Dwarf Tossing

Time to close out the 2012 lists! I never imagined that the last movie I'd see this year would be the new Hobbit, because I was on the fence about seeing it at all. This is a good case of how a movie's final grade is a balance of how much I liked it vs. what I think it was trying to accomplish vs. my pre-existing expectations. I really need to start seeing things with a blank slate so hype or nerd-rage doesn't seep into my subconscious. I was expecting this movie to be a slog. The podcast reviews have been pretty harsh, and I figured that the expansion of a slim book into three movies would make each of them bloated and insufferable. Although there were certainly some unnecessary tangents, this first film of the trilogy actually wound up being pretty fun.

Having Martin Freeman in the lead helps, because he's good in everything, and as always, Ian McKellen knocks it out of the park. I almost feel bad in suggesting that they cut back on the amount of Gandalf, because I enjoy McKellen so much. But there's no denying that there's a bit too much wizard-ex-machina going on in this movie, which kills some of the suspense. Some of the side stories didn't really fit into the main narrative, although it may be laying some groundwork for the next movies.

I did enjoy the group of dwarves, and think Peter Jackson and the production designers did an excellent job differentiating each of them so that they felt like separate characters instead of a mass of ciphers. The story of their leader Thorin Oakenshield wasn't as developed as it could have been, but not to the point that it hurt the movie too much. And where this film really shined is the scene in Gollum's cave, where Bilbo first comes into possession of the One Ring. It could have easily been a tossaway scene, but turns out to be the most suspenseful part of the movie, instead.

After enjoying a movie I was prepared to skip, I've already made my first resolution for the coming new year: It's time to start going into movies with fewer preconceived expectations! Let's see if this resolution lasts any longer than the usual ones about exercise.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: B

French Dressing

As a fan of musical theater, I'd like to read an in-depth article about ways that shows have been adapted into movies, both successfully and unsuccessfully. What's the best way to shift the scope? People on stage have to display outsized emotions to play to the back of the theater, so how do you adapt the tone for the big screen? Why does Dreamgirls work so well, while Rent is such a pile of crap? Is it all directorial choices, or is there something built into the genetic code of a musical that affects how the movie version turns out?

After seeing Tom Hooper's Les Miserables, I'm no closer to answering these questions. I was more excited to see it than almost any other movie this year, for lots of reasons. I enjoyed the stage version. Tom Hooper is an accomplished director, as The King's Speech showed. I'm a fan of several of the actors. So I really had a lot of goodwill built up as I walked into the theater.

Which this movie then did a thorough job of chipping away. I'll say at the outset that I don't think it was terrible. In fact, it wasn't even bad; it was just very strangely cobbled together. A lot of the camera work is disjointed and repeated several times. A character dies, and instead of trusting the audience to know that instinctively, a sickening neck crunch sound effect is added in, just so you really, really know he's dead. The idea to have the actors sing live into the camera, rather than lip sync to themselves was... Well, I've seen it called a "noble experiment", and would agree. When someone was good, it showed, but by the same token, when someone was bad, it blared out like a siren.

Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, and Samantha Barks were all remarkably good (as were some of the secondary characters), while everyone else was mediocre or worse. That's not an acceptable ratio. My biggest issue is with Marius, and I'm still trying to work out how much of that is the character's failings, and how much is the fault of Eddie Redmayne, who looks about as much of a 19th-century Frenchman as I look like Alfre Woodard. A lot of the plot revolves around characters sacrificing so that Marius can have a better life, and there is just no indication of why he deserves all this adoration.

That's kind of what I meant about how to adapt tone from a musical into a movie. As a stage show, Les Miserables is a grand, sweeping tragedy. On the screen, it comes off as a tale of how everyone in world loves a wealthy, self-involved dilettante.

Les Miserables: B-

The State of the Art: Books 2012

It's fairly easy to see movies in the same year they're released. It's more difficult (but still feasible) to keep up with a mass of television shows in the same year they're released. But when your main source of reading material is the public library, and you must take your place in a long line before you can get your hands on a popular title, it can be downright impossible to read a lot of books in the same year they're released.

Over the course of this past year, I've read 24 books (not including re-reads of favorites that I return to again and again). A two-a-month average isn't bad for a busy fellow such as myself, but only 6 of these books were published in 2012. So it makes no sense to take my top five from solely 2012 titles, because everything except one would make the list, no matter how good or bad they were. I guess I'll just have to pick my top five from everything I read this year. Let's hit it!

#1: Battle Royale - Koushun Takami

What I Said: I was a little dismayed when I picked Battle Royale up from the library, because it's thick, and with a hectic schedule, I worried that I wouldn't be able to get through it in my allotted two weeks. I tore through it in a day and a half. It's a riveting, exciting, saddening story.

#2: The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern

What I Said: Normally, I'd find a book that back-benches its plot in service of atmospheric descriptions maddening. But in this book, delving into the enigma of the circus and its denizens is hypnotic. Like a fairground itself, you'll find yourself happy to wander off in an unexpected direction to see what mysteries you'll discover.

#3: Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn

What I Said: This story could have easily spun into contrived melodrama, but Flynn's meticulous writing makes scenes that would usually come off as ludicrous seem completely feasible. Every time we think we know which way the story is heading, it veers off into another direction.

#4: Why We Broke Up - Daniel Handler

What I Said: I generally love Daniel Handler books. Though not my favorite of his, this one is certainly in the top three. It's a series of notes from a teenage girl to her ex-boyfriend, ruminating over the dissolution of their relationship as she returns all the items that remind her of them as a couple. Each item is also given an illustration, and the total package really encapsulates the diary-like remembrances of an adolescent protagonist.

#5: Taft 2012 - Jason Heller

What I Said: Ridiculously biased cable news commentary and vicious internet sniping are ripe for satire, of course, but Heller can do that in his sleep. What's truly remarkable is that Taft 2012 achieves more than just poking fun at our often absurd media and political system. It gives us an elbow to the ribs as a reminder of what democracy is actually supposed to be about, and paints Taft as a historical figure worth learning about, rather than just writing him off as that fat, milquetoast one with the giant bathtub.

All five are highly recommended. That said, it wasn't a stellar year. Here's the full list of books I read in order of rank, with the ones published in 2012 underlined:

Battle Royale - Koushun Takami (A)
The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern (A)
Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn (A-)
Why We Broke Up - Daniel Handler (B+)
Taft 2012 - Jason Heller (B+)

The Gates - John Connelly (B+)
One Last Thing Before I Go - Jonathan Tropper (B)
Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte (B)
Marcelo in the Real World - Francisco X. Stork (B)
Look At Me - Jennifer Egan (B)
The Illustrated Man - Ray Bradbury (B)
A Game of Thrones - George R.R. Martin (B)

Machine Man - Max Barry (B-)
The Infernals - John Connelly (B-)
Drift: The Unmooring of America's Military Power - Rachel Maddow (B-)
The Magician King - Lev Grossman (B-)

The Leftovers - Tom Perotta (C+)
A Wrinkle in Time - Madeleine L'Engle (C+)

The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King - Rich Cohen (C)
Big Babies - Sherwood Kiraly (C)
Girl Walks into a Bar: Comedy Calamities, Dating Disasters, and a Midlife Miracle - Rachel Dratch (C)
Freedom - Jonathan Franzen (C-)
A Clash of Kings - George R.R. Martin (C-)

Batter Off Dead - Tamar Myers (F)

Two final notes:

Firstly, these retrospective lists involve a lot of looking back on things that I graded months ago, and I'm genuinely surprised that so far, I agree with my past self, and would give the same grade today that I gave then. Today is the first time I found my feelings have significantly changed over time. So because I gave A Game of Thrones a B at the time, that's how it appears in this list. It got a B because I thought that while it was extremely bloated, with too much exposition and too many characters, it could be somewhat excused on the grounds that it was laying groundwork for future novels. Now I know that the bloat is just a characteristic of those books, so its true grade should really be a C, if not a C-.

And finally, the list above comprises the books I read from start to finish. There are always a few that don't make the cut. This ignoble list contains books that were so terrible I couldn't finish them, books that were so boring I couldn't keep up any interest, or perfectly adequate books that were either not my style or I just wasn't in the mood for. This year's toss-asides were:

Snow White and the Seven Samurai - Tom Holt: Not awful, but the whole updated-twist-on-fairy-tales trope has been done a lot lately, and this is not among the better attempts at it.

The Dispossessed - Ursula Le Guin: The AV Club recommended that if you haven't read any Le Guin, you should start with this one. So I did, and quickly realized that I am just not the target audience for her stories.

Passing It On: Folklore of St. Louis (2nd ed., revised and updated) - John L. Oldani: I picked this up because I love little quirks about my hometown. I wanted to get more in depth as to the origins of why we ask each other about what high school we attended, or how the practice of requiring a joke on Halloween got started. Instead, it was a dry recitation of stories and sayings that were either too dull for inclusion or not specific enough to the region. It bored me silly, and I wasn't about to extend the pain by finishing it.

I picked up two fresh books today that will kick off the 2013 list, so get thee to a library! I need some good recommendations for the coming year.

Shorties #6

I was concerned that the holiday season would be a cultural dead zone, but things are piling up faster than I can write about them! Aaaaaaah!

#1: Koyaanisqatsi: I'm surprised that I hadn't heard of this 1982 movie before it was sprung on me by a date. Francis Ford Coppola helped produce it, Philip Glass wrote the score, and it was enough of a cult film to warrant being the first of a trilogy. Translated from Hopi as "Life Out of Balance", it has no dialogue, but is merely a series of clips progressing from the beauty and stillness of nature through hectic scenes of urban life. Frankly, it was too much of "Nature Good! People Bad!" kind of message for me, but even if the tone didn't strike the right artistic balance, the music and editing were remarkable. (Grade: C+)

#2: "Serenity": Not the Serenity that I've already mentioned. This one was the pilot episode(s) of Firefly. Back then, I wondered if I didn't like the movie because I needed to be more familiar with the source material, or if I just didn't like it. Looks like we've got an answer now, because the TV show was no better. An antihero here and there is fine, but there are simply too many unlikeable characters in this franchise. I doubt I'll pursue this show any further. (Grade: C)

#3: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day: This 2008 film is pretty much a fluffy little nothing, and I mean that as a compliment. Frances McDormand is terrific in everything, and this is no exception. She plays a poverty-stricken governess, who through a quirk of fate, finds herself attempting to rescue a ditzy aspiring actress (Amy Adams) from various romantic entanglements. It's a charming movie that's best enjoyed some snowy night in front of the fire with a mug of hot chocolate. (Grade: B)

#4: United State of Pop - "Shine Brighter": I always enjoy DJ Earworm's yearly mashup of the top 25 pop songs of the year. Nothing has beaten out 2010 as my favorite one, but 2012's compilation comes pretty close. (Grade: B+)

#5: How I Met Your Mother - Season 7: Granted, I wasn't in the best headspace as I watched this season, but I'm pretty sure that has little to do with my opinion that it's the weakest of the bunch. There were some bright spots here and there, but for the most part, the MacLaren's gang may have put their best days behind them. (Grade: C)

The State of the Art: Television 2012

My approach to TV shows this year has been vastly different than my approach to movies. I've been pretty damned attentive to getting out to see movies that I'm interested in, but have been letting most TV shows pile up, waiting until there's an easily-accessible chunk of episodes I can tear through in one stretch. There is an enormous amount of quality shows that I just haven't gotten around to yet, which means that my favorite shows of the year are a lot less representative than my picks in the world of cinema. Please bear that in mind when you mentally scold me for not including Homeland or Breaking Bad. I'll see them someday! You could always check out the TV label for a more inclusive list of what I watched this year, but when it comes to actually watching shows as they air, here are my Top Five TV Shows of 2012:

#1: Parks and Recreation - Season 4

If Parks & Rec had only given us the story arc of Leslie Knope's run for city council, Dayenu! The entire arc was pure gold, giving us brilliant episodes like "Campaign Ad" and "The Debate". But they didn't stop there! Season 4 also included the Pawnee Rangers, Tom and Donna's "Treat Yo' Self" excursion, and the incomparable Patricia Clarkson as the ice queen Tammy One. From start to finish, this was most well-written, well-paced, well-acted, well-everythinged show of the year.

#2: Community - Season 3

If Parks & Rec is the gold standard as far as what a standard sitcom can achieve, Community wins the medal for what high-concept weirdness can accomplish. It's the most imaginative (non-animated) show on the air right now, and for those who enjoys its quirks, there's nothing better. Standout episodes of the year include "Basic Lupine Urology" (a pitch-perfect Law & Order send-up), "Curriculum Unavailable" (a take-off of a clip show, in which the actual backstory of the show is briefly assumed to be a delusion so that more craziness can stand in for the "real" story), and "Digital Estate Planning" (in which the characters are encoded into 8-bit video game avatars). Sound strange? It is! But in all the best ways.

#3: Bob's Burgers - Season 3

The two seasons of the shows mentioned above are long since over. But the Bob's Burgers season still in progress has already had such standout moments that it deserves inclusion on a Best Of list, no matter where it goes from here. And even though Parks & Rec was the best show of the year, and Community had the best episode of the year, Bob's Burgers far and away had the best character of the year, as it continues to develop the shy, awkward, thoughtful, horny, pushover Tina. "Tina-Rannosauraus Wrecks", in which she gets into a fender-bender and is forced to tell a series of increasingly complex lies, had me laughing louder than I have in a long time. All of the family members have been given a chance to shine, though, as seen in the fantastic Halloween episode "Full Bars". I've soured a bit on animated shows lately, but this one manages to balance sentimentality and comedy perfectly, and I'm never not in the mood for it.

#4: Downton Abbey - Season 2

If you call or text me during the three shows above, I'll shrug and ignore you. If you try to contact me during Downtown Abbey, I'll be enraged. This season may not have been as gripping as the first one, but there was plenty to enrapture me. The petty social situations in Season 1 were grand fun, but the arrival of World War I and a wave of Spanish Flu brings much more serious problems to the Crawley household. And while I'm not by any means a "shipper", seeing Mary and Matthew finally manage to snag a moment of love and happiness in a Christmas snowfall was a much-needed exhalation. Season 3 starts up here in the States in about a week, and you can bet I'll be glued to the screen. Plan your calls and texts accordingly.

#5: RuPaul's Drag Race - Season 4

Reality TV doesn't hold the same allure as it once did for me. The Amazing Race, Top Chef, Project Runway... All of these used to be appointment television for me, and all have pretty much fallen by the wayside. Thank goodness there's one show left that skewers everything that's melodramatic and ridiculous about other shows, while still maintaining a source of suspense and delight about who wins. RuPaul's Drag Race seasons have been steadily improving, and this last one, which came down to a decision between a goth horror queen, a snotty, self-entitled showgirl, and a placid, consummate professional, was pure awesomeness. Clever challenges, epic lip syncs, and fantastic casting somehow made a show about bickering drag queens the highlight of the week.

It's The End of the World As We Know It

Hey, look! December 21 has come and gone, and if a gigantic Mayan-style apocalypse happened, I seem to have missed it. It's only by happenstance that I just wrapped up Tom Perotta's The Leftovers, which is about the differing paths people take once a Rapture-like event has caused a large chunk of the population to vanish suddenly. The premise is certainly intriguing, especially since the disappearance doesn't adhere to any strict religious tenets; people of all stripes are taken, and people of all stripes are left behind.

Nobody treats this as a joyous event. Religious people freak out over not being "chosen", while those who don't ascribe the disappearances to any particular deity are still shattered by losing their friends and loved ones. Various cults spring up like weeds, and even families who didn't lose anyone are blown apart by characters choosing to take their lives in a wildly different direction.

As I said, an intriguing premise, right? Unfortunately, it's not developed as deeply as I'd have liked. There are so many paths to take when you're suddenly alone and confronted by crushing self-reflection and moral quandaries, and these characters just kind of wander around. A woman following her conscience abandons her husband and children to join a doomsday cult, and... Nobody in the family much cares. A woman spends the whole book falling to pieces after her family vanished, and... Is instantaneously restored to peace and happiness by a stranger's infant.

For readers looking for an interesting premise, this book explores some really fascinating ideas. But for those looking for a cohesive, well-written story within that framework, you may come away a bit disappointed.

The Leftovers: C+

The State of the Art: Movies 2012

If there's one thing this blog accomplishes (and that's a big "if"), it's a handy form of organizing the pop culture I consumed over a set period of time. Now I can get all statistical on this bitch! If the posts I've made correctly comprise everything, I've seen 21 movies that were released this year, and 54 movies total over the course of 2012 [numbers updated 12/31]. I'll see more before the new year, and this list doesn't even take into consideration any movie I watch over and over again - just the ones I saw for the first (or second) time. Since I assign letter grades to the movies I watch, a ranking naturally falls into place. I'm pretty surprised by how these films shook out; if you had told me in January that an animated movie would wind up being way more enjoyable than the year's award magnet dramas, I'd have laughed. But here we are! So, allow me to present my Top Five Movies of 2012:

#1: Wreck-It Ralph

What I Said: This film was heartfelt and funny and beautifully animated and had terrific voice acting and was loaded with video game in-jokes. How could I not love it? The entire audience, both adult and child, was captivated throughout the entire running time.

#2: Looper

What I Said: I don't even really have any nerdy nitpicks about potential plot holes opened up by the time travel. Tons of care and thought went into this movie, and it shows.

#3: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

What I Said: This almost monarchical story, combined with seemingly endless beauty shots of the sushi itself, kept me totally enraptured. Even those who do not like sushi would find much to enjoy in this as purely a movie, but for those of us who would sell our plasma for some tasty unagi, this film is pitch perfect.

#4: The Avengers

What I Said: It's amazing how many pitfalls this movie could have fallen into, and didn't. The sultry Black Widow could have been a generic eye-candy character, and instead, pretty much becomes the glue that holds the entire plot together. Any of the heroes could have been lost in the background, but everyone gets a chance to shine. The Hulk, so sullen and plodding in other movies, becomes simultaneously more threatening and more empathetic in Whedon's hands.

#5: Moonrise Kingdom

What I Said: This movie fits nicely into the Wes Anderson oeuvre. The basic structure is made a lot deeper by some impressive acting - Add in some gorgeous set locations, excellent music, and Anderson's patented quirkiness, and you've got a pretty charming little film.

This isn't meant to imply these are the five best movies of the year. They are simply the five I enjoyed the most of the ones I was able to get to. There are plenty of 2012 films I have yet to watch, and as always, a lot of them will have to be seen months or even years from now. For now, here's the full list.

2012 Movies

Wreck-It Ralph (A)
Looper (A-)
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (A-)
The Avengers (A-)
Moonrise Kingdom (B+)
Chronicle (B+)
Brave (B+)
The Dark Knight Rises (B+)
The Hunger Games (B+)
Cloud Atlas (B)
Skyfall (B)
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (B)
Magic Mike (B)
Argo (B-)
Lincoln (B-)
Les Miserables (B-)
Pitch Perfect (C+)
Rise of the Guardians (C+)
The Campaign (C+)
Joyful Noise (C+)
The Amazing Spider-Man (C-)

Strange. Nothing below a C-, which means that my stinkbomb filter must be in pretty good condition. Also, it seems pretty clear that a lot of these were grades were derived by weighing against what I felt the film was trying to accomplish. For example, Chronicle wanted to tell a deep, complex character study involving superpowers with no big name actors and no budget, and succeeded admirably, while Lincoln threw a ton of prestige and money towards telling the definitive story of a period of history, and fell a bit short. The list above is all the movies released this year I was able to see, but there were plenty from other years I was able to get my paws on. Hit it!

The Artist (2011) (A)
Wreck-It Ralph (A)
Looper (A-)
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (A-)
Midnight in Paris (2011) (A-)
Winter's Bone (2010) (A-)
The Avengers (A-)
Michael Clayton (2007) (A-)
The Illusionist (2010) (A-)

Moonrise Kingdom (B+)
Chronicle (B+)
Brave (B+)
V For Vendetta (2005) (B+)
The Dark Knight Rises (B+)
Brick (2005) (B+)
The Hunger Games (B+)
The Social Network (2010) (B+)
How to Train Your Dragon (2010) (B+)
Beginners (2010) (B+)
The Station Agent (2003) (B+)
Good Hair (2009) (B+)

Cloud Atlas (B)
The Descendants (2011) (B)
Skyfall (B)
Weekend (2011) (B)
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (B)
Magic Mike (B)
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008) (B)
Super (2010) (B)
Conversations With Other Women (2005) (B)
Argo (B-)
Lincoln (B-)
Black Swan (2010) (B-)
Les Miserables (B-)
The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) (B-)
The September Issue (2009) (B-)

Pitch Perfect (C+)
Rise of the Guardians (C+)
The Perfect Host (2010) (C+)
Halloween (1978) (C+)
The Campaign (C+)
Joyful Noise (C+)
Koyaanisqatsi (1982) (C+)

Born Yesterday (1950) (C)
The Iron Lady (2011) (C)
The Help (2011) (C)
Christmas Vacation (1989) (C)
Serenity (2005) (C)
Thor (2011) (C)
Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) (C)

The Tree of Life (2011) (C-)
The Amazing Spider-Man (C-)
Halloween II (1981) (C-)
The Room (2003) (F)

Pop Culture Homework Assignment #6: Christmas Vacation

I may be Jewish, but I'm not immune to the impulse to watch entertaining Christmas movies when the holiday rolls around. I don't really bother with It's A Wonderful Life much anymore, but I'll always be in the mood for A Christmas Story. And I suppose Die Hard counts as a Christmas movie, right? I'll go ahead and decree that it is. For some reason, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation has always just slipped through the cracks. It's certainly hallowed by both Christmas movie fans and National Lampoon fans, so I'm not sure why it took me this long to watch it, but I finally plopped down and gave it a whirl.

One of the inherent dangers of the Pop Culture Homework Project is having to live up to the widespread stamp of approval that society has given a particular work. Since I'm arriving late to the experience, a beloved property can turn out to be disappointing. I'm afraid that's pretty much what happened here.

There's just too much history weighing down on this movie. We're pretty much past the era of comedies composed of nothing but pratfalls. We know what Chevy Chase and Randy Quaid have turned out to be like. It's fun to see kid versions of Johnny Galecki and Juliette Lewis, but their parts are pretty minor. I get the feeling that if I'd seen this movie in 1989 when it was released, I'd be a bigger fan of it. As it is, I feel like it's a so-so fluff movie that doesn't really deserve its place in the Christmas Canon.

Christmas Vacation: C

Fabric Softener

What I'm Watching: How I Met Your Mother - Season 7

The past week has been a difficult one in terms of Life Issues, which meant two things as far as what pop culture I felt like consuming. First, it couldn't be anything too deep, or complex, or thought-provoking. It needed to be something easy and fluffy. And second, it needed to be something to fill in the time cracks around a lot of quickly-planned events. There could be no must-be-home-on-this-day-at-this-time kind of thing. In other words, I needed a Laundry Show. And just in time, I received word that Netflix is now streaming the seventh season of How I Met Your Mother. Season 8 is currently airing on TV, but this is one of those shows I like to let build up, then shotgun several episodes in a row.

In terms of how this season is stacking up against previous ones, it's been a bit of a disappointment so far. The quirky friendships and the always-fun rules/challenges/games plots are taking a backseat to a lot of emotional development, and the scales have tipped a little too much. This is one of those programs that has always been pretty good, and a handful of episodes have even been outstanding. So far in Season 7, there has only been one glimmer of that old cleverness, and that was in an episode in which the gang realizes with horror that all of their significant others remind themselves of one of their parents.

But in terms of what I need this show to do for me right now - to provide something relatively light-hearted to make me smile for a short burst of time - it's performing admirably.

Do You Believe in Magic?

Whenever I go to visit my sister in Kansas City, tons of pop culture is consumed. Books are read on the journey! Movies are gone to as family outings! Television is watched in an attempt to tame my nephew's wild energy for a few minutes! So, when I wrote about the book and movie combo I experienced over the past couple of days, it was really only half of what I got through. Those two properties were extremely pragmatic. How is the relationship between America and its military changing? How is morally tricky legislation passed?

The next set of properties I tackled were a lot more ethereal and imaginative. First, we took the aforementioned nephew to see Rise of the Guardians, which is about how Jack Frost takes his place among a pantheon of children's heroes (Santa Claus, The Easter Bunny, The Sandman, and The Tooth Fairy) in order to protect the kids' hope and wonder from the sinister boogeyman. Perhaps I judge it too harshly because I'm still giddy from how terrific Wreck-It Ralph was. Perhaps I judge it too harshly because it's a movie for kids, and I shouldn't expect it to cater to my tastes. Or perhaps I don't judge it too harshly, because here is my six-year-old nephew's three-word review: "That was boring."

Yeah, it kind of was. From a story standpoint, anyway. I will absolutely not complain about the visuals, because this movie is beautifully animated, and the 3D was used very well. The rest of it could have used some work. The voice acting was fine, if nothing to write home about (Jude Law is the exception, imbuing the boogeyman with wonderfully elegant menace). The story was fairly bland and uninspired. It was surprisingly talky for a kid's movie, which is probably what earned my nephew's ire. It wasn't a terrible movie by any stretch; plenty of children's entertainment has me scratching at the walls, begging to be let out. This wasn't that. It was just a fair-to-middling movie that needed another twenty minutes in the oven, so to speak.

On the book front, I needed a palate-cleanser after the grim experience of Drift, and fortunately, Erin Morgenstern's 2011 novel The Night Circus was next on my list. I've always been a big fan of magical realism - it's not for nothing that I'm a Bryan Fuller superfan. So this dreamlike story about the wonders of a magic-infused circus and its nocturnal performers really hit my sweet spot.

The circus' amazing exhibitions are all part of an intricate game between two sorcerers, but rather than take on each other directly, they prefer to use the people around them as their unwitting pieces on an ever-changing chessboard. When two opposing forces find themselves increasingly drawn to one another, events take a turn for the dangerous. Normally, I'd find a book that back-benches its plot in service of atmospheric descriptions maddening. But in this book, delving into the enigma of the circus and its denizens is hypnotic. Like a fairground itself, you'll find yourself happy to wander off in an unexpected direction to see what mysteries you'll discover.

Rise of the Guardians: C+
The Night Circus: A

War and Peace

I just finished saying that although war movies can be extremely well-made, I'm not generally entertained by them. The subject matter is too harsh for me to have any fun, and I've already taken most of the lessons they have to teach. There needs to be something extra to draw me in. Well, curiously, I have just happened to tackle two properties that approach war that bring that same extra perspective to their frameworks: The politics surrounding war, and how those politics reverberate throughout history just as much as any legendary battle.

The first was Rachel Maddow's recent book Drift: The Unmooring of America's Military Power. Regardless of your political affiliation, try to keep that knee from jerking when you read the author's name. Maddow's argument in this book is that going to war used to be something we went through as a country, all of us together. But as warfare stands now, the public has never been more removed from the battles being fought in our name. It's hard to dispute that assertion, and Maddow does not spare either political party from sharing in the blame for it. Both Reagan and Obama (among others) are taken to task for using executive power to do what the founders pointedly stated should be left up to the legislative branch, and there's plenty conservatives would find to like in her plea that we should take a more traditional stance on how we wage war.

The book is not overly preachy, and takes a light tone where it can. Still, a few chapters did tend to meander away from the central thesis, making the overall work feel a bit too padded. I'd recommend it if you're interested in the topic of the struggle over military use and spending, but you won't come away very cheered.

For a more mainstream work, my mom, sister, and I went to go see Lincoln, which is getting pretty glowing reviews. Despite being named that, the movie actually spends more time discussing the back-room politics surrounding the effort to get the 13th amendment passed (and the Civil War ended) than as some sort of biopic of the president. I liked that. When a movie tries to take on too much, it can get muddled in a hurry.

Daniel Day-Lewis did a phenomenal job, and several of the supporting actors really shined as well, from Tommy Lee Jones to Lee Pace. Though a lot of the acting on display was fantastic, the movie as a whole had some issues. A few lines were too on-the-nose as jokey asides to a modern-day audience, and the scenes of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln were rushed, to the point that they honestly could have been left on the cutting room floor.

I don't want to give the impression I didn't like the movie; it's pretty darn good, and serves as a useful reminder that policies we take for granted now were moral and political messes at the time. But it also serves as a reminder that when your story revolves around a lot of talking, it's important to make sure all that wordiness is warranted. Lincoln gives the impression that Honest Abe liked to ramble on and on, but he didn't have a post-production editor.

Drift: B-
Lincoln: B-

The Pantheon: The French Chef

It may appear from reading this blog that pop culture is my ruling passion, but it's actually in second place. Anyone who knows me knows that food and cooking is my real obsession. Someone could say to me "Hey, I just had lunch and then ran into a major celebrity!" and the first thing out of my mouth would be "What did you have for lunch?"

So when episodes of The French Chef became available on Netflix, I jumped at the chance to rent them. Naturally, I'm familiar with Julia Child, but the show itself was well before my time. Most of what I knew of Child comprised a lot of second-hand anecdotes relayed by other people, and I was anxious to see the source material.

The French Chef ran on PBS from 1963-1973, and when I watched the DVDs, it became important to keep reminding myself of that. Sometimes it can be difficult to judge an original work when so much has been based on it since then, and the more I told myself that the show I was watching aired 40 years ago, the more impressed I was.

After all, cooking fine French cuisine was not considered at the time to be something the general populace would be capable of, let alone should want to do. This was the era of those gloriously terrible, gelatinous casseroles. Beef Bourguignon was something you'd have to go to a fancy restaurant for, not something to be whipped up in your kitchen. What a breath of fresh air this show must have been. And now that we've been through a couple of generations of the cooking shows that followed it, it's worked its way around to being a breath of fresh air again.

The French Chef lacks even a hint of the pretension a lot of celebrity chefs display in the modern era. Julia Child did not slap her name on whatever product she thought could rake in a few bucks. She did not earn her reputation solely on the basis of judging reality shows. She did not craft a phony personality so she could come off as more appealing to audiences. Her love of food was and is infectious, and she was never afraid to admit mistakes - some of the most endearing scenes of The French Chef are her attempting to salvage something that she's just goofed.

The use of food and cooking as pop culture entertainment has come a long way in the past forty years, but not all of its advances have been beneficial. I'm not always one to talk about the good ol' days, but in the case of The French Chef, there's a lot the Food Network could learn from the woman who started it all.

Pop Culture Homework Assignment #5: Wuthering Heights

The copy of Wuthering Heights I got from the library is bound in a pale pink cover, with the image of a placid, porcelain beauty on the front. Its back cover includes a quote that reads: "My greatest thought in living is Heathcliff. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be... Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He's always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure...but as my own being."

Makes it sound so sweeping and romantic, doesn't it? If you knew nothing about Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, which I didn't, you'd assume as I did that it falls into the same category of those other drawing room romances, with hopeful young Englishwomen plotting their schemes for an advantageous marriage. That's not a criticism. I happen to love that style of literature; Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen both hold places of pride on my bookshelf. So, being a fan of the style, I figured it was time to fill in this glaring omission in my reading background, and plunged in. Wow, you people had me fooled.

Wuthering Heights is emphatically not a shy little romance, but a dark, twisted novel of despair and selfishness and petty revenge. None of Austen's heroines would last a week in this setting, where brutal physical fights and constant emotional manipulation are the norms, and the best thing any character can hope for is to be ignored. Rather than a love that conquers the ages, the relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine is a mutually destructive dirty bomb that poisons and destroys all around them, and that's how they like it. Both of them are completely egocentric monsters, devoid of compassion for anyone but themselves and each other. If they existed today, they'd have a reality show on E!

It's a very claustrophobic story. The characters are sealed off in two neighboring country houses, and hardly anyone can either penetrate that isolation from the outside, or escape it from within. Who wouldn't go crazy? Heathcliff overhears part of a conversation that would seem to suggest Catherine feels herself too above him to consider marriage, and that one little event sets off a chain of hate and recrimination that will eventually decimate half a dozen lives.

This novel is incredibly pessimistic of human nature. Aside from the Heathcliff/Catherine debacle, there is plenty of child abuse, hypocritical religion, and psychological warfare running rampant through its pages. And if all of this sounds like a complaint, it's not. This book kind of blew me away, mostly because its plot was so unexpectedly bleak. Though nine-tenths of it is morose, Bronte made sure to end on a hopeful note, with the promise that the cycle of pain and heartache endured by this family for two generations may finally be coming to a close.

So, by all means, read it. But the next time someone tries to lump this book in the same category with Sense and Sensibility, don't fall for it like I did. The characters of Wuthering Heights would sooner grab your head and smack it on the fireplace than escort you to the local ball for tea and cakes.

Wuthering Heights: B

Labor Day

I've mentioned before that I have some ground rules when it comes to documentaries. I'm much more attracted to ones about esoteric interests than some polemic about how terrible the world is. And although the world of fashion journalism isn't something that intrigues me out here in the "real" world, a combination of some positive word-of-mouth and curiosity about supposed tyrant Anna Wintour led me to put The September Issue on my queue.

The movie covers the hectic process of putting together the largest issue of Vogue, and if its goal was to portray Wintour in any sort of realistic light, either cruel or misunderstood, it failed. Wintour is clearly aware of the camera at all times, and acts accordingly. None of her interviews seem particularly genuine, save the one where she discusses the eminent members of her family, and the fact that they find her chosen profession "amusing". A flash of insecurity darts across her face, and it's the most humanizing 0.5 seconds in the entire film.

That's not to say the entire movie is a failure, though. This film has got a secret weapon on its hands, named Grace Coddington.

Coddington is a former model, who became the creative director of Vogue, and has been wrangling with Wintour in that role since 1988. While Wintour is a placid shell who gives nothing away, Coddington has no compunction about sharing her frustrations when things go poorly, and patting herself on the back for a job well done. In the back half of this seemingly insular portrayal of life at the magazine, Coddington executes a genius move that draws an unseen documentary crew member into her world, pulling the audience along with him. Thus with one split-second idea, she simultaneous solves a thorny creative issue on her side, and spices up what may have been an otherwise bland movie on ours. The Devil may wear Prada, but it seems the Angel has some wild red hair.

The September Issue: B-

The Amazing Race

At some point, I won't be giddy with excitement over RuPaul's Drag Race anymore. All reality shows have an expiration date. Thankfully, that point hasn't come yet for this show, and I was buzzing about the crowning of the first All-Star in this short, but sweet season.

I had multiple favorites going in, telling anyone who would listen that I would be equally happy with a Manila, Latrice, Pandora, or Jujubee win. After five episodes, only one of my dream team was left, and I was rooting hard for Juju going into last night's finale. It was not to be, however, as Chad Michaels walked off with the tiara.

I'm not devastated by this result; I like Chad, even if he was never my top choice. To paraphrase someone else's succinct words on the matter, I was glad Chad won AND sad that Jujubee lost. I have so many mixed feelings!

As to the season itself, it had its good points and bad points. I'm still deciding on whether or not I liked the structure of having teams, which made for a nice, abbreviated season, but also meant the queens were eliminated in pairs. This meant that an awesome performer like Pandora Boxx could be sunk by cannon fodder like Mimi Imfurst. On the other hand, it was amazing watching competitors with wildly different styles meld into a super-combo, like Manila and Latrice.

The challenges are somewhat pointless, and usually only serve to get the queens to look or act wacky until it's time for the runway and lip sync, but it's still entirely possible to have great ones or terrible ones. The challenges of this mini-season were mostly unremarkable, but for the awful one where the girls were forced to stand in the street in hideous day drag and convince unwitting bypassers to do crazy stuff. I hate that kind of shit. A few weren't bad, though. I did like the one where the queens were told to make themselves look as sexy as possible...as their male selves. Raven's a hottie, yo. Oh, and the basketball challenge was fun, too.

In the final analysis, if you stack up the All-Star season against the regular-length ones, it may not shine quite as brightly, but as a side-project, it was grand fun. You can bet my ass will be back in front of the TV for Season 5 in January, hunty.

RuPaul's Drag Race - All-Star Season 1: B


[Sad Trombone]

Rachel Dratch has never gotten the same respect as her comedic peers. Everyone falls all over themselves to praise Tina Fey and Amy Poehler (with good reason!), but Dratch hasn't been able to establish the same kind of career. I always thought she was funny in the roles I've caught her in, so I was very interested to read her book, Girl Walks Into a Bar: Comedy Calamities, Dating Disasters, and a Midlife Miracle. I was hoping it would shed some light on her relationship with the cult of celebrity, and thought her perspective on the whole Being Famous beast would be noteworthy. Or barring that, I was at least hoping for some funny/gossipy bits about the celebrities she's interacted with.

Unfortunately, that's not what I got. Dratch seems reluctant to even discuss the trappings of her career at all, but realizes that she has to in order to attract any kind of readership, so she quickly works her way down the checklist of things she knows people want to hear about: Debbie Downer, being replaced on 30 Rock, and the generally sad situation of being shit on by Hollywood's obsession with image and fitting a certain "type". She dutifully hits on these points before she moves on to the bulk of the book, but only in a cursory way.

There are a few brief stories about dating losers before she gets into the chance meeting between her and the man who would become her more long-term partner. It's a meet-cute story that you'd be happy to hear at your cousin's wedding, but isn't particularly noteworthy. The book then transitions into her surprise pregnancy and the birth of her son, which was extremely welcome news. To her, that is. I mean, I'm very happy for her, and it's always nice to hear that it's never too late to achieve the things you've been hopeful for, but the stories regarding her baby are exactly as interesting as the baby stories you hear from your coworkers. That is to say, not at all.

I sometimes try and apply a single adjective to a pop-culture property, just to see if I can summarize my feelings about it. In this case, that adjective would be "Unnecessary". It wasn't a terrible book, but I didn't learn anything new or compelling. I still like Dratch's work in general, but if this is the amount of effort she puts into her creative output, I'm suddenly starting to understand why she isn't more well-known.

Girl Walks Into a Bar...: C

Fall Movie Preview: December 2012

December is more of a holiday movie season than autumnal in any way, but hey, if Entertainment Weekly wants to include December movies in their preview issue, who am I to argue?

December 7:

Deadfall: Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde are siblings who rob a casino and must then evade not only the police, but a massive blizzard. If this gets good word-of-mouth, I'll toss it on the queue, but otherwise, it can slip by unnoticed. (Pass)

Hyde Park on Hudson: I saw the trailer, and still can't decide if this movie depicting a historic 1939 meeting between FDR and King George VI looks entertaining or not. I like Bill Murray, Laura Linney, and Olivia Williams, but it may be kind of a stuffy film. (TBD)

Lay the Favorite: A young, "free-sprited" woman attempts to get rich by betting on sports. If it weren't for another yawn-inducing title (see below), this would be number one on the to-be-avoided list. (Pass)

Playing for Keeps: The number one spot is taken by this Ambien in cinema form. It stars Gerard Butler and Jessica Biel, and involves soccer. I wanzzzzz......... Oh, sorry. I couldn't even stay awake long enough to finish that sentence. (Pass)

December 14:

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: I liked the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, but am extremely turned off by the obvious money grab of stretching a slim novel into three movies of its own. This will be the first of the three, and every time I try to get excited about seeing it, it's accompanied by an internal sigh with the realization of the time, money, and energy that will need to go into signing on. What started as a Must-See has now become... (TBD)

Les Miserables: This, on the other hand, I am extremely excited for. I like the original musical, and the trailers make it look glorious. Film versions of musicals have become a tricky proposition of late, but this one looks pretty close to a sure bet. (Must-See)

December 19:

Amour: A French film, in which an elderly couple must face the trials of deteriorating health. Woo! Sounds fun! (Pass)

Monsters, Inc. 3D: I immediately passed on the 3D version of Finding Nemo, but found myself drawn to this one. I think the story would take on a new richness in 3D that Nemo wouldn't. I probably still won't sink the time and money into seeing it at the theater, but I won't deny the impulse isn't there. (Pass)

Zero Dark Thirty: The wrongest I've ever been about a movie was The Hurt Locker. I predicted it would be yet another depressing war movie that nobody would care about in the slightest. That'll teach me. Well, here's another movie about international conflict from Kathryn Bigelow, and I won't make the same mistake twice. That doesn't mean I'm personally interested, though. I'm sure this movie about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden is extremely well-made, and who knows? Maybe it'll net Bigelow some more awards. But I'm generally not entertained by subject matter like this, and I don't want to make going to the movies a form of homework. (Pass)

December 21:

Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away: When a performance of a revival of Company was filmed and released in theaters nationwide, I couldn't wait to hit the theater to see it, and I'm really glad I did. So there's something to be said for cinematic viewings of events that you'd usually want to see live. I'm not sure that it translates to this 3D Cirque du Soleil performance, even if the technical wizardry of James Cameron behind it. If someone wants to go see it, I'd probably be happy to tag along, but won't be too torn up if I happen to miss it. (TBD)

The Impossible: The dramatization of the true story of a family who almost perished in the 2004 Thailand tsunami. It stars Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, and it's sad that white people had to be imported into the process for this movie to be made, as if the natives dying isn't compelling enough. I'm not sure this is something I want to see. It depends on the balance between disaster movie tropes and pure drama. I'll skip it in the theater, but won't put renting it outside the realm of possibility. (TBD)

Jack Reacher: As my friend Kevin says, is there anyone that can say "Jack Reacher, with Tom Cruise" without giggling? I've never read the series, but apparently, part of the canon is that Jack Reacher is 6'5", which makes Cruise's casting pretty hilarious. Otherwise, it seems a pretty standard action movie, which can skew either awesomely entertaining or awesomely terrible. I still haven't caught up on the latest Mission Impossible, so it's unlikely I'll have the inclination for this. (Pass)

On the Road: An adaptation of Jack Kerouac's novel, which features Kristen Stewart. Wouldn't it be cheaper to just scoop out my eyes with a melon-baller? (Pass)

This is 40: I find Judd Apatow movies to be a series of diminishing returns lately. That's not to say he isn't talented; I just find each movie to be lazier and less funny than the one before it. So even though I adore Paul Rudd, when I didn't get a single smile out of the trailer for this expansion story of the married best friends from Knocked Up, I decided this would be my exit from the Apatow Expressway. Someone let me know when he gets back to putting some effort into these. (Pass)

December 25:

Django Unchained: I enjoy Quentin Tarantino films, but they're often too gory for this wuss. So it goes without saying that I'm going to have to let the first wave of movie viewers digest and review this movie before I even consider giving it a whirl. It's hard out there for a wimp. (TBD)

The Guilt Trip: Seth Rogen goes on a cross-country trip with his mom, played by Barbra Streisand. Sounds zany! And fairly obnoxious. (Pass)

Parental Guidance: Billy Crystal and Bette Midler are tasked with looking after daughter Marisa Tomei's kids. Sounds zany! This may be an ideal Laundry Movie to pay half attention to in a year while I dust the apartment. (Rental)

West of Memphis: I'm sorry, but how many fucking properties have been devoted to these people? Listen, I'm sure it sucks more than I can imagine to be wrongfully convicted of a crime, but enough already. If one quarter the attention was paid to the murder victims than has been paid to the West Memphis prisoners, there wouldn't have been a wrongful conviction to begin with. (Pass)

Award Repo: Judy Holliday

A short while ago, I was watching All About Eve for the bazillionth time, and marveling at the fact that I never get tired of it. There are very few films that I view as just about technically perfect, even among my favorite movies. But if anything even comes close to being flawless, it's that one. I can confidently say it far and away deserved its Best Picture prize in 1950, because it would deserve that prize in any year.

So I've always scratched my head over how Bette Davis didn't win Best Actress that year. She's fucking incredible in that movie, and I wondered what performance could possibly have bested it. Well, let's take a look at what the choices were:

Anne Baxter (All About Eve)
Bette Davis (All About Eve)
Judy Holliday (Born Yesterday)
Eleanor Parker (Caged)
Gloria Swanson (Sunset Boulevard)

I'd never seen Born Yesterday (and still haven't seen Caged), but feel like even with that lacuna in my film knowledge, I had the right to be befuddled. Even if All About Eve had never been made, Gloria Swanson tore the screen to shreds in Sunset Boulevard. What the hell did this Holliday accomplish that beat out her AND Baxter AND Davis? I had to find out, so I rented Born Yesterday from Netflix.

Yawn. I'm sure it was perfectly charming in 1950, but unlike other movies on the list, it didn't retain its entertainment value in the passing years. Judy Holliday's performance was cute and funny, and I see why Academy voters were enchanted with her. And perhaps there was a vote-splitting situation, since Baxter and Davis and Swanson were all such fierce contenders. It doesn't really matter, though, because to my eye, it's painfully clear that of the nominated performances, Holliday should be towards the bottom of the list.

I know that Bette Davis doesn't need more adulation. She won two Oscars, and is remembered as one of the greatest actresses of all time. But the Award Repo is all about righting past wrongs, and in my opinion, there's simply no question that this should have been Davis' hat trick.

Gimme a Head With Hair

I mentioned in the Carmen Sandiego post that there aren't many properties that capture my attention when they branch out into other forms of entertainment, so when they do, they tend to grab on pretty tightly. Hairspray is one of those things that manages to pull me in every time a new iteration comes out. I don't love it unconditionally - you'll note that unlike Carmen Sandiego, this is not a Pantheon entry - but it's always interesting enough to at least check out.

The cycle got kicked off with the 1988 John Waters movie, which I heartily enjoy. I didn't get to know Ricki Lake as a talk show host. For me, she has always been the original Tracy Turnblad. The movie is pure camp, but unlike a lot of Waters' other movies, actually wraps up a pretty heartwarming story about the cracks forming in the wall of racial segregation in '60s-era Baltimore. My family is originally from there, so of course, that was an added hook; my dad actually appeared on the real-life version of The Corny Collins Show. I've seen this movie at least a half-dozen times, and I never get sick of it. Plus, the soundtrack is amazing.

Then came the Broadway musical in 2002. I was a bit suspicious of it at first, because I generally feel like musicals made of non-musical movies are disappointing at best (Billy Elliot is a good example of this). So I was pleasantly surprised when I heard the soundtrack, and even more so when I was able to catch the actual show at the Fox. It's a fairly faithful adaptation, and the music is damned catchy. Sure, the themes are now about as subtle as a baby grand piano being dropped on your head, but that's what musical theater is all about, isn't it?

The musical was a big hit, and so naturally, a movie based on a musical based on a movie was planned. Oh, Hollywood. Never change. In 2007, the new Hairspray movie was released, and as with the musical, I approached it with a healthy amount of suspicion. How good could a story that had been through the wringer as many times as this one be? Plus, the role of Edna, so magnificently captured by Divine in the original movie and Harvey Fierstein in the musical, was to be played by John Travolta, which seemed like an awkward fit.

Once again, I shouldn't have been so leery. It turned out to be a perfectly enjoyable movie. It doesn't really stack up against the rest of the Hairspray canon, but taken on its own, it's very entertaining, with a lot of re-watch value.

Are we finally at the end of the Hairspray road? It seems incredible that they'd be able to take it anywhere new, but I learned long ago not to assume anything when it comes to squeezing the last drops of cash out of a successful property. Assuming that we get yet another iteration, my guess is that I'll be newly suspicious all over again, then likely get proven wrong again. I can think of worse ways for a pattern to repeat itself.

Hairspray (1988): A-
Hairspray (2002): B+
Hairspray (2007): B-

This Shit is Bananas!

When it comes to non-fiction, I like to chase down entertainment based on interesting topics that don't get enough attention. Spelling bees. The family politics of sushi restaurants. Bananas certainly fit this pattern, what with them being the most delicious fruit on Earth and everything. So Rich Cohen's recent book, entitled The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King immediately caught my attention.

I was hoping it would chart the rise of the banana's popularity in America. Or that it would enhance my knowledge of the fruit companies that had a stranglehold on Central American economies and politics for so many years. Or that I would learn about a towering historical figure I was previously unacquainted with. Unfortunately, when this book attempts to do any of those things, it doesn't do them particularly well.

I think it's a matter of attempting to tell too many stories, and the resulting short shrift each of them gets. If Cohen wanted to explore the history of Sam Zemurray, he should have focused on that. Instead, we spin off into tangents about Lee Christmas, the trials and travails of various Central American political figures, and the business backgrounds of fruit company presidents, and not enough time is spent with any of them to glean any real depth. By the end of this book, I hadn't learned anything about Zemurray that couldn't be summed up in a desultory Wikipedia page.

Part of the reason bananas are so valued is that the perfect amount of content is stored in a perfect package. If only Rich Cohen had learned a lesson from his titular fruit. It's not a hopeless book, but it's certainly nothing I could ever recommend.

The Fish That Ate the Whale: C


There's a scene in this past summer's The Amazing Spider-Man wherein a car is knocked off a bridge with a passenger inside, and the camera and effects work attempt to show the audience what that would be like from the passenger's point of view. Hey, wait! There's a scene in this past autumn's Cloud Atlas wherein a car is knocked off a bridge with a passenger inside, and the camera and effects work attempt to show the audience what that would be like from the passenger's point of view! But come on, Cloud Atlas is a dramatic literary adaptation, while Spider-Man is a giant superhero franchise, so of course money is no object when it comes to effects in the latter. It's only understandable that Spider-Man would look better. Except it doesn't. Not even a bit. And that's about ten spots down on the list of why the new Spider-Man movie was so, so disappointing.

I was a bit confused as to why the franchise had to be rebooted a mere five years after the last trilogy. Were people really crying out to see this origin story replayed yet again? I wasn't too worked up about it, though, because I'm one of those people who never really liked the original movies. Maybe a fresh take on things would improve my feelings about my least favorite superhero movies. Just think! No more annoying Mary Jane, and her inexplicable ability to obsess the men in her life, despite being totally annoying. No more Aunt May spitting out wisdom gleaned straight from the fortune cookie factory! I was more than willing to be happily entertained by this new movie. And maybe I would have been, if it had made one lick of sense.

There are always the obvious things to gripe about in action movies that have no real impact on whether I enjoy myself or not. Sure, it's fun to laugh at the screen when a seventeen-year-old is apparently the head of personnel at a multi-million dollar scientific research company, or said company employs people who don't wear goggles in the holographic lab, but make sure to gear up with thigh-high boots. Or when a high school is completely wrecked by a battle between the hero and villain, but is repaired back to pristine condition two days later. Or when a crane operator decides to help out by accurately predicting forty minutes in advance exactly where and when Spider-Man will fall so that he can be there to catch him. A summer blockbuster can have tons of those ridiculous quirks and still be a load of fun. What it cannot do is fail on the structural level. Things like making sure your villain has an actual motivation. Or not including a terrible score that includes an honest-to-God screeching violin sting directly out of a '80s slasher flick.

By far, this movie's biggest crime is setting up storylines it then completely abandons. We make sure to establish the physical characteristics of a criminal that underlies Peter Parker's entire reason for exacting vigilante justice, and then... We never see him again. The first third of the movie goes to great pains to establish an evil secondary villain who is temporarily impeded by the main villain, and then... We never see him again. The main villain releases a toxic gas that turns a group of civilians into a race of hideous lizard monsters, and then... We never see them again until they're handily cured. Yes, the filmmakers went to the trouble of writing and animating a scene in which cops are turned into lizard people, and then literally does nothing with it.

If there's one thing to recommend this movie, it's the interactions between Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). They're both good actors, and they have great chemistry together. But unlike Spidey, they're not super-human, and though they do their damnedest to elevate this weak material, there's no swinging in to save this movie from its doom.

The Amazing Spider-Man: C-

Wreck It, Ralph Fiennes

I've really been the subject of an embarrassment of riches on the friend front this week. In the entertainment sphere of life, that took the form of an awesome Saturday double-feature.

First up was Wreck-It Ralph, a movie I've been eagerly anticipating. Sometimes I build my hopes up too high in these situations, and the movie winds up disappointing me. But in this case, Wreck-It Ralph easily met my expectations, and I have no doubt it'll be in my top five of the year.

This film was heartfelt and funny and beautifully animated and had terrific voice acting and was loaded with video game in-jokes. How could I not love it? The entire audience, both adult and child, was captivated throughout the entire running time.

From there, it was a quick jaunt over to one of those fancy theaters with recliners and in-theater waitstaff for Skyfall, the newest James Bond movie. It was a real breath of fresh air after the crushing boredom of Quantum of Solace, and offered some entertaining takes on the origin of various Bond conventions.

That said, it didn't live up to the almost universally glowing reviews I'd read of it. Besides having some of the usual action movie physics problems, the character progressions were a bit off for both Bond and his nemesis. It's an extremely gorgeous movie, though, and a lot more psychologically deep than many others in the franchise. Ralph Fiennes enters the fray quite seamlessly, and Judi Dench is always an acting powerhouse. It's not the be-all-end-all of cinema, the way some people have said, but it's certainly one of the best of the Bond movies. So who cares that none of my laundry got done? Seeing two great movies is what I really call a successful Saturday.

Wreck-It Ralph: A
Skyfall: B

Shorties #5

So much culture to consume! Let's plow through!

#1: Red Dead Redemption: I bought a used copy of this game off a coworker a while ago, but got frustrated with it, and set it aside. It's essentially Grand Theft Auto, except set in the Old West, and with the option to be honorable or dishonorable - no need to be a crook. Once I was finished with Mass Effect 3 (see below), I had some game time to kill before Assassin's Creed III arrived (no pun intended), and picked it back up. I liked it better this time around, but issues still abound. It's fine to play if there's nothing else going on. (Grade: C+)

#2: The Station Agent: As with Michael Clayton, I've seen this movie before, but didn't remember much about it, other than I had enjoyed it. I rewatched it, and easily understood why: The actors (Bobby Cannavale, Peter Dinklage, and Patricia Clarkson) are some of my favorites, and are completely charming, but there isn't much to the story. It's just a simple relationship drama. (Grade: B+)

#3: Mass Effect 3: Back when I first mentioned this game, I had heard some blowback about its ending, and now that I've reached said ending, I can understand what the furor was about, though I wasn't as whipped up about it. It was definitely a disappointing conclusion, but it didn't sour me on the entire game, which I still enjoyed. (Grade: B-)

#4: Born Yesterday: In order to write an entry for an upcoming Award Repo, I had to do my research, which involved watching this 1950 film about the kept girlfriend of a crooked business man. Judy Holliday plays Billie as a self-involved bimbo, who becomes more confident and interested in civics when led around D.C. by reporter William Holden, who easily falls for her charms. This movie was nominated for Best Picture, but hasn't aged particularly well. I adore movies of this era, but this one is too heavy-handed and plodding. (Grade: C)

#5: 2012 Election Night Coverage: I hosted a small party on election night, and though CNN was the default channel setting, we also wanted to see what was going on with Fox News and a local channel. Aside from the complete non-surprise of Wolf Blitzer being insufferable, it was handled pretty well. CNN delved into some interesting county-level statistics. The slack-jawed disbelief on the Fox anchors' faces was endlessly entertaining. NBC's electoral ice rink was silly, but pretty nifty. And the local channel actually pulled through for once, and kept us up-to-date on how our state-level decisions were faring. Perhaps the copious amounts of alcohol made me more forgiving of news coverage than I usually am. Or perhaps, 2012 is the year the networks finally got their shit together. (Grade: B+)


Once again, I'm afraid my opinion has been influenced by hype. I really need to start going to movies with fewer audience/critic reviews bouncing around in my head. In this case, reviews for Ben Affleck's Argo were almost universally glowing, so I went in expecting a marvel, and getting a movie that was...perfectly fine.

Maybe it has something to do with how old I am. At the time that Iranians stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took hostages, I was far more interested in learning to walk than America's political news. So maybe I'm not the target audience for the retelling of how six people escaped the embassy, but had to hide in the Canadian ambassador's house, until they were spirited out by the CIA under the guise of a fake science-fiction movie scouting for locations in the Middle East.

I don't want to give the impression that Argo is a bad movie, undeserving of its praise. It was a very well-paced, well-acted movie, and my only big issue with it are the bits where the real story has been too-obviously enhanced with cinematic tropes. Was it tense for the six hostages to sit on a plane, wondering if they'd be caught at the last minute? I have no doubt. But Iranian army and police did not literally chase them down the runway, and including a scene of that struck me as kind of silly.

Argo will likely be highly-recognized during awards season, and I've seen far worse films take home the top honor. But as far as movies I've seen so far this year go, I doubt it'll stick in my head anywhere near as much as Cloud Atlas or Looper have.

Argo: B-

Sappy Endings

What I'm Watching: Once Upon a Time - Season 1

I always have a lot of missed television shows sitting around my Netflix queue, waiting for me to catch up with them. The other night, I was struck by a random urge to start up the first season of Once Upon a Time. I'm just going to go ahead and stick a "Guilty Pleasure" tag on this entry here and now, because while there's no way I would ever be able to advocate for this show based on the level of its writing or acting, I find it inexplicably magnetic.

It must be a magic spell, cast on me to happily abandon any stringent demands of subtle storytelling or layered character development. It doesn't even matter that Jared S. Gilmore causes one of the worst cases of Insufferable Child Syndrome I've ever seen. The moment I find myself with free time, I devour another episode, to the point that I may just catch up with Season 2 (currently airing) by Thanksgiving.

Once Upon a Time actually shows encouraging signs of addressing all of its issues as I zoom along through the first season, but let's be honest. Even if it had remained a cheesefest with laughable CGI, I'd still be glued to the screen.


Rocky Horror Picture Shows

Anyone who knows me knows I cannot handle gory movies. It's a shame, because I know there are some legitimately good films out there that I'll never see, because they're simply too gross. Oddly, I don't much mind reading intensely violent stories, so I'll often seek out spoilers or read the book a gory movie is based on. Thanks to this mental block I have, I'm not half as well-versed on the horror genre as most film fans (although I can tell you about pretty much every death scene in every Friday the 13th movie - thanks, internet reviews!)

Part of that wall came tumbling down last night, when a friend came over bearing Halloween and Halloween II, swearing up and down that neither one was anywhere near as gory as I've been assuming all these years. And what do you know... He was right!

So, now I can finally say I've seen a couple of horror classics. Of course, I didn't grow up being familiar with the minute details of these movies, so all of the tropes they helped establish - from killing characters with sexual urges to people unwisely saying "I'll be right back" - struck me as old-fashioned. It's not at all fair to blame an original movie for a convention that's become stale in the years since, but it did affect how I felt.

I was also surprised by how slowly-paced these films are. That's not a criticism; Halloween is clearly a thriller rather than a slasher, though I can't say the same for the sequel. Jamie Lee Curtis' debut is certainly impressive, and Donald Pleasence fully commits to his hammy role, but I don't know that I'd call either of these movies especially good. This has never been my genre of choice, though, so I'm grading purely on my tastes, rather than on how successful the films are.

And hey, now that Halloween is behind us for the year, I can go back to being a complete wuss! Yay!

Halloween: C+
Halloween II: C-

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

In my post about Cloud Atlas, I hinted at a broader theme: I'd like to see more ambitious movies with an interesting point to make, even if they're not entirely successful. And hey, I just happened to watch an ambitious movie with an interesting point to make, even though it wasn't entirely successful. What fortunate timing!

The Perfect Host is a small thriller that came out in 2010, and I don't remember it making much of a splash. The plot intrigued me, though, so I gave it a whirl. Clayne Crawford plays a bank robber who's looking for a place to lay low while the police are hunting for him, so he charms his way into David Hyde Pierce's place, where DHP's character is preparing for a dinner party. When the thief's story breaks down, he turns to violence to threaten DHP into compliance. But things soon take a strange turn when we discover that while we never know what's behind the facade of the person knocking on our doors, they don't know what's behind ours, either. There are dangers far more chilling than some guy who threatens you to get your money.

I won't spoil the twists; suffice it to say that the movie entails two people trapped together by circumstance - each trying to outwit the other in order to ensure their freedom and even their lives. As I said, this is a very intriguing premise, but it unfortunately falls apart a bit in the execution. The parts are well-acted, but the filmmaker's insistence on piling twist upon twist makes the movie feel contrived and artificial. A well-designed twist can pull the rug out from under the audience, but suspension of disbelief can only stretch so far. And besides, there's plenty of drama to be mined from adversaries chipping away at each others' defenses. There's no need to pull a GOTCHA!! every ten minutes.

I'm glad this movie got made, and I'm glad I watched it. It feels weird to say that I think more movies like this one should be made, even as I give it this grade, but here we are.

The Perfect Host: C+

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