Entertainment Archive

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Star Trek: Beyond: Movie Review

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I’ll have to admit that as trailer after trailer of the third installment of Star Trek of the Abrams universe came out…I was underwhelmed.

The question for me with new Star Trek movies is, what are they going to show me that I haven’t already seen before? How many times can the Enterprise be destroyed; the Federation come under existential threat; that Kirk and Spock and McCoy be put into hopeless situations and figure some hair brained scheme to save humanity?

See…I think I actually got the entire question backward.

This movie succeeds specifically because it does all those things all over again.

I recently watched the other Abrams Star Trek movies, and I have to say upon my first viewing…Beyond is the most purely enjoyable and satisfying of the three.

This isn’t to say the story is a game changer, that it shows you something you haven’t seen before. Every narrative and plot device in this movie is something we’ve not only seen before, but something we’ve seen in the Star Trek movies or TV universe. I could go point by point telling you which movie or episode had each plot point in the movie, scene for scene.

But where the last movie, Into Darkness, failed, this movie succeeds. The last move misuses the greatest villain in the Star Trek universe, Khan, and makes it into a rote action movie. This movie uses no villain that you will remember a day after watching the movie, makes it into a rote action movie…and you walk out of the movie happy.  In short…this movie simply is a lot of fun to watch.

Part of this is the fact of a new director, Justin Lin (who famously made the last several Fast and the Furious movies). Lin brings far more entertaining and fast paced actions scenes than the prior movies do.

The story often brings the threat of change to the crew. A disenchanted James T. Kirk, questioning his role in the universe, in a midlife crisis of sorts. Commander Spock, facing his own mortality with the death of Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy’s alternate timeline character; the nod to his passing his short, but profound). Others in the crew, in small ways, appear to be pushing against the stagnancy that develops after several years in a small ship with not much to do than fly from planet after planet, struggling to find something worthy to take up their time.

The villain is an enemy named Krall (Idris Elba, in heavy makeup). He is, for all practical purposes, not a very deep villain. He hates the Federation, wants to destroy him, etc, etc. His weapons are quite fascinating, as they are of a type that Starfleet is clearly unprepared for. But other than that, this will not be a role Elba is ever remembered for.

In short, if you are looking for deeper philosophical meaning, looking for an ideological and ethical debate on the policies of the Federation, etc…you are in the wrong theater. This movie provides almost none of that. What it does to is harken back to the days of fun, with the original Star Trek crew, and even later with New Generation. This is clearly episodic in nature, for better or worse. As a fun summer movie, it does its job admirably.

My only question is where this franchise goes from here. Moviegoers happily will pay for this type of installment once, or maybe even twice. But there will have to be something deeper for this series to stay vibrant.

But as for  now, a worthy next installment in the hallowed franchise.

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Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice: Move Review

BATMAN-SUPERMANAny Superman movie is going to receive a tremendous amount of criticism. Superman is the iconic superhero in America…nothing, nobody, defines what it means to be a hero in American fiction in the modern era better than Superman, after all.

Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel had mixed reviews as well, with numerous hard-core fans criticizing a variety of plot choices, from the structure of the narrative, to the wanton destruction of Metropolis, to ultimate killing (murder?) of Zod at the hands of Superman…an event purposefully avoided in all his comic book lore.

As such, critics were just waiting to pounce, as Snyder was given the unenviable task of not only making a sequel of the Superman movies…but also making a prequel of the upcoming Justice League movies at the same time.

Simply put: there was no way to achieve everyone’s perception of what this movie should be.

Should it focus on Superman’s story arc? Should it be, like The Empire Strikes Back, or The Dark Knight, the zenith of the arc of this saga?

Or is it just supposed to be a set up for the eventual grand introduction to the Justice League, that DC comic fans have dreaming about?

Lets start with the missteps.

First, Lex Luthor…or to be more correct, Alexander Luthor. Yes, this is not the original Lex Luthor at all, but his son, who confusingly goes by the same name. His father, the founder of Lexcorp, is either dead or gone…the film only alludes to the former, but never states so outright. In any case, played by Jesse Eisenberg, this Luthor is either going to be loved or loathed. Eisenberg pulls no stops…he is over the top in virtually every scene he is in. I like the character as written, per se, but not the acting at all. It didn’t work for me. In some ways, this character has far more depth than the previous iterations of ‘Luthor’, but Eisenberg’s portrayal again makes him far more cartoonish, and not with enough of the threatening, genius, maniacal dread that I think Luthor actually should convey.

Second major problem: Doomsday. Dear Lord, I think Snyder got this character terribly wrong.  Doomsday is one of those epic villains that Superman is actually terrified of. Here, I feel like our heroes don’t know how to defeat them, but I am not sure they feel all that worried about actually losing to him either. Not to mention, did Snyder just basically steal a troll from The Lord of the Rings? 

If this was just a random monster, it wouldn’t have been so bad; as Doomsday, it just seems to miss the point of that character. For those that know the character, Braniac is a huge part of who Doomsday is; but no Brainiac in this movie at all.  Furthermore, with core story being Frank Miller’s Batman/Superman fight…why introduce the Doomsday/Death of Superman plot to the story? Seems like Snyder just wasn’t happy enough with one story that he had to plug a second on just for the heck of it.

My final problem is a problem that Snyder was forced to deal with, not an editorial decision: that this is a prequel for the Justice League. By forcing him to re-introduce Batman, introduce Wonder Woman, and then squeeze in the Superman story in between…it was really a hopeless endeavor. I think he did a fine job, given the task presented to him. But ideally, DC could have followed Marvel’s strategy of slowly building up to the Justice League. Of course, in the end, I presume that was a business decision, and not an artistic one.

O.K., so enough about what was sub par. What did Snyder get right?

I think he nailed Bruce Wayne/Batman, the older years. I was a huge critic of hiring Ben Affleck, but Affleck plays the role beautifully. That said, Batman has only one emotional speed: dark and brooding. Thankfully, Affleck does dark and brooding quite well.

But it is more than that. In some ways, Snyder nails Batman in ways that The Dark Night series didn’t. It makes him more of a genius investigator, a P.I. who is searching for small clues, and has a fantastic ability to put puzzle pieces again. I think that the penultimate fight scene with Batman also nails my perfect vision of Batman fight scene. Not to mention…I think this version of the Batsuit, Batwing, and Batmobile are probably the best we’ve seen.

The long-awaited fight scene between Superman and Batman to me was also very close to the mark; it wasn’t perfect (far too short, and still seemed to me that Superman should have and could have ended the fight earlier), but overall hits all the right chords.

Some people didn’t like the political fighting about Superman’s place in modern America. I for one thoroughly enjoyed it. How would the government, who tries to be in control of all facets of national security, deal with a wild card as uncontrollable as Superman? Of course they would try to destroy him in the media, undermine his credibility, and then make him out to be villain. The fact that it literally blows up in their face simply is because they don’t realize there are far larger threats that they are blind to.

Bruce Wayne is used quite well as a foil for the worries of humanity in the face of this new ‘God’.  How would humanity react, when a major city is destroyed at the hands of two alien visitors?  Half of humanity views him as a villain; the other half views him as a savior, with the obviously Christ-like comparisons to boot.

The final fight scene with Doomsday (even with my above caveats about the Doomsday character itself) I thought does a nice job of introducing Wonder Woman to the general audience. We see here she is every bit the warrior as Batman, and virtually as indestructible as Superman. And unlike either of those two men…she seems to savor the fight. There is one quick scene, where Doomsday pummels her and throws her into a wall; afterward, you see a small smirk on her face, as she turns back to the fight. That is Wonder Woman.

The teamwork that you immediately see from Wonder Woman, Batman, and Superman is a prelude, hopefully, to what we see in the next Justice League installment. The question then becomes, what Big Bad Space Baddie will they face? And will they be able to roll Flash, Cyborg, Aquaman and others into the storyline seamlessly?

My overall take away from this movie?  I think what many reviewers really missed, or may be ignorant of, is in many ways this is Frank Miller’s original vision of this story. I’m sure Miller would have done things differently, but the artistic echoes are quite apparent. Furthermore, that dark vision is precisely why many reviewers didn’t like the movie; this is no Marvel movie, after all. DC is knowingly taking a different path for their series. I presume that is going to turn off many viewers, and may actually be less successful among general viewing audiences. That doesn’t make it a less interesting story arc; just a different one.

In the end, I enjoyed this far more than I thought I would. No, it isn’t as good as the first Marvel’s The Avengers movie. Yes, it could have been far more concise story wise, and would have been easier to follow for the non-comic book viewing audience.

That said, I have been heavily critical of many decisions they made over the past year, but seeing the final product, I really can’t complain too much. It is far from a perfect movie; however, it does a reasonable job setting up the Justice League stories, and hopefully gives us enough room for a nice future Superman arc to boot.

I, for one, can’t complain too much about that.

 

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Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens: Movie Review (SPOILER FREE)

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For my generation, there are few cultural tent poles as important as Star Wars.  The original Star Wars is the first movie I can remember actually going to a theater and watching; I was just shy of five years old at the time. It was the first movie or story that truly captured my imagination. And for the first decade of my life, much of my imaginary child’s play revolved, in one manner or another, around the series.

It is now commonplace to insult the Star Wars series.  George Lucas made that quite easy, after the Prequels largely destroyed the mirage of a series that, previously, could apparently do no wrong. Along with the myriad of other science fiction options that people now have, the Star Wars series had lost its place as the ultimate nerd experience.

With the sale of the franchise to Disney, hope once again reignited among Star Wars fans. J.J. Abrams was hired to lead what was, in my humble opinion, an impossible task: to reignite the fervor that made Star Wars such a cultural phenomenon in the first place.

Has he succeeded?

There is no question that The Force Awakens is a far superior Star Wars movie to the prequels.  So, to begin with, let your mind be at ease at least in that respect.  This feels like an original Star Wars movie…a movie with action, suspense, and enough humor to keep you entertained throughout.

I think the biggest success of this film is that it found the right stars to carry this movie. Unlike the prequels, which simply didn’t care about character development at all, this movie actually relies on it. Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega) both are fundamental in the ability of this movie to succeed. Both are characters that are fairly rich in detail, and most importantly…you care about what happens to them. Who can say that about any of the characters in the prequels?

Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron is the guy who brings the swagger and charisma that this type of ‘cowboy film’ requires. As a X-wing pilot, is the film’s ‘rebel’ of sorts.

As for the villains, Kylo Ren (played by Adam Driver) is an evil, conflicted terror, who is not always in control of his emotions.  His personality itself feeds into the narrative that he is not just a paper tiger…he is a real, formidable threat. I will say the other villains simply seem to be in the background.  I certainly would have liked to see more of Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma, for example.

I don’t want to say too much about the original cast, except to say…every initial moment of seeing them on-screen, for me, was a moment that made my heart flutter. These are characters as near and dear to me as any, and seeing them in any new iteration is a joy to behold.

I am quite pleased with The Force Awakens.  Abrams was handed a series that was, in many ways, flailing and dying from years of neglect, and a (surprisingly) lack of understanding of what its fans really want. In that respect, Abrams has delivered. He has reintroduced us to that galaxy that inspired the imagination of so many over so many years.  He has, once again, made it fun to see a Star Wars movie.

This movie just has the feel of Star Wars.  If you are a life long fan…the best word I can use to describe the movie is comfortable.  It is easy to slide into this story…it feels right.  You don’t have to force yourself to enjoy it…this simply is how Star Wars feels emotionally.

People have already asked where I would place this movie in the saga. It is far better than any of the prequels…and at the very least, is very close to as good as Return of the Jedi. I may even be willing to consider it better than Jedi, upon further viewings. Time will tell. My second viewing will be on Sunday (yes, I am that much of a nerd). I’ll have to see if that changes my opinion at all.

Is it a perfect movie? Not even close.  It is somewhat hamstrung by its forced connection to the original trilogy. In many ways, this trilogy must be able to set its own course, separate from the originals, and this first movie doesn’t exactly do that. I understand that Abrams’ task, of walking the tightrope of balancing the old with the new, was an almost impossible burden to bear. We might have to give him some leeway in that regard, and wait for Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII to see the full potential of this new storyline, and of these new cast members.

But, in an echo to the original, this movie provides a new hope. It opens up the Star Wars universe to infinite possibilities of sagas, epic storytelling, and new adventures in planets not even dreamed up yet. And that likely will be this film’s biggest success of all.

 

 

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Avengers: Age of Ultron: Movie Review

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Marvels Avengers, directed by Joss Whedon, is the third largest worldwide grossing movie of all-time, reaping in over $1.5 billion.  As such, it was a no brainer to bring in the Marvels team for a second go around.

The problem facing Whedon and the producers of this sequel is the problem always faced by Hollywood with action sequels:  “What’s bigger and badder?” What threat to humanity could invoke more emotion and anxiety?

In our first movie, do recall, aliens invade Earth in order to subjugate all of mankind, only to be stopped after the absolute destruction of Manhattan.

So how do you possible elevate the game?

Whedon chooses to try to go small first.  The movie largely begins by going back to the characters themselves, each with their own lives and goals.  Joss Whedon does try to make this a more intimate get together, although that was likely always impossible in a film like this.

Whedon never seems to take himself too seriously, and that ultimately lets the viewer ‘go with the flow’ with sometimes silly, occasionally outrageous plot lines.  The scene with the Avengers playing with Thor’s hammer is a perfect example.

What’s fascinating is how Whedon uses Hawkeye and Black Widow, our most ‘human’ Avengers, to play prominent roles, in many ways as the viewers’ surrogate participants among their ‘God-like’ partners. In many ways, Whedon uses their experiences as a window into how average, normal humans would react to this war among the erstwhile immortals that rule over us.

In a sense, the destruction and the reality of humanity teetering on the verge of planetary apocalypse is almost a backdrop to the characters themselves.  Literally any ‘end of the world’ scenario would work here…because that ultimately isn’t really even the focus of the movie.

That said, the big new bad guy is Ultron…an artificial robotic lifeform (voiced by the impeccable James Spader) who Tony Stark initially envisions as a protector for the planet. That plan does not go so well…as Ultron gains a newfound hatred for the species that created him. Spader brings a level of charm (dare I say, a level of humanity?) to the character that makes him seem somewhat more foreboding than a robotic voice would do.

The movie ultimately does pay off, but in a sense…we have been here, done that.  The actions scenes are fantastic, as you would come to expect in any Marvel movie.  But at this point, is there any action that could ‘wow’ us anymore?

This doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing. It simply means no new ground is broken here, there is nothing we haven’t seen before.  Whedon has said he wanted to make Age of Ultron a shorter, more intimate film than his first Avengers movie. In that, he failed completely; in many ways, this is a louder, less personal film, largely because of the necessities of commercialism and the need to expand the ever growing Marvel Universe.

But that said, intimate is not what comic books are about. They are about action scene to action scene, about global threats and heroes at the edge of their limits. This movie does certainly deliver on that.

There are scenes that will initiate nerdgasms (especially the introduction of Vision to the series, but that discussion I’ll leave for another day), but for the average viewers, this is your usual, summertime romp.  Not evolutionary, but still a blast. It does sets up the future Civil War plot line nicely, and I can’t wait for the potential of an all out war among heroes, with Spiderman joining the fray.

For the comic book devotee and science fiction fan, however, this is just another episode in one of the great gifts Hollywood has presented us in the modern golden age of science fiction of the past two decades. Enjoy it while it lasts.

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2014 Musings….

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Some random thoughts on the year that has passed…

  • Personally, an excellent year, on all fronts.
  • For the country…not so great.  At the very least, it was troubling to watch a country attack its men on the thin blue line, instead of working with the police force to make reforms to better us all.  It was disturbing to watch many supposedly intelligent people on the left fall into the trap of believing emotions before facts.  And most troubling, it is worrisome that our leaders, especially the President of the United States, appears not to have any type of learning curve, as he proposes to make his old mistakes all over again.
  • 2014 was a horrible, no good, terrible year for liberalism, and as a corollary, President Obama and Democrats.  More and more of their views of the world, as is, was discredited.
  • On foreign policy, ISIS proved Obama’s view of the Middle East was incorrect from the beginning; and he appears to be ready to repeat the same mistake in Afghanistan.
  • On the economy, we continue in our relatively stagnant path.  You know things are bad when Democrats are celebrating sub-3% GDP growth; things are better, but that is a poor barometer when millions remain out of work and out of the workforce all together.
  • On many basic issues (police use of force stories, Keystone pipeline, voter ID/intimidation, minimum wage) liberals continue to hide from basic facts and reality, to the detriment of all.
  • The biggest success story for Democrats was Obamacare; and even that comes with caveats.  The easy part of the program, delivering relatively free Medicaid benefits to millions of poor, is largely over.  On the other hand, they are largely failing on making the exchanges more affordable for the middle class.  Premiums are not increasing (a trend that has been going on now since 2004, before Obamacare was even a dream) but that doesn’t mean the pricing pressures have gone away.  In fact, there is some evidence it is getting worse.
  • Republicans had a very decent year.  They had no major detrimental scandals, for the most part.  They carried out their plan for the midterm election, and brought it successfully to fruition, even though they were outspent in many cases.  The increased majority in the House, and the retaking of the Senate, was a major coup, and all honest assessments will admit they did pretty much as well as they possibly could have.
  • I didn’t bother to do a movie review this year…because I saw so few movies.  I will say that I loved Guardians of the Galaxy and the Winter Soldier.  The X-Men movie, as well as the Hunger Games sequel were solid.  Other than that, not many movies impressed me much this year.
  • On the TV front, we continue to see the golden age of geekdom.  Whether it is the Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Agents of Shield, Arrow, The Flash…you are living in the golden age of science fiction and fantasy. Enjoy it.
  • For 2015, I doubt politically we will achieve much.  I think the GOP is going to propose (and likely pass) a fair amount of decent legislation; Obama will simply obstruct. I think Obamacare will muddle along, with many of the same problems, and a host of new ones (especially the IRS rules that are impending).  On foreign affairs, things will get worse with ISIS, because Obama isn’t serious about confronting them; Iran will come a year closer to the bomb; and our other enemies will largely ignore the US.
  • Economically, I do believe we are improving.  But that improvement will continue to be asymmetrically targeted to the 1%.  The rich and upper middle class are continue to do quite well, as stocks and real estate surge and rebound.  The rest of the country, sadly, will continue to lag.  Obama’s policies will continue to widen the wealth gap, as it has done since the beginning of his presidency.
  • On the sports front, looking very much forward to watching how Jim Harbaugh leads the Michigan Wolverine football team.
  • 2014 was a mundane year for movies; the same cannot be said for 2015.  Avengers: Age of Ultron, the final Hunger Games, Fantastic Four, Jurassic World, James Bond’s SPECTRE, Terminator: Genisys, Ant-man, Minions, Mission: Impossible V, Ex-Machina, Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur and Inside Out, Mad Max: Fury Road, Disney’s Tomorrowland…a fantastic list, all culminating in the king of them all, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.  My kid is giggling in glee for a movie that won’t come out for a year; that should tell you all you need to know.
  • 2015 looks to be a banner year on many fronts.  I wish all of you the best of luck in the coming year.
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Most Anticipated Movies of 2011

As always, you can see my most recent movie posts here, and my list of upcoming movies of interest here.

This is always a hit or miss list.   When you go back and look at the movies that I was really looking forward to a year ago, there were some excellent choices (Toy Story 3) and some complete and utter disasters (The Last Airbender)

But anticipation is 3/4 the fun…and so, in chronological order, here are my most anticipated movies of the year…

Battle:  Los Angeles, February 18, 2011

One part Independence Day; one part Black Hawk Down.  Geeks and alien lovers everywhere are going to get excited.

Thor, May 6, 2010

Of all the superheroes in the Marvel universe, this is the one I care about least.  I honestly have never had the urge to pick up a Thor comic, even as a child.  And Thor, as a character, always seemed…well…insane.  But the preview below looks at least interesting.   Kenneth Branaugh directs, so there is hope.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, May 20, 2010

No Kiera Knightley.  No Orlando Bloom.  But no one cares…Capt. Jack Sparrow is back!  Can Disney pull off a watchable movie, after the last two were mediocre?  If it gets back to its roots from the original, then this could be a lot of fun.

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Hangover 2, May 27, 2010

Hangover is the highest grossing R-rated movie of all time….and is a cultural phenomenon.  Everyone I know has watched it multiple times.  Will the sequel will be anywhere as good?

Green Lantern, June 17, 2011

Green Lantern has been a cornerstone of comic books for decades.  And although it has grown out of favor in recent years, its following is still significant.  Within the past few years, the Lantern Universe has significantly grown, and brought new readers to the series.  Whether Ryan Reynolds can reignite the character is still a question.  But this is still going to be a guaranteed blockbuster, regardless.

Cars 2, June 24, 2011

Every Pixar movie automatically gets on this list…it is a rule.  My son has literally watched the original ‘Cars’ at least 50 times, if not 100.  I am forced, as a father of sons, to go see this movie, and then buy tons of merchandise to further enrich Disney.

Rise of the Apes, June 24, 2011

James Franco headlines this reboot of the ‘Planet of the Apes’ storyline.  This, of course, is the origin story of how the apes became smart enough to overthrow man.  Of course, opening on the same weekend as ‘Cars 2′ may not be the best strategy…

Transformers 3:  Dark of the Moon, July 1, 2011

This movie is going to make a bazillion dollars, have lots of bombs and booms and explosions, and no Megan Fox.  Michael Bay knows how to makes really loud and explosive movies with no plot.  That said, this is going to dominate Fourth of July weekend.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, July 15, 2010

The Harry Potter series come to a fiery end, as the Battle of Hogwarts commences.  Anyone who is a Potterhead is hoping for a Lord of the Rings Helm’s Deep sort of battle scene.  After a decade, 7 blockbuster books, and 8 movies that now hold the record for the biggest grossing franchise in movie history…this is a must see.

Captain American, July 22, 2010

Captain America was one of the first major comic book heroes.  Arising out of  World War II, he now seems anachronistic.  But the first pictures of the movie set appear to show a movie based in that era.  Ultimately, this, as well as Thor, will set up for The Avengers movie in 2012.

Cowboys & Aliens, July 29, 2011

Now that Jon Favreau has exited the Iron Man Series, he jumps to an alien movie set in the wild, wild west.  With a cast made up of Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, and the lovely Olivia Wilde, this should be interesting at least.

X-Men:  First Class, August 30, 2011

I love superhero movies…but this one worries me.  This could either be brilliant…or a disaster.  Here is crossing fingers…

Super 8, September 10, 2010

No one really knows what this movie is about.  The opening day is still shrouded in secrecy.  The trailer, posted below, is haunting.  So why the anticipation?  Mix J.J. Abrams, Stephen Spielberg, and possibly aliens?  Trust me, people will line up to pay for that.

Others To Keep a close eye on:  Red Riding Hood (3/11), Sucker Punch (3/25), Crazy/Stupid/Love (4/22), Horrible Bosses (7/29), Contagion (10/21), Sherlock Holmes II (12/16), The Adventures of TinTin (12/23).

Movies that may be interesting, or painful:  Zookeeper, Breaking Dawn, The Muppet Movie, Paul, The Thing, Fast Five, Kung Fu Panda 2

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2010 Top Movies of the Year

I do this every year…and every year, I get more hate mail than support.  And yet, I come back for more.  I guess I am a glutton for punishment.  Well, for what its worth (not much, I know), here we go…

Honorable Mentions:  Millenium Trilogy, Exit Through The Gift Shop, Black Swan, 127 Hours, The King’s Speech, The Fighter, Shutter Island, Splice, Let Me In, How To Train Your Dragon.

10.  Tangled

Tangled is the first non-Pixar movie in a long time that really captured the Disney spirit.  First and foremost, the main character was Rapunzel, a princess…a character that obviously appeals to all those little girls out there.  Mix that with a tried and true storyline that Disney has perfected over the decades, along with a beautiful cinematography, and Disney had an obvious hit on their hands.  This is a film that every little girl should be taken to.

9.  True Grit

It is a rarity when a movie remake is better than the original…but this is a prime example.  The Coen Brothers (No Country For Old Men) took the Charles Portis novel, and renewed the story with a beautiful cast and artistry.  The original, the 1969 film that gave John Wayne his only Oscar, is considered by many Western film afficionados as a classic…I still think this movie is better.   It has a deeper artistry and reality about it.  And in this time and age, when Westerns simply are not in vogue anymore, the ability of the Coen brothers to time and again make films such as these is remarkable.

8.  Winter’s Bone

You want a real, unflinching view of where the dark side of America exists?  This is it.  From Daniel Woodrell’s novel from which the story is adapted, the movie is set in Missouri’s secretive Ozarks, where families deal with their own problems, for good or ill.  Ree Dally (Jennifer Lawrence) is taking care of her two younger siblings, as well as her virtually mentally incompetent mother, while her father, a crystal meth dealer, is MIA.  The movie follows Ree as she searches for her father, and tries to keep her family together, all at the same time.

7.  Waiting For Superman

Davis Guggenheim also directed and produced An Inconvenient Truth…an excellent reason to ignore him.  But don’t ignore this movie.  Really.  The prior movie was a travesty…Waiting For Superman was a necessity.  Guggenheim weaves an emotional story of students fighting for spots in an elite school.  He doesn’t pull punches, going after traditional liberal third rails such as the public education system and the teachers union.  You think America needs to reform?  It all starts with education, and Guggenheim shows us why reform needs to start now.

6.  The Social Network

I, like many of you, are Facebook fanatics. So, it is definitely fascinating to see this documentary on the partially factual tale of how Jeffrey Zutterberg and friends created the largest and most powerful social network on the internet…and in turn, created a world wide phenomenon.

5.  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1

J.K. Rowling’s saga of the magical world takes a turn to the dark side, as we see the forces of good and evil battling to the death.  We see destruction, murder, and mayhem.  And all that stands between the totalitarian magical takeover and peace in our time is…three teenagers, led by Harry Potter.  This movie is nothing like those that came before it in the series…this is a war film, a film about rebellion and jungle warfare.  I know people think that I am taking that too far, but that is what I believe.  This movie sets up beautifully for the climactic battle in part 2, arriving next summer.  I can’t wait.

4.  KickAss

This is a violent and dirty look at what happens when an ordinary kid is dumb enough to think he can be a Superhero.  In a movie that is certainly NOT for children, this movie does not show any of the glory or heroism you see in most superhero flicks.  It is bloody, gory, and downright disturbing at times.  But if you don’t think HitGirl is one of the best new characters this year…you simply are missing something.

3.  Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

This is a movie that most of you won’t get.  I know that, and accept that.  This is a very, very geeky movie.  Basically, if you were born before 1970 or after 1990, you don’t have a real chance of getting this movie.  But it is a novel way of showing what is, at its heart, a simple concept:  boy is geek, boy falls for girl, girl has baggage, boy has to deal with the baggage.  Now mix in ninja fighting, video game type artistry, a very gay roommate…and you have what I considered one of the more entertaining movies of the year.  But beyond those superficial things, this is a movie about all the difficulty that comes with being in a relationship.   We all enter relationships with a lot of baggage, and figuratively have to fight through the ‘Evil Exes’ of our past to really stay with the one we love.

2.  Toy Story 3

A top 10 list is not complete without a Pixar movie…and Pixar didn’t disappoint.  Toy Story 3 may be the best of the ‘trilogy’, a movie where men cried, children relearned the joy of ordinary toys, and we all continue to be amazed at the magic of Disney/Pixar.  May it never end.

1.  Inception

Inception is one of those unique films that blend visual artistry, a fundamentally unique story, and superb acting, and puts it all together into a beautiful story.  Christopher Nolan is turning into one of the great Directors of our time, with this coming after maybe the best superhero movie of all time, The Dark Knight. Nolan’s view of dreams, with the futuristic prospect of invasion of those most protected spaces of our minds, is a movie like no other…and I believe, by far the best movie of the year.

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2010 Predictions…A Look Back

So you can see my predictions of the year 2010 here, if you wish.  My 2010 predictions weren’t too bad…but in hindsight, I have to say that I have outdone myself.  Regular typeface is my original prediction, and bold is my current commentary…

  • President Barack Obama will sign a health care reform bill…but not until well after the State of the Union, and only with a lot of difficulty.  Democrats will fight another civil war on the public option, taxes, abortion, and illegal immigrants.  CORRECT!
  • Democrats will try for a third stimulus, in which Obama will try to focus on tax cuts, but progressives in the House will push him to spend more on government programs.  CORRECT!  ASSUMING YOU ARE COUNTING THE CURRENT TAX BATTLE.
  • Obama’s Budget Director forecasts a 4.0% growth rate next year…the rate of growth will be much less, closer to 2.5% for the year.  SO FAR, ACCURATE.
  • We will see narrowing of job losses in the beginning of the year, but some of it will be smoke and mirrors as the government hires 700,000 temporary workers to carry out the 2010 census.  By the end of 2010, the overall rate of unemployment will still be in the double digits.  CLOSE.  WE ARE SLIGHTLY UNDER 10%.
  • The stock market will have a mediocre year, rising 7-8% to around Dow 11,300 by the end of next year.  Businesses, however, will again be profitable.  Hiring will start in earnest in the end of 2010.  NOT BAD…THE DOW IS UP ABOUT 8% FOR THE YEAR.
  • The Federal Reserve, in a bid to halt inflationary pressures, will increase Fed rates by middle of the year.  The dollar will actually gain value…and gold will stabilize or drop in price.  However, oil prices will rise to around $100/barrel.  WRONG.  THE FED IS STILL TRYING TO FLUSH MONEY INTO THE SYSTEM.  OIL IS AROUND $80.
  • Legislatively, Democrats will have greater and greater difficulty in passing anything.  Cap-and-trade, immigration reform, and card check will all die an ignoble death.  TRUE.
  • Obama’s attempts at budget deficit control will go to naught, as Democrats fight among themselves over which they should do:  tax increases or budget cuts.  Ultimately, nothing will be done, and the deficit for 2010 will be around $1.5 trillion…or about the same as 2009.  In other words, matching the largest national yearly deficit in world history.  CORRECT!
  • Almost nothing will get done by Congress, as Democrats (not Republicans) will virtually bring the legislature to a standstill.  FALSE.  REPUBLICANS STOPPED MOST EVERYTHING, TO THEIR CREDIT.
  • By summer, Tea Party protests will be ravaging the nation, as the protesters fight for control of the Republican Party.  Conservatives will be pitted against moderates, and in most races, the conservative will triumph; for example, Rubio probably will oust Crist in Florida.  Democrats will giggle in glee, remembering the outcome of NY-23.  But who has the last laugh?  ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY CORRECT!
  • Obama’s poll numbers will stabilize in the spring, as unemployment numbers artificially are leveled off.  However, as the year progresses, and unemployment stays in double digits, Obama’s popularity will drop below 40%.  As time goes on, Obama will be blamed more and more for the economy, and his laying the blame with the prior administration will sound more and more like whining.  FALSE.  ALTHOUGH MUCH IS TRUE, OBAMA’S POPULARITY HAS LEVELED IN THE MID-FORTIES.
  • Republicans will gain 8 Senate seats.  I will be more specific in my 2010 election prediction article, but briefly I predict Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and New York to flip (I know, I am an optimist).  I predict Republicans will pick up 40 seats in the House, just short of the majority, but will try to entice additional Blue Dogs to switch parties.  It will be that close.  2010 will be a historic landslide, ala the Second Republican Revolution.  NOT BAD!  REPUBLICANS GAINED 6, NOT 8, SENATE SEATS.   AS FOR CONGRESS, I WAS CLEARLY PESSIMISTIC, AS THE GOP PICKED UP 63 SEATS…BUT CORRECT ABOUT THE LANDSLIDE!

As for my ever pathetic sports predictions:

  • Alabama will defeat Texas for the BCS Championship.  CORRECT!
  • The San Diego Chargers will finally break through and win the Super Bowl.  NOT QUITE.
  • Kansas Jayhawks will win the NCAA Basketball championship.  NOPE.
  • Pittsburgh Penguins will repeat as NHL Champions; the L.A. Lakers will repeat as NBA championships in a classic series over the Boston Celtics.  LAKERS CORRECT, PITTSBURGH NOT SO MUCH.
  • The United States will finish 3rd in the medal count at the Olympics.  WAY TOO PESSIMISTIC!
  • The Red Sox will outduel the Yankees, and win the World Series.  NOT EVEN CLOSE.
  • O.K., my ‘homer’ picks were horrendous last year.  Here we go:  The Pistons will miss the playoffs, and get the 8th pick in the Lottery.  The Red Wings will lose in the 2nd round of the NHL playoffs.  The Tigers will miss the postseason once again, this time by 5 games.  The Lions…who cares; I am a Redskins fan!  The Skins will get Mike Shanahan as coach, dump Jason Campbell as QB, and will draft Sam Bradford with their first round pick, which will guarantee that he will be a major flop in the NFL.  And my beloved Michigan Wolverines will get back to a bowl…but only an average one.  FRANKLY, NOT BAD, NO?

Oh, and of course, the obligatory JibJab piece:

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Tangled: Movie Review

Tangled, Disney’s take on the folk tale classic Rapunzel, hearkens back to the hayday of Disney pictures.  A princess, in dire straights.  A handsome lead.  And an evil witch/stepmother/etc.

There is nothing new here.  This movie could have been written 50 years ago by Walt Disney himself.

But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t do a fantastic job at what it is trying to do.  This is the classic Disney fare for the young princesses in your family.  It has been a long time since Disney has had a successful movie geared specifically for girls (Up, Toy Story series, and Wall-E are fantastic movies, but not exactly the stories little girls dream about).  And the singing, dancing, and love story are enough that every little girl will want to be Rapunzel for Christmas.

There is certainly enough comedy and story to keep adults entertained as well.  Honestly, some of the comedic scenes had me laughing quite heartily.  And although the story is utterly predictable, this is a good showing for Disney.  Maybe not at the level of Toy Story 3, but certainly as good as other animated movies this year, including How to Train Your Dragon.  Compared to older movies, this movie is not up to the level of the zenith of Disney storytelling, Beauty and the Beast, but is certainly as good as many other of the hit movies of Disney past.

This movie is certainly recommended, but if you have a little girl in your house…I think you will do yourself a disservice not going and seeing this movie.  There are a few dark scenes that my 5 year old son certainly was frightened of, so this may be too dark for really young children.  But for most little girls, this may be the best Disney movie in decades.

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I: Movie Review

I am a Potterhead, or Pottermaniac, or whatever you want to call the illogical devotees to J.K. Rowling’s books on the magical world of Harry Potter.  And as such, we crazies have been devoted to the movies from the beginning.

But no movie in the series has been looked forward to like these last two, that will bring the Harry Potter saga to a close.

Deathly Hallows is a clear divergence from the rest of the series.  Although each iteration of the Potter storyline gets darker and darker, Deathly Hallows magnifies that darkness geometrically.  All the other movies, including the ever dark Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince still took place at Hogwarts, with school surroundings that made the entire storyline just a little less deep.  You still had the school age crushes, teenage angst, and of course, schoolwork to worry about.

No more.  As the above poster shows…this is war.  This is pure and unadulterated war, in all of its destructive elements.

The bulk of the movie (without giving away any of the true storyline; don’t worry, NO SPOILERS!!!) is largely with our three heroes surviving on their own.  There are no parents, no schoolteachers, no Dumbledore (literally) to look after them.  They have, for all practical purposes, entered the reality of adulthood…with all of its drawbacks.

As has been the case for several volumes of the movie, the three continue their goal of finding a way to destroy the evil Voldemort, while at the same time being the primary target of the forces of darkness.  As Voldemort’s power increases, the security that Harry had enjoyed through out his childhood continues to wane, to the point of nonexistence.

But the movie is remarkable in its ability to really delve deep into the thoughts and fears of the characters.  Director David Yates, with the freedom of splitting the last volume of Rowling’s saga into two movies, spends more time in the relationship between Ron, Hermione, and Harry…a friendship based on trials, survivals and blood.

Ultimately, it is the unknown future that Harry Potter faces.  And although he has his friends at his side, more or less, the weight of the world is on Harry’s shoulders.  That is what drives the movie.  He knows, ultimately, that the fate of the world lies in his less-than-qualified shoulders.  But, even knowing his fallibility, Potter shows strength, tenderness, and resolve that we look from the great leaders.  And that, ultimately, is what drives the three heroes to their goal.

Yates has woven a beautiful film, dramatically different than the other iterations of the Potter saga.  This movie is very dark…so dark, in fact, that I wonder at what age I would feel comfortable showing this to my children.  As I said at the start…this is about the harsh realities of good and evil, of adulthood, and of war.  Yes, it is still a Harry Potter story, but in its darkest realm.  And Yates does a magnificent job of blending cinematographic artistry with the elements of emotion essential to the story.  The three main actors, additionally, show that they too have grown up, and are now able to place the weight into their roles necessary to carry out the story.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 in many ways is not the most enjoyable of the Potter series, because of the death and destruction and hopelessness of our heroes cause.  But it might well be the best movie of the series so far.  Watch this movie, and try not to be excited for Part 2, arriving next summer.   I dare you.

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