Beautiful Stranger

Now that it's 2013, I'm just now getting my hands on the popular things of 2012 that I missed when they first got released. One of those is Jess Walter's novel Beautiful Ruins, which I initially read a favorable review of, then saw popping up on a lot of people's recommendation lists. The blurb description of a lonely innkeeper's infatuation with a struggling Hollywood starlet in 1960s Italy seemed a decent premise and a good basis for a vacation read, so I grabbed a copy from the library before I left town.

Wow. The blurb didn't do it justice. This story is a metric ton more complex than a simple tale of Pasquale's crush on Dee, though that part of the story is lovely. Not content to stay in one place or time, Walter's book jumps forward and backward in time, back and forth in locale, weaves real life personalities like Richard Burton in with the fictional characters, and goes meta with fictional writings from the characters themselves. It sounds convoluted, but works in the best ways. Pasquale is befriended by a visiting author, who's failed to write anything but a single chapter in a never-to-be published novel. He and Dee discuss the work, which suddenly shows up later as one of Beautiful Ruins' chapters itself. In the present, a disillusioned producer's assistant rediscovers her ambition and purpose through her self-involved boss' quest to find an elderly Dee, whose son is a musician and a hot mess, whose girlfriend writes a play, which is attended by the producer's assistant. And so on and so on.

The Cloud Atlas-style jumps in character, setting, and tone are masterfully interwoven. They all pull together to tell a beautiful, melancholy story of the people in our lives, and how our experiences are richer for having known them, no matter how large the heaps of disappointment we may lay at their feet are. The plot device of people being invisibly and inexorably connected across space and time is a well-worn one, but this novel deftly pulls it off better than almost anything else I've ever seen.

Beautiful Ruins: A

Fiscal Cliff

Obviously, there's much to be said for being in a relationship, but being single has its perks as well, one of which is that I get the final say on every piece of culture that I consume. If a movie trailer completely turns me off or a television show looks stupid, it's a safe bet that I won't ever be corralled into watching it. Last week, however, I went on a date with a pretty charming gentleman, and I wanted to be affable, so I agreed to go out and see Identity Thief, despite having zero interest in it.

Here are the good things about Identity Thief: They totally rip on Ayn Randian-style "job creators". Melissa McCarthy has one affecting, emotional scene.

Here are the bad things about Identity Thief: Everything else. I guess 7 good minutes out of 111 ain't bad. Oh, wait - yes, it is. So in this movie, Jason Bateman is a put-upon working stiff (shocking, I know), whose identity is stolen by Melissa McCarthy, who is a brash, loud mess of a woman with serious problems appropriately relating to other people (shocking, I know). She's able to do this because Bateman's character's name is Sandy, which is totally girly, isn't it? No, not particularly? Well, the movie thinks it's hilarious, and will be telling you so no less than half a dozen times.

Even though Jason Bateman makes practically no money, Melissa McCarthy is able to spend a week racking up huge debts in his name (huh?), and when the credit card company won't accept his word that fraud has been committed (huh?), the police show up to arrest him for missing his court date in Florida (huh?). This puts his job in jeopardy (huh?), so since the police are no help tracking this woman down (huh?), they agree to let Bateman go to Florida, collect Melissa McCarthy, and bring her back to Colorado, where she will confess everything, go to jail, and the whole matter will be cleared up. HUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUH? This ridiculous set-up out of the way, we get to the real "meat" of the movie, which is basically your usual hijinx-filled road trip across the country, a la Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

There are slapstick jokes and masturbation jokes and kinky sex jokes and a makeover scene, which, fine. They're not funny or interesting, but I knew that's what I'd be getting into with this movie. Where it really runs off the rails is a completely anemic, extraneous plot involving assassins and a bounty hunter trying to bring down Melissa McCarthy before she gets to Denver, I guess in an attempt to raise the stakes. It doesn't work. Naturally, everything turns out okay in the end, with Bateman's name cleared, his job saved, and McCarthy turning over a new leaf. Hooray.

Identity Thief is not the worst movie I've ever seen. It has a beginning, middle, and end. I smiled a couple of times. But that actually counts against it. If a movie (TV show, book, game, etc.) is going to fail, I'd rather it fail spectacularly. At least then, it's intriguing, even if it's for all the wrong reasons. Movies like this are just bland mush that will be justifiably forgotten within a couple of years. Even if it was a terrible movie, it wasn't a terrible date. I'll be going out with that charming gentleman again, but rest assured that when I do, I get to pick the movie next time.

Identity Thief: D+

Song and Dance

I wasn't as heavily invested in awards season this year as I usually am, despite having seen so many movies in 2012. Still, I can't resist the Academy Awards, and happily went to a party thrown by a couple of friends. There's always good food, good company, and cute dogs to snuggle, plenty of snark to hurl at the screen, MST3K-style, and the contest to see who can predict the most categories. Winner goes home with a movie theater gift certificate, and I've won several years running. I have a reputation to maintain! It was rough this year, though; so many races seemed like close calls, and I only wound up seeing four of the nine Best Picture nominees before the ceremony. So, judging by what I said in the nominations post, how did I do?


I predicted a Lincoln juggernaut back in January, but my eyes and ears have not been idle since then. I started hearing more and more support for Argo after Ben Affleck got snubbed for a directing nomination, and I was reminded that the plotline revolves around Hollywood helping to save the day. If there's one thing the Academy voters like to do, it's give themselves a warm pat on the back. So, I switched my vote to Argo, and snagged the point. Ding!


I said it seemed fairly certain that Daniel Day-Lewis would win, and indeed he did, becoming the first person in history to win three Best Actor awards. I knew he was the horse to bet on, so I got this one, too. Ding!


This was a tough choice. It really came down to Jessica Chastain versus Jennifer Lawrence to me, and since support had been quickly ebbing away from Zero Dark Thirty, I went with Lawrence, who really was amazing in Silver Linings Playbook. The voters agreed! Ding!


In a field with five previous winners, it was even tougher to make a choice in this category. I knew Lincoln had to pick up awards somewhere, and everyone seems to love/walk in mortal fear of Tommy Lee Jones, so I chose him. Nope. Christoph Waltz plus a Quentin Tarantino movie apparently equals unstoppable force. Bzzzt!


I was pulling for Anne Hathaway in this category, and her buzz seemed to build and build once she was nominated, so I happily marked her down on my ballot. And she pulled it off! Perhaps this isn't the most shattering performance to ever win an Oscar, but it was really good, and I feel like she's been steadily impressive in multiple roles, so I was pleased. Especially with another point! Ding!


I figured Spielberg would be unbeatable. Of the many difficult choices I had to make in filling out a ballot, this seemed like one of the safer choices. Damn that sneaky bastard Ang Lee! I jest. I haven't seen Life of Pi yet, but Lee is a fascinating director adept at working within a wide array of genres, so I don't begrudge him the win at all. Bzzzt!


I wanted to pick Moonrise Kingdom, but thought choosing Amour would be a safer bet. Turns out they both led to dead ends, as Quentin Tarantino picked up an Oscar for Django Unchained, then gave a rambling, incoherent speech, as is his wont. Bleh. And bzzzt!


I figured Lincoln had a good shot at this, though I considered the possibility that Silver Linings Playbook could sneak in and take it. And guess what? Turns out they both led to dead ends, as Chris Terrio picked up an Oscar for Argo. Man, the writing categories are just kicking my ass tonight. Bzzzt!


This one proved to be one of the more interesting categories of the night. Would voters see that a decent Pixar movie was on the list and just knee-jerk vote for Brave, or would they realize that Wreck-It Ralph was a better movie? Opinions may vary, of course, but the opinion that any of the other nominees was better than Wreck-It Ralph would be just plain incorrect. However, Brave did have gorgeous animation. I let my heart be my guide and voted for Wreck-It Ralph. Nope. Brave. Stupid heart. Bzzzt!


Amour. Duuuuuuuh. Ding!


I thought this would be the year that Roger Deakins would finally get recognized (he's been nominated ten times without a single win). Skyfall was gorgeous. In what turned out to be the most surprising win of the night, Life of Pi took this one. It seems weird that a movie so dependent on visual effects would win for cinematography, but there it is. Bzzzt!


I was considering choosing Les Miserables for this one, but switched my vote to Anna Karenina at the last moment. Good thing I did! Ding!


And in this one, I was assured in my choice of Anna Karenina. Except I shouldn't have been, because Lincoln, while far from being the awards monster I thought it was going to be, did manage to poach this one. Bzzzt!


I didn't know what to pick for this one, and since the relative stodginess of the folks at Entertainment Weekly and the relative cutting-edge of the /Film podcast both predicted that Searching For Sugar Man would win this, that's what I picked. Thanks, prognosticators! Ding!


I picked Inocente based on nothing but a prediction in Entertainment Weekly. They pulled through. Ding!


As with Best Picture, I switched my vote from Lincoln to Argo, and was again rewarded for following the herd. Take a lesson, kids. Ding!


Life of Pi had been getting serious buzz in this category, and I didn't think any of the other nominees were so stunning that I should venture to choose something else. And indeed, Life of Pi deservedly took the prize. Ding!


It must have been difficult to make attractive people look like pure hell, so I opted for Les Miserables. It was the right choice. Nobody loves hobbits this year. Ding!


I didn't realize how many awards Life of Pi took until I started writing this entry. They won this one, too, and since other people had recommended that I vote for it, I scored a completely undeserved point. Ding!


I figured Adele winning for Skyfall was the second-surest bet of the night, right behind Amour winning for Best Foreign Film. And yup, her streak of winning every award she's ever been nominated for continues. (I don't know that that assertion is literally true, but even if it isn't, it can't be far wrong.) Ding!


When it came to Documentary Short, I relied on Entertainment Weekly. On this one, I went with Paperman, even though the magazine urged me to pick something else (I believe it was Adam and Dog). Take that, professional entertainment journalists! Ding!


On this one, I again allowed the magazine's prediction be me guide, choosing Death of a Shadow. And as bad as I was at predicting the writing categories, that's how bad these people were at predicting the shorts. This one went to Curfew. Bzzzt!


People in the Oscar audience gasped when it was announced that the results of this one were a tie. Then they realized it was sound editing, and nobody really cares that much. I chose Skyfall and got the point, but so did all the people who chose Zero Dark Thirty. How about that Zero Dark Thirty, by the way? All that buzz, all that awards chatter, and what statues does the movie walk home with? One. That they tied for. Ouch. Ding!


I chose Les Miserables on a whim, and got lucky. Ding!

That's 16 out of 24. Was it enough to win? It was! Yaaaaaaaaaaay! The movie theater gift certificate has been given a place of honor alongside my ones for Trader Joe's and Lion's Choice. Prizes asides, this was an odd year for the Oscars. The show was an exceedingly strange mix of glittering production numbers, jokes that ran the gamut from flat to questionable, and the usual stiff segments like the summary of the untelevised technical awards. Seth MacFarlane seemed out-of-place, and knew it, referencing multiple times that he was nobody's first choice. He wasn't awful, just profoundly mediocre. Some of the production numbers were great, though. Jennifer Hudson and Shirley Bassey blew the roof off the place. I'm not sure why the callbacks to Chicago were necessary, but I enjoyed them all the same. And I'm pleased with most of the winners; aside from the animated feature category, I don't think anyone from this year needs to be taken to task in an Award Repo. And with that, it's time to put the awards season to bed and get our asses back to the theater to start the whole process anew. Spoiler Alert: I don't think Identity Thief will garner many nominations.

Up With People

Generally when I write up these little blurbs about movies, I'm taking many things into consideration. How was the writing? How was the acting? Did it accomplish what it wanted to? Does it live up (or down) to popular opinion? Did I enjoy it on a purely aesthetic level? I don't have to do any of that with the Up Series. Allow me to quote myself from seven years ago:

In 1963, filmmaker Michael Apted decided to stage a grand experiment. He selected a group of British children born in 1956 from wildly varying economic classes, and asked them several questions. What did they want to be when they grew up? What do they think of the opposite sex? What do they think of other races? What do they think about the kids from the other economic classes? The television program 7 Up was born. His idea was to follow these children as they grew up and thus prove something about how adults are really no different from their 7-year-old selves or something about how you can predict aspects of adult life from children's personalities. At least that's what his initial intentions appeared to be, and at this, he failed spectacularly. However, I have just finished watching the Up Series, and have to say that it is one of the most engrossing programs ever put on the air.

So forget all that critical evaluation! Really, all that has to happen here is for me to see how all the participants are doing, and it's a guaranteed win. It took one look at the kids (well, "kids") that I haven't seen for seven years, and I just about burst out crying. Less has happened since 49 Up than you'd imagine. Certainly there have been big life events, some of them tragic. But in general, people are still in the same position they were seven years ago, but with one major difference.

The big recession did not just hit us here in America, and the loss of money and safety net programs has deeply affected some of the Up participants as well. They're also quite forthcoming about how they feel about being in the program all these years, and not all of them are pleased with it. Suzy, in particular, keeps agreeing to come back, not because she wants to, but out of a deep-seated loyalty to Apted and the experiment. And all we can do is thank her for it. Both the participants and Apted himself are starting to get up there, so any of these movies may be the last. And that thought makes me misty all over again.

56 Up: A

Strange Brew

It's already been well-established that magical realism is one of my favorite genres, so I've been itching to get my hands on Ransom Riggs' best-selling 2011 novel Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. Unfortunately, a lot of other people were itching for it too, and it's only recently that I was able to snag a copy from the library. The basic storyline is not an unfamiliar one; it's the same lost-child-in-a-dangerous-unfamiliar-world trope that people have been enjoying since Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The protagonist of this one is Jacob, a sixteen-year-old who was raised on fantastical stories about children with amazing abilities from his grandfather. The stories also involved ravenous monsters, and though Jacob grows to be a skeptical and dismissive teenager, he's literally forced to face his demons when he discovers his grandfather killed by what appears to be a monster from the stories of his youth. Jacob and his father travel to Wales, where Jacob discovers that what he assumed are tall tales aren't so tall after all.

Just that alone would probably be enough to grab my interest, but Riggs takes it one ingenious step further. He compiled a bunch of strange found-photographs and incorporated them into the story itself. The mysterious images pull the reader that much deeper into the narrative, and turn what would have been a mildly intriguing book into a fascinating one. My only real complaint is with the cliffhanger ending, which I feel artists in every medium are increasingly over-relying upon these days. That's pretty minor, though. Overall, the writing is strong, and the photographs serve as a welcome reminder that no matter how wild the fairy tales we concoct for our children are, real life can be far more enigmatic.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children: B

The Ex Files

The current status of TV Land is really strange and interesting. After Hot in Cleveland became such an unexpected hit, they've settled into a formula that works for them: Take one part established sitcom actors from beloved old show, mix with comedy broader than the side of the Titanic, and serve. Hot in Cleveland was soon joined by Retired at 35 and Happily Divorced, neither of which I was wild about. But one evening last week, I was hanging out on my couch with a gentleman caller, and we were looking for something to watch on Netflix. He mentioned that he had caught a couple of episodes of another TV Land show called The Exes, so we watched a couple more. It was as silly as I expected, but I was shocked to discover that it got a few genuine chuckles out of me. By the end of the week, I had gone in and watched the entire first season.

Like I said, it wouldn't be a TV Land show without some established sitcom actors, and this one stars Wayne Knight, Kristen Johnston, and Donald Faison. The thankless straight-man role is played by David Alan Basche, who I haven't really heard of. Mostly he's just the gravitational center for the other three to wildly spin around. The premise makes little to no sense. Kristen Johnston is a divorce attorney who has broken up with her cheating fiancee, and she sets up three of her clients as roommates in an apartment she owns across the hall from her own. Because any part of that sentence is totally plausible.

The storylines are equally ridiculous. Donald Faison and David Alan Basche both fall in love with a kinky lingerie model who doesn't speak English. Kristen Johnson keeps up the illusion that she's engaged to avoid telling her prying mother the truth. There isn't a whit of nuance to a single plot or joke. And yet... I laughed. I laughed multiple times. Sure, the jokes are cheap, but I'm not above that. I enjoy a good "Your mama" or "That's what she said..." as much as the next buffoon.

Most of the credit for this show working in any way has to go to Johnston, who somehow manages to make a stereotypical caricature of a well-intentioned hot mess enjoyable. I don't want to give the impression that there's anything smart about this show; like most TV Land shows, it revels in its cheap hackery. But you can't spend every night unraveling the complexities of Breaking Bad. Once in a while, you just want to kick back and watch a bunch of goofy shenanigans, and on that front, this show definitely delivers.

The Exes - Season 1: C+

You Can Always Go...Downton

Soap operas have never held much appeal for me, and I'm not just talking about daytime melodramas like Days of Our Lives or whatever. I never really got into things like Beverly Hills, 90210 or Melrose Place, either. The first season of Revenge is on my to-watch list, so we'll have to see how that goes. No, the only soap opera to ever grab my attention and hold it in its vise-grip is Downton Abbey. That's probably because it mixes soapy elements with highbrow period drama so well. No matter what the reason it holds me (and a huge number of other Americans) in its thrall, it's definitely one of my favorite shows of the past ten years.

Which is weird when you consider how inconsistent it's been. The first season was pretty much flawless. The second season was all over the place, but still managed to snag a spot on my Best of 2012 list. The third season did a lot to resolve the snags of the second, but introduced a couple of its own. See that picture below? Any text after that has a good chance of containing spoilers, so watch out. You've been fairly warned.

One of the things that confused me is which storylines had a lot of time devoted to them, and which ones were glossed over. With such a large cast, it can be difficult to make sure everyone gets airtime. So why did we spend ten minutes on Matthew and Mary's wedding - an event two seasons in the making - while the boring adventures of Ethel the Prostitute Maid got a multi-episode arc? Why the media blast about Shirley MacLaine being cast as Cora's mother if she's going to have such a limited role? And if we're going to stick all of my problems in one paragraph, we should probably talk about the slog of Bates' stint in prison as well. The characters simply aren't as interesting when they're removed from Downton and off on their own. It would have been fine to raise the specter of Bates being sent up for his ex-wife's death, and maybe even him being convicted could have led down some interesting roads. They just didn't. His seemingly endless languish in jail didn't work within the context of the show as a whole at all, so scenes of his cellmate being mean or Anna running around conducting Law & Order-style interviews were a real grind.

Oh! I have one more bone to pick, but this one is more about writing and presentation than storyline. When Dan Stevens made it clear that he wouldn't come back for the fourth season of the show, not even for a couple of episodes, the only option left was to kill off a major character. I have no issue with the necessity of Matthew's death, but it was laughably telegraphed. After meeting his son and heir, it's tellingly announced that he should drive himself home, and as he scoots along with a beatific smile on his face, not paying particular attention to the road, the other characters explicitly tell each other how WONDERFUL Matthew is and how IMPORTANT and WHAT WOULD THEY DO WITHOUT HIM? I mean, come on. That's what an seventh-grade drama student would turn in for an assignment about foreshadowing.

All of this grousing makes it sound like I hated this season, which is far from the truth. Everything aside from the problems mentioned above was spot-on. The build-up to Edith's wedding and the subsequent disaster (Hey, did she just agree to have an affair with her editor? Did I interpret that correctly?). Robert's mismanagement of the Downton finances and his unwillingness to change his accounting practices. The heartbreak of Sybil's childbirth and possibly preventable death. Mrs. Hughes' cancer scare. The love quadrangle down in the kitchen. Thomas being outed to the staff. Everything having to do with O'Brien. And those are just the big stories - there were plenty of delightful fleeting scenes, from Mrs. Patmore's ill-intentioned suitor to Mrs. Hughes catching Jimmy and Alfred lounging on the family sofas. I may never be a fan of most soaps, but Downton Abbey proves that with enough care, any genre can be riveting television.

Downton Abbey - Season 1: A+
Downton Abbey - Season 2: B-
Downton Abbey - Season 3: B

Future Imperfect

Long ago, when Futurama was initially canceled by Fox, all of the fans were going through the stages of grief at losing such a terrific, clever show. I was one of the bereft, but in an effort to comfort myself, I remember thinking something along the lines of "Well, it's sad to see it go, but at least we have the pleasure of seeing it go out while it was still good. It's likely that if this show went on and on, it'd become as milquetoast as The Simpsons, and nobody wants to see that happen." Then the show got a miraculous second life, but in its sixth season, some of the magic had faded. There were outstanding episodes like "The Late Philip J. Fry" and "Neutopia", but writ-large, the show as whole seemed to be sagging a bit.

That's okay, though. The promise of a shiny new season in June of 2012 had me very excited to see the Planet Express crew back again. I didn't get to watch the episodes as they aired, but the first half of Season 7 just became available on Netflix Instant, and I jumped on it right away.

Uh, oh. It used to be the case that most of the episodes were outstanding. Then it shifted into a few of the episodes being outstanding. Now, there are some outstanding moments in episodes that are pretty good. I phrase it like that because I don't want to give the impression that Season 7A of Futurama is bad or not entertaining. It's still a very enjoyable show, and I'm glad it's still on the air. But this gradual quality slide is what people said around the tenth season of The Simpsons, and that show never bounced back. Futurama starts airing Season 7B this summer. I'm trying to retain cautious optimism about the fate of what has been one of my all-time favorite shows, but if these upcoming episodes follow the same trend they've been on for the last couple of seasons, it may be time to put Futurama into the cryogenic freezer for good.

Futurama - Season 7A (taken on its own): B-
Futurama - Season 7A (as a season of Futurama): C-

(D)isappointopian Society

Hey, I just read this book ostensibly aimed at teenage girls but that has been embraced as grand fun by adult women. It features a female protagonist in dire circumstances who bucks the system, and vows to change society. Not that she's confident in her abilities. Oh, no. She can't believe that lil' ol' her is suddenly the focus of all this attention. And not just from the powers that be hoping to take her down. No, suddenly, despite never giving much of a care about any form of romance, a dreamy and possibly dangerous gentleman starts to take an interest in her, igniting all kinds of conflicting feelings in her heart. At the end of this novel, we learn that this young woman's fight has just begun.

No, it wasn't that.

No, it wasn't that, either.

This dystopian what-who-me? girl hails from Veronica Roth's Divergent, in which society has split itself into factions governed by the principle they hold most dear, be it intelligence, bravery, honesty, and so on. We'll skip over the part where despite the fact that factions are supposedly governed by deep morals and noble ideals, nobody has any problem with taking citizens who don't neatly fit into one of the five categories and ejecting them into a homeless, bereft existence, because WHAAAAA? Our protagonist (Beatrice) starts off in the Abnegation faction, which is built on a foundation of selflessness and charity. All teenagers get one shot to abandon their faction and move to another, and Beatrice makes the switch. There are rumblings and dire warnings about Beatrice being something called "divergent", but that's put on the back burner so that she can go join the "brave" faction of Dauntless, who show their fearlessness by getting tattoos and throwing themselves off moving train cars. So, I guess war veterans can just suck on that.

The novel then follows Tris' (she gets to choose a "cool" new name because she's all brave now) brutal initiation process, her budding romance with her mentor, and her eventual discovery that the nerds over in Erudite are planning something evil against the more placid factions. It'd be like if Ravenclaw wanted to wipe out Hufflepuff, which, why not? Battle lines are drawn, secondary characters die, and we end on a sense that a world-changing struggle is about to explode. Nope, this still isn't The Hunger Games.

I'm probably being overly harsh on this book. I mean, I'm not exactly its target audience. Still, I can't recommend it. Some of the battle scenes aren't bad, but everything this novel attempts to do has been done better by someone else. So, if you've got a poster of Edward or Jacob on your wall, by all means, pick this up. You'll probably love it. But if your tastes are more aligned to mine, the next time you want to immerse yourself in a dystopian society split by ideological faction, pick this up instead.

Divergent: C-

Shorties #7

Normally, I try to mix a bunch of entertainment types into these entries, but I've been blowing through a ton of films lately, so are you ready for an all-movies Shorties? Let's hope so!

#1: Kinky Boots: This 2005 movie was recommended to me, so I tossed it on the Netflix queue. It's about a British man who inherits a failing shoe factory from his father, and in a desperate effort to save it, decides that production will shift to comfortable boot-wear for drag queens. It wasn't bad, but it's very much a product of its time, hitting all the rote paint-by-number plot devices a lot of movies with gay characters over-rely on. (Grade: B-)

#2: Paranorman: 2012 was a very strong year for animation, and this funny little monster movie is yet another score in the "win" column. Norman is a lonely little boy who can communicate with the dead, and must save his skeptical town from a witch's attack. His goofy and pudgy new friend, the best friend's dim-witted jock brother, and Norman's shallow sister are his only allies, and the movie deftly manages to combine kid-friendly fun with a decently macabre story, funny asides, and even a little sly social commentary. (Grade: B+)

#3: 21 Jump Street: I had initially decided to skip this, but after it got all kinds of generous reviews and decent word-of-mouth, I thought I'd give it a whirl. Hey, remember the other comedy I was going to skip, but then relented due to generous reviews and decent word-of-mouth? Yeah, same deal. This action/comedy deals in a lot of stupid jokes, but thinks that by calling out its own idiocy, it can be forgiven for it. It wasn't so bad that I wanted to kick the screen in when it was over, but for everything that worked, something else came along to cancel it out. It's possibly the most inessential thing I've seen so far this year. (Grade: C)

#4: Princess Mononoke: I've seen this one once before, but had forgotten a bunch of the details. After seeing The Secret World of Arietty, I wanted to refresh myself on another Miyazaki film I think of fondly. It's a lot darker than I remember. Some of Miyazaki's films, like Howl's Moving Castle and Spirited Away, are a lot more fantastical than human stories like Arietty and Mononoke. This one involves the very grim, ongoing battle between man and nature, and neither side gets away clean. That's not to say it's bad; it's just as fascinating this second time around. (Grade: B)

#5: Hannah and Her Sisters: Another one I saw long ago and have mostly forgotten. This is Woody Allen at his Woody Allenest - smack in the middle of his neurotic relationship drama period. For a movie where the stakes are comparatively low, it's pretty engaging. I can see why it won three Oscars (Dianne Wiest and Michael Caine for acting, Woody Allen for writing). I also enjoyed all the blink-and-you'll-miss-them cameos from people that are well-established now, like Sam Waterston and John Turturro. (Grade: B)

Aloha Oy

I'm on vacation! Regular blogging should resume next week. As far as pop culture goes, travel always means a bunch of library books are getting demolished. Also, I've somehow managed to stay current on Downton Abbey, which is weird. Mahalo!


Premium Blend

Over the course of my life, it seems like the majority of movies have split into one of two camps. Either they aim to be a gigantic, buzzed-about spectacle (blockbusters, franchises, Big Important Awards Bait, etc.), or they aim to be an inexpensive throwaway that rakes in a fistful of bucks over the budget (these are your spoof films, your horror schlock, your paint-by-numbers comedies, and so on). It's only fairly recently that there has been a resurgence of the Medium movie, and I'm extremely happy to see it. It can be difficult to define what I think a Medium movie is (and I have GOT to come up with a better name for it), but I know it when I see it. It doesn't have a huge budget. It's far more interested in its story than its stars. It's plot is often very compact. Chronicle was a Medium movie, as was Safety Not Guaranteed, Brick, and the movie I watched last night, Premium Rush.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Wilee, a bike messenger who gets a thrill out of the freedom and inherent danger of zipping around the crowded streets of Manhattan with a fixed gear and no brakes. After he remonstrates with his fellow messengers (including his on-again-off-again girlfriend Vanessa and Manny, a rival for her affections), he's hired by Vanessa's roommate to deliver a receipt worth $50,000 to Chinatown. The receipt is a MacGuffin, but an effective one. When a gambling-addicted, corrupt mess of a cop (Michael Shannon) is told about it by the loan sharks who hold his debt, he does his damndest to track Wilee down and grab it. By any means necessary.

That's the story in a nutshell, but it's spiced up by some great camera work. Escaping a pursuer can seem simple when surrounded by so much humanity, but in a place as claustrophobic as New York City, it's also easy to see how precisely Wilee must thread the needle to evade his attacker and get the receipt safely to its destination. It's by no means a perfect movie. A lot of film tricks -- shifting timelines, visualization of thought processes, etc. -- are thrown at the wall to see what sticks, and not all of them work. But most of them do, and both Gordon-Levitt and Shannon liven up what could easily have been a couple of rote, stereotypical characters. From what I can tell, Premium Rush never aspired to win Best Picture, and never aspired to be blandly appealing to the masses. It just wanted to tell an interesting story and tell it well, and at that, it did a pretty great job.

Premium Rush: B
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