Movies of 2015 – June

Nightcrawler (2014) – Dan Gilroy

nightcrawler reviewGyllenhaal’s character, Louis Bloom, is the protagonist of this movie about a guy who is just trying to make a buck in this crazy world by using his car, his assistant, and his camera to film crime scenes and other bloody and unfortunate events in the news. He’s also a sociopath who will do whatever he can to succeed at getting the video, getting it onto TV, and getting paid for it. I almost like Bloom despite him being an absolutely horrible human being because I feel that, while he’s obviously a metaphor for Hollywood and how it shows us exactly what we want to see even if what we want to see isn’t very pleasant, he’s also a person who is extremely driven and one-minded in achieving his goals. – 9/10

Jurassic World (2015) – Colin Trevorrow

150608103918-jurassic-world-training-780x439Hey, do you remember Jurassic Park!? That’s basically all this movie is, down to someone in the movie literally putting on a Jurassic Park t-shirt and talking about how he misses Jurassic Park but was lucky to find the shirt on E-Bay. Yes, that really happens in this movie. Also, there’s a dinosaur that’s apparently smart enough to know what a GPS tracker is and how to remove it from its body and leave it somewhere as a distraction. Oh yeah, I forgot about the part where there’s these two kids that have a sad subplot about being sent to stay for a while with their aunt who runs Jurassic World because their parents are going to get divorced, but that plot is dumped about halfway through the movie. Dang, I almost forgot about the part where the evil military guy wants to use some of the dinosaurs to help them hunt down the escaped big bad dinosaur, so Chris Pratt’s character punches him in the face for being so evil and trying to use the dinosaurs in that way then almost immediately agrees with the plan which is what they use to hunt down the escaped big bad dinosaur. – 4/10

Dope (2015) – Rick Famuyiwa

maxresdefaultMalcolm, played by Shameik Moore, the main character of this movie is a teenage boy in a punk band with his friends who’s very good at school, likes 90s music and fashion, and is hoping to go to Harvard after graduating. His two best friends fit the same mold. These three get involved through a series of events in a drug deal gone horribly wrong and end up going through a bunch of ridiculous, scary, and hilarious situations to try to figure out what to do with the drugs and a gun that they mistakenly got a hold of. It’s kind of like a black teenage version of a Seth Rogen movie like Pineapple Express. The movie does a great job of keeping the jokes coming while never getting away from the larger point at hand – that it’s very hard for a teenager growing up in an area with drugs and gangs to not get involved with them, even if they try very hard to stay clean. The visual style and soundtrack are also worth mentioning as being really fantastic. – 8/10

The Imitation Game (2014) – Morten Tyldum

From what I understand, a lot of this movie is historically inaccurate and does a pretty bad job of portraying Alan Turing as played by Benedict Cumberbatch. I understand that criticism, but I can only talk about the movie as it stands on its own since I was not altogether familiar with the details of his life before watching it. The criticism is that it teaches bad history and paints him in a way that’s not true, but ironically if not for this movie I would have never read about the real Alan Turing. Anyway, the movie is very slow as it trudges through Turing and his team making and using the Enigma machine to decode the Nazi messages during World War II. The characters are well written (again, I understand that they’re inaccurate) and the drama unfolding between them as they slowly realize that Turing is homosexual (which was a crime in England at the time) is functional. This movie was clearly Oscar-bait. That doesn’t mean that it’s bad; it just means that it sort of follows a formula for a biopic – misunderstood genius accomplishes something incredible despite dealing with personal or political issues. It’s a solid movie, and I know more about Alan Turing for it (or perhaps in spite of it). – 7/10


Thoughts on Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

First of all, I’m going to ignore the controversy surrounding this book’s publication. Enough has been written about that. If you’re interested in reading about that aspect of the book, go here.

If you are averse to spoilers, you may want to stop reading now.

Go Set a Watchman tells the story of Jean-Louise “Scout” Finch coming home from New York to visit her aging father, Atticus Finch, in Maycomb, Alabama. She’s in her mid-twenties. He’s in his early seventies. These are the same two characters from To Kill a Mockingbird which is set about twenty years earlier, and is a book I have both read and taught several times. Atticus Finch in Mockingbird is a personal hero of mine – a man who stands up against injustice and defends the undefendable, even though it costs him both in terms of finances, in terms of safety, and in terms of reputation.

The first half of the book seems like a standard “kid from the country who moved to the city comes home to catch up with everyone” type of story. Jean-Louise meets up with various people from her time growing up in Maycomb – her on-again off-again boyfriend who she contemplates marrying every time she visits home, her aunt who she argues with but who shares a mutual respect with her, the now retired live-in servant Calpurnia who helped raise her, her uncle with whom she shares a love of literature, and of course her father.

The novel is really a series of conversations with the people she visits in which we as readers are able to see the actual dialogue as well as the thoughts Jean-Louise has during them interspersed with some flashbacks to her childhood, often including Jem, her deceased brother, and Dill, their childhood friend and neighbor, both who are important characters in Mockingbird, as well as Henry, the aforementioned boyfriend who does not appear in the previous book but seems to be someone who entered Scout’s life when she was a teenager and who now works for her father’s law firm.

These conversations show how removed Jean-Louise is from Maycomb county, and the flashbacks show how she is still connected through her past. This structure is very effective in showing the complicated relationship she has with her hometown.

Her conversations with Henry show that she is fairly indecisive and has trouble with the idea of commitment to a relationship with someone who she no longer has much in common with despite the fact that she loves him. With her aunt Alexandra, we see that she is still a tomboy at heart and never really fit in with her peers in Maycomb, who all strive to be the kind of lady Alexandra is. With her uncle, we see that she is a fierce debater but is not an invincible one.

The conversations with Calpurnia and Atticus come after the pivotal moment of the novel. Jean-Louise goes to a sort of town hall meeting to see what her father and her boyfriend are up to since both are involved in local politics. What happens at the meeting completely changes her perspective of them for the rest of the story and sets off basically a second set of these one-on-one conversations that take up the latter half of the book.

At the town hall meeting, there are many white men from around Maycomb all listening to a speaker who is denouncing the black population of the area and the NAACP for trying to help them improve their situations through legal help and I’m sure other means. Atticus is among those who seem to be in agreement with him. This is the same man who in Mockingbird defended a black man accused of raping a white woman in court in front of the whole town.

Jean-Louise has idolized her father for her whole life as a paragon of fairness, justice, and reason. She panics after seeing this meeting and  spends the rest of the story trying to figure out why he might have been there, all the time hoping against hope that she misinterpreted his reasons. She goes to her uncle, the only man in town who seems to have not gone to the meeting, but her hopes are dashed as he explains that Atticus is trying to defend a traditional white southern way of life and is against the idea that black people should have civil rights. He even admits to her that, at one point in his life, Atticus even joined the Ku Klux Klan. He also goes on to iterate some of ideology of states’ rights and gives some very inaccurate statistics about slavery in the South leading up to the Civil War.

In her panic, she finds Henry to ask why he was at the meeting. He tells her that he’s expected to live a certain way in Maycomb even if it means doing things that go against his beliefs. She tells him that there’s no way she can marry him because he is a hypocrite.

Finally, she confronts Atticus, her hero, my hero. This chapter was one of the hardest I’ve ever read in my life. I wanted to, like Scout, start screaming at Atticus. His calm explanations for the reason of his racism are infuriating. He doesn’t see black people as people. He’s worried that they are going to infiltrate politics and public life. He doesn’t think that uneducated people should be able to vote, and he doesn’t think that black people should be allowed to be educated in the same way white people are. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the point. He has even by this point in the novel taken on the case of a black youth (Calpurnia’s grandson, in fact) not because he wants to actually defend him like he did Tom in Mockingbird but so that the NAACP lawyers don’t get a chance to.

Scout, like me, is devastated and decides to leave – to go back to New York. She’s then confronted and slapped in the face by her uncle which for some reason calms her down (this was probably the most baffling part of the whole book to me) and gets her to go back home and talk with Atticus again. She seems to learn to accept that her father is a racist and a hypocrite and decides that she loves him anyway.

The point seems to have been to “set your own watchman” or “develop your own conscience” and accept that other people don’t always think the same way you do. However, the fact that the book and the characters within paint a picture of Jean-Louise being the closed-minded “bigot” (yes, they actually call her that) who needs to accept their way of thinking is my biggest issue. Yes, I agree that we should tolerate others’ ideas, but is that still true when theirs are the ones that are intolerant? I have had conversations of my own with people who are intolerant of others, and I have been in the position of Jean-Louise who cannot understand why those who are the closed-minded and conservative are so averse to progress and tolerance.

I get that we should still love our family and friends even when they disappoint us. That seems to be the more reasonable message of the story. It’s just very challenging to be able to do so when the disappointment doesn’t come from a mistake that was made but a deliberate and long-lasting choice to do or believe something that’s as horrible as the arguments being made by the men in this story.

Go Set a Watchman is the antithesis to the kind of story you would expect from Harper Lee based admittedly on the only other story she ever wrote that was published. Like I said earlier, I don’t want to get into the details of the controversy surrounding its publication, but I will say that it has truly tarnished a character that stood as a representation of the kind of person I wanted to be in Atticus Finch. I am very saddened by the way this character is portrayed in this book. I kind of wish I had never read it.

Movies of 2015 – May

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) – George Lucas

sw1Back when I was in middle school, a friend told me I should watch this cool movie his dad showed him because it has a really cool bad guy named Dark Vader. I watched it and enjoyed it as hundreds of millions of others have before and since. That was that, until it wasn’t because Episode I was announced right around that time, and there was a lot of buzz, even among middle school students who weren’t really familiar with the movies. I felt cool because I had already seen a Star Wars movie, which made me an expert among my peers. Of course, the announcement of the prequels reminded me that there were already some sequels, so I figured out some way to watch them (probably on VHS, I forget). I went to all of the prequel openings and saw the original trilogy rereleases in theaters. I played some of the video games. I read a few of the books. In short, I got burned out. (continued in Ep. V review) – 10/10

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – Irvin Kershner

Battle_of_HothIt took quite a while for me to watch another Star Wars movie. I think outside of showing A New Hope to my students in 2014 (which I only half-watched while grading papers or something like that), I hadn’t watched a movie in the series for at least five years if not longer. So, when I watched the trilogy again this month, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I loved every minute of it. The characters are so believable. The action is so tense. The revelations in the plot are so well done. The trilogy is every bit as great in 2015 as it was when it first released. (continued in Ep. VI review) – 10/10

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) – Richard Marquand

LvVI watched all three movies the same day. Ep. IV was the ICC movie of the week, so that Monday I went home and immediately watched Ep. V and Ep. VI. On one hand, watching them all on the same day in a row is exhausting, but it really was quite an experience – like binge-watching an entire season of a great show. I don’t believe I ever did it before with Star Wars. Anyway, this hasn’t really been much of a review, more of a personal exploration of my relationship to the movies. Overall, they’re great. It’s of course one of the greatest trilogies of all time. A New Hope is the best of the bunch despite many liking Empire Strikes Back more. Return of the Jedi is fantastic but slightly less so than its predecessors. – 9/10

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) – Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

captain-america-banner1When I first saw this movie last year, I rated it a 9/10 and talked about how it was both a great spy thriller and a great super hero movie. I stand by that description after watching it again a year later. Chris Evans is perfect as Captain America. Anthony Mackie is perfect as Falcon. Scarlett Johansson is perfect as Black Widow. Sebastian Stan is perfect as The Winter Soldier. The action is both believable and fantastic at the same time. Instead of just feeling like another MCU movie, it actually seemed to have a specific influence – the Brubaker run of the Captain America comics, which is one of my favorite runs in Marvel history. – 9/10

Men in Black (1997) – Barry Sonnenfield

Men-in-BlackMen in Black is one of the funniest sci-fi movies I have ever seen. Nearly 20 years after its release, I still laughed at almost every joke. It was a huge relief to me that my students were also laughing. One who had to leave the screening early told me that she was going to find the movie and finish watching it when she got home – something that rarely happens. This movie is a close second to my favorite “buddy cop” film, Rush Hour 2, and it also ranks highly as a science fiction film as well. Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are the perfect pair, and I look forward to watching this movie every time I get the chance. In my opinion, this movie is flawless. – 10/10

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) – George Miller

6-MAD_MAX_FURY_ROAD_2015_TRAILERA lot has been about the new Mad Max in the past few weeks since its release. I went in with a mostly blank slate, never having seen any of the previous movies in the franchise and only having watched one trailer for this one. My expectations were middling, but they were exceeded in every way imaginable. I don’t think it’s crazy to call this the most exciting action movie ever made. I was invested in every single scene from beginning to end. The action scenes were exciting and full of novel shots and stunts, but the scenes between them which are a bit quieter and reflective also helped to keep the movie from just being an exercise in spectacle for the sake of spectacle. Of all the new movies from 2015 I’ve seen so far, this is the only one that I intend to watch again as soon as possible. – 10/10

All In: The Poker Movie (2012) – Douglas Tirola

1cb5604f24Documentaries that explore subcultures surrounding competitive games or sports have always been interesting to me. Some of my favorites include Senna (2010) – Formula 1 racing, 100 Yen: The Japanese Arcade Experience (2012) – arcade video games, and Kings of Pastry (2009) – pastry design and creation. All In is closest in feel to 100 Yen as it serves as both a history of the game and an introduction to the competitive side of things. However, in addition to documenting the rise of big money tournaments like the World Poker Tour, significant screen time is given to the fall of online poker after it was made illegal in the US. As someone who has only played poker for real money a handful of times, I learned quite a bit and got to know many of the personalities in the competitive scene. The movie performs its function adequately but isn’t cinematically interesting or even entertaining. I recommend it for fans of poker, but those fans probably already know everything that the movie sets out to tell them so I guess I really don’t know the intended audience. – 6/10

X-Men (2000) – Bryan Singer

x-men-eric-and-charlesThis is it. This is the big one for me. If not for this movie, I would have never taken classes in college to study movies. I would have never run the International Film Series or the International Cinema Club. I would have never developed a curriculum and taught a class covering the history of movies. I most definitely would not have started a blog in which I wrote short reviews of the movies I watch. X-Men  was the first movie I ever liked, meaning that it’s the first one that I went to the theater to see multiple times not because I just wanted to see a movie or that my parents were taking me out but because I wanted to watch this movie specifically. I read X-Men comics growing up, watched the fantastic Saturday morning cartoon, and played many of the videos games. When the movie came out in 2000, good comic book movies were pretty rare. In fact, it can be argued that X-Men was the catalyst that ushered in the era we are in currently in which comic book and super hero movies come out several times a year and keep making and breaking new box office records.

X-Men is better than any of them that have come out since. Aside from Joss Whedon who actually writes super hero comics, Bryan Singer understands the X-Men better than any of the other super hero movie directors do of their own characters. The X-Men are not just about fighting crime or villains; they are a stand in for civil rights, human rights, and LGBT rights activists. Singer effectively uses metaphor in an obvious and effective way. The casting choices made were almost all perfect – so perfect that I need an entirely different post to talk about them. Magneto still has yet to be topped as a super hero movie villain due to his menace, humor, humanity, hypocrisy, and principles. For the time, the special effects and action were better than anything of the sort save for The Matrix from the year prior. Wolverine being chosen as the main character had broad appeal and allowed for a great way to see the X-Men from an outsider’s perspective and allowed for the kind of exposition needed for a film like this. Everything could have been done through Rogue’s perspective as well, which would have been fine but might have made for a weaker overall series starting point as it would have probably been made for a younger audience. This film as a starting point for the now very long-running series is perfect, even if some of the other (non Singer-directed) movies aren’t.

As you can probably tell if you actually read all of that, I kind of have a stream-of-consciousness overload when I try to talk about or write about this movie. I’ve probably watched it 30 times in the 15 years since its release, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop. It’s in my top 10 favorite movies of all time. It’s the best super hero movie ever made. It’s the most important movie in my life. – 10+/10

Tomorrowland (2015) – Brad Bird

tmrwIt’s a preachy movie with the message that special people get to go to a beautiful land of excitement and wonder so that they can ignore the real problems in the world because actually thinking about those problems is what literally, actually causes them. If you even try to remind people that there are real issues in the real world when at Disneyland, oops I mean Tomorrowland, they will kick you out and threaten to kill you! Many people will disagree with my thoughts on this movie, but I genuinely felt like this was the message, even if it was unintentional. I will say that some of the visual effects were pretty, and that the aesthetics of Tomorowland (meaning the place within the film) were sleek. – 5/10

Ultra Street Fighter IV Resource Guide

headerI originally posted this in /r/ps4 since the game is coming out for Playstation 4 today, but it will likely be useful for anyone who is interested in learning more about Street Fighter.

Street Fighter is hard. If you think you’ll be able to jump right into ranked and start winning matches, you’re going to likely be in for a rude awakening. It’s a harsh game that doesn’t do a lot of hand-holding and expects the players to learn most of the game on their own. However, there are many online resources for players just starting out as well as for veterans of the series. I’ve been playing Street Fighter for about 20 years and have participated in tournaments for about 12 years, and I still use all of the resources here on a regular basis to help me improve at the game.
From Masher to Master: The Educated Video Game Enthusiast’s Fighting Game Primer – The best starting resource for anyone who wants to learn the game from the ground up, written by Shoryuken contributor and redditor /u/pattheflip. If you don’t think you have the time to read a 135 page book, then unfortunately I have to let you know that Street Fighter may not be the game for you. Yes, that’s right. In order to have a fighting chance in this game, I am recommending you start by reading a book. Like Chess, Street Fighter players do as much reading about the game as they do playing it.

Basic Street Fighter Notation – Provides notations for the control scheme, what different buttons do, and how to perform different motions

Shoryuken’s Fighting Game Glossary – explains much of the jargon surrounding the fighting game genre

Sonic Hurricane’s Footsies Handbook – A great 10+ part look at “footsies” written by Maj; “Footsies” is oldschool slang for the mid-range ground-based aspect of fighting game strategy. The ultimate goal is to control the flow of the match, bait the opponent into committing errors, and punish everything.”

/r/streetfighter – Main subreddit for the game; recently replaced /r/sf4 since the announcement of Street Fighter V

/r/fighters – More general fighting game information and news

Shoryuken – The biggest and oldest Street Fighter website; has character discussions, guides, a great wiki, news, and forums

Capcom Unity – Official message board for Street Fighter

Capcom Pro Tour – Official site for the year-long tournament series that has $500k on the line spread out over various tournaments across the world, culminating in the Capcom Cup Finals which people have to qualify for by winning Premier events and/or gaining ranking points through Ranking events

Capcom Fighters – Official YouTube channel for Street Fighter; most Capcom Pro Tour matches are uploaded here

Playing to Win– Controversial 30+ part series written by former top player David Sirlin that explains the mindset of a Street Fighter player who plays solely to win

Movies of 2015 – April

Kung Fu Dunk (2008) – Chu Yen-ping

Kung Fu Dunk photo 30Jay Chou is not a particularly funny actor. He’s not a bad actor, but I prefer him in more serious roles. I wish that Steven Chow would have just taken on the lead in this film like he did in its obvious inspiration, the much better and funnier Shaolin Soccer. The over-the-top basketball is just as fun to watch; however, and I can tell that the special effects team was going out of their way to make the wuxia-inspired basketball visually interesting. Unfortunately, the plot is paper thin. The characters are all very boring with the exception of Eric Tsang as the unscrupulous promoter who eventually takes on a fatherlike role for the main character. I can’t honestly recommend this movie to anyone unless they really just want to see a Chinese movie adaptation of NBA Jam. For those who do, check it out. For everyone else, watch Shaolin Soccer instead. – 6/10

Chinese Zodiac / CZ12 (2012) – Jackie Chan

cz Jackie Chan is one of the best action directors of all time. There’s no disputing this fact. He understands how to shoot and perform an action scene better than just about anyone else. What he doesn’t always do well is tell a cohesive story, which is why some of his movies are much better than others. He works best when he’s in charge of action and someone else is in charge of everything else or when he just makes a movie that’s very obviously just a means of putting himself into various situations that lead to fun action sequences. Chinese Zodiac tries very hard to be a movie with interwoven plots and that has an important message, but it utterly fails in both of those areas. In fact, the characters’ motivations are laughably bad. However, I watched this movie because I like to watch Jackie Chan in funny action scenes. From the opening to the very end, every action scene with him in it is great. The rollerblade suit, the fight on the couch, and the fight while skydiving are the standouts and almost make the movie worth watching. Unfortunately, you have to suffer through the rest of it if you want to see them. – 6/10

Back to the Future (1985) – Robert Zemeckis

bttf2203Watching Back to the Future in 2015 is about as fun as it gets. It’s fascinating to see what 1985 looked like from the perspective of 30 years later, and it’s just as fascinating to see what 1955 looked like from the perspective of 30 years later. Marty (Michael J. Fox) and Doc (Christopher Lloyd) are two of my favorite characters in all of movie history. This movie paved the way for my interest in science fiction and especially movies about time travel. I cannot even write an objective review of it. To me, the movie is perfect and holds a spot in my top 20 of all time. If you haven’t seen Back to the Future, please watch it. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who has seen it and didn’t enjoy it. – 10/10

Back to the Future Part II (1989) – Robert Zemeckis

66840-341176If seeing 1985 from the perspective of 2015 is as fun as it gets, then seeing 2015 from the perspective of 1985 is somehow even more fun. The best sequel of all time (yeah, that’s right) takes everything great about Back to the Future and keeps the momentum going. The seamless transition from Part I to Part II (with the exception of course of the change of one actress) made it seem like it was really just one great, long movie. This type of serial storytelling in movies is pretty rare. There’s almost always a gap from one movie to another in a series. However, the last scene of Back to the Future is reshot for Part II as the opening scene. Having the time travel get even more complicated without sacrificing the story is one of the greatest achievements of this film. While most people of course enjoy the sequences in 2015 with the hoverboard, my favorite part of the movie is when Marty from Part 1 and Marty from Part 2 are both at the same dance in 1955 and how they affect each other’s actions, whether intentionally or not.- 10/10 [Since I didn’t watch it this time, I’ll comment briefly on Part III. It’s a pretty good movie, too, but I don’t think it’s an absolutely necessary film to see. If you’re a big fan of the series, you shouldn’t miss it, but if you just want to see the best the series can offer, stop after Part II]

Ex Machina (2015) – Alex Garland

ex-machina-movieThere are only four characters in Ex Machina. One of them never even speaks. Just about the whole movie takes place in just one house. It’s very tight. It’s very slick. It’s very claustrophobic. The movie is about a seemingly randomly chosen coder named Caleb who works for search engine company who is chosen to fly out to meet his eccentric boss and stay with him for a week to administer the Turing test on a robot with AI. This robot’s AI is very convincing, and a romance starts to develop between the two of them. However, she is locked not only into the building but basically into just one room that she’s been allowed to leave. This sets in motion a brilliantly executed game of manipulation and deceit in which it’s really not clear who is in the right and who is in the wrong. By the end of the movie, both my empathy and my ire extended to each of the characters. – 9/10

Unfriended (2015) – Levan Gabriadze

CYBERNATURALREVI’m just going to come out and say it: I like gimmicks, and I like novelty in my entertainment choices. I generally prefer the unpolished indie video game with interesting game mechanics over the highly polished but predictable AAA games. The entire movie Unfriended is told from the screen of a high school girl’s laptop. This is a gimmick, obviously. A traditional horror movie about a girl who committed suicide coming back to haunt her bullies wouldn’t even be a blip on my radar. However, this movie handles its gimmick very well, and I think it shows what life is like for teenagers in the 2010s better than any other movie made so far this decade. Teenagers (and most young adults) spend most of their time online, whether on a computer or a phone. Why not make a horror movie that takes place totally online as well? Many critics (all adults of course) didn’t like the movie Earth to Echo, but my 12-year-old brother said was the best movie he has ever seen because it was the first time he felt like the characters (who were all 12-year-olds) actually acted like him and his friends – spending most of their time on YouTube and just hanging out riding their bikes around the neighborhood. Unfriended I think works equally well for people about five years older than that. I’d love to see how my high school students would respond to this movie, but when I asked if any of them went to go see it, they all told me they were going to wait until they could watch it on Netflix – on their computers. – 7/10

The Avengers (2012) – Joss Whedon

vrzq6In 2012, this was the biggest comic book movie event ever. Who would have thought that a bunch of B-list Marvel heroes could hold a picture together without the X-Men, Spider-Man, or the Fantastic 4? Well, thankfully, with Joss Whedon at the helm and the fact that the movie built off of the previously successful Marvel Cinematic Universe films, the movie was able to not only hold together but become one of the highest-grossing movies of all time. This was probably my fourth or fifth viewing of the movie, and it doesn’t really charm the way it did the first or second time. I guess any movie would lose some of its luster after seeing it that many times, but The Avengers suffers from this much more than many of the other movies I’ve seen several times throughout my life. The action is pretty corny. The dialogue is funny but not at all believable. The characters don’t have enough time to shine individually. I think the X-Men films do an ensemble cast better than The Avengers because they’re more about a group of people going through some kind of struggle together than a clash of egos who all try to rack up the most one-liners and cool action shots. However, the MCU has proven that its movies the focus more on just one or two characters, such as Iron Man and Captain America, are better than the X-Men films that only focus on Wolverine. – 7/10 (after 5 viewings) 9/10 (upon first viewing)

The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) – Joss Whedon

avengers-age-of-ultron-screenshot-03-600x300Firstly, don’t see this movie in 3D. I’m not one of those people who lament the overuse of 3D in cinema these days. Many movies do it very well. This is not one of them. I couldn’t even really give the movie a fair review after watching it the first time. Everything was dark and blurry, which really distracted. So, I went back and saw it again in 2D for the better experience. Unlike the first Avengers film, I think this one handles the big cast without reducing the characters’ personalities to caricatures. Aside from the silly Bond-like cold opening which serves mostly to remind us of how cool these characters are, the movie is tight and solid throughout the majority of the running time. Ultron is a pretty cool villain who suffers a bit from being just as snarky and sarcastic as Loki who came before him. The addition of some new characters serves well as a bridge between the B-list Avengers to the C-list which we know is coming some time soon in the next few years. We’ll have to see how the MCU handles a future where the most recognizable hero is War Machine. The action is great, especially the one-on-one fight between Captain America and Ultron on the back of a semi truck. Using Hawkeye’s family life to show the human side of things was clever and well-done. I’m kind of all over the place with this review. It’s an all over the place kind of movie. I don’t know how I really feel about it. I guess it was okay. 8/10

Movies of 2015 – March

Kingsmen: The Secret Service (2014) – Matthew Vaughn

KSS_JB_D07_00960.tifIf there was a spectrum from 1-100 on which Skyfall (and other modern 007 movies) rested at 1 and Austin Powers rested at 100, Kingsmen would sit right at 50, nearer to the older Bond films than to the newer ones or the parodies. The plot is absurd, with a lisp-addled, McDonald’s-loving, swag-wearing tech genius played by Samuel L. Jackson as the main villain who must be stopped by the Kingsmen, a group of spies originally formed by a group of tailors who recruit young people by putting them through ridiculous, dangerous tests then naming the ones that succeed as Kingsmen and giving them code names that match up with characters from King Arthur’s court. Everything I described makes it seem like a movie I would hate. However, putting aside everything else, this movie has some of the coolest, most unique action scenes in the history of cinema. The bar fight, the church fight, the tunnels fight, and the henchwoman fight now all contend for the coolest fight scene I’ve ever watched. – 8/10

Focus (2015) – John Requa, Glenn Ficara

Focus-Movie-Will-SmithI’m a sucker for con artist movies. I love Catch Me if You Can, Matchstick Men, The Brothers Bloom, and the first few seasons of the show White Collar. From the first trailer I saw for Focus, I knew it was my kind of movie. Will Smith back as a leading man after a few movies over the past few years I didn’t care about is just icing on the cake. Focus doesn’t do anything differently than other movies of this sort, and it really doesn’t live up to the movies mentioned earlier. But, it holds its own and never falls into the trap of trying to be overly complex without being able to handle the complexity. It has enough twists to keep a viewer guessing without giving too much away. The supporting cast deserves a mention here, too. Margot Robbie and Adrian Martinez especially complement Smith as the romantic interest and sidekick, respectively, and they play well off each other, too.  – 8/10

Rocky (1976) – John Avildsen

rocky-movieIt’s hard to say anything about Rocky that hasn’t already been said. It has earned its spot as one of the best movies of all time and possibly the single greatest sports movie ever. I actually slightly prefer Rocky II to the first one for entertainment purposes, but of course the first one was what I showed to the ECC International Cinema Club since they have never seen any of them. Rocky Balboa’s rise is much more interesting than his continued success and eventual fall. At some point, I will watch the movies that came after Rocky IV, but for now I’ll stick with the first two. – 10/10

St. Vincent (2014) – Theodore Melfi

vincent-trioBill Murray was trying very hard to win some awards for acting in this movie. He plays an old grumpy guy who ends up becoming the babysitter for a young boy who moves in next door with his mom. The movie tugs at every heartstring possible in the most obvious ways. It deals with divorce, bullying, death, poverty, prostitution, gambling addiction, alcoholism, religious expression, and stroke recovery. There’s a lot going on in the movie, and I guess the point of it is that you can be a terrible person most of the time if you occasionally do some nice things, too. Bill Murray is the saving grace and is the only reason to see the movie. – 6/10

Bend it Like Beckham (2002) – Gurinder Chadha

Bend-It-Like-Beckham-bend-it-like-beckham-11245312-1002-600I have to admit that I never watched this movie before this week. Despite not being the biggest sports fan in the world, I’ve always enjoyed movies about competition, sports or otherwise. My surprise with Bend it Like Beckham is that, while a great sports movie, it doesn’t fall into the trap of just being about an underdog team that miraculously wins a championship after struggling throughout a season. It’s clear from the beginning that the two leads, Jess and Jules, played respectively by Parminder Nagra and Keira Knightley, are the best soccer players on one of the best teams in the league. The conflict is never about whether or not they’re good enough. I think they win all but one of their games that we see. The conflict is about whether or not Jess is able to juggle her tenuous friendship with Jules, her crush on her coach and the resulting love triangle that emerges, her ability to play the game, and her parents’ desire that she stop playing and fall into line with her Indian heritage as a future housewife. Chadha does a great job of weaving subplots into the story involving both girls’ family issues as well as a seemingly tragic backstory for the coach. The only gripe I have with the movie is that it probably would have been better if the possible romance between Jess and Jules, which was rumored to have been explored further in the original script, would have played out instead of the less interesting romance between Jess and the coach. – 8/10

Life Itself (2014) – Steve James

328142446Roger Ebert is the only person who I never met or even communicated with aside from a few comments on his blog that I would say directly influenced my life. If not for him, I never would have cared about movies, which are not only a personal interest but define a small but significant portion of my career, and I definitely wouldn’t be writing this blog of my own. Steve James’ intensely honest look at Roger Ebert’s life and death brought me to tears several times throughout my viewing. To see just how much he affected the people around him as well as those who only knew him from TV and his writing was nothing short of breathtaking. The last few months and weeks of his life being filmed must have been difficult for him and his wife, Chaz, but I am grateful to have been able to share them in a small way. I wish that I had been able to see this movie earlier, but I am glad to have been able to see it at all. – Thumbs up/10

Movies of 2015 – February

Jupiter Ascending (2015) – The Wachowskis

maxresdefaultJupiter Ascending is a textbook case of how to use CGI to create pure, exhilarating spectacle in a movie. The Wachoskis know better than anyone else how to make every shot have something interesting to look at in it. I was never bored by this movie because I was constantly looking forward to the next environment, action scene, costume, or effect. Like the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas before it, Jupiter Ascending will have its share of critics, but I go to the cinema to be thrilled, and this movie is thrilling. – 9/10

Wreck-It Ralph (2012) – Rich Moore

wreck-it-ralph-video-game-cameos-listI showed Wreck-It Ralph to the International Cinema Club as the CGI/3D animation representative for the theme of Exploring Animation. Instead of writing another summary here, I’ll just link you to my spoiler-filled review/summary of the movie I posted on this blog a while ago. – 10/10