Movies Watched: Aug 7 – Aug 13, 2016

[Aug 7] “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004)

howls_moving_castleTimid hat maker Sophie is cursed to have the body of an old woman. In an effort to break the spell, she leaves home and ends up becoming the cleaning lady for the wizard Howl in his constantly moving castle. It turns out that she’s not the only one with a spell to break, though.

I think Howl’s Moving Castle was one of the earliest Ghibli movies I watched, and I hadn’t read the book (by Diana Wynne Jones) that it was based on at that point. I didn’t remember much from the movie, and I was pretty excited to watch it, especially because I had reread the book recently, and it’s one of my favorites. It was really hard for me to separate the movie and the book when watching it, but I’ll try, given that the movie isn’t anything like the book – it shares the premise at the beginning, but ends up going in a totally different direction before it comes back to the book at the end. The movie seemed to mainly tell an adventure story – there is a little personal growth (especially with Sophie), and some comedic scenes that are pretty funny, but overall it just seemed like stuff happened without the character motivations making a lot of sense. For example, in Spirited Away, Chihiro and Haku’s friendship makes sense, you see why they like each other, and the same applies to San and Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke but I didn’t see how Sophie and Howl ended up liking each other. Also, Howl’s character seemed pretty inconsistent, he has some of his obnoxiousness from the book (the infamous “green slime” scene), but there’s no real context for his vanity. His anti-war inclinations seemed way out of place too (in the book, Howl spends most of his time romancing women and then getting terrified every time they start to like him back and running away; there is no war.) And the villain’s motivation for both starting and ending the war didn’t seem to make any sense at all. Sophie’s character was good, although very different from the Sophie in the book.

I did enjoy the movie despite my complaints – I just had really high expectations due to both the book and previous Ghibli movies, and they were not met.

[Aug 8] “Carbon Copy” (1981)

Carbon_CopyA white corporate executive suddenly discovers that he has a black son who can’t wait to be adopted. When he tries to integrate him into his family, he loses his job, gets kicked out of the house, and discovers that he has no money. He has to figure out how to deal with everything he knows disappearing suddenly. We mainly watched this movie because it is Denzel Washington’s first movie (he plays the black son.) It’s mainly a comedy, although it does take a turn towards the dramatic at the end. It reminded me a little bit of Trading Places, but it’s not as good. The characters and situations exist entirely to serve the plot – for example (spoilers!), after rejecting the main character, his wife and father-in-law inexplicably show up again and ask him to come back to them, despite nothing having changed except that the main character has a little more confidence in himself now – enough to say no (end of spoilers). I did like Denzel’s character, he seemed consistent throughout.

[Aug 10] “American Splendor” (2003)

american_splendorThis movie tells the story of Harvey Pekar, the Cleveland author of the autobiographical American Splendor comics. It’s a pretty unusual biopic; it features both the real life Harvey Pekar (and his family and colleagues) commenting on some scenes, but mostly it stars Paul Giamatti as Pekar. I don’t think I’ve seen any other media that broke the fourth wall this blatantly, there barely even is a fourth wall. It’s a very good movie, I’m finding it hard to talk about because it seemed like I just saw a very well-edited video of someone’s real life, it doesn’t even seem like a movie. Paul Giamatti did an excellent job, as he always does (especially while playing sad/depressed characters), and Hope Davis was great as Pekar’s wife as well. Of course, it was great to see a movie set in and about Cleveland; there aren’t a lot of those. Highly recommended.

[Aug 11] “Executive Decision” (1996)

executive_decisionWhen terrorists hijack an airplane, intending to use it to release deadly nerve gas in Washington D.C., Dr. David Grant (Kurt Russell), an intelligence analyst, accompanies a mid-air boarding team sent to take control of the aircraft. Of course, things don’t go as planned and Grant ends up in a much more deadly situation than he signed up for.

Executive Decision is very much a dumb action movie; it’s a little bit like a Jack Ryan movie and a little bit like Air Force One, but it stars Kurt Russell, so that makes up for a lot of its shortcomings. The terrorist leader is played by David Suchet, who plays Poirot in the BBC series, and I really couldn’t take him seriously as a threat – he’s so mild mannered. Andreas Katsulas plays a captured terrorist leader (that Suchet’s character wants freed), and he’s also very mild mannered (plus I can’t not trust him, he plays G’Kar on Babylon 5, one of my favorite characters ever.) The rest of the cast is pretty great too – John Leguizamo, Halle Berry, BD Wong, etc. There isn’t much else notable to say, except that the scenes of Kurt Russell flying the planes seemed very realistic to me.

[Aug 12] “A Hologram for the King” (2016)

a-hologram-for-the-kingWashed out salesman Alan Clay (Tom Hanks) ends up in Saudi Arabia trying to sell a new IT system to the king in an effort to revive his career and pay for the rest of his daughter’s college tuition. He’s far away from home in a very strange culture, there’s a possibly malignant lump on his back, and he hates his life already. A Hologram for the King reminded me of Lost in Translation, which I love; it highlights the same sort of cultural differences and isolation, and the occasional absurdities of human interaction. Of course Tom Hanks is great – how could he not be? The movie didn’t have a very strong narrative, we see various incidents, but they don’t fit together to tell a simple story. There’s a little bit of a conclusion, but mostly it just shows life being life. I can see how that might turn some people off, but I actually really enjoyed it. Some things depicted in the movie seemed unlikely to happen in Saudi Arabia, but I liked the movie enough that I didn’t mind.

[Aug 13] “Criminal” (2016)

CriminalWhen CIA operative Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds) is killed during an important mission, death row inmate Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner) undergoes an experimental procedure to receive Pope’s memories in order to finish the mission. This is the second movie I’ve seen Ryan Reynolds in recently that involved transferring memories/consciousness between bodies, and this one is far better than Self/less (reviewed here.) It’s not a great movie by any means, but it’s fun. Kevin Costner is a little unbelievable at first as the incredibly dangerous Jericho, but as he starts processing his memories, he becomes much more familiar. The rest of the cast is great too – especially Gary Oldman and Tommy Lee Jones (playing an unusually passive character), who are reunited with Kevin Costner for the first time since JFK.  Some character motivations seemed pretty dumb (mostly Gary Oldman’s CIA boss who makes the worst decisions), but you kind of expect that from movies like this. Other than that, the movie avoids quite a few common tropes, and it actually explores the idea of implanting normal human memories into someone who doesn’t have the capacity for morality in an interesting way, so I’d recommend it.

Movies Watched: Jul 31 – Aug 6, 2016

[Jul 31] “Everest” (2015)

everestEverest is an ensemble movie based on the disastrous storm that struck several climbing expeditions on Mt. Everest in 1996. It primarily focuses on two commercial climbing teams – Adventure Consultants, led by Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), and Mountain Madness, led by Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) and some of the mountaineers that were in their parties. It’s a very well made movie; the actors who played climbers all seemed like real people, they never overdo it despite the dramatic events surrounding them. The cast is great too – other than the people I’ve already mentioned, John Hawkes, Josh Brolin, Naoko Mori, Sam Worthington, and Michael Kelly all do a great job (I never thought I’d say that about Sam Worthington, I’ve been pretty underwhelmed by him in other movies.)

Most of what I took from the movie was an awe of Everest and mountaineering in general, though. There are so many ways to die – exhaustion, altitude sickness, falling, avalanches and storms – and people still choose to climb every year, and are okay with the risks of just being abandoned if disaster strikes (which makes sense given the risks, but is so alien to everyday morality.) Also, the Sherpas that actually prepare the mountain for climbing are even more amazing, since they don’t have the ropes and other equipment used by later climbers.

[Aug 1] “My Neighbors the Yamadas” (1999)

my-neighbors-the-yamadas We’re still full speed ahead on our Studio Ghibli movie watch. My Neighbors the Yamadas is a very different film than previous Ghibli movies both in narrative and animation styles. It lacks a single narrative, it’s a collection of short stories about the life of the zany Yamada family, similar to a newspaper comic strip. The animation also follows the comic strip style, it’s much more “cartoon” and lacks the detailed backgrounds that most other Ghibli movies have.

It took me a while to warm up to My Neighbors the Yamadas because I was not expecting something so different from previous movies, but it’s a good movie. The five members of the Yamada family are pretty frustrating at times, but only because they have all the foibles that you associate with people you know very well. I can’t think of another movie that does slice-of-life so well.

[Aug 4] “Spirited Away” (2001)

spirited-awayWhen her parents are turned into pigs while exploring an abandoned theme park, ten year old Chihiro must overcome her fear and navigate the spirit world to find a way to rescue them.

I was looking forward to watching Spirited Away, I think it was the very first Miyazaki movie I watched, but I didn’t remember much of it. One of the things I love about Miyazaki is that each of his movies has a different tone, and I think Spirited Away manages to combine the best of many of them – the adventure from Castle in the Sky, the world-building of Princess Mononoke, the magic of Kiki’s Delivery Service. It’s also beautiful and atmospheric in its own unique way – I can play back a couple of eerie scenes in my head at will (along with the music, the soundtrack is great!), which I can’t do with most movies. Chihiro is a good protagonist, she has different things to learn than many of the (older) protagonists of other Ghibli movies, but she does grow. The other characters are memorable too, especially No Face, who was the only thing I remembered from the first watch. This is definitely one of Miyazaki’s best movies.

[Aug 5] “The Cat Returns” (2002)

The-Cat-ReturnsHigh school student Haru’s life isn’t going very well – she feels like she’s picked on constantly, and she can’t summon the courage to talk to the boy she has a crush on. When she saves the life of a cat who turns out to be the prince of the Cat Kingdom, her life goes even crazier when she’s kidnapped and involuntarily engaged to the prince. Her only hope of salvation lies with the living cat statue Baron Humbert von Gikkingen and his friends Muta and Toto.

The Cat Returns is a spinoff of Whisper of the Heart (reviewed last week), sort of. It’s a totally unrelated story except for starring two minor characters from the movie – the Baron and Muta. I like to think it’s an adaption of another story that Shizuku wrote featuring the Baron. Anyway, it’s not comparable to most Ghibli movies, the character design is a lot more like traditional anime. The storyline and characters are fairly light too, there aren’t many layers to it. I think it’s more similar to a Disney animated movie, and it’s pretty fun for what it is. I especially liked seeing the Baron again.

[Aug 6] “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” (2016)

thirteen_hours_the_secret_soldiers_of_benghazi13 Hours is based on the true story of the September 11, 2012 attacks on the US diplomatic compound and CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya. The U.S. Ambassador to Libya was killed, and six CIA security contractors (ex-soldiers) held off waves of further attacks.

I didn’t know much about the Benghazi attacks, and I enjoyed this movie from a “learning about events” perspective. From what I’ve been able to gather, the movie is actually pretty faithful to real events (although the events themselves are controversial.) However, this movie is also directed by Michael Bay, so I didn’t expect it to be very good from a human perspective, and it wasn’t. It’s much better than Pearl Harbor (his previous combat movie), but there’s gratuitous slow motion and clichéd conversations between the soldiers and their families (which had the opposite effect on me, it made me care about them less because they seemed so fake), and the dialogue is laughable at times. When it was focusing on the action, the movie was great, it really brought home the confusion of modern warfare where you don’t know who your enemy is. The cast was pretty amazing too, I especially enjoyed James Badge Dale as the intense leader of the soldiers,  Tyrone “Rone” Woods.

Movies Watched: Jul 24 – Jul 30, 2016

[Jul 24] “The Bourne Ultimatum” (2007)

the-bourne-ultimatumAfter the events of The Bourne Supremacy, Jason Bourne is on the run and still trying to track down what’s going on with Treadstone and his past. When journalist Simon Ross finds out about the Treadstone successor program Blackbriar, Bourne gets a lead, but is soon dodging evil CIA officials and assassins again. I liked this movie a lot more than The Bourne Supremacy, it was very well paced, giving Bourne just enough information to keep the mystery intriguing all the way through. I liked the way that it wove together the end of the previous movie – at the beginning, Bourne is escaping from Moscow after talking with Neski’s daughter, and the epilogue scene where he talks to Landy is actually in the middle of The Bourne Ultimatum, and it’s integral to the plot. I wasn’t a big fan of the shaky cam and quick cuts (continued from the previous movie), and I found the action scenes similarly hard to follow, but that didn’t matter so much because of the better pacing.

[Jul 25] “Porco Rosso” (1992)

Porco_RossoAnother Studio Ghibli movie, and probably one of the least well known Miyazaki movies. We follow Porco Rosso, who is an ace seaplane pilot and bounty hunter off the coast of Italy in the 1930s.  He also happens to be cursed to be an anthropomorphic pig. When brash American pilot Donald Curtis shows up, he quickly becomes Porco Rosso’s rival in flying, courting women, and in the bounty hunting business, and Porco has to figure out how to deal with that. I thought this would be a movie aimed squarely at children, what with the protagonist being a pig, but it’s actually exactly the opposite. There’s adventure and pirates and cool flying and so on, but Porco is a curmudgeonly character (voiced masterfully by Michael Keaton) with some pretty serious flaws, which makes him interesting, but definitely not straightforward. The other characters are great too, I especially liked Fio – Miyazaki really does spunky young women like no one else. Cary Elwes seems like he’s having a lot of fun voicing Curtis. I also liked the ending a lot, there’s no grand triumph, but it ends very nicely. I’m not sure why more people don’t talk about this movie.

[Jul 26] “The Bourne Legacy” (2012)

the_bourne_legacyWe found out today that the fifth Bourne movie, Jason Bourne, is releasing this week, and since we’ve coincidentally been on a Bourne kick lately, we figured that we might as well catch up on the series completely. Jason Bourne is not actually in this movie, it’s about operative Aaron Cross (played by Jeremy Renner) from a related project, Operation Outcome. As the revelations about Treadstone and Bourne are revealed to the world, all the Outcome operatives are taken out to hide the truth of the program. Of course, Aaron Cross escapes and now he’s on the run. I liked this movie in a lot of ways; it expands the world of Bourne, it integrates tightly with the other Bourne movies (this series is really good at that), there are a lot more interesting settings, Jeremy Renner is charming, and Rachel Weisz plays a realistic-seeming scientist that actually seems passionate about her technobabble. I went into it expecting Aaron Cross to be another Jason Bourne, but the programs seem pretty different – Treadstone seemed more about assassination, whereas Outcome was about intelligence gathering – so Cross knows who he is, he smiles often, he doesn’t seem to have been brainwashed, he’s just genetically enhanced. That makes for a pretty different type of story, but once I got used to it, I enjoyed it. I thought the end could have been better and had more closure – I wasn’t clear why they would have stopped looking for him.

[Jul 28] “Pom Poko” (1994)

pompokoPom Poko follows a population of raccoon dogs (tanuki) who live in the Tama Hills outside of Tokyo. As the city is expanding, Tama Hills is scheduled to be cleared and leveled to build a high density suburb, which would leave the tanuki homeless. The tanuki decide to fight back, some using their amazing transformative powers to “haunt” the area, and others fighting back in more violent ways.

I watched this movie a really long time ago, before I know much about anime, and I remember thinking it was extremely weird (especially the magical expanding scrota of the tanuki.) It’s actually a pretty compelling movie, and all the things I found odd before didn’t even register as notable this time around. The movie can be read as having an environmentalist message, but I think it’s more about seeing how a population reacts to rapid and inevitable societal change.  It’s never nice to see animals lose their habitat, but the movie doesn’t dwell on the sadness, instead focusing on the tanuki living life to the fullest despite their circumstances. We see the stories of many different tanuki without moral judgement on their choices, and that ends up making the overall movie a lot more nuanced than others I’ve seen.

[Jul 29] “Whisper of the Heart” (1995)

whisper-of-the-heartWhisper of the Heart is the next Studio Ghibli movie, and the first non-Miyazaki or Takahata directed movie (although it was written by Miyazaki.)  Shizuku, a girl who loves reading books notices that the same person (Seiji Amasawa) has checked out all the same books as her. In parallel, she meets an infuriating boy that’s in her grade, who of course turns out to be Seiji.

I’ve seen this movie before, but I don’t think I understood how good it was until I watched it this time. It’s a sweet and subtle romance, but it’s also a coming of age movie – like Kiki in Kiki’s Delivery Service, Shizuku must come to terms with herself, but Whisper of the Heart portrays that growth in the context of having good relationships with others. The relationship between Shizuku and Seiji seemed completely natural to me, showing strong emotion without any melodrama. I enjoyed the other characters too – Shizuku’s parents and sister (and their relationships with Shizuku), Seiji’s grandfather and his story with Louise, and especially the Baron.

[Jul 30] “Princess Mononoke” (1997)

princess_mononokeAnother Studio Ghibli/Miyazaki movie (and arguably the most famous one.) Prince Ashitaka must travel far to the west to find a cure for a curse that he acquired while protecting his village from a demon. Once he gets there, he finds himself in the middle of a fight between a mining colony and the inhabitants of the local forest. The inhabitants of the forest are mainly animals and spirit gods, but one of them is San (Princess Mononoke), a human girl raised by wolves.

As with Pom Poko, one of Princess Mononoke‘s themes is man’s relationship with nature and the inevitability of loss as man progresses. Neither side is portrayed as good or bad – the main enemy is just a refusal to compromise. San and the animal spirits are enraged and violent at the loss of their forest, and Lady Eboshi is willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that her settlement and factory is not threatened. But she is also kind and protective of her workers, and works with people that no one else will – ex-prostitutes and lepers. Just like Ashitaka, you end up admiring both San and Lady Eboshi, but despair whether they can ever find common ground.  The soundtrack is fantastic – it’s much more epic than the previous movies. Also, the movie was adapted to English by Neil Gaiman, which means it flows extremely well, although many references to Japanese folklore and tradition were removed to make the story more accessible. I don’t think this is the most enjoyable Ghibli movie, but it’s definitely one of the best ones.

Movies Watched: Jul 17 – Jul 23, 2016

[Jul 17] “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (2005)

kiss_kiss_bang_bangHarry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) is a petty thief who accidentally stumbles into an audition to play a detective and gets flown to L.A. and thrust suddenly into the life of an actor, including detective lessons from consultant “Gay” Perry (Val Kilmer). Life takes a turn for the storybook when he runs into an old high school crush and stumbles into a murder mystery. This movie was fantastic! It blends genres effortlessly, it’s a dark comedy (narrated by Lockhart who breaks the fourth wall constantly), it’s pulpy murder mystery involving sexy women, it’s noir, and it also manages to inject a bunch of heart into the proceedings by making Lockhart a genuinely nice guy. Val Kilmer, is great as always as the hard boiled detective (except for swooning over the occasional guy) who takes no shit from anyone, especially Lockhart. Michelle Monaghan is also good as the high school crush/failed actress Harmony Faith Lane, and she certainly has chemistry with Robert Downey Jr.

[Jul 18] “The Pianist” (2002)

the-pianistThe Pianist is based on the true story of a Polish Jewish musician, Wladyslaw “Wladek” Szpilman (Adrien Brody), and his survival in Warsaw during World War II. As with any Holocaust story, this is not a pleasant movie to watch – we watch as Wladek and his family go from fairly prosperous members of society to being forced to identify themselves as Jews in public and kowtow to capricious Germans to being forcibly relocated into the ghetto to being deported to labor camps and so on. I really admired this movie for not losing its focus though – it tells Wladek’s story, not the story of the war, or the Holocaust, and it never deviates from that. That makes it intensely personal, especially because we know what’s going on around him and how it all turns out, but he doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. Adrien Brody is incredible, he conveys a lot of nuance, and there are scenes where he’s absolutely visceral. The end of the movie shows a little humanity in contrast to all the brutality so far, and that’s nice too (especially because it’s based on real life too.) Highly recommended.

[Jul 19] “Kiki’s Delivery Service” (1989)

Kiki's Delivery ServiceKiki is a young witch who must leave home for a year to make her way in the world, as per tradition. She finds the perfect city to settle in and starts an delivery service (using her broom to fly packages places), but she finds it hard to adjust to life in her new community. We thought we would skip Kiki’s Delivery Service during our Studio Ghibli chronological watch because we’ve watched it so many times before, but we just couldn’t. I can’t really review this movie objectively; it’s probably my favorite movie of all time. Yes, all time! Kiki’s story is infinitely relatable, we’ve all felt like we didn’t fit in and been overwhelmed, we’ve all felt a loss of purpose and self-esteem, and we’ve all disliked other people irrationally because they remind us (in whatever roundabout way) of something we don’t like about ourselves. The setting is somewhat fantastic, but the world depicted is just like ours – there are nice people, stuck up people, self-absorbed people, slightly-crazy-but-not-in-a-bad-way people, and Kiki has to learn to accept that world for what it is (a pretty great place if you focus on the right things.) Plus, Jiji (Kiki’s black cat) is fantastic – especially in the English dub, where he’s played more sarcastically. I could go on and on, but I’ll stop here.

[Jul 21] “8 Mile” (2002)

8-mileJimmy “Bunny Rabbit” Smith (Eminem) is a young man that’s having a hard time with his life – his work, his girlfriend, his relationship with his mom, and most importantly, his avocation – rapping. After he chokes completely during a rap battle he enters, he doesn’t really know what to do with himself. Joseph has been wanting to watch this movie for a long time, and I’ve been very skeptical – Eminem starring in a movie that seems pretty much based on his life? I was convinced it would be some sort of dumb vanity project, but this movie is actually pretty good. Eminem is utterly convincing as the angry and scared Jimmy, and you really root for him to figure himself out and escape his circumstances. When he finally does, you know he’s earned it and really accepted himself.  The setting is gritty but feels realistic (I wouldn’t know if it actually was), the rap battles are fast paced and compelling. It was a little bit weird to see Anthony Mackie (in his first movie) as the antagonist, because I’m so used to him being lovable, but that’s okay.

[Jul 22] “The Bourne Supremacy” (2004)

the_bourne_supremacyThe first of many sequels to The Bourne Identity. Bourne and Marie are living in peace in India when an assassin sent to kill Bourne accidentally ends up killing Marie instead. Bourne is convinced that Treadstone has reneged on their promise to leave him alone, but the truth isn’t quite so simple. I liked this movie okay, I don’t think it was as good as the first one. It did several things well, though – it is one of the most tightly integrated sequels I’ve ever seen, it feels very much like a part of Bourne’s overall story rather than just a new adventure. I also love the “mystery” part of these movies, where Bourne has to figure out what’s actually going on. Also, Joan Allen makes a fantastic CIA agent; I’ve only seen her as an unhappy wife before (Nixon, Pleasantville, The Upside of Anger). I think the pacing for the last third of the movie was bad, though – the plot with the CIA wraps up before the last act of the movie, and the last act seems kind of pointless. I found the car chase at the end very confusing, it seemed to go on forever, but it also seemed like each cut only lasted a second, and I had no idea what was going on. Plus, if you’re going to have Karl Urban in a movie, don’t cut off his hair, his hair is beautiful (and don’t make him some dumb bad guy either.)

[Jul 23] “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” (2007)

mr-magoriums-wonder-emporiumMr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman), the 243 year old owner of the magical toy store Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium has decided that his time has come and he must leave the store to Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), the store’s insecure 23 year old manager. Both the store and Molly have other ideas, though. Apparently a lot of people didn’t like this movie, but I absolutely loved it. Sure, it has flaws – it’s odd and random, it’s a little bit cliched at times, but it’s cute, it has a good message about believing in yourself, and the cast is great! No one can do weird and wonderful characters better than Dustin Hoffman (see Hook if you don’t believe me), and everyone else is quirky and wonderful too, especially Jason Bateman as the accounting “Mutant” and Zach Mills as the earnest and precocious kid Eric. Plus, the toy store itself is definitely a character, and it’s amazing! It reminded me of being a kid and being curious about everything around me, there’s crazy stuff everywhere you look. It also reminded me of a lot of books I’d read, like The Phantom Tollbooth, or Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland series.

Movies Watched: Jul 10 – Jul 16, 2016

[Jul 10] “Donnie Darko” (2001)

Donnie-DarkoDonnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a troubled teenager that starts having visions of a giant bunny rabbit that saves his life and then induces him to commit various crimes. That isn’t a great description of the movie, but I don’t know how to describe it any better, it’s a pretty strange movie. We watched the director’s cut, which adds twenty minutes of footage, and apparently makes an originally ambiguous movie much less ambiguous (it was my first time watching the movie, but Joseph had seen the theatrical cut before.) I’m still not sure what I think of it, it was definitely made very well, and it made me think, but it also made me feel confused and upset once it was over. It’s not a movie that believes in explaining how it works, and I usually have trouble with that, but the fact that it was able to get me to feel so strongly about it means that it actually did a good job of making me care about the characters and invest in the plot. I’m glad I watched it.

[Jul 11] “Tootsie” (1982)

tootsieWhen unemployed actor Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) is unable to get any work, he decides to impersonate a woman and audition for a role in a soap opera. He ends up getting the role, and his experience as a woman ends up changing both his life and the lives of others around him. Tootsie is definitely a comedy, but I appreciated that it had some heart to it. Dustin Hoffman does a fairly convincing job as a woman, he changes his voice and mannerisms quite a bit. The romance was a little bit weird, it’s hard to imagine falling in love with someone who has presented themselves completely differently from who they really are. Also, a lot of the humor comes off as dated, but then, this movie is over 30 years old.

[Jul 12] “The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya” (2010)

the-disappearance-of-haruhi-suzumiyaThe Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya is a follow up to the anime show The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, which we had just finished watching. Kyon wakes up one day to find out that the world around him is entirely different – Haruhi and Koizumi are nowhere to be found, and the alien Miss Nagato and the time traveler Miss Asahina are now completely normal people, and no one remembers the world being any different.  Like the other anime based movies I’ve seen, I can’t review this as a standalone movie, but I think it does make an effort to be standalone – it introduces the world of Haruhi pretty well before jumping into the main plot, and it tells a conclusive story without depending on the events of the show (the show doesn’t have much of an overarching plot anyway). I absolutely loved this movie. It was definitely nice to see all my favorite characters again, but I think it would have been a great movie regardless. Being stuck in an alternate universe is a pretty common trope, but that’s a terrifying thought in reality, and the movie does a great job of showing how freaked out Kyon is. There’s a lot of emotional depth and character growth; it’s nice to see Kyon go from his usual passive observer role to having to be the agent of change. Also, the pacing is phenomenal – The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya is the second longest animated movie ever made (at almost three hours), but it’s never boring or drawn out. I want more!

[Jul 13] “Breakdown” (1997)

breakdownBreakdown is an action movie starring Kurt Russell as a guy whose wife goes missing after his car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. The last time he sees her is when she gets into a truck that has stopped to help them, but when he sees the trucker again, he claims to have no knowledge of his wife and denies even having met him at all. This was a fine movie, I don’t have a lot to say about it. Kurt Russell does a good job of going from a normal somewhat inept guy to trying riskier and riskier things as he gets more desperate. The movie soon dispenses with the fiction that no one knows what’s going on, there isn’t a lot of nuance in the movie, and the bad guys are unambiguously bad.

[Jul 14] “The Darjeeling Limited” (2007)

the_darjeeling_limitedThree dysfunctional brothers travel across India a year after their father’s funeral in an effort to become closer together. The Darjeeling Limited was the first Wes Anderson movie that I saw, and I saw it before I really understood movies, or his style. I just thought it was weird, so I was looking forward to seeing it again and developing a more nuanced opinion. I still think it is one of his weaker movies – it has characters that you kind of hate, but unlike Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums or The Grand Budapest Hotel, I never really stopped hating them. Maybe it’s because both me and Joseph are only children and don’t understand sibling rivalries as much. Also, I get that the movie is a surreal journey but I didn’t like the portion of the story with the child’s death (other than to see Irrfan Khan), it seemed out of place to use that as just a bonding experience.

[Jul 15] “The Last Emperor” (1987)

the-last-emperorThe Last Emperor is about the life of Puyi, the last emperor of China, who became emperor when he was two and only ruled for four years before he was overthrown (other than a 12 day reign when he was 11). His life didn’t stop being interesting there, he was later recruited by Japan to be the emperor of its puppet state, Manchukuo until the end of World War II. I didn’t know anything about Puyi or his life, so this was a fascinating watch, and it was also a very good movie – it won the Best Picture Oscar. All the actors portraying Puyi did an excellent job, and the movie is an emotional experience as we watch him go from an innocent child to being spoiled and entitled and then back to being humbled. The movie is (mostly) told through a series of flashbacks from Puyi’s life in rehabilitation for being a war criminal, and the use of different color palettes for different periods of his life adds a subtle atmosphere without being distracting like it was in Traffic. The sets and costumes are beautiful, too.

We watched the theatrical edition, which was nearly three hours long. There’s a longer cut (3 hours and 38 minutes) of the movie that was meant to be aired as a miniseries, I’d like to watch that at some point too.

[Jul 16] “WALL-E” (2008)

wall_eWALL-E is a trash compactor robot who is all alone on Earth other than neverending piles of trash and a cockroach. One day, another robot (EVE) lands on the planet and his life changes forever. He ends up going on a journey into space and having a major effect on the fate of humanity. I’d never seen this movie before (other than watching the first twenty minutes on a plane once), and it’s part of our ongoing “watch all the Pixar movies” project. I remember hearing a lot of fuss about how it was a really amazing movie because the main characters had basically no dialogue, and that’s true, but I didn’t notice it (which I guess was the point.) It was a cute movie, EVE especially was a great character. WALL-E was fine too, but he’s just the classic, somewhat bumbling, underdog. My favorite scene was the one where they are cavorting in space, you’ll know which one if you see the movie.

The fate of humanity made me very sad, so I feel like I didn’t enjoy the movie as much as I would have otherwise. Also, the antagonist seemed a little forced.

“India After Gandhi” by Ramachandra Guha

India-After-GandhiI’ve been wanting to learn more about history for a long time now, and I’ve finally decided to take the plunge and start reading more history books. I started off with a book I’ve owned for about eight years now, but never got around to reading. I think I’ve been avoiding non-fiction because it takes me much longer to read and comprehend it, but I guess I should stop judging my reading by total number of books read.

India After Gandhi is a post-independence history of India; a subject I didn’t know a lot about, despite spending the first seventeen years of my life there. In school, our history books pretty much stopped at independence. It starts off with the Partition and the formation of the Indian government, and goes until 2007 (when the book was written), although the final two decades are not covered with the same level of historical detail (due to the events being too contemporary.)

The book is extremely comprehensive, Guha clearly did a lot of research – the bibliography is humongous. It covered the process of transitioning from British rule (highlighting administrative problems like integrating over 550 kingdoms into India, setting up free and fair elections for a largely illiterate electorate, and settling millions of refugees from Partition), subsequent politics, economic policy, social movements, and there’s even a chapter on popular entertainments. I learned a lot, I’m certainly a long way away from knowing all that I want to know about Indian history, but I feel like I have a solid foundation on which to build on, and I wouldn’t have thought one book would have been able to do that. It also gave me the historical context to understand several things I’d been confused about when I lived in India (like the history of the political parties and how they came to have the positions they did, and how the Indian states came to be organized in their current configuration.)

Guha does an admirable job of approaching things from a historian’s point of view, you can see that he has his own opinions as an Indian citizen, but he makes it pretty obvious that they are his own opinions when they crop up. I’m sure there are biases in what he chose to talk about and how he presented it, but those are unavoidable. My only complaint on that front was that Guha chooses to emphasize India’s successes, but doesn’t spend as much time talking about India’s failures. It’s not like he doesn’t acknowledge them, but because he doesn’t give them as much detail, they come across as relatively unimportant. For example, at one point he mentions that an election would be the first “free and fair” election in Kashmir, but all the talk of previous elections in the book so far had been about the heroic efforts of India’s Election Commission to set up elections that actually worked, so how did the Kashmir elections end up unfair?

Overall, I thought that this was a great book, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking to learn more about India. It did make me very sad, though – seeing India start out with such well-intentioned and smart leaders and devolve into the mess that it is now.


India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha
Picador, 2007 | Buy the book


Movies Watched: Jul 3 – Jul 9, 2016

[Jul 3] “All the President’s Men” (1976)

all_the_presidents_menAfter watching Nixon, we were pretty excited to watch the other side of the story, so to speak. All the President’s Men follows the two Washington Post reporters (Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, or “Woodstein” as they are called in the movie) who investigated the Watergate scandal and the related extensive corruption that it brought to light. It’s very similar to Spotlight, another investigative journalism movie I really enjoyed – it has the same matter of fact tone, even though it’s about a pretty serious story. It focuses entirely on the reporters and their investigation, it doesn’t get too melodramatic or show the bigger picture, and that’s a great choice, because it keeps the narrative tightly focused and interesting. Plus, you can’t really beat the combination of Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford. I wasn’t very familiar with the Watergate scandal, and I learned a lot – I had no idea there was so much shady stuff going on.

[Jul 5] “Grave of the Fireflies” (1988)

grave_of_the_firefliesWe’ve finally resumed our Studio Ghibli movie watch; it ground to a halt because we’ve been watching them in the order they were made, and we really didn’t want to watch Grave of the Fireflies because it is so sad. The movie follows fourteen year old Seita as he tries to take care of his four year old sister Setsuko during the end of World War II in Japan. You see in the very first scenes that they both end up dead. I thought this would be an anti-war movie, and I guess it could be interpreted that way (the war is certainly portrayed horrifically), but it’s really about Seita’s determination to take care of his sister making him so proud that he refuses help and eventually ends up bringing about the thing he was so determined to avoid. It’s based on a semi-autobiographical short story by author Akiyuki Nosaka, whose younger sister died under similar circumstances. The movie is beautifully animated, and it will definitely make you cry. I’d recommend it to everyone, but especially to people who think animation can’t evoke emotions like “real actors” can.

[Jul 6] “Only Yesterday” (1991)

only_yesterdayA continuation of our chronological Studio Ghibli watch. We skipped Kiki’s Delivery Service because it’s one of our favorite movies ever, so we’ve seen it together many times already.

Only Yesterday follows 27 year old Taeko, who is an office worker on a vacation to the countryside. Throughout her vacation, she’s flooded with memories from her fifth grade, and she reevaluates her life and the choices she’s made. Like Grave of the Fireflies, this is pretty much just human drama, which is not the usual subject for animation, and it’s very well done. However, I didn’t get to enjoy the movie as much as I’d like because the English dub (which was released a day before we watched this movie; we had pre-ordered the Blu-ray) wasn’t very good, and it had a huge effect on how I perceived the characters. Daisy Ridley (of newly minted Star Wars fame) and Dev Patel (from Slumdog Millionaire and The Newsroom, among other things) do the voices of the two main characters, and they either don’t know how to do voice acting or they were extremely badly directed – they either sound bored or fake-excited most of the time. Under the circumstances, I don’t think I can give the movie a fair review, so we plan to re-watch it with the original Japanese audio and English subtitles soon.

[Jul 7] “Titan A.E.” (2000)

titan_aeAnimation is taking over our lives! We’ve been watching a bunch of Japanese anime in addition to our usual movies, and for some reason we’ve been reluctant to watch anything live-action.

In the year 3028, humanity has expanded to space, made contact with a bunch of alien species, and is about to unveil a revolutionary new spaceship, the Titan. An alien race called the Drej are alarmed at the progress of humanity and proceed to destroy Earth. Fifteen years later, Cale Tucker, the son of the chief scientist of the Titan, is recruited by the crew of the spaceship Valkyrie to help track down the Titan and restore humanity’s hopes. I love space opera, and this one is pretty entertaining. It’s got a great voice cast too, especially Matt Damon as Cale. It’s not very complex, it just jumps from action scene to action scene, but there are some pretty weird and beautiful places it takes us to along the way.

[Jul 8] “The Saint” (1997)

the_saintThe Saint is based on a character from the 1920s, who has also been the subject of a bunch of movies, television shows, and radio dramas. Val Kilmer plays Simon Templar in this incarnation, and he’s a master of disguise and high tech thief who works as an independent contractor. When he’s hired to steal the secrets of cold fusion from an eccentric scientist, he ends up falling in love with her, and they both end up on the run from the Russian Mafia. This was an interesting movie, I felt the the first half had a very different tone from the second half. Val Kilmer portrays the Saint almost too realistically, he seems intensely screwed up (starting with the first scene where the girl he has a crush on dies in front of him), as you’d expect from someone who changes identities so easily and flawlessly. The second half of the movie is just a goofy spy thriller (I mean, it involves cold fusion and the Russians!), and I found the transition a little jarring. Other than that, it’s a decent movie, and Val Kilmer is great as usual.

[Jul 9] “Self/less” (2015)

selflessDying real estate tycoon Damian Hale (Ben Kingsley) undergoes a black market procedure to transfer his consciousness into a new and younger body (Ryan Reynolds). At first everything goes well, but he soon discovers that his new body and the company that performed the procedure are not as straightforward as they seemed. I was looking forward to watching this movie because I love science fiction, and I think The Fall, one of the previous movies by the director (Tarsem Singh) is a masterpiece. Unfortunately, I was let down; Self/less has an interesting premise, but it goes nowhere. It turns into a standard action movie, which wouldn’t be such a bad thing if it wasn’t so preachy and moralistic. Also, more importantly, none of the character motivations make any sense – Damian Hale does not act like himself after switching bodies, it’s unclear why the scientist performing the consciousness transfer procedure does pretty much everything wrong, and the rest of the characters are just a bunch of cliches. Not recommended.

Movies Watched: Jun 26 – Jul 2, 2016

[Jun 26] “Wayne’s World” (1992)

waynes-worldWayne Campbell (Mike Myers) and his friend Garth Algar (Dana Carvey) host Wayne’s World, a silly but well loved public access television show. Their life becomes more complicated when they are discovered by Benjamin Oliver (Rob Lowe), who buys the show but wants to sell them out to a sponsor. Wayne’s World is a pretty silly comedy, it was derived from a Saturday Night Live sketch. It’s also apparently the movie that made Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen popular again (although I don’t know why it ever faded from popularity). I don’t have very much to say about it, I think it knew exactly what kind of movie it wanted to be and pretty much achieved it. I didn’t enjoy Mike Myers’ performance as Wayne, it seemed really exaggerated (compared to everyone else in the cast), but that may have been intentional.

[Jun 27] “Cowboy Bebop: The Movie” (2001)

cowboy-bebop-the-movieA biological terrorist unleashes a deadly virus on Mars, and the bounty hunter crew of the Bebop must stop him before he is able to execute his master plan of releasing it all over the planet. I watched this after watching the entire Cowboy Bebop TV show (which I think is among the best shows ever made in any genre), so I’m not quite sure how to review this. I think it stands on its own, but I was just really excited to see Spike, Jet, Faye, Ed, and Ein again. It’s got all the hallmarks of the show – the interesting science fiction, the noir, the music, the quirky characters, but it seemed a little diluted because the movie was so long (almost 2 hours) compared to an episode (~20 min). The Bebop isn’t usually in the business of saving the world, but I thought that it was worked into the story in a plausible way. But yeah, I can’t really review this objectively, I love Cowboy Bebop too much. Watch the show and watch this too!

[Jun 28] “Mallrats” (1995)

mallratsFriends Brodie (Jason Lee) and T.S. (Jeremy London) are dumped by their girlfriends on the same day and go to the mall to take their mind off things (and perhaps win back their girlfriends.) We’re watching all the Kevin Smith View Askewniverse movies in order, and this was next after Clerks. I didn’t like Mallrats as much as Clerks, actually I didn’t care for it much at all. I don’t think it was a terrible movie, it was just particularly average. It actually tried to have a plot, unlike Clerks, but I didn’t agree with the plot, I don’t think either of the couples involved had a good relationship, so I wasn’t exactly cheering for them to get back together. I liked the friends they ran into, but every time it focused on the main plot, I was bored. Jason Lee has great comic timing, though.

[Jun 29] “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar” (1995)

to_wong_foo_thanks_for_everything_julie_newmarThree drag queens (Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze, and John Leguizamo) are driving from New York to Los Angeles when their car breaks down in a small town in middle America. At first they are afraid of being ostracized, but they end up learning more about themselves and also improving the lives of their temporary neighbors. I was looking forward to watching this movie because I’m a big fan of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which shares a similar concept, but unfortunately this was nowhere near as good. I found the portrayal of the Snydersville residents overly stereotyped (all the sexual harassment that was mostly just played for humor, the wife beating) and the problems too easily solved. I understand that it’s a comedy, but there are plenty of comedies that respect humans more. On the other hand, all the drag queens did an outstanding job, especially Patrick Swayze. Also, uncredited Robin Williams cameos are great.

[Jul 1] “Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion” (1997)

neon-genesis-evangelion-the-end-of-evangelionThis movie is an alternate/concurrent ending to the show Neon Genesis Evangelion (which had a pretty unsatisfactory last two episodes because it ran out of budget.) The secret organizatiom SEELE attacks NERV just as The Human Instrumentality Project is being initiated. Meanwhile, Shinji and Asuka are having a really hard time. Unlike Cowboy Bebop: The Movie reviewed above, this doesn’t really stand alone at all, so I recommend watching the show first. This is a pretty depressing end to a pretty depressing series (although the show lulled me into thinking that it might be fun for a while), mainly because it explores psychological issues in a really intimate and uncomfortable way. I was glad to see the real world perspective of the events of the last two episodes of the show, and I was also glad that the characters had some resolution.

[Jul 2] “Nixon” (1995)

nixonAs should be obvious, this movie is a biography of the enigmatic Richard Nixon, the only U.S. President ever to resign. This is one of the three “American Presidency” movies by Oliver Stone, and the only one I hadn’t seen yet – I really liked both JFK and W. We started watching this back in November, but it’s pretty uncomfortably shot, and Nixon is not the most upbeat character, so we decided to stop. Watching Evangelion inoculated us against discomfort, so watching Nixon now was a much easier experience. It’s clear that Oliver Stone isn’t exactly sympathetic towards Nixon, but just like with W, he manages to make the man himself pretty sympathetic. Nixon was apparently well known for being very formal and not showing his feelings, and Anthony Hopkins does a really good job of playing him; he’s smart and well-intentioned, but also tortured and possibly ruthless. The movie doesn’t actually feel that long, despite being 3 hours and 32 minutes long, it switches between different time periods of Nixon’s life, and we get a fairly well rounded picture of his life and why he is the way he is. I wished it had focused more on his successes, because he definitely had a few of those, but that would have made the tone of the movie too different, I guess.

Movies Watched: Jun 19 – Jun 25, 2016

[Jun 19] “Gone in Sixty Seconds” (2000)

gone-in-60-secondsRandall “Memphis” Raines (Nicolas Cage) used to be the best car thief in L.A., but he’s long retired. He’s forced to reunite with his old crew and steal 50 (very specific) cars in one night to save his brother Kip (Giovanni Ribisi) from the clutches of a vicious new crime boss. This movie was entertaining, but it wasn’t great. The crew was pretty generic (they have their own quirks, but they don’t stand out that much and the plot was predictable, but it was fast paced and the action was fun. The cast is pretty great, although they don’t have a lot to do. I haven’t watched the older movie that Gone in Sixty Seconds is is a remake of, so I can’t compare it.

[Jun 20] “Virtuosity” (1995)

virtuositySID 6.7 (Russell Crowe) is a virtual reality serial killer personality prototype being tested on cop-turned-convict Parker Barnes (Denzel Washington) to see if he would make a good training program for cops. When SID realizes he’s in danger of being shut down, he manages to download himself into a nanomachine android body, and now he’s loose on the streets killing real people, and only Parker Barnes can stop him. This was a terrible movie, it was full of cliches, the plot was stupid and didn’t have much internal consistency or sense, the stakes kept being raised arbitrarily, and the dialogue was terrible. I can’t believe that this movie was so bad with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in it. The only good thing I can say is that Crowe looked like he was having a lot of fun hamming it up.

[Jun 21] “Invictus” (2009)

invictusThe true story of the South African national rugby team (led by captain Francois Pienaar) winning the World Cup and their importance to South African national unity after apartheid was abolished and Nelson Mandela became president. This was definitely a good movie, Morgan Freeman did a really convincing job as Mandela and Matt Damon was almost unrecognizable as Pienaar with a South African accent and what seemed like a false nose. The story was told well, we really get a sense of the difficulties of leading such a divided nation, there are a variety of different attitudes shown, and not all of them are resolved (the scene where Pienaar tries to get the mostly white South African rugby team to learn the new Xhosa anthem particularly stands out.) The one issue I had with this movie was that the narrative seemed a little scattered, it seemed more like an anthology of life in South Africa, because it focused on so many different people. When Pienaar’s team won the World Cup, I wasn’t sure what obstacles they overcame, or why the win was important – maybe a South African has all that context already, but I don’t. Otherwise, it was a great movie, and I’m glad it was able to avoid many of the usual sports movie clichés.

[Jun 22] “The Departed” (2006)

the-departedAn undercover cop in a criminal organization, and a cop who is secretly working for the same criminal organization attempt to find and expose each other before they are exposed themselves. I’ve seen this movie multiple times before, and it remains one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. The usually likeable Matt Damon is utterly despicable as the dirty cop, and Leonardo DiCaprio is brilliant as the tortured undercover cop who is forced to go against his morals to keep his cover. The rest of the cast is amazing too, Jack Nicholson is terrifying as the unpredictable mob boss, Mark Wahlberg is delightful as the principled asshole (and steals the show whenever he’s in it), and I can’t think of anyone more reassuring than Martin Sheen as the cop running the undercovers. The movie is perfect in every other way too, it’s paced well, it really invests you in the characters, it keeps the right amount of tension going without ever creating it artificially. I love this movie.

[Jun 23] “Doc Hollywood” (1991)

doc-hollywoodHotshot young doctor Benjamin Stone (Michael J. Fox) causes an accident in the small town of Grady while heading to an interview in Hollywood for a prestigious and well paying plastic surgery job. As punishment, he is ordered to do community service in Grady for a few days, and gradually ends up falling for a local woman and the town itself. This is pretty much the Pixar movie Cars, but with human protagonists. It’s really hard for me not to love a movie with Michael J. Fox playing the protagonist, he seems to cart a whole bunch of heart with him in every movie, and this one is no exception. All the Grady residents are great, and I can totally see why he’d fall in love with the town. I thought that Benjamin’s relationship with Lou, while definitely still following romantic comedy tropes, was a lot better developed than most within the genre. There are some fun genre-savvy scenes in the movie, too. Also, Woody Harrelson was great!

[Jun 24] “The Basketball Diaries” (1995)

the_basketball_diariesJim Carroll (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a teenager with a promising basketball career, but he starts to lose it all when he becomes addicted to heroin. This is a pretty harrowing movie to watch, Leonardo DiCaprio does a terrifyingly good job of playing an increasingly desperate drug addict. You see him as a fairly normal teenager, but his best friend is dying of leukemia, his school and home environments aren’t very supportive, he’s dealing with puberty and sexual frustration, and he slowly falls into the habit of using drugs to escape. As his addiction gets worse, he leaves home to live on the streets, and things get pretty bad there. It was a very well made movie, my only complaint is that the ending seemed a bit sudden, we see Jim’s descent into drugs in a lot of detail, but it all seems resolved very quickly. Also, the poetry throughout the movie (even though it is the real Jim Carroll’s poetry) made it seem a little pretentious sometimes.

[Jun 25] “Sicario” (2015)

sicarioFBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is recruited into a special government task force led by DoD advisor Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to fight Mexican drug cartel leaders. Her experience in the task force isn’t what she expected at all – she’s not told very much or expected to participate and the methods used to achieve the task force’s goals are pretty questionable. I was disappointed by Sicario, although I had high expectations because of the trailer and the reviews I had read. It’s unquestionably well shot and well acted, especially Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro. I guess I was just kind of bored by it, it’s main message seemed to be that idealism is dead, but it doesn’t really establish idealism in the first place (unlike say, Syriana, which shows you exactly what you’re losing) so I wasn’t really invested in any particular outcome or story.

Movies Watched: Jun 12 – Jun 18, 2016

[Jun 12] “Kate and Leopold” (2001)

kate-and-leopoldKate (Meg Ryan), an executive with a soulless job, meets Leopold (Hugh Jackman), the 19th century Duke of Albany who has come through a rift in space time discovered by her ex-boyfriend. Initially they don’t get along, but then they fall in love. This was a terrible movie, I don’t have much to say about it. Meg Ryan plays an absolutely awful character as usual (our current theory is that she plays such terrible characters so that women can think “if she could get that guy, so could I”) and I don’t understand why anyone would be in love with her. Hugh Jackman is fine, but he’s supposed to be the perfect guy. The dialogue is terrible. I found the side characters and the mechanics of time travel interesting, but there’s pretty much no time spent on that.

[Jun 12] “The Manchurian Candidate” (2004)

the_manchurian_candidateRaymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) is a celebrated war hero and rising political star from a dynasty of politicians. As he makes a bid for the vice presidency, his former commanding officer Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) and other squadmates who Shaw supposedly saved struggle with nightmares of brainwashing and the strong sense that their memories are wrong. I really enjoyed this movie. Both Washington and Schreiber play tortured men very, very well. Meryl Streep is absolutely terrifying as Shaw’s mother and fellow senator. The movie is paced very well, it’s a tense thriller that always has you feeling a little anxious, and it never lets you down when things are revealed. I’ve never seen the original movie or read the book that this is based on, I understand that there are significant differences, but I think it stands very well on its own.

[Jun 12] “The Ref” (1994)

the-refWhen small time thief Gus (Denis Leary) takes dysfunctional couple Caroline and Lloyd (Judy Davis, Kevin Spacey) hostage, he gets way more than he bargained for as they seem more interested in hurting each other than anything else. If that wasn’t bad enough, their in-laws and son show up for Christmas dinner, and they’re even more dysfunctional. This was a Christmas movie in a twisted sort of way, so things don’t turn out too badly in the end. Kevin Spacey can deliver cutting remarks like no one else, and Denis Leary plays the hapless Gus very well as he alternates between annoyed at his situation, disgusted at the lack of communication within the family, and scared of being caught. I wouldn’t say this was a great movie, but it was entertaining.

[Jun 13] “Mission: Impossible III” (2006)

mission_impossible_iiiOur favorite IMF agent Ethan Hunt is back, this time chasing after a villainous arms dealer who comes after his wife (yes, he has a wife now) in response. We watched the first two Mission: Impossible movies a while ago (before I started reviewing movies on this blog) and let the franchise drop for a while. The first two were pretty different from each other in tone, and this one changes the tone significantly as well, but it also makes it a lot less unique. This was J.J. Abrams’ film directorial debut, and it has the usual slick action and fast pace that he’s used in most of his movies. I think it also makes sense that it ended up being more generic, that’s what the Abrams Star Trek and Star Wars movies felt like to me too. Anyway, it was fun, and I liked seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman as the bad guy.

[Jun 13] “Life With Mikey” (1993)

life-with-mikeyMichael Chapman (Michael J. Fox) was once a famous child actor with his own sitcom about being an incorrigible troublemaker. Now he runs a children’s talent agency with his brother Ed (Nathan Lane), but he hasn’t really grown up at all. When he meets Angie, a charismatic and talented kid who could make him a fortune, he signs her, but soon realizes that she’s going to be a much bigger pain than he was prepared for. This movie is not exceptionally well made or anything like that, but it’s really cute and heartwarming and the characters make it great. You’d think there was no one better than Michael J. Fox at being incorrigible, but Christina Vidal does an excellent job as Angie. I love Nathan Lane too, and he’s also great as the long suffering but responsible part of the operation. Plus, David Krumholtz (in his debut) is delightfully obnoxious as Barry, the agency’s spoiled star.

[Jun 14] “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” (2011)

mission_impossible_ghost_protocolThe IMF is shut down after the Kremlin is bombed during an infiltration, and Ethan Hunt and his new team have to go rogue to get themselves cleared of blame. This movie follows the style established by Mission: Impossible III and is pretty much just another slick action movie, but as always, it’s fun. Pixar director Brad Bird does a great job with his first live action movie. I liked seeing Simon Pegg’s character return (with new skills!) from the previous movie, and Jeremy Renner is great as usual too (he seems to be in all the action franchises these days, he’s in Bourne and The Avengers too). My only complaint with this movie (and it’s not a real one) is that Josh Holloway should have been a member of the team, his death (not a spoiler, it opens the movie) was really sad because I enjoyed seeing him so much. Also, I didn’t find the villain very memorable.

[Jun 15] “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” (2015)

mission_impossible__rogue_nationThe IMF is disbanded yet again, this time by slimy CIA director Hunley (Alec Baldwin) and its members are absorbed into the CIA. Ethan Hunt is branded a traitor and goes on the run while trying to stop a shadowy criminal organization called The Syndicate that no one else believes in. As usual, there’s great action (Tom Cruise actually strapped himself to the side of a plane as it was taking off, which is pretty amazing), and it’s slick and fast paced. It’s nice to see a majority of the team be people that we know from the franchise – Ving Rhames is back, as are Simon Pegg and Jeremy Renner. The villain (played by Sean Harris, who I’d never heard of) actually has some presence this time, and new addition Ilsa Faust (played by Rebecca Ferguson) is great as the femme fatale with ambiguous loyalties. I wish the IMF hadn’t been disbanded yet again though, it felt too similar to the last movie.

[Jun 16] “Rumor Has It…” (2005)

rumor_has_itSarah Huttinger (Jennifer Aniston), a recently engaged woman having an crisis of purpose, discovers that her family in Pasadena was the inspiration for the movie The Graduate, and decides to track down Beau Burroughs (Kevin Costner), the real life Ben Braddock. Her new obsession might just cost her her fiancé Jeff (Mark Ruffalo) though. This movie wants to be a coming of age movie, but it’s really a romantic comedy. I felt like all the female characters seemed like real people, but the male characters were just archetypes (which is unusual, but still not good.) Plus, I thought things worked out much too well in the end, the movie seemed to be advocating for men being doormats no matter how their partners treated them (both with Sarah’s story and her mom’s.) I don’t think I’ll be watching this movie again.

[Jun 17] “Matchstick Men” (2003)

matchstick_menThe lives of Roy (Nicolas Cage), a con artist with mental health issues and his business partner Frank (Sam Rockwell) are disrupted when Roy discovers he has a teenage daughter and endeavors to have a relationship with her. This movie is terrific! Nicolas Cage is fantastic as the quirky but sympathetic Roy, I think he’s one of the most underrated actors today. Roy is agoraphobic and obsessive compulsive, and he doesn’t really know how to have a relationship with his daughter, but he really does care. Alison Lohman plays off Cage very well as his daughter Angela. And Sam Rockwell melts into his role as always. Of course, it’s a movie about con men, so there are a lot of twists and turns, and as with any good con movie, all the clues are in plain sight all along. It’s one of the best examples of the genre, and unusually for a con movie (and a Ridley Scott movie), it’s also really heartwarming. Highly recommended.

[Jun 18] “Toys” (1992)

toysWhen Kenneth Zevo, owner of Zevo Toys, dies before his son is ready to inherit the company, he leaves the company to his militaristic brother General Leland Zevo. The General changes the entire direction of the company from whimsy to war, so Kenneth’s children Leslie (Robin Williams) and Alsatia (Joan Cusack) have to grow up and figure out how to stop him, with the help of a couple of other employees. This is one of the weirdest movies I’ve seen, it’s very surreal and whimsical (apparently it’s inspired by René Magritte’s art, which I’m not very familiar with. Watching this movie was definitely an experience, and clearly a lot of thought went into its look and tone. It’s always a pleasure to watch Robin Williams, and Joan Cusack was terrifically kooky too. Unfortunately, I think the movie wasn’t paced very well – some of the scenes were pretty long and boring, and even though the characters were interesting, they were a bit too weird to have much investment in. So it wasn’t a great movie, but it seemed like a great vision, and I’m glad it was made.