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What I’ve Been Doing 19 Sept 2011 [FB/IB/F/BT/GO]
Sep 19th, 2011 by Dan

Gears of War 3 - "Ashes to Ashes" trailer screenshots

"Shit"

It may look like I’m insulting Gears, but I’m really not. That’s legitimately the closest those guys come to eloquence most games. They’re fantastic games, but their stories are fundamentally idiotic.

Movies

Thor – I’m pretty sure that complaining about blatant product placement in a movie was last interesting five years ago, but I found the Southwest Airlines advertising in Thor to be too much. Did not like. The movie itself was cool, although Natalie Portman’s character had nothing to do but be a pretty damsel. Don’t get me wrong, she’s good at that, but I wouldn’t have minded her being more active (like Peggy in Captain America). Her portrayal of Jane was true to Thor: The Mighty Avenger, aside from her career, so at least there’s that. I hope she comes back for The Avengers (and that The Avengers is good).

Adaptation – Charlie Kaufman (of Being John Malkovich fame) really kind of cheats here in a movie screenplay that we’ve all just thought about handing in, but that is ultimately kind of lazy on a spectacular level. On the other hand, it’s not too much unlike the New Yorker articles it’s quasi-about where the writer is as much a part of the story as the story (in that Gonzo/New Journalism kind of way). Adaptation is postmodern and deconstructionalist and it works best when it’s not pointing out how obvious it is that Kaufman’s doing this (see the obnoxious callback to McKee and voiceover in its final voiceover), but it’s a clever movie that’s more interesting that it ever should be. If you’re really bored this can entertain you, but this movie about writing a movie strains interest. Perhaps if it was written a little better?

TV

Weeds – About two weeks too late I called that this season is all about Silas and Nancy and it became truly obvious now. It’s funny how the Botwin lines have been drawn since the Lars revelation last season. I can see trouble starting in a lot of directions for Nancy, so I wonder if the payoff this year will be worth it, because I’m not seeing it yet.

Top Gear – Didn’t finish the episode!

Archer – So funny this week! This three-episode mini got off to a great start. Can’t wait for the rest of it next week. The jokes about Rip Riley being a 1930s relic were absolutely hilarious.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – Yep, these guys are still the worst people in existence. Loved the closing scene with abandoning the prostitute in the hallway, even if it was shockingly terrible. I don’t think the “Mac gains 50 pounds” gag is working yet.

Parks and Recreation – Finished rewatching S3 with Min this week. So great! “Calzones are useless. No one likes them.”

Music

Even more Wild Flag – I think I’ve hit my threshold with obsessively listening to this new release. I’ve got tickets to see them in October, so I can’t wait.

Books

Collected Stories – Still no stories not obsessing with death. Still interesting in a surreal, well-written way. Still tough to read.

(THAR BE COMICS BELOW!)

Batwoman – Not sure if this was the best book of the week or Daredevil was, but it was certainly the prettiest. J. H. Williams III’s art was astounding. I’m so in for this new book.

Amazing Spider-Man – Still enjoying Spider-Island, even if this book was relatively mediocre. Stage 2 mutations begin!

Ultimate Comics Spider-ManThe new Spider-Man is Miles Morales. I really enjoyed this book and I can’t wait to see where this goes. It was surprisingly well done and unique from Peter Parker’s story.

Spider-Island: Herc – This book was terrible. What a waste of time. If you want a good Silver Age-style story, read Thor: The Mighty Avenger instead.

Spider-Island: Spider-Girl – Middling. When you’ve only got three issues, you can’t waste the first one because then your second and third will feel rushed. This felt kind of rushed.

Daredevil – Still the best book, all-around, that Marvel is putting out. Loved it and I loved the way that the sound villain was integrated with Daredevil’s sound “vision” for ludonarrative resonance. Great stuff.

Nedroid Read the first printed collection that Anthony Clark signed and sketched in. Super funny stuff. I love Nedroid.

Video Games

Team Fortress 2 – I’m up to 210 achievements in this. I think I’ve got 169 to go! Can’t believe how much I play this game nowadays, it’s so good! Loving the way that the new trading systems are integrated with Steam. It might even get me playing Spiral Knights at Min’s behest.

Gears of War 2 – Min and I beat it this weekend. As I said before, the story is idiotic while the gameplay is mostly solid. Hey game devs: the parts where you make us drive tanks or ride Reavers and stuff are stupid. Torque bow enemies are also assholes. Min and I spent an hour clearing this one room because we kept getting shot with arrows. Ian was also over on Saturday for a marathon session that was lots of fun. Can’t wait for Gears of War 3. I’ve always felt that I’d missed the boat with the releases so now I’ll get the chance to be “in it” for the co-op campaigns and maybe a little Horde/Beast multiplayer. Can’t wait for tomorrow!

December: Reel People In Movies [Fukubukuro 2010]
Jan 13th, 2011 by Dan

After watching Inception for the sixth time this year I mentioned to my friend Jenn that I was still loving and enjoying finding all the subtleties and nuances within the film. She countered that she didn’t really like the movie and questioned why I did. It got me thinking and, naturally, inspired this piece.

Inception might be this huge, bombastic summer blockbuster filled with guns, explosions, chases, and blaring music, but it’s also the story of a man’s tragedy. Dom and his wife, Mal, are the centerpieces to this story and the entire reason I love it. Sure, you’ve got this crazy dream sequence stuff going on, but the best part of it all is the way those two interact.

Every scene that the two are in is absolute dynamite. Marion Cotillard brings such an unhinged, romantically explosive devotion to her character that plays so well that I can’t help but love every psychotic minute of it. You see, what matters to me most in movies is genuine emotional expression and realistic human interaction.

Which brings me to my next big love of December, Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. I know it didn’t come out in 2010, but that’s when I saw it and that’s when I’m gonna talk about it because Jackie Brown might very well be Tarantino’s best work of cinema precisely because it’s probably one of his least Tarantino-ed out pieces.

Anyone who’s seen a Tarantino movie knows that he’s just a touch overindulgent. Conversations about absolutely nothing are peppered throughout his movies to express Tarantino’s worldview and scenes and sequences are often put into movies for the explicit purpose of seeming cool. That’s just fine by me, it’s just that you end up with characters who are not fleshed out in any real sense. They’re just cool.

Jackie Brown goes about its business in a very different way. Tarantino does still have his way with some of the characters, most notably Samuel L. Jackson’s, but nearly everyone else in the feature seems more grounded in reality. Jackie’s calm resolve to do what it takes to survive is such a far cry from the ostentatiously ridiculous main characters of, say, Inglourious Basterds that it’s hard to believe they were created by the same director.

Also of note is the Max Cherry character and his relationship with Jackie. As a man nearing the end stages of his life, he seems so invigorated by meeting Jackie that the crush he develops becomes so adorably interesting, considering his age. His decision to help Jackie get even and free is understated and interesting while simultaneously being uncharacteristically restrained for Tarantino. Imagine this pairing in a movie like Pulp Fiction and you’d end up with a duo that was like Honey Bunny and Pumpkin or you might even get vengeance on a Kill Bill level of blood-gushing ridiculousness.

I will give Tarantino one thing: he has a gift for the anticlimactic death. Pulp Fiction had the preposterous Zed and The Gimp scene, but that same sequence also featured Bruce Willis almost accidentally gunning down Vincent Vega in what is the most pathetic and ill-fitting deaths for a character of Travolta’s stature (in that movie) in cinema. The way that Jackie Brown disposes of Ordell is similarly muted, calm, and much more practical a route than you’d expect Tarantino to take.

Ok, so my point has gotten a little bit muddled in all of this wandering around Jackie Brown, but it still stands that the relatively realistic portrayal of its characters is far more of a draw for me than other Tarantino’s work. It’s also what enables me to absolutely love my some of my favorite movies that actually came out in 2010, Black Swan and True Grit.

Both movies are completely dependent on character to the exclusion, in True Grit’s case, of other aspects of the genre. It is Natalie Portman’s growing insanity that drives Black Swan as her isolationist nature and star status begins to take its toll on her socially undeveloped and immature mind attempts to deal with the pressure of the lead role in Swan Lake. True Grit is also carried by young Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, and Matt Damon, participants in a manhunt that unravels at a pace befitting of the Old West. After all, when you have so much ground to cover to find a man with so slow a method of transportation as a horse, it becomes a question of the company you keep and the way you get along, doesn’t it?

I could go on for hours on both of those movies, but instead I’ll just say that my days of enjoying the mindless popcorn movie are all but over. I appreciate what directors are trying to do by creating mindless entertainment, but the real power of cinema doesn’t come from special effects or idealized, unrealistically hip, super-cool characters; it comes from watching people being people.

Brothers [Filmmakers Bleed]
Nov 11th, 2010 by Dan

Who knew that Brothers was a remake of a Danish film? See if you can follow me here (it’s not really all that complicated):

Danish movie -> Adapted and remade by Irish director -> American movie

I don’t have anything else on that topic to say other than it’s a funny pedigree for the film.

My roommate has had this movie sitting at home for about three months, so we finally watched it last night.

If you haven’t seen the trailer, it’s about Tobey Maguire going off to war in Afghanistan shortly after his deadbeat brother Jake Gyllenhaal gets released from prison. Tobey goes down in a helicopter and the Marine Corp tells his wife, Natalie Portman, that he’s dead and Jake G and her deal with their loss and fall in love.

Right off the bat, and spoiler alert here, I have to say that the trailers are heavily misleading as to how steamy their romance is. The worst that happens is that they kiss while getting high. That’s seriously it. I mean, they’ve clearly fallen for each other, but nothing progresses beyond that, which causes the most frustrating part about this movie.

The scenes where Portman and Gyllenhaal fall in love are interspersed with Tobey Maguire’s efforts to stay alive in Afghanistan. Things get a little hairy when he’s forced to kill a fellow POW to stay alive. When he’s finally recovered by US forces he’s now a lovely ball of anger, PTSD, and survivor’s guilt ready to be unleashed on suburban America.

When Tobey Maguire is revealed to not be dead and he comes home, one of the first questions he asks Jake G is if he slept with his wife. Instead of outright saying “No,” Jake hems and haws and lets the thread kind of die. This is absurdly stupid. I can understand being worried about your brother being pissed, but if the truth is that you just kissed, even if you’re in love with her, it’s probably better to come clean.

Since Natalie Portman is a more mature adult, she comes clean to Tobey when asked about Jake. She says outright that they kissed once and it was because she missed him so much. Maguire calls her a liar, probably because his idiot brother made it seem like more happened, and that sets up more drama later.

There are two huge beefs I have with this movie. For some reason, Tobey Maguire’s daughter shows an animal fear of her father in every scene after he gets back. I don’t blame her for this, she’s only a kid and her acting skills just aren’t up to par to handle the kind of subdued fear that would seem more likely, but her expressions are painful to watch. Even worse is her tirade that her mother would rather sleep with Jake G. I just don’t buy that a girl of age eight or nine would say something like that.

Worse still is how abruptly the movie ends. After the aforementioned dinner scene, Maguire comes home, wrecks the kitchen that his brother helped install to deal with his own grief, and gets into a standoff with the cops after pulling a gun on Jake G. Cut to the next scene and Portman is visiting him in a VA hospital, implying that he’s finally getting the care he needs.

That’s it. Fade to black. No resolution of the complex love triangle that’s formed. Nothing. She’s terribly understanding of the fact that he pointed a gun at his brother, himself, and fired a shot into the air. There’s nothing wrong with that, she’s just there to love him again. His brother has no resolution in this at all. It just feels like either a good chunk of the movie was left on the cutting room floor or they thought they’d explored these characters enough. I’d rather they have cut out a lot of the Afghanistan nonsense and instead added in more time after these events to show how they’re actually dealing with it.

I mean, the message of the movie is that these soldiers are damaged and they’re not getting the help they need. What does the movie do when it seems like these characters are about to start dealing with their problems in a healthy, mature way? End. We don’t get to see him get the help he needs. The movie is also ignoring the true plight of the soldier. The true struggle to acclimate to society once again and it does the movie a terrible disservice.

One last thing: the wife of the guy Tobey Maguire kills in the movie is Carey Mulligan who is super cute and great at everything she does for the one scene she appears in except for faking an American accent. Her Britishness pokes through just a touch too much. A valiant effort, but not quite there. I just wish she got more screen time because she’s dynamite on camera.

Rent this one if it sounds interesting, but you might be better of skipping it. The Hurt Locker is the superior war movie of 2009, even though it’s got a completely different focus.

The Best Movies of the Decade [Filmmakers Bleed]
Dec 29th, 2009 by Dan

In no particular order…

Memento (2000)

Guess what readers, this post is more or less one giant love letter to Christopher Nolan. With the exception of Insomnia, this list contains every movie the man’s directed since Memento (NOTE: Insomnia is not bad, it’s just not best of the decade caliber). Memento does what Christopher Nolan is known for doing very well. It shifts time and perspective (since each time episode is essentially a different Leonard with no memories of the previous events) just as well here as in future Nolan movies like Batman Begins and The Prestige. If you’ve never seen this crazy exercise in perception and memory, you’re doing yourself a major disservice. Go rent it.

WALL-E (2008)

Pixar really has a way of making you care about inanimate objects. Toys, cars, and now a robot. WALL-E has so much charm and character that it’s impossible not to love him (although I know people who do). In what is both a cautionary tale about waste and a love story between two robots, there are genuine characters who speak maybe three or four different lines of dialogue and get the audience to care about their plight like it was an Oscar-bait drama. Pixar’s best work to date.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

You probably didn’t see Robert Downey, Jr.’s best movie of the decade, but you can bet that this movie pushed him front and center for what you might think his best movie was (Iron Man). KKBB doesn’t seem like it should be so good. Its name is kind of generic and I don’t even remember hearing about it before it came out. In fact, I have no idea how it ended up on my movie queue, but it was an instant favorite that I had to share with my roommate. Bonus points to Val Kilmer for his brilliant acting as a sarcastic private detective.

Ghost Town (2008)

My favorite romantic comedy of the decade stars a pudgy British comedian and does not feature one kiss between the two leads. Ghost Town is different, but in all the best ways. Ricky Gervais’ character experiences the same clichéd character development that you’d expect in a role like this, but it still feels fresh thanks to his odd sense of humour. It also features a romantic rival who is not that bad a guy and is one of the few Gervais projects that doesn’t feature extended, super-awkward scenes. Definitely worth watching.

Mean Girls (2004)

I know, it seems really lame for a guy to love this movie, but Tina Fey’s writing is so sharp that this movie can’t help but be good. Sure, it meant that we had to deal with Lindsay Lohan for a long while after, but that’s mostly done with now and we can enjoy Tina and Rachel McAdams and everything else about this movie that’s so well put together. As an added bonus to me, the book the movie was based on was written based on the behavior of girls at the National Cathedral School, a rival all-girl private school to Holton-Arms, which some of my good friends attended, so I’m glad it gives them some bad press.

The Prestige (2006)

Oh? Is it time to praise Christopher Nolan again? How often do you see a movie based on a book that is far superior to its source material? This tale of dueling magicians in 19th century England is engaging and interesting to the bitter end. Most people’s only complaints with the movie have to do with its sci-fi plot twist, but I guess it’s probably because they don’t realize that this movie is not firmly based in reality until about 4/5 of the way in. Regardless, it’s a fantastic story and all of its roles are spectacularly acted. The narrative structure is also unique and interesting as the magicians invade the personal lives of their rivals through their diaries. A definite must see.

Snatch (2000)

There’s one thing that Guy Ritchie does well and it’s gangster films, but, given the choice, I’d say Snatch takes the prize for his best work. It’s funny, has great plot twists, and great, quotable characters.

Rent (2005)

Should this even count? It may come from the ’90s and portray NYC in the ’80s, but this musical made the transition to film quite nicely, preserving most of its atmosphere and earning its place as one of three musicals on this list.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Who said that fairy tales were dead in modern society? Slumdog Millionaire is just a great movie. The narrative structure that revolves around the interrogation of Jamal Malik and his answers on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? works beautifully and the trials and tribulations of the characters make for great drama. Will you be surprised by the ending of the film? Of course not. Will you be able to resist tapping your toes to the music of the closing number? Only if you lack a soul.

Batman Begins (2005)

Talk about a challenge. Batman movies were absolutely dead before Christopher Nolan’s adaptation. In fact, I’d go so far as to blame Batman and Robin (1997) for killing superhero movies until Spider-Man came around in 2002. All it took was hiring a real director and a close look at the source material to come up with this fantastic adaptation of one of the oldest superheroes in the business. Nolan was right in getting rid of the cheese factor and trying to make the character seem more realistic than he’d been portrayed before. His choice of antagonists, Scarecrow and Ra’s al Ghul, were great choices in establishing a world based more in reality than the earlier movies created by using Penguin, Mr. Freeze, and Poison Ivy and paved the way for the amazing direction he took for The Joker. Batman Begins is proof that a superhero movie can be as great as other movies.

City of God (Portuguese: Cidade de Deus) (2002)

Powerful in the same ways that Slumdog Millionaire explored its slums, City of God is unapologetic in its portrayal of favela life in Brazil. Splitting up the story into arcs and showing how one man can seize power and create hell through the eyes of an outsider proved to be an effective narrative technique. This movie is heavy, but it’s also quite good.

21 Grams (2003)

Another hyper-depressing movie, this time centered around a car crash with three fatalities and the fates of the people involved: the man who killed the three people, the wife and mother of the two boys and man who died in the crash, and the man who received a heart in a transfusion. I haven’t seen it in years, but it’s quite good (far better than Babel).

Juno (2007)

Yeah, no high school kid talks like her. Sure, this movie made being a hipster seem cool and caused your friends to act like insufferable idiots. Yes, Michael Cera has gone on to be pretty annoying since this movie and Arrested Development. Beyond all that, it’s still a funny movie with witty, fun dialogue. Bonus points awarded for having Jason Bateman in it.

Garden State (2004)

While we’re on the subject of movies that spawned annoying indie-ness, Garden State did it first back during my freshman year of college. I admit, part of why I like this movie so much has to do with my trek down to Cinemopolis in downtown Ithaca, but I actually enjoyed this movie. I might have a different opinion if I watched it now, but it always seemed to me that Zach Braff didn’t overdo it here with the pretentiousness. It’s also worth stating that Peter Sarsgaard is a fantastic actor in almost everything he does and that this movie proves that Natalie Portman is not as bad an actor as the prequels might lead you to believe.

Casino Royale (2006)

I don’t care what you say, but old-school James Bond was stupid. More of a superhero than a spy, he had ridiculous gadgets and was just plain campy. I think it took Austin Powers for me to fully understand how dumb the whole thing really was. Funny thing about Casino Royale is that its reinvention of the wheel stems instead from a return to source material. The Bond of CR is a brutal killer closer to a sociopath than the suave secret agent that we grew up with. Unfortunately, the second in this new series went and screwed it all up with poor casting and poor cinematography, but I like the direction this new Bond is going and I have high hopes for the future of the series.

Up (2009)

Pixar just keeps hitting them out of the park. WALL-E was fantastic and Up came along right after to prove that a movie for children can be just as mature as a movie for adults. I won’t spoil the plot too much, but let’s just say the opening 20 minutes or so will break your heart, if you’ve got one. A truly great cartoon about a man dealing with regret and clinging to his past, but eventually moving on.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

The best way I’ve heard this movie described is “A love story that starts after the love is gone.” ESofSM does many things well as it examines the memories of this failed relationship as they are yanked away from Jim Carrey’s mind while he struggles against that very darkness he hired them to create. Another great movie that I haven’t seen in too long. I should pull this out sometime soon.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)

Since we’re talking about movies that deal with relationships ending, let’s push right on into a completely different type of movie. FSM is on my list because I think that, despite all the ridiculous exaggerations of the peripheral characters, the way that all of the actors interact with each other seems real. It’s a genuinely funny movie with good acting and hilarious situations.

Children of Men
(2006)

With a plot remarkably similar to Y: The Last Man in many respects, this post-apocalyptic look at a world scarred by a lack of childbirth is just awesome to watch. Fresh off the success of Sin City, Clive Owen, this time with his natural accent, stars and kicks ass in all kinds of believable ways as he escorts the first pregnant woman in ages to a research vessel. This movie makes the list more for its look than anything else. That last scene in the refugee camp where Clive Owen is chased by the military and the terrorists is stunningly shot. The end scenes also remind me a lot of Half-Life 2. Great movie.

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2008)

Strangely enough, I’d never seen anything by Joss Whedon until I saw DHSAB. I wouldn’t quite call myself a browncoat yet, but this movie inspired me to start checking out and loving his work. Neil Patrick Harris and Nathan Fillion really need to start alongside each other in more things, because they’re dynamite on screen. This is my favorite musical of the modern age and you should watch it if you haven’t seen it.

The Dark Knight (2008)

One man is responsible for making this film truly great: Heath Ledger. His portrayal of The Joker was beyond amazing. The interrogation scene (and the rescue that follows) still gives me chills every time I watch it. Like no other man in film or comics, Ledger really understood that The Joker is a force of chaos and entropy. It really is too bad that it will never happen again due to Heath Ledger’s sad death. The Dark Knight is the greatest superhero movie of all time.

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