Saturday, August 1, 2015

Aborting Abortion?

There’s been a lot of talk about defunding Planned Parenthood lately. It seems like there always is, but it’s certainly in the forefront of public discussion at the moment. Apparently, some enterprising self-appointed vigilantes went undercover to record (and, subsequently, strategically edit) incriminating footage of Planned Parenthood. Regardless of the content of evidence and whether or not it’s authentic, here’s something they (and you) should consider: If you want to prevent people from having abortions, shutting down Planned Parenthood is a completely backwards and self-defeating way to go about it.

The vast majority of what Planned Parenthood does is provide birth control and other preventative measures to cut down on unwanted pregnancies (and thus cut down on abortions). For crying out loud, that’s what the words “planned parenthood” mean. If you eliminate the resources provided by Planned Parenthood from people with limited means, unwanted pregnancies will rise and, proportionally, the number of abortions will skyrocket (as will the number of dangerous unlicensed “back-alley” abortions). To look at the even bigger picture, an increase in unwanted pregnancies means poverty will also go up, as will welfare, crime, unemployment, child abuse/neglect, and countless other social ills. You want that?

Another thing that perplexes me about such vocal opponents of abortion is how almost none of them back their beliefs up with action. The next time somebody spouts off about how evil abortion is and how it must be stopped at all costs, ask them how many children they’ve adopted (or even fostered). Ask them how much time they’ve spent volunteering at crisis pregnancy centers or shelters for unwed mothers (There’s a list of them state-to-state here). Ask them what they’ve done to help victims of rape or incest. Ask them what they’re doing to educate people (especially teenagers) about birth control. From my experience, most of them seem to find it perfectly adequate to say “I pray for them.” Gee, thanks. How very noble and self-sacrificing of you. Pray in one hand and piss in the other and see which fills up faster.

If you’d rather curse the dark than light a candle, that’s your prerogative. If you wanna complain about pollution without even bothering to pick up the litter in your own neighborhood, you have that right. However, you don’t get to act all righteous and superior when all you’re doing is bitching. You also don’t get to say you care about the unborn or that you care about single mothers or that you care about orphaned children because you don’t. You just hate abortion. Hate never helps.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The 10 Most Under-Rated Films of the 90's

Five years ago, in January of 2010, I started this blog as a New Year’s resolution of sorts. Since then, it’s been largely neglected (although, I was pleased with myself for reporting on the year of the Golden Ticket in its entirety without missing a single installment), but I suppose it’s better to have written a little and been pleased with it rather than written a lot and felt like I was overdoing it. Looking back at the first article I posted, entitled “The 10 Most Under-Rated Films of the Past Decade,” I still feel it was a pretty strong start. So, I thought at this half-decade mark, I’d write something similar.

Since we’re only five years into the “’teens,” a recap of contemporary underrated gems seems premature, so I thought I’d leap back an extra decade and revisit the overlooked masterpieces of the 90’s. Compiling the list was a bit of a chore since I had to think back on some of my favorites from 20 years ago that strike me as unappreciated by the masses. It’s an imperfect list, but a fair and just one all the same and I had a great time revisiting these nostalgic treasures. I’ve arranged them alphabetically so as not to show favoritism (not to mention ranking them in order of personal preference is a virtual impossibility). If you haven’t seen ’em, do yourself a favor and check out these modest underdogs from the decade that gave us grunge, the internet, and Quentin Tarantino.

Critical Care (1997): When Sidney Lumet died in 2011, eulogists had a bevy of incredible motion pictures spanning several decades to remember him by. From 12 Angry Men to Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Mr. Lumet delivered some uncompromised masterpieces. I think this film is probably my second favorite from his superior repertoire (Dog Day Afternoon being the first). It’s too bad (but not surprising) that it didn’t catch on like so many of his other works. In classic form of Lumet-style satire, this film skewers the seemingly irreversible contamination of the medical profession by law firms and insurance companies in a way that is both hilarious and insightful. With an under-stated “non-all-star” cast, the quirky characters are brought to life in a way that lends disturbing credibility to an absurd scenario making it frighteningly realistic. The story’s relevance even today makes it all the more unsettling.

The Dark Backward (1991): Imagine if David Lynch and Preston Sturges collaborated on a film (and maybe used Terry Gilliam as a consultant) and you begin to get the idea of what this bizarre freakshow entails. This is truly a dark comedy in both visuals and content making it a bit of a trainwreck you can’t look away from. That’s not necessarily bad, but it is most definitely sick. Perhaps the sickest thing about it is how compelling it is. A description would sound like I was just making it up on the spot (and high on something), so I won’t even try. Adam Rifkin wrote and directed this early on in his career showcasing some genuine talent, yet he never made anything even remotely like it again. It seems like a waste to have this film remain such an anomaly by the guy who made it, but I suppose that’s a testament to its originality. I doubt if I could come up with something as odd as this a second time.

Gridlock’d (1997): I remember, at the time this came out, a critic described it as Tim Roth and Tupac Shukar as the Cheech & Chong of heroin. That sounds about right, but don’t let it fool you. It is indeed a very funny film, but, like Critical Care, its message is a powerful indictment of this country’s health system. A year earlier, Trainspotting brought the subject of heroin addiction to the big screen using comedy to illustrate the horrors of overdose and withdrawal. Gridlock’d looks at it from another point of view showing the futility of trying to get clean in a society that has essentially shunned addicts altogether regardless of their earnest attempts at rehabilitation. This message is underlined by a particularly ominous scene where Tupac’s character laments that he feels his “luck is running out.” The film was released about four months after Shakur’s death and is subsequently dedicated to him. I was never really into his music, but this film showed a genuine talent for acting that made me sad his full potential as a thespian would never be fully realized.

The Insider (1999): This film may not seem underrated since it was (rightfully) nominated for seven Academy Awards (including best picture, director, actor, and screenplay), but unlike The Shawshank Redemption, which bombed at the box office, but got nominated for several Oscars and eventually found a huge success through word of mouth after being released on video, The Insider never really found its staying power. I remember seeing the trailer in the theater and thinking it looked like a movie my dad would probably watch but would bore me to tears. A friend insisted I watch it, though, and lent me his copy to emphasize the point. After I watched it, I immediately went out and bought my own copy. This film is almost entirely comprised of talking, but it is endlessly riveting and wonderfully exciting, like an action movie with no violence. It’s hard to pick a favorite scene because every bit of it is so thoroughly satisfying. Furthermore, I think it contains the best performance of Russell Crowe’s career and Al Pacino’s greatest onscreen rant ever (which is really saying something).

Nothing to Lose (1997): Everybody I know who saw this movie said they were surprised by how funny it was. I’d say that’s probably because it stars Martin Lawrence, who (like Rob Schneider and Dane Cook) seems to have set a precedent that any movie he’s in must be embarrassingly horrible. The truth is there’s a very short list of films that have made me laugh until I was brought to tears and this is one of them. In fact, I’ve seen this movie many, many times and it still makes me laugh hysterically despite knowing exactly what’s coming. Most impressive, though, is how it seems to do so much with so little. It’s an unassuming film with a simple premise: Desperate Martin Lawrence carjacks a despondent Tim Robbins who in turn kidnaps Lawrence and the two of them pull a heist together. Dopey as that may sound, there are some clever subplots, lots of unexpected gags, and a surprising amount of character depth for a film of such modest aspirations, but it all works and it holds up well after multiple viewings. Best of all, the filmmakers showed enough tactful restraint to not make a series of sequels. I have a tremendous amount of respect for a film willing to allow itself to be a silly comedy, do it well, and be fine with leaving it at that.

RoboCop 2 (1990): Here’s where I might lose a number of you, but hear me out. As this is a list of underrated films, I thought it appropriate to include a movie I felt was unfairly chided by critics and audiences alike. I’ll admit, I didn’t think much of RoboCop 2 when I saw it in theaters. And, no – it’s not a great movie by any means. But, as far as sequels go, it’s not that bad. In fact, the more I watch it, the more I like it. First of all, I give the filmmakers props for not just basically re-making RoboCop.* That would have been really easy for them to do and they probably would have made even more money. However, instead of amping up the violence and gore, they instead amped up the political and economic commentary thus making it a more socially relevant film rather than settling for a mind-numbing action flick. That may be why audiences rejected it. Of course, action, violence, gore, and mayhem are all in there too and, while it may not be as shocking or clever as the original, the spirit is still intact. Apparently, this film was a production nightmare fraught with re-writes and re-shoots and re-edits (which is kind of funny since RoboCop himself goes through similar changes and upgrades throughout the film – art imitates life and vice versa) and, while the film seems a bit patchy at times, it’s pretty well put together, considering. That in itself is a small miracle. Too many cooks in the kitchen is never a good thing, but it’s nice to recognize when things don’t turn out nearly as bad as they could have.
*Incidentally, the RoboCop remake that came out last year was way worse than RoboCop 2.

Swimming with Sharks (1994): When Kevin Spacey received an Academy Award for The Usual Suspects, some say his performances in Se7en and this film (all released within the same year) likely helped influence his win. I agree. Although, out of those three films, I think Swimming with Sharks contains his best work. Spacey plays the relentlessly abusive Machiavellian producer Buddy Ackerman with such immoral glee, it’s clear the character not only knows he’s evil, but revels in it. Spacey’s talents really shine through in the scenes where the story makes some particularly dark twists. He shifts from comedy to drama seamlessly and without altering the integrity of the character. Supposedly based on real-life producer Joel Silver, this film comes across as a very personal and passionate open letter to Hollywood exposing the dark underbelly that everybody knows about but few people acknowledge openly. The overall mantra of the film is “What do you really want?” but more specifically, it’s asking “How much of your soul are you willing to sell?” With that, the film feels a bit like a warning, not just to people contemplating a career in Hollywood, but to the people already there.

Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead (1995): Apparently, this script was written long before Reservoir Dogs ever saw the light of day, but wasn’t greenlit until Pulp Fiction paved the way for a variety of wannabees. The film’s a bit heavy-handed with its “too cool for school” catch phrases and the characters are clichéd to the point of almost being cartoons, but this movie is wickedly entertaining and quite satisfying. It helps that the cast is populated by a who’s-who of character actors from independent film lending it instant credibility. A group of semi-retired criminals are brought together for a job they end up botching and then given a grace period of 48 hours before the kingpin who hired them (played by the always reliably creepy Christopher Walken) rubs them out. Things become a bit existential when each of them choose a different path. One tries to run, one tries to hide, one tries to fight back, one accepts his fate and does nothing, and so on. It’s an interesting mix of what-ifs and has some truly inspired moments. Inevitably lost in the morass of the fallout of Tarantino plagiarists, this film deserved better.

Twenty Bucks (1993): The story behind this film is as charming as the film itself. The script was originally written in 1935, but wasn’t discovered until after the screenwriter’s death in 1990. His son updated the script for the 90’s and the combined result was this movie – a movie told from the point of view of a twenty dollar bill illustrating the subtle yet significant impact petty cash has on our lives. The story is pretty thorough in contemplating its options and the bill in question sees about as much action as Wile E. Coyote. A great ensemble cast (most of whom were unknown at the time but are very recognizable now) of characters walk in and out of seemingly unrelated scenes playing major parts in some vignettes and minor ones in others. If you pay close attention to the relationships of the characters, this film will make you think (and wonder) about the peripheral people in your own life and how they affect you. It’s actually quite romantic in that sense.

Zero Effect (1998): This is a brilliant contemplation of how a Sherlock Holmes type would behave in the modern world. The criminally underused Bill Pullman plays Daryl Zero, a private investigator so ingenious, he can solve mysteries almost instantaneously. Unfortunately, he’s also a shut-in with severe obsessive compulsive disorder who is so socially inept, he must pretend he’s other people to function in public. Ben Stiller is the Watson to his Holmes, serving as a liaison to clients and general errand boy. The movie is pretty funny, but its real strength comes from the mystery itself (which I will not reveal here). Like Adam Rifkin (writer/director of The Dark Backward), for some reason, Jake Kasdan (writer/director of this film) went in a completely different direction with all of his subsequent films, sadly settling for low-brow, gross-out comedies instead of smart, thoughtful ones like this. I guess you gotta go where the money is, but Zero Effect is so inspired, it’s disappointing that it didn’t do well enough to justify more like it.

I fear that, immediately after posting this, I’ll be plagued with thoughts of “Oh, yeah! That was a good one, too,” but, as I said before, I think this is a nice representation of flicks that have become unfairly forgotten. I’d invite readers to enlighten me as to what some of your favorites from the 90’s were that may have slipped through the cracks as well. After all, if I’ve never heard of them, how would I know how good they are?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Lucky Number 2013

I usually wait until March to “finalize” my top ten list of favorite movies from the previous year for two reasons: One, to wait and see what the Academy Awards do first. Two, I need the first few months of the new year to see whatever films I missed before ranking the final tally. This year, with my Golden Ticket, was certainly an exception. I saw so many movies already that there was no need to catch up on missed ones, but I had to take the extra time just to recap them all. In the average year, I see what amounts to about one movie a week, so the grand total is usually about 52 by March. I also keep track of films I’m interested in seeing, but haven’t yet, and my “surplus” averages anywhere from 30 to 50. This year, I saw 84 films and have less than 10 on my unseen list. Definitely a record and one that will probably stand indefinitely (unless I win another year of free movies or there’s a nuclear war and I’m stuck in a bomb shelter containing every film made that year).


Obviously, with that much of an overflow, it was a nearly impossible task to rank the movies in order of preference. Luckily, my main favorites stood out pretty clearly, but it was still pretty tough to narrow it down. Since this was such a unique year, I considered doing a top twenty list instead, but it just didn’t seem to have the same level of reverence, I suppose for the same reason I resent the Oscars’ new 10-nominee policy. So, I’m sticking with ten favorites. And here they are:

#10: Fruitvale Station – Every year there’s at least one major Oscar snub and this year it seemed to fall squarely on Fruitvale Station (although overlooking Monsters University for best animated feature is a pretty big oversight as well). As I said in my pre-Oscars post, Fruitvale Station is so convincingly re-created, it plays almost like a documentary. Every aspect of it is superb: Writing, acting, directing, cinematography, editing, everything. This film deserved nominations in all of those categories and more. What’s most insulting is that only nine films were nominated for best picture this year, meaning the Academy thought it was better for there to remain a vacant slot rather give Fruitvale Station a shot at the title. Disgraceful. I’m especially perplexed because it was not only a fantastic film, but it was (a) based on a true story (over half of this year’s nominations for best picture were based on true stories), and (b) was relevant to current events (in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting) making it a strong social parable. Oh, well. Great films being unappreciated by award committees is nothing new, but it’s a shame when the result is less people seeing it. So, do yourself a favor and see Fruitvale Station.

#9: Philomena – Here’s a true story that actually was given credit where credit was due. I didn’t know too much about it going in and may not have bothered with it had I been told that it was about a woman looking for her long lost son given up for adoption. My sister-in-law said she was real interested in seeing it and it was playing at the theater I volunteer at, so I checked it out to let her know how it was. I loved it, so it was as good an outcome as one can hope for going into a movie cold. Speaking personally, I’m a big fan of anything that shines a light on the hypocrisy and corruption of organized religion and skewers it effectively, but that wasn’t what made this movie great. It’s definitely a character story and the characters are very interesting and sympathetic. In hindsight, I was surprised at how funny the film was, given the melancholy subject matter. It was roundly entertaining and actually made me want to read the book. I probably won’t get around to it, but I would like to watch the film again.

#8: Zero Charisma – I played Dungeons & Dragons once when I was in grade school. I lost interest in it real fast, though, because the “Dungeonmaster” (or is it “Dragonmaster?”) had a bit of a god complex and seemed to enjoy toying with the rest of us. At one point, I accused him of just making it up as he went along and creating a game that couldn’t be won purely for the sake of his own amusement. He got really pissed and I stopped playing. This is a movie about him in adult form. It’s a tough sell for a movie to have a protagonist that the audience really doesn’t like, but it works here, because that’s the whole point. I’m not sure why I liked it so much (certainly not because I’m into RPG’s, because I’m not), but I think maybe because it was so honest. All too often in movies, when the hero is an outcast, they paint it as though they are simply misunderstood victims. In real life, they’re usually outcasts because they are downright unlikeable people who consequently alienate themselves. Napoleon Dynamite was like this. So was Eagle vs. Shark. These characters were people who created their own misery, made other people miserable, and yet were audacious enough to blame their misfortune on external circumstances. I have tremendous respect for any movie that plays fair by not whitewashing the truth and remains entertaining while doing it. It’s even better when the movie is funny, and I thought Zero Charisma was hilarious.

#7: Captain Phillips – I feel like I’ve written too much about this movie already (since I saw it at Cinetopia twice and included it in my Oscar essay in January), so I hope I don’t repeat myself too much in talking about it again. In a nutshell, I suppose this is as close as any of us will (hopefully) get to knowing what it is like to be kidnapped by Somali pirates. It’s a tense film that escalates to the point where the ending feels almost like an act of mercy. The end is a bit of a surprise, too. The surprise isn’t in what happens (if you know anything about the story, you already know Captain Phillips survives), but how it makes you feel. I’ve heard a number of people remark that they weren’t expecting to cry at the finale because action films rarely bring about that kind of reaction. But whatever tears you may experience are not because there’s a heartfelt reunion with the captain’s wife or because beloved characters get killed or anything as simple as that. It’s because what we’ve seen is so traumatizing, they are tears of compassion and perhaps even some pity. Tears for living in a world where things like this can (and do) happen. That’s powerful stuff.

#6: The Wolf of Wall Street – This is film is classic Scorsese cranked up to eleven. One could even consider it the third part of a Scorsese trilogy about the inevitable downfall of a criminally Machiavellian rise to power (GoodFellas being the trilogy’s first entry and Casino being the second). A fellow movie fan labeled this one as “Caligula on cocaine” and that’s pretty much right on the money. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen such a hedonistic film in my life and it’s pretty exhilarating in the same “guilty pleasure” way Jackass was. The film has gotten a lot of flack saying it glorifies this kind of lifestyle, but I don’t believe it condoned the things it showed anymore than Captain Phillips condoned piracy. In fact, I think suggesting this film glorifies such reprehensible behavior says more about the accusers than it does about the filmmakers. It certainly didn’t make me want to go out and become a stockbroker and screw innocent people out of money and then spend it on drugs and prostitutes and wreck cars and get divorced and find myself arrested and nothing to show for it in the end. I had fun watching it happen to someone else, though.

#5: 2 Guns – Now that we’re in the top half of my list of favorite films from 2013, we graduate from award-worthy empirically “good” films to the “fun” stuff. As I said in my original review of the film, 2 Guns harkens back to the days of the mid-80’s when action films were fun and silly and felt more like amusement park rides than actual movies, when there was as much humor as violence and, even when they didn’t particularly make sense and defied all reasonable plausibility, you didn’t care because you were having way too much of a good time. In 2 Guns, we’ve got people walking away from explosions in slow-motion, arguments manifested as car chases, a stampede of cattle during a shoot-out, and even a scene where Mark Wahlberg literally farts on one of the badguys. If this doesn’t sound like a movie you’d enjoy… well, I was gonna say “Don’t see it,” but I’m more inclined to say “Lighten up.” I saw it on my birthday and I couldn’t have picked a better film to celebrate being alive.

#4: Elysium – This film got a mixed reception from critics and audiences and I can only assume it’s because District 9 came first and some people thought Neill Blomkamp’s sophomore opus didn’t measure up. I enjoyed District 9, but I liked Elysium even more. I remember some friends saying other friends of theirs didn’t care for it (one of them calling it “Elysi-dumb” and probably patting himself on the back for being so witty), but I implored my friends to see it anyway. Most of them liked it, too. So, I’m not sure where the disconnect is. Just a question of apples and oranges, I guess. With that in mind, I find it difficult to think of ways to talk you into checking this out, if you haven’t already. Ranking it as number 4 out of 84 movies I saw last year is enough of an endorsement, I suppose. But, for the sake of comparison, I liked it more than Pacific Rim and Oblivion and even Iron Man 3 (all of which were pretty decent sci-fi films as well). The action was good, the story was interesting, the special effects were absolutely incredible, and it kept me guessing. Maybe there’s not as much of an audience for science fiction as there used to be, but for my money, this is about as good as it gets.

#3: The Heat – Like Philomena, I sort of stumbled into seeing The Heat. Although, unlike Philomena, I knew what The Heat was about and wasn’t particularly interested in seeing it to begin with. Not because it came across as a chick flick, but because the trailers didn’t strike me as particularly funny. Even the red-band trailer (which pretty much just showed the same jokes with more swear words), didn’t have much to offer. That’s a bad sign for a comedy. Somehow, though, this film managed to be almost the funniest one of the year (second only to my #1 pick). Most impressively, it’s not the kind of comedy that’s only funny in places where the successful gags compensate for the weak ones. This movie is consistently funny from start to finish and it’s hard to pick a favorite part. A great deal of it has to do with casting. Sandra Bullock is one of the most thoroughly likable actresses today (and, as such, it was a stroke of genius for Alfonso Cuarón to cast her in Gravity, given it was essentially a one-woman show) and Melissa McCarthy’s been on a hot streak lately. The combination of these two absolutely kill it and it doesn’t hurt that the script is strong to begin with. The film did well when it came out, but you don’t hear people talking about it now as they did when Bridesmaids came out on DVD. There were two other comedies this year that made a lot of noise and featured almost entirely male casts (This Is the End and Anchorman 2) and I frankly thought they both kinda sucked. The arrogant, self-indulgent comedy of those two films could learn a thing or two from The Heat and the women in it.

#2: Star Trek Into Darkness – As far as sci-fi films go, this one might have been chided even more than Elysium was. For starters, Star Trek fans are almost impossible to please (as are all hardcore fans of any geek subculture) because they have their own “rules” of what’s allowed and what’s possible. I don’t really care what they think, though. This movie was a blast. It was a bit heavy-handed with the massive destruction (a point of contention I had with Man of Steel) and there were a great deal of “camera-winking” references peppered throughout, but I ultimately felt like those were part of the fun. I got the same enjoyment out of it that I got from 2 Guns, making it one of the best times I had at the movies last year. I loved the previous Star Trek and I liked this one even more and I’m eagerly anticipating the next one. Anybody who disagrees with me can go sulk in their own misery for all I care.

#1: The World’s End – I saw this film three times in the theater and I would’ve watched even more. Half an hour in, it was already my favorite movie of the year. Immediately after seeing it, I must have texted a dozen people telling them they had to see it, too. And, indeed, most of them texted me back after they did see it saying something to the effect of “You weren’t kidding, that was amazing.” It’s somewhat of a movie miracle since it succeeds so effectively as a comedy and an action spectacular and a science-fiction thriller and a kung-fu movie and a post-apocalyptic adventure and a drinking game. I’m pleased that, in a year when I saw every movie that was conceivably worth seeing, the best one seemed almost as though it had taken what worked so well from all the other ones and combined it into one masterful cyclone of awesomeness. I don’t know what else to say, except thank you Edgar Wright and company!

So, that was my 2013 as far as the best of the best. Since this was such a unique year, I thought (in lieu of a top twenty) I’d mention a few other movies that stood out for one reason or another. I’ll probably never see this many movies in a single year ever again, so I might as well make my annual report as thorough as I can:

Worst movie of the year (by far): Upstream Color – I hated this movie so much, I actually felt violent afterwards.

Most underrated: Oldboy – This did not deserve to flop anywhere near as badly as it did. In fact, as far as remakes go, it’s actually pretty good.

Biggest disappointment: A Good Day to Die Hard – I actually liked Die Hard 4 and was impressed by how earnest they were in remaining loyal to the franchise, but this one didn’t even try.

Nicest surprise: The Purge – Wasn’t expecting much, but this turned out to be the best horror film of the year.

Most squandered potential: Last VegasRobert DeNiro, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Kline in the same movie and this was the best they could do?

Most mixed-feelings: Her – Brilliant in places, lame in others. What did you think?

Most impressive technical feat: Gravity – If there’s one movie that deserves to be seen in IMAX 3-D, it’s this one.

Best kids’ movie for adults: Monsters University – Leave it to PIXAR.

Most original story from a tired genre: Warm Bodies – If you’re gonna make a zombie movie, you’d better do something new and interesting with it and this one’s pretty clever.

The only movie I’ve ever been to where I was the only person in the entire theater: Delivery Man – Ironically, the movie wasn’t that bad (but it wasn’t that good, either).

And, finally: Even though it wasn’t in my top ten (as far as personal favorites go), I can honestly say with a clear conscience that 12 Years a Slave did indeed deserve to win the Oscar for Best Picture of the year. So, in that instance, justice prevailed.

So, in closing, I should say if there’s a movie in 2013 you’re curious about and want to know what I thought of it, just ask. Chances are I saw it.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Cinetopia Golden Ticket: February 2014

As all good things must come to an end, so endeth my year of the Golden Ticket. It kind of ended with a whimper, but it started with one too, so I guess that’s fitting. My thanks to everyone who read my little diatribes about the movies I got to see for free over these past 12 months. I hope it was worth your time. I know I enjoyed it. I have some reflections and statistics (because I’m a huge dork) I wanna go over, but first, let’s recap my final month of movies:

Movie Seventy-three: That Awkward Moment – I have never watched an episode of “Sex & the City” (why would I?), but That Awkward Moment struck me as its single-male twenty-something counterpart. Or, at least, it’s aspiring to be. It’s a cute film and surprisingly funny in some parts, but it’s phony as all hell. I’m not suggesting that every guy’s dating exploits are similar to mine, but this was such a remote departure, it might as well have been a science fiction film. Here’s a scenario to illustrate exactly what I mean: (A) I don’t know any guys that use “self-tanner” lotion, (B) but if I did, I seriously doubt any of them would use it to jerk off, (C) but if they did, they certainly wouldn’t admit it to their friends, (D) but if they did, they certainly wouldn’t show their friends their orange dick, (E) and if they did, their friends wouldn’t sit there looking at it and making jokes for 30 seconds, (F) but if they did, the guy with orange dick wouldn’t just stand their naked and let them. This movie is fraught with bizarrely improbable scenarios like that. But, I’ll admit, sometimes they’re funny. On a side note, I find it interesting that Miles Teller has been a sort of measuring point in my Cinetopia movie-watching for the past year. The first movie I watched with my Golden Ticket was 21 & Over. The Spectacular Now was #40, marking the halfway point. And now, at the end of my year, there’s That Awkward Moment. Funny thing is, he’s played the exact same character in all three movies.

Movie Seventy-four: Labor Day – On the subject of unrealistic scenarios, here’s another one that didn’t seem very likely. An escaped fugitive hides out in the home of a single mother and they fall in love. The convict, in turn, becomes somewhat of a father figure to the teenage boy. This all happens over four days. Right. Believe it or not, I was willing to forgive the plot’s lack of credibility, because it works pretty well for the most part. There were certain sequences that felt pretty ambiguous and often unnecessary, but, all in all, by the end of the movie, with time running out and the climax approaching, I found myself rooting for the characters. Not so much because I cared about them, but because I was invested in the scenario. I knew very little about this film going in, but I was willing to watch it because there weren’t many movies worth seeing at the time and I’ve appreciated Jason Reitman’s previous work. Honestly, I’m kinda unsure of how I really felt about this film. If pressed to make a decision, I’d say I liked it. I don’t know if I’d watch it again, though, because I doubt it would stand up to the scrutiny.

Movie Seventy-five: The LEGO Movie – There are some things that shouldn’t be made into movies. Chief among these are such pop culture entertainment sources as board games, video games, toys, and most Saturday Night Live sketches. So, naturally I groaned and rolled my eyes when I heard they were making The LEGO Movie (another rule of thumb is that any film where the last word in the title is actually “Movie” should probably be steered clear of – The Muppet Movie being the exception that proves the rule). Then, when I saw the trailer, it immediately gained my respect by going with stop motion animation of actual LEGOs instead of the CGI-animated sequences seen in the LEGO video games that make the minifigs look like they’re made of tofu. Not only that, the trailer was actually funny, smart, charming and – I can hardly believe it – felt like anything but a shameless extended advertisement for LEGOs. It becomes immediately clear that this film was done as a profound labor of love and the filmmakers are so giddy about the very concept of LEGOs (particularly in how conducive they are to boundless imagination) that one can’t help but be swept away by it. I was also amazed by their ability to gain permission to use such a wide spectrum of trademarked icons. Everything from DC Comics to STAR WARS, from The Simpsons to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, from Shaquille O’Neal to Crazy Cat Lady, from Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter (indeed, there’s a charming moment where Gandalf and Dumbledore stand next to each other lamenting about how people often confuse them). This movie is a pop culture fan’s wet dream. On acid. It’s an unbelievable and relentlessly unfettered feast for the eyes combining so many elements that it’s almost exhausting. It’s Toy Story meets “Calvin & Hobbes” meets Yellow Submarine meets 1984 meets South Park’s “Imaginationland” and something else meets something else entirely and so on and so forth. There really is no way to describe it except to say that it’s The LEGO Movie. And EVERYTHING IS AWESOME!

Movie Seventy-six: RoboCop – I remember when the first RoboCop came out back in 1987, I was less than a month away from turning 13 years old. Even then, despite being a pre-adolescent boy who was a big fan of both STAR WARS and Marvel Comics, I thought the movie looked dumb. However, it quickly became one of those R-rated films from the 80’s that was so overwrought with jaw-dropping violence and gore, that kids would brag about having seen it to the point where finally getting to watch it was like a rite of passage. And, once I saw it, I loved it. Not so much because it was about a cyborg cop or because stuff blowed up real good. It was the satire, the dark humor, and the cynical audacity of the whole thing that sold me on it. I loved it as a 13-year-old and I love it now. I even love RoboCop 2 (which I think is unfairly scorned and widely misunderstood). Since this new RoboCop has essentially excised pretty much everything that made the original so great (even the violence and gore are scaled back to a pathetic PG-13 caliber), my first impressions from the age of 12 are now right on the money. I do, however, feel obliged to point out that this remake is not the train wreck I was anticipating. It starts pretty weak, but does improve as it goes along. Plus, I admired the filmmakers’ efforts to not simply rehash the original, but try something different with the same basic concept. In fact, I almost wonder if they originally conceived a film meant to be its own entity but then realized it was similar enough to the original RoboCop, that they figured they might as well just call it RoboCop and hope people wouldn’t hate them for it.

Movie Seventy-seven: The Monuments MenGeorge Clooney has directed five films so far, all of which are based on true stories and, in some cases, have a historical context. You’d think he’d be better at this by now. There’s nothing wrong with The Monuments Men, but it’s such an interesting story, one would think the movie would be much more compelling than it actually is. The best thing it has to offer is seeing an eclectic mix of great actors playing off each other, but even that kind of leaves the viewer wanting. He could have cast the characters with virtual unknowns and the film wouldn’t have suffered much. In fact, it might’ve even been improved. The best performance probably comes from Bob Balaban who is especially good in a scene where, with beautifully understated finesse, he wrangles a confession out of a Nazi almost too easily. Too bad the rest of the film is unable to deliver many moments as great as that. It’s still pretty decent and there are most definitely worse films out there this time of year. But frankly, I’d rather watch a History Channel documentary about the Monuments Men than this movie.

Movie Seventy-eight: Raising Arizona – At this point, Cinetopia started to feel like my own viewing room. Having watched The Big Lebowski and Fight Club the previous month and the first two Alien movies months before that, the Golden Ticket allowed me the luxury of watching movies I’ve owned for years on the big screen for a change. It’s been a good time. It’s sad to have to give all that up (particularly because they’re showing The Goonies less than a week after my year is over). Anyway, it was interesting to see Raising Arizona (the Coen brothers’ second film) so soon after having watched Inside Llewyn Davis (their latest film). It seems slightly amateurish in comparison with their newer stuff, but it’s still wonderfully constructed and endlessly entertaining. Probably their goofiest movie, too (which is impressive considering they also made The Hudsucker Proxy and Burn After Reading). This is my favorite film from 1987 (year of the original RoboCop). It’s hard to believe this movie’s 27 years old. I may be wrong, but isn’t it also the first film to have Nicolas Cage acting batshit crazy (what has now become his calling card)?

Movie Seventy-nine: 3 Days to Kill – Having a remaining three days to kill on my Golden Ticket, I was in search of movies to squeeze in that I normally wouldn’t pay for and just hope they were worth watching. I found myself trying to decide between Pompeii 3-D or 3 Days to Kill. The former was directed by Paul W.S. Anderson who made the amazingly bad Alien vs. Predator, but also made Event Horizon, which was at least entertaining enough to sit through and had its moments. The latter was directed by McG who made the amazingly bad Charlie’s Angels movies, but also made Terminator 4, which was at least entertaining enough to sit through and had its moments, too. To decide which film to watch, I simply resorted to a battle of the trailers. Whichever ad sold me, that’d be the one I’d go see. Based on that flimsy litmus test, 3 Days to Kill seemed more accessible, personally. Now I wish I’d seen Pompeii 3-D. Although, it has definitely occurred to me that if I did, I’d in all likelihood be saying I wish I’d seen McG’s flick instead, because the grass is always greener, isn’t it? 3 Days to Kill is absolutely ridiculous, but not in the ways it should be. It actually starts off showing great potential. Amber Heard (seemingly sans make-up and acting coldly professional and convincingly agent-like) gets an assignment from her superiors and thus very succinctly establishes exposition. Then, the first time we see Kevin Costner’s character, he’s standing in room full of men he just killed. Sometimes it’s even more bad-ass to not show action scenes, know what I mean? An action scene follows soon after, though, which is fairly well-executed and shows us some cool stuff. I liked particularly how, when a bomb goes off unexpectedly, we hear muffled voices and a high-pitched ring illustrating Costner’s shell-shock. Anyway, after this sequence, the film increasingly makes less and less sense. Outside of the opening scene, everything about Amber Heard’s character is completely absurd. For some reason, every time she shows up, she’s wearing less clothes and more make-up with a different wig. I assume this is meant to keep her character in disguise, but if she’s not supposed to stand out, why is she wearing black “wet look” dresses that painfully push her cleavage almost up to her chin? I haven’t even gotten to the dopey subplot about Costner trying to make amends with his daughter and several other completely irrelevant additions stuck in here and there. Frankly, I don’t want to. Bad enough I saw this movie, why should I talk about it, too?

Movie Eighty: Non-Stop – Oh, what delicious irony that the last movie I watched with my Golden Ticket was entitled Non-Stop. Like 3 Days to Kill, here is a movie that defies all logic, but this one does it right. Liam Neeson plays a haunted air marshal who is tormented via text messages by a serial killer who threatens to murder a passenger every 20 minutes unless a ransom is paid. Unbelievable as this scenario is, the filmmakers manage to keep it interesting (there’s a great fist-fight in the airplane lavatory, for example) and, best of all, they don’t cheat. After a while, I was expecting (and dreading) a deus ex machina like the killer isn’t actually on the plane or that it was Liam Neeson’s split personality doing the killing or maybe even the whole thing was a training exercise. But, no. None of those things happen, and when they reveal who’s behind the whole thing, I was genuinely surprised without feeling duped. Indeed, I was kinda climbing the walls trying to figure out who it was. Also, when they reveal the why soon after the who, I thought it was a really compelling motive. This is a fun, non-ambitious suspense thriller that won’t force you to think too hard, but doesn’t assume you’re stupid, either. If nothing else, the film makes a pretty good case that having air marshals on flights is a really bad idea. Yes, the film has its holes and it’s not brilliant by any means, but it serves its purpose well and I had a really good time. If you can overlook that Liam Neeson’s character is pretty gullible, unreasonably hot-headed, and decides to give an impassioned speech when he knows a bomb is about to go off, you’ll probably have a good time, too.

So, my year at Cinetopia totaled eighty movies altogether. A nice round number (which is probably the only good thing that came out of seeing 3 Days to Kill). I’m a little sad it’s over, but not necessarily because they were free movies at a high-end theater; I actually got to know the place and the staff quite well. I’m saying goodbye to familiarity. Before my penultimate movie, the waiter came in to check and see if I wanted any food or drinks. I never learned this guy’s name (something I am now ashamed of), but I probably saw him more than any other Cinetopia employee. It was interesting this time because, for no discernable reason, he said, “Are you good, as usual?” I hope he didn’t think of me as a skinflint, but I rarely ordered food there. Not because it was kinda expensive (although it was), but because I don’t care to eat while watching movies. Not even popcorn.

Anyway, this was the first time he acknowledged that I was a familiar regular. He took it even further by asking me, “You’re that Golden Ticket winner, aren’t you?” I told him I was and he said he can remember me coming the theater back when I was clean-shaven (I currently have a very bushy beard for the winter, so that was a clear indicator to him as to how long I’d been coming to Cinetopia). At some point – maybe that very day – he must have gone back to the kitchen or box office and asked, “What’s with that guy who’s here a couple times a week to watch movies by himself in the 21+ section without ordering anything?” Funny to think of myself as some kind of Cinetopia pseudo-celebrity, like their analogous “Phantom of the Opera” or something.

I remember another waitperson I got to know a bit before that guy (and actually did get her name: Kayla). She was a bit more gregarious and actually asked me straight out fairly early on as to why I was there so often. After her I told her about being the Golden Ticket winner, she reacted as though I had just confirmed something she previously thought was just an urban legend. Every time since then, she’d always ask me what I’d seen lately and what I would recommend. I should have told her about this blog. The last time I saw her was in November when I went to see 12 Years a Slave. She was visibly pregnant then, which is probably why I never saw her after that. Too bad. I would like to have said goodbye.

Looking back on a year of free movies (and looking ahead to it being over), there’s actually a certain sense of relief. Like a kid in a candy store, I might have overdone it. The luxury of being able to see whatever I want, whenever I want has resulted in me being an even more scrutinous film-goer than I was before. I’m currently reading Roger Ebert’s autobiography and, referring to Werner Herzog, he ends one chapter by saying, “Artists like them bring meaning to my life, which has been devoted in such large part to films of worthlessness.” It’s true that great films are rare finds in a sea of bad films, but that just makes the good ones all the more worthwhile.

I shouldn’t lament that I swam through a sea of crap to find the exceptionally rare masterpiece, because that’s not true. I didn’t see every movie that came out (as Roger Ebert would have, if he was still alive). I was still able to scrutinize and I suppose it’s a great insult to the filmmakers whose films I declined to watch even for free. Quality of film notwithstanding, the truth is, a great many movies just didn’t appeal to me. There were, of course, the obvious stinkers I wasn’t even going to give the benefit of the doubt (like Scary Movie 5 and I, Frankenstein), but there were also a good many kids’ films I didn’t bother with either (like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 and Turbo) even though they might have been perfectly good flicks (for kids). There were even some big-budget blockbusters I passed on (like Ender’s Game and the second Hobbit film) just because I wasn’t into them.

On the flipside, there were lots of movies I expected to suck that were actually quite well done (like The Purge and Snitch) and I found myself really liking despite my cynical prejudices. Along those same lines were a few movies I knew almost nothing about going into and turned out to be very pleasant surprises as well (like The Place Beyond the Pines and Side Effects). Making the list of my top ten favorite films of 2013 is gonna be super hard.

With a nice round number of 80 films, it was easy to break it down statistically. I figure movies (like pretty much anything) generally can be separated into four categories of evaluation: What I loved, what I liked, what was so-so, and what I hated. In reviewing everything I saw at Cinetopia, 22.5% I loved, 37.5% I liked, 32.5% were so-so, and 7.5% I hated. Combining those figures into the thumbs-up/thumbs-down dichotomy means exactly 60% were good movies and 40% were bad, in my opinion. That’s a pretty decent ratio, especially given the movies I found reprehensible were such a small percentage of the total. Incidentally, if you wanna know which six movies made up that 7.5% so you can avoid such suckfests, they were The Conjuring, the Evil Dead remake, Olympus Has Fallen, Pain & Gain, White House Down, and the recently-seen 3 Days to Kill. Fuck those movies.

As for the best movies, that will be the subject of my next blog post, keeping up the annual tradition of compiling my favorites from each year. As I said, this will be a tough one to narrow down, but it will also probably be the most comprehensive list I’ve ever done. For now, though, I lower my head in solemn gratitude for Cinetopia allowing me to indulge their patronage for a year of free movies. Thank you. It was an experience.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Cinetopia Golden Ticket: January 2014

January is often the last breath of decent movies from the previous year since most studios want to get their films out early enough to be consider for Oscars, but late enough to stay fresh in the minds of movie-goers. Once the Academy Award nominations are announced, though (as they were in mid-January), the studios resort to house-cleaning. In other words, they’re dumping out all the crummy movies they don’t really have any faith in to the theaters in the hopes they can bleed so money out of audiences that are either gullible, bored, or have low expectations from films they’re willing to see. So, that means I had a good two weeks where I saw some good movies whereas the second half of January was dominated by films that weren’t even worth the drive to the theater. Thankfully, Cinetopia showed some decent retro flicks that helped fill in the gaps.

Movie Sixty-seven: The Big Lebowski – Back in October, Cinetopia did a “Sci-Fi Classics” series. I remarked that it was a bit of a misnomer in some cases, but for the most part, they showed good stuff and there were some bona fide classics in there (like Alien and Aliens, both of which I went to go see). Now they’re doing a “Cult Fiction” series and, again, they’ve kinda misinterpreted the true meaning of a cult classic. A literalist would think they’d show flicks like Repo Man and Evil Dead 2, but you can’t fault a mainstream theater like Cinetopia for going with mainstream material. Frankly, I think I’d rather see most of the movies they selected over some quintessential cult films (for instance, they’re showing The Shawshank Redemption, which is a masterpiece, but a more exemplary cult prison film would be Caged Heat), so I can’t complain. Anyway, they started with The Big Lebowski, which skirts both territories in that it’s a cult film that’s generally appreciated by the masses. It was good to see it on the big screen again. I’m not sure when I last saw it, but it had to have been within the past few years and I’ve certainly seen it enough times to quote it pretty accurately. Man, it’s still just as funny as ever, though. That’s another calling card of a cult film: Its ability to withstand the test of time. Well done, Cinetopia. Now, if only you had enough sense to show Blade Runner instead of Starship Troopers.

Movie Sixty-eight: August: Osage County – When making a dramedy, the subject matter that yields the best potential is dysfunctional family. If you can get Meryl Streep to play the matriarch, so much the better. August: Osage County is based on a play and it feels like it, but not in a bad way. All the usual elements are in place: Bitter mother, absent father, resentful daughter(s), two-faced sister, her henpecked husband, their idiot son, cynical teenage grandkid, and the quiet but wise housekeeper. Mixed in, are doses of infidelity, chemical dependency, devastating secrets, ambiguous suicide and, of course, good ol’ reliable cancer. This all may sound quite derivative, but it is, in fact, a really good movie and never really feels recycled or tired. It’s only nominated for two Oscars, but deserves more. It’s appropriate, though, that the two nominations it did get were for acting. Actors must love being in movies like this with such heavy roles and juicy dialogue that they can really dive into. It’s a pleasure just watching them work. The movie ends, as most stories like this do, without any real revelation, but that’s how life is, isn’t it? The final scene shows Julia Roberts driving away with a quizzical look on her face that is never explained. My interpretation is that she comes to a realization that she’s going to eventually end up as bitter and cruel as her mother, despite her vehement intentions not to. If you think I just gave away the ending, you’re wrong. It’s up to you to decipher your own meaning.

Movie Sixty-nine: Her – This is a very realistic and likely future, I think. We already live in an age where, if you start up a conversation with a stranger on a bus or an elevator, you are the weirdo and the people on their smart phones or iPads are the norm. It won’t be long before, anytime you see somebody talking, it’s to a computer. I’ve certainly reached that grumpy old man stage of my life where I refuse to indulge in certain technological advances (like Twitter) because I think they’re pointless and dehumanizing (like Twitter). But, on the other hand, I am on Facebook, I do have an iPhone, and here I am writing on a blog at this very moment. Where is the line? That’s what Her seems to be asking. It’s got some pretty insightful things to say and interesting areas it explores. I was surprised and impressed by some of the directions it took and disappointed in other areas it neglected, but overall, this is a pretty intriguing scenario to consider. I suppose its main point is the one Short Circuit brought up (much more lightly) in the 80’s: What makes something “alive?” Is it its capacity for love? What got me thinking was that so much of who we are is physical. Our personalities (and maybe even our souls) are shaped by things that happen to us and, quite often, those things are physical. Sexual abuse, chemical imbalances, drug addiction, debilitating illnesses, being born blind or deaf: All of these are things a computer can’t experience. They can learn about them, sure, but they can’t live them, particularly because most of them happen by pure chance. Even on a smaller and more common scale, I can remember times when I got into an argument with a girlfriend simply because I was hungry or she was tired. Could a computer even be in a bad mood just because? It’s interesting that human foibles, not strengths, are what keep us separate from technology. I’m going off on a philosophical tangent, but that’s the power of Her. It’s not the best film of the year, but it might be the most thought-provoking.

Movie Seventy: Inside Llewyn Davis – The Coen brothers are on a short list of directors whose movies I will always watch no matter what. Some of the directors on that list are there because they’re consistent and I love their work, others are eclectic and often surprise me in delightful ways. The Coens are the latter. For the most part, they write their own material. So, for them to have such a diverse body of work is something of a miracle. And rarely do they disappoint. I have such faith in these filmmaking brothers that, outside of watching the trailer, I don’t even bother to read reviews or look into what their latest film is about. I just go see it. Inside Llewyn Davis is a peculiar entry into their repertoire. It feels like somewhat of a mixture between Woody Allen and Jim Jarmusch with the cinematography of vintage Orson Welles. It has the same sort of aimless and seemingly random story arc as A Serious Man with the same kind of somber, dry humor of The Man Who Wasn’t There. When it was over, I wasn’t sure exactly what I had just watched, but I liked it all the same. And I loved the music. I can wholeheartedly and unreservedly recommend this film to anyone else who’s a Coen brothers fan. For the rest of you: See it at your own risk.

Movie Seventy-one: Lone Survivor – This plays like Black Hawk Down on a smaller and fairly simpler scale. I wasn’t familiar with the incident to begin with, outside of it being a true story. I figured, as such, a number of liberties would be taken. Indeed, while watching the film, I thought several times There’s no way somebody could survive that. While I’m sure the film isn’t 100% accurate, after having seen it and learned more about it, I think a great deal of it was, in fact, very accurate. For starters, one of the characters gets shot multiple times and still manages to carry on (rather implausibly, I thought), but, in real life, the autopsy showed he had 11 bullet wounds. So, yeah: I think they got that part right, at least. There are also several scenes where the titular lone survivor comes extraordinarily close to death and is miraculously saved one way or another. Given the film was based on the book written by the survivor, I have no reason to believe he would lie, especially under the circumstances in which his fellow soldiers were killed. The movie begins with a grueling montage of what appears to be actual soldiers in actual training and then ends with heartbreaking photos and footage of the deceased. Everything in between is hard to watch, too. But, it’s good for the rest of us to watch it. If soldiers actually experience such things, it seems fair the rest of us be made aware of what they experienced.

Movie Seventy-two: Fight Club – Remember how I said the Coen brothers are among the few directors of whom I will watch any and all movies they do without hesitation? Well, David Fincher’s on that list, too. I, of course, had seen Fight Club before, but I was happy to see it again in the theater as part of Cinetopia’s aforementioned Cult Fiction series. The first time I saw Fight Club, I didn’t care for it. I think I was expecting a mindless action flick and, when it turned out to be much more cerebral than just dudes punching each other, my mind wasn’t ready for it and I found it too much to take. I thought about it for some time, though, and, after seeing it a second time, I loved it. Like The Big Lebowski, I can’t remember for sure how long it’d been since I last saw it (even though I own it), but I’d forgotten just how good it really is. I can’t believe it’s 15 years old now, but it holds up remarkably well. I suppose the themes it explores are as relevant today as they were back in the late 90’s, if not more so. I wonder if the younger generation identifies with it as much now as I did then. In any case, it was a joy to watch on an 80 foot screen with surround sound after all this time. Especially since David Fincher is one of my favorite directors and this is his best film.

So, all-in-all, with two old favorites book-ending a few Oscar-nominees, I’d say it was a pretty good month. It’s a shame the final month of my Golden Ticket will be most likely be predominantly populated with humdrum films, but I had a good year. If there are enough worth seeing, I might break eighty, which is a pretty impressive haul for a year’s worth of free movies. After that, I may just hibernate for the rest of the winter.