2014 is over and I'm a bit late posting this final addition to the list of new movies I saw and books I read in the year. I don't know how many people actually care about this crap, but it provides a decent excuse to update my journal. For some reason, I tend to feel self-conscious if the same journal entry stays on my front page for too long.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Autobiographical comic by the creator of Dykes to Watch Out For. I'm not sure I could do something like this. For one thing, I don't think I remember my childhood clearly enough. A written version would be tough enough, but to actually attempt a faithful, detailed visual reconstruction of my past would be a nightmare. Of course, I don't know that Bechdel was actually going for total accuracy and didn't just fudge certain details. What with all the literary allusions in the story, my sister probably would have gotten more out of it than I did, since she's the English major in the family.
Fer de Lance by Rex Stout
The first Nero Wolfe mystery. As much as I find these mysteries an entertaining distraction, it's troubling to me how often I find Wolfe providing the culprit with the opportunity to take their own life at the end of a story. In this one, he does that and even gives the murderer the chance to kill again, presumably supposing that the intended target had it coming. Since Wolfe usually don't even seem to even care about solving a case unless he's getting paid, it seems to me like this habit has less to do with exacting justice and more to do with the fact that, as his leg man Archie speculates, eliminating the need for a court case means that Wolfe doesn't have to leave his home.
The other thing I find a little bothersome about this book is Archie's racism- he bases his suspicion of somebody on the fact that they're a foreigner. I don't think the author is racist; he probably just inserted the occasional bit of racism like that into his early books because it was true to life, but he doesn't do much in the way of condemning that sort of thing either.
The Other Worlds of Clifford Simak by Clifford Simak
Simak is a writer I mostly enjoy- his book Way Station reinvigorated my interest in science fiction at a time when I was getting burned out on Star Trek and Stargate. Every story in this book had an unhappy ending, though, to varying degrees. I don't really think that was planned, but it just seemed to work out that way.
The first two stories, Dusty Zebra and Carbon Copy, are about humans who get mixed up in business dealings with otherworldly beings. They're mostly light in tone, but that doesn't change the fact that the humans end up getting screwed at the end of each story.
Founding Father is about an immortal human who has been sent to colonize another planet using test tube babies. To make his isolation bearable, some futuristic device was used to give the delusion that he had adult companionship, and now that the machine is off, he can still hear his imaginary friends calling to him.
Idiot's Crusade is about a simpleton who is accidentally given alien powers which allow him to kill and control people. Creepy.
Death Scene imagines a future in which all of humanity is given precognitive abilities in order to put an end to war- you can't surprise anyone with an attack if you know what's going to happen tomorrow- but it also means everyone knows when they're going to die, which kinda sucks.
It feels like E.T. owes something to the last story in the book, Green Thumb, wherein a guy takes in an alien stranded on Earth before its people finally come back to get it. It even teaches the guy the ability to reinvigorate a dying plant. Actually, the alien itself is plant based and makes the protagonist feel guilty about the way humans use plants in everything from the houses we live in to the food we eat. The last line made me laugh: "Damned vegetable aliens- upsetting a man so he couldn't eat his breakfast cereal in peace!"
An Adventure in Space & Time
An American Werewolf in London
After reading about this movie for years and assuming it was some kind of minor classic, it was a real let down. What a mess- just all over the place tonally and a lot of stuff that didn't need to be in there, like wise-cracking zombies and a dream sequence with Nazi monsters. Why did every song have to have "moon" in the title? I get it, it's a werewolf movie. And what the hell was up with that ending? The hero is lying dead in the street, his girlfriend is crying and then suddenly we get "Bom ba ba bom ba bom ba bom bom ba ba bom ba ba bom ba ba dang a dang dang Ba ba ding a dong ding." WTF? Totally jarring. I guess it's supposed to be funny to go straight from this tragic ending to a doo-wop cover of "Blue Moon" by the Marcels as the credits roll, but I can't tell if it was a bold choice or a stupid one. It was almost like the director was showing total disdain for the characters by doing that.
How to Train Your Dragon 2
I thought both How to Train Your Dragon movies were okay, but I don't fully get why they're so well loved. Maybe I'd have to see them in 3D to appreciate them more.
I'm going to try to avoid going into specifics, but nevertheless, I am going to slightly spoil this movie, so if you haven't seen it yet, you might want to skip ahead to the next movie.
Before going to see this sequel, I'd happened to read that it was potentially traumatic for children. That was enough to give me a pretty good guess as to why that might be. Within the first ten or fifteen minutes, I had an even stronger hunch about what was going to happen and to whom. If you've seen enough movies and cartoons, etc., it's not that hard to spot the signs when a tragedy is being set up. I felt increasingly apprehensive near the middle when the characters were happy and talking about their plans for the future. Whenever that happens in a movie or TV show, I get uneasy because it feels like the writers are just waiting to jerk the rug out from under the audience. They want to fill you up with false hope that things are going to be okay, so that when the bad shit goes down, it's as heartbreaking as possible. Like when Peter Parker is telling Gwen Stacy that he wants to quit being Spider-Man and run away with her and live happily ever after. You know that as soon as he's made that decision, they're doomed.
There's a site called leasthelpful.com, which is a compilation of bad Amazon.com reviews. Included among them was a review of the first How to Train Your Dragon by some idiotic Amazon customer who complained that the movie's message that we should try to understand and befriend our enemies was a dangerous one to send to his grandchildren. That's the same kind of attitude that allowed Hitler to come to power, according this jerk. I guess he would have been happier with an animated kids' movie that taught that life is black and white and our enemies are all evil and we should kill them all. I can't help wondering what this guy's reaction would have been to this sequel. Maybe he would have approved of it more, since our hero Hiccup tries to bring the same "can't we all just get along" attitude to a psychopathic madman and it doesn't work out so well this time- in fact, it gets people killed. Frankly, I thought Hiccup was so stupid, if anybody had to die in the movie, I kind of wish it had been him.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Like How to Train Your Dragon 2, this also offers glimmers of hope that things might turn out okay, but unlike HTTYD2, it doesn't bug me here because I don't think the filmmakers are trying to trick the audience into believing that the ending is going to be a happy one. Anybody who has seen the trailers or the original Planet of the Apes knows that human-simian relations are going to go from bad to worse.
The only thing I didn't like is the confusing title. The titular Dawn never shows up. Nobody in the movie is called Dawn, so why is her name so prominently featured? Maybe it should have been called Rise of the Planet of the Apes instead, but they already used that title.
Halle Berry plays a woman who accidentally leaves her crack baby in an alley and then it's adopted by a social worker (Jessica Lange) and her husband. When Berry gets out of jail a few years later and cleans up her act, she finds out her son is still alive and sues to get him back. Shouldn't she be sent back to jail for admitting she left her baby in an alley while she went to get high? This sounds a little like the Kevin Costner movie I just read about, Black or White.
James Woods and Glenn Close play a couple hoping to adopt the baby of a pregnant teenager played by Mary Stuart Masterson (sporting one of the most unflattering haircuts I've ever seen). Everybody hits it off and then Masterson's character has second thoughts about giving up her baby. I stayed up late watching the movie, which was a waste of time because the picture cut out ten minutes before it was over and I had to go online to try to find out how it ended. When it was on again a few weeks later, I watched the end and found it was totally different from what I expected; the online summary I'd read had lied to me. I was actually disappointed because I would have preferred it if it had ended the way I thought. I thought Woods' and Close' characters were going to adopt Masterson's character and take her away from her crappy home life, but instead she just gives them the baby and that's that.
Lucy is a stupid movie, but it's at least more fun than the other Scarlett Johansson movie I saw this year, Under The Skin. I hated Under the Skin, but I had to give it points for being different and its artistic vision, which is why I gave it three and a half stars. However, if I were rating it strictly by how much I enjoyed it, it would be more like one star. Under the Skin has stuck with me, but not in a good way; it upset me so much that I'm kind of sorry I even know it exists. But I should probably say something about Lucy.
If you can overlook the outdated canard about humans only using ten percent of their brains upon which the entire movie hinges, Lucy is kinda fun, though there's no subtlety to it at all. I'm thinking specifically of the opening scenes when Scarlett Johansson's Lucy is about to get nabbed by this Chinese gang and the action is intercut with wildlife footage of predators about to spring on their prey. Do we really need to get clobbered over the head with symbolism like that?
The Man From Earth
Here's another one of those movies I'd been meaning to sit down and watch for forever, partly because it has an interesting premise (guy claims to be an immortal who has been around since cave man days) and partly because it has a few actors I like. I remember reading about how the movie had actually benefited from illegal piracy because it gave it more attention than a small indie film normally would. I don't know if I'd say it was worth the wait, but it was all right. It gets bonus points in my book for ticking off religious people.
The Two Jakes
This is the sequel to Chinatown, but it was not as well received as that movie. Personally, I thought it wasn't half bad. I might have even liked it a bit better than Chinatown. Chinatown is considered a classic and I don't deny that it's a good movie, but I don't care for it that much; the ending is such a downer. The ending to this one wasn't super happy either, but it was more bittersweet than flat out depressing.
I was kind of hoping this would be Christopher Nolan's 2001, but it just didn't have the same impact on me that 2001 did- maybe no movie can. Ignoring all the hype, it's still a pretty good sci-fi story, even if I did find parts of it predicable, plus I thought the "love conquers all" stuff was a bit much. I kind of want to see it again just to see if I can recognize Bill Irwin as the robot this time around.
I'm not the biggest fan of westerns or John Wayne, but this was enjoyable as far as those things go. Now I want to see the remake.
I didn't know a lot about Birdman going in. I was surprised to realize it's shot as though it's all in one take. That was pretty cool. How I feel about the film is somewhat contingent upon what happens at the end, which is rather ambiguous. I interpreted it as a hopeful ending, but I'm not sure.
Pickup on South Street
Up until a month ago, I didn't know the name Richard Widmark. A glance at his filmography reveals that the only film he was in that I'd seen in the past was Judgement at Nurenberg, and I don't remember him from it. But somehow, within the span of a month, I ended up seeing four of his films- three of then being in one week. The first was the film noir Pickup on South Street, which I was slightly hesitant about adding to this list because I wasn't paying the closest attention when it was on. But I got pulled in as it went along, though it's a bit dated because it kinda has the feel of jingoistic anti-Commie propoganda. It's about a pickpocket who lifts a woman's wallet, which neither of them realize contains microfilm detailing government secrets. When I saw it was being repeated, I actually got up early just so I could catch the few minutes I'd missed at the beginning. I guess Richard Widmark caught my notice because at first I was trying to figure out if he was Frank Gorshin or not.
The Bedford Incident
This was part of what was ostensibly a mini Sidney Poitier marathon, though the star of the last two movies in the lineup were really Richard Widmark. Like Pickup on South Street, the Communists are also ostensibly the bad guys in this movie, though you never see them, and the movie is more balanced overall- things aren't so black and white. Widmark plays the captain of the U.S. destroyer and self described mean bastard whose overzealous antagonism towards the enemy and obsession with tracking down a Russian sub leads to ruin. Poitier plays a journalist and I was interested to discover that this is the first movie he was in where his race is never an issue or even mentioned.
The Long Ships
In this one, Richard Widmark plays a viking searching for a fabled golden bell and Poitier is an evil Nubian king who wants the bell for himself. The movie is just lousy. There's a scene where Widmark's viking crew stumble upon the king's harem and a wacky fracas ensues as they chase the terrified girls around. At least, it's supposed to be wacky, judging by the music, but it's tough to laugh at a bunch of guys trying commit rape.
Niagara is pretty to look at, but it's also pretty slight; there's not much to it, really. Marilyn Monroe plays a woman who plots with her lover to murder her husband, who is played by Joseph Cotten. It's never clear why she feels she has to actually do away with her husband. He doesn't have any money and their marriage is obviously on the rocks away so he probably wouldn't mind a divorce. Maybe he's heavily insured? There are a few plot holes.
Jean Peters, who was also good in Pickup on South Street, has the best character in this movie. She plays half of a married couple who get mixed up in the drama between Monroe and Cotten and she is way too good for her husband, a grinning jackass who shows a lack of respect for his wife. He plans to use their delayed honeymoon as a business trip and who gets more excited at seeing a shredded wheat factory than the falls. When she sees Joseph Cotten's character alive and well two times when he's supposed to be dead, her dope of a husband chalks it up to feminine hysterics or something. I was half-hoping her character and Joseph Cotten's would run off together.
I'd never seen this movie before or played the board game.
I laughed a few times, but I don't quite get why it has a cult following. Maybe it gets better with repeat viewings.
I was a little bugged by the ending. Michael McKean plays a non-stereotypical gay character, and at the time the movie came out, I don't know if there were that many of those in films- there were certainly less than there are today. And at the end, he almost even becomes a positive gay role model, but then the last line of the movie ruins all that. Spoilers if you don't want to know what it is. Turns out he was never really gay. It's not just that, though, but the fact that it feels like we're supposed to be relieved by that revelation. Maybe I'm reading too much into it.
I saw Michael McKean in three movies in a week as well. The other two were D.A.R.Y.L. and Short Circuit 2, which are both about robots. D.A.R.Y.L. also stars Colleen Camp, who was in Clue as well. Not surprisingly, her part in Clue was one of the things that made the movie worthwhile to me.
Murder on the Orient Express(1974)
I've never read any of Agatha Christie's Poirot mysteries, though I have seen quite a bit of the series starring David Suchet- the early episodes anyway; I'm inclined to think of him as the definitive Poirot. However, it may be a good thing that I haven't seen the adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express that he starred in, because from what I read, it deviates greatly from the book- among other things, it apparently adds this religious angle that probably would have pissed me off. I guess they decided that since the book was already adapted faithfully a couple times already, they might as well make their version unique.
I knew very little about the plot going in. I'd seen the story spoofed on Animaniacs and 30 Rock, but it wasn't until the end that it hit me that the solution on 30 Rock was pretty close to what happens in the actual Murder on the Orient Express.
The elderly murder victim looked familiar to me- I thought he was played by Joseph Cotten. It wasn't until the end credits rolled that I realized- holy crap, it was Richard Widmark again!
I've been listening to Mission Log, a Star Trek podcast that goes over every Star Trek episode and movie one by one, and when they got to the episode "Court Martial" one of the guys in the podcast recommended this movie, which starred the actress who guest starred in that episode. I found the beginning of the movie to be rather intriguing because it all seemed so strange and mysterious, but once I realized where things were going, it became slightly less interesting. This is another movie I'm gonna try not to spoil, though just saying something like that gives away that there's something to spoil. So you might want to stop reading if you plan on watching it.
There's a twist at the end that I'm afraid I saw coming from a long way off, which is maybe either because I'm a savvy movie watcher or because the person who recommended it compared it to a certain other thriller with a classic twist ending that had come out a year before. Maybe just saying that there's a twist at the end spoils it because then you're trying to guess what it might be. I hated the ending because it's way too upbeat after what happens. Nobody shows the slightest hint of sympathy towards the murderer, even though it's clear she was pushed over the edge by tremendous abuse she suffered as a child. I'm not overlooking that she was a murderer, but the only people she actually succeeds in killing are the ones who fucked up her life as a child.