The Croods (2013)

Link: The Croods

Summary: When random natural disasters begin happening, a family of cavemen are forced to venture out of their caves to seek a safer place to leave.

Thoughts: I must admit, my eyes got a bit misty watching this film.  Because I was yawning so much.  It was awful.  I just couldn’t relate to any of the characters.  The father is constantly plagued with worry; he’s seen many other families die on his dangerous planet, and prefers his family to stay in a cave and stay there.  But his daughter refuses to heed his warning, wanting to experience the wonders of nature.  When the cave is destroyed, the family is forced to face nature in all its beauty and danger.  The father feels like he’s losing his family as they all seek wisdom in Guy, a hip cool guy who doesn’t shy away from danger but looks for ways to conquer it.

A couple problems.  Firstly, the story switched main characters.  At first, it seems the teenage girl is the main character, as she struggles to explore the world while her father wants her to stay safe in the cave.  But when the family is forced out of their home, the father becomes the main character, as he struggles to face danger that he’d rather shy away from.

Secondly, the father’s dislike for Guy makes no sense.  If anything, he’d cling to Guy for guidance, which could’ve inspired some good comedy.  Meanwhile, the daughter’s dislike of her father’s worrying makes no sense, since he’s not carrying out any discipline or actually harming her in any way.  I just don’t understand these characters’ motivations for their attitudes.

So, when we reach the end, what exactly was the story about?  I think the theme they were going for was not being afraid of experiencing new things, even though they might be dangerous.  But the actual events of the story and the decisions the characters make do not illustrate this theme, so characters are forced to say it out loud so bluntly that it’s supposed to double as a joke.  Experiencing new things is never a consequence of a decision any of them make on their own; nature continually forces it upon them.  It’s like trying to elucidate the joy of skydiving when the plane is on fire.  It’s not an interesting decision to jump from a plane when the only other option is getting consumed by flames.  That’s not conflict.  Evading one disaster after another is not a story about trying new things.

Can Chris Sanders make a good film without Dean DeBlois?  Nope.  Not yet, anyway.  But my negative opinion is in the minority.  The film has made a boat load of money, and a sequel has already been announced.  I think I might miss it.

The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2011)

Link: The Sorcerer and The White Snake

Summary: Based on an ancient Chinese legend.  A man’s love is doomed when he falls in love with and marries a demon (who, in her true form, appears as a giant white snake).  Meanwhile, a demon hunter tries to save the man by capturing the demon.

Thoughts: The premise was interesting (explaining why it survived as a legend for hundreds of years).  There’s a lot a good writer can do with a man who unknowingly falls in love with a demon.  You know the relationship will not work out, but you know neither party will give it up willingly.  So the foundational story is a strong and timeless one.  Unfortunately this particular interpretation of the story was rather boring.  Everybody overacted as if they were in a cartoon, and the dialog was far too straightforward; hardly ever any subtext or style.  I can forgive cheap CGI when the story is compelling enough, but the story was not compelling here, so the effects just made me feel a bit sad.  The fighting scenes were choppy and bland, and the cartoony film score just made everything worse.  Felt like I was watching something made for five-year-olds.  Maybe I was?

West Side Story (1961)

Link: West Side Story

Summary: The classic forbidden love story of Romeo and Juliette retold as a dance and song musical on the 1950’s New York streets.

Thoughts: Though I’d already heard pretty much all the songs and music from this popular musical, I’d never actually seen the movie.  And, eh, it was OK.  A bit too wannabe-hip for my tastes, and the dancing was blegh, except for when they did flips, because flips are always cool.  But it’s like, “Hey, we’re hip, ‘cause we’re snappin’ our fingers to the groove, and now watch us gracefully kick our legs really high!”  What?  Stop it.  What do you think you’re doing?  If you’re going to dance, then you should dance like they did in Singin’ in the Rain.  And I’ve never found Romeo and Juliette to be a very compelling story; it’s such baseless shallow love.  “I see you, and now I love you!”  “Me too!”  “Why do we love each other?  Just because!”  Blegh, I say!  Bah humbug!

Anyway, it’s hard not to love Leonard Bernstein’s beautiful music.  Sondheim’s lyrics are OK, but not nearly as intricate or interesting or witty as they’d become in his later work.

Alphas S1 (2011)


Link: Alphas: Season One

Summary: A team of people with superpowers (“alphas”) work for the government, helping them to solve crimes committed by other people with superpowers.  Superpowers usually have some pseudo-science explanation for how they are possible.

Thoughts: A day or two after I started watching the first episodes of this series, it was cancelled after its second season, its storyline left unfinished.  Grrr!  Anyway, the first season does have its share of problems.  It can’t seem to decide what sort of show it wants to be.  Is it a sci-fi thriller?  Is it crime drama?  Is it superhero action?  Since it tries to be all three, it comes off as none, but rather a muddled mix.

Still, it had some strong points.  The characters were interesting.  They were each unique and believable, and the dialog between them was fun and natural.  You get to know them and their personalities pretty fast, which I don’t think is a very easy feat in any sort of storytelling.

It’s the overarching conflicts that made no sense to me.  Sometimes they’re tracking down a single alpha who’s misusing his or her powers for evil, sometimes they’re battling this vague underground criminal organization made up of alphas.  Meanwhile, they work for the government, so they don’t even necessarily get to make their own decisions about who and what and where and how to fight.

It would’ve been much more interesting (even if cliché) if they had been part of a secret organization themselves, away from the government, with their own set of morally questionable goals and a much more concrete set of enemies.

I’ll try to watch the second season if/when Netflix gets them on DVD, even though I’m sure the unresolved cliffhanger will annoy me.

Bates Motel S1E6: The Truth (2013)


Summary: Norma seems to finally accept that Deputy Shelby is evil, yet she doesn’t want to go to the police as Shelby is still blackmailing her for the murder she’s guilty of (since he still as the victim’s belt that he found under Norman’s bed).  When Shelby happens upon the girl hiding out in Norma’s motel, he’s understandably upset.  And deadly.

Thoughts: We finally get to see how Norman’s father died, if we are to believe Norma’s story to Dylan (which I guess we are since we know Norman hallucinates).  It will be interesting to see how this affects Dylan, who already knows Norman has something wrong with him.  It was also a relief to have Shelby’s evil character come to an end, though we don’t know what happened to that girl.  Definitely ends on quite a cliffhanger.

Bates Motel S1E5: Ocean View (2013)


Summary: Norman helps Norma get out of jail.  Norma then seeks help from Deputy Shelby to get her murder charge dropped, but she realizes how dangerous Shelby is when Norman finds the girl he saw in Shelby’s house, the girl Shelby has been holding captive.  Meanwhile, Dylan’s crime partner is murdered in cold blood, and Dylan seeks revenge.

Thoughts: I was afraid the girl Norman saw had been one of his hallucinations, but it turns out she’s real, and Shelby is indeed quite evil.  It was interesting to see Norman and Norma’s relationship get a bit twisted as Norma blames Norman for his not being there when she was arrested.  While Norman has his obvious moments of crazy, Norma clearly has some psycho issues herself.  Not sure what Dylan’s subplot contributed to the story, but perhaps it’s setup for something.

Defiance S1E2: Down In the Ground Where the Dead Men Go (2013)


Summary: Nolan chases Ben as he flees down an old mine, where an entire ghost city is buried.  Ben is up to evil, and must be stopped!  Meanwhile, Irisa confronts Datak Tarr as he leads a torture ritual in the streets.

Thoughts: What a boring episode.  Nothing interesting in this one at all.  The plans of the villains are far too vague to be interesting, and the main characters have no goals except to confront whatever obvious moral wrongness they see.  If the next episode is this shallow, I’m calling it quits.  I want real conflict, moral dilemmas, witty sarcasm.

Defiance S1E1: Pilot (2013)

Summary: In a future in which several alien races have invaded earth, a man and his adopted alien daughter look for a safe haven amid the chaos, because apparently a lot of aliens are evil and there are wars all over the place.  They stumble upon a town called Defiance.  The town has its own share of problems, but at least it’s better than the cruelty outside.

Thoughts: Overall, I thought the pilot was decent.  They avoided the common pilot mistakes of trying to do to much backstory and/or trying to overcrowd the subplots.  They deftly kept the story simple and jumped right in.  It seemed they knew the fun of the show would be in the setting and introducing the various alien races and cultures, so they got right to it.  The visual effects were also very good for a TV show, especially after witnessing the horrible effects of shows like Terra Nova.

My main complaint is that the writing was horrible.  There was way too much exposition in dialog, people saying things for the obvious sake of telling the audience something.  Some of this may have been to compensate for skipping over the backstory, but I think they could’ve gotten away with much less exposition.  True sci-fi fans can figure things out.  Anyway, I thought the writing could still have done with some more humor.  I want some witty banter, sarcasm, along with the occasional astute philosophical observation.  The overall plot was also rather uninspired, but I can forgive that in a pilot.  Making the main character become the new sheriff was a rather forced way to get him to stay in Defiance and involved in future conflicts, especially since the same thing happened in Once Upon a Time.  Lastly, the character of Doc Yewell really bothered me.  She came across as arrogant and moody, yet she’s portrayed as a good character we’re supposed to root for.  I hope she’ll either lighten up or get more sarcastic in future episodes.

I’ll check out the next episode, but I’m not yet impressed enough to become a dedicated viewer.  We’ll see.

Life of Pi (2012)

Link: Life of Pi

Summary: A young man survives a shipwreck with a tiger.

Thoughts: What a boring movie.  Long stretches of nothing interesting happening.  Might’ve been interesting to see in 3D in theaters for the special effects, but the story was thin and meaningless, save for the meaning you can make up for yourself with the character’s occasional mention of something vaguely religious.  Aside from the long stretches of no story, the role of religion really bothered me.  The  main character is interested in religion, but doesn’t show an understanding of it (“I am Christian and Muslim and Hindu!”), nor does religion play any interesting role in his decision making, save for a few prayers.  Though when he says something like, “God, I give myself to you!” and then continues to act completely the same, one has to wonder whether his prayer meant anything.  The attempt at making this film have a religious undertone completely fails, as it plays no role in the actual story or in the characters’ decision making; it is merely something mentioned in dialog every now and then, as if that’s all religion really is, something to argue about.  His father’s words about the role of religion versus science is about as deep as a ten year old reflecting on the subject for the first time.  “Science explains things, religion doesn’t!”  Oh, wow, there’s a deep philosophical thought I never considered before, thanks!  Similarly, the main character’s decision to take on a mathematical name played no role in the story, apparently chosen only for an interesting title of the original book.  I mean, there could’ve at least been a circle metaphor somewhere.  As it is, the title could just’ve easily been Life of Logarithm.  Finally, the ending of the film hints that the entire story may be a complete lie, leaving it up for the viewer to decide what to believe, because that’s really poetic and artistic.  Yes, there’s nothing like a boring adventure that ends with the narrator hinting that maybe it’s not even true.

Horrible stupid boring movie.

Dragon (2011)

Link: Dragon

Summary: After a man fights and kills a notorious convict, an investigator believes he’s a notorious criminal himself.

Thoughts: I really enjoyed this film.  The action sequences were a lot of fun.  The fights played with their settings and were well shot, without all the annoying rapid editing you get in American action films these days.  (As Donnie Yen says in the bonus features, “Shooting the action is a lot more important than choreographing the action.”)  I enjoyed how the investigator would stroll around slow-motion replays of the action or how we’d get to see diagrams of what he’s thinking about; it was very visually imaginative.  The overall plot was a bit cliché; it’s a classic sort of story with no surprises.  But I think they did manage to breathe a unique life into it.  Fun movie.

Sleuth (1972)

Link: There is no link.  Unfortunately this film does not seem to be currently available on DVD; I caught it on Turner Classic Movies.

Summary: Based on a play.  A mystery writer invites his wife’s lover to his house in hopes of getting him to help with a ridiculous insurance fraud scheme.  But that itself turns out to be a scheme, as ulterior motives surface.  The story itself is not a mystery, but it’s about mysteries, about the creation and solving of mysteries (hence the title).

Thoughts: I loved this film, thought it was fantastic.  The writing was hilarious, the editing to creepy-faced automatons was hilarious, and the twists and turns of the plot were exciting.  I enjoyed the mysterious Clue-ish feel to the whole thing; it all takes place in one mansion.  The cast is very conservative; there are only two characters in the entire film.  Being based on a play, it does kind of have stage feel to it, how most of the story is in the dialog between the two characters.  But it’s fantastic dialog, clever and engaging, with each character believably transitioning to various emotions in turn, from happy to devastated to enraged to calm.  I loved the idea of mysteries being games, and the exploration of how far is too far when it comes to game playing.  Really wish this was on DVD or Blu-ray.

The film stars Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine.  Interestingly, the film was remade (or re-imagined, I should say) in 2007, with Caine switching to Olivier’s role.  I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s in my queue.

The Man with the Iron Fists (2012)

Link: The Man with the Iron Fists

Summary: In this martial arts film written, directed, and starring rapper RZA, a blacksmiff makes himself arms of iron to face villains who are fighting over gold or something.

Thoughts: I honestly enjoyed some elements of the film, mostly the over-the-top fantastical wildness of its setting, its characters, and the unique style of weaponry.  Many fun elements to play with.  Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be a story.  Too many characters seemed to be fighting for no reason, and the dialog was as inane as it gets.  It’s all the more annoying because the fantastical elements could’ve easily inspired a much more interesting story in the hands of better writers.  Very disappointing film.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)


Link: Zero Dark Thirty

Summary: The story behind the search for and killing of Osama bin Laden.

Thoughts: A boring film.  The lead actress overacted a bit much, but I blame the director for that.  I didn’t understand why her character should be so obsessed with killing bin Laden, but I guess it’s one of those artifacts of trying to turn actual events into a dramatic film, finding the right balance between facts and dramatization.  Overall, I wasn’t impressed.

Hitchcock (2012)


Link: Hitchcock

Summary: Hitchcock sets out to make Psycho, but is burdened with a suffering marriage.

Thoughts: I’m not sure what was up with the makeup in this film; everyone had yellow faces, and Hitchcock’s ears kept moving strangely.  Anyway, even if Anthony Hopkins didn’t look very much like Hitchcock, he did a great job of capturing his speech pattern and the way he seemed to carry himself.  And the guy who played Anthony Perkins also did a great job.

I don’t know anything about Hitchcock’s personal life, or what sort of things he and his wife might have struggled with, or whether or not this story is based on people’s hearsay.  (If they never confessed anything themselves, I would take it all with a grain of salt.)  Of course, my favorite film being Amadeus, I am more than willing to accept wildly fictional portrayals of historic artists, granted the story is compelling.  This story, unfortunately, was not compelling.  It was extremely shallow.  It is basically a shallow romantic drama between Hitchcock and his wife as they try to rediscover their love for each other as the production of Psycho stresses them.  Hitchcock wants to make Psycho to revitalize his career and reputation, but there’s really nothing at stake for him, so what the heck do we care?  If the production of Psycho related more to his marital problems, it might have been more interesting.  (See the interplay between the theatrical production of Peter Pan and Barrie’s relationship problems in the fantastic film Finding Neverland.)  Overall, I wasn’t impressed with this film.

A few points for Danny Elfman’s compelling musical score.

A Man Escaped (1956)

Link: A Man Escaped

Summary: A man escapes from a prison.  It’s as simple as it gets.

Thoughts: This is the second film by French director Robert Bresson that I’ve watched, and I enjoyed it more than Pickpocket.  Bresson’s otherwise annoying directing style serves the focused nature of this particular story very well.  The film title itself establishes the character’s goal, and the story remains focused entirely on the main character achieving his goal.  We don’t even care why he’s in prison (it’s Nazi occupied France, so I suppose we assume the reason is unjust).  No backstory, no big subplot.  We are given every detail of how he escapes; nothing is left conveniently unexplained.  Though the pace may be slow at times, I found myself captivated watching as the main character scraped the end of a spoon into the crevices of his door to loosen its boards.  Given the title and the past-tense narration, we know the character is going to escape at the end, it’s just a matter of discovering what exactly he will do to escape.  I also enjoyed the use of Mozart.  Fun movie.