Weekly Movie Reviews: Feb 19-25, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

3:10 To Yuma (2007)

Impoverished rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) has done everything in his power to keep his land from being sold to the new railroad coming through town, but he’s deep in debt to a local businessman and out of options. When he’s offered a job guarding charismatic bandit Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) until he can be put on the 3:10 train to Yuma Prison, he jumps at the chance, despite the bloodthirsty gang that has vowed to rescue their leader.

This is a really good movie, and I’m not sure why. When you look at individual characters’ actions, they don’t always make sense, but it doesn’t even matter what the plot is. This movie is designed so that pretty much everything you want to happen in the movie actually happens, at exactly the right time, and it’s a perfect emotional rollercoaster. Christian Bale and Russell Crowe are amazing, Russell Crowe especially strikes the perfect balance of menace and thoughtfulness. The rest of the cast was terrific too – Alan Tudyk as the adorable town doctor, Logan Lerman as the rebellious oldest Evans son, Dallas Roberts as the company man who is made of stronger stuff than you’d think, Ben Foster (foreshadowing his Hell or High Water role) as the zealous bandit leader… pretty much everyone.

This movie is like The Shawshank Redemption (although nothing is as good as that movie) in that it’s a simple story, but satisfyingly told. Highly recommended.

Other Movies Watched

Moana (2016)

Moana longs for nothing else other than sailing on the open ocean but she has responsibilities as the daughter of the chief, and her people never leave the safe waters around their island. Despite her father’s disapproval, she gets her wish when the ocean picks her to restore the heart of Te Fiti, the goddess of life, and stop the darkness that has been spreading for a thousand years. Moana is a Disney musical, and so it’s got the formula down, but who cares if it’s predictable? It’s fun and heartwarming, the songs are great, and it turns out that the Rock (who plays the demigod Maui) has a really good singing voice.

Lethal Weapon (1987)

Troubled Vietnam vet and cop Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) has just lost his wife to a car accident, and the police department is worried about his mental health. They pair him up with veteran cop Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover), who is on the tail of a drug smuggling operation. In true buddy cop style, they don’t get along at first, but soon learn to appreciate each other’s different styles. I thought this would be just be a dumb action movie, but it’s got surprisingly interesting characters, they don’t seem larger than life like most action movie characters do.

Passengers (2016)

I was really looking forward to this movie – it’s set entirely on a spaceship (which looked gorgeous from the trailers), and it stars Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence! Unfortunately it was a little bit of a let down, mainly because it couldn’t seem to decide what tone it wanted to take. Chris Pratt plays a passenger who accidentally gets woken up from cryostasis 90 years early on a journey to colonize a new world, and wakes up a fellow passenger (Jennifer Lawrence) to keep him company. The movie can’t decide whether Chris Pratt’s character is creepy or just a great guy who got lonely – it wants all the drama of a huge moral dilemma, but also wants us to root for a simple romance. Plus, it absolutely wasted the sci-fi elements, the design and concept of the spaceship and the colonies was great, I would have loved to learn more.

Lion (2016)

Lion is based on the true story of Saroo Brierly, a young Indian boy who was separated from his family when he accidentally boarded a train that took him thousands of miles away. After he grows up (adopted by an Australian family), he manages to track his birth family using Google Earth and scattered memories. It’s a pretty amazing story, and the first half of the movie (featuring young Saroo’s story) is incredible. Once Saroo grows up, though, it becomes a little tedious – there isn’t actually much drama to Saroo’s story, so the movie tries to create it by having Saroo obsess and mope over and over again. I’d still recommend it based just on the first half, though.

Demolition Man (1993)

When psychopathic criminal Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes) gets resurrected from cryostasis in a future that has embraced peace and doesn’t have the skills to deal with his crimes, the San Angeles PD has no choice but to also resurrect his old nemesis, cop John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone) to catch him. This is a ridiculous science fiction action movie that makes no sense, but it’s a lot of fun – it’s got a wacky fascist-masquerading-as-benign future world, lots of explosions, both Wesley Snipes and Sylvester Stallone having a blast hamming it up, an amazingly earnest Sandra Bullock, a delightfully evil corporate overload – what more do you need?

Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)

Lethal Weapon 2 is a prime example of why sequels have a such a bad reputation. It gets rid of everything unique about the first movie and turns the characters into dumb comedic action stereotypes. I mean it’s not bad on its own – Joe Pesci is an especially great addition to the cast as the squirrely but excitable protected witness Leo Getz – but when compared to the first movie, it’s a definite step down. But if you’re just looking for campy and fun action, you can’t go wrong. I did read that the writer of the first movie, Shane Black, wrote a treatment for this movie that continued Riggs’ story arc and was pretty dark, but the studio didn’t want such a serious movie. I would’ve loved to see that version, though.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Feb 12-18, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Hacksaw Ridge is based on the real-life story of Desmond Doss, an American combat medic who served in World War II and was the first conscientious objector awarded the Medal of Honor for service above and beyond the call of duty. He single-handedly saved around 75 soldiers in the aftermath of a battle when almost everyone else had retreated.

Andrew Garfield plays Desmond Doss, and he’s fantastic. He comes off as naive and almost cute, but he’s also stubborn enough about his convictions to put up with constant harassment during boot camp and stand his ground. Everyone else in the movie does a great job too – it was hard for me to buy Hugo Weaving (Elrond in The Lord of the Rings movies) as a potbellied drunk, but he was good enough that I suspended my disbelief quickly. I’m a fan of Mel Gibson’s direction from the movie Apocalpyto, and from what I see here, I need to keep watching his movies. The confusion and terror of war is portrayed very well, it ranks up there with Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan.

I thought Doss’ story was amazing; I didn’t know the army allowed conscientious objectors to serve in combat, and that there were actually some decorated for bravery! After the movie, I read about Doss, and it turns out that he’s even more heroic in real life  – not all his exploits and injuries were depicted in the movie.

Other Movies Watched

Hell or High Water (2016)

This movie follows two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), who rob a series of Texas banks in order to save their family ranch. Jeff Bridges plays the Texas Ranger that is on their case, and he’s outstanding in the role. I thought the style of this movie was interesting, Wikipedia calls it a “neo-western”, which I didn’t realize was a genre. It does seem a lot like a Western, but it’s set in modern Texas. Hell or High Water isn’t exactly a happy movie, but it’s thoughtful, the characters are well-developed, and it strikes balanced notes of hope and realism at the end. Highly recommended.

Queen of Katwe (2016)

I’m a big fan of Mira Nair, and I was pretty excited to see her latest movie (based on a true story) about Phiona Mutesi, a girl from the slums of Katwe in Uganda who becomes a chess profigy. I love underdog stories, and chess is a particularly great example of it since you just need your mind to play well. Nair throws you into the sights and sounds of Katwe without much explanation, and it works really well. The actors seem like they’re mostly unknown, although we do have Lupita Nyong’o as Phiona’s mom and David Oyelowo as Phiona’s chess coach. This is simply a good movie – all the details are right, we get a vivid sense of where Phiona comes from and her story is truly inspiring.

Doctor Strange (2016)

I think this was the first Marvel Cinematic Universe movie in a few years that we didn’t see in theaters – we’re getting superhero fatigue. Doctor Strange is actually pretty good, though. Benedict Cumberbatch plays the arrogant genius (of course) neurosurgeon Stephen Strange who loses function in his hands after an accident. Seeking the use of his hands again, he ends up being the student of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who teaches him to be a powerful sorcerer. As he learns the use of his new powers, he has to stop being selfish and save the Earth from the Ancient One’s misguided former student (Mads Mikkelsen, who’s great, but absolutely wasted as a generic villain.) Cumberbatch is great is this role, he tempers Strange’s hubris with genuine sadness. For once, the end of the movie didn’t involve wanton property damage either.

Wyatt Earp (1994)

Wyatt Earp came out the year after Tombstone, which both Joseph and I really enjoyed, and I was skeptical of this movie since I thought it would cover the same story. Fortunately, it’s a pretty different movie – it’s more of a traditional biopic of Wyatt Earp and the events in Tombstone are just a part of the narrative. Kevin Costner’s Earp is a pretty flawed and relatable character, but you can see where the myths surrounding him came from. Dennis Quaid is almost unrecognizable (and very good) as Earp’s equally legendary friend, Doc Holliday. The movie seemed a little unfocused at times, but it was still pretty good.

 Allied (2016)

This movie stars Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard as two Allied spies that fall in love on a mission and try to build a life together. I almost loved this movie, it’s gorgeous, and the acting is wonderful. Unfortunately the plot doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the movie, the characters don’t seem consistent with their later actions (I can’t go into details because it would spoil the movie), and some parts of the movie were quite melodramatic. I also noticed a couple of major plotholes that pulled me out of the story a bit. The first act of the movie with the mission in Casablanca was really immersive, though.

Dragonfly (2002)

Dragonfly is a weird movie starring Kevin Costner as a doctor who believes his recently deceased wife is talking to him via patients with near-death experiences. I wasn’t really looking forward to watching this movie, but we’re slowly making our way through Kevin Costner’s entire catalogue, and we had to get to this at some point. I’m not a big fan of horror, and this movie definitely has horror tones, although it tries to imply that the things that are happening are also magical and desirable at the same time. Only M. Night Shyamalan can pull off the creepy/hopeful aesthetic with any degree of success, this movie just seemed like a bad knockoff. Watch The Sixth Sense or Signs instead.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Feb 5-11, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Ordinary People (1980)

Ordinary People is the directorial debut of Robert Redford, and won the Best Picture Oscar the year it came out. It is about a family dealing with the loss of their older son in a boating accident. Conrad, the younger son, has just returned from a four month stay at a psychiatric hospital, and his parents have very different reactions to the situation.

I thought this was a fantastic movie. Timothy Hutton and Mary Tyler Moore picked up major awards for their performances as Conrad and his mother Beth, and the other actors are great too – Donald Sutherland (playing someone who is not evil and/or crazy, for a change) is lovable as Conrad’s father Calvin, and Judd Hirsch plays the curmudgeonly psychiatrist to perfection. The story is subtly told, and the characters react to things like real people. That does mean they’re not always nice – Conrad’s mother Beth, for example, is selfish, emotionally distant, and overly concerned with appearances.

Ordinary People is fundamentally a happy movie – we see characters come to terms with themselves and the world around them. Unlike other movies (I’m looking at you, Captain Fantastic), that doesn’t mean a tidy ending where everything is tied up in a bow. and instead it takes the characters’ behavior to its logical conclusion. This really sealed the deal for me and catapulted the movie to one of my favorites.

Other Movies Watched

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)

Billy Lynn is an Iraqi war hero who is being paraded around the country with the rest of his squad for publicity before being redeployed. At the final stop on his tour, a halftime show for a Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving game, he contemplates his life and choices. I was pretty excited to see this movie because it’s directed by Ang Lee, who is amazing, and Chris Tucker is in it, and he’s rarely in movies these days.

I thought this movie was really good. The way the shots are framed can get uncomfortable at times, and it’s shot at 120 frames per second (movies are usually shot at 24 fps, the Hobbit movies were notable for being shot at 48 fps), which adds to the sense of discomfort. It was a good choice, though, because Billy is uncomfortable and it makes the audience feel more connected to his story. The acting and casting was great – newcomer Joe Alwyn as Billy, Vin Diesel as Billy’s staff sergeant that he gets a medal for trying to protect, Garrett Hedlund as the wry leader of Billy’s squad, Chris Tucker, Steve Martin, Kristen Stewart, pretty much everyone. The movie was also constantly self-referential, which I enjoyed – Billy’s squad is performing in a show while trying to get a movie made about their story, so there’s plenty of opportunity for meta dialogue.

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies (2014)

We watched the other two Hobbit movies last week, but I was most excited about this one because I hadn’t seen it before. It’s a great conclusion to the series, and as the title suggests, it’s basically one huge battle. Bilbo, as always, is the best character. Martin Freeman has a lot on his shoulders, and carries it beautifully. I was not a big fan of the interpersonal drama involving Tauriel, Legolas, and Kili – it seems like a cheap emotional ploy to get the audience to care about characters. I also thought Thranduil’s motivations could have been explained a little bit better, he seemed to do whatever was convenient to the plot. That being said, it was great to see the how the alliance of men, elves, and dwarves came together.

Titanic (1997)

I always think of Titanic as defining my generation. It was the first English movie that I remember being a huge deal in India. I only saw Titanic once, but I can sing The Heart Will Go On pretty much from memory, and I’m terrible at remembering lyrics. I hadn’t seen it for about fifteen years, though, so I was looking forward to seeing it from a fresh perspective. And… it’s pretty good, but it also has flaws.

James Cameron is the master of making formulaic movies that are made so well that you almost don’t notice the predictability, and Titanic is probably his masterpiece. The attention to detail is astounding – the sets are gorgeous and immersive, and the people walk, talk, and act differently from the way they do these days. They even filmed at the real Titanic wreck twelve times! But it is formulaic, and the characters are mostly just archetypes, and that’s okay – not every movie has to have well-rounded characters. Jack is only likeable because he’s everything Rose needs him to be, and isn’t really a character otherwise, and Cal seems to do whatever the plot needs him to do to be a villain.

Arrival (2016)

I was really excited about Arrival, I love sci-fi movies, and I’ve seen it reviewed with titles like “sci-fi masterpiece of a generation.” Well, it’s a good sci-fi movie, but it has too many flaws to be a masterpiece. We follow Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist who is chosen to try and communicate with newly arrived aliens. Her attempts to decipher the alien language are interspersed of shots of the story of her daughter. I loved the atmosphere of this movie, it takes a slow and contemplative approach to telling the story (a little like Interstellar.) However, the science depicted is the movie is terrible (the learning/teaching of the language scenes don’t account for so many variables and are almost painful to watch), and the movie eventually turns into a generic save-the-world-before-time-runs-out plot. A lot of movies get science wrong, so it’s not that big of a deal, and the movie was still enjoyable because it was well-made.

Mad Max (1979)

In a post-apocalyptic future, Max Rockatansky is one of the best cops to police the roads. When a gang of criminal bikers hurt his partner and then his family, Max seeks revenge. I didn’t enjoy this movie very much, although Joseph loves the sequel and says it is very different, so we’ll keep watching the series. The movie throws you right into the world without explanation, and it takes a while to figure out what’s going on. The way it’s shot and the action scenes are compelling, especially on such a low budget. I didn’t like the pacing, for most of the movie, things happen, but don’t seem to matter at all, and so it’s boring. Max only does something in in the last fifteen minutes of the movie. The other part I didn’t like was that we just keep hearing about how Max is the best, but it seemed entirely like telling, not showing.

Backdraft (1991)

I’ve liked several of Ron Howard’s movies (Apollo 13, Willow, A Beautiful Mind), so I was expecting Backdraft to be pretty good, but unfortunately, it’s terrible. It’s two different movies fused together – one is about finding a dangerous arsonist that’s been murdering people, the other is about two firefighters/brothers who can’t get along learning to trust each other. The arson investigation is actually pretty great – Robert De Niro plays the curmudgeonly investigator who has all the best lines in the movie, Donald Sutherland plays a delightfully crazed imprisoned arsonist – and if the movie only focused on that, it would be terrific. Unfortunately, it’s main focus is a badly-written and over-sentimental “family” plot, and it just doesn’t work.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Jan 29-Feb 4, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), a young man in New York City in the 50s, is struggling to get by on small jobs. He is given the opportunity to travel to Italy to convince Dickie Greenleaf, a wealthy industrialist’s son, to come back home and take on some responsibility. When he gets to Italy, he falls in love with Dickie’s lifestyle, and ends up taking extreme measures to ensure that he doesn’t lose it.

I absolutely love this movie, and it’s probably Matt Damon’s best performance ever. You can see echoes of his character in The Good Shepherd, The Informant! and even Interstellar, but none of those roles beat Tom Ripley. He’s clearly a monster, but you can’t help but sympathize with him, especially given Dickie’s cavalier attitude towards the feelings of other people (Jude Law does a brilliant job of being an absolute cad) and the casual attitude that Ripley’s acquaintances have towards their privilege. Matt Damon makes Ripley seem tragic, not despicable – how could you hate someone so consumed, but only looking to preserve themselves?

The ending of this movie is brutal, but it’s the only ending that makes sense. I highly recommend this movie.

Other Movies Watched

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

This is probably the third or fourth time I’ve watched this movie (although not all of them have been the extended edition like this one was.) It’s a big time investment – it’s over four hours long, but it’s amazing.

This is the Gondor movie, it’s where we first see Minas Tirith, and the Battle of the Pelennor Fields happens. There are some seriously good moments – Eowyn battling the Witch-King of Angmar, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli descending upon the Corsairs with the Army of the Dead, Sam carrying Frodo up Mount Doom, Aragorn’s response to the hobbits bowing to him, and so on. I’m always a tiny bit miffed that the Scouring of the Shire didn’t make it to film, but given how long the ending of this movie is, I understand why they cut it. I love this movie!

The Insider (1999)

The real-life story of Jeffrey Wigand, a former top executive at a tobacco company turned whistleblower, and Lowell Bergman, the producer at 60 Minutes who helped him tell his story despite enormous pressure not to. This is an excellent movie, and Russell Crowe and Al Pacino do an excellent job as the leads. It’s directed by Michael Mann (who did Heat) and I don’t think he can make a bad movie – he pays meticulous attention to every detail. The first half of the movie has the feel of a thriller (as the tobacco company tries to silence Wigand), which is not usual for biopics, but apparently all the details of the story are real.

The Beaver (2011)

A quirky movie about a severely depressed man, Walter (Mel Gibson), who discovers that he can turn his life around by inventing an alternate persona using a talking beaver puppet. I thought this would be just another fluffy movie, but it takes on the realities of mental illness straight on, which takes it to some dark places, although the ending is upbeat. It’s directed by and stars Jodie Foster, and she’s great in everything she does. Walter’s son’s story is probably the weakest part of the movie, although Anton Yelchin does an excellent job. It was weird to see Jennifer Lawrence playing an average high school girl, I’m used to her playing an outlier.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

For a Star Trek fan, I’m ashamed that I haven’t seen all the movies yet (well, maybe not Star Trek V), so I’m glad we’re starting to watch them. After watching this one, I just have Star Trek III and Star Trek V to go, although we will be watching the movies in order and rewatching the ones I’ve already seen. I’d heard bad things about this movie, but it’s actually pretty good. It’s definitely slow, and feels more like a high-budget and long episode of the show (in terms of plot), but it’s good. It’s filmed like it’s trying to be a serious science fiction film, and not just a Star Trek movie, and I thought that was cool. I wish the most recent Star Trek film series would take some cues from this and be more thoughtful.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

We’ve only watched the first two movies of this series, and only the theatrical editions, but we recently bought the extended edition set, and now that we’ve finished rewatching Lord of the Rings, we’re watching through The Hobbit.

I wish they had made the tone of these movies similar to the tone of the book (a more light hearted adventure), but once I got past that feeling, this is a pretty good movie. After all, Bilbo and the dwarves’ actions do hobble Sauron for a while, and Sauron is a pretty fearsome enemy, so I guess the epic tone makes sense. The first movie tells the story of the dwarves’ quest to reclaim Erebor from the Shire to when they finally arrive within sight of Erebor, with some flashbacks along the way.

I thought it was a little too fast paced (it is three hours long, but it seems like they’re constantly running from danger with no pauses.) It’s also really hard to tell most of the dwarves apart – I wish there had been more of an introduction to each character. It was great to see Frodo and Gollum again, though… and Galadriel and Saruman and Elrond and old Bilbo, and even Lindir (Bret McKenzie from Flight of the Conchords, who became a meme in the early days of internet memes.) And Martin Freeman is really great as Bilbo.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

The second movie in The Hobbit series, this tells the story of the dwarves quest until Smaug leaves the mountain to destroy Esgaroth (Lake-town.)  I liked this movie more than the first one because it slows down a little. The wood elves of Mirkwood have a completely different temperament than the nice elves of Rivendell and Lothlórien, and Lee Pace plays King Thranduil (who happens to be the father of Legolas) chillingly. Legolas is in this movie quite a bit too, and he isn’t quite the friendly and laid back elf we know so well from The Lord of the Rings.

Martin Freeman as Bilbo continues to be marvelous – he’s really the heart of this series, everyone else is only interested in their own concerns. Benedict Cumberbatch is great as the voice of Smaug (and the Necromancer) too, you can tell he’s having fun hamming it up. I’m really looking forward to the third movie because I haven’t seen it yet, and because I’m curious to see how it all turns out since it needs to lay the groundwork for The Lord of the Rings. Everyone in this movie is entirely too suspicious and skeptical of each other – I don’t see how a fellowship of different races could have even come together in the political climate depicted in these movies.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Jan 22-28, 2017

This week has been very much about binging – I’ve been reading only Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria books, and I’ve been watching mostly Vin Diesel movies (The Fast and the Furious series, but also Riddick.)

Favorite Movie of the Week

Kundun (1997)

This is Martin Scorcese’s biopic of the 14th (and current) Dalai Lama, telling his story from when he was his discovered as a child to when he was forced to leave Tibet for his own safety a few years after he assumed his full powers.

The acting is very good – none of the actors are professional, and the adult Dalai Lama is actually played by a relative of the real life Dalai Lama. The sets and atmosphere are full of painstaking detail, and it makes for a thoroughly immersive experience. The writing is subtle, but has a powerful impact. The scenes with the Dalai Lama meeting Mao stood out to me (just because it made me angry), but the entire movie is vivid and compelling. And of course it’s Martin Scorsese – he can’t make a bad movie as far as I can tell.

The focus is very much on the political struggle between Tibet and China, but it’s told entirely from the Dalai Lama’s point of view. Since he doesn’t often leave his palace, this means most of the dramatic scenes are people bringing news to him about what’s happening in the world, which I found a little boring at times. However, it makes a great companion movie to Seven Years in Tibet, which covers the Dalai Lama during the same period of time, but focuses on entirely different details.

Other Movies Watched

Riddick (2013)

I’m a fan of Vin Diesel’s space opera Riddick series, and so I was pretty excited to see the newest one, also titled Riddick. This one is more like the first one of the series (Pitch Black), since it’s about survival on a planet where the native animals are not friendly (to put it lightly.) I enjoyed it, although I wished it had more space opera elements like The Chronicles of Riddick. I enjoy Riddick’s unapologetic competence, even though I usually find flawless characters somewhat annoying. I’m glad they’re filming a new movie in this series this year.

Fast & Furious (2009)

The fourth movie in The Fast and the Furious franchise – Letty has been murdered, and FBI agent Brian (Paul Walker) and his old quarry Dom (Vin Diesel) are both after the drug dealer who she was working for. We’ve been excited about this movie since it unites Brian and Dom again after the first movie, and it was actually pretty great. Yes, it has a lot of action, but the characters and their relationships are fairly heartfelt. In fact, it was so good that it caused us to binge on the rest of the movies as you’ll see below.

Fast Five (2011)

This movie reunites all the best characters of the first four movies into a single crew. Brian, who makes a pretty shitty cop, has finally embraced his criminal side by breaking Dom out of prison, and ends up on the run from the authorities (represented by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) in Brazil. When they end up on the wrong side of a nefarious businessman, they call in all their old friends (including Roman and Tej from 2 Fast 2 Furious, Han from The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, and Gisele from Fast & Furious) for a $100 million dollar retirement heist. This was the first movie to focus on a heist, and it was pretty fun, as most heist movies are. The main draw for me is the characters, and they continue to be great.

Fast & Furious 6 (2013)

This is where the series starts getting bad again, in my opinion. Agent Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) recruits Dom and his crew from their retirement to stop a crew of experienced drivers from stealing the parts for some secret defense project (the details don’t matter, it’s a MacGuffin.) In exchange, their crimes will be pardoned and they can live in the US again. The plot was okay, but they’re up against criminals of a higher caliber than they have dealt with in the past, and so it makes their exploits look increasingly ridiculous. The characters have gone from being ordinary but skilled people to near superheroes, since the stakes keep getting higher. Also, I wasn’t happy with how a character death was handled, there was barely any focus on it.

Furious 7 (2015)

This movie is just terrible, except for the very end where there’s a moving tribute to Paul Walker’s character Brian O’Conner (since Paul Walker died during the filming of the movie.) Jason Statham plays the antagonist Deckard Shaw, a disavowed British special forces assassin with a vendetta against the crew. And since he’s so overpowered, our crew gets their own spy backer (Kurt Russell playing Mr. Nobody, I mean I love Kurt Russell, but still) who provides them with crazy gadgets so that they can rescue a hacker and her futuristic surveillance technology. This is supposed help them find Deckard Shaw – except that he seems to possess a magical ability to know exactly where and when their missions are going to be, and he’s always right there anyway. I don’t know why they decided to make a movie in this franchise about hackers, it removed everything unique about the series and turned it into a not-as-good Mission Impossible clone.

Kuffs (1992)

This action-comedy stars Christian Slater as George Kuffs, a lazy drifter who inherits his brother’s police station (a quirk of San Francisco’s policing system) after he is murdered. He decides to actually try and clean up the neighborhood in memory of his brother, and hilarity ensues. I didn’t enjoy this movie very much, although Joseph liked it more. I thought it couldn’t decide on a tone – it went from slapstick to serious to slapstick again, and I couldn’t invest in the characters. Some parts of it were pretty funny, though, and Bruce Boxleitner as Kuffs’ brother was great (I’d probably do a lot to avenge him too.)

Weekly Movie Reviews: Jan 15-21, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Captain Fantastic (2016)

Disillusioned with the standard American lifestyle, Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Leslie have made the unusual choice of moving to the middle of the woods and homeschooling their six children, teaching them survivalism and critical thinking in addition to the usual curriculum. The kids end up being ridiculously smart and athletic, but know very little about the world. When Leslie (who has been hospitalized for bipolar disorder) kills herself, the rest of her family is forced to reintegrate into society in order to attend her funeral.

This is very much a quirky comedy drama (think Little Miss Sunshine) about a “weird” family that is still very close to each other. It reminded me of the movie The Mosquito Coast, except that unlike Harrison Ford’s character, Ben Cash isn’t a raging egomaniac and so it didn’t all end in tragedy.

Captain Fantastic is a great movie, but it is very much constrained by the genre that it aspires to be. The first half of the movie explores the uniqueness of the Cash family, but it soon hits some predictable notes of emotional drama that’s clearly just an impetus for the character growth it’s trying to get to, and it doesn’t quite ring true. It devolves into a more formulaic movie after that, culminating in a disappointingly conformist and saccharine ending. The ending also felt inconsistent – earlier scenes in the movie emphasized the good things about Ben and Leslie’s decisions on how to raise their kids (the scene where Zaja talks about the Bill of Rights, for example), but the ending seems to imply that they would have better off being normal all along. If it wasn’t trying so hard to be a feel-good inoffensive movie, Captain Fantastic might have actually had something unique to say.

That being said, I think this movie was very good – I’m only complaining about it because it was so close to being extraordinary. The acting in particular is amazing – the child actors help carry the film just as much as Viggo Mortensen does, which is saying a lot.

Other Movies Watched

The Revenant (2015)

I was really not looking forward to watching this movie (despite it winning so many awards) because it just looked so bleak. A faithful look at the things that humans had to do to survive in the wilderness in the 1820s seemed like it wouldn’t be very pleasant to watch, either.  And both of those things are true – the movie is excruciating to watch at times, and it is indeed unrelentingly bleak. But it’s also very good, and it’s a satisfying revenge story. Leonardo DiCaprio is phenomenal as the protagonist Hugh Glass, who is abandoned by his companions far from civilization after being mauled by a bear. It’s based loosely on a real life story, but the grimmest elements are all completely fictional. Tom Hardy is terrifying as the villainous Fitzgerald, he made me physically uncomfortable sometimes. It’s definitely worth watching, especially for the cinematography – it has some incredibly stunning shots of landscapes.

The Phantom of the Opera (2004)

I don’t usually enjoy musicals very much, so I wasn’t enthusiastic about watching The Phantom of the Opera. I saw it on Broadway a few years ago, so I’m familiar with the story. It was actually a pretty good movie, though. The music is probably the best part – it’s haunting and beautifully sung. Emmy Rossum (who I like from other things) does a great job as the wide-eyed and innocent Christine Daae, and Patrick Wilson (as Raoul) has a great singing voice as well. I didn’t really like Gerard Butler as the Phantom, though. I thought he had the weakest voice, and he didn’t come across as very sympathetic.

Deepwater Horizon (2016)

I didn’t know much about Deepwater Horizon except that there was an oil spill, I had no idea that it was an oil rig that exploded and people lost their lives. This was a pretty standard “real life disaster” movie, starting off with things being normal, showing the main character’s loving wife and cute kid, and then recreating the day of the disaster. I enjoyed it because I didn’t know much about the world of oil drilling so I learned a few things, plus I like Mark Wahlberg and Kurt Russell.

Æon Flux (2005)

In 2415, most of humanity has been wiped out by a plague, and all of the survivors live in the futuristic city of Bregna, ruled by the Goodchild dynasty. The Monicans are the resistance against the Goodchilds, and Æon Flux (Charlize Theron) is the most deadly of them. When she is assigned to kill Chairman Trevor Goodchild, in the course of completing her mission, she realizes that there’s a lot she doesn’t know about the world and now she has to figure out what the right thing to do is. I really wanted to like this movie – it’s stylized and slick sci-fi and the set design is gorgeous. It lacked something, though – it either didn’t succeed at being stylized enough to be good, or maybe it’s just that the world seemed implausible and not lived-in, and the characters were fairly emotionless and it was hard to relate to them.

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)

We weren’t really looking forward to this movie because it doesn’t have any of the usual The Fast and the Furious characters, but we committed to watching the series in order, so we had to get to it. Going into it with absolutely zero expectations, it wasn’t that bad. It follows American teenager Sean who gets into trouble for racing cars and causing property damage a little too often, so instead of going to jail, he gets sent to Tokyo to live with his dad (not sure how that works.) Of course, he ends up racing cars again, but he’s taken under the wing of Han, a garage owner who apparently doesn’t care about how much damage Sean does in his quest to actually learn how to race well. Eventually Sean figures out how to race well, beat his Yakuza-connected rival, and get his girlfriend. Because this movie is about teenagers, it’s a little bit less fun than the other movies, but exactly what you’d expect otherwise. There is a Vin Diesel cameo, which was nice.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016)

We enjoyed the first Jack Reacher movie so I was looking forward to this one, but unfortunately it was a disappointment. Tom Cruise reprises his role as former Army military policeman and lone wolf Jack Reacher, this time unraveling a conspiracy that has his military contact Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders) accused of espionage. Jack Reacher is an unusual protagonist, but his uniqueness is neutered by having to partner with a love interest and an annoying teenager for the entire movie. The acting, especially by the actress who plays his potential daughter, wasn’t that great either. Rotten Tomatoes calls it “monotonously formulaic”, and that’s a great way of putting it.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Jan 8-14, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Interstellar (2014)

I’ve seen this movie before (when it was in theaters), but I’m still counting it as a favorite movie of the week because I love it so much. I’ve loved space ever since I first read A Brief History of Time when I was fourteen, and this is a movie that celebrates loving space and exploration and pioneering and charting the unknown. I can’t think of any other movie that does that so well, except Contact (which I also love) and that’s not really about space.

In the near future, humanity is dying because our crops are affected with an incurable blight. Former NASA pilot Coop takes an offer to pilot a new spaceship to help humanity find a new world – even though that means he won’t be able to see his daughter Murphy grow up because of time dilation. Coop’s idealism about the role of humanity and his love for his family don’t seem compatible, but he ends up needing both to succeed at his mission.

This isn’t a perfect movie by any means – some character motivations (Michael Caine’s character, particularly) don’t make sense sometimes, and there’s some handwaving around how problems finally resolve themselves. But it does a great job of conveying a sense of how much people don’t know yet about the universe and the awe and wonder of discovery. It’s sincerely hopeful about humanity’s ability to do great things despite massive setbacks, and I think there’s not enough of that sentiment these days. The score (by Hans Zimmer, but admittedly inspired by the Koyaanisqatsi score by Philip Glass) is beautiful as well. And Matthew McConaughey is fantastic as the protagonist, as are all three actors playing Murph.

Other Movies Watched

April and the Extraordinary World (2015)

If I hadn’t watched Interstellar this week, this would’ve probably been my favorite movie of the week. April and the Extraordinary World is a French-Belgian-Canadian animated film that follows April, a young scientist in an alternate history/steampunk world. Most scientists are either disappearing mysteriously or being forcibly recruited to the war effort, and April must avoid both these fates as she tries to recreate her parents’ invulnerability serum. The animation style of the movie is beautiful (and very different from the Disney and Japanese animation styles I’m used to.) It’s also a heartening story with a fascinating world, a stubborn and brave heroine, and a feisty talking cat. Highly recommended.

Gandhi (1982)

This was a re-watch for us, although we didn’t remember the movie very well since we watched it a few years ago. As the name implies, it’s a biopic of Mahatma Gandhi, with Ben Kingsley playing the title role. It follows Gandhi’s life starting with his fight for civil rights in South Africa all the way to his assassination. It’s a really good movie, and Ben Kingsley deserves the Oscar for Best Actor that he won for it. As with many biopics, the movie shows an extremely rosy perspective of the subject, and Gandhi is portrayed as almost flawless. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, though, it’s a deliberate choice, and the movie acknowledges that you can’t capture a person’s life in a single telling.

Last Action Hero (1993)

Another re-watch of a movie I barely remembered, other than the fact that I loved it. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Jack Slater, a cop in L.A. in a franchise of ridiculous action films (basically a parody of his usual roles.) When Danny, a teenage movie buff, is magically transported into a Jack Slater movie, he has to help his hero foil the bad guys, who have discovered the magical transportation technology and threaten the real world too. I think of this movie as The Princess Bride of action movies, it’s a very loving parody, and a great action movie itself (it’s made by John McTiernan, who did Die Hard – arguably the best action movie of all time.) It also manages to be heartwarming.

The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

Yet another re-watch. We’re watching our way through the Lord of the Rings somewhat slowly (mainly because we’re watching the extended versions, and they’re about four hours long each.) I wish there were more fantasy movies like these movies, they’re beautiful and epic and complex. The Two Towers is mostly about Rohan, while introducing us to Gondor through Frodo and Sam’s journey. The Battle of Helm’s Deep is probably what people remember most about this movie, and that’s because it’s very well done. The fall of Isengard (long overdue!) also happens in this movie. I don’t think I paid enough attention to Gollum’s internal struggles previously, and how they change after he’s captured by Faramir – it made me much more sympathetic to Gollum.

Thunderball (1965)

We’re slowly watching our way through all the Bond movies (although not necessarily in chronological order, we’re already done with the Brosnan and Craig movies.) Sean Connery made James Bond a classic, and he continues to be great in this movie, which is the fourth in the franchise. I think this is my least favorite of the Connery movies so far, though, just because it fit the Bond template so well that I was a little bored by it. There is a lot of underwater action in this movie, which seems like a cool technical accomplishment, but made the fight scenes somewhat ponderous. The henchmen, the villain and the Bond girls were fine too, but didn’t stand out.

Spectral (2016)

This movie was recommended to me on Reddit as being similar to Aliens, Starship Troopers, and Pitch Black, with the caveat of “it’s not as good as those movies”. I think that’s a great description of this movie. In the middle of a warzone in Moldova, U.S. soldiers start encountering ghostly forms that kill them instantly. A DARPA engineer (James Badge Dale) is sent to investigate and has to work with a CIA agent (Emily Mortimer) and a Delta team to figure out what’s going on and stop it. I was worried that this would have significant horror tones (given the name and comparison to Aliens and Pitch Black), but it’s pretty much just a sci-fi action movie. It’s not subtle, some of the dialogue is way too on the nose, the technobabble is pretty implausible, but it’s fun. Spectral is a Netflix original, and I hope this does well and they make more sci-fi movies!

Weekly Movie Reviews: Jan 1-7, 2017

Favorite Movies of the Week

Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

I was highly skeptical of this movie before I watched it because I’d never seen a non-narrative film before. How could a movie that was essentially just a bunch of random clips with music possibly hold my attention for nearly an hour and a half? As it turns out, pretty well.

I’m not sure exactly sure how to describe Koyaanisqatsi. There are no actors and there’s no dialogue or narration, it’s just very well edited slow motion or time lapsed footage with a beautiful score. It starts off with videos of desert vistas, waves, and clouds, and then switches to depicting human involvement with nature, for example, a mining truck emitting large black cloud of gas, explosions and bombs, and then goes entirely into showing cities. It isn’t really something that can be described by words, though, it’s an experience that’s uniquely suited to a movie.

Koyaanisqatsi is apparently a Hopi word that means “life out of balance”, but I didn’t get that from the movie. I think it was just showing life from an unusual perspective. I think if an alien or a god made a movie that was a montage of the Earth, this might be close to it. I say an alien or a god because everything that’s depicted in this movie is decidedly not the way a human would perceive things. Most things are either in slow motion or sped up, and they are observed from odd angles. The few things that are filmed at regular speed are unnatural in other ways, like people being too still.

It’s awe inspiring to see everyday things  from such a unique perspective. I highly recommend Koyaanisqatsi, and I’m looking forward to seeing the other movies in the “Qatsi trilogy”, as well as the similar movies that Koyaanisqatsi  cinematographer Ron Fricke has made.

Legend (1985)

I’m a fan of Ridley Scott, Tom Cruise, and fantasy (of course), so I’ve wanted to watch this movie for a really long time. I figured it would be a cheesy fantasy movie of the sort The Princess Bride so lovingly satirized. And if you just look at the plot, it does confirm to those stereotypes – forest dwelling Jack (Tom Cruise) has to save the world (and his friend Princess Lily) from the evil sorcerer Darkness who wants to prevent the sun from ever rising again.

This movie is a lot better than just the plot would indicate, though. Ridley Scott is fantastic at atmosphere when he’s trying to be (think Blade Runner), and Legend is almost overwhelming in its depiction of a dark fairy tale world. Before it succumbs to Darkness’s influence, the forest is absolutely teeming with life, the background always has something interesting going on. When Darkness’s influence kicks in, the forest instantly turns into a scary and frozen wasteland with the same sort of details. I don’t think I’ve seen such an immersive fantasy movie before – even the Lord of the Rings trilogy is more grounded. The closest I can think of is Pan’s Labyrinth, and even that is more relatable since it’s partly based on our world. Everything else is great too, especially the characters. Jack’s party of friends are eerie at times, funny at other times, and contribute to the sense of other-worldliness. I also really liked the ending (I watched the Director’s Cut of the movie, which has a different ending than the American theatrical release), it was sweeter and less cliched than I thought it would be.

Make sure to watch the Director’s Cut if you watch this movie because the theatrical release did not get good reviews. There’s apparently a lot that is different, including the soundtrack, the ending, and the length. Case in point – Roger Ebert  originally gave this movie a bad review, but upon watching the Director’s Cut, he said it was one of his favorite movies.

Other Movies Watched

The Losers (2010)

I’m a sucker for action movies, Chris Evans, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, so I was looking forward to this movie about a special forces team seeking revenge against their superiors for trying to kill them after a sensitive mission. It was exactly what I hoped it would be – dumb fun with some charismatic actors to liven it up. The villain was incredibly over the top, even for a ridiculous action movie, but it is based on a comic book, so I guess that makes sense. I wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel to this, but there doesn’t appear to be one planned.

The Jungle Book (2016)

I was pretty skeptical about this live action remake of the Disney animated classic, but I liked it better than I thought I would. It is not a straight up remake, the story is significantly different in places. Mowgli actually has a character growth arc, it’s not just a simple adventure story, and that works better for a live action film. The main actor came really close to annoying me (it’s hard to get child actors right), but ultimately ended up winning me over. Also, Bill Murray makes a great Baloo.

The Mask of Zorro (1998)

Pretty much what I expected it to be – a fun and cheesy movie about a masked swashbuckler defending the powerless people of California during the time when it was still part of Mexico. I haven’t seen any other Zorro media before, so I’m not sure if this is typical, but for a movie about a hero of the masses, there was entirely too much focus on the nobility. Antonio Banderas’s Zorro goes from stealing from the common people to becoming their defender, and we’re not supposed to think too much about why. That’s okay, though, because who doesn’t want to see Antonio Banderas charm and swordfight his way through trouble?

In The Valley of Elah (2007)

Tommy Lee Jones stars in this movie based on the real life story of a retired military policeman investigating the disappearance of his son who has just gotten back from a tour in Iraq. I really enjoyed the first two thirds of this movie, it was stark and atmospheric, but it fell apart in the last act because the story and execution got incredibly heavy handed. It wasn’t as bad as Crash (director Paul Haggis’s previous movie), which had the subtlety of a hammer all the way through, but it still ruined the movie for me. I think I’m extra frustrated because it was so close to being a great movie, the first two thirds was subtle and quiet, and I expected so much more.

The Accountant (2016)

Ben Affleck plays a high-functioning autistic accountant whose specialty is finding fraud for criminal organizations. This ended up being much more of an action movie than I thought it would be – Ben Affleck’s character’s employers end up frequently wanting to kill him, so he’s no stranger to violence. I liked the movie overall, although the dialogue is badly written at times, and it relies too much on surprising the viewer with twists that seem to come out of nowhere. Otherwise, it’s a very well executed movie, it’s slick, and Ben Affleck’s performance is great. I also liked Anna Kendrick’s character, I always think I’m going to hate her in things (I’m not really sure why), but I’ve liked her in every movie I’ve seen her in.

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.