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.

The Internship (2013)

Link: The Internship

Summary: Two out of work (but charming and witty!) sales men miraculously get accepted into an internship program at Google, where they must work with a younger generation to win a contest that will guarantee them a position with the tech company.

Thoughts: This was an awful film.  It almost felt like nobody really want to make it.  The whole thing just feels too… fake… if that makes any sense in the context of a film.  The story didn’t feel genuine.  The humor was fortunately not as raunchy as one might expect from Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughan, but it was all very forced and not funny.  It was almost like watching the Disney Channel without a laugh track.  But what really bothered me was the whole idea of the older generation (as represented by the two main characters) needing to mentor the younger tech-savvy-but-socially-stupid generation, teaching them how to break their social shells and have a good time.  I found it almost condescending.

Computer Chess (2013)


Link: Computer Chess

Summary: A group of programming nerds get together at a convention to let their chess programs battle each other in a computer chess tournament.

Thoughts: As someone who enjoys both chess and programming (and I’m working on my own chess engine), I thought this would be interesting.  But I suppose I would’ve been much more interested in a straight-forward documentary on the subject of computer chess.  This film tries to be an awkward comedy, somewhere between a comedy-drama and a mockumentary, but hardly any of its humor is very funny, and there’s not much for the true computer chess fan to see.

Reign of Fire (2002)


Link: Reign of Fire

Summary: In a post-apocalyptic world brought on by dragons, a man fights to kill the dragon alpha-male, hoping to restore peace and prosperity to the dragon-ravaged lands.

Thoughts: I love the idea of merging dragons with sci-fi, pitting dragons against modern military machinery.  The look-and-feel of combining classic fantasy (dragons and castles) with sci-fi (machinery in a post-apocalyptic world) is very unique and engaging.  Unfortunately the overall story for this film was rather bland and suffered from some major pacing issues.  The first act was bloated by unnecessary subplots and what should’ve been the midpoint event came too late in the story, making the climax rushed and anti-climactic.  In the end, it leaves you feeling you haven’t watched anything too special.  Fun idea ruined by plotting mistakes.

The Conjuring (2013)


Link: The Conjuring

Summary: A paranormal investigator studies a house haunted by particularly sinister demons, hoping to drive them away and make the house a safe place for its family.

Thoughts: I thought this was a well-made classic-style horror film.  It featured nice pacing and some great creepy moments.  It’s also nice to see Christianity used as a force of good against demons, something a lot of modern horror film makers tend to shy away from these days.  Ultimately, though, if you’ve seen a good number of horror films, this one doesn’t really bring anything new to the genre like some of the director’s other work (Saw and Insidious).

Tales from Earthsea (2006)


Link: Tales From Earthsea

Summary: I’m not sure how to summarize this film.

Thoughts: I’m not sure how to summarize this film because the storytelling is horrible slop.  It begins with a young man who kills his father, steals his sword, and runs away.  He ends up joining this older man who is a wizard on a mission to do something that I never really understood.  They come to the house of some woman and her daughter and do things.  And then this evil guy comes and kidnaps people and they fight him.  And the girl turns into a dragon.  And the young man defeats the bad guy.  The end.

The film features Studio Ghibli’s usual beautiful artwork and mesmerizing music.  But the storytelling is so sloppy and confusing that I could not understand what was going on and could not emotionally invest myself in any of the characters.  By far the worst film from the studio.  In fact, it’s one of the worst animated films of all time.

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Link: 1Q84 (Vintage International)

Summary: When a writer accepts the task of ghost-editing a strange story for a writing competition, he ends up thrusting himself into a strange and mysterious world in which a religious cult wants him dead, the story’s strange original writer insists on living with him, and the story he rewrote which he thought was only a bizarre fantasy begins to reveal itself as true.  The reality of the world does not seem to be what he thought.

Thoughts: While the fairy-tale-like strangeness of the story kept me reading, and reading, and reading (for 900-something pages of weirdness), ultimately the story leaves a bunch of things unexplained or open-ended, leaving me as the reader rather unimpressed.  The story also features a bunch of really weird dirtiness which adds nothing to the story.  The author also likes to over-describe almost everything, adding in a bunch of details that don’t matter at all.  Things like: “The dog liked to eat spinach for some reason.” and “He woke up and drank a glass of milk.  Then he sat down at the table with a piece of toast and ate it while reading the newspaper.”  Blah, blah, blah, who cares?  I guess it’s a style decision that may work better for some readers than it does for me.  I’d prefer the story to move along.  I have a good enough imagination that if I want a bunch of useless details, I can make them up on my own, thank you very much.  Anyway, I’d like to check out more of the author’s work, because this book did feature some wonderful and poetic moments that really got me excited.  But the overall story failed to live up to anything special for me.

Come and See (1985)

Link: Come & See

Summary: A young man joins a group of Russian partisans fighting Nazis during the chaos of World War 2.

Thoughts: This film is less story-driven or character-driven and more image-driven, almost working as a set of montages depicting the tragedies of war and the cruel indifference it can provoke in soldiers.  I suppose it’s supposed to come across as shocking and terrifying, showing audiences the horribleness of war with its gritty realism, but if you’ve watched a lot movies, it doesn’t quite stand out as anything special.

12 and Holding (2005)


Link: 12 and Holding

Summary: After bullies accidentally kill a twelve year old, his two best friends and his brother deal with his death in various ways, his brother by seeking lethal revenge on the bullies.

Thoughts: One of the more bizarre films I’ve seen.  Its quirky awkward humor seems too upbeat for how sad everyone’s situation really is.  It creates a bizarre atmosphere in which you’re not sure whether the film is trying to make you laugh or cry.  Perhaps it’s trying to make you do both, or perhaps it’s only trying resist being too heavy-handed either way, but the product is only a weird muddled confusion that pushes you out of the story (rather than the sort of natural forwardness Truffaut might’ve been able to manage).  There’s something about the dialog that doesn’t quite work either, something a bit forced and unnatural about the things people say to each other, and the ways they emotionally react to each other.  I can’t quite put my finger on why it doesn’t work, but it just didn’t feel very honest to me.  I did, however, appreciate the rather dark ending that leaves you a bit unsettled.