Black Sunday (1977)

Link: Black Sunday

Summary: A terrorist plans to attack the US by blowing up a Goodyear blimp at the Super Bowl.  Why, of all the crazy schemes!  Can they be stopped in time?

Thoughts: This was awful.  The writing was just silly, with characters talking to each other as if they had to make sure third graders could understand their dialog, yet trying to sound really cool.  The plot was completely bloated; the film is two hours and twenty minutes, yet only has maybe an hour and a half of real story.  The rest is just bad bland writing that takes too long to move the story forward.  The special effects were just disastrous.  Not even charmingly cheesy, just sad, especially the fake explosions that leave you laughing rather than caring about any of the characters you just watched perish.  Ridiculous film.  Not the worst film ever; it leaves you more with a good laugh than feeling sad for humanity and overly self-conscious about your own art, but still, pretty ridiculous.

Alien (1979)

Link: Alien Anthology

Summary: After exploring a strange planet where another spaceship crashed, a crew returns to space with an extra passenger onboard, and not a friendly one.

Thoughts: Here’s another classic sci-fi film that I finally watched for the first time.  However, this one is so classic that I basically knew almost all the storyline before watching the film.  (Especially as a fan of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! books, the titles of which refer to a plot device used in this film, in which the main character saves a cat to help make her character likeable.)  The special effects are terribly outdated (charmingly cheesy, perhaps I should say), but otherwise the look and feel of the film is awesome, and it looks fantastic on blu-ray.  I love the design of the spaceship, how things look used and the spaces looked lived in.  The plot itself was classic a “monster in the house” plot, and, along with Jaws and Jurassic Park, is one of the best films of this sort, in my opinion.  (They don’t seem nearly as popular these days, do they?  I don’t recall seeing a very modern one lately.)  The plot and pacing were tight.

I didn’t notice it until listening to some of the commentary, but none of the characters have backstories.  Yet they all have very unique easy-to-recognize personalities.  I wouldn’t have even noticed if someone had mentioned this on the commentary, but it’s rather brilliant, isn’t it?  We never see one of those cheesy moments when someone looks a picture or watches a recording of some loved one they’ve left behind.  We never get hints that characters had romantic flings before the film began.  I can easily imagine a novice writer (myself included) wanting to put such things in naturally, taking them for granted.  Yet this films cleverly avoids all that, magnifying the jeopardy of the situation.

Really fun film.  Very easy to see why it’s such a classic.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Link: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Summary: After a man sees a small group of UFOs, he become obsessed with trying to understand a mysterious vision of a mountain.

Thoughts: I had never seen this classic Spielberg film before.  Although the effects are quite obviously dated, the film looked great on blu-ray.  I especially loved the look of the mothership UFO at the end, along with John Williams’s classic well-known score for this film.  The filmmaking was masterful; it’s very easy to get drawn into the mysteriousness of what the UFOs are doing as different characters take different approaches to trying to figure it out, our poor main character driven to the edges of his sanity in the process.

Overall, though, I’m not quite sure I understand what it’s all about.  Why exactly did these aliens come?  What are they doing?  What is the government trying to do with them?  What are the main character’s intentions as he walks onto the spaceship at the end?  I didn’t understand the film’s ending at all.

Still, it’s a fun film.  It was easy to get drawn into, and there’s something very engaging about the pacing and tempo of the whole thing, it just sucks you in like a catchy piece of music.  Which only makes the bizarre answer-less ending all the more annoying.

56 Up (2012)


Link: The Complete Up Series

Summary: This film catches up on the ordinary lives of some random British citizens.  Their lives have been chronicled every seven years since they were seven years old; they are now 56 years old.

Thoughts: I started watching this series with the last installment, 49 Up.  I love these films.  Even though we only see very brief glimpses into these people’s lives, as many of the subjects themselves are quick to remind us, it is fascinating to see both how they change every seven years, how they adapt to the changes that are forced upon them, and yet how they, in some ways, remain the same.  Though I’m sure different fans of these films find them fascinating for different reasons, with this latest installment I was mostly reminded that the important things in a person’s life are not his potential for fame and fortune, but his relationships both with other people and with himself, and that there is always hope; all struggles are temporary.  Yeah, that might sound like a cheesy theme to find, but that’s what I thought about as I watched how these various people progressed through their various stages of life in the span of minutes or seconds.  The worldly stuff gets left behind and forgotten; meanwhile, the self changes what it needs to, and perseveres.

I hope they will continue with another installment.  If something happens to director Michael Apted before then, I hope someone else will take it over.  It would also be fascinating to see something like this in the USA.  I know there have been attempts, but I’ve not come across them; I guess they are not nearly as popular.  In any case, this is perhaps the most fascinating documentary series of all time.

Black Death (2010)


Link: Black Death

Summary: Amid the dangerous outbreak of the bubonic plague, a young monk joins a group of fighters out to investigate a mysterious village, where people claim the dead are being brought back to life.

Thoughts: A rather bleak film.  I enjoyed the look and feel of it, though there was far too much employment of the infamous shaky cam.  The premise itself wasn’t bad, but the overall film was little more than a direct dramatization of the premise.  That is, the film feels like a short film that’s been artificially bloated to a full film.  Most of the conflicts are episodic and don’t seem to relate much to each other, save for the fact that the same characters are engaged in them.  I could not grasp any sort of theme or emotional subtext that could’ve held the film together.  What is the hero’s main emotional conflict?  I couldn’t detect one; all his conflicts were outward and physical in some manner.  By the film’s end, the whole thing just feels bland and empty.

Princess Mononoke (1997)


Link: Princess Mononoke

Summary: After getting attacked by a giant pig-demon, a young man goes off in search of a cure for his demon-related injury, and winds up centering himself in a deadly conflict between a village of industrial workers and the spirits of the nearby forest that they are gradually destroying with their industry.

Thoughts: While I enjoyed the eccentric fantasy elements of this famous film from Studio Ghibli and legendary director Hayao Miyazaki, the overall story confused me a bit too much for me to get emotionally invested in it.  I may just have a bias against forest spirits, as they remind me of the preachy environmentalist animated films of my youth, Once Upon a Forest, FernGully: The Last Rainforest, and the original traditionally animated short The Lorax from the 70’s, each dramatized as if every child will one day face the question of whether to chop down some trees or live peacefully with them, encouraged to do the latter with the memories of the charming animated characters of their youth.  Sorry, forest spirits, I don’t believe in you and I don’t care about you at all.  I am not an enemy of environmentalism in general, but environmentalism should be directed at preserving a balance for our sake, so that we can continue to use the resources the environment offers us.  Not for the sake of made up spirits and talking animals.  So a film that ends with the hero proclaiming: “Forest spirit, we give you back your head!  Take it and be in peace!” just doesn’t work for me.

Perhaps the real problem I had with this film is that I couldn’t understand the main conflict in the first place; the main character needs to find a cure for his demon-arm injury, but the conflict he gets sucked into seems only incidental.  It didn’t seem personal enough for him, leaving our emotional investment to depend mostly on how much we can relate to and care about the supporting characters and their problems.  Granted, it is more than possible that the manner of story exposition just didn’t work for me, leaving me confused more than anything.

This film does feature Studio Ghibli’s typical beautiful visuals and one of composer Joe Hisaishi’s most beautiful scores.

Tokyo Story (1953)


Link: Tokyo Story

Summary: Aging parents visit their adult children in Tokyo, but the changes to Japanese culture in the early 50’s have created quite a generational gap.  The parents are disappointed that their children are not as successful as they hoped they would become.  Meanwhile, the children seem only to be burdened by having their parents as guests.

Thoughts: This is the first film from famous director Yasujirô Ozu that I’ve seen.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite get into it.  Ozu’s slow natural pace of storytelling mostly just made me tired, and I loathe his camera work.  Straight-on close-ups, weird confusing 360 degree cuts, almost everything shot at a low angle.  I found it distracting, and it only worked to make the slow-paced story that much more boring.

The over story itself was interesting; I think the emotions the characters go through are universally relatable.  And I like how the characters behaved naturally and believably.  Save for the moments when characters let their emotions affect their behavior directly, many of their emotions are evident only through subtext, keeping (or at least attempting to keep) the viewer engaged.  That said, the slow pacing and boring camera work only seem to work against the story.  That is, if the attention required to understand the characters is too much, the mental effort to stay engaged is only further strained by the pacing, camera work, and mechanical line-delivery, as if the director is just daring your mind to wander off into a confused slumber.

While I may check out some more of Ozu’s work at some point, I must confess that I didn’t find this feature particularly engaging.

Insidious Chapter 2 (2013)


Link: Insidious: Chapter 2

Summary: Starting where the first Insidious film left off, a family deals with setting things right after a father becomes possessed by an evil ghost intent on killing the family.

Thoughts: I enjoyed this sequel more than its predecessor.  While the premise is still rather ridiculous, this chapter seems to take itself less seriously and just has horror-film fun with a collection of creepy situations and jump scares.  Best watched at night in complete darkness.  Director James Wan really knows how to edit and pace a good jump.  Like The Conjuring, seasoned horror film fans probably won’t find anything special here, and may even be disappointed with how un-seriously this film takes itself, but it’s the self-conscious humor of this sequel that I really enjoyed.  And while the overall premise is kind of silly for a horror film, I still like the idea of ghosts threatening to take over your body during sleep.  Fun movie.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)


Link: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Summary: Bilbo Baggins continues his journey with the dwarves to the Misty Mountains to reclaim their home.  In the process, they’ll have to escape orcs, angry citizens of Laketown, and the ferocious dragon Smaug.

Thoughts: I thought this was great film, even better than the first Hobbit film from last year.  I must admit, I never finished the book.  I only got about half-way through it and then moved on and never went back to it.  That was in middle school.  I think Harry Potter came out in the US the next year.  Anyway, the point is, I am not a Tolkien purist who would get upset by how much of the story was fabricated for the film.  I thought they did a great job with what they created.  It did feel a bit modern; I can’t imagine Tolkien creating a character like Tauriel.  But she worked for the purposes of the film, and I loved the look and feel of the new elven home we get to see in this installment.  I also thought Laketown looked wonderful, though I’ll admit that I didn’t think Stephen Fry worked very well as the master of Laketown.  He just seems too worldly and modern to be in a fantasy film like this.

The dragon Smaug was fantastic.  He looked epic in 3D on the big screen; I loved pretty much every Smaug scene.

The film is almost three hours, but the time really flew by; the film was captivating throughout.  Great film.

Rogue Valley: The Wolves and the Ravens

I recently discovered this song, The Wolves and the Ravens from the Rogue Valley band, on the soundtrack for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  (I haven’t seen the film yet, but I’d like to soon.)  Anyway, this song really caught my attention.  The melody is instantly catchy, the lyrics are nice, and the whole thing just sounds warm and calm.  Ah, it’s awesome.  It looks like they’ve posted almost all their work on their YouTube channel, and I really like some of their other tracks as well.  Great stuff.

Frozen (2013)

Link: Frozen

Summary: When a queen with uncontrollable ice-creating powers runs away in fear and shame, her sister goes after her, hoping to bring her back to her kingdom where she belongs to end the eternal winter her powers have brought upon the kingdom.

Thoughts: There may be spoilers ahead.

I was not planning on seeing this film at first because the trailers made it look awful.  The humor was cheesy and the characters came off as annoying.

But then I started hearing good things about it, and trailers have misrepresented films before.  (I thought the trailers for Shrek looked awful, and I ended up loving that film.  I confess that I even thought the trailers for Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring looked unimpressive, and that film along with its sequels ended up blowing me away.)

I thought the film was great.  The humor that seemed so awful in the trailers worked wonderfully when watched in context, and the characters made much more sense.  The story was engaging, and I loved the fairy tale look and feel of everything.

The songs are clearly not from Alan Menken, but they’re very catchy and, at times, very emotionally powerful.  I enjoyed how they continuously moved the story along; it really felt like a 2D Disney film from my childhood in the 90’s.

The film did have some weaknesses.  “Oh, Sean, must you critique things so?”  Yes.  You should be happy that I thought the film was interesting enough to provide this much commentary.

I loved the beginning, how they established the strained relationship between the sisters with the catchy “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” song.  But when Elsa becomes angry after her coronation and begins losing control of her powers, it feels a bit sudden and forced.  “Well, that escalated quickly.”  The story is then set in motion when Anna decides to go after her.  But why?  What are the stakes?  It just feels rushed.  Maybe if Elsa had accidentally frozen some of her kingdom’s citizens or something.  And while Elsa building her ice palace while singing “Let It Go” is cinematically fantastic, I wonder what exactly her intentions are?  To just stay there forever, walking around?  What does she plan to do for food?

One line really bothered me.  In the song “Fixer Upper” one of the trolls sings “People don’t really change”.  Really?  If that bleak hopeless statement were true, doesn’t that kind of defeat the purpose of the song?  And of the entire story?  And of any story?  That said, I think it’s true that one shouldn’t dive into a romantic relationship with the belief that she will somehow change her love interest to conform to her desires.  That’s hardly fair to the love interest anyway.  “I don’t have to change, but you do; you’re not quite good enough for me yet, but you will be after I work on you!”  But changing in general?  People change all the time.  But you can only change yourself, and only by wanting to.  It’s not always easy, but that’s what having Free Will is all about.  And that’s what stories are all about; they’re about characters wanting change and making decisions to achieve it.  I really didn’t understand the point of this song, or what it was trying to say, other than, “Hey, audience, in case you’re really stupid, we should tell you that Anna really loves Christoff.”  (And not that prince with red hair, because remember: red-head men are always bullies or clowny side-kicks, not romantic interests.)

Come to think of it, Anna’s romantic sub-plots, though entertaining, don’t really add much thematically to the main conflict, which is about Anna’s relationship with her sister, and her sister’s control of her powers.  Might’ve been an interesting film if they had forgotten the romantic sub-plots completely and focused only on the sibling relationship.  Why does a Disney “princess movie” necessarily have to include romantic relationships at all?  (I’ve heard debates about whether or not this film is “feminist”.  I guess it depends on what “feminist” means to you.  This film is just atypical because the main conflict does not depend on romantic relationships for solutions to problems.  Well, in a way, it pretends like it does for a while near the end, and then it says, “Nope, we tricked you, haha!”  If that makes a woman feel empowered, well, um, OK, whatever.  But I don’t personally see how that makes it any more or less “feminist” than any other story featuring a female protagonist in a non-romantic-relationship story.)

Overall, even with these weaknesses, I thought the film was far above the other animated films I’ve seen this year.  What the film does well, it does fantastically.

On a side note, the film is so unlike the Hans Christian Andersen tale it’s inspired by, The Snow Queen, I’m confident someone could still make a great film adaptation that holds more true to the original tale and not look like a Frozen rip-off.