Happy 2018! In 2017, I watched a total of of 180 movies. That’s 54 less than last year’s count, but who’s counting? Here’s my annual collage (full list here):
My two favorite live-action films from 2016 would definitely be Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and A Monster Calls. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 was a bit of a surprise. I enjoyed the first film, but it didn’t feel overly special to me. I enjoyed this sequel a lot more. It was funnier, the story seemed tighter, and the main conflict felt more meaningful. Baby Groot was hilarious; I fear the next installment won’t be able to compete with him being an adult again. A Monster Calls was a more serious film, and I loved the way it merged fantasy with the real world. Beautiful cinematography and music as well.
Animation-wise, no film came close to Pixar’s Coco. It was a beautiful story with super-catchy music. And I loved how its main theme song, “Remember Me”, actually played a very important role in the plot; it wasn’t just some arbitrary addition. Not only is this movie my favorite animated film of the year, I’d have to say it has become my favorite Pixar film of all, taking the place from Finding Nemo. (It’s also Pixar’s highest-rated film on IMDb at the time of this writing. Yay!)
Other enjoyable films of the year include Dunkirk, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, The Dark Tower, Blade Runner 2049, and It: Chapter One. The two fantasy films were a bit cheesy and had some flaws, but I still enjoyed them.
I really enjoyed the 3D re-release of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. I don’t think it did very well at the box office, which is too bad. I love 3D movies and I love older films being 3D-ized. Considering how much the process of 3D-izing a film costs, T2’s box office results will only discourage the practice. Tragedy, I say!
I saw Terrence Malick’s 2011 film The Tree of Life and loved it. Long and contemplative and somewhat weird, but overall very thought-provoking. I also really enjoyed the 2014 foreign film A Hard Day, an action thriller with a lot of great twists, both humorous and suspenseful, almost Hitchcockian.
Older films I saw for the first time in 2017 and highly enjoyed include Excalibur (great fantasy with a classic 80’s feel to it), Stand By Me, Man of La Mancha (Peter O’Toole is not so great in this, but I just love the musical), Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (love this series), and High Noon with Gary Cooper, a classic.
So that’s my 2017 in movies.
And guess what I got for Christmas this year? A year-long MoviePass subscription! Remember “MoviePass”? I blogged about it way back in 2013 here. Their service was a bit too expensive then; I’m glad costs have gone down. My card hasn’t arrived in the mail yet, but I’m really looking forward to it! So I’m hoping to see a lot more new releases in theaters this year.
Here are some movies I’m looking forward to this year. I won’t be able to afford to go to the theater as much as I’d like, but I did get some gift certificates for Christmas, so I can at least go to a few for free. (Thanks to my brother from the very same mother!)
This comes out this week! Read the book last year and thought it was good. I also loved the director’s last two films. This is about a kid whose mother is dying. But fortunately an imaginary friend comes along to help him out. Although it sounds terribly cheesy if you say it like that. Maybe: To help cope with his mother’s inevitable death, the mind of a young lad breaks and he begins hallucinating a destructive monster that tells him to do bad things. OK, that’s not really it either. Just watch the trailer. I look forward to seeing it sometime this month.
The animated film was one of the first movies I ever remember seeing in theaters. There’s no way this can beat the animated version, but I’ll still be interested to see it. I’m glad they’re including the songs, even though they were all already sung to perfection by the original animated voice cast.
Since being pleasantly surprised after seeing Batman Begins in theaters while I was in college, I’ve made sure to see every Christopher Nolan film in theaters. Interstellar is his only film so far that I thought was less than stellar; it had such a silly ending. I’m sure this upcoming film of his will not have a similar ending. I really don’t care about the story or anything, I just like Christopher Nolan’s work.
This is yet another movie I want to see only because of the director. I really enjoyed Colin Trevorrow’s last two films. I have no idea what the plot is for this film, and there doesn’t seem to be a trailer out yet. I just hope they don’t push the release date back yet again.
Guardians of the Galaxy is so far the only live-action Marvel film I thought was enjoyable. Probably has something to do with its more sci-fi-ish setting. Tight-suits and skyscrapers just seem bland to me. So I would like to see this sequel…
The Lego Batman Movie looks partly stupid, partly hilarious. Want to see. Then there’s Cars 3. I’m not so sure about yet another Cars movie from Pixar. I didn’t think the first two were all that great, but I’ve been seeing all Pixar films in theaters since Toy Story when I was 9 or 10 years old, so can I really stop now? Pixar also has Coco coming out this year, which IMDb says is about a 12 year old boy guitarist who does something interesting or something. Well, whatever, it’s Pixar! Then there’s Despicable Me 3, which I hope will be as good as the last two, which were both hilarious.
I think that’s it. I guess the ones I would definitely like to see in theaters include A Monster Calls, King Arthur, Dunkirk, and the two Pixar films. Only five. Not too bad, I guess.
Like I did last year, here are all the movies and TV seasons I watched in 2016! A list of all 234 titles can be found here. 234 is now my new record. Wow, what an accomplishment. I will put it on my resume!
Of the movies that came out this year, my favorites included some that were a bit thematically shallow, but had serviceable stories and work as fun popcorn flicks. These included Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. (Edit: Ha ha… I just now realize these are all films in series, titled with colons, the new fashion. Coincidence?)
Movies with stronger stories included the live-action remake of The Jungle Book, which, unlike the cartoon, actually had a cohesive narrative and an interesting theme about man’s relation to nature. I was pleasantly surprised. I thought Risen managed to be less cheesy than most overtly Christian movies, and served as an interesting reminder of just how human the followers of Jesus were; being raised Christian, there’s much about Christianity that’s easy to take for granted. It’s difficult to imagine how radical (and maybe even insane) Christ’s teachings must have seemed to those who met him face to face without the comfort of a two-thousand year old institution to support them. I also thought Hacksaw Ridge was a great film; an army medic refuses to hold a gun, yet manages to save many lives on the battlefield.
Animated movies I enjoyed included: Kung Fu Panda 3, which was hilarious and featured another great musical score. The Boy and the Beast came out last year, but only came out in the US this year. A boy enters a parallel world of beasts (monstrous anthropomorphic animals, mainly), and trains to become a fighter. His rebellious personality provides the appropriate challenge, both physically and emotionally, for a skilled but jaded fighter who needs to get his act together himself. But growing up in the world of beasts has its price, and when the boy grows into a teen and tries to form and/or mend relationships in the human world, he runs into new difficulties. Very fun fantastical feature that you’d never find in the US. Also featured a great orchestral soundtrack. Finally, I really enjoyed Kubo and the Two Strings. A wonderfully bizarre fantasy with beautiful visuals. Since stop-motion puppets tend to have something naturally creepy about them, it’s easy to make dark (The Nightmare Before Christmas or Coraline) or “stylistically cartoonishly ugly” looking characters and worlds (James and the Giant Peach or ParaNorman). Kubo manages to actually make the characters and the world look good without being overtly creepy. I loved the ancient Japanese setting, and the bizarre fantasy elements were a lot of fun. My only complaint was the ending; it didn’t make much sense to me, and seemed too simple. Still, great animated film, definitely Laika’s best.
Of movies that came out last year, but I only saw this year, I loved The Revenant; beautiful cinematography. Simple but enjoyable plot. Although I know some found the slower pace to be a bit too much, I really enjoyed that aspect; the film wasn’t in a rush, but didn’t slow things down with pointless filler either, and you really got to get the sense of DiCaprio’s character slowly healing after the devastating bear attack. I also really enjoyed In the Heart of the Sea for similar reasons.
Of older movies that I just saw for the first time this year: I loved The Fall from 2006. A suicidal man in a hospital forms a friendship with a young girl by telling her a long fantasy story. He’s just making it up as he goes along, but the story ends up becoming very meaningful to the girl. But remember, the man is suicidal! So drama ensues! The film featured a great blend of fantasy and real-life, and how the two can inform each other, a bit like in Finding Neverland. I love stories like this, and The Fall became one of my all-time favorites. (I’m eagerly awaiting to see A Monster Calls, which also blends fantasy stories with real-life death-drama.) Noir-wise, I enjoyed the classic Laura from 1944, a fun mystery film with a great twist about two-thirds of the way through it that left me slapping my head thinking, “ah, of course!” which was great. I couldn’t guess who the killer was until it was revealed. They don’t make ’em like this anymore! Also great was Wait Until Dark from 1967, starring Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman and Alan Arkin as an evil killer. The killer wants a doll stuffed with drugs, which is somewhere in the blind woman’s apartment. Great Hitchcock-like thrills ensue!
I greatly enjoyed The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, a slice-of-life documentary about Studio Ghibli. Although I disagree with a good deal of Miyazaki’s personal (or cultural?) philosophies, his perspectives can still be interesting and thought-provoking. And it’s fascinating to see how this Japanese studio approaches film making as opposed to how, for instance, Pixar does things.
Finally, there was only one TV series that I really enjoyed, and that was Netflix’s Stranger Things. Had a great 80’s feel to it and a fun plot, at least for sci-fi / fantasy lovers (parallel worlds and mind powers and all that). Honestly some of the young actors’ acting was a bit forced at times, but overall it was easy to binge-watch. And the story actually came to a conclusion! Although it left a couple loose threads, it didn’t end on some stupid gimmicky cliff-hanger! This was very refreshing. I’m sick of the J.J. Abrams-style cliffhanger nonsense, where stories never end but just warp into different questions. It’s just crappy writing. So it was awesome to see a TV season that was actually (mostly) self-contained. I look forward to the next season.
The answer really depends on where you’re at, but it boils down to this: getting better at anything depends on what some call deliberate practice. That is, practice with focused attention on what you’re trying to improve. It’s difficult, it takes brain work, because you’re forcing your brain to build new connections. As the task becomes easier, you’ll settle into using your new connections, but you’ll cease to become better. That is, just going through the motions isn’t going to automatically increase your skill. You’ve got to hone in on and focus on specific weaknesses. The whole 10,000-hours-to-become-an-expert thing is misleading, because it doesn’t account for how focused one is.
In regards to writing, this leads to the question: how does one engage in this “deliberate practice” with writing? Is it even possible, after a certain level of skill is reached?
Critiquing other people’s work and collecting critiques for your own will help, assuming you work with the right sort of critique partners, but there remains that nebulous boundary between what one might consider the product of a writer’s skill level and his subjective stylistic preferences. That is, how can one measure one’s improvements? Is there any way to increase one’s skill beyond requiring outside help?
I’m not really sure, I’m just thinking out loud…
For me, personally, one thing I’d like to practice isn’t so much writing in and of itself, but writing faster. Or, lest that make me sound like I wish to be more of a hack, perhaps I should say I’d like to be able to stay focused on writing for longer periods of time so that I can accomplish more in less time. That should be something I could practice, though practicing staying focused always risks that paradox of focusing on whether or not your focusing rather just focusing.
In other news, an new trailer for the upcoming fantasy drama A Monster Calls was recently released:
I read the book it’s based on, which was OK, but I think the story will work better as a film, and the director J.A. Bayona is one my favorites (he’s set to direct the next Jurassic World film), so I’m looking forward to seeing how he brings the book to life.
I thought this little sci-fi short called “Adam” was interesting for purely technical reasons. (I can’t really figure out what exactly happens in it… a wizard turns off a bunch of robots’ iPhones so they follow him like sheep?) It was rendered completely in real time in Unity. Some things aren’t so impressive; the waving grass and the water ripples look awful. But overall this looks pretty darn fantastic for something rendered in real time on a GeForce GTX980. I’m just looking forward to some VR animated movies. Hurry up, rich people of the world, and make them. (Reminder: the film rights to all my books are still available.)
The trailer for the new upcoming Ghostbusters was recently released, and immediately widely hated. (Check out all the disapproving thumbs-down on the video, for example. This leading, of course, to claims of sexism!)
I think the problem is the “tone” or “style” of the humor illustrated in the trailer is completely inconsistent with the dry humor of the first two original films. Compare:
with this sort of humor:
See the difference? In the first two films, the characters are serious people. They might get sarcastic (particularly Bill Murray’s character), but that sarcasm is born of trying to deal with a serious situation and keeping sane, à la Gregory House, not of just being a silly person in general. All this comic-relief is needed to accept the otherwise ridiculous premise of people trying to catch ghosts with strange science, but the conflicts themselves are serious. That is, the humor helps lampshade the far-fetched premise so that the premise can be accepted. This happens to some degree in almost every fantasy / sci-fi story (see the quibbling droids and Han Solo’s sarcasm in Star Wars, for example), and when it doesn’t, you usually get something that seems way too cheesy or pretentious. The humor allows acceptance of the far-fetched premise.
And now back to the new Ghostbusters trailer, and what do we have here? We have a “goofball” comedy. Crazy wacky characters! Silly barfing ghosts! Hyuck-hyuck! The characters and the situation are no longer serious, they’re all just part of an eccentric comedy romp. This style of humor can work well on its own; plenty of films employ it to great success. But in this case it’s just not consistent with the franchise they’re trying to continue, so the whole thing feels like an insulting parody, or a kidnapping of the beloved franchise. It feels like the filmmakers were not truly fans of the originals, or didn’t really understand them, or are just incompetent filmmakers in general.
According to this article about the upcoming Death Note film adaptation (which hasn’t, the article points out, actually been greenlit yet):
When asked about the target audience for the film, [producer Roy Lee] replied, “It’s definitely for adults. It is zero chance it will be below an R-rating,” and went on to say that the tone of the film “will be one of the first manga adaptations that feels very grounded but still has fantastical elements.” That sounds like something [director Adam Wingard] could definitely nail.
Oh, whoopee-doo. I’m not sure this, in and of itself, is anything to be excited about. The strengths of the anime, at least in my opinion, have nothing to do with how “adult” it is; for example, how the violence is portrayed is a stylistic decision. It can be intense and gory, or more comic-book like, à la Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Either could work, as long as the style’s consistent, so who cares? The fun of the anime, in my opinion, is the story itself; the chess-like cat-and-mouse game between two brilliant un-average thinkers, and their differing philosophies in defining “justice” that serve as the foundations for their opposition. I hope whoever writes the film doesn’t just take all that for granted because some animated sequences were fun to watch, thinking he can just trim the story that’s already there down to something film-length and have it still work with maybe just some editing for the sake of exposition and pacing. Because then we’ll wind up with crap for story. Or worse, something like The Guest, in which there hardly even is a story at all, just a guessing game that ends up going nowhere, so you had better enjoy the action sequences for the sake of themselves, because they serve no greater substance beyond themselves… Because in Death Note, they do, gosh darn it, so don’t butcher it too much!
(For the record, I have nothing against what the producer said; he was just answering a question. I just think the question itself is irrelevant, unless perhaps someone feared a PG rating? And being pleased with the answer just means you’re a fan of the franchise for very different reasons than I.)
And, of course, I’m crossing my fingers that the filmmakers aren’t fans of the nonsense over-acting from the English dub:
This week, at the expense of working on my next novel*, I’ve been getting back to studying Unity, the game development platform. My new computer handles it beautifully, nice and fast. And I found some great introductory tutorials to start with from a “gamesplusjames” from Ireland, land of me forefathers:
It’s still a lot to take in; I don’t know if it’s just my aging brain or that I haven’t been programming regularly for a long time now, but I’m definitely slower at learning this sort of stuff than I used to be. Anyway, Unity makes a lot of stuff pretty easy; wish something like this was out when I was in high school.
(* On a side note, my writing blog is down for the moment. It was getting inundated with bots, and just pointing the domain back to the registrar was my lazy way to try to get them to go away. It’ll be back at some point.)
With my powerful new computer, I’ve been able to record some “Let’s Plays” on my new YouTube gaming channel, SirDragonWizardMasterLord, the dorkiest name I could come up with.
Probably won’t make them regularly, but it was fun to try, and I was very impressed with how well my computer could handle them; capturing video didn’t slow the games down at all, even with the games’ graphics settings at their highest. Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 970 is just awesome.
Inside Out’s blatant plagiarism!
I saw Pixar’s latest, Inside Out, earlier this week. It was a great film, but as I mentioned on Twitter:
I watched Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies on blu-ray over the weekend, his sequel to his famous Phantom of the Opera. Being a fan of the original, I was curious to see the sequel, though I didn’t really have high hopes. I actually bought the cast recording when it came out, but couldn’t really get into it for whatever reason. And the plot involves the Phantom working at Coney Island, which sounds laughably ridiculous. Finally, the title, Love Never Dies, seems rather a bit melodramatic.
But I actually really enjoyed Love Never Dies a lot. It features some of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s better melodies, and the dark mysterious atmosphere they give Coney Island and the other sets complement the dark mysterious atmosphere of the original Phantom.
That said, I think one still has to approach this musical as sort of its own self-contained thing, merely based on the original, rather than a “definitive” continuation. (Especially as the original Phantom ends quite fine on its own, thank you very much; it doesn’t really leave anything to be said.) Though the main characters are back and musical references to the original are all over the place, Love Never Dies still feels a bit like fan-fiction. It has a different “spirit” to it. It’s not nearly as large in scope; rather, it’s a drama among a few characters. Gone is the mysterious and murderous Phantom lurking in the shadows, willing to kill to get what he wants. Now he’s the main character, trying to get back a piece of the love he knows he lost, without resorting to violence. Gone is the romantic and dependable Raoul willing to do anything for Christine; he now likes to drink and is a pretty much a jerk. And now there’s a child, Christine’s son, whom the Phantom quickly comes to realize has more in common with himself than his supposed father, Raoul. Could it be the Phantom has a son? If so, what does it mean for everyone?
So it’s a very different kind of story than the original Phantom of the Opera. But I think if you view it as “story variations on a group of characters” rather than a definitive sequel, it works very well. I enjoyed seeing the a-bit-too-romantic-Raoul turned into a jerk, I enjoyed seeing Christine still caring about the Phantom (though I suppose we must forget that he is a murderer who got away with even burning down an entire opera house), and I enjoyed seeing the Phantom facing the realization that he might be a father. After all, he’s been alone and rejected almost all his life; being able to pass on his interests in music and … dark brooding atmospheres? … seems a salvation. (And having just written a book called Son of a Dark Wizard, I suppose that dynamic appeals to me.)
Perhaps because I’ve been listening to quite a bit of symphonic metal lately, the song Beauty Underneath got stuck in my head the most. It’s a parallel to the title song of the original, only this time instead of leading his love interest to his lair under an opera house, he’s showing his lost-love’s son … a bunch of freaks trapped in glass or something. Anyway, it’s here that he’s realizing the child may share his interests because he shares his blood. Also, I think the singers on the blu-ray do a better job with the song than the cast on the album:
By which I mean, the popular song from Disney’s Frozen is not an anthem for an attitude that would be at all healthy to have in the real world. Embracing indifference is not exactly something to celebrate.
After all, let’s not forget what the song is about: a sad, scared, angry queen embracing indifference toward the world. The philosophy she is deciding on is evil.
Let’s look at some lyrics that reflect the evil Elsa’s embracing:
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know – Hints out how she was dealing with her problem wrongly from the beginning.
Let it go, let it go, Turn away and slam the door – She’d rather evade her problems than face them.
Let the storm rage on – She has no consideration for who that storm may be hurting.
The fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all – She’s replacing them with all new fears, particularly the fear of facing others with her uncontrollable powers, or letting others, like her sister, try to help her at all.
No right, no wrong, no rules for me, I’m free – Oh dear! The most obviously evil lyrics here. No right or wrong?! Yikes.
You’ll never see me cry – She’s embracing indifference. Not good.
I’m never going back, the past is in the past – It’s one thing to forgive yourself and move on, it’s another thing to stop caring completely, which is clearly what she’s doing.
The cold never bothered me anyway – Again, she’s embracing indifference. And she’s lying. Her powers have always bothered her and they’re still bothering her.
So, it’s a song about embracing indifference toward the world and her self-image. Though cathartic, it’s clearly not the right solution to her problem.
And the storytellers know this, of course. The song isn’t her climactic solution to her problems after which she lives happily ever after. The song portrays her creation of even bigger problems, both in her own heart and the outside world that she’s cutting herself off from and plunging into eternal winter. Her living alone in an ice castle out in the mountain boonies is never portrayed as a good thing. In “letting go” of her concern for control of her powers and her self-image (an effort which initially came from a genuinely good place, even if she was dealing with it wrong from the very beginning, after being traumatized by injuring her little sister), she still holds on to the fear that keeps her away from her kingdom. If she was truly “letting go” of what she needed to let go of (her self-image fear, her over-self-consciousness), she wouldn’t feel any need to stay away from her kingdom and those she loves, particularly her sister.
Story-wise, the song serves the same purpose as Sweeney Todd’s “Epiphany” (though Todd’s pledge is much more sinister – to murder innocent victims until he can get revenge) and as Elphaba’s “Defying Gravity.” In Sweeney Todd and Wicked, such goal-changing decisions eventually lead to tragedy in one form or another. Fortunately in Frozen, Elsa realizes her mistake and changes by the story’s end, thanks to her sister. Still, her song is about a character who’s been struggling with something and is deciding to embrace a clearly wrong answer.
But of course that’s also what gives the song it’s power, in the dramatic sense; we can relate to Elsa’s emotions completely, even if we know she’s choosing the wrong thing.
But that’s also why it’s a bit funny to see videos of young children belting out the song proudly. They’re singing about becoming evil. Yes, I know it may be over some of their heads, but I still find it funny. The music is great, but its beauty and power are misleading, as is Elsa being all smiley and happy about it; the philosophy she’s embracing is ugly and tragic. After all, I don’t think we want children to actually let go of things like worrying about right and wrong.
The right answer to Elsa’s problem: love (as Elsa learns by the film’s end). The wrong answer: cold indifference (as Elsa embraces with “Let It Go”).
So when you sing “Let It Go” while taking your evil shower (Sims joke), let’s hope you’re not singing the lyrics with actual conviction. Because that would be, you know, evil.