2018年9月20日 星期四

Some Other Movies From 2018

The highest-grossing films of 2018 (so far) are Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (?), Incredibles 2, and Mission: Impossible: Fallout.

Some Good Ones

1. Padmaavat

This Alauddin guy is bad news!  In this Hindi-language historical drama Muslim and Hindu empires clash after a new Sultan attempts to realize his "destiny" in the form of a radiantly beautiful princess.  Strange as it may seem, Hindi film aficionados and social justice warriors have found common ground in hating this movie, and while it's definitely NOT great I do think there's a lot to be said for it.

Fun Fact #1: Sharukh Khan was originally offered the male lead in this movie.

Fun Fact #2: A lot of people got worked up over this film during its production in India.  Cast and crew were assaulted, and there were attempts to ban the film entirely.  It's still banned in Malaysia, due its "negative portrayal of a Muslim ruler."

Because of course - as we all know - those Muslim rulers were all great guys, right?

2. You Were Never Really Here

Certain aspects of this movie will remind you of the Marv subplot in Sin City, but Joaquin Phoenix is excellent as a disturbed man who finds lost children.  I'm looking forward to his version of The Joker.

3. Annihilation

Been wanting to see this one for a while.  Alex Garland directed this thought-provoking movie about mankind's first encounter with an alien life form.  It's creepy in the way that all truly great science fiction films are.

4. Thoroughbreds*

Ana Taylor-Joy is great in another eerie movie.  In this one she's a high school student plotting the murder of her stepfather.  It was originally conceived as a play, but it works well as a movie, too.

Not-So-Fun Fact: This was Anton Yelchin's second-to-last movie, and it was released after his death.  Yelchin died after his Jeep Grand Cherokee rolled backwards down his driveway and crushed him.

5. The Equalizer 2

Set your watch!  Cue manly superspy action sequence!  Hya!  Hya!  Hya!  Punch!  Kick!  Repeat!

This movie's just about what you'd expect it to be.  Not as good as the first one, but watchable in the way that most sequels are.  OF COURSE Denzel Washington kills all the bad guys.  OF COURSE he mourns his dead wife.  OF COURSE he finds out his best friend was behind the whole thing.  OF COURSE there's a hostage and Denzel, superspy that he is, manages to save said hostage before the end of the movie.

I did like the subplot between Washington and his young neighbor, though this type of story was done much better in Antwone Fisher.

6. Skyscraper

The Towering Inferno isn't just my favorite disaster film, it's also one of my favorite films of the 1970s.  Skyscraper shares a lot with that much earlier movie, though it lacks the charming ridiculousness of its predecessor.

One surprising thing about Skyscraper is how much more relatable Dwayne Johnson is in this movie.  His character has a vulnerable, broken aspect that lends a lot to the film, and the subplot involving his family works well.

Less successful are the Die Hard/terrorist elements in the movie.  The bad guys are SO inept that it's hard to maintain any interest in what they're doing or why.  I was never a big fan of Bruce Willis' most famous franchise, but the terrorists in this movie make any of the Die Hard villains look fascinating by comparison.

7. A Star is Born

Lady Gaga is a surprisingly good actress, even if her astonishing voice does carry most of the movie.  Bradley Cooper is also a good first-time director, and his on-screen performance as "Jackson Maine" ranks among the best things he's ever done.  I've seen the 70s version, and this one is miles better.

8. First Man

This film about Neil Armstrong is on the slow side, but the tension during the spaceflight scenes is incredible.  I may be a bit biased because I'm obsessed with space travel, but in my opinion this character study of Armstrong is done well.

9. Bohemian Rhapsody

It's... ok.  Watching Rami Malek lipsync for two hours gets old, and this movie feels like a sanitized version of how Queen came to be, but it's watchable and Queen songs always make time pass quicker.  I get why Sasha Baron Cohen got frustrated with the project and walked out.  Having Brian May constantly looking over your shoulder would grow tiresome.

10. Creed II

It's not nearly as good as the first, it takes a while to get going, but the second half is the Rocky goodness you were hoping for.  The movie seems to indicate that Stallone will be retiring Rocky from the franchise, and if so it's a suitable sendoff for cinema's best-known boxer.

11. Crazy Rich Asians

Well, it's a rom-com.  I read the book, so I knew what was going to happen.  It's fairly well done, but the movie fails to communicate the opulence of Nick's family.  Definitely predictable.  Definitely not high art.  But entertaining as these things go.

One That I Wanted To Like, But Which Made Me Sleepy

1. A Wrinkle in Time

A giant, house-sized Oprah Winfrey - nothing could be more terrifying to Donald Trump supporters.  With all the miscegenation, multiculturalism, and positive nonreligious social values on display in this movie, such people could be excused from thinking of this as horror with a capital "H."

I never read the children's book, but I'm assuming it's better than the movie.  The movie is really talky in parts, and if you haven't guessed that the Power of Loving Others and the Power of Loving Yourself win out in the end, you really haven't been paying attention.  I was asleep for half it, and I still figured out the ending fairly easily.

Director Ava DuVernay's involvement in the potential New Gods movie makes a lot more sense to me now.  That would probably resemble a slightly more adult version of this film.

Bad?  Good?  Not Sure!

1. Detective Chinatown 2

If you've ever seen the Japanese Detective Conan cartoon, this is like a live-action version of that.  The off-putting thing about it is that it's so incredibly HYPER, and one gets the feeling that all the cuts and shifts in perspective are put there solely to distract you from a plot that really doesn't make any sense.  I found it interesting from the vantage point of someone trying to fathom big-budget Mainland Chinese film making (and also what they think is "funny"), but be warned that any attempt to understand this movie will probably give you a headache.

Some Bad Ones

1. Gotti

Noted Scientologist John Travolta's attempt at an Oscar.  I can't say that Travolta's bad in the role, but Goodfellas it ain't.  The guy who plays Gotti's son is a real weak point, and at several points in the movie I found my mind wandering.  Worst of all, the movie is continually playing up Gotti's popularity within the community without ever demonstrating why he'd enjoy such popularity.

I'd recommend the Armand Assante version.  It's much, much better than this one.

2. Shock and Awe

Ugh.  So heavy-handed.  James Marsden and Woody Harrelson star as reporters covering the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq following 9/11.  And it's not the heavy-handedness that bothers me most.  What bothers me most is the question any good reporter would ask: "Where's the story?"  We all now know that the WMD thing was bullshit... so where's the story?  This movie seemingly doesn't have one, and in place of a story it has a rickety script peppered with news footage from the time.  Rob Reiner has directed some good films, but this isn't one of them.

Related Entries:

Some Other Movies From 2016
Some Other Movies From 2014
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A Review of Every Marvel Movie from 2008 to the Present (Revised as of July 4, 2018)

*Not sure if this movie belongs to 2018 or 2017.  Wikipedia says 2017, but other sites say differently.

"April Fool's Day" by Bryce Courtenay (1993)

"Damon turned to me.  'Dad, I told him you'd be coming tonight, that you'd hug him, that you'd be his dad as much as he wanted.'  Damon looked up at me, his eyes swollen from crying, suddenly he buried his head into my chest.  'But you got here too late,' he sobbed."

Bryce Courtenay was a South African-born Australian author.  He passed away in 2012.  He is best remembered for his novel The Power of One, which was adapted into a movie in 1992.*

I haven't read The Power of One, but it's got to be an easier read than April Fool's DayApril Fool's Day is the story of the author's son Damon, a hemophiliac who died a slow and painful death after acquiring the AIDS virus during a routine blood transfusion.  The title refers to the day on which Damon died.

And Jesus Christ, I'd be hard pressed to find a more depressing book that this one.  Even Angela's Ashes, which I also read not long ago, has at least a bit of black humor to relieve it.  April Fool's Day has none of that, and what we are instead treated to is a long, laborious description of Damon's misfortunes from beginning to end.  Even the happy parts are sad, because you know from the very first chapter that Damon's going to die.

Not that my saying this book is "sad" is a valid criticism.  Plenty of great books are sad.  The Gulag Archipelago, for one.  1984 for another.  Many giants of literature wrote some truly sad shit, but this takes nothing away from what they wrote.

No, my one, real complaint about April Fool's Day is that it's kind of a mess.  The author himself admits at several points that he may have been too close to the subject matter, and I can heartily confirm that yes, he was.  He's never quite sure if he wants this book to be a loving memorial to his son or an indictment of the Australian medical establishment.  The book exhibits mood swings (changes in tone) as violent as the people it attempts to describe, and the changes between different people's points of view doesn't help matters any.  I have no doubt that Bryce Courtenay could have written a great book to memorialize his son, but this isn't it.  He was simply too close to the events he was describing, and too close to the people he put into the book.

If Bryce Courtenay hadn't already been a well-known author in 1993, I doubt this book would have been published.  Its publication can also be credited to the AIDS crisis, which was still very present in everyone's mind that year.  Freddy Mercury, one of AIDS' most famous victims, died just two years before, in 1991.  Due to this and other factors Courtenay's publisher probably saw a market for April Fool's Day, but it's clear from the finished product that they were in too much of a rush to release it.

Related Entries:

"Teacher Man" and "Angela's Ashes" by Frank McCourt (2005 and 1996)
"The Clan of the Cave Bear" by Jean M. Auel (1980)
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"The Dharma Bums" by Jack Kerouac (1958)

*If you're like me this will sound really familiar but you won't be able to place it.  The Power of One is the "South African boxing movie" in which a white South African brings the races together through boxing (or something.)  Morgan Freeman's in it for about a second.

2018年9月11日 星期二

"Teacher Man" and "Angela's Ashes" by Frank McCourt (2005 and 1996)

"Of course Fintan knows who stood at the foot of the cross.  Why wouldn't he?  He's always running off to Mass with his mother, who is known for her holiness.  She's so holy her husband ran off to Canada to cut down trees, glad to be gone and never to be heard from again."

Frank McCourt grew up in the U.S. and Ireland, and worked as a teacher in New York for several decades prior to his becoming an author later in life.  All of his published works are autobiographical in nature, though Angela's Ashes is perhaps a more "polished" version of what was maybe not an entirely miserable childhood.

I read Teacher Man, the more recent of the two books first.  I'm glad I did.  I think if I had first read Angela's Ashes I would have been too depressed to continue on with Teacher Man.

In Teacher Man McCourt recalls his years teaching high school English.  He graduates from a teaching program, finds a job, and ends up raising a family on a teacher's salary.  This sets the stage for his observations on what it means to be a good teacher and some of the personalities he encounters over three decades in the classroom.  It's a very witty, very charming book, and it reminded me of why I became a teacher in the first place.

Every teacher should read Teacher Man at least once.  Twice would be even better.

In Angela's Ashes, the book that made McCourt famous, he recounts his childhood in Ireland and the struggles his family faced there.  It is a singularly depressing book, though written in a more "literary" style than Teacher Man and lightened a bit by a certain black humor.  It's a hearwrenching novel that deserved the Pulitzer awarded to it, though I found myself having to take breaks during the first half because it was so depressing.

Angela's Ashes was also adapted into a movie in 1999.  I'm still not sure if I've seen the film, though parts of the book seemed very familiar.  It could be that I saw another, similar film about Irish poverty, or it could be that I was just remembering parts of Angela's Ashes.  I don't know.

What I do know is that Teacher Man is one of the best books I've read in a while.  Angela's Ashes is also good, though it's definitely less accessible.  Angela's Ashes is best approached in the way people approach Crime and Punishment or anything by Tolstoy.  It's a book that will give you a lot to think about, but it's by no means light reading.

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"The Clan of the Cave Bear" by Jean M. Auel (1980)
"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" by Hunter S. Thompson (1971)
"The Dharma Bums" by Jack Kerouac (1958)
"Captain Corelli's Mandolin" by Louis de Bernieres (1994)

2018年9月10日 星期一

Some Other Movies From 2016

The top 5 highest-grossing films of 2016 were Captain America: Civil War, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Finding Dory, Zootopia, and John Favreau's live action version of The Jungle Book.  I doubt that many would dispute the sheer forgettability of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.  Five minutes after leaving the theater I had almost no memory of what I'd seen.

La La Land was hands-down the critical favorite that year.  I tried to get through this movie and couldn't.  If you like it, fine.  I just can't stand musicals.

In my opinion the Oscars of that year exhibited a serious disconnect between the Academy and the movie-going public.  Moonlight was a good film, but I don't think it deserved to win Best Picture.  Damien Chazelle is a good director (he also did Whiplash), but I don't think he deserved Best Director.  Casey Affleck for Best Actor (Manchester by the Sea) was a solid choice, as was Viola Davis for Best Supporting Actress (Fences), but I didn't get Emma Stone for Best Actress (La La Land again) and the way both Lion and Nocturnal Animals were ignored was a mystery to me.

The fact that the Academy has proposed a new Best Popular Film category only adds fuel to this fire.  Don't all films aspire to some kind of popularity?  Don't all films strive to find an audience?

My favorite films from that year were the above-mentioned Lion and Manchester by the Sea, and also Demolition, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (I know, I know...), Captain Fantastic, Hell or High Water, and The Founder.  I want to list Nocturnal Animals here too, but that movie's really hard to watch a second time and I think "re-watchability" is one of the things that separates good movies from great movies.

Some Good Ones

1. 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Don't let Michael Bay's involvement put you off too much, he does occasionally direct a good (if overblown) movie.  13 Hours is based on a real incident involving US military and intelligence personnel assaulted in Libya, and it's appropriately violent (if nothing else).  It has a 50% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, which I think is a fair assessment of its quality.

2. Triple 9

Bank robbers at the mercy of the Russian mafia.  The script is great, the cast is great, and Woody Harrelson steals every scene he's in.  This movie's RT score was just a little higher than 13 Hours, and it does bear some similarities to Michael Mann's Heat, but I thought it was an excellent heist movie.

3. Criminal

"Wormhole to the dark web," huh?  Are all of the U.S. national defense agencies really hooked up to the Internet?  I hope not.  Because you know that if they are, the Russians have already hacked that shit a hundred times over.

And why no surveillance and the dead guy's wife's house?  Why not tap his phone?  Why not at least ask her to report if she seen him again?

Kevin Costner plays a psychopath carrying another man's memories.   The rest of the cast is a superhero movie all-star team.  Besides Superman's dad you've got Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones), Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), and even Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot).  Even Faora from Man of Steel (Antje Traue) makes an appearance.  Their collective screen presence manages to make this derivative spy thriller somewhat interesting, even if certain aspects of the plot don't bear thinking about.

When you think about it, this movie's like the inverse of Reynold's Self/Less, in which a richer older man has his memories implanted into a younger man's body.

4. Zero Days

Interesting documentary on the Stuxnet computer virus and where it probably originated.  Those watching this documentary might also want to look at the U.S. Cyber Command and Iran's nuclear program.  The movie Snowden also amplifies on some of the concerns and "defensive" applications mentioned in this documentary.  Oh, and Iran's nuclear program ONLY ACCELERATED after they discovered that infiltration had occurred.

5. Elle

Maybe we should all take another look at Starship Troopers and Showgirls.  Maybe there was something there we missed.  Maybe Paul Verhoeven was more subtle than we previously imagined?

Whatever the case, Verhoeven did a first-rate job directing Elle, the first of his movies I've seen in quite some time.  This French-language production centers around a woman coming to terms with her past and attempting to reconcile her various relationships.  It's on the slow side, but definitely worth watching.

Fun Fact #1: Isabelle Huppert made her American film debut way back in 1981, with the critically and commercially disastrous Heaven's Gate.

Fun Fact #2: This was originally going to be a Hollywood production, but Verhoeven found himself at odds with the "morality" put forth in mainstream Hollywood pictures.  He originally considered Jennifer Jason Leigh for the role, but ultimately decided that his vision would be better realized in France.

6. The Witch

I can't help but think that Anya Taylor-Joy has a long, storied career in movies ahead of her.  Her face consumes whatever frame she happens to be in, and she has enough acting ability to carry her through any movie.

In The Witch she plays a member of a Puritan family confronting evil in the wilds of New England.  It's a well-directed movie that manages to build up a mood without growing derivative.

7. The Free State of Jones

About half this movie's good, and the other half is an unqualified mess.  It starts out as the story of poor whites banding together against the predations of the Confederate army, but overreaches itself by attempting to address the larger issue of race relations in the South.  The subplot involving Jones' son is particularly confusing, and to some extent lessens the impact the earlier parts of the film might have had.

8. Genius

Colin Firth, Jude Law, and Nicole Kidman star in this movie about the relationship between Thomas Wolfe and his first editor.  It's a solid effort, but two things bothered me, these being: 1) the scene between Kidman and the editor's wife, which was a little too on the nose, and 2) the symbolic usage of Firth's hat, which seemed heavy-handed.

9. The Neon Demon

A young woman makes enemies in the Los Angeles modelling industry.  The minute I saw director Nicolas Winding Refn's (Drive, Only God Forgives) name in the opening credits I knew I'd like this film.  It requires patience, but if you have the time it's very rewarding.  In some respects it reminded me of David Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars, but this is a much purer, more streamlined film without the forced Greek tragedy.

Fun Fact #1: One of Refn's biggest inspirations was the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which he first viewed as a young boy.

Fun Fact #2: This movie was in part inspired by the life of Elizabeth Bathory.

10. The Shallows

Blake Lively, forevermore denied the role of Star Sapphire in any Green Lantern sequels, stars as a woman who gets stuck on a reef by a killer shark.  I wouldn't describe it as "classic," but it's more suspenseful than most other horror/suspense movies released in the past few years.

11. Standoff

Two men try to outwit one another after a girl witnesses a murder.  Thomas Jane (remember him?) and Laurence Fishburne star.  No big surprises here, but it's professionally done and relatively plausible.

Some Bad Ones

1. The Boy

An American woman travels to the U.K., where she works as a nanny to a doll.  Pro: This movie is spooky from the very beginning to the very end.  Con: The fact that the woman doesn't go running for the hills in the first ten minutes costs her some major sympathy points.  Said protagonist also goes from 0 to Crazy in the time it takes her shoes to mysteriously appear outside her door.

Fun Fact: This movie was actually shot in Victoria, British Columbia, where spooky old houses abound.

2. Keanu

Unfunny comedy about two guys trying to get their cat back.  Key and Peele star.  There's a kinda, sorta funny bit where Key tries to get some gangsters into George Michael, but aside from that this movie's laugh-free.  Don't be fooled by its high scores on various websites.  These scores only account for those who bothered to see the movie.

3. The Forest

A woman travels to Japan's "suicide forest" in search of her twin sister.  I've never understood the fascination with this place, either as portrayed in this film or the earlier Sea of Trees.  And where Sea of Trees is at least somewhat interesting, The Forest is both predictable and chock full of horror movie cliches.

4. The 5th Wave

Alien invasion!  That's a thing, right?  Or is it?  I guess it depends on which YouTube conspiracy theorist you believe.

Chloe Grace Moretz stars as a girl trying to rescue her brother.  This film has Young Adult written all over it, so I won't bother to criticize the plot too much.  Needless to say, the aliens' plan to conquer and/or exterminate mankind makes almost no sense.

5. Sausage Party

Just painful.  It's all like, "Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, sexual innuendo, fuck, fuck, fuck, shit, fuck...."  Rinse and repeat.  It got a lot of positive reviews, but I wasn't feeling this one.

One So Bad It's Almost Good

1. Diablo*

Western in which Scott, the junior Eastwood, attempts to rescue his "wife" from Mexican bandits.  In between here and there he spends a lot of time messing with his saddle and grimacing at the camera.  A lot of people blame Eastwood Jr. for this hot mess of a film, but in my opinion the blame rests solely with the director, who's no Sergio Leone.

Related Entries:

Some Other Movies From 2014
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A Review of Every Marvel Movie from 2008 to the Present (Revised as of July 4, 2018)
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*Not sure if this movie came out in 2015 or 2016.  Could belong to the year before.