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The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies

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I can handle the first two movies.  The first one's a romp that takes way too long, but has several good moments, and mostly captures the tone of the book, even if it doesn't get quite all the charm.  The second one is also decent, and includes the amazing golden dragon scene.  But at this point, the reservoir of good will that Jackson built up after the Lord of the Rings trilogy is completely spent, and this movie is the laziest and worst of the three.  

Smaug, the villain of the franchise, kicks the bucket in the first 10 minutes of the movie, but there still needs to an epic film, so we get the Battle of the Five Armies for three hours.  That sounds like it's a good thing.  The battles of Helm's Deep and Gondor were some of the best parts of the original trilogy.  The five armies that give the battle its title are mostly irrelevant, though.  There's a bunch of dwarves we've never met before, some elves who we never liked much anyway, one army of men who just got their city burned but manage to field an army anyway, and two separate armies of bad guys that somehow have managed to transmute themselves from small raiding parties to massive forces.  And the actual battle is very, very dull.  Sloppy maneuver and countermaneuver makes for dull movies, so we get to watch a bunch of one-on-one combat instead.  Some characters kick the bucket who we barely care about, and finally, after an interminably long time, the movie ends.

If I ever watch this trilogy again, I'm going to be sorely tempted to just watch until Smaug is vanquished and turn it off then, because this movie is ridiculously stupid and pointless.

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I'm not quite sure how I missed this movie when it came out. Though I wasn't quite as into swords-and-sorcery fantasy as I once was, I would still have identified at the time as a fantasy fan. Maybe my lukewarm relationship with Neil Gaiman was to blame? Regardless, I blame my friends for not cluing me into this movie at the time.

Fast forward to Christmas 2014 when we're hanging around at Tara's sister's new apartment. She has it recorded, learns we haven't seen it, and makes it her mission to make us see it. So, knowing nothing about it, I find myself watching it. Lo and behold, it's pretty good. Now my mystification at not having heard of it is redoubled. This is a clear successor to Princess Bride, and I don't understand why nerds haven't banded together behind this one the way they have for Princess Bride.

This is not to say the movie is without fault. It's sexual politics in particular are pretty rough. Female agency is restricted to the Evil Old Witch trope, every other female is reduced to bit part or prize to be won by the hero. I get that this comes from fairy tales, but it still is pretty tedious.

That aside, the writing is great, the story is amusing, and I'm glad I saw this. For one thing, at least I can say I've seen something with Claire Danes in it, finally.

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American Hustle

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This movie is an enigma. It's not especially easy to follow, and it consciously steers away from any kind of moral. I wasn't quite sure what to make of it, and the distance of several months hasn't brought much clarity. It borrows heavily from Scorsese's Casino, in that this is an ensemble cast of a bunch of hucksters conning each other. However, Casino eventually sorts out the good guys and the bad guys, something that Hustle pointedly avoids. The con and the movie both eventually end, and although it's obvious who triumphed, it's not clear how we're supposed to feel about it. It's an ambitious artistic choice, and I'll forgive the movie it's ambiguity for being willing to take the chance.

It's not hard to forgive the movie, either. The cast is fantastic, the writing and delivery are crisp, and the period costumes and sets are wonderfully articulated. It's particularly interesting how this isn't just the 70s, it's the 70s among a very particular kind of upwardly mobile slice of society. The microwave scene, in particular, is absolutely fabulous, and if you aren't a Jennifer Lawrence fan before watching it, you will be afterward.

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The Imitation Game

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Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing? Sign me up! This was one of those oh-so-rare movies that I knew I was going to as soon as I heard a rumor about it. I was really bummed when I wasn't able to see it on release day because it was a limited release, but lo and behold, it just so happened that I was moving to L.A. and was able to see it very soon afterwards. It was a nice introduction to the perks of living in the entertainment capital of the world. Even though I ended up writing this review well after the fact, it was

The movie mostly delivers on its promise, though it has a tendency to get a bit maudlin at times, and it leans heavily on the lazy trope of "computer genius solves everything with computer wizardry." Still, the story of Alan Turing is complex, multilayered, and compelling, and it takes more than a bit of sloppy screenwriting to get in the way. The costuming and sets are excellent, and the directing and acting are usually good.

It really hit Tara in a major way. It's germane to our time, both for its take on gay rights, and for its take on the power of computers. Recommended for fans of historical dramas.

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Hunger Games: Catching Fire - The Movie

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What a letdown after the first two movies. Admittedly, the movie has an uphill battle, as the third book is already weaker than the first two books, and the money-grubbing choice to divide it into two parts certainly doesn't help.

Even with those considerations in mind, the movie doesn't come close to its potential. This is a cold, static adaptation of the book, in a way that shows off just how dynamic and appealing the first two were by contrast. There are no transcendent moments like there were in the first two movies, and Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss comes across as bland, which is really saying something for a character and an actress who are both firebrands. There's a lot of artistic talent that's squandered here, from Lawrence to Philip Seymour Hoffman to Julianne Moore. Wasting all of that means that the director got in the way, and there's a lot to think that's the case here. I'm not sure why Francis Lawrence managed to strike out so spectacularly here when he managed to succeed on the second movie, but this movie is not worth seeing. Perhaps the last movie will redeem this one. I sure hope so.

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Portlandia: Season 3

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Portlandia is starting to reach the end of its string. It's still got some good moments, but those moments are rarer now. Much as I love urban hipster culture, there's only so many times you can go back to that well and still think it's funny. We've watched just about all of the season now, and may or may not finish off the rest of it. With our move to Los Angeles, we've dropped it, and I think it's somewhat unlikely we pick this up again.

Anyway, it's not hard to watch this show, and if you're still entertained, stick with it, but I'd definitely start in Season 1, and you'll know if you want to see season 3 when you get there.

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Matthew McConaughey! Anne Hathaway! Space! Christopher Nolan!

This movie is good. It's got great acting, and truly wonderful exterior space shots. It's definitely worth seeing. But the good parts of the movie stand on their own, and I have nothing to add that seeing the movie itself doesn't accomplish in a much better fashion..

Let's get to the niggle -- I just wish that Christopher Nolan had a more sensitive bullshit meter. It's easy to see why Nolan picked up this script. Much of it is perfect for him. There's a lonely hero out of place, commentary on human nature, and a sweeping storyline with a philosophical bent. But, much like with Inception, the movie has a lot of bombast, but the storyline has big, obvious, gaping holes. It seems like Nolan could and should have sniffed this out at the script stage, and it feels lazy that he decided to hand-wave it away.

The big problem is that the black hole makes no sense whatsoever. Black holes are crazy things. They're ridiculously dense, cause all kinds of strange behavior, and should, under no circumstances, ever be messed with. Unfortunately, the movie plot keeps going back to a black hole for plot points, and they just don't make sense. Most obviously, I'm not sure what kind of propulsion and fuel system they have for these ships, but it seems that they can just go for a quick dip in the interior of a black hole like it's no big deal. The movie also plays fast and loose with gravitational pressure, time dilation, fuel effects, event horizons, and time travel. If this was one scene in the movie, or if they mostly ignored the black hole, this wouldn't be so jarring, but they keep going back to the black hole as a plot point, and it wears very thin, very fast.

But again, it's still a good movie. Get your popcorn, suspend your disbelief, and enjoy the ride.

I'm hoping that the success of this movie and Gravity means that big-budget near-future space movies are getting a renaissance. Most of our space movies have been suffering from the Star Wars effect, and need to be set in a galaxy far, far away with lots of aliens and a high dose of adventure. These sci-fi adventure movies are fun, and I certainly don't advocate for the elimination of them, but my favorite sci-fi dives a little deeper into the human psyche.

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Star Trek: The Next Generation - Seasons 6 and 7

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This series just gets better and better until it ends. Being television from the 90s, there's more than a few episodes that are flat and awkward, but the good episodes are more frequent, and even better than the good episodes of earlier seasons. The characters continue to grow and don't stagnate, which is remarkable for a series that got to its seventh season. Wrinkles like Troi and Work's relationship, and Crusher and Troi's struggle for promotion get explored up to the very end. They don't feel like naked ratings grabs, but rather real, plausible character growth.

The regular hokiness of Star Trek and the implausibility of the hegemony remains, of course, as well as the rather flat characterization of the other alien species, but I still really, really like this series.

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Turning Point

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This movie is nothing special, or at least, it SHOULDN'T be. It's really a very standard storyline told through the lens of dance -- one of aging, the path not taken, friendships, and what it means to grow up.

The first thing that makes it exceptional is that it's a dance movie that has a good plot. It's got a reputation as one of the better dance movies, and it definitely deserves it. I find ballet rather tedious, and this movie didn't change my mind, but I really did enjoy the movie as a whole. Unlike nearly every other dance movie out there, this movie doesn't skimp on the writing and produce an insultingly simplistic script. There's no need for a dance movie to have a terrible plot, it just seems to be one of the really stupid conventions of the genre.

The other exceptional thing is that it is a story driven by women, that isn't a flighty piece of fluff. It's refreshing to see Hollywood acknowledge that women can be real characters with real motivations, and can be the focal point of a movie. Too often the "it won't sell to men" line is used as a rationale for casual misogyny among the movie studios. It was great to have a window to the 1970s when second-wave feminism was having a moment and it wasn't so outlandish for women to carry a movie.

I wish there were more films like this.

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Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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This movie caused me great personal growth.  It made me go figure out Redbox.

Netflix didn't have it, and Amazon had it available only for purchase, so it was off to watch it from disk like a barbarian.  Redbox was kind of fascinating.  You can see the manipulation of the disks and cases, like those old jukeboxes which used to reward you for your dollar by flashing some holographic silver CD back at you before you got to listen to Real McCoy.  Whee!  There was a slight hiccup when our movie came with an additional piece of paper that was almost certainly used as part of a scam, but Redbox has yet to to drive a truckload of lawyers up to our apartment, so that seems okay.

As for the movie, it's really good.  I love the revolutionary aspect of the movies, and Jennifer Lawrence brings a depth to Katniss which is quite impressive.  The caught-between-two-lovers aspect could have easily been overplayed, but it's handled with subtlety and not magicked away as I was worried it would be.  It's totally worth seeing, and not just for those who have already read the book -- it's a pretty good movie in its own right.  Thought I have misgivings about the last book being split into two movies, I'm definitely eager to see them.

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