Tag Archives: movies

A few words about all the movies I watched in 2016

I’ve been keeping a list of every movie I watched this year… those I’ve seen before and those I saw for the first time.

For each of them, I wrote a very brief reaction. Some are thoughtful, some are irreverent. All are honest.

Here’s the list, in sequential order of my viewing:

Babel – makes Tokyo and Afghanistan and Mexico seem like another planet
Revenant – more movies should be filmed 100% with natural light
Winter on Fire – meanwhile in America the Kardashians what??
Big Eyes – the guy in this movie is a huge asshat
Moonraker – are they serious? They can’t be serious. I love it
The Big Short – Steve Carrell should always play this character
Dallas Buyers Club – drugs should be mostly legal
The Princess Bride – I have no good excuse for seeing this for the first time in 2016
The Perfect Storm – but I can’t stop wondering if Marky Mark is from Boston or not
Unbroken – the book was probably much better
The Men Who Stare At Goats – I don’t know how this got made but I love it
Deadpool – if only they had given Green Lantern this treatment
Finding Vivian Maier – why are the most creative people usually so troubled?
Beasts of No Nation – this should be seen by more people than it probably was
Turner & Hooch – I want a sequel with cats
Ex Machina – the future is going to suck (and kill?)
The Agony & The Ecstacy – it really is a nice ceiling
Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice – Batfleck, you did alright
Spotlight – shame that newspaper stories have to be made into movies for most people to notice them
All Together Now (Beatles/Cirque “Love” Doc) – Vegas is so rich
Captain America: Civil War – I wanted to take a nap through most of this
Return to the 36 Chambers – I’ll never hear Wu-Tang the same way
“21″ – MIT is so smart
You Only Live Twice – I already forgot literally everything about this
Good, Bad and the Ugly – I have no good excuse for seeing this for the first time in 2016
Ghostbusters (original) – somehow it still gets better every time I watch it
Jurassic World – I wouldn’t complain if this were on at the gym or something
Rock the Kasbah – everything about this was tremendous
The Woman in Gold – cool story but Ryan Reynolds does better with dick jokes
Frances Ha – I love when people who like photography decide to make movies
Fight Club – still good but doesn’t change how I feel about IKEA <3
The Dark Knight Rises – still good but still not as good as Banecat
The Peanuts Movie – beautifully drawn Nyquil
Bo Burnham: Make Happy – the funniest musical since ‘what.’
Beatles: Help! – for someone who grew up with MTV already established this is a revalation
The Man With the Golden Gun – I already forgot literally everything about this
A View To Kill – I already forgot literally everything about this
Chef – the best movie that anyone has ever tweeted in
Bo Burnham: what. – the funniest musical since South Park: Bigger Longer Uncut
Suicide Squad – Margot Robbie
The Bourne Supremacy – still good but so hard to hear all the whisper-yelling
Best of Enemies: Buckley vs Vidal – this is where all the people yelling at each other on TV started I guess
Steve Jobs (Boyle) – Boyle deserves thanks for un-Kutchering this story
Father of the Bride – still good but now anything with early 1990’s fashion is funny
The Hangover – still good but why couldn’t they just leave it without the sequels
Hail, Ceasar! – this basically closes the book on Hollywood
Elvis / Nixon – oh shit this 10 minute meeting seems like a microcosm of the next four years
Prefontaine – why does Jared Leto always have to die
The Lady in the Van – British movies are so much more thoughtful
Allied – what is this like the tenth Brad Pitt movie about WW2
Arrival – omg how can she afford that house on an adjunct’s salary

Sorry Good Will Hunting, I Need that T.P.S. Report By Monday

Two movies from the late 1990’s stand out as favorites, for me and many others: Office Space and Good Will Hunting.

Both truly stand the test of time, and entertain now just about as well as as they did when released. Both also have something to say about what “Work” is, and what kind of man should pursue what line of it, and what’s respectable or questionable about the choices they make along the way.

Construction labor plays an understated role in both narratives, repelling one protagonist and rescuing the other. Will Hunting (Matt Damon) begins his story as a workman, who is encouraged and motivated to find his way into a more intellectual profession. Peter (Ron Livingston) begins his story as a cubicle drone, who is encouraged and motivated to find his way into a more physically laborious occupation. For what it’s worth, Will Hunting lives in a dramatic universe, and Peter lives in a comedic one – but through its dry humor, Office Space manages to leave the viewer with a moral aftertaste just as significant as Good Will Hunting’s.

I don’t have a grand thesis to accompany to this comparison, it’s just something I noticed and that I’ve wanted to share for a while. I feel like these two movies are celebrated more than most others as time capsules of their era, but I’ve never heard any critic stand them up next to each other for comparison. On the surface they’re wonderfully different films, but at their core, both represent the challenges of a man trying to discover his true calling.

Let’s look at how each character begins his journey:

Here’s Will Hunting, on the job –

And here’s Peter, working –

But by the end of each film, their roles have reversed.

Peter, on the job:

Will, working:

Good Will Hunting (1997) was released two years before Office Space (1999.) It’s reasonable to assume Mike Judge had seen Good Will Hunting as he was writing and directing his film, but who knows whether he was intentionally making a response, or had even registered a connection between the stories.

Nearly twenty years later, enough time has passed for the once brilliant jokes to go just a bit stale, and without their original novelty, these two films now seem to have a lot more in common than they were originally meant to. How’dya like them apples?

on the Oscars and Being Liked

If you haven’t seen Birdman, Boyhood, or the Imitation Game, maybe don’t read this post yet.

Three of the films nominated for Best Picture this year had climactic scenes in which characters confronted the importance of ‘being liked.’  

Coincidence? Or important cultural phenomenon, captured? I’m leaning towards the latter. The ‘being liked’ discussion did heavy lifting in these narratives, and served as a critical character-defining plot point in each.

In Birdman, Michael Keaton’s character Riggan is overwhelmed by the criticism and potential of failure he faces for trying to re-define his legacy. As a former action-movie star, now forgotten, his quest for recognition has led him to produce a serious drama on Broadway. He tries to explain his motivations to his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone) but she calls his sincerity into question. She’s right.

Riggan: Listen to me. I’m trying to do something important.
Sam: This is not important.
Riggan: It’s important to me! Alright? Maybe not to you, or your cynical friends whose only ambition is to go viral. But to me… To me… this is…  God. This is my career, this is my chance to do some work that actually means something.
Sam: You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t. It’s not important. You’re not important.

Stage actors can’t convincingly argue that no one’s opinion matters, or they would find something to do that doesn’t require a live audience. Being liked becomes the foundation of Riggan’s identity – he can’t exist as an artist without an audience, and the audience has to like him if they’re going to stay in their seats.

The theme repeats in the film, as Sam and Edward Furlong’s character Mike Shiner have a less animated, but more to the point discussion about the same thing.

Sam: Why do you act like a dick all the time? Do you just do it to antagonize people?
Mike Shiner: Maybe.
Sam: You really don’t give a shit if people like you or not?
Mike Shiner: Not really.
Sam: That’s cool.
Mike Shiner: Is it? I don’t know.

When Sam dreamily asks whether Mike cares about being liked, his response sets up the antagonizing force that will eventually transform Riggan. Mike’s success seems to have been born from his indifference to recognition, and his attitude is partially what teaches Riggan that letting go of the need for acceptance will set him free and allow him to create ’true’ art.

In The Imitation Game, the ‘different’ and ‘weird’ Alan Turing character, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, doesn’t begin with the need to be liked, and then find relief from it, as Riggan of Birdman does. Turing’s story goes in the other direction – starting from a place where ‘likability’ doesn’t matter, but eventually being required to strive for it. Turing’s social environment would ever ‘like’ or accept him as who he is, so he was forced to adapt and perform a ‘likability’ act that would keep him out of trouble. A mantra verbalized by Keira Knightley’s Joan Clark character repeats throughout the film:

Joan Clarke: Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.

Turing embraced the notion that an un-liked, low profile persona would give him the space to explore his scientific interests. But a wonderfully awkward scene in which Turing’s fellow scientists try and fail to invite him to lunch illustrates the problem Turing faces. He must confront the reality that working with other people is necessary to accomplish the mission he is called into, and that as smart as he is, he can’t do everything on his own. In contrast to Birdman, Turing’s not trying to be ‘liked’ for his own emotional satisfaction, but as means to an end.

Joan Clark (Knightley) explains to him that if he’s going to succeed, he’ll have to get the other scientists to like him. ‘They won’t work for you if they don’t like you,’ she says. She suggests that he bring them snacks as a first step toward amiability, and in a scene as comically awkward as the failed lunch invitation, he arrives at the lab with a basket of apples and bluntly relates the logic that drove his actions – I hope you’ll like me, for bringing you apples, he says. The wheels are set in motion, and the film becomes as much about Turing playing the likability game as it is about him developing a electronic computer.

Boyhood comes to the ‘likability’ table in the first scene that exhibits a true independence of the main character, Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane. A road-trip with his girlfriend opens the door for a thoughtful discussion about whether or not it matters to be liked. The ‘likability’ dialogue takes place without Birdman’s gripping intensity of emotion, and without the Imitation Game’s dry humor – of the three, it feels the most genuine.

Mason: I just feel like there are so many things that I could be doing and probably want to be doing that I’m just not.
Sheena: Why aren’t you?
Mason: I mean, I guess, it’s just being afraid of what people would think. You know, judgement.
Sheena: Yeah. I guess it’s really easy to say, like I don’t care what anyone else thinks. But everyone does, you know. Deep down.
Mason: I find myself so furious at all these people that I am in contact with just for controlling me or whatever but you know they are not even aware they are doing it.
Sheena: Yeah. So, in this perfect world where no one is controlling you. What’s different? What changes?
Mason: Everything. I mean, I just wanna be able to do anything I want, because it makes me feel alive. As opposed to giving me the appearance of normality.

The scene follows Mason’s first monologue, and it occurs nearly two hours into the film. After watching him quite literally grow from a child into a young man, this becomes the first thing we know about how Mason is feeling and what he is thinking as an adult. Because the film is about his journey from Boyhood to manhood, the scene is significant. It’s remarkable that the first vulnerability he exposes, as he transitions away from ‘boyhood,’ is weighing the importance of being liked by others – and it probably won’t be the last time, as evinced by the older characters of Birdman and Imitation Game.

So, does the spirit of each film come to the same conclusion about likability? Birdman’s narrative is fueled by an intense desire to be liked, and the struggle to escape from it. Imitation Game is propelled by likability as a game – a game in which Turing must conform to the standards of social acceptability by suppressing his true persona. To those films, being liked is important to the characters, but in different ways. Boyhood takes the position that likability is only an encumbrance – to quote Mason, “feeling alive” is better than “the appearance of normality.”

The primary reason why I’ve seen all these movies and paid such close attention to them is because the Academy nominated each as Best Picture of the year. Their nominations all prove, to some extent, that being liked matters – if they weren’t liked by the Academy they wouldn’t have been nominated, and I might not have seen them or cared to think deeply about them. But what’s curiously interesting is the result of the competition – the film whose character had the greatest ‘need to be liked’ turned out to be the winner, while the film that stood firmly in its notion that being liked isn’t all that important didn’t get the top Oscar… and perhaps, it didn’t need really need to.

“Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life” – Oscar Wilde

two Films worth Seeing

Sidewalls (Medianeras)

For English speakers, the crown of ‘best quirky foreign-language romance’ has been passed from Amelie to a touching film about two neighbors in Buenos Aires. The characters ring true in the age of paranoia about digital loneliness, and their internal dialogues about trying to connect are sincere.

Without any sappy, jokey, over-the-top acting, Sidewalls is funny without losing its credibility as heartfelt. Overall, a great portrait of modern urban life both by virtue of the characters and the photography.

The Tree of Life

When I saw Terrance Malick’s ‘The Thin Red Line’ as a teenager, I wasn’t sure what to think. The lyrical, poetically visual style was a departure from the combat movies I was used to (ahem, American Ninja). I knew there was larger purpose to the seemingly disconnected elements of the film, but didn’t really care.

Malick returns to form in ‘The Tree of Life’ and maybe I understand what he was poking at before – life is big, and doesn’t fit nicely into a 2 1/2 hour narrative, no matter the subject – one way to convey that grandiosity is by focusing intently on the subtleties that define the greater experience. He doesn’t wrap his stories up with a sense of finality, and doesn’t try to force cohesion – which makes Tree of Life a unique and thoughtful experience.

Stepping in the Right Direction

Many franchises, celebrated in the 1980’s and 1990’s, have evolved into fodder for parodies, disasterous sequels and awful spin-offs.  The “Alien” and “Terminator” movies were once highly regarded, as difficult to believe as that may now be.  Both have continued trudging along the trenches of box-office blow ups, releasing sub standard films that dissapointed audiences and tarnished the brand name.  The “Alien vs. Predator” series, with limitless potential to become a great addition to the original films, was a let-down to fans and an industry dud.  The post-Arnold Terminator sequels have been bland and boring (I haven’t seen the most recent, but judging by criticism in the media it hasn’t broken any new ground.)

Standing out from the crowd is the squeaky clean Ghostbusters name, untarnished since the second film was released in 1989.  The original was a smash, raking in hundreds of millions, and cementing the careers of a few roustabouts from Saturday Night Live.  The second film was a good sequel – as Dan Akroyd has called it – good, but not great.  And that’s where the story ended.  The proprietors didn’t attempt to line their pockets  by punching out lame follow-ups, one after another.  There were no attempts to hybridize the Ghostbusters with some other franchise – no Ghosbusters and E.T. sailing together to the moon, on Ecto-1.  Because of the restraint exercised by the invested parties, the franchise has lived on without implosion.

So now, 20 years since the last film hit theaters, an untraditional and long-awated sequel has arrived – but it’s not a movie.  Ghostbusters: The Game, released this week, featuers an all-new storyline, voice acting from all the original cast members, and all the quirky psuedo-science laughs that fans loved in the originals.   Without claiming to know why a third movie wasn’t pushed out a few years after the second, one can hope it was because the producers were waiting for a moment when something truly original could be created.  That moment is now – a moment when game companies are selling more units than any studios could dream about.  The videogame industry surpassed box office income a few years ago and hasn’t relented.  Last year’s “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare” sold 13 million units in its first 12 months, each retailing for about $50 a pop.  Do the math, and it’s obvious that any storyteller who wants to do something  original, and financially lucrative is going to go for the console, and not the big screen.

I commend the Ghostbusters creative team for sticking it out for 20 years.  By holding off on a sub-par sequel, they allowed themselves the opportunity to bring the franchise into a new medium and tell a new story.  And miraculously, they’ve beaten one of Hollywood’s most dangerous enemies – aging.  The characters in the game all look and sound exactly as they did in 1989.   No white-haired Bill Murray or pot-bellied Harold Ramis to be seen.  Breaking ground in this new medium is going to keep the Ghostbusters going strong for many, many years.