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Captain Phillips

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Action movies can be smart?  What is this?  Where's my mindless explosions and skyscrapers getting run into by supervillains or giant robots?

Captain Phillips is an incredibly welcome relief from the comic book and sci-fi blockbusters that have dominated action movies over the last decade or so.  It's a smart movie, thrilling in a manner reminiscent of those Tom Clancy movies of the 1990's, only better.  This movie happens to be about Somali pirates taking over a freighter as it goes around the horn of Africa.

The movie is culturally nuanced, something which most action movies won't touch with a ten-foot pole.  The captain of the pirate skiff that takes over the freighter is clearly supposed to be the equivalent of Tom Hanks.  They're both middle managers caught between higher-ups and the crew, they're both have to deal with unruly behavior from that crew, and they are both wholly of the system that produced them.  In addtion, even though the pirates don't speak our language, we come to empathize with them.  They're just trying to make a living in an unfair system, one in which their best outlet is piracy.  They aren't shiftless neer-do-wells, they're just people.

One of the best action movies I've seen in a long time.

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Somebody made a movie about Jackie Robinson.  It's got Harrison Ford playing Branch Rickey.  It's okay.

This reminds me of that somewhat inexplicable burst of baseball movies in the 1990s, typified by movies like A League of Their Own, The Babe, and Sandlot.  Like those movies, 42 hearkens back to the golden age of baseball, and uses baseball as a lens to midcentury America.  It's sweet, verging on saccharine, and has a significant amount of "The Way We Were" about it.  It's also clearly supposed to be palatable for both adults and kids, something that, in this movie at least, takes away some of the effectiveness.

There are better civil rights movies, and better baseball movies.  Jackie Robinson was great, but there's better, more nuanced ways to learn his story.  Give this one a miss.

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30 for 30: Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau

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It might be hard to believe here in the middle of the continent, but surfing is a sport too, and is the focus of one of ESPN's 30 for 30 series, The Legend of Eddie Aikau.

Aikau was a surfer from a young age.  He was a native Hawaiian, and he traced his cultural lineage directly to the native peoples who invented surfing, long before it got popularized into what we know it as now in the 50s and 60s.  Aikau is now a mythic individual, a real person who is more than his biography, and is now a folk hero and a symbol.  He was the prototypical Hawaiian -- not only was he a surfer, but he lived the prototypical poor, aloof, and water-based life of the displaced native Hawaiian.  American power-hungry domineering grated on native Hawaiians, with good reason.  Native Hawaiians still smarted from profit-driven American businessmen taking over the sovereignty of the Hawaiians in a coup, as well as the statehood subsequently granted to Hawaii.  In this filter, it doesn't take much to find insult in a bunch of white-as-snow Californians appropriating the sport of surfing with no regard to native Hawaiians.  As the film documents, for many of the first big tournaments that took place once surfing hit the big-time, not a single native Hawaiian was even invited to compete.  It is no wonder that Aikau, the first native Hawaiian to compete in those large tournaments, has come to be a stand-in for Hawaiian culture.

The irony here is that white culture is well familiar with the hero sticking up for culture and principle against long odds.  It's not hard to find it in the myths we tell ourselves, whether it be Washington at the Potomac or Jim Bowie at the Alamo.  For us to find ourselves looking at the story from the other side is an unsettling transmogrification.

The coda to the Aikau story is his senseless death.  The movie does its best to play it off as yet more myth, but it really is a stupid, stupid risk.  Aikau, continuing his role as the public figure stand-in for native Hawaii, was taking off with the Hōkūleʻa, a vessel built in the Polynesian style that was built to provide proof-of-concept that it was possible to make long-distance sea voyages using methods known to ancient Polynesians, to refute historians that short-sightedly claimed that no native peoples could have possibly made the voyage.  The Hōkūleʻa got caught in a storm on the first day out to sea, and it capsized and quickly became useless.  The boat was outside of the normal shipping lanes and flight paths, and so rescue was less likely.  So, Aikau decided to try to swim 12-15 miles to shore.  Aikau, already fatigued from lack of water and sun exposure, died in the attempt, while the rest of the crew was rescued when they were spotted by a passing plane.  Setting aside the high-risk trip, the decision to send Aikau alone to swim to Hawaii was a foolish one.  It did, however, give Aikau a hero's death, and solidified his larger-than-life symbolism.

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I don't care how many times Jack Black gets typecast, I still have a real weakness for him.  Throw in a good director (Richard Linklater) and a couple of oddball actors (Shirley Maclaine and Matthew McConaughey) and you got yourself a movie that's worth watching.

This is a black comedy in the truest sense of the word.  Beloved local figure, Bernie, just so happens to fall into a relationship with an elderly widow.  This widow is truly horrid, and has managed to alienate just about all of her surviving family, as well as most of the town.  Nobody likes her, until Bernie comes along, and he is the only person who is nice to her.  Somehow, he gets past the initial hurts that she inflicts on everybody to keep them away, and soon she has hired him as a personal assistant.  Whether the relationship goes beyond personal assistant is left for the viewer to guess at.  Eventually, the widow is entirely dependent on Bernie, and Bernie is simulatenously dependent on her for his livelihood.  He doesn't have any space from her in his daily life, and eventually, he just up and shoots her.  Hilarious mockumentary-except-that-it's-actually-based-on-a-true-story ensues.

The acting in this is top notch.  Few of the characters in this movie are simple, and Black, particularly, carries his role off with a goofy earnestness that perfectly fits the real life character.  Matthew McConaughey as the small-town Texas District Attorney is also amazing.

This film, despite its star power, flew under the radar.  It's definitely worth looking for.

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30 for 30: Book of Manning

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Ever wanted to see a whole lot of footage of Peyton Manning playing football in his backyard when he was three?  Well, then have I got the movie for you.

I find Peyton (and to a lesser degree, his brother Eli) to be a fascinating figure.  His image is pretty well understood as a workaholic with dubious skills outside of football, something he's cultivated with his commercial image that runs the gamut from self-aware to incredibly boring.  He's managed to play the publicity game amazingly well.  It helps, of course, to be arguably the best quarterback in history.

Of course, Peyton is well-known as a workaholic, an above-and-beyond exception in an industry that's filled with workaholics.  As near as anybody can tell, Peyton's first, second, and third thoughts at all times all seem to be football.

The film doesn't do anything to change that impression, but it does reinforce it convincingly.  It throws in a lot of stuff about the other Mannings as well, to show why these guys just happen to be great quarterbacks -- the answer (at least for the younger generation) seems to be that they really were, from the beginning, exposed to football and approached it as their first love.  Archie may have been the father figure they all wanted to emulate, but he's no overbearing father figure like those from The Marinovich Project.

Including my soft spot for the subject matter, this is pretty good.  Not complicated, but it really doesn't need to be.

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This movie has gotten a lot of press.  It deserves it.  It's a visual masterpiece that is intensely engrossing.  There's not much plot or dialogue -- the movie lives on its intensely beautiful special effects and visuals.  It feels like you're actually in space, in a way that hasn't been done since Apollo 13.  This film is a great example of near-future science fiction that works.  It's believable, it looks great, and it's immersive.  Go see it, preferably in 3D while it's still in theaters.  It's an intelligent film that just also happens to be one of the most visually captivating films of the decade.

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Breaking Bad Season 4

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Season 4 is the last season of Breaking Bad I got to watch before going on hiatus to wait for the final part of season 5 to make it to Netflix.  It continues to trace its route as a Shakespearean tragedy.  Walter's just gonna keep being Walter.

This season continues Breaking Bad's run as one of the best shows on TV.  So much has been written about this, I don't have much to add, but it's excellent TV.  Watch it.

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John Adams

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Of course I had to watch this.  It's history, innit?  Adams is a fascinating historical character.  I know very little about him aside from what I learned from this movie, but the film seems to be quite historically accurate, with good costuming and special care taken for the script.  It shows that this is based on a David McCullough book.  Adams is shown in all his hardheaded puritanism, including his strained relationship with his family, his political rigidity and his absolute conviction.  

Paul Giamatti turns in a pretty good performance, with a downright excellent performance by Laura Linney.  Not something to rush out and see, but quite good, particularly if you are interested in the era.

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In a World

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You know what I love about the Lagoon Theater?  I can up and decide to see a movie, look what's playing, and pick one.  Usually, like in this case, I'm pleased with the result.  There's self-parody all over this situation. Your local neighborhood hipster (that's me) goes to see an indie movie at an arthouse theater and discover a gem that nobody knows about. That's one way to read the situation.  And I'm sure some of the charm was in the low expectations I had for the movie, so that anything better than average was a pleasant surprise.  But...

This is a pretty good movie.  Lake Bell, a comedian and actress who has been in a bunch of movies I haven't seen, wrote, directed, and stars in this movie.  Her character, Carol Solomon, has gone into the family industry, which in true indie movie quirkiness, is voice acting.  Her father is the biggest name in the voice acting industry, and casts a shadow that Carol has never really managed to break out of.  Then, big news hits the hollywood echo chamber: somebody is bringing back the phrase "In a world..."  The phrase was popularized in movie trailers by Don LaFontaine, who used it so effectively and so much that it is almost a parody of itself, and nobody has brought it back since his death.  (This part is actually true in the real world as well.)  And, through some quirks, there ends up being a competition between father and daughter for the role.

The movie runs on a talented cast, really tight writing, and an oh-so-refreshingly female perspective.  This isn't a feminism movie in that it's parroting The Second Sex at the audience, but rather that it has a fairly even balance of male and female characters, and the female characters are given just as much screentime and lines and action as the male characters.  It's a perfect example that showcases women as real people doing real things.  It's a step on evening the movie world out, so that hopefully all movies will be like this, and this won't have to be identified as a feminist film in 20 years.  Hey, we can hope, right?

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Jiro Dreams of Sushi

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The first thing that stands out about this movement is about how beautifully shot it is.  There's tons of absolutely delicious looking food, with extreme slow-mo closeups of the preparation of said food.  It's a feast for the eyes, and made me want sushi really badly, even though I'm pretty ambivalent about it normally.

The second thing that stands out about this is just how ridiculously devoted our title character is to his craft.  He lives his job.  He doesn't seem to do anything else, and his entire day constitutes preparing one meal for the very wealthy.  It's admirable, and he has the results to show for it -- many people in the film call it the best sushi in the world, without an ounce of hyperbole.

But mostly, it struck me as a colossal waste of resources.  Sure, I suppose for Jiro himself there's a triumph -- he truly has mastered the art of making sushi in a way that nobody has ever done.  But in the end... so what?  That's a pretty good piece of sushi.  Then one of his patrons eats it, and it's gone.  On to the next piece of sushi.  And really, it's all in the service of some extremely bougie status symbol.  I like good food, and I like treating myself now and then, but there's an exclusivity and a lack of perspective about this restaurant that truly gives me the willies.

I yearn for a bit more editorial voice from this film.  It feels a little bit too admiring.

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