Friday, March 27, 2015

Movies of 2014, "Whiplash"

            The story of one asshole drummer trying to learn from an asshole music instructor.  Eventually driven to idiotic stunts trying to impress, harm, show up, or humiliate each other.
            I do not get this movie.
            I am at my core a somewhat mellow person (even if that core is surrounded by seething anger and a desire to harm all things).  I believe that “Good Enough” is practically a personal mantra, and I regard shooting for the stars to be a foolish waste of effort doomed to failure… Okay, maybe less “mellow” and more just “cynical”.  But considering both the main characters are assholes that shouldn't have hurt my enjoyment of the movie.
            While I was in Chorus and had one guest instructor who hammered us into shape for a really remarkable performance I have never had an instructor who was violent or who called me “faggot”.  Major sort of plot hole there I suppose in that apparently no one in this music school complained about the sexual harassment or literal physical abuse the instructor visited upon them.  (I also did not realize how loathsome I now find this kind of language, I am fairly certain I would have hit him with a cymbal).
Can the prestige of blowing into a horn in front of a dozen or so people be so worth the emotional hammering?  Just get a job with a rock band or something, they are all clearly good enough and will certainly make more money and have more audience members than being in a Jazz band, and they will have more creative freedom because rather than trying to master other people’s music they can just write their own.

"Not quite my tempo." (image)
            I also do not really give a shit about 1) Jazz or 2) drumming.  I like drums and find them to be a good complimenting force to any ensemble but I do not have the ear of the world’s most gifted composer so the difference between good, great, amazing, and legend… I can’t hear it, even though the sound design on this movie captures every vibration perfectly.  At a certain point the speed at which they are playing stops sounding like music and just sounds like a lot of banging and crashing.  The last five minutes of this movie could have been replaced with layers of construction noise and I wouldn't have been able to tell the difference.  They talk about famous drummers and incidents in music history and I have no clue what they are referring to, and have never heard of the people they are talking about; one of the rare instances in which I wish the movie would break away from the narrative “Seabiscuit” style and have a Ken Burns’-esc explanation of who and what the hell is being discussed.  (There is a reference, nobody remembers that movie).
            What am I, as a typical person, supposed to be taking away from this?  That an unhealthy obsession with anything will eventually yield greatness?  I am certain that isn't the message, because it is only after months of not drumming or being ridiculed that the character manages to attain… Drumming Nirvana?  The movie doesn't really illustrate abuse as a functional teaching method, it fails to illustrate how teamwork is important (and in a band it is).  So what is the point?
            Was this movie just made for people who are really into music or really into suffering for art?  If so then I am too much the outsider to really appreciate it, regardless of being able to recognize the excellent acting and production on display.  Movies need to be made for different audiences and groups, I get that.  They do not have to please me, I have no right to break into their clubhouse and shit on their rug… I am also under no obligation to like or recommend their movie.
Overall: 6/10

MORE DRUMMING! (image, I actually get board listening to this music.)
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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Movies of 2014, Crime pt2

            Wow, it has been weeks since I last did a blog on crime movies from 2014.  So here are 4 more movies that have to touch on that topic thru various means.  Corrupt governments oppressing people, a hitman getting revenge on the guys who killed his puppy, Corrupt governments selling drugs, and a guy who wishes he had gotten any part of that stuff on tape.

            Really?  Another one of these?  Not really complaining.  Most movies out of the growing subgenre of “Untouchable aging badass” tend to be really entertaining.  I look forward to its future entries… mostly… as “John Wick” is a little rocky to start off.  This movie has issues.  Mostly in that the writing is weird.
            First the positives, I like the action scenes which are clearly the reason this movie exists, I like the strange level of world building with the ultra-class hotel that caters to hitmen, I like some of the little style touches when they make the subtitles appear in different places around the screen and emphasizing different words with color, and I like that John Wick gets hurt during the movie making him one of the rare untouchable badasses that is somewhat touchable.
            Now on to the weird writing.  This movie starts with Wick mourning the loss of his wife… or as much mourning as Keanu Reeves is capable of displaying.  After the funeral he receives a gift from his wife in the mail, a puppy he can love so that he can go on living a normal life.  Then he is randomly attacked by mobsters who steal his car, kill the dog, and cause him to enter a state of despair that sends him on a roaring rampage of revenge.  Here is my question: Why not just write the movie so that the mobsters kill the wife?  Why have a dog in the movie at all?  Yeah the cliché of a wife dying to motivate the “hero” is sexist, but it at least makes sense.  And it is not like portraying her as this angelic being who died of natural causes and is totally separate from his violent world is any less a sexist cliché.
I have never been a fan of this guy's acting.  I have documentation.  (Image)
            John is a retired hitman who kills dozens of people in this movie, dozens of goons who probably have puppies, wives, and children of their own.  They are doing a job just like Wick did back in the day before retiring to be with his wife, but he shows no sympathy toward the vast majority, only letting some he knows personally an opportunity to walk away before he continues mowing down the army of bad guys.  He shows little respect for the safety of passersby and is so emotionally blank (see again: Keanu) that I am left watching one of the biggest over reactions ever.  Yes, I like dogs.  Yes, I think the bad guy was an asshole (He is an actor from “Game of Thrones” who has an infinitely punchable face).  Yeah, they are crooks… But so is Wick.  If he can go on to live a normal life so can they, he is denying them the same opportunities he was afforded and all they know is that he is some rage monster out to kill their boss.
            If the wife had been murdered and Wick nearly killed then his desire for revenge would seem less silly, and you could complicate things by having him being a new man, that he thinks he is betraying his wife’s memory by being violent even if it is to avenge her.  Heck, have her be a former assassin too, that she felt bad for having killed people and that she and John were trying to get past it all.  That way his spiral into violence has some weight.
            The movie is also weirdly toothless.  There is a scene that takes place in a spa/pool/nightclub with a bunch of mobsters and women in bikinis.  For a rated-R movie there are (shockingly) zero boobs.  And the only blood splatter is digital, fading to mist instantly.  Few people are left alive to cry or howl in agony.  There are few instances of guts, I would say it feels like a video game, but many video games go out of their way to portray extreme violence is epic detail.  Essentially the weight of Wick’s attacks is diminished.
            The movie also starts on a plot hole.  The mobsters that kill Wick’s dog first see him at a gas station, where they offer to buy his car and he says, “No”.  Then they attack him that night… Except Wick doesn’t notice anyone following him (maybe the stone cold assassin is oblivious), he parks in his garage so they couldn’t have spotted the car by driving by.  So did the goons find him by searching his plates?  Wouldn’t there be a red flag?  The only cop in the entire movie is crooked and knows John personally, the chop shops know John’s car on sight, and everyone in the movie knows who John is… except these three car thieves.  What?  And you do not have the excuse of them being new criminals from out of town, the main thug’s father was Wick’s direct supervisor.  This guy should have known who Wick was.
Overall: 5/10 
There are some lines, "I'm think'n I'm back." that seem kind of bordering on hack catch phrase.
But they just miss being one.
            The movie reminds me a lot of “Lincoln”.  The complex political leverage and lobbying surrounding a great man fighting for civil rights in the south, with issues in his home life pressuring him and drawing his attention away at various moments, ultimately ending in a speech that spells out important principles, but the looming specter of assassination hangs over the whole thing.
            The movie is worth watching and has a powerful core with David Oyelowo nailing a mythic performance as King.  The movie does a lot of cool stuff with a surprising hate crime bombing, very touching exchanges between several characters, and careful to show how both black and white protesters were assaulted (as racist as it may sound it might be important to show a white audience that white people were victims too, because without that fact they might end up caring less, because a lot of them are un-empathic assholes).  There was one scene with a man whose grandson was gunned down in a diner that had my eyes welling up.
            There are times that the movie slows down, prime examples being the parts in which the members of SNCC bicker over prideful bullshit (one is for King’s methods and sees King as a hero, the other is an idiot).  I thought Carmen Ejogo (I actually thought she was white a few times and it sort of confused me... Fire the lighting guy I guess?  Maybe I was just watching this like a racist) was okay as Coretta (King’s wife), but nothing amazing (I actually wish they had spent less time with the family and more time with the protesting).  And I feel that there was a general lack of levity, I know that this stuff was bleak, but there isn’t a single guy cracking jokes?  Maybe it is just my love of dark comedy that makes me expectant of some gallows humor in nearly anything, I guess you could laugh at the argument against civil rights which boils down to, “if you start letting them vote and walk down the street without being afraid of random violence, next thing you know they will think of themselves as people and want freedom of opportunity and from poverty” which is crazy troll logic at best.
One last complaint: the camera work was sometimes a little off, there were instances of people being so far to the left of the screen their faces were nearly cut off, while behind them is a lot of dead space (maybe this was an intentional choice to show them as wrong or eschew, but I mostly just found it strange, like I wanted to turn my head).
Overall: 7/10 
It is an alright poster.
            Named after (presumably) what I mumble to anyone who wakes me up before the alarm.
            Another entry that resembles “Selma” in that it is a biographical movie about a very specific event in a person’s life, connections to the government not giving a shit about black people and minorities, and… has the looming specter of an assassination hanging over the proceedings.  It is also very much in contrast to a movie like “Argo” which portrays spy work in a positive and quirky light, while this makes you feel much less patriotic.
            While I have always suspected or known on various levels that criminal activities are used to fund spycraft operations, this movie draws a very uncomfortable picture of the United States Government.  Gary Webb exposes the questionable ethics of drug policy and then is drawn into a massive story about conspiracy to use drug money to fund Central American violence.  Blocked in all official channels and left to wonder where to turn when all of his contacts start to disappear or disavow him his career and life are destroyed.  It also ends on a speech that spells out important principles… (MOVIE FORMULA DETECTED).
It is worth watching, but it is about an incident that is less legendary than Selma, and a man less renowned than King, so I have by default less to say about it, even though I would recommend it over “Selma” because I feel that it had more humor, and the wife and family were played better.  This is a less relevant movie than “Selma” though I feel it more enjoyable to watch.
Overall: 7/10 
Gary, hate to break it to you, but the truth is both more important... and a lot less important these days.
            In pretty much any other year this would have probably been a #1 pick, but this year was so good for movies it will merely have to be in my top 6.
            This movie kind of reminds me of “There Will be Blood” but rather than being about the growth of the oil industry it is about contemporary gonzo news, and instead of wondering whether the money turned the main character into a crazy person or if he was always that way… Well in “Nightcrawler” the main character is pretty clearly a violent psychopath from the word go.
            I am not sure when Jake Gyllenhaal got a bug up his ass and decided he really did want to be given a gold statue for acting, but he’s doing a damn good job and is getting unfairly overlooked.  He is in every scene of this movie and seems to constantly be vibrating with anger, determination, lust for power… He is always just on the verge of snapping.  It is delightful.

            And any plot that has me asking, “How is he going to get out of this?”  And then gives me an ending prompting me to say, “Oh, well that was ingenious.”  This is a movie that did that.
Overall: 9/10
It is hard to find an image for this movie that isn't covered in praise for it.  I kind of wonder how the star and director of "Drive" would have done the script differently. (Poster)


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Sunday, March 15, 2015

Movies of 2014, Horror pt2

            Hey I managed to catch up on some horror movies I missed when doing my initial rundown of the horror movies of 2014.  So I decided to just do these here and continue my track record of reviewing movies that nobody really cares about.

Overall: 3/10
            What a turkey.  And what a Turkey.
            A strange complaint that will be limited to me and a very small class of history enthusiasts: this movie is kind of racist, and very historically incorrect… And not within the bandwidth of, “it is just fiction you can fudge the numbers a bit”.  It is actually more off base than “300” with its bull shit.
            The start of this movie portrays Vlad Tempest as having been raised in the Janissary tradition of the Ottoman Turks and having been a participant in their military campaigns.  That is mostly true… But they leave out a lot, like his brother staying in Turkey as a friend of the future Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror.  In the movie there is no brother and instead Vlad sees Mehmed as his brother.
In the movie they talk about how, "There are no pictures or statues of the man."  Trying to pull the, "He isn't the hero we need, but he is the hero we deserve" Dracula should be more like Batman bullshit.  And considering that is a picture of Vlad from Wikipedia, I find this movie again... Really stupid.
            To compare with “300” again.  In real life Vlad, as a way of turning away peace with the Turks… Had the envoys murdered by nailing their turbans to their heads.  And he did this to lay the groundwork for a crusade he anticipated happening in a few years which would have drawn the bulk of the Ottoman forces away from his lands.
            The issues in here deepen as in 3 days the Turks bash into the country, and if it were not for Vlad gaining demonic super powers they would have won handily, even though the war lasted for 3 years in real life and was brought to a close by treason against Vlad which resulted in his beheading… INSTEAD THEY HAVE HIM KILL MEHMED THE CONQUEROR.  I know that most people have no idea who Mehmed is from a historical standpoint, because Middle East history is not looked upon with all that interest by US classes, but having Mehmed die in this way would be the equivalent of having Mao die fighting the Japanese during World War II and never take power in China.  (By the way, the final confrontation is just crap, Vlad has annihilated the entire army even if Mehmed had killed Vlad he would have been totally fucked so the whole final fight comes off as meaningless).  This is such a divergence from history that it breaks the movie for me.  And there are obvious ways around it.  I am leaving out huge problems with everything from the lack of characterization of the bad guys, the stupid battle tactics, how swarms of bats are used to create massive crashes that kill dozens of Turks at a time… The freaking bats in this movie are just ridiculous.
            There are good things in the movie.  Most of the acting works, Charles Dance is a great master vampire, but overall the movie is just really weak with its plot.  You have Vlad gain the power to kill a thousand men single handedly… and nobody bats an eye, but 24 hours later they are trying to burn him alive because he is a vampire… What?  They already know of him as a mass murderer of innocents, they already know he has started a war with the local expansionist super power, he has forced them to abandon their homes… and they decide to turn on him because he has temporarily gained superpowers?  And has yet to use them to harm any of his own people. 
So he is also the Hulk.  He is Batman mixed with the Hulk.
           How would I fix this movie?  How about instead of it happening over the course of a few days it instead happens over a few months, Vlad drinking little sips of vampire blood to gain temporary power, but also demonic cunning, using his small forces and limited vampire powers to stage daring raids and traps for the Ottomans (like what happened in real life) and eventually drives them off but in having done so has been permanently transformed into a monster, his allies turn on him for fear of his now uncontrolled power, he is forced to fake his death and escape disappearing into legend as a local myth, hunting those who betrayed him.  That way there is no obvious breaks from the reality of real world history, you have a character that is established as not only strong but smart and capable of leadership.
            I could easily see this and “I, Frankenstein” existing in the same universe.  A crappy universe of bland, “I am so emo” monster movies.
And the final battle with Mehmed is backwards.  Mehmed being a mortal fighting a super strong, super fast, shapeshifter has to use cunning and a careful allocation of limited resources to pose a threat... Something the hero of the story is usually expected to do.  God, this movie is so stupid.  It comes off like the boss battle of a video game.  (Poster)
Overall: 5/10
       I initially had no enthusiasm to see this.  The premise seemed like “The Crow”, a movie I have never really liked.  Daniel Radcliffe was still (in my mind) the guy who had stared in “The Woman in Black” which was an uneven letdown of a film.  And the advertising of this movie either emphasized the darker stuff or the sillier parts, and so I did not understand what to expect.
       In general what I got was an uneven and messy film, but it wasn't a disappointment.  The funny parts were funny, the idea of the horns is pretty cool, and they do a lot to develop everyone in the movie as characters.  The problem comes with tone, in which it swings back and forth between comedy, tragedy, and horror so fast that there is some mood whiplash.  Do they want the movie to be a dark tale of revenge that shows a character embrace darker impulses to punish the sinners who have ruined his life?  Or does it want to be a farce, the main character stirring up a series of sight gags as he takes a tour of a small town filled with assholes as he figures out a mystery?  The serious sentimental ending suggests the former, but much of the movie’s scenes of irreverent violence suggests the later.
       I really like the idea of the horns, that they compel people to confess their deepest sins, act out their vile impulses, can make them psychically experience suffering, and nobody remembers it.  That is pretty cool, and leads to a lot of scenes of people screaming at each other, fighting, or being gluttons for drugs or food.  As far as low-key-magical-realism super powers go this is a good one.
I was afraid the movie would pull punches, but it didn't.  It has boobs and blood and cursing.  Since it didn't shirk from those things I might be giving it a bit more credit than it deserves.  Really the premise works on paper, and with a more focused script, either serious or farcical this thing could have been pretty good. 
Also, it is good to see that all of Danny's practice working with CGI stuff in his movie career helps him here.  (Poster)
Overall: 7/10
            A movie I had not heard of and I am surprised has not received more attention.  “Housebound” is a horror comedy with roughly the premise of “Disturbia” or “Rear Window” in that a young woman cannot leave her house (she is a criminal) and discovers strange happenings in her home, ultimately discovering it was the scene of a murder and it is now haunted.  She unravels the mystery with the help of the security official who makes sure she stays under house arrest, and putting up with her Mom and Step Dad.
            It has a lot of good foreshadowing and wraps up rather tightly by the end.  The action is fast, it makes a lot of quick little jokes that show the characters are human, and the mystery resolves in a satisfying fashion.  It isn't going to touch you on a deep and personal emotional level, but it is a good bit of fun.
Another movie in which characters with motivations react and act in accordance with the plot.  Why does that seem like such a hard thing to find in movies?

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