The Empty Bookshelf Guide to the 2019 Oscars

Another year, another set of movies!

JoJo Rabbit

Authoritarianism = bad

Brainwashing youths = bad

Nazis = bad

Hitler being a brainwashed kid’s invisible friend = an irreverent take on the above. But it’s not singularly great. Next movie, please.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

It’s a movie about movie-dom. The Oscars love that stuff. It’s a better Quentin Tarantino movie (which is saying something given his usual standard of quality), but it has his typical traits: a relaxed run time, talkiness, and a ton of world-building. And, oh yeah. Brutal, unrepentantly gory violence out of the blue. If you normally like his movies, you’ll love this. If they’re not normally your favorite, you should still watch it, as it’s one of his best movies so far.

Ford v Ferrari

It’s been the go-to joke since the trailers for this movie first came out, but this truly is the ultimate “dad movie.” (or “granddad movie” depending on your age). Truly, it’s the only one of these my dad was interested in seeing. That doesn’t make it bad, but aside from the “dad topic” (1960s sports car racing…), it has a lot of “dad moments” and “dad comments.” Whether it be the “scrappy underdog overcoming those pretentious Europeans” [note: those “scrappy underdogs” were bankrolled by one of the largest companies on Earth] or completely unnecessary “out loud” reactions to obvious situations. Hint: Shelby arriving via showy airplane landing and someone saying something like “Now that’s how to make an entrance.” Ugh. The racing scenes are great, and it truly is a good car movie, and I like cars, so I’ll recommend it. Christian Bale is… Christian Bale in this. If you’re wondering if he’ll go too far in his impression of someone, even if that person isn’t famous… the answer is yes. Look at this, then keep it in mind when watching. I don’t know a ton about 1960s sports car racing, but I know enough to see how the movie deviated from the true story, but I won’t hold that against it. It’s this year’s Green Book which (somehow) won last year, so who knows.

The Irishman

I appreciate Martin Scorsese movies. (weasel word noted) I find mob movies very same-y (“I love my family, but I kill mooks who get in my way. Let’s all go to church and pray. Fuhgeddaboutit! Moral Complexity!”). I generally have little tolerance for movies that approach, much less exceed three hours. The Irishman was great and got better as its run time ticked up. That said, it doesn’t transcend the genre, and its de-aging effects draw wayyyy too much attention to themselves for a movie of this caliber, and it didn’t need to be 3+ hours long.

Little Women

Short answer: Not the best movie of the year and it won’t win. It was fine. Longer answer: this is the movie about which I’ve read the most. I wasn’t familiar with the story going in, and using the same actors for the 8 year time jumping without (what I could tell) obvious visual cues was a little disorienting, as the main characters would have been jumping from their early 20s to their “tweens.” A lot happens, but the plot is more vignettes than a continuous thread from beginning to end. Meryl Streep plays another Queen B (the “B” doesn’t stand for “bee”) but is kept in the background, so it’s not her usual scenery-chewing role when she’s given the background, “so… your character is a little bit difficult.” Laura Dern is NOT great in this movie; another reviewer said it best, she’s playing the mom character as a cool aunt instead of a mother. The dialogue also oscillates between contemporary and old-timey even from the beginning of a scene to the end. Very odd. With a second viewing, I’d wonder if this is to track the progression of the main character’s writing. Maybe.


This is the one. It’s scary without being a horror movie; it’s funny without being a comedy; it’s heavy family drama without being melodrama; it’s satirical without being satire; it’s simultaneously ironic yet sincere. It’s the best movie of the year. If someone ever asks “what does the director do other than tell actors where to stand?” watch this movie and point out how it maintains a singular tone while hopping among genres. It’s amazing.


It’s a movie-gimmick war movie. Without “movie-gimmick” modifying “war movie,” what else is there? Answer: not a whole lot. BUT, the “single take” gimmick makes it worthwhile. This is faint praise, but at least it wasn’t another World War II movie. I won’t spoil it here, but I did give the movie a “holy crap” when as “plane and barn” scene played out. That was unexpected given the trailer and commercials. It won’t win.

Marriage Story

In the tight race for “really good movies I never need to see again,” Marriage Story just edges out Joker. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson successfully create characters where you can hate them in one scene, then completely root for them in the next. Ray Liotta, Laura Dern, and Alan Alda steal all of their scenes but remain “I could see how there are people like this in the world” despite almost being caricatures. Watch it. Once.


This is the toughest nominee to encapsulate. It was good, and never dragged while telling an uncomfortable story. Joaquin Phoenix walked a tightrope between “best acting” and “most acting,” usually staying on the correct side, unless it was a dancing sequence, so a win for him wouldn’t be too out-of-line. The issue with this movie is my own baggage where there’s no outcome that wouldn’t have resulted in me saying, “but just a little Batman would’ve helped it.” Watch this: “The movie wasn’t great. It had some moments, but never quite came together. Some Batman would’ve helped.” OR “The movie was awesome. They did something new with the character. I can’t help but wonder how much better it would’ve been with some Batman in it.” I’m closer to the latter (“great” not “awesome,” though), but it’s clear that this is on me. What isn’t on me is that Parasite is objectively the better movie, so my conscience is clear.


Should win: Parasite.

Will win: Likely. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. It’s a movie literally about a Golden Age of Hollywood for which many of the Academy voters were alive. Good luck, every other nominee.

Should have been nominated: Uncut Gems and Adam Sandler. This isn’t just “applying the manic side of his usual characters in something serious for once.” This is whole-cloth character creation. A completely bonkers ending, but in immediate hindsight, it makes perfect sense.

Should have been nominated, part two: Ad Astra. I liked Brad Pitt in this more than in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, and I love me some hard sci-fi. Brad Pitt’s stunt man in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was presented as interesting but just outside the frame. Ad Astra puts all of that directly into the movie itself. (Sure, these are supporting vs. lead roles, but Ad Astra is the one no one is talking about.)

Out of left field MVP: Tracey Letts, with “I don’t think that’s Jeff Daniels… is it? No, it’s definitely not.” turns in TWO of this year’s movies, Little Women and Ford v Ferrari, and he’s GREAT in both. (disclaimer: he was also in two of 2017’s nominees, The Post and Lady Bird.)

Last year’s recap here. Two years ago’s here.

The Empty Bookshelf Guide to the 2018 Oscars

And we’re back at it, again! The Best Picture nominees in alphabetical order…


It’s Ricky Jerret from Ballers! Kylo Ren! And they bring it. This is a simple movie (Black guy cons his way into the KKK, including a personal relationship with James Duke), with complex details throughout. It takes place not in the Deep South but Colorado Springs, and in the 1970s, not 50s. The most bleeding heart liberal in the movie is a white police officer who’s generally a background character who argues with the main character. The few “wink, wink, nudge, nudge — this is just like today” moments work better in montage form at the end than the “who could imagine that ever happening” lines in the movie that are practically accompanied with staring down the barrel of the camera lens. But this juxtaposition is the strongest takeaway from watching; the 1970s weren’t that long ago. This might win Best Picture. Adam Driver was great, but not award-winning great, and if he was nominated, John David Washington should’ve been nominated, too. Spike Lee has a good chance of winning for directing.

Black Panther

This nomination is a big deal, and that’s all I’ll say about that. Sticking to just Marvel, Infinity War was a better movie, but this is clearly a Marvel top 3. Expanding to comics generally, Into the Spider-Verse was unquestionably better. This has no chance of winning Best Picture (the Academy and voters consider the nomination itself to be the prize for this movie), but would be my pick for Production Design and Costumes, where a world is truly created instead of recreated as in The Favourite or BlacKkKlansman.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Rami Malek had better not win the Best Actor award. This is the definition of impression acting… and he even gets to wear prosthetics! It’s trendy to trash this movie, but it’s merely OK-to-Good not the full-on dreck that is often claimed. The most significant issue is getting Queen’s music in the movie is key to a movie about Freddy Mercury, so relying on the band’s script approval leads us to such insightful takeaways that the other members of the band wrote many of Queen’s songs. I now know that “I’m In Love With My Car” wasn’t written by Freddy Mercury. I’m VERY glad that the movie spent any of its runtime correcting that misconception. We’re also stuck with the movie’s hard stop of a happy ending in 1986 (the band is back!) while Freddy Mercury died in 1991. A more interesting story the movie doesn’t even allude to is his choice to not disclose his HIV/AIDS status until literally the day before he died. (in fairness, I’m not sure that Freddy Mercury, of all people, being the person to destigmatize HIV/AIDS from being thought of as a “disease of gay men and drug users” would’ve really helped all that much.) This shouldn’t win anything, but Rami Malek has distractingly oversized chance of winning (this is a prosthetics joke), and I suppose the art/technical awards like Sound Mixing have a chance, though picking a movie about a band for sound awards seems a little on the nose. No, no. On the teeth! A little on the teeth!

The Favourite

This is my pick for Best Picture; an absolutely bananas movie with a plot description which sounds like Oscar bait, but actually isn’t when viewing the final product. “Two women compete for the affections of Queen Anne at the turn of the 18th century.” BLAH. SO BORING. But it isn’t. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, surprising, horny, and even a little violent. Also, there’s a dance-off and multiple(!) duck races filmed in ways no duck races have ever been filmed before. Strongest recommendation. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’ll win Best Picture, but I have higher hopes for the actresses. More unfortunately, it will likely win for Best Costume Design because, well, it’s a movie about the British monarchy in 1703. This is low hanging fruit and another “Most” award instead of “Best.” That’s not to say it’s easy to construct the costumes, but these aren’t better costumes than anything in a painting from the era or even other movies which have come out taking place in the same time period. (Note: I would be willing to watch an informative video from someone who actually knows about movie costume design about why this hot take is garbage, but I’m waiting…) Also, it will likely win for Production Design. They shot it in an actual castle! That’s practically cheating! “But we needed to fill it exclusively with period appropriate artwork!” they say. That’s like filming a baseball movie at Yankee stadium, then replacing all of the Yankees logos with whatever fictional team the script calls for, and getting period appropriate cars for any exterior shots.

Green Book

Did you know that the South was incredibly racist in the 1960s? What about that not only were they racist, they were hypocritical? No? Well, then have I got the movie for you. And it has a happy ending centered around a Christmas dinner after everyone learns lessons. Blech. (in seriousness, read the Wikipedia article about the actual Green Book. Eye-poppingly terrible… and not all that long ago.) Mahershala Ali is awesome here; Viggo Mortenson is punching below his weight class with a low effort Italian-American accent for a character whose arc can be telegraphed from the first scene he’s seen. The bulk of the story is given to Viggo Mortenson’s character’s growth, but Mahershala Ali’s character actually gives us anything to think about. He’s of two worlds, but accepted by neither. The black community looks down at him because he’s of the rich white person’s world and acting like he’s “better;” the white community looks down on him, for, well, because he’s black. This is similar to the dichotomy Virgil Abloh has discussed with his Off-White brand and branding as being parts of streetwear and luxury fashion as well as being black in the otherwise lillywhite world of high fashion. Unfortunately, this angle in the movie is presented as a screaming fight on the side of the road where all detail of that experience is literally spelled out and “NOBODY WANTS ME!!!” is tearfully and loudly delivered. Beyond that, there’s some cynical bending of the truth in the movie. The two didn’t become friends or remain in contact after their roadtrip. Hint: none of the “since then” pictures in the credits show them together. It must be said that this is better then Crash, and Crash somehow won a Best Picture award, so that means that this has a chance. Mahershala Ali should win.


This is faint praise, but this was a very well-made movie. I do realize this is reacting “that’s funny” to a joke instead of laughing. “Masterfully assembled at the peak of technical proficiency,” I never want to sit through it again (and thanks to Netflix, it took three viewing sessions to watch it the first time). I’d be open to reading a “why Roma is good, and you don’t get it,” but I’d need someone to provide a coherent reason why there’s a sequence in the movie that goes like this:

  • Scene 1 (triage center at hospital) – one shot. Result: Patient needs to go to an operating room. Cut to scene 2.
  • Scene 2 (hallway between triage center and operating room) – one continuous shot. Hallway is shown empty. Doors open and characters enter hallway in the distance. Camera rotates to track characters walking through hallway then opening doors of operating room. Cut to Scene 3.
  • Scene 3 (operating room) – one shot. the absolute best sequence of the movie, though didn’t require Scene 2 at all.

And the whole movie is a series of vignettes in that same style. I appreciate the craft, but not the product. It has a decent chance of winning. This would not offend me, but it should not win, as it would be the film version of “most movie” similar to how the Emmys often give awards for “most acting.”

A Star is Born

Maybe a “safe” choice to win (the showbiz industry loves stories about showbiz), but I’d support it. For a first time acting, Lady Gaga’s performance is top-notch, and Bradley Cooper’s first shot at directing is also remarkably successful. And even crazier, the most unexpectedly successful performance might be Andrew Dice Clay… and he’s playing an actual character, not just his persona but with a different name. Two nitpicks: of course it’s a movie about singers, but some of the concert footage outlasts its welcome; Bradley Cooper’s deafness sub-plot was a waste of time. I do wonder what Viggo Mortsenson would’ve pulled off in that same role; Bradley Cooper played the character in two modes: “stoic” or “completely over-medicated.” It might win!


I do realize that I’ve railed against “impression acting” above and previously, but, come on, Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, and Sam Rockwell are really, really good here. And, yes, I realize prosthetics were involved, too. I enjoyed The Big Short. The complexity of creating and manipulating mortgage-backed securities allows for “STOP THE MOVIE, HERE’S AN EXPLANATION.” Vice takes Adam McKay’s approach from The Big Short, but applies it to explanation of items not earning that “edutainment” tone; it’s patronizing and has an unearned smugness that rubbed me the wrong way, and I’m generally, politically, in the same alignment as the filmmakers. BUT, those moments are rare, and as long as you’re comfortable watching a movie that, itself, talks about the fact that it’s movie (the script itself is practically a character), it tells an incredible story. Those complaining that the movie doesn’t show “the other side,” the movie addresses this with Cheney’s final soliloquy (delivered directly to the camera, of course). Again, as someone who’s generally the target market of the movie’s perspective on things, he should’ve added “There hasn’t been a second September 11th, and Osama bin Laden is dead” to his “We needed a leader that was willing to make the tough choices. The type of choices you’d be afraid to make, but know someone needs to…” speech. Not that that completes the “other side” argument or is necessarily a valid counterargument for the real-life terribleness the movie showcases, but it would at least round it out a bit more. It won’t win, but the screenplay and its three nominated actors have good chances.

Others Worth Mentioning

First Man is as good or better than any of the nominated movies, and Ryan Gosling is great in a role that absolutely isn’t imitation (can you do a Neil Armstrong impression? Exactly.). I’m not sure why or how it disappeared from the awards scene so aggressively, but it belongs to be there. It did receive nominations for the art-technical awards, and all of the key sequences rely on completely bonkers sound work. These aren’t “the big 6,” but they’d be well-earned for Sound Editing and Sound Mixing.

The Empty Bookshelf Guide to the 2017 Oscars

There was but one of these guides previously, due to that being the only year I saw all the Best Picture nominees once the field was expanded beyond 5, and/but I also saw all of them in 2017. Let’s do this (in alphabetical order).

Call Me By Your Name

A 25 year-old initiates a sexual relationship with a teenager, and the movie glorifies it. In 2017. Certainly “problematic.” No? Because it’s two guys it’s not? Really?  “Well, he’s 17, and the age of consent in Italy…” Because age of consent-based arguments for questionable relationships are waterproof… Completely ignoring the previous (and that his parents are 110% on-board), the movie wanted to make me turn rural 1983 Italy into my own ripe peach. It won’t win anything except maybe Best Cinematography… except it wasn’t nominated.

Darkest Hour

Despite the title, this is an “impression” movie. It’s all about an actor impersonating instead of acting. Somehow this is considered a higher form of acting than creating a character whole cloth. There’s no possible way to watch this movie with any feeling other than “Hey! It’s Gary Oldman mumbling in a fat suit! WAIT! Is that Director Krennic doing his best King’s Speech impression? Awesome!” I don’t like that I chose to do this in alphabetical order because it’s the weaker of the two, but this is also a movie about Operation Dynamo (hint: Dunkirk). Two in 2017! It won’t win Best Picture, but Gary Oldman has a chance for Best Actor (though he shouldn’t). Unexpectedly, the movie had a modern presentation for a World War 2 story, with unique shots ( it “quotes” Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor bomb-tracking shot) and aggressive titling establishing the timeline. Then it turns into a “dramatic historical speeches” movie which could’ve been one of Steven Spielberg’s good but not great modern history efforts. This would make an excellent double feature with The King’s Speech. I’ll say it: I don’t get much out of World War Two movies which don’t feature the United States as the heroes.


I have nothing  snarky to say about this. It furthered my feud with Mark Rylance (since Bridge of Spies, it’s been all downhill), but I liked everything about this. Christopher Nolan even got a boyband member into this movie without making it a thing.  The final sequence with Tom Hardy to the end credits is perfect. I’ll repeat my complaint about Darkest Hour, above. A World War Two movie which doesn’t feature the United States as the hero is missing… something. I do wish they hadn’t prefaced the section about the dock “the mole,” as I had no idea they weren’t talking about “mole” in the sense of “a double agent.” I want it to win, but I don’t think it will.

Get Out

Points for the nomination for a horror movie. The first two-thirds of this movie gave me the worst “something really bad is going to happen, I can tell. But I’m not sure what that’s going to be. Yeesh.” Then it got crazy. It turns into something  too crazy for the Oscars at the end, though the Original Screenplay award is possible, with a small chance for Best Director.

Lady Bird

The best movie you’ll ever see about whether or not a mom is going to turn her car around at the airport and see her daughter leave for college. or not Yeah. That’s the extent of the climax. The rest is a bunch of impressionistic stuff about a 2002 high school graduate, presented in a series of scenarios as if evoking a more serious Napoleon Dynamite. Sacramento doesn’t deserve a valentine, but this movie is that valentine. Broadly, this is probably(?) the best (maybe most realistic?) movie about dysfunctional but still functional relationships between mothers and daughters that’s been made, so there’s a unique perspective there (the dress-fitting scene at the thrift store) that’s captured because of the female writer and director, but not a whole lot happens. I suppose I have more appreciation for being a teenage girl in Sacramento in 2002, but that’s about it. Juno gave the experience of teenage girl with a much more engaging plot. It might win Best Picture, but it shouldn’t. Best Director and Best Actress have a chance.

Phantom Thread

This is the smoothest movie I’ve ever seen. What does that mean? The first hour feels like one continuous shot, but it absolutely isn’t.  The movie starts, a considerable amount of establishing plot happens, then it’s not until an hour and ten minutes or so that it feels like there’s a “stop” in the film. The soundtrack, shots, and especially editing are completely, perfectly smooth in the first hour, establishing the world in which the actual plot of the movie will take place for the second hour.  I cringe saying this, but it’s masterful. Immediately after finishing it, I respected the technical aspects, but this movie more than any other stuck with me after. It has a chance for Best Picture and Director. It’s Daniel Day-Lewis’ Best Actor Award to lose (and if he does, it will be to Gary Oldman who was actually competing in Best Impression). 

The Post

This is Bridge of Spies with 70% less plot. To fill out the running time, they tack on  a useless sub-plot about the Washington Post being up for sale. It’s not bad, but has no business being considered for Best Picture. Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep are the obvious stars, but Bradley Whitford, David Cross, and Bob Odenkirk are great additions. It should not win any awards.

The Shape of Water

Say it with me. O-S-C-A-R. B-A-I-T. Set in a time period slightly in the past so no one get bothered by broad characterizations? Check. The love of old-timey movies is a plot point? Check. Plot features outsiders who aren’t so outside to cause any offense? Check. It might win Best Picture and Best Director. It was fine, though the Sea Creature reminded me a whole lot of Abe Sapien, and it has the usual characteristic of Guillermo del Toro movies where the budget choices make for a cast full of no-names… and Michael Shannon.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Great, great soundtrack. Good, but not great, movie. It’s all about establishing a world and a mood… until Sam Rockwell’s character flips a switch and decides he wants to fix things. Considering the topic, the movie has a fun sense of humor. It might win Best Picture, but it shouldn’tExpect some of the acting awards to land here.

The Harry Potter Book Series

I read* the Harry Potter books this summer. Harry Potter fans and superfans, if there’s something I’m missing or being unfair about, let me know.
*Note: For those with strong opinions about that word, I’ll point out I actually books-on-taped it during hiking trips. I’d say it’s 85-90% of the experience of actually reading it. I listened to the Stephen Fry version which seems to be the UK version. It’s practically “acted” more than read, and I’d wholly recommend it.
First, I’ll point out I had seen all the movies prior to this summer, and I very aggressively read the Wikipedia pages when the later books were released to keep on top of the story. I will recommend the books (audio or actual) and movies (well, not the second one) to anyone, so the below isn’t meant as a list of complaints, though I suppose it may be read as that. I’ll stick with saying I really liked the books, and this is just a list of things that came to mind when I was listening this summer.
Book 6: It seems like people like MacGuffins. Do you think 6 is too many?
Book 7: Hold my beer.
As far as I’m concerned, “pensieve” is an anagram for “plot dump.”
Movie 3 is something special. Book 3 is just as good as any other of the better books but not necessarily a stand-out. It is the first book that establishes that the novels’ “world” is huge, not merely big, though.
The movies gloss over the dynamic of the magical world vs. the non-magical world. In the books, there’s some very neat stuff there, from the Prime Minister having a relationship with the Minister of Magic to Hermione’s non-magical, dentist parents wanting her to get braces instead of using magic to fix her teeth to Ron’s dad’s hobby of figuring out how non-magical items work. There’s also lots of the magic/non-magic crossover at the beginning of the 4th book (almost entirely removed for the movie without much impact).
Book 5 just never ends. He gets the vision he needs to go to the Department of Mysteries then just waits until he has additional visions with more details. It’s the longest book (30 hour audiobook! Others range from 14 to 23 hours), but the least happens. Neville meeting his parents at the hospital was a nice, sad moment, though. This one was struggle to get through. And Umbridge is as entertainingly awful in the movie as she was in the book.
Maddening patterns:
  • “He who must not be named”/”you know who” — UGH. STOP IT. Then the last book lampshades it by actually making it so if you say “Voldemort” the bad guys are magically alerted.
  • After 7 story years, people STILL don’t listen to Harry’s concerns and continue blow off his ideas. I wanted to yell, “HIS NAME IS IN THE TITLE OF THE BOOK; HE’S PROBABLY CORRECT.”
  • Slytherin: “They’re not all Deatheaters, but all Deatheaters are all from Slytherin. Best to keep them part of the school.”
  • Draco Malfoy: there’s no possible way that even in the world of the books he’d not be in more trouble. He goes from annoying brat to generally criminal at the beginning of the 6th book. (Then much further later in that book.) The series handwaves it away in an earlier book (‘his father has sway in the ministry.’) but come on.
Fleur Delacour was needlessly made into a “light” villain in book 6. Why? Were they running out of bad guys and unlikeable characters already?
Voldemort should have killed all the Weasleys at once, leaving one Weasley to survive, either Ron or Ginny, preferably Ginny.
Why? In the 7th book, when Voldemort casually says he will kill anyone supporting Harry Potter as well as their families, it doesn’t have as much weight as it should. Also, it’s a black and white action Voldemort can take to “show” instead of “tell” with respect to how evil he is.
Where are the other wizards from around the world when Voldemort is attacking Hogwarts? If he wins, he’s a world-wide threat. He’s not just going to be the United Kingdom and Ireland’s problem. Is this a Batman+Gotham thing where the threshold for accepting outside help is ridiculously high?
The series has a habit of John Galt-esque speeches. When Voldemort comes back in the 4th book… Holy Infodump. And Harry is right there for the entire speech! I suppose mystery (intrabook and throughout the series) is a big component, but Harry and his friends generally don’t solve the mysteries, they just end up getting explained (at length) at the end.
Some sequences in the movies are better:
  • Hermione removing herself from her parents’ life lands with stronger impact in the opening of the 7th movie.
  • The movies realized we didn’t need a lengthy sequence at the Dursley’s at the beginning of every installment. We got the point after the second one.
  • The 6th movie doesn’t feel as aimless as the 6th book.
  • Ron’s exit in the 7th book’s camping sequence was just as awkward as it was in the movie… and it’s resolved with another infodump.
  • The romantic/relationship sub-plots from the books weren’t missed in the movies.
  • Wand-fighting in the movies was more interesting than it was in the books.
  • Jeeves and Percy Weasley weren’t missed in the movies.
  • Luna Lovegood is better in the movies than the books. It didn’t feel like too much was cut between book and movie, so I think that’s a statement on the quality of the actress. The character doesn’t really pop off the page but is very memorable in the movies.
  • The eighth movie is really, really good.
  • The fourth book is the best book. The third movie is the best movie.
  • The second book (and movie) doesn’t need to exist.
The 6th book’s plot is literally Harry waiting to get invitations from Dumbledore to watch a series of different flashbacks. If you’re following along, notice that this isn’t a plot. Then they go to the cave, then Dumbledore dies.
I’m all about expanding the world, but the Grindelwald and Dumbledore stuff in the last book feels out of place. It should’ve been a hinted at but unaddressed plot point to be followed up upon in a later series (which they seem to be doing in the Fantastic Beasts movies). It didn’t add anything to this book series.
Speaking of explaining things, it would’ve been good if, by, you know, the second time Harry Potter’s life was threatened, Dumbledore told him everything he knew. Sure, that removes a lot of the mystery and revelations throughout the series, and maybe a 12 year old wouldn’t do well with learning he had to “die” to stop Voldemort. But having Harry spend every day working on offensive and defensive magic for years in anticipation of that fight makes a lot more sense than trying to have him be a “normal” (magic) kid. Potions class and astronomy didn’t help him beat Voldemort. At all. Have him beat Voldemort, then make up for the missed school time with a Wizard GED later.
Hagrid is a moron.
Hagrid has no arc. He fits in with a story about 10 and 11 year olds, but he’s completely out of place after that.
I love that, based on one reference in the 2nd book, Harry Potter fans have unnecessarily “calendared” out every single moment in the series. For example, did you know Dumbledore died on June 30, 1997? J.K. Rowling seems to be amused by this aspect of the fandom, too. But in one of the later movies, the Dursley’s car has a 2006 registration sticker! I really hope someone got fired for that blunder.
Go read the books!
The Harry Potter book series gets 4.5 stars. There is a constant level of excellence throughout, but books 2, 5, and 6 just aren’t as good as the others.

The Morgan Freeman Presidential Saga Trilogy: Olympus Has Fallen/Deep Impact/Oblivion

When Return of The Jedi came out in 1983, nobody expected to wait 16 years for another Star Wars movie to poorly detail what life was like a couple dozen years before the Second Death Star blew up. If the announcement of the prequels to these years-old films was a geek shot-heard-round-the-world, then what 2013 has brought is a BB gun going off in Altoona. Sure, they’ve tried to downplay it, but it’s pretty obvious what Hollywood has tried to do this year, and it’s a fairly ballsy move that just didn’t seem to pay off the way the filmmakers had hoped.

In 2013, major Hollywood studios managed to bring us both a prequel AND a sequel to 1998’s Deep Impact, in the course of two months. In fact, both are still currently playing as of this writing at certain theaters. Deep Impact was a modest success at the box office, making almost $350 million 1998 dollars worldwide, but has pretty much since been forgotten about, because of the overshadowing stupidity and infamousness of Michael Bay’s copycat, Armageddon. Robert Duvall; Tea Leoni; professional Helen Hunt lookalike, Leelee Sobieski; Laura Innes; and pre-Lord of The Rings Elijah Wood were no match for Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Steve Buscemi, that annoying Aerosmith song, a box of animal crackers, and pre-Lord of The Rings Liv Tyler, but Deep Impact had heart going for it. And a much more depressing ending. Most of the main characters stood around contemplating their own mortality, accomplishments and frail existence, while a giant Director’s Cut Abyss-style tidal wave wiped out anything and everything in its path. Granted, Elijah Wood driving up a hill to take Leelee Sobieski away from what I presume was a Paul Reiser lookalike isn’t the most plausible or most “real” moment I’ve seen in one of these movies, but at least it doesn’t end with the world having simultaneous celebrations and jet flyovers of a NASA shuttle landing pad.

The other thing it has is MORGAN FREEMAN AS PRESIDENT. I don’t know who made that decision (most likely director Mimi Leder, who was relegated back to TV after Pay it Forward turned out as badly as it did) but this was a stroke of genius. Morgan Freeman quickly became the most trusted movie president since Bill Pullman in Independence Day. He was probably the only person who could give confidence to people by saying, “A bunch of comets are going to destroy earth, and everyone is gonna die, except a few people who win a lottery! Those people will get to live in caves for two years and then come back out to try to make a new life on the drowned and scorched earth! Yaaaay, TEAM!”

I don’t think any of us found the rest of the characters likeable, but, man, did I want to know about this president. Where did he come from? How did he rise to power? What might a younger version of him do if North Korean terrorists staged a meticulously-planned takeover of The White House and held The President hostage inside of the secure bunker? Well, we’ve had to wait 15 years, but just like we eventually found out that Anakin was a precocious junkyard mechanic with a penchant for saying “YIPPEE”, we’ve finally gotten a glimpse at the backstory of Morgan Freeman’s President, in Olympus Has Fallen. And let me tell you, it’s a much better backstory than you’ll find in any Star War! There’s no midichlorians or Jar Jar Binkses either!


Morgan Freeman was a regular, average, ordinary elderly black Speaker of the House. Until one day, North Korean terrorists staged a meticulously-planned takeover of The White House and held The President hostage inside of the secure bunker. With the President unavailable and the VP in some completely unannounced location, Speaker Freeman becomes the acting president. This was EXACTLY THE SCENARIO I WAS WONDERING ABOUT 15 YEARS AGO! How did they know? The rest of the movie shows how in this time of crisis, he became the strong, stalwart leader that a million people could follow into a magical system of caves with hopes of one day repopulating the earth.

There are a few things that aren’t specifically spelled out, like how I’m assuming he had to dye his hair and get a facelift when he began running for President, so he’d look younger and hipper to court the youth vote. Or how, I’m guessing, since the advanced technology that the U.S. Government had was compromised and used in the destruction of most of Washington, President Freeman decreed that everyone start using 1998 technology that had more failsafes. But all in all, it makes for a pretty good prequel.

I do think they went out on a limb a little by not making President Freeman the main character. See, the main character is actually some former secret service agent who is conspicuously NOT named Jack Bauer. When a giant airplane destroys a whole lot of Washington and the North Koreans kill EVERY SINGLE WHITE HOUSE STAFFER NOT IN THE BUNKER, this agent, Gerard Butler, decides to play John McClane and sneak into the White House and take everyone down himself with a lot of punching and stabbing of people in the head. I’m not joking. SO MANY HEAD STABBINGS. Also, somehow the president’s kid is the only one who has managed to hide and stay alive outside of the bunker. Gerard Butler has to save the kid, then the president, and then kill the bad guy, preferably with a knife through part of his head.

But, Director Antoine Fuqua, WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH PRESIDENT MORGAN FREEMAN? He doesn’t even STAY president at the end, because Harvey Dent lived and went back to being president!

As a movie, the whole thing’s pretty okay. There’s some ridiculous destruction of Washington, plenty of civilians getting mowed down, some good Die Hard-type stuff, and plenty of over-the-top line readings, especially the hilariously-whispered titular line, delivered by some random, dying secret service agent.


As a prequel to Deep Impact, it’s not all that I was hoping for, but it did provide us with an insight into President Freeman’s first few hours as president, and boy did he ever deliver!


But what makes this whole plan really crazy, is that they didn’t just make a prequel. They shot a prequel AND a sequel at the same time, like Back to The Future 2 and 3, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and The Matrix Reloaded. And they didn’t just say “What happened to all of our favorite surviving Deep Impact characters when they came out of those magical caves?” Oh no. They went somewhere even crazier, and I really dug it. They went far into the future, with Oblivion.


Oblivion kind of follows the same model as Olympus Has Fallen, in that it relegates President Freeman to a side character, albeit an important one, and shows a major moment in his life, even if he doesn’t show up until 45 minutes in.

But what the filmmakers, notably writers Michael Arndt and Karl Gajdusek and director Joseph Kosinski, have imagined in the asteroid aftermath is devastating. Humanity never retook the earth. That asteroid, it seems, was sent as the first wave (pun intended) of attack by an alien race trying to take the earth. Somehow, we did win the alien war (maybe by flying biplanes into the ships’ primary weapon shafts or uploading a virus or something), but destroyed the earth and ended up living on a moon of Saturn. Tom Cruise is tasked by Melissa Leo’s character (who was the Secretary of Defense in Olympus Has Fallen and now seems to be in charge of all Earth-related matters) with flying around the remnants of New York (the Empire State Building, a former Pro-Thunderball arena, etc.) to fix droids and enormous water fusion machines, and collect “Dan Smith Will Teach You to Play Guitar” flyers that have been littering everywhere.


If you’ve seen the trailers, you know this part. He finds a downed ship filled with astronauts, gets taken hostage by a group of freedom fighters, and finds out that everything is not what it seems. And you guys know who the leader of the cave-dwelling human populace is? President Morgan Freeman, who has now changed his name from President Beech to just “Beck”, because of some kind of Cloud Atlas future-speak, no doubt.

I don’t want to give away all the twists and turns, but President Beck helps Tom Cruise discover his true self and who the mysterious astronauts are, and plays a huge part in putting an end to the remaining alien threat.

There are a few continuity errors here and there, but none of those trilogy movies were perfect. Back to The Future had to replace Morty’s dad in the second one, Star Wars had that whole “Clone Wars” monologue that doesn’t make any sense, Lord of The Rings had a car in that one shot, and they never even made a third Matrix movie!

This movie is solidly entertaining from start to finish, even if we’ve seen some of these specific story elements in previous sci-fi stories, like spaceships, aliens, robots, Tom Cruise running, Dune, etc. I give it a four.


Oblivion is an epic story and a very strong end for a character that we’ve grown to love over these three movies and 15 years. What they’ve managed to come up with as a third chapter is even crazier than going back to 1885. As a threequel, I give it a solid four-and-a-half stars.


As a trilogy, this is epic, inventive storytelling across a variety of genres, from action-thriller to disaster movie, to post-apocalyptic sci-fi adventure. It takes real guts to make a trilogy this way, and from a storytelling perspective, it completely pays off. We see President Freeman/Beech/Beck from his political beginnings to his heroic end, from the destruction of Washington, to the destruction of the world as we know it, to the end of the struggle against our alien combatants. His story is that of one of the greatest leaders in all of fiction, that of a man who, through so many harrowing moments, has shown humanity the dignity and courage that we should come to expect of those whom we put in charge. I wish they would’ve sold this as a whole story, though. Maybe that was the big twist, but I didn’t even put the pieces together until I saw the films. I think if people would’ve known that these were sequels and prequels they probably would’ve had a higher box office gross. Despite all this, though, this is instantly one of my favorite movie trilogies of all time, right up there with the first three (of the proposed 6) Baby Geniuses movies.


The Muppets

The Muppets have always been a big inspiration to me. I grew up watching reruns of The Muppet Show, the 9 episodes of The Jim Henson Hour that aired before it was cancelled, the movies, Muppet Babies, Fraggle Rock, Sesame Street and countless other productions. Muppet Christmas Carol is one of my favorite movies ever, and a yearly staple, as is the classic “A Christmas Together” album with John Denver.

This special that was made for The Jim Henson hour but didn’t air until much later on Nickelodeon was one of the first “behind-the-scenes” videos (now a ubiquitous DVD feature) of any kind I had ever seen, and I found it endlessly fascinating. I watched it every time that I came across it on TV. I might venture to say that it has had a profound impact on where my life has taken me.

I’ve taken puppeteering and puppet-building classes, walked around the Muppet Studio in L.A., briefly met some of the current puppeteers, and last year got to make a piece of puppet magic myself.

‘The Muppets’ seems to have stolen our puppet mount-cam idea without either us or them knowing it.

But enough about me. The reason that I’m throwing this out there is that there are other people out there like me. I would venture to say that I’m at the tail end of this multi-generational fascination with these characters. The last great piece of entertainment produced with Kermit, Fozzie, etc., was Chrismas Carol in 1992, nearly 20 years ago.

The Muppets have languished in the years since then, through various changes in ownership and stewardship. There have been two mediocre theatrical movies (the last one still a lengthy 12 years ago), a failed TV variety show, a Christmas special that had its moments, another horrific Christmas special, and the terrible Wizard of Oz adaptation.

This lengthy period of brand failure is exactly what the new movie is commenting on, and it does so in such a marvelous way that all cause for concern about how it treats the franchise’s history should be thrown out the window.

Briefly, the movie’s about a two superfans (Jason Segel and Walter, a new muppet performed fantastically by Peter Linz) who travel from Smalltown, USA to L.A. with Segel’s character’s girlfriend (Amy Adams) and visit the Muppet studios, finding it decrepit and more-or-less closed. Walter finds out that an evil corporation has taken control over the studio, theatre and Muppets name and plans to run all of them into the ground. It’s up to the three of them to get everyone back together to save the Muppets legacy. To say that this bears some resemblance to the current state of affairs with the company is quite the understatement.

I watched the original Muppet Movie the night before seeing this, and I’d recommend you do the same. In addition to being able to recognize a few callback references to the original movie, rewatching “The Muppet Movie” puts things in the new film in such an interesting mindset. Kermit was once an idealistic leader, inspiring friends to uproot their lives and travel to Hollywood to become “rich and famous”. Now though, all these years later, Kermit has become sort of an out-of-touch recluse, living in a mansion with only his 1980s robot butler to keep him company. Any object that could remind him of the past, and the never-detailed, but often inferred event that caused them all to split up, is draped off. (As a side note, I would love to see this dark chapter in the Muppets history. It would be the most depressing scene ever — even more than this and the [i’m not kidding] attempted suicide scene that came immediately before it, which I can’t find now — but it would be so compelling. Side side note: this is the world where Kermit was never born.) He’s not cynical or bitter — Kermit could never be that — but he’s deeply saddened by how much he believes he let everyone down, which is a burden he’s put on himself since the first movie. Now, years after the split, he views his life’s work as a failure and sees getting everyone together as a fool’s errand, but is talked into it.

The rest of the movie parallels the original’s structure, in the “getting the band back together” sense, but it’s almost a flipped perspective. Instead of it being about the hope of becoming entertainers and being able to make people happy, it’s about the notion of losing your friends to infighting, and your legacy to years of inactivity and a company bent on ruining your name and replacing you with other people/characters. While Walter brings new energy and hopeful naivety, the rest of the Muppets seem like old souls. They’ve aged in spirit and seem a little weary. Fozzy looks a little grey. Everyone else has moved on with their lives, and it’s quite the effectively sad portion of the movie.

But the movie is greatly funny. The music is mostly fantastic, especially if you like Flight of the Conchords, whose Bret McKenzie wrote four original songs (and a reprise), and served as Music Supervisor. I didn’t really care for the Amy Adams/Miss Piggy splitscreen duet, but the Jason Segel/Walter duet, “Man or Muppet” is both catchy and hilarious. The direction (by “Conchords” TV show co-creator and director) is great, with extremely minimal CG work and many, many “How’d they do that?” moments. Segel and Adams are cute and bring great likeable human energy, even if their story feels a bit too much in the forefront.

The Muppet performers don’t seem to miss a beat at all. Considering the only original performer still involved is Gonzo originator Dave Goelz, it’s amazing that all of these characters can still “live” and “breathe” when being performed by other people. It has taken me a number of years to get used to Steve Whitmire’s slightly higher-pitched Kermit, but the range of emotion he was able to wring out of that puppet was remarkable. Eric Jacobson (Fozzy, Piggy, Animal, Sam Eagle) and Bill Barretta (Rowlf, Dr. Teeth, Bobo, Pepe, Swedish Chef) are incredible apers of the original Frank Oz and Henson voices and master puppeteers to boot. There is really no difference in the Muppet characters noticeable enough to be a distraction, as in some past productions.

The woman sitting in front of me at the screening and her hippie husband left the theatre complaining about the “Disneyfication” of the franchise. Granted, she was also complaining prior to the movie about bottled water being a scam, but she does have a valid point about the movie, to a limited extent. Yes, everything is slick, polished, and sanitized. There are overhead shots of the Muppet Theatre (Disney’s Hollywood Boulevard El Capitan Theatre repurposed for the exteriors) that show a “Cars 2” billboard prominently in the background. The three new principal roles (Segel’s “Gary”, Adams’ “Mary”, and Walter) do get a little bit too much focus.

But here is why all of those complaints are wrong. Every joke or type of joke in this movie that seemed out of place actually had a precedent set for it in some prior movie or project: breaking the fourth wall, presenting a popular song in a ridiculous way (the muppet show did this every week), the over-top bad guy bent on bringing them down (Chris Cooper, doing a great job in limited screentime), even the ridiculous method by which they travel long distances.

No matter what Frank Oz says, I don’t feel that the characters were ever disrespected, with one possible exception, which I’ll get to later. In fact, I’d say the opposite. The newer characters were either never used (Clifford, Johnny Fiama and Sal Manella were completely absent), or, like Pepe, were pushed to the background entirely. Even lesser-known, older characters like Uncle Deadly, and Wayne and Wanda make appearances.

Oz points to the ubiquitous “fart shoes” joke in the ads as something Fozzie would never do, but in the context of the movie, I think it works. The characters are out of touch and desperate to figure out what people want, and I don’t think Fozzie is below pandering for a laugh. I’d say this movie is truer to the characters than the “World Where Kermit was Never Born” business.

Gary, Mary, and Walter serve as an audience proxy for younger people unfamiliar with “The Muppet Show”. And without Segel’s Gary and Walter there is no real impetus for the characters to reconcile at all, in a not-so-subtle parallel to real-life. Walter and Gary’s storylines are also so simple that they work without being too off-putting, and they’ve found great ways to parallel other character’s stories (the two duets for example).

For me though, and this comes as a side-note, and probably just a personal gripe, but considering he’s the only original performer left, Dave Goelz didn’t have much for Gonzo to do.

I know the last movie, way back when, focused on him entirely, but in re-watching material recently, I’ve realized the hidden layer of soul and sadness that Gonzo can bring, that few others have. The emotion that comes across in this song…

… is something that Miss Piggy and Fozzy are never tasked with. Most of the other characters are just one dimensional, though Rowlf has on occasion brought the emotion in his Muppet Show performances. Because of this, Kermit is left to carry that burden, but his sadness comes from his failures to live up to his ridiculously high expectations of himself as the leader and guy who manages these ridiculous personalities. Gonzo’s pathos has always stemmed from not fitting in, being weird, and not knowing exactly what he is.

Since these characteristics are basically the entirety of Walter’s personality, and his character arc, this brooding side of Gonzo gets pushed to the backburner, and even his comical side does as well. I’d be interested to see his number of lines compared to other characters. I get that not everyone can be properly serviced, but as a member of what I consider to be the core four characters, he feels like an afterthought. You can sense the regret in Fozzie and Piggy, but Gonzo has just seemed to move on. And this overlooking of him is even sadder considering Goelz is the longest-tenured performer here.

I have some mixed feelings about the end, but I have to talk about it in vague ideas. Basically, I feel like it glosses over a majorly important plot point, but the way in which it does this seems to render it fairly unimportant in the overall scheme of things. It sort of takes their literal goal and says their figurative one is more important, which is a great idea, but leaves the main plot as almost a side story.

On the whole though, I felt every emotion I was supposed to, including my normal disinterest in Miss Piggy. I welled up a few times, laughed a lot, and left with a smile on my face, and no feelings of contempt in my heart. I never once thought that they ruined a good thing here, and that’s all I could ask for.

The crux of this movie is whether or not The Muppets are a viable entertainment in today’s pop culture landscape, and I’d say that with the right material (and this is great material… mostly fleece and foam… wocka, wocka), they can be. Let’s hope that the kids that are getting their first taste of these characters feel the same way.



"Drive" : a new scent for men. From Calvin Klein

How far can you take the idea of creating a nondescript character before you have one that is boring and unlikeable? That’s the argument that’s running through my head as I write about the new Ryan Gosling vehicle (literally), “Drive”.

“Drive” is the story of a mechanic/Hollywood stunt driver/robbery wheelman, who operates under a strict set of rules, like “The Transporter” from “The Transporter”… except without all the parkour/judo/kickboxing, gravity-defying ludicrous automotive action, over-the-top bad music, tied-up Asian people, and shirtless oil wrestling. He shows up someplace at a given time, for five minutes. “If something happens in that five minutes”, he drives them away to safety, if not, he leaves. This is all set up in a pretty brilliant opening, but all of that promise and cool, retro, James Dean withdrawn charisma start to fade away the further we get into the film.

The unnamed driver (more on this later) goes about his business, doing a Hollywood stunt or two, working at Bryan Cranston’s garage, and meeting a doe-eyed neighbor, Carey Mulligan, and her son. He bonds with them, and Cranston tries to get him set up as a racecar driver with a two mob-tied investors (Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman). And through all of this, Gosling’s driver fails to do three things: drive a getaway car in another heist, talk, and show any discernible characteristics aside from being quietly trustworthy (if it were any other guy, I’m sure it would come off as creepy stalking and not stoicism). Yes, the unnamed Driver probably has the least amount of dialogue of any action movie hero I’ve ever seen. But that’s the point. The movie’s overt 80s motifs (most prominently, title font and score) point towards this being a deconstruction of the talky, quippy action movies of that era and their stars (Bruce Willis and Arnold mostly).

But as much as the promotional materials want to portray this as an action movie (to the point where some woman is suing over false impressions from the ad campaign), it is anything but, aside from the beginning and one fantastic sequence in the middle. The movie plays more like a Michael Mann, slow-burn film where the tension comes from characters who have made poor choices facing inescapable decisions that result in violence. Lots of violence.

It’s not that the movie has a crazy-high, cartoonish body count like something like “Commando“; it’s more that the movie goes along with this slow-paced character drama that sporadically erupts into single acts of extreme brutality. We’re talking heads getting smashed, shot, and stabbed, with seemingly unnecessary close-ups and a lot of blood. And that’s just some of it. The thing is, all of these incidents come so abruptly and are so brutal, that after such long periods of quiet they prove to be immensely unsettling. And that’s the point. It’s there to show you that violent action movies SHOULD BE unsettling, and we’ve become so desensitized to that. But does that make for enjoyable entertainment? I don’t know.

It’s the exact same problem I have with the main character. Does a non-character make an interesting “hero”? We’re supposed to root for this driver because he’s in a tough position. Because he makes a choice to help this woman, a choice that ends up not only putting him in a rough position, but is the first human thing he has done in the film, and perhaps in his life. See, he doesn’t have a character name. He doesn’t say anything. He lets other people make decisions for him. He’s just a driver. He has no characteristics that make him appealing as a person. He has no backstory. But then he makes a decision. ONE CHOICE. And, judging by the song that plays over the end credits, this makes him not only a “real hero”, but a “real human being”. Take a listen:

Surprisingly, I think I liked the first-half set-up of the movie more. I was enjoying the change of pace of having this understated, sub-textual relationship-building between the two leads. But once everything starts to fall apart, the driver becomes so hellbent on getting out of the mess he’s in that he basically turns into a psychopath. He’s truly frightening. It becomes like rooting for Michael Myers to just kill everyone, and is that something we really want to do? Not only that, but is this movie saying that transforming yourself from someone who doesn’t care about anything into someone who will brutally hunt down and murder people make you a hero and a human? Or is it again subverting that idea about old-school action movies?


“Drive” gets two stars for trying something interesting and different with its characters, having some fantastic acting, and two-to-three great sequences. It also includes a main character that is terribly hard to root for, surprisingly small amounts of action scenes (despite the advertising all but promising us “Fast and Furious 6”), and off-putting bits of hyper-brutality. I’m completely stuck in trying to grade this movie, as I love the guts it has in what it’s trying to do, but I can’t truthfully say I had an enjoyable experience. I guess that was the point?

The Empty Bookshelf Guide to the 2010 Oscars

This won’t be a guide to all of the awards, but we’ll get through all of the important ones. I’m structuring this as an “Empty Bookshelf Guide” and selectively using the royal “we,” though I’ve not consulted with the Junior Staff for their opinions.

The format will be listing the ten Best Picture nominees, and being that the majority of the nominees for the “big” awards are culled from the Best Picture list, we’ll weave through the other categories and touch on those where appropriate.

In no particular order…

Toy Story 3
I saw this after hearing many peers (mid to late 20s) breathlessly explain how this was “the most emotional movie in the history of ever.” It wasn’t, and it’s not. I’ll award it points for being ostensibly a kids movie which presented a moment where the characters are resigned to their fates and have lots of time to realize that it’s going to happen, but points are deducted because the movie doesn’t follow through with it. That’s manipulative, not emotional, fellow 20-somethings.

The Kids are All Right
This movie is perfectly….fine, but it had no business being nominated and serves to show why so many people outside of California hate California. No, not because of the same-sex parents (which, by the way, is completely not what the movie is about and has little to do with the plot other than it enabling the “kids meet their sperm donor father” plot), but because of the darn “localvore,” organic-this, organic-that California silliness. Think the tone of American Beauty, but less fun. Also, what the heck is going on with the title? The Who song is “The Kids are Alright” which makes some sense and would fit movie (in terms of a title). Spelling it “all right” implies something like, “The Kids are All Correct” – I don’t think that makes sense. There are two kids in the movie, so that would mean, “both of the kids are correct.” Hmm, that still doesn’t really jibe with the movie. Both Mark Ruffalo and Annette Bening were nominated, but try to describe these characters in more than three words, and you’ll find that there wasn’t much material for them to work with and make memorable characters.

Remember when everyone was like, “The Dark Knight should have been nominated – I mean, it would never win, but it should’ve been nominated?” Inception. Great movie. Nominated. Won’t win. (for such a “smart” story, it was slightly reliant on guns in the third act – blech, I hate using lingo). Also, for you folks arguing/discussing the ending of the movie and whether it’s “real.” Just stop. The whole point of the ending was that it was ambiguous. Speaking of which, Inception had, far and away, the Best Original Screenplay.

The King’s Speech
See? The title’s a double-entendre! Seriously, though, this is a tough one. The movie made speech therapy interesting (sorry for any speech therapists who are reading), and sent me to Wikipedia to read more about that odd time in the British Monarchy, BUT….but, there were better movies that came out in 2010. Honestly, there’s not one thing I’d change in the movie (other than maybe having Guy Pearce play his character from Ravenous instead of a prince, but I digress), but it was just too staid, too safe, and didn’t surprise me (other than the “making the development of modern speech therapy more interesting” thing). In terms of acting for accolades, speech impediments and British Royalty both seem like low-hanging fruit, but darn it, Colin Firth should win for Best Actor.

The Fighter
I generally avoid boxing movies – there’s just something about the false romanticism applied to boxing that grates on my nerves, so this one of the ten movies I was least looking forward to seeing. So, it was a pleasant surprise that it almost avoided any sort of the phony, down-on-his-luck BS that accompanies stories like this. Christian Bale should win Best Supporting Actor. In principle, he’s a bit too much of a capital-A “Actor” for my tastes, but darn it, if you told me he wasn’t the same person who plays Bruce Wayne, I’d believe you (of course I’m ignoring the significant physical change and just going by cadence, body language, and tics). Now, Wikipedia says he stayed in character even when the cameras weren’t rolling, and that’s enough to make me want to slap someone. In terms of the movie, unfortunately it relied too much on the main character being a complete dolt about how much his family was holding him back, so even though it was (closely) based on a true story, that took me out of it. “Bartender with a heart of gold” is bit tougher to pull off than “prostitute with a heart of gold,” but both are in the realm of “awards-bait,” but Amy Adams should win best supporting actress (and they didn’t “uglify” her to really pull on the award strings, so that counts for something).

Black Swan
This is the best movie of 2010 and maybe the best movie of the decade (whether the 2000s or the 2010s). There, I said it. See my comments above about “the development of modern speech therapy” and replace that with “ballet.” The screenplay and direction combine to hit notes of hard drama, suspense, sexy thriller, sports-drama (underdogs and all that), psychological horror, stuff-jumping-out-at-you horror, as well as the risky “movie within the movie.” Visually unique, maybe it’s not for everyone; here’s a negative review where I’d actually agree with him about pretty much every point, EXCEPT that my conclusion would be that it all worked. The last few shots (when she’s at the top of the “mountain” on the stage then jumps as the music hits the false crescendo until the fade to white) are perfect filmmaking. Every detail is perfect. The music (seriously the song has two finale crescendos which strike wildly disparate moods, yet are both…perfect. Those crazy Russians), the disconcerting push-pull as she appears to float onto the waiting mattress, her eyes, the audience which can’t contain its cheers which continue through to the end titles. Natalie Portman (who the Internet has apparently always thought can’t act?) should and will win the Best Actress award, but I see the Best Picture trophy going to a safer pick. Darren Aronofsky should be a shoe-in for Best Director, and Black Swan should also win for editing. Also, give it the Best Cinematography award, too. Sure, you’re thinking True Grit (“ooh, sweeping vistas!” says my dad) or The Social Network (“they shot so much in low light – think of the types of lenses they needed to use!” says the movie nerd [note: “nerd,” not “geek”]), but this is an artistic award, not a technical one, and the only truly unique “sweeping vistas” I’ve seen were in The Fall. It’s easy to make a sunset look artistic.

Soapbox warning: for you internet folks out there complaining that Clint Mansell was not eligible for the Soundtrack award, listen to his “arrangement” of the most dramatic and compelling scene of the movie with the most complementary music (the final scene), then compare it to Tchaikovsky’s original. Go on. I’ll wait. Yeah, adding two measures of glorified vamping to give the director room for another shot before the big finish doesn’t mean that the Academy’s rules are old-fashioned, and it was a travesty he was not DQ’d. Sorry, internet.

True Grit
Along with The Fighter, I wasn’t looking forward to watching this, but it was a pleasant surprise. It kept its “Coen Brothers-ish” tone under control for the most part which kept me happy, but they couldn’t let a few of their beloved “American Eccentrics” stop the movie dead in its tracks (specifically
the “doctor” with the bear skin); “hey character actor – how about you stare at the main characters and say things in a weird syntax with an even weirder, non-placeable but eminently ‘American’ accent while we roll the cameras until we get a take we like.” Also, what’s more Coen-ish than a precocious 14 year old girl with a passion for lawyering (and revenge)? BUT, my main concern was that Jeff Bridges was going to turn his role into a vanity project with the huge leeway afforded by the character’s accent (and wanting to separate the role from John Wayne’s original take on it) and tear up the scenery. I was pleasantly surprised that once I accepted his growling accent after five minutes of it, I was on-board and for such a broadly drawn character, and I actually enjoyed watching him. Hailee Steinfeld didn’t so much act as successfully spit out the typically Coens-ish dialogue (that’s not a knock on her), and enjoyable to watch or not, she wasn’t a supporting actress, she was the whole F’N show, so out of principle I won’t even consider her for that award.

The Social Network
Keeping up the theme of “making something not-interesting interesting for two hours,” The Social Network worked. I was less enamored than many others (Mark goes to California, his best friend is royally screwed, the movie abruptly ends). Aaron Sorkin avoids his typical speechifying, and provides the Best Adapted Screenplay, which is why the movie is so enjoyable, and actually could be the reason that Jesse Eisenberg won’t be stuck playing “think ‘Michael Cera,’ but with darker hair” roles until he’s 35. Like other David Fincher movies, there’s a lot of crazy special effects/camera tricks going on which don’t call attention to themselves (the crew race was filmed with no one in the stands, and famously quoted by people who have the internet, the twin jerks were played by one guy.) Speaking of the twin jerks, the fact that they’re entitled jerks but that you still get a sense that they were unceremoniously screwed by Zuckerberg hints at the strength of the screenplay, actors, and director. Also, because True Grit was not eligible for Best Soundtrack (and TRON Legacy wasn’t nominated to provide some competition), Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross should get an Oscar to match their Golden Globe. (special note: I’m still undecided about the TRON Legacy soundtrack. I agree with this review more than I disagree with it. The album is a little too “safe” and doesn’t stand out as anything other than a post-Batman Begins soundtrack.)

Winter’s Bone
I knew nothing about this movie when I saw it other than its poster. Naturally, I assumed it was about kids hunting for treasure while it was cold outside. With a canoe. Wow, that was not what the movie was about. At all. Unless a deadbeat dad is considered “treasure” in the sadder parts of Arkansas! Ha! Poverty Humor! Speaking of poverty, the movie was more enjoyable than this critic implies [special note: he uses the awesome and awesomely made-up word “yokelocracy” (and if you saw the movie you’d understand how precisely appropriate his word is)], but I agree with his point that the movie is glorified “poverty porn.” Maybe it was written/based on some intensely researched and nuanced perspective of the greater Ozarks, but if I were to be tasked with “write a three paragraph description of the meth-addled South,” I don’t think it’d be too different from what we see up on the screen. Like “The Kids are All Right,” [alternatively titled: “Both Children are Correct”] it won’t win and has no business winning, but they needed ten nominees to make up for not nominating “The Dark Knight” two years ago.

127 Hours
Coming off of “Slumdog Millionaire,” and one of my top 5 movies, “Sunshine” (well, the first two-thirds and the final 3 minutes of it), Danny Boyle had an opportunity to establish himself, but he didn’t trust his sound team enough. Let me explain. This movie should really be titled, “he cuts his own damn arm off with a dull blade,” so, of course, that’s the critical moment. It makes the movie. Sound people in Hollywood were drooling for this contract; what exactly is the sound of a dull blade cutting through ligament, tendon, flesh, muscle, bone, and marrow? Well, they came up with it (did they ever), and instead of letting the sounds speak for themselves (hmm – I guess that’s an oddly literal figurative expression in this case) Boyle kept the camera in a series of tight shots of the cutting process, when the risky move would have been to re-establish the precariousness of the situation with a shot showing the entire canyon, then letting that sickly sound establish that the cut had been successful. Risk = reward, and Boyle didn’t trust his sound team with that risk. It needed only to be visually OR aurally shocking; both were too much.

So, some wrap-up to cover all of my bases…

Other than Natalie Portman, I don’t think Black Swan will win anything, so generally, where I circled Black Swan, transfer it to The King’s Speech.

Best Picture Nominee I liked and appreciated as a “good” movie, but would actively avoid watching in the future (also called the Schindler’s List award): Winter’s Bone.

Safe pick for the Best Picture Nominee I would recommend to my mom (who doesn’t like violence, excessive swearing, excessive sex, excessive volume, and is a constant risk for falling asleep any time after 9:00PM): The King’s Speech.

Risky pick for the Best Picture Nominee I would recommend to my mom (but wouldn’t want to be in the same room or reachable by telephone after): Black Swan.

Best Picture Nominee I would not want to watch with my mom in the same room: Black Swan.

Best Picture Nominee I’d flip past on TBS during another show’s commercial break, then watch until well after the original commercial break ended, causing me to miss my show: True Grit

Best Picture Nominee I’ll watch out-of-order in 5 minute chunks on FX over the course of two months: The Fighter.

Best Picture Nominee which needs a sequel or spin-off (degree of difficulty, low): Toy Story 3.

Best Picture Nominee which needs a sequel or spin-off (degree of difficulty, cash-in): The King’s Speech.

Best Picture Nominee which needs a sequel or spin-off (degree of difficulty, high): True Grit (maybe about Matt Damon’s character?)

Movie which could easily get a spin-off or sequel but shouldn’t: Inception.

Movie which should’ve taken the place of either “Both Children are Correct” or Winter’s Bone: Blue Valentine.

Best Picture Nominee about which I wrongly underestimated before I saw it: The Fighter.

Best Picture Nominee to recommend to people who don’t usually like ‘Best Picture Nominee-type movies’ (degree of difficulty, The Departed): The Social Network.

Best Picture Nominee to recommend to people who don’t usually like ‘Best Picture Nominee-type movies’ (degree of difficulty, The English Patient): Winter’s Bone.


Four-and-a-half stars – It was a pretty good year for movies.

2010 Academy Awards

Alec and Steve were the only friends left at “Oscar’s” birthday party after mom kicked Kratos out after “the incident.”

Some quick thoughts opinions:

The “interpretive” dancing to accompany the Best Music (Original Score) nominees was tacky and plain-old ridiculous. Being that the music was written for a movie, why not show either a) a montage/custom trailer showcasing the music against the images or b) show a specific scene from the movie as-is which highlights the connection between composer and the visual material. The eventual winner, UP, has a sequence which would have lent itself perfectly for, you know, showing the effect of the music instead of a bunch of people spinning on their heads or doing the robot. If they want to show break-ish dancing, America’s Best Dance Crew does it better (and without the false pretense of it being “fine art.”)

Aside from the fact that a movie which would be more properly described as “rendered” (or raytraced, or something or another) rather than “filmed,” won for Best Cinematography, why did they show no clips, again, showcasing the recognized, excellent cinematography? I believe only the title cards were shown. Sure, most of the movies (except, Harry Potter, I believe) were shown in other awards’ intro sections, but movies are a visual medium, show it if it’s awards-worthy! Or maybe you could get the interpretive dancers to movieoke the scenes in question.

The Best Actor/Actress “wedding toasts” are still awkward and unnecessarily long. BUT, watching the obligatory “Oscar-bait” scenes are usually just as cringe-worthy. Of course, this year we got to see what happens when a “who’s that guy?” actor without a compelling story (acting debut and [celebrated for some odd reason] morbid obesity, for example) gets nominated…Colin Farrell is left to relate stories from their time off set during the filming of SWAT because there is no body of work to reference (yet?). Consider it a tie between the old “bait” and new “toasts” methods. [Jeremy Renner absolutely deserved to be nominated and would not have been a surprise winner, and unrelatedly, SWAT wasn’t all that bad of a movie, either].

In terms of Best Picture and Best Director (considering them interrelated here)… eh, The Hurt Locker was good, but felt a bit incomplete. Imagine a collection of seven interrelated short stories, any of which could be swapped for the climax of the movie. Unique, yes, but District 9 took another unique presentation method and did it better. The Hurt Locker would be somewhere below Up in the Air, District 9, An Education, and even Avatar on my list.

P.S. The Blind Side is an awful, awful movie. Meryl Streep did “I get what I want,” bad-ass chick better in The Devil Wears Prada, though Sandra Bullock was definitely the best part of the movie (which is notable because there was anything in it that could be considered “best”).


Urgent Warning Review: The Last Templar

Later tonight, NBC will be showing the second half of the two part “The Last Templar” mini-series. DO NOT WATCH THIS. It’s rare that I feel tasked to present my opinion as a public warning, but it is entirely, absolutely necessary in this case.

I’m not proud of myself, but I fell for the “well, I should probably buy a book before I get on an airplane for thirteen hours” business model. That’s right – I spent $10, the full retail price, based only on, “I liked The DaVinci Code well enough and that giant red cross on a white background on the cover of the book looks familiar. Ooh, it has ‘templar’ in the title, too.” Not one of my finer moments. Not one of my finer moments.

templar cover

Don’t fall for it – you’re better than this. Don’t make the same mistake I did.

Why the warning? People are quick to complain about The DaVinci Code for perfectly valid reasons; poor structure (action, explanation, action, explanation, ad nauseum…), clunky writing, the fact that it’s more-or-less the product of generously editing Angels & Demons and using “find and replace” to swap “Catholicism” with “Christianity,” and so on. BUT, The DaVinci Code worked well enough. I liked the book enough to also read Angels & Demons as well as Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and most significantly, there are few people have haven’t read The DaVinci Code, and I really don’t know anyone that truly hated it. I stand by the complaints detailed above, yet I wouldn’t tell someone not to read it if I were asked.

Of course, based on the overwhelming financial success of The DaVinci Code, a cottage industry sprang up around the Knights Templar and literary background checks of Jesus H. Christ ranging from the academic to the pulpy. Simply everyone who’s remotely interested in such things has read at least The DaVinci Code and is acutely aware of the recently-renewed discussion on whether Jesus should be referred to as “Dude” or just “dude.”

The Last Templar is the second worst kind of “DaVinci Code cottage industry” detritus. The single most damning error of the book is that the characters live in a vacuum where The DaVinci Code never existed. This is preposterous – as readers, we’re no longer shocked that there are “major revelations” about Jesus’ divinity and holding that like a carrot to keep the reader engaged just doesn’t work. Within the world of the story, it’s equally ludicrous that an archaeologist would be shocked (SHOCKED!) to hear that there are alternate theories of Jesus beyond those of the Gospels and Qur’an. It’s just plain inexcusable.

The story itself is of the relic-hunting variety: beheadings, ancient mythology, suspect foreigners, the two lead characters getting it on, a encryption/decryption/codex device, and so on. Passable, but the obliviousness detailed above checked me out of the book almost immediately. Well, the obliviousness and the fact that the romantic thread in the story was written with the fluidity and grace matching that of a teen-aged love letter saying, “I want to do you.”

I do have to comment on the selection of quotes on the front and back covers. On the front, we see “Like The DaVinci Code, Khoury’s novel features age-old mysteries that play out in a modern setting.” Let that sink in a bit. It’s equivalent to the quote reading, “The DaVinci code is a book. This novel is also a book.” There’s not even an implicit recommendation; in fact, one can extract an almost negative tone from it, as if the quote continued as, “…, but this is not even The DaVinci Code.” Imagine a Battlefield: Earth poster saying: “Star Wars was a movie in space. This one is, too.” No, don’t fall for it.

Moving to the back cover we see, “[will] satisfy your historical thriller craving.” One could say the same thing about Stalingrad Vodka and alcoholism. Similarly, “For those who think Dan Brown doesn’t write fast enough,” doesn’t actually provide a comment on the quality of the book. Think of a review of the Arena Football League: “Because the NFL off-season is February to August.”


The Last Templar mini-series gets half of one star. Bad books make for bad movies. Sure, the guy who got dumped on Scrubs is perfectly likable and Mira Sorvino looks fancy, but you’re better than this. If you feel the need to get your artifact-hunting itch scratched, re-read or watch The DaVinci Code, or, even better, read The Rule of Four.