Movie Review: Avatar (2009)


TitleAvatar
Release Date: December 10, 2009
Director: James Cameron
Production Company: Lightstorm Entertainment | Dune Entertainment | Ingenious Media
Summary/Review:

Avatar is a movie that has the unique distinction of being one of the top-grossing movies of all time while simultaneously being a movie that no one seems to like all that much.  I decided to finally watch it in small bits over five nights until I drifted off to sleep.  That I kept falling asleep during this movie is more of indication that I’m old and tired than that the movie is boring, but it should be noted that it is excessively long.

The gist of the movie if you’re not aware is that corporate interests from Earth want to exploit the natural resources of a moon called Pandora, but they find that the indigenous peoples, the Na’vi, in the way.  A team of biologists lead by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) negotiate with the Na’vi by genetically engineering Na’vi bodies which they control remotely through their minds.  The protagonist of the film is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a disabled Marine who is called into use the avatar of his deceased twin brother.

The story has Sully gradually question his role in exploiting the Na’vi as he comes to learn more of their culture and falls in love with a female Na’vi named Neytiri.  It’s a message movie, but one that fails to hold the conviction of it’s messages (exploitation of indigenous people, imperialism, environmental destruction), and instead falls into tropes of the “white savior” complex and “explosions are cool.”

This is a very militaristic movie, and curiously the technology and behavior of the military forces in the movie are so similar to those depicted in Cameron’s Aliens, that I wonder if the two stories are set in the same universe.  There’s no subtly at all in this story, and in addition to the other “messages” in the movie the military are depicted basically reenacting atrocities from Vietnam and Iraq.

What stands out from this movie are the stunning visuals of the world of Pandora.  The movie is probably a bit better if I saw it in 3-D on a big screen as intended.  The best parts of the movie are when the narrative slows down and we the audience get to just explore the environment and learn about the Na’vi, even if these scenes add a lot to the movies length.  There weren’t Netflix series in 2009, but I kind of wonder if the whole story would’ve been more interesting if they had time to develop the world and characters rather than falling back on tired cliches to accompany the special effects. On the other hand, I’m not sure if Worthington’s acting would improve any.

Rating: **

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Movie Review: Thor: Ragnarok (2017)


TitleThor: Ragnarok
Release Date: November 3, 2017
Director: Taika Waititi
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

The third Thor movie (I haven’t seen the other two) and the 17th Marvel Cinematic Universe is a bonkers romp in superhero fantasy tropes. After Odin’s passing, Thor and Loki (kinda) need to prevent Ragnarok, the prophesied destruction of Asgard. They get sidetracked to a planet of garbage that is home to gladiatorial combat hosted by the Grandmaster. There they team up with Hulk and a drunken but still badass Valkyrie to finally make their way to Asgard to fight off Thor’s previously unknown sister Hela and her army of the dead.

This movie is defined by its bizarre tangents and the humor of the unexpected. The regulars – Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, and Mark Ruffalo – all dive into their parts, enjoying the opportunity to something more with their characters. Jeff Goldblum is hilarious as the Grandmaster, Tessa Thompson is a terrific Valkyrie (I hope she’s a returning character), and Cate Blanchett is appropriately over the top in her evilness, and disarmingly sexy while doing so.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)


Title: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Release Date: April 4, 2014
Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

This is the second Captain America movie and the ninth in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The MCU works best when it adapts it’s superhero movies to different genres, and this one attempts a political conspiracy thriller, as Steve Rogers and his cohort uncover Hydra’s long-term plot to infiltrate S.H.I.E.L.D. With one of the more streamlined casts in the MCU oeuvre ,Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff  and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury get a whole lot more screentime, and thus more interesting things to do with their characters.  This movie also introduces Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson / Falcon, an interesting character who in retrospect doesn’t get enough attention in the following movies.  Sebastian Stan returns as the Winter Soldier (aka brainwashed Bucky Barnes) and doesn’t do much more than shoot and punch, but it does give a background to Bucky’s role in future movies. The plot of this movie is well done, but there’s a lot more firing machine guns and blowing stuff up than I find interesting. More isn’t always better even in an action movie, but the Russos have a workman-like approach that lacks the artistry of some other MCU directors.

Rating: **1/2

TV Review: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2018)


TitleUnbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Release Dates: 2018
Season: 4, part 1
Number of Episodes: 6
Summary/Review:

Netflix recently released 6 episodes of what it says will be the 4th and final season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (another 7 episodes will be released in January 2019).  While not quite Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, the half-season definitely has the feel of a contractual obligation rather than hilarious and insightful comedy of the first three seasons. Very little in these episodes made me laugh and the social commentary is smug rather than observant.

A key theme of the season thus far is women’s rights and sexual harassment, which is very topical, but the humor is done poorly.  For example, in the first episode, Kimmy in her new HR job tries to fire a male employee in a “friendly way” that comes off in classic sexual harassment tropes.  The joke completely misses the mark and is doubly unfunny since it doesn’t recognize Kimmy’s own history of sexual abuse by the Reverend.  Speaking of the Reverend, he returns in the third episode, a laugh-free parody of a cheap documentary by a famed DJ who looks to the Reverend as a hero, and eventually turns the documentary into a mens’ rights crusade.  As much as people (rightly) like John Hamm, the biggest mistake of this series is having the Reverend character return after the first season.

In other plotlines, there is a continuing mean spirited line of jokes about nerds (because punching down makes good satire?) which culminates in the punchline of Titus saying that nerds are actually real people with real feelings.  Titus, Jacqueline, and Lillian seem to be treading water through these episodes which is disappointing since they’re all portrayed by wonderful actors who have brought so much growth to these characters over three seasons.  It’s unfair to reduce them to caricatures of themselves at this point.

Tina Fey’s previous serious 30 Rock hit a low point before recovering and finishing strong in it’s final season.  One hopes that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt can accomplish the same feat in a more compressed time period.

Rating: *1/2

Previously Reviewed:

Movie Review: Ant-Man (2015)


TitleAnt-Man
Release Date: July 17, 2015
Director: Peyton Reed
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

Ant-Man is the 12th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, introducing Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), Hank Pym (Michael Douglass), and Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) into the MCU.  This may be the best “origin story” movie of the MCU and one of the funniest as well.  Lang is an idealistic cat burglar trying to stay clean after a stint in prison so he can reconnect with his young daughter.  Pym cleverly recruits him into putting his heist skills to work by introducing him to the Ant-Man suit and the ability to communicate with ants (this is not a movie for myrmecophobics!).  Pyms estranged daughter Hope helps with training Lang while also working with Pym’s rival Darren Cross (Corey Stoll).

There’s some interesting digital manipulation in a flashback scene at the beginning of the movie that brings back the appearance Michael Douglass of the his 1980s peak.  Douglass is rather hammy in his acting though.  However, Stoll is far worse,  as even for a comic book villain there’s absolutely no nuance to his portrayal as anything other than an evil psychopath.  Rather unoriginally, Pym and Cross’s story is basically a recreation of the first Iron Man movie.

Luckily, there’s Paul Rudd there to make things interesting and funny.  The concept of a “shrinking person” exploring a world where microscopic things are now giant is not new, but in this movie it’s filmed well with a lot of whimsy and attention to detail.  Pop culture artifacts such as Siri, Thomas the Tank Engine, and the classic Disneyland attraction Journey Thru Inner Space make interesting cameos. Michael Peña steals every scene he’s in as Lang’s former cellmate and member of his heist crew, Luis.

I look forward to seeing the sequel this summer, especially since it will rightfully be expanding Lilly’s role as an equal partner.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Coco (2017)


Title: Coco
Release Date: November 22, 2017
Director: Lee Unkrich
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures / Pixar Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

Coco is a delightful animated film by Pixar that weaves in the traditions of Día de los Muertos to a celebration of family and music. Miguel is boy in a family of shoemakers who loves the music of the local legend Ernesto de la Cruz, and wishes to pursue making music of his own.  The problem is that his family has banned music for several generations after his great-great-grandmother and his great-grandmother Coco (then a child) were left behind by great-great-grandfather seeking a music career. What follows is a wonderful adventure where Miguel accidentally travels to the Land of the Dead (depicted humorously as a bureaucratic parallel to our own world). with the help of a  bumbling skeleton named Hector, Miguel seeks to return to his own world and get his family’s blessing to play music, learning a lot about his family in the process.  There are some unexpectedly dark parts to this film – maybe not what would scare a young child in a movie full of skeletons – but nonetheless very serious material for a family film.  Visually it’s splendorous and I enjoy the wide ranges of expressions given to the skeleton’s bony faces.  Definitely another terrific addition to the Pixar catalog.

Rating: ****

Movie Reviews: Doctor Strange (2016)


TitleDoctor Strange
Release Date: November 4, 2016
Director:  Scott Derrickson
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

Since I seem to be watching all the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies lately, I may as well watch Doctor Strange even though the concept looks … unpromising.

Here is my liveblog of Doctor Strange.:

  • Hey! His  name is “Strange” and he’s a doctor!
  • And Benedict Cumberbatch has an American accent!
  • He still acts just like Sherlock though. I guess they couldn’t find an American actor who can do extremely arrogant and extremely talented.
  • That physical therapist who gave away information in his former patient totally violated HIPPA.
  • So Kamar-Taj is in Kathmandu, but there are no Asian people there?
  • On the other hand it’s quite believable that Tilda Swinton holds all of the ancient knowledge.
  • Dr. Strange deserved to be punched out of his body for touching a woman without consent .
  • This trippy sequence in the astral plane should totally be adapted as Instagram filters.
  • WiFi password, ha-ha!
  • Ah, here’s an Asian person in Kamar-Taj, and it’s a severe librarian named Wong. I think I have a favorite character.
  • The Cloak is the real hero.
  • Okay, those are pretty cool visuals in that fight scene in the Rubik Cube version of New York.
  • Could he really just walk of the street and straight into the surgery at the ER?
  • The Ancient One is pretty dang preachy in her death scene.
  • So Strange and Mordo completely swap their opinions of the Ancient One and her connection to the Dark Dimension in a matter of minutes.  Maybe she should have preached to Mordo as well.
  • Ooooh, a backwards fight!
  • And now Doctor Strange must fight off the Giant Pollen Monster.
  • So who first came up with the idea of a repeating time loop to resolve the crisis: Doctor Strange or the Doctor Who episode “Heaven Sent?”
  • Nice Infinity Stone name drop there, Wong.  Always good to promote upcoming crossover spectaculars.
  • Ha ha, the credits contain a warning about distracted driving.

So, it was an entertaining bit of fluff, although I don’t think it can overcome the racial issues of it’s source material, and many of the tropes used are overly familiar.

Rating: **1/2

Previously Reviewed:

 

 

Movie Reviews: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)


Title: Spider-Man: Homecoming
Release Date: June 28, 2017
Director: John Watts
Production Company: Marvel Studio
Summary/Review:

The first Spider-Man solo film in the MCU dispenses with the origin story – praise be – especially since that was probably already covered in the 6 other Spider-Man movies this century. I can’t speak for those other movies since I never saw them, but I think Tom Holland does an excellent take on the dorky teen trying balance his every day life with exploring his new powers, and knowing that he’s capable of bigger things after being exposed to the Avengers.  Michael Keaton, decades after he was Batman, plays a compelling villain, a blue-collar worker who gets rich by illegally salvaging alien technology and is not too keen on Peter Parker getting in the way.  This movie has just the right balance of humor, heart, and action sequences, and I think it’s the best MCU movie alongside Black Panther. I hope in the next Spider-Man movie they further explore Peter’s Mets fandom and have him take on The Wall.

Rating: ****

Previously Reviewed:

Movie Review: Avengers: Infinity War (2018)


Title: Avengers: Infinity War
Release Date: April 27, 2018
Director: Anthony and Joe Russo
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

Avengers 3 or Marvel Cinematic Universe XIX is the big crossover spectacular you’d expect.  It brings together both factions of the Avengers with Doctor Strange, The Guardians of the Galaxy, and all of Wakanda (including Bucky, now known as The White Wolf) to attempt to prevent Thanos from acquiring all of the Infinity Stones and destroying half of all the life in the universe.

With 21 main protagonists plus villains and minor characters,  it’s impressive that filmmakers are able to streamline their overlapping storylines and give everyone adequate screentime (although this is not a movie you can watch with no previous knowledge of the MCU).  I particularly like how people from different groups are matched up to work together, such as Thor with Rocket and Groot, and Doctor Strange with Iron Man and Spider-Man (and latter those three work with the remaining Guardians and Nebula).  I feel there were moments in the movie where typically the camera would hold a shot for a heroic beat, but instead there’s a quick cut to another storyline, as if the editors are just trying to fit in everything possible.  And that’s okay, because it keeps the movie from feeling bloated.

The movie does a good job of showing a more tender side of Thanos, albeit I’m still unconvinced that he’s capable of love.  I also question if he’s really thought his plan through (see spoilerly thoughts below).  I’ve not seen Doctor Strange before, but I immediately loved him when he called Tony Stark a douchebag.  The character most poorly served in this movie is Vision, who I thought had terrific character development in Civil War, but seems to be reduced to a bland plot device here.  I love that they cast Peter Dinklage as a giant.  Thor, Spider-Man, and Groot steal every scene they’re in.  Despite the grim subject matter this movie is very funny. Except for the ending which is appropriately solemn.

Avengers: Infinity War is not a great movie, but it is a great action adventure blockbuster, which is all we can ask of it.

 

Some spoilerly thoughts and questions:

  • It’s convenient that the superheroes that survive Thanos’ plot are the same ones from the first Avengers movie. Presumably, Hawkeye also survives and will rejoin them. I suppose that will make that sequel a bit more focused, though.
  • Too bad Doctor Strange doesn’t survive since he choses to be vague about what he saw in the possible futures.  May have been better if he’d said nothing at all.
  • It’s kind of a cheap move that Thanos survives because first Peter Quill takes the bait and ruins the plan to take the gauntlet, and then Thor waits until it’s too late to use his Thanos’ killing ax.  Those kind of tricks don’t make for good storytelling.
  • Does Thanos really eradicate half of all the living things in the universe? Half of all the ducks, half of all the trees, half of all the paramecium? Or is it just half of all the bipedal, sentient humanoids?  The latter would make more sense because destroying half the food sources and disrupting ecosystems would be contrary to Thanos’ belief that he’s doing a mercy to stop starvation.  But where is the line drawn between species that are halved and those that are left untouched?
  • If the eradication is truly randomized, there’s a 50% chance that Thanos himself would be disintegrated.  For a moment, I thought that was actually going to happen, and Thanos, his mission accomplished,  would be content to see himself disappearing.  I think that would’ve been an amazing twist and would’ve set up the next movie to be less “Let’s fight Thanos for 2.5 hours” and more “OMG, Thanos is gone, how are we going to reverse this?”
  • Red Skull’s appearance seems kind of … random … but hey, when your squeezing in almost every character in the MCU, why hand out a bit part to an unknown?
  • If the heroes lost in Infinity War are brought back by Stark sacrificing himself, I’m good with that.
  • Are Natasha and Bruce going to be able to rekindle their romance?

Rating: ***

Previously Reviewed:

TV Review: A Series of Unfortunate Events (2018)


TitleA Series of Unfortunate Events
Release Dates: 2018
Season: 2
Number of Episodes: 10
Summary/Review:

The second year of this Netflix series adapts books five through nine.  As such, it suffers some of the problems as the books in the repetitiveness of the plots and the extreme frustration with the adult characters’ persistent obliviousness and casual cruelty.  Neil Patrick Harris’ hammy performance as Count Olaf has its moments but too often veers into just plain annoying (especially in The Vile Village when he’s disguised as Detective Dupin).

But this series is saved by the women.  In The Austere Academy, Kitana Turnbull as Carmelita Spats is absolutely hilarious as the evil, secretly cake-sniffing brat. Then in The Ersatz Elevator, Esme Squalor makes her debut as the most-stylish villain, wonderfully portrayed by Lucy Punch who basically steals the screen from Harris for the rest of the series (no small feet).  One of the biggest changes from the book is greatly expanding and changing the role of Olivia Caliban, played by Sara Rue, into a librarian at Prufrock Academy who becomes a VFD agent and delightful – if short-lived – ally of the Baudelaires.

Another great addition to the cast for this season is Nathan Fillion as Jacques Snicket which allows for a long-awaited reunion with Harris of rivals from Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.  Isadora and Duncan Quagmire make their debut, although there part is smaller than I remember in the books (perhaps I’m conflating with later books in the series?). But the Baudelaires are what really makes this show succeed: Malina Weissman as Violet Baudelaire, Louis Hynes as Klaus Baudelaire, and the greatest toddler actor ever, Presley Smith as Sunny Baudelaire.  This season shows them grow as characters, becoming more confident in their abilities, and willingness to stand up against those cruel, clueless adults.

The show remains a visual treat and is full of more memorable gags than I can document here. This show was made to be GIF-ed on Tumblr.

 

Related Posts:

 

Movie Review: Inside Out


TitleInside Out
Release Date: June 19, 2015
Director: Pete Docter
Production Company:

The premise of Inside Out is well-established from all the promotion for the movie.  Inside the mind of 11-year-old Riley Anderson are five personified emotions – Joy, Anger, Sadness, Fear, and Disgust.  When Riley and her family move from Minnesota to San Francisco and she has to leave behind her home, friends, and hockey team, and deal with moving into a creaky, little house, a late moving van, and her parents’ distraction, Riley faces new stresses that throw the organized world of her emotions into disarray.

The story goes in places I didn’t expect.  Joy and Sadness are separated from the “control center” of the mind to the “memory banks” and have to find their way back in what is essentially a buddy film.  Joy – the self-appointed leader of the emotions – has never understood the purpose of Sadness and as Riley goes through what is essentially a depressive episode, Joy realizes that they can’t resolve the problem until she lets Sadness take control and allow Riley to express her feelings.

It’s a complicated concept, but it’s done well with a lot of humor and creative illustrations of the inner workings of the mind. It has the gags that will make the kids laugh, and the moments that will make the parents weep (as I did both when Riley’s imaginary friend fades away and at the climax when Riley finally tells her parents how she’s feeling, which lead to my son shouting “hey, you’re crying!).  My son also noted that the emotions display a lot of – well, emotions – leading him to conclude that there must by five smaller emotions within their minds, and so on.

Summary/Review: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Black Panther (2018)


TitleBlack Panther
Release Date: February 16, 2018
Director: Ryan Coogler
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

Black Panther is rightly celebrated for breaking ground in representation by depicting African and African Americans (and especially Black women) in a superhero/action adventure film.  That wouldn’t matter as much if also wasn’t an excellent superhero/action adventure film, certainly the best one I’ve ever seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The all-star cast put in excellent performances that balances the challenge of providing great character development,  motivations, and relationships with butt-kicking, blowing stuff up, and witty dialogue. The world of Wakanda comes alive, providing a “what if” view of how an African country uninterrupted by colonialism could develop a technologically advanced society from architecture to clothing to rituals to freakin’ awesome battle rhinos.

Introducing T’Challa in Civil War means that Black Panther doesn’t get bogged down with “superhero origin story” tropes, even as it shows him facing the challenges of coming of age, ascending to kingship, and realizing the nuances of right and wrong in governance.  Chadwick Boseman does a great job at examining this uncertainty and loss of idealism. Michael B. Jordan steals the show as Erik “Kilmonger” Stevens whose character is so very American in contrast to the rest of the cast, and brings up uncomfortable questions about Wakanda’s responsibility to oppressed and colonized Black peoples worldwide. (SPOILER: I’m disappointed Kilmonger chooses to die because I think his character could make a great “frenemy” in future films, allying with T’Challa as Wakanda opens itself to the rest of the world.  But I suppose Marvel is already telling that kind of story with Wanda Maximof).  Like most everyone else, my favorite character is Shuri, the young tech wizard played Letitia Wright who needles her big brother T’Challa (while secretly hero-worshiping him) and says inappropriate things at formal occasions.

You probably don’t need me to say it, but this is an all around terrific movie and has something for everyone.

Rating: ****1/2

 

Previously Reviewed:

Movie Review: Captain America: Civil War (2016)


TitleCaptain America: Civil War
Release Date: May 6, 2016
Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

Captain America’s name is in the title but this film feels more like a third Avengers movie, or perhaps more generically Marvel Cinematic Universe XIII.  The movie starts with the Avengers team working in Lagos where new member Wanda Maximof attempts to deflect the explosion of a villain’s suicide bomb, but instead it accidentally detonates in a nearby building where it kills Wakandan humanitarian workers.  This latest mishap leads to the United Nations passing the Sokovia Accords (ironically named for the place where the Avengers first attempted to avoid collateral damage) which will allow the U.N. to oversee and control the Avengers.

And thus begins the Civil War where the team splits over whether they will accept outside control.  Frustratingly, the filmmakers have douchey Tony Stark take the side I agree with, while it’s Steve Rogers who goes rogue in opposition to the accords.  Honestly, these choices seem out of character for both Stark and Rogers and the film never really justifies their decision.  Nevertheless, it doesn’t stop Civil War from having a lot of dramatic tension as Rogers puts together a team to protect his friend Bucky Barnes and seek out Helmut Zemo who framed Barnes for bombing the U.N., while Stark puts together a team to stop Rogers from breaking the Accords.

If there wasn’t enough going on, Civil War also introduces two new major characters. T’Challa, the Black Panther, enters the fight as a wild card third party seeking revenge on Bucky Barnes because his father King T’Chaka is killed in the bombing.  Meanwhile, Stark decides it’s a good time to bring a new, young superhero into the fold, Peter Parker (a.k.a. Spider-Man).  You’ve probably seen what happens next, as the clips of the big battle scenes as Avengers fight Avengers at a German airport have saturated popular culture.

There are some interesting twists I won’t spoil, but I was impressed and surprised by Zemo’s end game and manipulation.  And despite the grim subject matter, the movie manages a lot of humor and entertainment.  Oh, and I haven’t mentioned Vision – who seemed to just be tossed in as another character in Age of Ultron – who emerges as both comic relief and the humanitarian heart of Civil War.  There’s a lot going on in this movie, but ultimately it succeeds because it does justice to characters, even though there’s a lot of them.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)


TitleAvengers: Age of Ultron
Release Date: May 1, 2015
Director: Joss Whedon
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

The second Avengers movie and the eleventh in the Marvel Cinematic Universe reunites the familiar crew of superheroes and introduces some new ones as they battle a world-destroying villain unleashed by … themselves.  The Avengers was pretty much content to link together a bunch of action set pieces and call it a film.  Age of Ultron surprisingly includes longer stretches of quieter settings allowing the story to breath and the characters to develop.  This includes a party where the Avengers joke around, a visit to Clint Barton’s secret farmhouse (and previously unknown wife and children), and a surprisingly tender romance between Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner.

Now I’m not totally against big action set pieces, and this movie’s got them, with the Avengers duking it out with the baddies on three continents – Europe, Africa, and Asia. The direction and choreography of these fight scenes is much improved as it’s easier to follow what’s going on and get some sense of what the characters are dealing with internally.  One of my biggest gripes about the previous movie is that the battles caused so much collateral damage and no one seemed concerned about the ordinary people losing their lives and livelihoods in the crossfire.  That’s addressed directly here in the final battle in Sokovia as the Avengers make a concerted effort to evacuate and rescues the civilian population.

Finally there’s a villain, Ultron, who is an android with advanced artificial intelligence. Not surprisingly, the douchey Tony Stark accidentally creates Ultron in attempt to manufacture world peace.  When Ultron goes rogue, in typical comic book fashion it decides that world peace can best be achieved by eradicating humanity.  Still, I was impressed by the range of emotion in this CGI robot who has a dark sense of humor and a curious religious worldview that makes Ultron stand out as a compelling villain.

Marvel Studios continues to impress in making the second Avengers movie, just like the second Guardians of the Galaxy movie, better than the first.

Rating: ***1/2

Previously Reviewed:

Movie Review: Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)


TitleHot Tub Time Machine
Release Date: March 26, 2010
Director: Steve Pink
Production Company: United Artists
Summary/Review:

I’d be wanting to see this movie for some time even though I knew it was a low-brow, grossout movie. Still, I’m the target demographic for “men nostalgic about the 80s,” I like time travel stories, and I like the cast.  The most interesting choice in making this movie is to have all the characters be so unlikable but have them played by likable actors.  The mind spins as one finds oneself rooting for these jerks.  And while these men returning to 1986 to relieve a weekend as their younger selves is the key part of the film, it doesn’t really feel like the film reached the potential it had to say something about past & present, youth & adulthood.  It doesn’t even really seem like they tried to make it feel like the 1980s, although there are parallels to 80s comedies like Back to the Future and Weird Science. There are some good gags, but even with low expectations I’m underwhelmed by how Hot Tub Time Machine fails to explore the possibilities of its premise.

Rating: **

27 Non-Fiction Films: An A-to-Z Retrospective


The Blogging A to Z Challenge is over for 2018! I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to once again participate and the fact that it gave be both the motivation and an excuse to watch a lot of documentary films. I also feel that it was a chance to try new things in writing blog posts, and frankly I’m really proud of many of the reviews I wrote.

But before I toot my own horn, it’s also important to recognize that the best part of the A to Z Challenge is the chance to visit other peoples’ blogs, read what they wrote, and leave some comments.  I’ve read terrific work by many different writers and had good discussions with some of them.

Here are some A-to-Z’s I enjoyed reading this April:

I plan to check in periodically with the Blogging A to Z masterlist and read back on some of the other A to Z’s I missed.  If you’d like me to read yours, leave a link in the comments.

So my own theme was to watch and review documentary films, most of which were ones I’d been meaning to watch for some time, with a few I discovered to fill in some letters of the alphabet.  Many of them were fantastic, while some were not so good, but there were no true stinkers. I had no theme of what type of documentary I would watch and they vary from history to current events, arts to science, music to sports. Despite the lack of trying some themes did pop up among the films. I think all the movies touched upon one or more of these themes:

  • Social justice, people and individuals fighting against discrimination and for equality
  • Art and the artist, what is lost and found in the creation of art
  • The human experience.  Even the science and nature movies had a strong human element

Here’s the complete list of my posts for the 2018 Blogging A to Z Challenge:

A: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
B: The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
C: Cave of Forgotten Dreams
D: Decoding Desire
E: Exit Through The Gift Shop
F: Finding Vivian Maier
G: Goldman Sachs: The Bank That Rules the World
H: Hieronymous Bosch: Touched By the Devil
I: I Am Not Your Negro
J: Jane
K: Koch
L: Life Itself
M: Miss Sharon Jones!
N: No-No: A Dockumentary
O: Oklahoma City
P: Paris is Burning
Q: Quill
R: The Rape of Europa
S: She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry
T: Tower
U: Unrest
V: Vernon, Florida
W: What Happened, Miss Simone?
X: XXXY
Y: Yellowstone: The World’s First National Park
#: 13th
Z: Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait

Bonus Post: Favorite Documentaries
Bonus Post: What to Watch Next

Movie Review: Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “Z” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z.  This is the first “Z” documentary I’ve reviewed.

TitleZidane: A 21st Century Portrait
Release Date: May 24, 2006
Director:  Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno
Production Company:  Anna Lena Films
Summary/Review:

Zinedine Zidane, the French football player of Algerian descent, is widely considered to be one of the greatest football players of all time.  In his career, he played for top European football clubs – including Bordeaux, Juventus, and Real Madrid – winning domestic league championships, Champions League titles, and numerous individual awards.  For the French national team, Zidane scored 2 goals in the championship game of the 1998 World Cup, leading France to its first ever World Cup title.  And if you don’t know him for any of those things, you probably know him as the guy thrown out of the 2006 World Cup championship for headbutting an Italian player.  Today he continues his career as a manager for Real Madrid.

This film documents one game Zidane played as midfielder for Real Madrid on April 23, 2005 against Villareal at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium.  17 synchronized cameras were set up around of the stadium, all of them set to follow Zidane in real-time.  This is a high concept idea that challenges the way a spectator watches a game, which usually means following the ball rather than an individual player.  Fortunately, Zidane is usually in the center of action, if not actually holding the ball himself.

Some things one can observe from watching one player is that Zidane, late in his career, has lost a step in speed and conserves his energy for when he’s going to run.  In quieter moments we get to see him adjust his socks or share a joke with a teammate.  The microphones are also good at picking up sounds off the field that one doesn’t usually hear over the crowd. It’s a chippy game, and we get to Zidane and others hit the ground hard as dirt and grass fly artistically in the air.

Still, it’s hard to maintain interest in an ordinary football match from 13 years ago.  For one thing, Zidane keeps running off-screen and the images are often out of focus.  The editing is jarring and seems to obscure what Zidane is doing in context of the game much of the time. I mean the whole concept was to follow one player with 17 cameras – you had one job!  Some parts of the film have a crawling subtitle with quotes of Zidane describing his thoughts during a game.  It’s a somewhat interesting addition, but also seems to be an admission that the film of the match itself is not enough to hold the viewer’s attention.  Portions of the film are scored with music by Scottish post-rock band Mogwai, which while I like the music, doesn’t seem suited to the pace of the match. Finally, Zidane is red-carded near the end of the match for brawling which is kind of hilarious and makes you wonder what the filmmakers would have done had he exited the game earlier.

I’m going to chalk this up to an interesting concept, poorly executed.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

I watched this over the course of three nights because I kept dozing off.  High-def images of Zidane running around accompanied by Mogwai is a good sleep aid.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Go watch a game of any sport and focus exclusively on your favorite player and see what happens.

Source: I watched this movie on YouTube
Rating: **

Movie Review: 13th (2016) #atozchallenge


This is a bonus post for the Blogging A to Z Challenge.  Movies are frequently alphabetized with films titled with numbers separate from the letters A to Z.  So this review represents all the documentaries that have numbers for a title. Technically this movie’s title starts with “T,” but I also really wanted to to watch Tower, so this is a good way to get them both in.

Title: 13th
Release Date: September 13, 2016
Director: Ava DuVernay
Production Company: Kandoo Films
Summary/Review:

The 13th of the title refers to the 13th Amendment of the Constitution which freed slaves in the United States and is celebrated as a major act of emancipation.  But it didn’t end slavery because one clause allows slavery of criminals.  This movie explores the many ways in which people, mainly black people, have been denied their freedom by being criminalized over the past 150 years.

After the Civil War, many black people were immediately enslaved again in convict leasing programs.  By the turn of the 20th century, strict systems of segregation were put in place with brutal violence and lynching to keep it enforced, both of which were justified by claims that blacks were dangerous criminals.  Once the Civil Rights Movement seemingly brought a measure of equality to black Americans, politicians used coded phrases like “law and order” to once again criminalize black Americans through things like the “war on drugs.”  The film depicts the procession of US Presidents from Nixon to Reagan to Clinton each upping the ante in the activities criminalized, the severity of punishments, and the resources to enlarge and militarize the police and create a massive system of incarceration.

The film also takes time to focus on the organization ALEC, a conservative coalition of corporations and politicians, that drafts laws that help their members profit from new laws that help them sell firearms, operate private prisons, or profit from lucrative vendor contracts with prisons, among other things.  The film concludes with numerous familiar, but powerful, stories of black people suffering the dehumanizing effects of imprisonment – many of them in prison because of a system that encourages them to take plea deals even if they’re innocent.  And then there are the images of some of the many black men, women, and children killed by police – something clearly not new as this film illustrates, but something easier to document with modern day technology.

DuVernay features a large cast of experts who speak in this film, basically offering the narration over a wealth of archival footage.  Participants include Michelle Alexander, Cory Booker, Jelani Cobb, Angela Davis, Henry Louis Gates, Van Jones, and Charles Rangel.  Some participants from the “other side of the aisle” include Newt Gingrich (who surprisingly speaks of how he now realizes what was done in the name of law and order was wrong) and Grover Norquist (whose attempts to frame the understanding of the history of mass incarceration as a liberal conspiracy pale against the evidence presented in this film).

DuVernay also makes some interesting choices stylistically, with the participants filmed casually dressed in relaxed poses in some unusual locations, including what looks like an abandoned railroad station.  I’m not sure if there’s any significance to these choices I’m missing, but does add a layer of beauty and mystery to the film.  Another element frequently used is animated text on screen spelling out words spoken or sung in the film, including the word “CRIMINAL” which appears each and every time someone says “criminal.”

This is a powerful film and really a must-see for all Americans.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

There’s so much in this movie that it’s difficult to take it all in.  I’m fortunate in that I’ve read about most of the issues discussed in this movie, but it’s still something to see all tied together in one dense package.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

If you’ve been reading along my A to Z, you’ve seen my posts about several other films that tie into the themes discussed in 13th, especially The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and I Am Not Your Negro.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander – a prominent person in this movie – is the key text for understanding mass incarceration in the United States. Some other important books on the experience of black Americans denied freedom and criminalized include When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele, Evicted by Matthew Desmond, Nobody by Marc Lamont Hill, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.
Rating: *****

Movie Review: Yellowstone: The World’s First National Park (2012) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “Y” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. This is the first”Y” documentary I’ve reviewed.

TitleYellowstone: The World’s First National Park
Release Date: September 4, 2012
Director: Kenny James
Production Company: Mill Creek Entertainment
Summary/Review:

I’m fascinated with Yellowstone National Park, and one day I hope to go there.  This film has low production values and feels like an introductory film for tourists at a park visitor center.  All the same, the film focuses on the stunning landscape of Yellowstone, so the visuals are terrific.  There’s a little bit about the history and flora & fauna of Yellowstone (as well as the Grand Tetons, and surrounding areas), as well as an aerial tour of the park.  But the bulk of the movie is about the geology of Yellowstone, featuring the Yellowstone Caldera, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Artists Paint Pots, and the many geysers, fumaroles, and hot springs.  National Park Service interpreters provide the narration.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

Did you know that the Yellowstone Caldera completely destroyed the portion of the Rocky Mountains range that once passed through where the park is today?  I didn’t!

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Visit the world’s first national park.  And take me with you!

If you can’t make it, you may enjoy reading Lost in My Own Backyard by Tim Cahill.

Source: I watched this movie on Hoopla Digital.
Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: XXXY (2000) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “X” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z.  This is the first “X” documentary I’ve reviewed.

Title: XXXY
Release Date: June 22, 2000
Director:  Porter Gale and Laleh Soomekh
Production Company: Stanford University, Department of Art & Art History
Summary/Review:

X is always a challenge for the A-to-Z Challenge, especially if you’re looking for movies where the letter X has certain connotations.  I feel fortunate to have found this terrific documentary made by students at Stanford University in 2000, which is at 13 minutes is the shortest documentary I viewed for the challenge.

XXXY features two intersex people, Kristi Bruce and Howard Devore, who speak frankly about their experience being born with ambiguous genitalia.  Both underwent multiple surgeries over the course of their lives and struggled with their own identity.  Bruce’s parents and a pediatrician are also interviewed.

The movie makes a strong case against the medical community determining that infants and children require medical intervention and surgery to make their genital anatomy resemble typical male or female genitalia.  The decision to have surgery should only be made by an adult intersex person.  Furthermore, it advocates for recognition of intersex people and their human rights.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

It is estimated that 1 out of every 2000 children born are intersex.  This is far more common than we’re led to believe and all the more reason to recognize the great amount of sexual variation.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

The Accord Alliance has resources related to Disorders of Sex Development (DSD), a term adopted in 2006 to define “congenital conditions in which development of chromosomal, gonadal or anatomic sex is atypical.”

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides is a fictional account of a person with 5-alpha reductase deficiency.

Unrest is another documentary I watched for this challenge that deals with the medical community at odds with what is best for the health of their patients.

Source: I watched this movie on YouTube (the full film is embedded below).
Rating: ****