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Rabbit Hole: Not the kind of euphemism you're expecting

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Rabbit Hole is an indie drama that hearkens back to the glory days of indie drama, you know, those halcyon days of, oh, 5 years ago.  The cast is remarkably claustrophobic, with five characters hogging nearly every moment of screen time, and they're pretty good actors.  Aaron Eckhart (you know, Two Face in The Dark Knight) and Nicole Kidman star as a couple who have lost their young son in a car accident, and are going through the extended grieving process nearly a year later.

It's got something in common with a lot of good indie dramas, which is that it's not exactly easy to write about what makes it a good movie.  It draws you in to the characters, and makes you see them at their private moments, at their vulnerable periods.  The disaffectation of the characters, another hallmark of indie drama, is frequent, but not so heavy as to be unbearable.  I'm not of this demographic, and I'm not looking to start a family, but these characters still feel real, and their problems feel analagous to problems I face.  If the measure of a good film is to help the viewer see themselves in the film, then this film succeeds.

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30 for 30 reviews: The Birth of Big Air

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This is right in the sweet spot for these ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries.  Matt Hoffman, the father of modern BMX trick riding, is the perfect combination of marginally famous, but very influential.  His impact on his sport, and on sports in general, is significant.

The craft of the documentary is not particularly amazing.  Much of the film subsists on interviews, and unfortunately, the documentary maker doesn't seem to have great interview skills.  Unlike some of the best of the series, like Winning Time, the interviewees seem a little bit stiff.  This documentary does compensate by having some pretty great backyard footage, and seems to have very thoroughly gone through film and television archives for items like Hoffman's appearance on Wide World of Sports, as well as several jumps from early competitions.

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30 for 30 reviews: House of Steinbrenner

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House of Steinbrenner is the first outright bad movie I've seen in the 30 for 30 series.  It's very clear that the director, Barbara Kopple, is from New York and thinks that it's really unique to like the Yankees a lot.  And then she created a one hour documentary about the Yankees, because everybody likes the Yankees, right?  Blech!

House of Steinbrenner is supposedly about George Steinbrenner and the job he did to reinvent the Yankees as a dominant sports franchise, but it comes across as rampant boosterism.  We get to experience the trauma and heartbreak that the Yankees felt when their last season didn't culminate in a World Series victory.  Poooooor Yankees.  But then we got to experience the redemption when they won a World Series in the first year at their new stadium.  Gosh, aren't they lucky?

Yankees fans are so spoiled, and they seem to have an endless appetite for being told how special they are.  Meanwhile, to most of the rest of baseball, the Yankees are a good example of just what is wrong with baseball, specifically that they are able to outspend everybody else, and win a ton of championships as a result.  Sure, they have some prospects come up through their system, but they are also able to get the number one free agent, year after year, as well as retain all of their current stars.  It'd be easy for any team to win championships under those conditions.

The film is pretty nauseating.  If you're not a Yankees fan, it's intolerably New York-centric, and just not worth the time it takes to watch it.

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30 for 30 reviews: Unmatched

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Unmatched is an adequate, but kinda boring documentary about the rivalry between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova in women's tennis in the 70s and 80s.  It does that thing that some mediocre documentaries do, which is to make it clear that there's an interesting story here somewhere, but that this documentary couldn't find it.

Tennis isn't always the most riveting sport, but there's some good material in this rivalry.  Evert and Navratilova faced each other in the finals so many times that it's absurd.  The length of their rivalry makes Nadal/Federer look pedestrian.  This documentary's schtick is to find them both and put them together, ask them to talk through their old rivalry.

It turns out that these two are very familiar with each other already, acquaintances and probably friends as well.  They clearly already have a lot of post-career history.  But the chemistry between them doesn't always work.  Chris spends a lot of the movie talking, much much more than Martina.  It felt like this was Chris' movie, Martina just happened to be in it for some of the time.

Add in a dose of schmaltz with the choice of "Thank You" by Natalie Merchant thrown in, as well as the shots of them driving around in a convertible in the forests of Northern California, and it just is all a bit too much.  I learned more about Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, but I found myself thinking that I didn't think that I needed to know this much.

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The Odd Couple

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The Odd Couple is a film I've had on my 'should see' list, as opposed to my 'want to see' list.  Between the play, the film, and the television series, there are so many references that it was well past due for me to see some iteration of it.

I was expecting to suffer through it completely.  It ended up surprising me as a remarkably tender portrayal of family and masculine life in 1960s America.  It's not going to make my favorite movies of the year or anything, but it has some content behind the fluffy idea of putting two dramatic foils in one apartment for 90 minutes.

Jack Lemmon delivers a truly great performance in the film.  He made me believe in the neatnik Felix as a real human being, which is not an easy when Felix's main trait is being inhumanly clean and organized.  The emotional disturbance that Felix feels is sometimes over the top, but much of it is surprisingly believable.  The opening hotel scene where he considers jumping out a window is a wonderful piece of physical comedy, yet stark in its black outlook.

The movie is sprinkled with moments like this.  Overall, it's not a startlingly strong performance, but the vignettes here and there make the movie watchable.  If you're not familiar with the trope, this movie is a good place to get an introduction.

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X Files: Season 3

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The X Files continues strong on season 3. I'm continuing to enjoy the show, though there's occasional squeamishness when the show has its more horror-focused moments. I don't think any amount of watching this show will get that out of me.

The writing, however, is still pretty consistently good. The 90s-ness of it is starting to fade into the background, as the byzantine twists of the mythology plot are coming more to the fore. I'm not finding myself noticing the cars, fashion, hair, and behavior as much anymore.

The mythology may be starting to suffer, although it's a bit too early to tell. The twists in this season seemed to get more open-ended, and fewer of the old ones got resolved. Rather than continuing to focus on Mulder's sister in a compelling way, the plot is going down twists and turns that are verging on overcomplicated. I'm hoping that this begins to get alleviated, because the myth arc is some of my favorite stuff from the previous two seasons, and I will be really sad if it continues to simply get more complicated.

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A Game of Thrones TV Show: HBO does it again

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Excuse me while I fawn.  A Game of Thrones is great.  I have a previous disposition to like it, as I am a fan of the fantasy genre in general, and enjoy George R. R. Martin's written work.  But this is not okay TV based on a great story, this is great TV based on a great story.  

The pilot is a little sketchy, for sure.  There's no question that the first episode is designed to appeal to the visceral senses, and get people hooked.  There's nudity and beheadings to the point that borders on the absurd.

But the series quickly calms down and fulfills its promise.  The credits are some of the best I've ever seen, both musically and visually.  The casting is very good, and the sets and shooting are really great.  There's film-making chops behind this production.

Thank god for HBO, because they've come along and saved TV.  I am certain that this will be looked back on as a golden age for television, in large part because HBO has made television the long-form storytelling medium it has always promised, but never before delivered.  I find myself watching a lot more TV than movies now, and much of that TV is HBO.  Hell, it almost makes me want to subscribe.

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Lust, Caution: Review, Words

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After getting angry at Netflix for pulling off Starz movies with no warning due to a contract dispute, I was flailing about for what to watch after I couldn't finish The Pillars of The Earth. I dug around a bit on my queue, and for whatever reason, Ang Lee's Lust, Caution caught my eye.

It's a long movie, and so I finished it in two sittings. It wasn't an easy movie to watch, certainly. As with any subtitled movie, it takes a lot of concentration to focus enough just to get the language down. And also, the movie itself is very deliberate in pacing, in order to set up the tension that pervades the entire script. Lee also takes time to shoot the setting intensively, and to give the protagonist plenty of space to move about in her world. It works very well, as her world becomes our world, despite the fact that WWII China is a rarely chosen setting for a movie, and thus mostly unfamiliar. But, it does slow the movie down, and makes the movie even more of a visual experience.

The story is actually quite trivial. Unlike the usual spy thrillers, which see Jason Bourne or James Bond navigating a byzantine spy structure where everybody is playing everybody else, Lust, Caution lays out the loyalties very early. There's no sudden backstabs, no momentous switching of loyalty. We know from the beginning where everybody stands... except for the protagonist. We very much see the world through her eyes, as she becomes caught up in a Maoist spy ring, and is chosen to be the seductress of one of the loyalist bureaucrats. But of course, in the way these things go, she falls for him.

Lust, Caution does that thing that good movies often do, which is make it very difficult to talk about the best parts of the movie. It is, after all, a movie, and not an innately verbal medium, so putting its best parts into words is hard. However, it is a good movie, well-shot, and compelling, if somewhat difficult movie.

I also think that I'm going to start referring to everything as comma-separated pairs of nouns.  Vocabulary, stultifying.

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Perfume: The Story of Age Differentiation

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I go to this snobby small-group arthouse film night every once in a while.  I know that I have a reputation as snobbish, but this place is enough beyond my snobbishness that I haven't heard of most of these films.  Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is one of those films I haven't heard of.  And yes, that may blow a hole in my whole snobbish persona, because in retrospect, this is a movie that I probably should have known about.  It's hardly a best-kept-secret or anything.  Tom Tykwer, the director of Run, Lola, Run, directed this movie as well.  I like RLR enough to own it, so presumably I should have at least been aware of this movie.

I heartily enjoyed the movie, with significant reservations.  The whole thing is a fable told in the style of magical realism, with remarkable acts happening constantly and characters mostly reduced to simple caricatures that emphasize a particular trait.  This isn't really an easy style to describe, but it most closely resembles the style in Pan's Labyrinth or The Tale of Benjamin Button, or even Coraline

The movie as a whole is good.  It pulls off a synthesis of a lot of movie tropes, not only the aforementioned magical fable, but also elements of the serial killer thriller, and the period piece.  And it blends these elements pretty well.  It flows together, and it's not jarring.  And there's symbolism galore in the movie, what with most of the major characters dying immmediately after the main character leaves their life, and him getting sick when he finds out that smells can't be preserved.

The ending, unfortunately, is hard to take.  I was able to suspend my disbelief for most of the movie, but the ending so jarred with my understanding of the movie to that point that I found myself rolling my eyes.  That's the most I can say without giving away spoilers, but it did put a bad taste in my mouth after an otherwise very interesting film.

I mentioned that I watched this movie with a group.  I found it quite interesting that reactions to this film seemed to correlate very strongly with age.  There's obviously some small-sample-size theater going on here, but the under-30 crowd seemed to like it, with the 30-somethings a little less enthused, the 40-somethings had significant reservations, and the over-50 crowd absolutely hating it.  I think that there is definite generational differences for art, but rarely have I seen it brought home so starkly.  It makes sense with this movie.  Tykwer's is notoriously new-style, with quick cuts and extreme zooms all over.  Tykwer is not given to the ponderous shots of 60s cinema, for example, but revels in the new and exciting.  It's easy in retrospect to see why one of his films would reflect the age divide.

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The Beaver: Not as dirty as it sounds

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I mean, really, who thought they could get away naming a movie The Beaver?  The other titles on the table must have been The Tatas, and Dongville.

This is Mel Gibson's contrition movie.  In Hollywood, even really big stars like Mel Gibson eventually have to seem like they're sorry when they utter racial epithets, beat their wife, and rack up DUIs a few too many times.  Luckily for Mel Gibson, he might be an asshole, but he's an asshole who made films that made a lot of money back in the day.  Hollywood is willing to overlook a few sociopathic incidents here and there if Gibson is willing to make them a lot of money.

Gibson looks around at his career, realizes that he's made a mess of it, and does what any actor does in the same situation.  He plays the role of a sensitive, emotionally stunted, disabled person.  The disability of this particular role is a mental one, specifically severe depression, with a bit of delusion thrown in.

My dad is mentally ill, which means that I am obligated to go see this movie, because there are far too few movies out there that deal with mental illness in any kind of real-world way.  So, I swallowed my revulsion at what I saw as a cynical career move for Mel Gibson, and decided to give it a shot.

I wish I hadn't.  The movie is good, sometimes.  But other times it is awful.  It classically overreaches and tries to take a lot of different family storylines and tie them together, a la American Beauty.  The storylines don't meld together fluidly in this movie, though.  Instead, the movie seems like it can't decide if it wants to be a coming-of-age romance movie for a troubled teen, a family drama about a dissolving marraige, or a portrait of a mental illness.  It tries to be all three, and doesn't really succeed at any of them.

I'm beginning to think that indie movies may have jumped the shark.  Or rather, real indie movies are starting to get pushed aside by the big studios' indie labels, like Fox Searchlight and Focus, and those labels are losing sight of what made them so successful in the first place.  This feels like a movie that has thoroughly been through the Hollywood sanitization process.  It has two big-name stars, one of whom directs the movie as well, and a disjointed plot that feels like some exec got his hands on it to make it more sellable.  The best thing about indie movies is that they are not beholden to the Hollywood meatgrinder.  I'm worried this is getting lost, and The Beaver is another example of the so-so movies that are now being packaged as indie.

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