that God looks exactly like Alanis Morissette.
If you’ve never heard of Jay and (his “hetero life-mate”) Silent Bob, you’ve missed a minor cultural phenomenon. Clerks is a cinematic landmark on par with Reservoir Dogs, and is preserved in the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” In my book, it’s all three.
I’ve been waiting well over a decade to see these guys again!
It’s always the quiet ones. As I’ve said before, sometimes the most interesting movies are the ones that slip by mostly unnoticed. In some cases, they’re movies many people didn’t realize were much better than they thought. (I’ve long thought Johnny Mnemonic and Johnny Dangerous both fell into that category.)
Last night I watched American Ultra (2015), directed by Nima Nourizadeh and written by Max Landis. I thoroughly enjoyed it, although it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s either an action-thriller with comedy, or a comedy with action thrills. Those can be hard to pull off well.
I think if you like Quentin Tarantino’s films, you’ll like American Ultra.
I’m not that into horror, on the page or the screen. For instance, I’ve never seen any of the Jason, Freddie, or Chucky, movies. Maybe it comes from having a different set of fears, but slasher movies never did anything for me. The gore doesn’t bother me. It’s more finding it all kinda silly and ultimately tedious.
But there are definitely exceptions. Some horror stories — usually comedies or parodies — manage to find a new spin on old tropes. When it comes to storytelling, I am a big fan of new spins, almost regardless of genre.
Which is why I really enjoyed The Cabin in the Woods.
Well I have at long last finally seen Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) and Thor (2011) — two of the early films in the long-running Infinity Saga (the series has 23 films out so far; more are coming). The short version is I thought The Avengers had some good bits, but overall I found them both fairly underwhelming (but I’m so not the audience for these).
Unfortunately, I was also a little underwhelmed this week by Stargate: Universe, which I tried binge watching because John Scalzi (whose book Redshirts I really liked) was the creative consultant on the show. I quit after three episodes. It wasn’t that it was bad so much as it (as with these comic book movies) just seems like the same old stuff I’ve seen many, many times.
Ah well, you can’t win them all.
I’ve been reading Spacehounds of IPC (1947), by E.E. “Doc” Smith, and… it hasn’t aged well. For a long time I’ve been thinking it would be fun to read Smith’s Lensmen series again, but given that I’m having a hard time finishing Spacehounds, maybe that train left the station some time ago (especially with so much other stuff to read).
It’s a pity because I sure liked those books when I was (much) younger. Smith wrote action-filled space opera that was very imaginative and which also reeked of technology and science. I’ve never been that much into the space battles, but I’ve always been a sucker for hard SF. Fictionalized tech manuals work okay for me.
But these aren’t the gems mentioned in the post’s title.
I’ve said before that I’m kind of bored with the high-calorie low-nutrition CGI spectacles Hollywood cranks out. Some of that is on me; I was into movies long before all that started, so very much a case of ‘been there, seen that, bought the DVDs.’
I’m just weary of the same old thing, which is all many bigger movies are. They cost so much to make and have to earn that back, so producers stay with formulas and formats they know. It tends to turn movies into commodities, like burgers or pizzas.
Which is fine, but I find I really prefer the smaller, non-mainstream, artisan-oriented movies. Today, for Sci-Fi Saturday, I want to tell you about two very tasty treats.
Art, famously, is a matter of taste, and as a general rule of thumb, you have it while others often don’t. Just goes to say. Because you know what you like, even if you don’t know anything about art. Simply put: taste is personal.
With commodity art like most films, many people weigh in, and opinions are often split, but sometimes, even with, or perhaps because of, so many, a consensus grows — thumbs up, thumbs down. Everyone, or nearly so, seems to agree one way or the other. In particular for today, there are the films everyone hated.
I’ve found some of those despised films are underrated gems — or at least are not as bad as popular vote makes them out to be.
My disdain for reboots means that, out of the gate I’m not inclined to have much anticipation for Mary Poppins Returns. Factor in that it’s a musical fantasy for and about children, and there is even less to attract me. It’s just not my cup of tea, Earl Grey (hot) or otherwise.
I have a sister, younger by a few years, so the original Mary Poppins, with Julie Andrews, was an annual fixture in our house. Along with The Wizard of Oz and that excruciating Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer claymation. I was already a hard-core science fiction fan by then; these family-friendly fantasies bored me silly even as a kid.
I think even then I was just too aware of the implicit psychopathy behind it all.
It’s been a long time since I’ve written a Sci-Fi Saturday post. (I didn’t post at all in 2017, so it’s been a long time since I’ve written a lot of things.) But last night I watched Mr. Nobody (2009), a slightly surreal science fiction film that I found hugely engaging and affecting, and it inspired me to write about it.
The truth is that Mr. Nobody isn’t actually surrealism — it does have a concrete narrative, but it’s a jumbled, imaginary, and fantastic one. That can sometimes be the case with really good science fiction. A common trick SF authors play is keeping you guessing until they reveal their mysteries.
Mr. Nobody isn’t particularly mysterious, but it does require that you pay close attention!
So,… I finally saw the most recent Star Wars movie the other night (it has already made its way to cable; meanwhile, I’m still waiting for Interstellar and Ex Machina to show up). Those who know my value system with regard to science fiction, with regard to movies, and especially with regard to science fiction movies, warned me I that I probably wouldn’t like it very much.
But I already knew that was likely just because of who directed it (same guy who nailed the Star Trek coffin shut), so I approached watching it with very low expectations and without any oxen to gore (since I was never really a fan and never really got into the characters or story).
And even so I still really disliked it. A whole bunch.
Yesterday’s post was a rant; this one counters with a rave. The bad news is that it’s my even earlier writing chops from three years prior to the Stargate review, plus — as this was essentially an email — the writing is especially informal and unstructured.
The original plan was to write a new piece on Grand Canyon, because it’s one of my all-time favorite films, and I wanted to do it proper justice. The “review” you’re about to read I wrote shortly after seeing the film for the first time, so it lacks any thoughts I have about it after 25 years and many viewings since then.
But I’m all about clearing my weblog backlog (the blog bog), so here it is in all its informal gushy glory.
You read the title correctly, dear Reader, this is, indeed, a review of a movie that came out 22 years ago. (And tomorrow I plan to post a review of a movie from 25 years ago!) This blog of late is operating in a personal archeology vein (or would vain be the better word in this case?) as well as a sociopolitical one. Remembrances and Rants R me!
The two reviews this weekend are very Yang-Yin in nature: I really hated, Stargate and really loved Grand Canyon (in fact, it’s one of my all-time Fave Five movies). Yet the former film spawned a multi-film and TV series franchise, so there ya go.
If anything, the amusing thing is how much I hated the film. It passed some threshold that put it forever on my blacklist…
I finally watched The Imitation Game last night. I have a great deal of regard for Alan Turing, and I’ve always enjoyed codes and cryptography (the story of breaking the Enigma machine is especially fascinating), so I was really looking forward to finally seeing it.
And… I didn’t like it. A lot. Turns out it reflects everything I see as wrong with movies — and with society — in these social media-driven, over-amped, uncritical modern era days.
Watching the movie to get away from politics, it dragged me right back for having the same lack of authenticity, made up conflict, and disregard for history.
Okay, so now I’ve seen the final installment in the Peter Jackson The Hobbit Trilogy. In a word, Meh! (And that high because I didn’t expect more.) One bit of common praise I’ve heard suggests, “Thank God! It’s over! At least there won’t be any more of them!” These days that may be rather wishful thinking. Never underestimate Hollywood’s ability to return to a lucrative well.
I also watched Lucy, the latest from Luc Besson. I usually like Besson’s work. He’s written many good ones, and directed some as well. I’m leaning towards my lowest Ugh! rating here. I can’t decide if Lucy is so bad it’s deliberate self-parody, or if it’s genuinely, earnestly… just that bad. Or maybe just doesn’t care.
As far as I’m concerned, two big duds and I don’t mean milk!
As I’ve said many times, when it comes to storytelling: Take me someplace new! Last night I watched a rather unregarded movie, Bunraku (2010), and it delighted me by doing exactly that.
Now when I say “rather unregarded” what I mean is that both critics and audiences haven’t reacted at all well to it. It has a dismal 19% (critics) / 48% (audiences) rating on Rotten Tomatoes and only a 28 (out of 100) on Metacritic. That’s pretty unregarded. But I’m not sure they judged the movie on its own merits so much as against their own expectations.
It’s possible I’ve mellowed in my old age, but as far as I can tell, I’m still the same old highly critical SOB I’ve always been!
Movies, for a variety of reasons, are hard to make. They’re even harder to get right. Science fiction and fantasy are also hard to get right — in addition to all the other challenges of storytelling, they require much more imagination and invention than fiction based on reality or history. This, in large part, accounts for the truth of Sturgeon’s Law.
So it’s not often that a science fiction movie gets all the notes exactly right. Many are lucky if they have just a few good ones that make the film worth seeing. A very rare few get enough right to make an SF film notable. (For my money, Elysium and Oblivion are recent good examples, and Ender’s Game and Edge of Tomorrow weren’t bad.)
And once in a blue moon a film gets it so right that the horse sings.
Sometimes — and I guess I should count my blessings that it’s only sometimes — I’m really slow on the uptake. Slow, as in not noticing something that’s right in front of my face. Embarrassingly slow. For example, it took me forever to get the joke behind the Charmin bears hawking toilet paper.
And as much as I love puns, some of them have sailed right over my head without mussing my hair. For someone who tries hard to pay attention to stuff, it really lets the wind out of your sails.
So just imagine my chagrin when I was halfway through the second movie before I realized they both had “million” in their titles!
I recently had the pleasure of re-watching the 1979 Hal Ashby classic, Being There. It stars an aging Peter Sellers and was the last film of his released during his lifetime. If you enjoy thoughtful stories with deep currents under their surface, this is a must-see, a best-of-breed. The film was critically acclaimed, and Sellers and the screenplay rightfully won a number of awards.
A core motif of the film is mistaken identity with hints of The Emperor’s New Clothes contrasted with our reaction to authenticity. It’s also a political satire and a look at the ever-growing relationship we have with television.
That’s a lot to bite off, but it does it almost flawlessly!
I never intended this blog to be a movie or TV review blog, but I’ve found myself posting about various films or TV shows I’ve really liked (or — in a few cases — really hated). I often get too lost in a story to see myself as a good reviewer or analyst (serious film critics often amaze me by what they pick up on), but storytelling is a favorite area of mine, and I do enjoy writing about it.
Hence forth, I plan to be more open to writing about movies and TV shows. I do enjoy sharing some of the little known gems I find, and — if nothing else — it’s nice to have a record of those and my reactions to them at the time. And (as always) I enjoy a good rant about the ones that pissed me off. I make no claim to being a particularly good critic; take any of these as just my 1/50th of a buck’s worth.
Today I want to share three critically acclaimed, utterly delightful, gems.
Here in January we’re almost equally distant from the previous professional baseball season (which ended in September) and from the coming one (which begins in April). Pitchers and Catchers report for Spring Training in mid-February, position players report later in the month. Spring Training games begin in March.
At various points in 2014, I picked up DVD copies of two (actually four) favorite baseball movies, plus one I’d never heard of, but found in a $4.99 bin somewhere. They’ve all been siting patiently waiting for me to watch them.
I thought: New Year’s Day sounds like the perfect time to do that!
I learned the lesson so long ago that video rental stores were still a thing. Sometimes the most interesting movies are the ones that sit — one lonely copy — forlornly on the rental shelves. They’re almost lost among the popular movies with their dozens of copies. (Let alone the Big Hits taking up entire shelf sections.)
Movies imitate real life in many ways. The content versus popularity equation is no exception. Often, popular means shallow and bland — by definition inoffensive. (Almost always, greater appeal means less flavor or spice. No surprises.)
But that lonely outlier can be an unexpected and delicious meal!
I thought Zack Snyder blew the doors off Watchmen. The movie does total justice to a classic graphic novel that I would have thought impossible to put on film. It turned out to be a work that doesn’t just honor the source material, it elevates it. I liked his version of 300 okay, and I thought Sucker Punch interesting (although it’s a rather strange movie).
Plus, I have a high regard for Christopher Nolan. I very much enjoyed Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige, Inception and the first two Batman movies (as I’ve written before, I thought much less of the third one).
Snyder at the helm, Nolan as a producer and writer,… I was really looking forward to Man of Steel.
Most of us have traditional ways of celebrating or observing the re-occurring events in our lives. An anniversary might call for dinner at a certain restaurant. A promotion or sale might call for buying a round of drinks. The great life milestones—births, graduations, weddings, retirements, deaths—all come heavily freighted with traditional behaviors.
For me, an important tradition at Christmas time is watching—and reading—the Charles Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol! I think it is one of the most engaging, endearing, wonderful and important stories ever. It is a story of redemption and re-discovery of lost joy. And it is an affirmation that how we choose to live our lives matters.
Plus it has ghosts!
Earlier this week I read an NBC News blog post that cited a Telegraph (UK) post concerning the funniest movies ever. The British article involved a study by a movie subscription service. The study attempted to rank the funniest films ever based on laughs per minute. The NBC article added their own informal staff picks to the mix.
What tickled me is that the Brits named Airplane! as the funniest movie ever. I’m not sure I have a definite all-time #1 pick, but Airplane! is unquestionably in the top three. A while back, I wrote about my funniest films, and Airplane! was my first pick (of four—third place had a tie).
So the Brits and I share a funniest movie pick, but we diverge from there.
I meant to write an article discussing Christopher Nolan‘s latest (and final?) Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises (henceforth, TDKR). I started off writing that article but ended up writing a screed about going to the movies. Words not wasted, perhaps, but now I return to the original intent: trying to say a few words about the movie itself.
The bottom line is that I give it an Eh! on my scale of Wow!, Ah!, Eh!, Meh!, Nah! & Ugh! It’s above the no-go line, so I say it’s worth seeing if it’s in your interest zone. If you’ve seen the other two, you certainly want to see this one. That said, it’s my least favorite in Nolan’s Batman trilogy as well as my least favorite Nolan film. And to be honest, were it not for superhero movie fatigue setting in, I might well have given this a higher rating. I’ve just gotten tired of the genre.
Warning: In this article I’m not going to make any attempt to avoid spoilers, so if you (a) haven’t seen the movie and (2) don’t like spoilers, then you shouldn’t continue reading.
Call me weird, but I have always liked films about assassins. That fascination goes back to Charles Bronson in The Mechanic (1972), Edward Fox in The Day of the Jackal (1973) and Clint Eastwood in The Eiger Sanction (1975).
I’m clearly not the only one fascinated by the topic; there are a surprising number of such films. From the outstanding Léon: The Professional (1994, Jean Reno and Natalie Portman’s film debut) and Grosse Pointe Blank (1997, John Cusack and Minnie Driver) to the sheer goofy and fun Assassins (Sylvester Stallone, Antonio Banderas, Julianne Moore) and Kill Bill (Uma Thurman).
Something about these movies fascinates us (well, some of us anyway).
Milla Jovovitch, I’m sorry, I loved you long time, and it’s not over (I’ll keep buying Resident Evil movies as long as you make them), but Michelle Rodriguez just stole your crown in my heart for most beautiful kickass woman in the world. I’m afraid you’re now number two.
Michelle Rogriguez! We’re talking baying-at-the-moon beautiful! We’re talking bullet in the eye beautiful! I’ve liked her since her appearance as Rain Ocampo in (coincidence alert) the first Resident Evil movie in 2002. This was only two years after her first film, Girlfight in 2000. Since that time, she’s proven to be a major star (and apparently quite a handful). She’s been in several of the Fast & Furious movies, and many know her from Lost (a series I avoided like the plague—I’m allergic to trendy)
What can I say, I like a woman with some attitude.
Finally saw Green Lantern; thumbs definitely up. I’m no Green Lantern expert, but I’ve read enough to recognize a lot honor done to that comic. The Guardians and Oa seemed pretty on the money to me; so were Abin Sur, Tomar-Re, Kilowog and Sinestro. And I had no problem with Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan; no more so than Christian Bale as Batman or Toby Maguire as Spiderman. Or with Robert Downey Jr as Ironman, for that matter. (And I like them fine, in case you mistake me as being sarcastic.)
I also appreciated the way Hal used the ring: unusual, and yet appropriate, inventions to solve the problem at hand. That seemed very Green Lantern-ish. I’ve always considered slightly odd-ball combat and rescue tools as kind of a signature of the comic. For one example, lofting the oil tanker with a pair of bigass rams and then blowing it up with AA guns.
That was pure GL.