Sunday, January 29, 2017

2016 Films I Saw

My number of 2016-movies seen in 2016 hits the same as last year -- 20. (Since I technically saw the last two on the list in 2017.) I only went to the theater 10 times this year though, compared to a whopping 17 times from 2015. Only seeing one movie twice helped a lot with that, but there also simply weren't many big releases that interested me enough, and to make up for it I wound up watching a whole bunch of (mainly) sub-par films at home. That resulted in my average rating of the year to be a 3.2 -- compared to 3.6 of 2015.

Still, right now I'm not feeling let down; 2016 gave me four 5-star movies, plus Star Wars which I adore in spite of not being able to swing giving it a perfect score. (And don't forget the TV series Stranger Things which may have been the highlight of the entire year!) I have two regrets: Arrival and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. I'm sure I'll see them soon enough. I did wait to post this until I'd seen La La Land though, because I got the feeling that I would want it to be included, and I think I made the right choice; it was a perfect close for the year.

So here's the 22 I've seen to date, with brief summaries of thoughts and star-ratings. Click the links to read my full reviews! And drop by the comments section to leave your thoughts on the films of 2016! Were you satisfied with the movie year, or no?

Key:
* = the ones I went to the theater to see.
** = watched it using Vidangel. I really enjoyed using that service this year, even to watch films that didn't need anything edited out!


10 Cloverfield Lane* - My first of the year, and my favorite of the year! This is not the sort of movie that needs dozens of viewings, but it was immaculate and powerful and stunning, and I love it. 5 stars!

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice* - I had no plans to see it in theaters but went with a group of friends. I'm glad I saw it on the big screen, because its visual feast distracted nicely from its narrative stupidity. 3 stars.

Captain America: Civil War*- My love/hate relationship with this film is still going strong. On one hand, Bucky and Steve and Spider-Man and those action sequences! On the other, irritating political plot lines and "because you gotta" reasoning. 4 Stars.

Deadpool** - Stripped bear to its basic plot by my liberal application of Vidangel, this one wasn't able to shock me into believing it was actually original. A perverted shadow of the wacky comic character. 1.5 Stars.

The Boy** - As far as cheap horror films go, not complete waste of time. Rupert Evans's face and the ridiculous twist ending made things memorable. 2 stars.

Midnight Special - A special film indeed. A sci-fi genre film that I wish more sci-fi genre films would aspire to be like. Beautiful, heartfelt, imaginative, and excellently acted. 5 stars.

Star Trek Beyond* - A cheaper but fun space caper for the crew of the Enterprise. Decent attention to character. I wouldn't mind them continuing this way, but the franchise won't be the same without Chekov. 4 stars. Second viewing brought it down a bit.

Hail, Caesar!** - A very unusual movie, entertaining in unique and unexpected ways. Not the best from the Coens, not a waste of time either. 3.5 stars, settled to a 3 by now.

Warcraft** - Even worse than I thought possible. I was bored and too confused to bother trying to review it. My brothers understood it well enough though. They didn't like it either. 1.5 stars.

The Magnificent Seven* - Modern blockbuster meets classic cowboy flick. There's really nothing special about this one, but it was a fun ride. 3.5 stars.

X-Men: Apocalypse** - Not at all apocalyptic. But the younger versions of characters were well cast. But Oscar Isaac was completely wasted. But it's decent if you're a fan. 3 stars.

ARQ - A Netflix original that takes the Groundhog Day gimmick and runs around with it in an enclosed sci-fi setting. Small, but worthy. 3 stars.

The Curse of Sleeping Beauty - A low-budget creeper that utilizes smart technique to be an effective supernatural thriller... until the ending messed everything up. 2.5 stars.

Retreat - Fran Kanz joins a cult on Netflix. Weird, creepy, and not exactly rewarding in the end. 2 stars.

Doctor Strange* - An extremely satisfying step outside the box for Marvel. Entertaining, smart, compelling, and appropriately psychedelic. 5 stars! ...but I still haven't seen it twice.

Love & Friendship - Jane Austen's unfinished story get the lazy treatment. The words are sharp; everything else is dull and dry and uninspired. 2.5 stars.

Independence Day: Resurgence** - Pathetic and utterly useless. I'm only glad I didn't pay ticket prices for it. 2 stars. (Because I did enjoy making fun of it.)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them* - A surprisingly enjoyable spinoff adventure. I already like this series more than Harry Potter, although it's not entirely without flaws. 3.5 stars.

Jason Bourne** - It's not terrible, but it is bad enough that I regret seeing it for the previous ending it ruined. No real reason for it to exist. 2.5 stars.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story* - The only movie I saw twice in theaters. Beautiful story, lovable characters, fun and moving. It's not quite perfect, but it lives up to its potential better than seems possible. 4.5 stars!

Zootopia - I didn't expect I'd love it, but I was surprised at how little I enjoyed it. On the surface it looked cute and good enough for a kid's movie, but I may or may not have just offended it by calling it "cute." 2.5 stars.

La La Land - I'm so glad I waited for this one. Superbly moving and wonderfully enjoyable, deeply thoughtful, gorgeous, creative, and everything it should be. 5 stars!

Monday, January 23, 2017

La La Land

Spoiler-free.

Oh my heart.

Mia, a struggling actress () and Sebastian, a cynical jazz pianist () help each other navigate their way through a turbulent sea of hopes and dreams in Los Angeles, California.

Some singing and dancing required.

Written and directed by the ever-stunning , this little film is most popularly notable as a classically-styled musical in a day when original musical films have all but been degraded into teenybopper TV movies on the Disney Channel. But La La Land is almost as far away from classics of the 50's as it is from Teen Beach Movie. "Almost," because it was obviously inspired to evoke that unattainable former glory from those oldies that are still so magical -- but that's not where it stops. It's also an indie film; it's a romance, and a comedy, and a drama; modern in many ways, old-fashioned in others; and it presents us with just as many moments that are achingly, heart-on-the-sleeve real as it does moments of whimsy and daydreaming.

Artistically, I have nothing to complain about. Artistically, I am having trouble finding the proper words of extolment. Chazelle is gifted with an incredible way of looking at the world and an equally incredible ability to make beautiful movies out of it all. His films are, I admit without shame, beyond me. He goes so deep and details so intricately that I watch his movies and feel as though I've only scratched the surface in understanding his full vision. In the case of this film, however far I was able to comprehend beneath the surface, floored me. It seemed to me, an open letter of encouragement and admiration to the Artist in the world. As an artist, and as a dreamer, it moved me deeply.

"Here's to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem..."

But, in relation to the movie, I am the barista. To the frustrated but working jazz pianists of the world, the film might mean something different, and to the successful movie star, something else entirely. Some people may simply find its whimsical charm entertaining. What the film is is what it means to Chazelle, but the beauty of it is that its language is practically universal, without having to simplify or cut corners in the storytelling. That is the common thing to do these days -- in order to relate and appeal to a wide crowd, make the story more shallow; more broad; more meaningless. La La Land does the opposite: it is so focused, and it digs so deep, unwavering and determined, that it touches upon a base desire that can resonate with anyone.

And then it's made up to look like this. My favorite thing about Chazelle's visual style is definitely his use of color, and here the color palette has been kicked up three or four notches from his last, Whiplash, but it all still feels just as intentional. I loved the very basic color scheme and the simplistic costumes made in it. Colorful lighting then adds another layer. The choreography for the dancing was lovely, and the fluid, heavily structured long-take style of the filming was as impressive as it was unique. As I said, an effort was made to recapture a magic thought to have died; it's alive and well in the dance scenes of this film. Most notably present in the sunset piece, and the planetarium.

I often find it hard to believe successful actors in roles of struggling artists... not so here. They were perfect for their roles.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling give it their all -- singing, dancing, playing the piano or acting their heart out, and were a big part of clinching the punch of the movie. Without their dedication to the performances, it probably would've been hard to accept all whimsy, and fantastic elements of the film. As it was, even the weird "randomly breaking out in song and dance" stuff didn't pull me out of the immersion one bit. It was also an unexpectedly neat touch to make Mia and Sebastian not be proficient singers. Besides adding realism, it enhanced the impact of their singing when they get into it beautifully. Gosling I have never liked or been more impressed with. "Impressive" doesn't quite cover it for Stone, though. She was more spell-binding, incredible, and heart-breaking than simply impressive. The audition scene was shredding -- in the most wonderful way possible. And she with Gosling, they oozed charm together, and achieved delightful comedy and realistic drama alike.

Leave it to Damien Chazelle to rearrange your brain and deftly shatter your heart into a thousand little pieces, yet leave you feeling nothing but unequivocal encouragement. Through his eyes, the promise of a bittersweet life seems like the best promise that can be made.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Sherlock - Series 4

Spoiler-free.

The dynamic duo, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, and the notorious duo Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are back for a fourth and possibly final season. After being an adoring and happy fan of the series for a few lovely years, I gave favorable reviews to the third season in 2014, but lost my obsession. Two more years brought actual disappointment with a gimmicky and unmemorable Christmas special. Now another year has passed, and, a fourth season. This I went into willing, but not determined, to enjoy. And these are my resulting impressions:

This is the season cast? Lestrade barely got a cameo and Molly was a puppet. I miss Lestrade...

The Six Thatchers: Not a great start. What I wanted more than anything was to see the boys get back to their regular crime-solving ways; which they did, and which was portrayed on screen via screen text and montage giving us glimpses of wacky and intriguing cases, but never giving us enough information to actually understand what happened, or how it was solved. Things looked up as Sherlock takes up investigating a body found in an exploded car that had no right being there. This is the stuff I love and for a few minutes I felt the thrill that the first two seasons had in excess. Then Sherlock is distracted by the Six Thatchers case, and that turns promptly into drama for the rest of the episode.

The episode ends up having a ton of reveals, but none that satisfy the curiosity we had. It's less, "Oh that makes sense now!" and more, "Oh they tricked me." It's cheap misdirection instead of taking great pains to set up a hard problem with a clever solution and include enough clues to solve it. The villain was revealed out of nowhere, and then the necessary was done. Because it was necessary. But everything felt wrong; the whole episode felt like it was plodding through the motions, yet if it had actually been going through the motions, rehashing the formula, I probably would've enjoyed it more.

Three guesses as to who's gotten in the way of Sherlock's crime-solving. Hint: It's not the baby.

The Lying Detective: I had more hope for this episode, thinking that after the last one, the Case of the Week formula would be picked back up. Happily, I was right, mostly. This episode featured Toby Jones as a chilling villain who comes up against a washed-up Sherlock, who throws himself recklessly into the case. This one hit all the checkpoints; observations and deductions, Sherlock being an amusing sociopath, (on that note I loved Cumberbatch's performance in this ep, and the wide range of Sherlock's complexities displayed) and reveals that, if not as cleverly projected as the best have been, were also not insultingly impossible.

Actually, this episode had a truly great reveal at its end. Disguises so rarely work on me in shows and films, but this one I bought from the start and never questioned. It was all out in the open, undeniably possible to notice, yet I never did. Well done indeed. This episode even managed to pack a heftier emotional punch than the previous, simply because the drama and emotions were contained to their proper place as an enhancer of the plot instead of its driving force. It was used to increase urgency and reward in the end, and was welcome.

The Lying Detective was written by Moffat. The first ep was writ by Gatiss and the last was a combined effort. By that evidence it is clear that this isn't all Moffat's fault.

The Final Problem: Technically, I would say this episode is better than the first of the season, but personally it offended me so much more. It ignored established aspects of characters for the sake of The Mighty Moffat Twist; it established facts only to turn around and throw them in our faces later, and it put its characters through so much far-fetched mental torture in completely strange and unexplained ways and locations, that it all felt like fanfiction with a genre twist of demented sci-fi horror.

At this point it's not inaccurate to call it fanfiction, actually. Yes, Moffat and Gatiss created this show, but it was based on an existing character and existing stories. They were adapting; great, clever adapting too, with all those little twists and nods so well-calculated and fit into the plot. But the Sherlock stories have now veered away from the original Sherlock Holmes into this ignorantly pompous fabricated soap opera. It's their right as show-runners and writers, but this is not what I'm here for. I'm here for Sherlock Holmes; deductions, crime-solving, stunning intellect; fun! This episode was not fun. It was manipulative, brazen and haughty, smugly feeding its starved audience spam that's been grilled up like a steak, and basking in the contrived glory of how smart it is.

This show is in danger of having created some seriously sad irony with the episode title choice here. It could be the Last Mistake the show makes.

Maybe this will be the end of Sherlock. They end the season without the typical cliffhanger to torture fans with for the next few years (in case it's not renewed I guess) and scraped together some kind of open-ended resolution, but loose ends and plot holes abound. So little was actually wrapped up. What a mess. I feel as though I've been insulted for my loyalty. I was never unconditionally loyal to the show, only to the aspects of it that I loved and thought were good, but I have been more forgiving. Now the infractions are intentional and impossible to ignore, and I'm done picking through grimy rubble to enjoy what I can. There's barely anything left to be loyal to. The spell is broken. Goodnight, Sherlock Holmes.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Jason Bourne

Major Spoilers.

You know his name... but they still felt the need to make it the title.

Bourne's story was pretty well wrapped up last we saw him, so this movie has to make up new information to draw him back into the fight again. It comes from Nicky () who was just minding her own business hacking the CIA when she came across an interesting (new!) fact: Bourne's father Richard Webb was involved in Treadstone. This is important to Jason because of... reasons, so he starts chasing down leads and baddies again. Meanwhile, upstarty and serious CIA agent Heather Lee () and the CIA Director () catch wind of Bourne and can't resist giving chase -- in spite of the long track record of disaster for all others who have tried.

You know what this movie's problem is? Bourne Legacy. That is literally its problem. This whole movie seems to exist as some kind of incarnate indignation over Legacy's existence. It's been nine years since Ultimatum; a satisfying ending to an excellent trilogy. Now, back for no reason, Matt Damon's Bourne is older and significantly less interesting than he used to be. The movie's plot is basic and a thinly veiled excuse to bring the character back, and nothing brought to the movie brings anything worthwhile, or even new or interesting, to the table.

In some instances, quite the opposite.

In fact, they spent most of their time taking away things the franchise has given us so far. Maybe I was alone with this (I doubt it) but I personally liked the open ending of Ultimatum; an implication the there was more adventure to be had, with a happy ending somewhere nearby. I liked to imagine that once thing quieted down Jason and Nicky got together and managed to live a little. But no, this movie says. Nicky gets killed so that we can have more, bigger car chases and blurry fist fights. And no, we can't rest leaving the plot as a smart spy conspiracy; we have to throw in from left field some weird stuff about Jason's dad... to make it personal I guess? Jase, Shark. Shark, Jase.

But as offensive as all that ridiculousness is, the biggest offense here is simply that the movie just doesn't bother to be as good as any of Jason's other outings. Personally, I found that each sequel to be slightly worse, but at least they all fit together as a cohesive unit; this one tries to attach itself to the trilogy, while having more in common with Jeremy Renner's spin-off -- except without the freshness of a new face and story line. I enjoy Legacy immensely, but I do consider it to be on a lower quality level than the other Bourne movies. This one is on that step down with its general quality and being, and can't even manage to be fun and entertaining to make up for it.

I appreciate what you've done in the past, but if this is what you're gonna give us now, I'd rather someone else have a shot.

Jason Bourne has always been a great character, and Matt Damon seems incapable of failing to pull the weight of any movie, but he sure does come close here. He gets very few lines (he's never been chatty, but this is like BvS Superman-level-bad), and even when he does speak words they have nothing to do with his character at all, and are delivered so weirdly flat... I just don't get it. Why did they jump the shark to bring a personal issue to this movie if they weren't going to make Jason sympathetic, and develop the character in new ways? Yeah, he's still good at and driving, and hiding in a crowd, and punching people, and looking good with blood on his face, but it turns out that those are not things that resonate with an audience on a personal level.

I should also mention that Vikander I've always enjoyed in movies so far, but she does nothing to help out this film either. Her accent kept slipping through, her character was way too deadpan, and this is hardly her fault, but the twist of her being the bad guy in the end was poorly timed. It should have been earlier or later. Tommy Lee Jones was decent for what he had to work with. I was very impressed by his death scene, actually. On board with the wooden line delivery was Stiles. That was the only upside of her being in the film so briefly. is the obligatory cool and mysterious asset who's sicced on Bourne, and Rogue One's makes an appearance too.

*cue disappointed and resigned sigh*

Cinematography and action is the film's biggest pro. There's still a shaky-cam during a lot of the action -- sometimes it felt like the camera was being punched along with people's faces -- but that's something we've come to expect, and it wasn't too hard to follow. Otherwise there were a few memorable shots. And the climatic chase and subsequent fight scene was a well-done and entertaining piece of action. What was in the rest of movie up til then could hardly be considered action at all, let alone entertaining action.

This is a little sad. I kinda just feel sorry for everyone... mainly the characters who got dragged back out of a nice retirement for basically nothing -- just to join the ranks of "Franchises With Too Many Sequels" and films that suffer slow deaths via half-hearted sorta-reboots. Leaving well enough alone has never been in Bourne's wheelhouse, but one might have hoped that it would be for filmmakers who really care about his story and making good movies. This movie is perhaps not nearly as terrible as it could have been, but it's a long way from justifying its unnecessary and uninspired return.

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Man in the High Castle - Season 2

 Spoiler-free.

This show's ability to make me care and cheer for the most unexpected characters continues to amaze.

(read my review of Season 1 here)

Based on the Philip K. Dick story, The Man in the High Castle features an alternate reality where the Axis Powers won WWII. The entire world is now controlled by Nazis and the Japanese Empire, with neutral zones separating their territories. Season two has a more concise plot, when The Man in the High Castle meets with our heroine Juliana () setting her on a journey that he hopes will lead this reality to the best possible outcome that he has seen take place in the mysterious films.

The story seems to take many rabbit trails from that beginning until it finally comes around to the end ten episodes later, but by then all those trails are tied together wonderfully. I did feel like Joe () was wasting time, though. He had an important part to play, but was put in place too soon, and then since he's a main character we still had to spend time with him, as he puttered around aimlessly. His father () was an excellent new character.

This season felt more purposeful than the first, and it was nice that I already knew the characters.

Then there's Frank () now with a major death wish who slowly gets involved in the Resistance while hanging out with his lovable and well-meaning friend Ed () and the hilariously stuck-up antiques dealer (). When Frank is on screen he feels like the main character, but with this season I cared more about what he was doing than what he was feeling.

Chief Inspector Kido () was almost the exact opposite. I found myself so involved in understanding what he was thinking and feeling that I often forgot to pay attention to what he was actually doing. His changes of countenance based on whether his company was above or beneath him was fascinating to witness; relating to every person so differently, from a fatherly/brotherly relationship with his Sergeant () to actual creepy villainy to the people he interrogates. I didn't get much new out of Trade Minister Tagomi () this time, but that is only because the first season established him so well; his part of the story was ever-important and intriguing.

Pretty much the best.

My favorite continues to be Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith (), and I loved what this season did with him and his wife () and family. From beginning to end it was nothing but incredible. I can hardly believe that I could sympathize so strongly with someone who is a Nazi, but that's the magic of this show. Even though there are actual Nazis involved, characters aren't defined by their affiliations -- outwardly or inwardly. Smith wears the uniform, but we know him and know it doesn't fit him. However his teenage son () is completely steeped in the Nazi culture, and yet we still care for him too.

Juliana is the piece that connects all these people, and it was so neat to see how she brings everything together. I particularly enjoyed watching her when she's living in the American Reich, visiting with the Smiths and learning about the Nazi ways. It was all such an epic combination of friendly and proper and utopian, and deeply, deeply disturbing.

Also pretty much the best.

The show is visually beautiful, the filming style reflecting and enhancing the smooth, sharply detailed tone. I love that even the evil was presented visually with no bias -- the magnificence of the Greater Nazi Reich shown in all its glory -- the awe of it effectively making it even more harrowing. Rich with complex characters, and a twisting, mind-boggling sci-fi plot, The Man in the High Castle continues to defy convention for unusually exceptional results.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Upcoming Movie Roundup - January

Happy New Year everyone! In December I went to see Rogue One (check out my review here) and that was it, in spite of the number of interesting movies. Turns out December was even more busy than I expected it to be what with Christmas... and my sister getting married!

I saw Rogue One again yesterday, and its enjoy-ability factor at least doubled for the second viewing! So now La La Land is at the top of my must-see list, and it looks like I'll have plenty of time for it in January, because there is not even one new movie coming out that I'm even remotely interested in seeing. January isn't known for being a month full of quality movies, but come on, you could at least get my hopes up with an interesting premise or good trailer and then dash them later...

So instead I'm going to talk about some TV shows premiering this month! Something I usually forget to do, what with all the movies distracting me, and there is a handful of them in Jan.

Are you interested in any of the movies coming out in January? Is there any I've missed? And are any of these shows on your radar? Let me know in the comments!


Sherlock - Series 4
Well the first episode of the new season aired last night, and I have to say I wasn't terribly impressed. Don't shoot me! I may try to review it and pinpoint why I'm not liking it as much as the early seasons, but that doesn't change that I will be watching the next three episodes like clockwork every Sunday night. It is still Sherlock, after all! It's airing on PBS here in the US, and streaming on their website.




Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events
Back in the day I remember enjoying the film version with Jim Carrey enough that it led me to read several of the books too, which were, unsurprisingly, better than the movie. Now Netflix has begun a series, that, as best as I can tell, will be adapting the entire series (of 13 books) with two episodes per book. Season one will be 8 episodes, available on Jan 13th. This is, in my opinion, the ideal way to adapt this story to the screen, and I'm very excited to see it! (Even though I'm now a little older than the target demographic...) Neil Patrick Harris stars as Count Olaf, and Patrick Warburton narrates as Lemony Snicket. Hilarity and misfortune will undoubtedly follow!




Emerald City
Probably the most re-imagined story next to Cinderella, and now NBC is taking a turn with an Oz story, with a 10-episode series airing starting Jan 6th. This one reminds me a lot of Tin Man which I absolutely loved (and last I checked is still available on Netflix...) except this one looks grittier and more steampunk and hopefully will have its own neat spin on the well-known story! Vincent D'Onofrio is the only face I recognize, as the Wizard. I don't know if it'll turn out to be a good telling or not, but I definitely think it's worth finding out!




Taboo
An 8-episode series from Ridley Scott and Tom Hardy coming to FX. The show also stars Tom Hardy, is set in the 1800's, and looks extremely dark, gritty, and serious. I won't be surprised if it winds up being too inappropriate for me to bother with anyway, but as it is, in spite of Hardy, it's not super-appealing to me in the first place. Still, it looks like a high-quality show. Begins airing Jan 10th.




Sneaky Pete
Another that I'm not eager to watch, but it looks like a neat and probably fun show, with it's main character being a con man. This one is coming to Amazon Prime of Jan 16th. It stars Giovanni Ribisi, and Bryan Cranston as one of those villains that you just know was a blast to play. I'll definitely bee keeping an eye on reviews and ratings for this one.