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Postapocalyptic social commentary?  Sign me up!

Snowpiercer's class revolt on a train isn't quite the nuanced social drama that I was hoping for, but it was a pretty good movie.  It's got a simplistic, video-game like structure, as the characters literally progress through the train from the back to the front, akin to beating a level so that you can move to the next one.  The result is a progression through the visuals and drama that matches the progression through the plot.  There's a reason we like this so much in video games, after all.

The movie is not especially plausible, and I can't decide whether that's an asset or a hindrance.  I was occasionally taken out of my suspension of disbelief because of the clandestine nature of all of the scheming, and the fact that, in the end, it's really just one guy who is going to save the entire back of the train.  But on the other hand, because the whole damn plot is so crazy, it's easy to just go with it when the movie does something absurd like set up a society where it seems there is no middle class, whatsoever.

In the end, it's a fun movie, and one that at least tries to have a plot.   When I'm getting summer blockbusters jammed down my throat with titles like Marvel's Avengers IV, the Prequel, a movie with pretensions of social commentary is enough to pass the test as the real thing.  Maybe that's lowering the bar too far, but beggars can't be choosers.

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This was the second time I've seen this classic.  I really like it, in all its flawed glory.  It's just gloriously strange and grotesque, in a stultifying manner, which jives perfectly with the overbearing society that plays the villain.  As far as dystopian movies go, this is a great option.  It's weird enough that it feels "right" in that way that slight abstraction can have with art.  It's bizarre enough not to map directly, but close enough that we still see plenty of ourselves in it.

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Hunger Games

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Call me a hopeless revolutionary romantic, but this movie was great.  I loved the tension and explicit corruption of the higher classes, and the viewpoint that there is a serious class discrepancy.  The line is not hard to draw from our current culture to today.

The Hunger Games premise is a bit silly.  Gladitorial combat as a television show, keeping society in check?  Cooperation to the end had never been tried before?  It does get some points as the most literal combination of bread and circuses.

The movie is very well made.  The cast is strong, from Jennifer Lawrence, to Donald Sutherland, to Woody Harrelson.  The dynamic within the games, once you can suspend disbelief, is richly multifaceted, with all those great traits that make Diplomacy a classic game and Survivor the reality show that just won't die.

This is one of the surprises of my year.  I'm looking forward to seeing the next movies.  Maybe I'll even pick up the book.

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Plotwise, it's a run-of-the-mill monster horror flick.  The camera takes its time.  There's a few interesting shots, but mostly there's a lot of looking at actors who are bing given direction along the lines of "just like that, only a little bit less subtle with your emotions this time."  Throw in the post-Vietnam banana republic focus on jungle warfare and big guns for a little bit of spice.  

We also get lots of time with Arnold with his shirt off and he even makes an arrow with gunpowder and then fires it what appears to be 3 feet in one shot but is actually 60 feet because of movie magic.  Of course he saves the day and even gets to leap aside from a nuclear explosion at the end.  There's almost enough camp to sustain it, but not really.

Oh well. All's well that ends Ahnold.

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I went to Belize!  This was a trip for Tara's dad's birthday.

This was my first international trip in almost 10 years, since I went to Eastern Europe in 2007, not counting Puerto Rico last year.  That kinda blows my mind, as I had no idea it had been so long, and I certainly hope it won't be that long until our next international trip.  (Scotland?  Istanbul?  Paris?  Morocco?)  We split our time between the interior of the country, which was the rainforest, and the Cayes along the barrier reef.

I had been to a rainforest in Puerto Rico, but that was only briefly, and this was my first major experience with it.  I was surprised at how familiar it felt.  Sure, I didn't see the usual ashes and elms and oaks that I'm familiar with from our forests here in Minnesota, but it's still hiking through lush vegetation with the possibility of seeing some wildlife.  Even the negatives of heat, humidity, and bugs felt very familiar -- just walk through Itasca in July, and it feels about the same, with different sceneray.

The highlight of the trip for me was our one-day trip to Tikal, in Guatemala.  The scale of it is unlike any other ruin I've seen.  History of comparable size and age is easy to extrapolate from areas that are still inhabited, such as Edinbugh, Budapest, or Krakow.  Similarly, there are a few ruins that are minor bivouacs or outposts left over from an early era, and seem quiantly small, like the Roman baths of Bath, or the Tibes ruins of Puerto Rico, or our own little Lakota war bivouac at Fort Ridgely here in Minnesota.  Even Mesa Verde, which is impressive in its own right, didn't compare in scope.  Tikal is HUGE and completely abandoned.

It's cliche to say about a ruin, but it is very humbling.  Just seeing the scope of the place is amazing, and they've dug up only a small fraction of it.  It stretches for miles in every direction, and nobody lives here anymore.  This was the heart of a hugely powerful civilization, the political focus point of a region, and it's completely empty now.  We know very little about it, thanks to time and with a significant assist from the Spanish colonial book-burning and cultural eradication program.  A lot of people who lived here, people who were the most progressive and powerful people of the known world, and it's all gone, with little but some poorly-understood constructions to show for it.  It's not hard to draw a line from them to us.  New York or Washington or Minneapolis could be a ruin someday.

The second part of the trip was out on an island, South Water Caye.  To call it an island is almost misleading, as it's really a glorified sandbar, less than half a mile long, and maybe a couple hundred feet across.  It sounds limiting, and it is.  But, it doesn't take long to realize that limiting also means liberating.  There's very little to do here, and the staff takes care of any creature comforts you need, as long as they have it on the island.  There was no itinerary, and nothing to make into one if I had wanted to.  It forced me to really look at where I was, and enjoy time passing.  It's a luxury that our society doesn't take time to appreciate much.  It was certainly a new feeling for me.

I'd love to go back, or even move to Belize.  Maybe after L.A.  :)

Game of Thrones: Season 3

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Game of Thrones continues to be the best visual fantasy work since Lord of the Rings.  This season is a bit more spotty than the previous two.  The good source material from the books is sputtering out, after all.  However, the good scenes are getting even better.  

Arya and the Hound in particular have some amazing scenes that develop their characters while presenting some amazing world-building.  They make for a great literary pairing, two atavistic characters that nonetheless are very different in outlook.  Clegane adopts a fuck-'em-all, I'll-get-mine viewpoint, figuring that the world's corruption is out of his hands.  Though Arya also subscribes to a philosophy of my-viewpoint-is-the-right-one, it is because she privileges herself as a true arbiter of moral code in a world gone wrong.  It showcases a great example of two characters, with different motivations, both working together, but for very different reasons.  It's scenes like these, scenes that transcend genre writing, that keep me watching.

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Breaking Bad: The Final Season

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The last season of Breaking Bad stands up to the literary reputation of the rest of the series.  We've arrived at our Shakespearean fifth act, and Breaking Bad gives us the pathos we've been promised. 

Much ink has been spilled on this final season, and there's little I have to add to it, but I will say two things.

1. You really, really should watch this show if you haven't.  Without hyperbole, it is an easy top five for best shows I've ever seen.

2. This final season is genre-defining. Any lingering objections to the assertion that we are living in a golden age of television must be put to rest.  You can't point to the unfinished feeling left by the last episode of The Sopranos, or the fact that Deadwood got canceled.  I've said it before, and I'll say it again -- TV is now better than the movies.

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20 Feet From Stardom

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Checked out this Oscar winner for Best Documentary when Tara said she had heard good things about it.  Definitely worth seeing.  It's a killer idea for a documentary, to examine the careers of backup singers, people as ubiquitous as they are under-recognized.

The first thing that the movie establishes is just how amazingly talented these people are.  They're world-class experts at their craft, people with rich, sonorous tone, incredible tune, and incredible improvisational skills.  They're exactly what you would expect from somebody at the top of their profession.

And once you realize that, the movie goes to the natural follow-up question.  If these people are so good at singing, why aren't they the lead singers instead of the backups?  The answer changes from person-to-person.  Sometimes it's temperament, sometimes it's politics, sometimes it's luck, and sometimes it's still a complete mystery.

The movie is fascinating, and definitely made me think about fame and stardom in a different way.  We're so used to hearing the stories of the stars who made it, or at least the stars who came to dizzying heights only to fall out of favor.  We almost never hear about the near-misses.  Turns out they have fascinating stories to tell.

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Darren Arnofsky is incredibly talented, and I make a point of seeing his movies.  Despite a theme that didn't appeal to me, I made sure to see it in the theater.

Arnofsky's achilles heel is his tendency to get stuck in his head, and Noah is definitely that kind of movie, like The Fountain, or the worst parts of Pi.  Noah is ambitious.  It's got a very healthy special effects budget, and spends a ton of effort on costuming and makeup.  On the squishier parts of the movie, it's got a script that is trying very hard to reinterpret a foundational myth, and a melodramatic acting and directing style that is quite obviously intentional.

The aforementioned melodrama makes it very clear that Arnofsky feels very strongly about...something. But what, exactly, is Noah ambitiously trying for?  The Bible has a lot of cultural cachet and baggage.  Noah could be an unedited retelling, an environmental stewardship parable, a dissertation on myth, or a simple rejection of the story.  Arnofsky refuses to take any of these options, settling on something that's unclear.  

The closest framework is character study.  Noah deals constantly with trying to interpret the metaphors and messages of a distant God; in this way he's reminiscent more of Abraham or Job than the traditional cultural portrayal of outcast-cum-steward.  Perhaps Arnofsky read The Origins of Consciousness in the Bicameral Mind and took it a bit over-the-top?

Whatever Arnofsky wanted the movie to be, it ends up a mealy-mouthed mess.  It seems so determined to strike out on its own that it rejects everything that's interesting about Noah as source material.  It's a lot like The Fountain, in fact, and there's really no reason to see either one.

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Tim Burton has this reputation as being incredibly out there, but the rest of the movies that I've seen have nothing on this one.  This seems like a children's movie most of the time, with corny acting and terrible setup lines that are outdone only by the even worse punch lines.  But, the movie is good anyway.  Michael Keaton as the title character is incredibly weird and compelling when he's on screen.  It makes the tedious interim scenes worth waiting for.  The puppetry helps as well.  Even though it's obvious kitch, it's visually compelling because of Burton's aesthetic style.  

How in the world did this movie get made?  It's got incredibly mature themes, including violent death, suicide, statutory rape, and unwanted sexual advances, but the dialogue is mostly simple-bordering-on-corny.  I don't know who would have greenlighted this project -- it feels deeply strange and conflicted.  Nonetheless, it's good.  It's different and fresh.  I can handle a little bit of bad scriptwriting for some freshness.

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