Tuesday, December 22, 2015

1943: Mrs. Miniver

If you read my write up of Rebecca, you may recall that I was not looking forward to 1941-1943. Rebecca ended up being a pleasant surprise. How Green Was My Valley ended up being what I expected. So Mrs. Miniver was the tie-breaker.

I saw a brief summary stating that it was about the beginning of World War II in England. And for a movie to win the award well over a year before D-Day, perhaps it would give an interesting perspective on the war. Was there a chance that I could be wrong again? Is there a chance that Mrs. Miniver could win me over?

Nope. 

NEXT WEEK: 1944 - Casablanca

Oscar Project Rankings:

  1. It Happened One Night (1935)
  2. All Quiet on the Western Front (1931)
  3. Rebecca (1941)
  4. Mutiny on the Bounty (1936)
  5. You Can't Take It With You (1939) 
  6. Gone With the Wind (1940)
  7. The Life of Emile Zola (1938)
  8. Grand Hotel (1933)
  9. Cimarron (1932)
  10. The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
  11. Broadway Melody (1930)
  12. How Green Was My Valley (1942)
  13. Wings (1929)
  14. Mrs. Miniver (1943)
  15. Cavalcade (1934)

Sunday, December 13, 2015

1942: How Green Was My Valley

I'm not sure how much I have to say about How Green Was My Valley. It's the story of a family. The family has a few different stories. Any one of those stories could have been fleshed out into interesting stories. Instead, we smaller, less interesting stories that are all tied together.

In summary, it's not my kind of movie.

So this is one of those years in which you have to take a look at the competition. The 1942 awards are viewed much like the 1999 awards. The wrong movie won. Looking back, Saving Private Ryan absolutely should have won the award instead of Shakespeare in Love. Looking back, Citizen Kane absolutely should have won the award instead of How Green Was My Valley.

I guess I'll throw a quick shout out to my favorite part of the movie. When young Roddy McDowell goes to school, he needs a boxer to teach him to fight. They call on Dai Bando to teach him. It's probably just my favorite part because this week is leading up to The Force Awakens. Dai Bando sounds like an old Jedi Master name.

Unlike the pleasant surprise of Rebecca last week, I doubt I'll return to this valley.

NEXT WEEK: 1943 - Mrs. Miniver

Oscar Project Rankings:

  1. It Happened One Night (1935)
  2. All Quiet on the Western Front (1931)
  3. Rebecca (1941)
  4. Mutiny on the Bounty (1936)
  5. You Can't Take It With You (1939) 
  6. Gone With the Wind (1940)
  7. The Life of Emile Zola (1938)
  8. Grand Hotel (1933)
  9. Cimarron (1932)
  10. The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
  11. Broadway Melody (1930)
  12. How Green Was My Valley (1942)
  13. Wings (1929)
  14. Cavalcade (1934)

Sunday, December 6, 2015

1941: Rebecca

"Are you fond of dancing?"
"I love it, but I'm not very good at it."
"Do you Rhumba?"
"I've never tried."
"You must teach me."

That particular exchange is part of a very nicely written dinner conversation that I rather enjoyed in Rebecca. It was the first thing that I really liked about the movie. Unfortunately, it doesn't happen until almost 45 minutes into the movie. 

Rebecca is the first in a stretch of three movies that I really wasn't looking forward to when I started the project. I noticed that Gone With the Wind was right before them, and they looked like movies that would be in a similar to that. For me, at least GWTW has its history tie in. But all three felt very Wuthering Heights-like to me - classics, but definitely not meant for me.

I must admit that I knew very little other than the title. It's about a woman named Rebecca. OK.  I also had seen the poster, which is shown above. Apparently this Rebecca woman is in love with Sir Laurence Olivier. So... boring?

Speaking of Olivier, I also wasn't too familiar with him. I have certainly heard of him. If I met him, I would know to ask him about a camera. I also knew he was well known for his legendary Shakespearean acting. In fact, I'll see his Hamlet as it was the 1949 Oscar winner. The only think I had actually seen of him was his role as Zeus in Clash of the Titans. I learned from him to find and fulfill my destiny. But it's a relatively small role.

There was one thing, however, that stood out about Rebecca. With overwhelming evidence pointing me toward not enjoying the movie, there was one hint that I could be wrong. There is another name on that poster that I recognize. The director. Alfred Hitchcock. That has to be worth something, right?

Right at the beginning of the movie, we get a could hints of Hitchcock. We walk through a spooky gate toward a spooky, dilapidated mansion. And in the next scene, Olivier is looking down a cliff in a shot that has an immediate sense of suspense. The shot also visually foreshadows Vertigo.

But then the movie slowed down. It felt mostly as simple as a whirlwind romance in the French Riviera can. Great for those involved, but not so exciting to watch. Since Gone with the Wind, was the previous movie on the list, I had just skimmed my write up that. It was bringing up memories of that. I'm not sure if I made it clear or not in that writeup, , but GWTW is SO DAMNED LONG. I was worried that this was going to feel like a repeat.

I did get to learn early on that the woman in the poster isn't Rebecca. Rebecca is the dead wife of Olivier's Maxim de Winter. So I guess that's actually her in the lower left. The woman played by Joan Fontaine is the new Mrs. de Winter. And I call her that because that's the only name given to her in the movie. This decision is clearly to emphasize that the movie is about the new Mrs. de Winter trying to live up to former and deceased Mrs. de Winter. Other than the exchange that I started with, I didn't love too much about that particular idea. Luckily for me, that's only what the first half of the movie is about.

In my write up of Grand Hotel, I noted that I wanted to avoid spoilers. It seems silly that I needed to do so for a movie that is 83 years old. With Rebecca now 75 years old, I wonder if I need to do the same. If so, if you're planning to watch it yourself, you should probably skip the rest of it. Just note that I really, really liked the rest of the movie, and it made everything about the first half work. Even though I'm not going to spoil exactly what happens, just know the basic idea of the second half ahead of time could make it less interesting.

That was your warning. Rebecca is actually a thriller. What really happened to Rebecca? How did she really die? Who was responsible? Who knew? What did they know? What did they think they knew? The costume ball scene looks like it's going to take you even further in the direction you thought you were going in. It looks like the comparison and competition between the new and old Mrs. de Winter will come to a head. It instead leads us to the heart of the mystery. You discover that the suspense has been building the whole time, but not to what you thought it would. 

This is truly laying the foundation for later Hitchcock films. I already mentioned Vertigo, and you will also get a feel for Norman Bates in Psycho whenever the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, is on the screen. And that goes double for her final scene. Watching Rebecca didn't just remind me to watch more Oscar winning movies. It reminded me to watch more Hitchcock.

If you want to appreciate the beauty of black and white movies, look at the interior scenes. The exterior scenes often look like bad green screen, as the backgrounds are not often lit as well as they could. But the interiors are great. I watched this in a rip from a DVD. I would like to watch the remastered Blu Ray version for my next viewing. I think more sharpness and clarity than what I already saw would be beautiful.

And yes, I'll watch it again. I would like to rewatch the first half with the second half in mind. I want to be able to pay more attention to the dialogue. I want to look more carefully at the early scenes to see what hints of the second half I can find. I have a feeling that many of them will be in the acting of Laurence Olivier. So if you kept reading this far and spoiled a bit of the movie for yourself, don't feel too bad.

NEXT WEEK: 1942 - How Green Was My Valley

Oscar Project Rankings:

  1. It Happened One Night (1935)
  2. All Quiet on the Western Front (1931)
  3. Rebecca (1941)
  4. Mutiny on the Bounty (1936)
  5. You Can't Take It With You (1939) 
  6. Gone With the Wind (1940)
  7. The Life of Emile Zola (1938)
  8. Grand Hotel (1933)
  9. Cimarron (1932)
  10. The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
  11. Broadway Melody (1930)
  12. Wings (1929)
  13. Cavalcade (1934)

Saturday, June 20, 2015

2015 Summer USA Road Trip Spectacular

The "rough" outline
Tomorrow morning, I'm on my way. The car is packed with everything I won't need tonight. It should take me about 15 minutes to get ready in the morning, then I'm out of here.

The main idea of the trip is to get as far east as I can as quickly as I can. I'm going to hit a couple places in Texas that I haven't been to before, enjoy New Orleans once again, then Universal in Orlando. Next I'll head down to Miami for the week long cruise, my vacation from the vacation.

After that, I'll make my way up the east coast, returning to Orlando for that other theme park. Continuing north, I'll hit a bunch of locations that would have been great to see while I was still teaching the eighth grade curriculum. I'll hit a few Civil War sites, some new and some repeat spots. 

I'll head back west in Pennsylvania, then take a detour up into Michigan to visit family and over Lake Michigan before starting the sprint back home on I-80. The whole thing is 41 or 42 days, depending on whether I stop the last night or barrel through. Streets and Trips has the mileage at just over 9,000 miles. I imagine that with detours and side trip that I'll go over 10,000, or at least get really close to it.I'll be in 23 states (though I probably won't actually step foot in neither Mississippi nor South Carolina), Washington, D.C., and four ports in the Caribbean. I'll get to four baseball parks, three new and one old favorite.

The biggest problem I'll face with the recent surgery is on the first day. I'm driving almost 850 miles in one shot. That was planned before my body tried to kill me. And really, it would be tough even if I were healthy. Sitting for long periods is still a test. And to put this as nicely as I can, my bladder requires more immediate attention than normal (though it's been much better the past week). I'm expecting to have to stop more than I normally would, and I'll certainly be ready to stop for the night.
A few days later, I'll test my walking. I'm probably walking at about 80 percent speed right now, but not for long distances. For me right now, a long distance is my car to the back of Safeway. New Orleans is a walking city, so I'm a bit worried about that. A few days later I'll be at Universal Studios in Orlando. That's going to be a lot of walking, and it will also be roller coasters and rides. I have no idea what that will be like.

But other than all that, I'm excited for the trip. I'm going to a lot of really cool places, some new, some old. I hope to post something on here every few days, but not a daily update. Most importantly, I won't have WiFi access everywhere I go. Motel 6 is great and cheap, but they still charge for WiFi. I might play with the blogger app and text-to-speech to post a few things while I drive.

So I'll get some pictures up here, some descriptions and maybe stories, and some dash-cam video from any places that look cool. I hope you enjoy!

Monday, June 8, 2015

2015 Summer Contest Spectacular

Way back in 2004, I took a road trip across the US of A and back again. I held a contest. People guessed a few different parts of the trip. So for my upcoming 2015 road trip, I will hold the simplified, updated version. Welcome to the 2015 Summer Contest Spectacular.

The rules are simple. Take a look at the map (click to embiggen). This is a basic, simplified version of the full plan. It does not include day trips. It does not include detours. It does not include going to dinner, to and from hotels, or any other driving.

So here's the question: What will the total mileage be on my car from driveway to driveway? Your guess should, then, include detours, day trips, and everything else. I will use click tare the mileage int the driveway and go from there.

Closest guess received a souvenir from my trip. All guesses must be in a comment on this blog (I'll post those I have received elsewhere on here before I depart. Deadline for entries - Friday, June 19, noon. I leave Sunday the 21st and return July 31ish. Good luck!


Monday, February 16, 2015

Edmund Randolph

Number 1 - Whiplash

If you've heard me tell this story, just skip to the end.

We begin in the fall of 1994 in San Diego, CA. I was in my first semester at San Diego State University as a double Music and Social Science major. Here's some quick background as to why I was a double major.

Once I had finished the transfer process from DVC and been accepted into the music program at SDSU, I learned something about the program that hadn't been advertised. The program was designed to take four years. For everyone. Even if you transferred from somewhere else, you were going to spend four years working on the degree.

The did this by combining most music classes together into one simple system of eight semester long classes that had to be taken sequentially. So you couldn't stack up theory or history or genre classes to take simultaneously. Pardon the pun, bu you could in theory test out of part of the sequence. But in reality, that never happened.

So as I was looking toward the next four years in the program, I had to consider that I had already taken all of my lower division general ed courses at DVC. My schedule for those four years would be light. It was recommended that I use that time to take another degree. More importantly that filling the time, I would stand a much better chance of finding a teaching job that wasn't music.

But still, I was looking at another four years of college. I had planned and worked hard at DVC to get out of there in exactly two years. Why? Because I wanted college to be a total of four, the way it's "supposed" to be done. So I was facing another four years. I guess I accepted it, but that was my first big problem with the music degree.

I was never a really great musician. I excelled much more at learning a variety of instruments quickly instead of specializing in one. Still, I was good enough, and the music program required you to specialize in one. Today, I can still play pretty well. I can sightread if the key isn't too odd. But I'm never going to be a professional trombone player.

That was never my goal. I wanted to teach. In the two years I had spent working with students, both high school and middle school, I had liked that much more than I even liked playing. I liked conducting the band much more than I liked playing. But in college, they wanted you to be really good. That was my second real problem with the music degree (though in this case I openly admit and accept that it's more of a problem that the music degree had with me).

So now we enter the actual turn of events which will also finally bring us closer to something that resembles talking about a movie.

At the end of each semester, each student went through juries. In your jury, you played a prepared piece before a panel of judges, made up of music department faculty. It's supposed to be a really big deal. Even though each class has its own final exam, this is the one that's even bigger than all of those combined. So of course, I prepared. I asked questions of what it would be like of at least a half a dozen people, including two faculty members. That last sentence will become important.

Leading up to it, I also went through an entire debacle involving my piano accompanist for the piece, but that's a different story.

So the day of the juries. I was as nervous as any other student. I knew the piece pretty well, but it was tough. This thing even jumped back and forth between bass and tenor clef (no, I don't mean treble). Trombone players barely read bass clef, right?

The room we were in was a large classroom. For the other teachers, it's probably about twice as big as your average middle school/high school classroom. The piano and music stand are at one end, where I would play. The three judges were all the way at the other end sitting at tables. They spent most of their time looking down and writing. They rarely ever looked up, and I think I will indicate the only times they did. There were lights on me. The rest of the room was dark. 

So I made it through the piece. There were a couple rough spots where I didn't nail some runs as well as I could have. There were a couple weak notes. It wasn't the greatest thing the jury had ever heard. But I knew I had passed the jury as soon as I finished.

They all wrote a few notes for a few seconds. They put their heads together and made some quick comments. Then one of them spoke up.

"Ok. The scales." They all looked at me.

I looked back. "Excuse me?"

"Go ahead with the scales."

I didn't know there would be scales.

They looked at me in a way that told me that they understood that I didn't know there would be scales.

"I didn't know there would be scales."

You remember the part above when I asked several people, including faculty members? Yeah. None of them told me about the scales.

Starting with an audible, forced sigh, one of them explained to me that in each round of juries, I would be required to play through a set of scales. The first semester was the twelve major scales. The rest would be different variations of minors and whatever. They, of course, concluded explaining it to me a little something like this:

"This is something you should have known. As a student in this college, it's your responsibility to find out things like this. We wish you had taken the time to find out what was going to happen."

Awesome.

They continued to stare at me waiting for a response.

While I wish I had answered with, "I did. I asked several people, including two faculty members, and nobody told me about the scales."  I'm sure I answered with, "OK."

Luckily, playing through the twelve major scales was no problem. I knew them well then. I'm 99% confident that I could still play through them quickly with 95% accuracy. Give me five minutes and I can raise that to 100% accuracy.

I played through them.

After I was finished, one of them said, "That was fine, but you don't need to rush through them. Take your time and hit each note exactly where it should be on the slide."

This is where I'm sure I answered with, "OK." I wish I had answered with, "Is there anything else everyone neglected to tell me about? Any more hoops to jump through?"

But that was it. They told me it was finished and that I passed. I would receive comments through my instructor later.

Later on outside, I remember talking with a few people. Some of them were some of the people I had previously asked about the juries. "Oh yeah," they said. "It's just major scales," they said. 

While that moment sucked, it's not the final moment that I knew my music major career was over at SDSU. Over the next few months, there were several events that made it clear that this program wasn't for me. One in particular was the week that I busted my ass practicing more than ever before only to be met with the "It's time you start thinking about actually practicing" speech. That one sucked, but it wasn't it.

So several things continued to mount up. But let's see if you can spot the moment when it became clear to me.

Jump ahead to the end of my second semester. Time for juries again. Same three judges. They would evaluate me on what I played and progress.

The piece I played was tough once again, but I had it down. There was a section that I remember well in six-eight with some rather fast triple tonging.  I knew that would be trouble. I'm pretty sure it wasn't perfect, but it was fine.

More than that, of course, I was ready for my scales. Natural minors. I knew them, literally, backwards and forwards. When I finished playing the piece, I announced, "And now my scales."

They nodded in my direction. I began to play through my scales at a deliberate pace. As I completed my Bb and started on the Eb, one of them put up his hand. I stopped.

Please take a moment to remember that you're reading this as a story I'm telling. You know there's a reason I'm telling you this. So you probably know what's coming. But I didn't know at the time that I was a character. I wasn't the writer of this story. If I had been, I would have gotten rid of this line because it sounds too ridiculous. But here it is.

"Can you play through faster?"

You knew that was coming. I didn't.

He even game me a "move along" twirl with his fingers.

In case you didn't recognize it, that was the moment.

I started playing through even faster that I had played the majors five months earlier. He nodded.I finished in record time.

"Thank you." That was their only comment. I left.

I can't recall the specific timeframe of the next few months, but by the beginning of the next semester, I was a full time Social Science major with a music minor. And now I teach history.

So what does that have to do with Whiplash? We were both music students in college. That's about it. The main character actually has talent. That's different.

But watching it brought back a lot of what I just wrote about. That's the main reason it was pushed to the top of my list.

But without that, I could still easily see it being in the top three. It's a great movie. J.K. Simmons is absolutely perfect and should win the Best Supporting Actor award this year.

I mentioned when writing about my number seven film about the reactions of audiences and how they can elevate the movie. There were scenes in which none of us in the audience made a sound. There was no talking. There was no popcorn crunching. There was barely any breathing. I noticed it because once those scenes moved on, there was popcorn crunching again.

There are a couple ridiculous things that happen, especially a car crash scene. But I ignored it. To me, it was no more ridiculous than being told to play faster.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

William Bradford

Number 2 - Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Partway down in this writeup, I'm going to suggest that if you haven't seen the movie that you stop reading there. It's not plot spoilers but movie style spoilers. It's a movie best discovered one scene, one frame at a time. You have been warned.

This was the best movie of the year. It deserves to win the Oscar for all the right reasons. Yeah, I have one I liked a bit more, but Birdman was the best.

It's a movie about acting and its incredibly well acted. All of the acting Oscar noms were well earned. I've heard the Ed Norton, who plays an asshole, is just playing himself. If that's the case, he does incredibly well. Emma Stone has always seemed to be talented, and her role here just proves it. And Michael Keaton would be a shoo in for the win most years. I think it's a great group of actors this year for so many different reasons, so it could go to any of the five.

But Keaton has the whole package here. He has monologues that feel real. He works with the other actors is ways that make all of them look good. He has monologues that are scenes with himself... He does it all both on screen and on stage.

Beyond that, there are many fantastic things to love about Birdman. This is the point in which if you haven't seen it yet, stop here. Go watch it. If you haven't watched it, I hope that's because you just haven't been to the theater in the past few months and not because you chose to watch Ouiji or The Boy Next Door or other such dreck. Stop supporting turds and.

I'm now assuming you've seen the movie. The scene transitions are absolutely brilliant. I always love a long take when its done well. Think Henry Hill going into the Copacabana in Goodfellas or the hallway fight scene from Oldboy. A recent excellent example that comes to mind is from True Detective.

After watching Birdman, it's such a "duh" realization that each act in a play is one long take. So the most obvious way to portray a play in a movie is to use long takes. Duh.

There's a moment a few minutes in to the first scene in which I started to ask myself if there had been any edits yet or if it was a long take. Michael Keaton was also acting this a boss in the scene, as he did through the whole movie. And then the location changed. It because obvious that they weren't just doing a single scene as a long take. That's when I really started to love the movie. It was in that moment of discovery that it all clicked into place. If you didn't see the movie but decided to read on, I just ruined that for you. Next time pay attention, asshole.

That brings me to two points before I finish. First, the soundtrack is fantastic. Yep, it's a drummer. Drumming. That's pretty much it. I absolutely loved how he was worked into the long takes. I absolutely remember him showing up at least once, but I'm vaguely thinking he showed up a couple more times. I might be making that up, and I think it would be even more special if it had been just once. For the feel of the movie, the percussion soundtrack was perfect.

Second, how isn't this movie nominated for Best Film Editing? I can't think of a another movie EVER that I've walked out of and thought, "That movie deserves the Oscar for editing." This is the only one ever. And it probably will be. Ridiculous.

I shouldn't have to tell you to go see it because you already saw it if you're reading this. You're probably still an asshole.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Charles Lee

Number 3 - Guardians of the Galaxy

This was on my radar since they first announced it a Comic-Con in 2012. The main reason? Rocket Raccoon. I remember the character from his four-issue mini series very soon after I started reading comics. What could make more of an impression on an eleven year old than a bad-ass, gun-toting raccoon?

As Lancey Kisses has mentioned, and it's in his blog post about Guardians of the Galaxy, a lot of how the general public would perceive the whole movie rested on Rocket. He couldn't be silly. He couldn't be Howard the Duck or Jar Jar Binks. He's funny, but as a smart-ass instead of a clown.

I knew about Rocket, but I wasn't as familiar with the other characters. My personal trepidation was with Bautista as Drax. When I think wrestler in a comic book movie, the Bane of Batman and Robin immediately comes to mind. That's not an image anyone should have in their minds. But as it turns out, he's perfect, and he delivers some of the best lines of the movie.

In addition to introducing the characters of the Guardians, they need to introduce the entire universe that exists outside of the other Marvel movies. There are plenty of cool new worlds and characters out there who could easily become part of the Avengers movies or would work well on their own. There are also plenty of other Guardians to look forward to in the sequels. I think Vance Astro/Major Victory would look pretty spectacular on the screen and also create the perfect visual tie-in to the Avengers.

But after all of that, the movie won me over in the first five minutes. I'm listening to Redbone's Come and Get Your Love as I write this paragraph. The opening scene will always be zapped into my head when I hear that song. Chris Pratt is pretty damned good throughout the movie, but his dancing to this song is a magic moment in the movie. He spins, he stomps, he plays in puddles, he uses an alien as a microphone, and it's all a brilliant introduction to a character that I look forward to seeing in the sequels and probably another movie or two.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Levi Lincoln, Sr.

Number 4 - The Imitation Game

The poster to the left features a quote at the top that summarizes it for me. "Benedict Cumberbatch is outstanding." Yeah. He is. And he's different from so many other roles he's played. This isn't Sherlock Holmes with a stutter. This isn't nice Khan. This isn't Smaug as a gay genius. Cumberbatch becomes Alan Turing in this movie.

There were some pretty amazing performances this year, and I look forward to the Best Actor noms coming out later this week. Even through Steve Carell, Jake Gyllenhaal, Eddie Redmayne, and David Oyelowo were all amazing (and those should be your five nominations), I think this is the better movie.

If I have one complaint about The Imitation Game for me it's that I would have liked to have seen more of the Enigma cracking. I wanted a crack at the puzzle. Most of that work is done on unseen papers and other gadgets. But I might be too nerdy for the general audiences.

There are a lot of war movies, obviously. But I don't think there have been quite enough war movies that don't really feature much of the fighting. This movie does have some great scenes showing the Blitz, but those are more plot points. While a lot of these movies feature some really brave and memorable men and women and special effects fighting, this movie shows who really won the war.

But just like modern day vets, Turing wasn't treated like much of a hero. That leads to the heart wrenching ending of the movie. This guy who helped win World War II and pretty much invented the computer got a pretty crappy deal. There have been several attempts over the past few years to place Turing in his rightful place in history, especially now that we know about his success in breaking Enigma. I think The Imitation Game is another huge step in putting his name up where it should be in the world's lexicon.

John Breckinridge

Number 5 - Life Itself

There's something a bit meta about writing about a movie about a guy who wrote about movies. Life Itself received a really high Rotten Tomatoes score. It's sitting at 97%, with 100% of the top critics giving it a fresh rating. I had to wonder before seeing it if the reviews were an homage to the movie or to Roger Ebert himself. It's both.

I learned quite a bit about the life of Roger Evert from Life Itself that I didn't know previously. It does a fine job of laying it all out, the good and the bad, and from an early age, too.

It's the scenes from then end of his life that will fascinate the most, however. Ebert and his wife were extremely open and candid toward the filmmakers as he sat in the hospital with a big part of his face missing, to be blunt. And the movie doesn't hold back from it either. So often we try to hide away the end of people's lives. We want to remember them a certain way, and the time soon before death in a well lived life isn't the image we want to remember. But it's such an important part of him and what we'll take from his life.

Perhaps its because he continued to write up until the end. Even if he didn't look like "The Fat One" from At the Movies anymore, his wit was still there. In many years that I wrote this list, I would read Ebert's reviews before writing about it myself. If I didn't like a movie that he did, I knew I would at least understand it better. I don't get that with any critics today.

And, for those who don't know, he wrote about quite a bit more than movies in his blog. He's the writer, not NdGT or BNtheSG, who gave me a clearer understanding of evolution. I miss his writing quite a bit, and this movie helped me to miss him as well.

As great as the rest of the movie is, the star scenes in this movie have to be the classic Siskel and Ebert clips. Life Itself discusses their love/hate relationship as it shows some of their absolute best, and often cut, clips. Watch this for those alone.

Caesar A. Rodney

Number 6 - Begin Again

I'm forced to compare this movie in every way to Once.

If you've seen Once, you've seen this movie. Actually, you've seen a slightly better version of Begin Again. This time, the struggling musician trying to create her first album is, as the word her implied, a woman played by Kiera Knightley. And as the gender roles are reversed, she is aided by Mark Ruffalo, in this case a record label exec.

The characters aren't quite as charming. The music isn't quite as fresh. The relationship between the leads isn't quite as dynamic. Though the writer and director, John Carney, is the same for both movies, he doesn't hit the same grand slam that he hit with Once.

But it doesn't have to be. I still like the characters. I really love the way the opening scene is shown from both points of view. It's a fresh take on an introduction. And the music, even though a lot of it has a bit of a generic pop feel to it, starts to grow on you.

I've listened to the soundtrack several times since seeing this back in July. I must compare it with Once once again, as that soundtrack is a permanent part of any playlist I make. But still, a few of the songs have really grown on me. The main song, Lost Stars, I really like. I prefer the Kiera Knightley version to the Adam Levine version, but I like them both. Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home is a bit poppy, but it really worked in the context of the movie.

Yeah, it isn't Once. It isn't a grand slam. But it's a solid standup triple with the bases loaded. I liked it quite a bit.  You can listen to the soundtrack on the youtube clip below.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

William Pinkney

Number 7 - Captain America: The Winter Soldier

As far as the comic book movie genre is concerned, this is the movie that will be seen as the turning point. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is more of a spy thriller than a super hero movie. For quite a bit of it, you could replace Cap with, say, James Bond or Jack Ryan. Plenty of the stunts are unique to Cap, and the overall plot is from the comics and other movies, so it wouldn't be. But one who exclusively likes spy thrillers would also enjoy it. And it was successful.

I guess within the Marvel movie universe, the Thor movies could be seen as movies about Norse mythology. The Hulk films could be seen as monster movies. But those descriptions are stretches. This movie is a  spy thriller first, comic book second.

That, I think, allowed for the success of Guardians of the Galaxy, which is much more of a sci-fi than a superhero movie. This gives me great hope that many of the upcoming announced Marvel movies, such as Dr. Strange and Black Panther, can be of another genre than just super hero movies.

One point I make when writing this blog is that I have to see the movies in the theater. Even though I have a big enough TV, nice enough sound, and a comfortable enough place to sit at home, there's no substitute for watching a movie in the theaters. I was reminded of this a couple days ago when I read a movie review from a fairly minor newspaper. This person rated the movies on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being "Must watch in the big screen." And most of his reviews which received five stars seemed to focus on movies that technologically should be seen on a big screen, such as Gravity.

But that takes away such a key part of watching a movie in the theater. The audience. This is something that's pretty obvious for a comedy. A better crowd laughing in all the right places makes the experience that much better. But it also works in other ways. For example, the really annoying ladies in the audience of Big Eyes, who actually booed and hissed (literally - they hissed) at the screen at points, made me dislike the movie even more.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, has a point in which there's a major reveal. The trailers and the media I saw did a pretty good job of avoiding this spoiler, so I don't think anyone who hadn't read the comic books would have seen it coming. That's also why I'm dancing around it now, just in case you haven't seen it. In the theater where I saw it, at the moment of the reveal, there were several audible GASPS from the audience. I like being in the middle of that. It really adds to the movie going experience. I'm going to talk a little more about that with my number one movie, I think.


Richard Rush

Number 8 - The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson has created an unmistakable style to his films. I remember first seeing the trailer for The Grand Budapest Hotel. It was obvious within the first few seconds that this was his next movie. You both see it on the screen and feel it in the way the actors speak.

There are quite a few things to admire about this movie, but I think I most appreciate the story within the story... within the story. You have three levels of story going on, but it doesn't feel like a forced storytelling technique. It just feels like... Wes Anderson.

Some of Anderson's earlier movies are too quirky. With his last couple movies, he's hit just the right level of quirkiness. While I appreciated movies like The Darjeeling Limited, I didn't enjoy them as much as I've liked The Grand Budapest Hotel and Moonrise Kingdom. I think he's also opened the door for plenty of new viewers.

This was released in March. I saw it in April. It's January, and even though it's out on home video, it's still showing in a local theater. I think that certainly speaks to this movie.




Monday, January 5, 2015

William Wirt

Number 9 - Wild

I might be have Wild as high as it is due to low expectations. The trailer and name gave me the idea that this was the female version of Into the Wild. In addition, Reese Witherspoon has never been impressive as an actor. She was good in Walk the Line, but that's still a relatively light role. I was wrong on both accounts.

The similarities between Wild and Into the Wild end at the basic idea of leaving civilization. A big part of this movie is exploring Cheryl Strayed's reason for walking the trail. She comes to the trail from a really dark place, and Witherspoon is really great in showing that side. This is absolutely her best work.

A danger in a movie like this is that there will be too many big nature shots or shots of Witherspoon just walking. I remember when the Lord of the Rings movies were announced and in finding out that they were three hours long. I pictured two and a half hours of just walking. I think the makers of Wild did a nice job of avoiding that in a couple ways. The first is in using the flashbacks to tell her story. Whenever she just walks, we go with her mind to visit her past.

The second is in the use of the soundtrack. Strayed just walked the Pacific Crest Trail without headphones. She didn't have music in her ears. But she was always hearing music. We know this because she hums a few different songs. When the movies starts, the songs are barely recognizable. They start to come together as the movie progresses until you hear the songs played. There was some satisfaction is "guessing" what those tunes were. But their coming into focus goes right along with the clarity in her head.

If you've read A Walk in the Woods, you have a great companion for Wild. And if you haven't read it, check it out. The two walkers go for completely different reasons, walk different trails, have different experiences, and reach different conclusions. But I still flashed back to that book while watching Wild. Both kind of make you want to leave it all behind and just start walking. OK, not enough for me to actually do it...

John M. Berrien

Number 10 - Interstellar

I geeked out at the beginning of Interstellar in a way that most normal people probably wouldn't. It basically starts with these seemingly odd clips of people talking about all the dust and dirt. I immediately recognized the person giving the comment. No, this isn't some famous person that people would recognize walking around the streets. I probably wouldn't, either. But I know those clips and people from The Dust Bowl by Ken Burns really well.

Having just finished another Winter Break, I look back on the past two weeks and think about what I accomplished. Eh, not a whole lot. What could I have done? What could I have created? How could I have helped the world? All right, so maybe I don't feel quite that way, but there's still that idea of lost time.

That's a huge part of Interstellar. One of the scenes involves a huge loss of time. It isn't for the characters themselves. It's even worse. It's the world around them. As they play with time travel, time travels past these characters faster than they experience in. MUCH faster. And that's a weird concept to me that just crushes the inside of my skull when I think about it. I only partially mean wrapping my head around the whole theory of relativity. It's the emotional sweeping away of time that can never be returned.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

2014 Movies - Runners Up!

These received the Top Ten mark when I saw them, but it was a good year for movies. I wish that "ten" had fourteen numbers in it.

Number 14 - The Lego Movie

Everything is Awesome about this movie. There are two different layers of the Lego Movie that make it work. The first is the overall plot idea involving the "real" Lego bricks. In case you haven't seen it, I won't give away too much. If someone wanted to make a cool short movie about playing with Lego bricks, that would have worked. It would have been sweet.

Someone was smart. They realized that it wouldn't have worked as a full length film. In addition, it could have been about so many other kinds of toy, including  the Tinker Toy Movie or just the Toy Model Movie.

So then you get all of the fun with the Lego toys themselves. How about they throw in Batman and the rest of the JLA? What about Star Wars figures? In reality, Disney COULD make an Avengers/Star Wars movie. But remember that the JLA/Star Wars movie came out first. Or in reality, a JLA/Star Wars/Shaquille O'Neil movie.

The voice work is great. Chris Pratt, will return to this list, gives a non-generic, fun voice to the lead Lego. I have my fingers crossed that he's be on the 2015 list with Jurassic Parks and Rec. Will Arnett is one of the best on screen Batmans. You have Morgan Freeman, Nick Offerman, Liam Neeson, Channing Tatum, and Johah Hill. And if Lando Calrissian isn't in the upcoming Star Wars movies, at least Billy Dee Williams got to play him again.

And one more thing is the great social commentary that comes from the Everything is Awesome song about conformity vs. individuality. But that's too deep. Lego!

Number 13 - Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

These movies have no right to be as good as they are. The Charlton Heston movie is fun but cheesy. The Marky Mark version removed the cheese but took the fun with it.  These two movies have nailed it.

A big reason has to be the level of expertise that creators have hit with CGI. We're able to make Caesar the focus of the movie. He's the hero. He's the one we want to sympathize with. That never would have worked with a latex mask.

That gets expanded in Dawn. We also have a legitimate villain, Koba. We see the badguyness in his eyes. He's the one we want to root against.

Yes, there are human good guys and bad guys in here. But we're almost at the point that they aren't as necessary to the story. The third movie has been announced for 2016. I hope to see the apes continue to push even more humans off of the screen. I want them to develop even more interesting ape characters.

Number 12 - Gone Girl

There are plenty of moments where Gone Girl teeters on the ridiculous. It may even go over a few times, but the actors are really, really good.

Ben Affleck carries this movie in what isn't an easy role. If there weren't so many other great performances this year, I would whisper Oscar nom.He's got the chops. Can he out Batman Will Arnett? Maybe.

Here's the other newsflash. David Fincher is good. Damn good. Remove that ridiculous crapfest Benjamin Buttons from his IMDB page and you have a really special career. I keep hoping they'll bring him back for another Girl Who movie.

And hey - Rosamund Pike and Neil Patrick Harris are also pretty good, though a lot of their stuff is the stuff that gets close to ridiculous.

So has anyone out there read the book? Is it worth reading?

Number 11 - X-Men: Days of Future Past

Comic book movies. Here's your warning: there will be more in the top ten.

These movies started moving in the right direction with First Class. Days of Future Past brings one of the most classic comic book stories to the screen, and keeps moving the right way. Just like heading to the 60s was a great movie in Class, the 70s hit the spot in Past.

A little comic book lesson for y'all. Back in the day when Stan Lee was writing a comic, each story was usually self contained in a single comic. There were usually bigger storylines that continued through the books, but you didn't need it to understand that single comic. This story, though, took TWO full issues to tell. Yeah. That's how important it was. (No, it wasn't super rare. The first Galactus story from the Fantastic Four was three issues, and the Kree-Skrull War from The Avengers was nine issues).

I mention this because many movies are made from books which are several hundred pages long. This story was 43 pages long, and a lot of that is art. So yeah, they need to add stuff. They need to change things. Personally, I would have been OK with Kitty Pride keeping the starring role instead of Woverine. It would have been a bigger risk for the movie, but the studios never would have approved.

I'm very curious about the next planned movie, Apocalypse. In the comic books, that's when the X-Men started getting too many different books and too many different characters. It became more and more confusing to understand what was going on. It actually got even worse for the next 20 years, with a few exceptions. So I don't know the story nearly as well.

On a brief tangent, as I've started rereading Marvel books over the past six months, X-Men comics and Avengers comics have flipped around. I'm really enjoying the different X-Men books while the Avengers books are getting more and more convoluted. Every story is a time travel story with way too many characters. Comic book lesson continued, today comic book stories take five or six issues to tell. It's rare to get a single issue story. This is so they can sell trade paperbacks with those stories bound together. The Avengers books are trying to create stories that are way too big with consequences that are way too big, and I think its to justify the story being five or six issues long. Except these stories are continuing until ten, twenty issues. And they aren't good. When the Marvel movies get to these Avengers stories, that's when the movies will decline.

People are taking about the direction Sony is taking with Spider-Man, and mostly want them to give him back to Marvel. The upcoming Fantastic Four movie looks like a disaster. I hope it's some elaborate troll and the movies are actually nothing like what has been described. So people want the FF to revert back to  Marvel.

But the current direction of the X-Men movies? I dig it. Yeah, I want Fox and Disney to play nice so that characters can cross over. Marvel and DC have worked together in the past, sometimes with really cool results. I hope these studios can move past ego and instead view the huge bags of money that we are offering them to get along. I have hope that money might actually start to influence a few people in Hollywood.

NEXT: Number TEN!



Thursday, January 1, 2015

2014 Movies - A Bunch of Good Movies!

I really enjoyed these movies, but I didn't mark them down as a top ten film when I watched them. In a different year, many of them could have made it.

I watched Philomena and Captain Phillips after they were nominated for Best Picture. I briefly wrote about both here, and I don't have too much to add other than both are still in my memory after a year. I think they both hold up well, and I still recommend watching either one. The Philomena case is still an interesting one that people should be aware of. The action scenes from the end of Captain Phillips were quite intense.

Muppets Most Wanted was a surprise for me. I didn't expect to like it very much, and if it had been released later in the year I probably wouldn't have seen it. Much like the previous Muppets movie, it comes down to the music. I like it. This is the opening song from the movie, "We're Making a Sequel." Take a quick listen. The opening of the song sound like typical Muppets fare. In that clip, it starts at 13 seconds. But then at 40 seconds, when you reach the chorus, it feels like Flight of the Conchords.I loved that mesh from the first movie, and it works again here. That particular song has a good line from Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, who points out that this is actually the seventh sequel.

I also enjoyed "I'll Get You What You Want", which is pure Flight of the Conchords (Bret McKenzie even sings it). None of the songs are as catchy as "Life's a Happy Song," but it's all fun.

22 Jump Street was another great surprise. People talk about sequels being bad. Some movies even open with a song describing just that. But the real culprit in the bad sequel department is comedies. They don't often measure up to the original. I wrote this about 21 Jump Street: "21 Jump Street was funny enough. I don't think I ever saw the TV show. I considered putting this on the overrated list, because some fools have gone a little too apeshit for this. But I liked it enough to leave it off of there." The sequel is better than the original. It's does some of the stuff from the first movie, but funnier. The new stuff is funnier. The pre-closing credits sequel based montage is funny. If I'm ever in the conversation about Best Comedy Sequel, I'll have no hesitation throwing 22 Jump Street into the mix. It deserves it.

Boyhood was a good movie. It was an interesting experiment that mostly worked. I hope that it gives other writers and producers ideas for future movies. That should be its legacy.

I feel like its going to be an Oscar favorite. I won't be actively rooting against it, but I don't feel like it really deserves it for Best Picture (for Patricia Arquette or Ethan Hawke? Yes.). It's too long. Not too much of interest really happens. And the kid doesn't grow up to be the greatest actor.

I certainly didn't dislike Boyhood. I liked it quite a bit. But there are plenty of others singing its praises out there. It's good, but not amazing.

St. Vincent is another movie that's bring blown up a bit too high. I think there are a lot of people who went to see this thinking that they're witnessing the brilliance of tiny, independent movies. Eh... not really.

But I enjoyed it. Bill Murray is great. Of course. When isn't he? And this role was made for him. Look at the poster to the right. There's nothing that feels out of place for Murray, and that pretty much shows you his character.

The relationship between Vincent and the kid is pretty good, even if the ending is a bit hokey.

Big Hero 6 did a few good things with its marketing. They let you know the feel and mode of the movie without giving away much of what happens. It wasn't like the bait and switch from Frozen last year (though I approved!) because you still knew what kind of movie you were getting into.

I haven't read any of the comics this is based on, but apparently not too many other people have either. I understand that the changes were significant so that this has become its own entity. I wonder if they can still try to make the rest of the MCU fit into any possible sequels. Can an animated Iron Man show up for Big Hero 6 2?  Big Hero 7? I don't see why not.

And oh yeah - it's a lot of fun!

Speaking of movies that totally change a character from the comics, Nightcrawler was also very good. This movie is all Jake Gyllenhaal. He's creepy, and his weight loss for the film exaggerates that even more. His eyes are practically popping out of his face, something that would be necessary to have his night vision.

This movie really takes some chances. It goes places that you don't want it to go with a character you don't really want to go with. Its biggest strength is just that. You don't root for this guy. You don't want to be with this guy. But you stick with him to see exactly what he's going to do next, a lot like watching that grisly news story that guys like him captured for you. Bamf!

Finally, The Theory of Everthing showcases a performance that should win Eddie Redmayne an Oscar nomination, and very possibly the win. He redeemed himself from his Muppet-like Les Mis singing a few years back. And for that reason, I enjoyed watching this movie.

But much like a couple movies above, I feel like people have been over-singing the praises of this movie. First of all, something seemed off with me near the beginning of the movie that pulled me out of the film. Seeing that it was a biopic, I was confused. Did they change the story?

You see, Stephen and Jane meet at a party. He enters and they see each other across the room. They start talking, and things progress from there. Not such a big deal at first, but you also have to remember this. Hawking was a nerd. A huge nerd. And he acted like it in social situations. Jane was a cute girl. Now rethink the scene with those ideas. That just doesn't happen for huge nerds. There HAD to be something more to the story. When I got home, I investigated to discover that they had actually been introduced because she was a friend of his sister. Ah - that makes sense. And that paragraph may also explain why I personally felt like it wouldn't happen that way.

My second issue with the movie was that it was good. But it never wanted to be great. Here is a review that states what I was feeling in such a better way. I pretty much agree with every word Lemire writes, though I think I liked it better than she.

Again, remember that I included The Theory of Everything on this list instead of my disappointed list. It's good and well worth watching. Redmayne's performance was almost good enough to land it on my top list. And if you went to see some crappy movie like Ouiji or Saving Christmas instead of this movie, you're worse than Hitler.

Next: The top 14 begins!