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Watching it again: The Matrix, Grosse Point Blank, Beavis and Butthead: The Mike Judge Collection Vol. 3

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Even after getting cloned, ripped off, and unsatisfyingly sequeled (twice), The Matrix still is great.  Sure, the tricks it introduced to Hollywood, like bullet time, extremely well-choreographed fighting, and cameras that rotate around the actor have all been endlessly cloned, but the style and verve of the movie still make it more than your average kung-fu movie.  The dystopian society of cyberpunk has never been done better on the Silver Screen, with a palette of greens and greys lending an aura of discontent to our world.  The rebellion against the system, and the philosophical concepts that the movie introduces are icing on the cake.

It struck me as I was watching this movie, that it shows some danger of being my generation's Star Wars.  I make no secret of the fact that I think Star Wars is trite crap, despite the fact that I'm a card-carrying geek.  But the best defenses of the movie always talk about how revolutionary it was for its time.  Nothing like it had ever been seen.  Of course, when I came of age to watch Star Wars, it had been endlessly cloned, and no longer seemed very unique to me.  I wonder if the youth of today, when they watch The Matrix, are thinking the same thing I did when I saw Star Wars the first time.  Something like "What's the big deal, this is just like lots of other movies."  As history and taste marches on, the primacy effect fades, and being first is no longer as important.  Is The Matrix strong enough to overcome the legion of imitators that it has spawned?  I think so, but it will never again be as fresh as it was in 1999.  Still, it's got plenty to keep it relevant.  10/10

 

I watched Grosse Point Blank in a fit of self-obsession around the time of my fifth year college reunion.  I had seen it once before, in college, and remember it mostly for being overshadowed by my personal favorite John Cusack movie, High Fidelity.  GPB is still pretty good.  It's much smarter than it seems, especially for a romantic comedy.  This isn't your average Barbara Streisand schmaltzy crap directed to fortysomethings in marriages they hate.  It's incisive, smart, and full of self-reflection.  True, the schmaltz comes out at times, but they're limited enough that they don't get in the way of the rest of the movie. 7/10

 

I love Beavis and Butthead.  They got a bad rap among a lot of my friends, because we were just a shred too young, and because we were still mostly gripped by the "Cartoons are for five-year-olds" mentality that has only been broken in the last 15 years.  But I stand by the fact that Beavis and Butthead, for all their crude humor and utter stupidity, are still a good social criticism.  But, I started watching Beavis and Butthead: The Mike Judge Collection Volume 3, and they just are subpar.  When episodes are good, they're great, with belly-laughs aplenty.  But, most of the truly great cartoons were included in the first volume of the Mike Judge Collection, back when they didn't think they were going to release all of the episodes.  The second volume still has its moments, but the third is pretty rough, with only a few truly great episodes, like "Wood Shop" and the Christmas special  included in this volume.   I watched most of it, before getting bored and giving up.  If you want your stupid teenager fix, go with Beavis and Butthead Do America, or the first volume of this collection.   4/10

Pump Up the Volume, Valkyrie, Heroes Season 2

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Pump Up the Volume sounds like a ridiculous movie, something that I can blame M/A/R/R/S for, because their song has inundated theme parks for as long as I remember as a catchy, yet completely inoffensive dance beat that is cotton candy for your ears.  I was very surprised when the movie was not the same pap.  No, this is a surprisingly edgy teen drama about radicalism and not accepting the status quo.  There's a deep river of discontent that runs through this movie, and it is fascinating to see, as the foundations of the Grunge movement of the 90s can be seen quite plainly in the disaffected thinking of the main character.  The individuality and urge to shake up the system is driving and rejuvenating. 

The movie is a bit of a study in compromise between the drive to make a box-office hit and to actually say something of relevance.  The beginning starts out firmly on the side of making an ideological point, and is great.  The last scenes, however, are a much more standard High School caper film, and lose much of the punch.  It's fascinating to see such radical, anti-establishment ideas presented within the greater package of a Hollywood movie.  It's clear that the writer/director, Allan Moyle, was tiptoeing a fine line.  I think, ultimately, it would have been a stronger movie if he had the courage to stick with the ideological point, but I also wouldn't be surprised if he was feeling a lot of pressure from studio bigwigs to make the movie more palatable to a larger audience. 6/10

 

I can't see a Tom Cruise movie anymore without thinking how Cruisian he is, and Valkyrie is no exception.  I don't really think of Cruise as a war movie actor, and this film didn't change my mind.  Cruise plays one of the few admirable Germans in WWII, the would-be assassin of Hitler, Claus von Stauffenberg.  It's a completely fine movie, and it filled me in on a few aspects of the history that I didn't know about.  I am not sure how historically accurate it is, but it seems to get most things right.  Supporting roles by Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, and even Eddie Izzard are a real treat.  6/10

 

I watched the second season of Heroes a while back, but haven't had a chance to write about it in a while.  It roughly followed a similar arc as the first season.  It started out pretty good, then deteriorated as the season went on, until the climax revived it again.  It's a very short season, as it came during the writers' strike a few years ago.  I don't have whole lot to say about it, other than if you liked the first season, you'll probably like the second.  I'll review the third as soon as I finish it, or officially give up on it.  Unfortunately, it's looking like the second is more likely at this point, as the third season has been uniformly terrible so far.  5/10

Step Up 3D

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If, at the beginning of the summer, you would have told me that this was the best movie I would see in theaters this Summer, I would have called you crazy.  But, surprisingly enough, it is.  Now, this is no masterwork, and it's not had very stiff competition, but I certainly enjoyed myself more at this movie than at any of the others I've seen.

Indeed, this is the first time a dance movie has captivated me so thoroughly.  I watched this like I watch my favorite action movies.  The dance sequences, like the action sequences in a good action movie, were the reason to watch.  I was willing to sit through the intervening scenes, and seeing the plot, dialogue, and acting as spacers, so that I could catch my breath before the next dance scene took it away again.

And oh, the dancing.  It's simply amazing.  These are some of the best in the world, and to see them shot by a director who is experienced and deft at dance film is a rare treat.  And it isn't just because this is 3D, although that certainly helps.  The dance isn't particularly genre-bending, staying very strictly within the hip hop dancing at its roots, it is virtuosic and innovative within its genre.  Several times I found myself disbelievingly questioning my own eyes, wondering if that dancer just did what I thought they did.  This is nothing you're going to go out and see at your local club, this is intensely choreographed, molded and shaped for the ideal presentation.  Truly, these are artists willing to push the boundary of human movement.  

After all that raving, I must qualify that it's not all sunshine and rainbows for this release.  The plot, like so many dance movies, is anemic.  The main actor and actress are both mediocre dancers, and even worse actors.  The writing is clumsy as all hell, and the plot is as generic as they come.  Sometimes, the director injects some feeling into the non-dance scenes, but more frequently, it feels as if they are filler just stuck in there so that the trailer can show some kind of story.  It also contains one of the worst abuses of CG and 3D I've seen, as the scene is as saccharine as the slurpees the main characters use. 

Go see it.  Even if you're a dance skeptic, you might be surprised.  It's that good.

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The Up Series: Movie Fanfare for the Common Man

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The Up series is a set of British television shows that started in 1964 with Seven Up! a television special with the ambitiously quaint notion of following seven-year-olds around, figuring that these would be the leaders of the next century.  It has since become an extended series, where the same children of 1964 are visited again every seven years.  We follow these everyday people through the course of their lives, as they attend school, marry, have children, get divorced, switch jobs, buy houses, start businesses, and all the other normal things that people do all the time.  It's a fantastic documentary series, and fascinating material.  It has given me plenty of food for thought.

Really, this is a reality show without all the glitz, without a ridiculous set-up, and without the exaggerated behavior that the genre usually has.  This series, of course, predates the genre, and as such isn't trapped by the same conventions, which is very refreshing.  The best part about the series is that these are just normal people.  None of them are famous (outside of the marginal fame of this series), none are particularly exceptional, and none of them would be known at all outside of their circles without this series.  Each is a real-life example of the everyman or everywoman.  And nonetheless, they are fascinating.  These lives are filled with narratives, parables, tragedy, comedy, and many other literary conventions that we're used to seeing.  That these people were chosen before any of this happens lends the documentary a gravitas that would be missing if the same story was told via crafted fiction.

I was forced to compare myself to these people during every documentary.  Every viewer is quickly going to have their favorites, as well as the ones they really don't like.  My impressions of these people were mostly formed by the end 21 Up, and they were definitely entrenched by the end of 28 Up.  Several of the characters feel very familiar.  I couldn't help but wonder what my life would be like, held up in front of everybody like this.  I suppose, at its most basic, it would have been like a blend of a couple of other lives featured in the series.  And, like the people in the series, I think it would be slightly uncomfortable.  After all, there is a point in your life where you come to grips with the fact that you will never be able to be everything you wanted to be, and you have to settle for being who you are, and who you can be.  Still, in every life there is beauty and there is sadness.  This series, although sometimes uncomfortable, is really a celebration.  I'd highly recommend this anytime you want to do some critical introspection.

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Inception

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I was damn excited to see Inception.  Christopher Nolan has directed three of the best action movies of the past 10 years, including the genre-redefining The Dark Knight, so I was psyched to see what he had come up with this time.  Well, it was good, but it was missing the smart.  It's a good action movie, sure, but I was hoping for (and expecting) more.

What makes Christopher Nolan so talented is that he has the ability to make an action movie that manages to transcend its genre.  Bad action movies are just plain dull, while good action movies are typically riveting, but fail to say much of anything substantial.  In 2000, Nolan's Memento taught me that action movies and thinking man's movies were not mutually exclusive.  It was the first action movie I had ever seen that transcended simple revenge parable and proved that action movies could make you think about social issues.

It's not really fair to expect every one of Nolan's films to be home runs, but that's the expectation I had for Inception, fair or not.  It couldn't quite live up to it.  Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the movie.  But too much of the time, I found myself laughing along with the movie, as opposed to thinking along with it.  It isn't a bad feeling, but it wasn't the feeling I was hoping for.

In other news, what the heck is up with Leonardo Di Caprio?  Dude had some terrible plastic surgery.  His facial expression is fixed with the eyebrows permanently turned downward.  And he's super puffy.  I don't get why this guy keeps getting into movies.  I rarely think he does anything very good for a movie, and most of the time I just sit there thinking how dumb he looks.  He must have a great agent to keep getting the roles he does.

So, the final verdict?  If you're thinking of seeing the movie, go see it. It's a fun action movie. Just make sure you go into it with the right mindset. It's a good action movie, just not a thinking action movie.

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The Reader: More German than Germany

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Yeah, I'm going to get a lot of flak for only watching Nazi movies for this one, but I swear that, going in, I had no idea it had anything to do with Germany, much less that it was set entirely there.  It's a great movie, one that's right up my alley, with sharp interpersonal drama and a contemplative style.

What really struck me about the movie is how German it felt.  It reminded me a lot of films like The Lives of Others or The Comedian Harmonists.  Germans after World War II, have understandably been obsessed with the ideas of guilt and forgiveness.  They love to explore these topics, because they are absolutely central to the experience of being German in the last 60 years.  Where American films focus on the intensity of the fighting, like in Band of Brothers, or the hiding, like The Pianist, the Germans love to think about the social ramifications of the war.  It was very convenient for us to have the Nuremberg trials, chalk up fascism as something that was perpetrated by foreigners, and then move on with our post-war recovery.  The Germans had no such luxury, instead having to deal with a cultural history of unspeakable depravity.

That's why it's so surprising that a film like The Reader came out in America.  Sure, on the surface it's a love story, but at its heart, it is a story about forgiveness and responsibility.  I can't think of an American film that has broached this topic before.  The willingness to see the War as perpetrated by real people, by average citizens, is a new thing in American cinema.  Too often, the systemic corruption of the Nazi regime is reflected at the cost of the persons involved.  The average Nazi becomes faceless, an object of terror, corruption, and power.  As uncomfortable as it is for us to admit it, the Nazis were people too.  They had feelings, they had dreams, and they had emotions.  Not all of them were as mad as Hitler, as manipulative as Goebbels, and as power-hungry as Goering.  Many of them were average people who turned a blind eye to what was going on, or even particpated.  Acts of extreme evil are perpetrated not by faceless robots, but by real people.

Definitely recommend checking out this movie.  It will make you think about the social ramifications of World War II from the other side.  It's important that we understand this behavior, not as blind condemnation, but as a systemic rot that forced a whole culture into horrible acts of genocide.  Seeing the whole picture is the best way to keep it from happening again.  If we don't, we might chillingly find that the Nazis are not as foreign as they seem.

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Grown Ups: Anatomy of a Terrible Movie

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Grown Ups is the new Adam Sandler movie, which I had the misfortune of paying money to see in the theater.  I was looking for things to do in my hometown, and we decided we would catch a movie at the theater.  Nothing really looked great, but we wanted to get out of the house, so we went anyway. 

I'm sure that you've figured out where this is going.  I couldn't believe how bad this was.  It wasn't even so-bad-it's-good bad, it was just bad.  So bad we walked out of the theater.  I promise this isn't just me being pretentious.  I can get into a good stupid humor movie, like Walk Hard, The Hangover, or Billy Madison.  This movie failed at every aspect on which I judge a movie.  It wasn't just bad because it wasn't good, it was bad because it was actively bad.

It starts out with an incoherent script.  We stayed for a good hour of the movie, and we had yet to find the conflict.  Perhaps it's something about the men teaching their children not to be spoiled brats?  Perhaps it's about healing Adam Sandler's marraige?  Perhaps it's about making peace with their old rivals?  We couldn't tell. 

But the script is rarely the strong point of lowbrow-humor movies like this.  Often, good comics can save a bad script with some good improvisation.  And David Spade, Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Rob Schneider, and Kevin James are no slouches, so the movie should still be okay, right?  I wish.  No, this feels like everybody treated it like their third project, while they saved their A and B material for their own movies.  

Finally, the editing is probably the worst crime.  While the script and acting are subpar, the editing is what truly takes the movie to terrible places.  I don't usually pick on editing.  Hell, I don't usually even notice editing.  If you ask me about the editing in my favorite films, I'll give you a blank look and murmur something noncommittal.  If I notice the editing when I'm watching your movie, you are doing something wrong.  And I noticed the editing in this movie repeatedly, as it fumbled pace time and time again.  Tara boiled down the movie well when she said "Stupid setup about fart/bunion/spoiled children.  Chris Rock makes a joke.  David Spade makes a joke.  Rob Schneider makes a joke.  David Spade says 'Nice one!'  Adam Sandler makes a joke.  Move to next setup and repeat."  The problem is, about one in four of those jokes is funny.  And it's not usually the last one.  So, there's a funny joke, but you don't get a chance to laugh about it before the next lame joke is coming at you.  The editing just worked to the detriment of the movie.  That's tough to do.

Please don't see this movie.  Please don't convince any of these actors that they can get away with this.  Please go see something else.  You can even watch something by Disney if you want to.  This movie steals your money and your time and you will never get them back again.

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Gods and Monsters

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File this in movies that I'm glad somebody made me watch.  Gods and Monsters is a fictionalized account of the last days of James Whale, the director of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, among others.  The plot of the movie fictionalizes the twilight of Whale's life, and fictionalizes the account.  Whale, an openly gay male in Hollywood, finds himself attracted to his new gardener, an much younger ex-Marine named Clayton Boone. 

The movie tactfully and tastefully deals with anti-gay prejudice, without some of the heavy-handedness that can sometimes plague advocacy films.  Whale, played by Ian McKellen, is obviously infatuated with Boone (Brendan Fraser) from the first time he sees him, and engages in an elaborate courtship ritual.  Boone, of course, doesn't see it for quite some time, but has a very complex relationship of admiration with the old man.  Whale takes a devious joy in playing off of Boone's wariness, toeing the line of appropriateness and sometimes crossing it.  Boone is sometimes oblivious, sometimes wary, sometimes downright fearful.  In the end, it's a complex relationship that comes across as very real, and not fabricated at all.

The movie portrays a gay man as predator in this movie, but manages to humanize him so well, that it doesn't come across as a stereotype.  Whale is sometimes playful, sometimes lonely, sometimes senile, and sometimes manipulative.  In short, he fits what a rich, spoiled recluse could become.  The predatory nature of his behavior seems rooted in his surroundings.  And it shows that, really, sometimes, like a person of any orientation, a gay person can cross become abusive of power relationships.  But more importantly, it shows that it is not due to being gay, but due to normal human fallibility, and behavioral patterns outside of sexuality.  It portrays the most nuanced example of a gay man in a mainstream Hollywood movie that I can recall.  This is a gay character you can believe.

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Quick Hits: Monsoon Wedding, War and Peace

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It's sort of an accident that I watched Monsoon Wedding.  It was a VHS that somebody had left on Tara's workplace table about a year ago, and she had taken it, because after all, it's free.  Recently, she has been purging her stuff to free up space in our tiny apartment, and a VHS that neither of us had watched in a year of ownership was justifiably deemed to be going.  It gave me the kick I needed to actually watch it.  We discovered, to our amusement, that the copy was some kind of a review copy sponsored by Paramount, because the VHS seemed to have the worst habit of putting up a message about calling 1-800-NO-COPYS when the scene was most emotional.

I'm glad I did watch it.  It's the type of movie that tends to sit on my "I'd like to see that sometime" list, but that I never get around to actually watching.  I wasn't expecting anything great, but I was surprised to see that behind the movie's carefree veneer, there's some actual interesting commentary.  Not only is it an easy introduction to the spectacle of an Indian wedding, but it also shows the adaptation of Western culture into Indian culture.  Each character deals with it differently, and at least from my culturally ignorant point of view, it seems to be realistic.

Rating: 5/10

 

War and Peace is a 1956 movie based on the Tolstoy novel, starring Henry Ford and Audrey Hepburn.  I've been reading the novel (I'm about 1/3 of the way through) and thought that the movie would be a good compliment.  Well, I'm not a big fan or the book thusfar, and I'm not a big fan of the movie.  The production, while lavish for the battle scenes and the costuming, was sometimes slipshod.  There were a couple door slams where you could see the whole set shake.  The sound quality was terrible, although I think that may have been due to the DVD transfer.  Hepburn was so poorly picked up that I had to turn the subtitles on to understand her.

The film really is a derivative Gone with the Wind.  It's a love story, laid out in a staid, decadent society against a sweeping background of a war, and in the end, the guy and the girl don't get together.  This film does little to distinguish itself, and it is predictably fraught with 1950s overacting.  Really, the war scenes are quite good, probably because they are mostly non-verbal, and the costuming, sets, and outdoor cinemetography is given the space it needs.  Hell, this might be a great movie if it was released in the silent era.  As it is, though, it's just bad.

Rating 3/10

Quick Hits: Crumb and Heroes: Season 1

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This is the first of what I call Quick Hits entries.  These entries will feature smaller reviews of several movies or TV shows at a time.  The idea is to keep the movies from overwhelming the rest of the blog, and also to keep me from burning out on blogging by doing nothing but writing entries about movies.

Crumb is a documentary about Robert Crumb, a counterculture comic artist.  Dude is crazy.  I'm not super educated about his work other than his collaborations with Harvey Pekar in American Splendor.  But now I know that he's controversial, and disturbing in many ways.  His comics are frequently misogynistic, sometimes racist.  As his wife states in the movie, he draws his id, along with all the Freudian oddity that it entails.  This carries over to his personal life, where he is bitter, misogynistic, and isolated.  It was interesting watching this so soon after People vs. Larry Flynt.  I came away liking Flynt for being an honest sleazebag, and hating Crumb for the same reason.

Rating 5/10

I've also been watching the first season of Heroes.  I'm a little late to the bandwagon, as it just got cancelled this past May, but it's available for free on Netflix's instant watch service, so I've found myself watching it.  I'll try not to ruin this with any major spoilers, but there are a few minor ones ahead, so those of you hypersensitive to this may want to avert your eyes.

This may be the first time I've ever felt that a series got noticably weaker in its first season.  The show starts out compelling.  Hiro, particularly, is a very charming character.  The first several episodes move along at a brisk pace, and outline a relatively simple plot of "Save the cheerleader, save the world."  After that, I was prepared to declare it one of the best shows I've seen.  However, that plot resolves shortly before the midpoint of the season, and then the show spins off and develops up-the-ante syndrome.  The next villains are even more villainous and the twists become more outlandish.  The show starts to lose its charm.  I am hoping that the second season picks up where the first season began, or I will write-off this show as just another TV show with a good idea but simplistic and mediocre execution.

Rating: 7/10

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