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Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

JJ Abrams' 2009 Star Trek sequel/prequel/reboot was one of the more promising of its kind in this age of sequels/prequels/reboots. Star Trek Into Darkness, his embarrassingly-titled second go at the series before he moves on to that other Star franchise, slowly squanders that promise. The cast is still game, and at first the combination of entertaining character interaction mixed with adventure amidst vast IMAX-shot interplanetary landscapes seems like a certain good time at the movies. The initial drama centering around a terrorist attack in London is directed with chilling confidence, promising a memorable trek into the darkness. Then the combat action scenes start to come in, and they keep coming, a headache-inducing blur of lasers and lens-flares in poorly implemented 3D, but at least they seem to be in service of a worthwhile story and characters.

And then it all goes wrong.

Yes, Benedict Cumberbatch is Kahn. The studio doesn't you to know that before seeing it, but it's barely a spoiler, given that the "Kahn" in this movie has almost nothing to do with the Kahn of Space Seed and Star Trek II except to force unfavorable comparisons to the latter upon itself. When I first heard this rumored I was bothered by the possibility of them taking such a powerful compelling role written for a man of color and giving it to one of the whitest guys around; now that's kind of beside the point when they've stripped the role of its power and motivation anyway. No, and this is actually a significant plot spoiler but one that I can't talk about my feelings about the movie without discussing at least vaguely, he's merely a pawn in a government conspiracy incredibly reminiscent of 9/11 Truther conspiracies. Now, at first I wondered if I was reading into this; yeah, one of the screenwriters had revealed some certain political beliefs I deem as nuts, but the movie's a fantasy, an increasingly stupid one at that after even more ridiculous plot twists, and maybe I should just separate the art from one of the artists and just enjoy the actors and the special effects and accept it as a stupid movie. But no. The movie demands to be read as an awful 9/11 metaphor when it ends with a direct dedication to our post-9/11 veterans. So yeah, right there in the credits it says it's trying to talk about a political issue, and given the subtext in the movie, it ends up being underhandedly offensive to the people it's claiming to dedicate itself to.

One shining bright spot throughout this trek into bullshit: Simon Pegg as Scotty. I'd swear he wrote half his lines himself, as he oddly ends up oddly self-aware, criticizing most of the movie's problems. I love that guy. Wish I could love this movie half as much. C-

In the Mood for Love (2001)

It's funny how classics become canonized. In last year's Sight and Sound critics poll for the greatest movies of all time, Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love was the highest ranking film from the new century, one of only two in the top 50. That's some pretty high acclaim. Does the movie warrant it? Well, I'm not sure. It's great, no denying that, but I'm tempted to play devil's advocate concerning how great it is.

I will give it this: from a purely visual perspective, this is one of the most beautiful films ever shot. It had two directors of photography (Christopher Doyle had to leave midway through production and was replaced with Mark Lee Ping Bin), but the movie feels like it comes from one vision that takes on many different moods. The 1960s Hong Kong costume and production design is to die for, the colors popping like one of the old Technicolor spectacles of that era. Also decidedly old Hollywood is how sexy it is without containing any sex. The incredibly photogenic Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung play Chow and Su, neighbors abandoned by their spouses who end up pining for each other, might not have sex, but the way the cinematography and the emotions play out, when they dig into a steak at a fancy restaurant or spend time together writing a martial arts serial, they might as well be.

The music is fittingly seductive until it isn't, and that's where my devil's advocate temptations come into play. Repeating the same musical theme works at first, but at a certain point, the repetition without variation loses its allure and starts to make the film feel a lot longer than it is. If the later middle portion of the film took me out of it, though, I was pulled back in by the sad, sudden, and stunningly beautiful ending. With the talent involved in this movie, it could have turned into a porno and people would still be declaring it a work of genius. Instead, it turns into a prayer, a pure expression of religious experience amidst emotional turmoil. Maybe the Sight and Sound poll isn't that far off, my frustration with the movie's pacing aside. A-

Iron Man 3 (2013)

So, how do you top The Avengers? Well, you don't, unless you're Joss Whedon working on Avengers 2, but for the second stage of their mega-franchise, Marvel seems to be on the right track using these individual hero movies as opportunities to have fun showcasing their individual heroes' personalities, while also giving the filmmakers room to stretch and insert their personalities into the work. Iron Man 3 is very much "the Tony Stark story", letting Robert Downey Jr.'s now iconic performance shine outside the suit for the majority of the film, developing the character naturally in response to what he went through in The Avengers. Jon Favreau, who directed the first two Iron Man movies, has given up the reigns to Shane Black, whose snappy sense of comic dialogue, intricate set-ups of Chekov's Guns ready to go off, and affection for action movie tropes make this potentially the best of the non-Avengers Iron Man movies.

Because of the way it's set up, I do advise a little patience for everything to click into place. Previous Iron Man movies have had difficulty balancing the hero's and the villain's development: the first endeared Tony Stark to the world but the bad guys were pretty forgettable; the second had more fun with the villains but Tony's development in that movie felt underwritten. At first, this looks like it's going to be like the first movie; everything about Tony's story is great, but, while the evil scheme is fairly intriguing, albeit made way obvious to the audience long before the characters pick up on it, the big bad, Ben Kingsley's The Mandarin, something seems a little bit... off about him. But then... Well, comic purists are probably going to hate what they do with the character, but me? I loved it! No spoilers here, just, if it seems off at first, prepare for something awesome. You'll know it when you see it.

War Machine (now dubbed "Iron Patriot") gets some good action and character interaction, and some of the new people Tony meets along the way in this journey have some fun scenes, but of the supporting characters, it's Pepper Potts who ends up stealing the show (unless you count a certain cameo in the post-credits scene which will surely become fuel for shippers hoping Tony finds a different mate; in my opinion, an OT3 involving Pepper and this cameo character would be ideal). Not much else to say here but that this is a fun start to the summer movie season and hopefully a sign of more good things to come from Marvel Entertainment. B+

The Exquisite Corpse Project (2013)

Olde English, a comedy troupe from Bard College, decides to reunite to make a movie, directed by former member Ben Poppick. The gimmick: five people are each going to write 15 pages of the script, only having read the previous five pages before their section. The results: watchable, in parts, maybe. These are the good parts of that movie, mixed into a documentary of the good and the bad that went into its production.

I was expecting The Exquisite Corpse Project to be funny, and on that it delivers, both in the behind the scenes antics and in what we see of the movie. Each writer brings in a different approach: Chioke sets up a wacky crime story, Joel's romcom follow-up segment gets twisted by the director into the epitome of so-bad-it's-good, Adam turns it into a horror parody (of movies he's never actually watched), David's segment, in my opinion the funniest, twists it into supernatural action, and Raphael closes it out with a weirdly poignant study of a relationship. That their work somehow manages to maintain something of a story arc is kind of miraculous. Even more miraculous and unexpected is how emotionally affecting the documentary turns out to be as a study of a friendship, of people trying to connect yet drifting apart, fighting and backstabbing over the pettiest of issues, of things meant to be fun turning to agony until the original spark of inspiration is rekindled in the aftermath.

The Exquisite Corpse Project, after years of tinkering in the editing room, is finally finished and will be simultaneously released for download and start a theatrical run later this week. It's an experience unlike any movie I've seen before, and it had me continuously smiling, frequently laughing, and in the end surprisingly moved. This is experiment is a success and it's absolutely worth checking out. A-

Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

Roger Ebert (RIP) wrote that he never cried at the parts of movies which were merely sad, but rather the parts where he felt an emotion he called Elevation, which stems from from "a good person, doing a good thing." Sansho the Bailiff has plenty of material that's sad: betrayal, slavery, torture, death. Yet throughout the film there were two moments that led me to break down in tears, and they were both moments of Elevation: a song, and a reunion. Neither moment could be considered happy, bittersweet at most, yet that tiniest taste of sweet... I'm sorry to overwhelm this review with quotes from dead PBS personalities, but that Mr. Rogers quote that's been going around the internet in response to the bombing in Boston about always looking for the helpers? Yeah...

If you couldn't tell by my use (overuse?) of ellipses and dead PBS personality quotes, I'm a bit drained at the moment. Sansho the Bailiff is draining. It's also very fulfilling, not just for Elevation but for beauty, brilliant construction, for its sheer earnestness of message. Kenji Mizoguchi's commonly ranked alongside Kurosawa and Ozu as the greatest of Japanese directors and in terms of visual skill, outside of perhaps Kurosawa's painterly work in Ran, he's easily the greatest of the three. He used minimal edits and extensive camera movement and made every decision matter. If tragedy is based on inevitability, it's true mastery of storytelling to make a tragedy feel so unpredictable yet so right, with unexpected victories ironically co-mingling with failures. I don't want to spoil the story; I went in basically knowing nothing about the plot of the movie and I think that might have strengthened its impact.

I can make quibbles here and there, that the eye-freeing nature of the deep focus cinematography led me to miss some subtitles, that I got mildly frustrated with some moments that threatened to border on overkill before smartly moving back, that I could have done without the shrieking flutes at the end of an otherwise perfect musical accompaniment. But I guess those are mostly my failings more than the movie's. I'll take the movie's advice that "even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others." A+

Jellyfish (2008)

Israeli writer Etgar Keret is best known for his short stories. Jellyfish is not an adaptation of any of his published stories, nor did he write the screenplay, which is the work of his wife and co-director Shira Geffen, but it definitely comes across as bearing the sensibility of a short story writer. The three stories in the movie intercut with each other but don't interconnect in any significant ways, the protagonists of the different stories only running across each other a few times mostly to show they exist in the same universe. What it lacks in the puzzlebox fun that can be found in multi-thread films, it also lacks the genre's occasional pretentiousness and failed stabs at making statements. It washes over pleasantly.

The strongest of the three stories is about Batya, a wedding waitress who finds a mysterious mute girl walking out of the ocean. This magical realism-infused tale has the most memorable imagery and the most interesting psychological depths. The weakest in my opinion is the one about the newlywed couple on a disastrous honeymoon. It seemed the most generic without a strong enough hook. In between the two but leaning towards a more favorable opinion is the one about Joy, a Philipino caretaker trying to work through a language barrier with her cranky elderly client. This story has particular fun with language when dealing with a very unusual Hebrew production of Hamlet the client's daughter stars in.

As far as thematic connections go, the movie's more a series of Venn diagrams (2 of the 3 involve adultery, 2 of the 3 deal with caretaking) than circles. The only real connections between all three are that they're all taking place in Tel Aviv, they're all focused on women, and they all involve references to and aesthetic elements of water. I wish I felt a bit more connection to this movie since there's a lot of interesting elements, but it just didn't totally jell for me (awful pun intended). B-

From Up on Poppy Hill (2012)

From Up on Poppy Hill, recently opened in proper albeit limited release here in America after a brief December Oscar-qualifying run, is Goro Miyazaki's second chance to attempt to live up to his father Hayao's name after the failure of Tales from Earthsea. Is he successful? Sort of. He makes a good movie this time but it's not quite Miyazaki-good. But perhaps that's an unfair comparison because it's a completely different genre than the fantasies of the elder Miyazaki (who does have producing and co-writing credit for this movie, but the only way it really resembles his directorial works is in the style and excellent quality of its animation). So I'll make the comparison to an anime of the same genre (this is partially an excuse to make a recommendation): Kids on the Slope, the 12-episode series by Cowboy Bebop/Animatrix director Shinichiro Watanabe, viewable in its entirety here: http://www.crunchyroll.com/kids-on-the-slope

Both Poppy Hill and Kids... are both adaptations of manga aimed at female readers (Kids... aiming slightly older as a josei series, Poppy Hill aiming slightly younger as a shoujo series) about high school romance in 1960s Japan. Both are nostalgic works, but, perhaps due to being based on an older manga, Poppy Hill feels more dated, most significantly in an area Ghibli films usually exceed at: the female lead. Umi's not totally boring, there's some decent drama concerning her feelings about her family and her crush, but what defining interesting traits does she have outside of those relationships? Well, there's one line saying that she might want to be a doctor, and that's basically it. Yes, I know in a realistic period piece she's not going to be some big feminist heroine, but a little personality and passion like Ritsuko in Kids on the Slope would be appreciated. I found myself caring more about the comic side characters and their quest to save their old clubhouse than about the main character. Also, the music in Poppy Hill is weak compared to both Kids on the Slope's jazz and the classical Ghibli orchestrations of Joe Hisaishi.

It should be noted that despite the PG rating, there's some squicky material (fortunately handled more maturely than in a lot of other anime) that explains why Disney's not releasing this one and make it difficult to recommend to families with kids. For teenagers and adult anime fans, it comes recommended despite my criticisms. Lesser Ghibli is still quite enjoyable in the grand scheme of things. B
Two major documentaries about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict got nominated at the Oscars this year. I saw one of them, 5 Broken Cameras, a few weeks ago, and didn't write about it because I wasn't sure how to write about it. Now that I've seen the other big documentary, The Gatekeepers, I feel the need to write about both, being honest where I'm not sure what to write.

5 Broken Cameras is assembled from the home movies and protest footage recorded by Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat, made in partnership with Israeli activist Guy Davidi. The Gatekeepers is a more traditional talking-head documentary; the heads are those of six former leaders of the Shin Bet security agency recounting major stories from their careers for the first time on camera. 5 Broken Cameras as a piece of filmmaking is less polished than Gatekeepers but more exciting. I also feel like an awful person for finding it less trustworthy.

Let me explain. 5 Broken Cameras is great as a document of life under very uncomfortable circumstances. It's also an interesting look at the struggles of keeping up a non-violent protest movement in the face of violence, and how such a movement can tragically fall apart. But when it talks about politics beyond obvious agreeable messages like "occupation is bad", it lost me. More to the point, its lack of explanation in setting up what's going on lost me. When I hear Burnat mention that IDF officers pretended to be violent Palestinians for the sake of disturbing an otherwise peaceful protest, I immediately question if the story is true (which makes me feel like an awful person, but there's been so many lies told on both sides that's it's hard to know what's true), and accepting the story might be true, I have to wonder "Why?" The movie shows the IDF doing bad things but doesn't look at why they're doing them, and perhaps it's unfair to expect the movie to (I'm not going to complain about bias, especially given how personal this film is), but I still want to know.

Gatekeepers is more satisfying, as satisfying as a documentary on this subject can be anyway, in that it's about explanations. It covers a lot of history and the reasoning behind some of the most dramatic and in many cases catastrophic decisions these six men have made. I feel awkward for responding better to the anti-occupation movie focusing on Israeli officials than the one made by a Palestinian actually living under occupation, but The Gatekeepers paints a more complex picture, a complexity which doesn't lessen and if anything amplifies the serious problems being faced. It has a grim outlook, with some dark senses of humor providing entertainment, but it could very well move you to action, or at the least some serious thought.

Stoker (2013)

Park Chan-Wook's English-language debut Stoker is no less twisted than his Korean work but more restrained in its plotting. In contrast to his masterpiece Oldboy, which moved at a fast pace through a complicated and never predictable storyline, Stoker takes its time building up an atmosphere of dread and telegraphing most of its big third-act reveals long in advance. But what powerful build-up and atmosphere!

In Park's world, there are no heroes, but there are characters more villainous that others. Matthew Goode relishes the chance to play really bad as Uncle Charlie. The moment you see him you can guess what's up with him, but it's still exciting watching Mia Wasikowska's India Stoker figure it all out. India's a more tragic character than I've seen Wasikowska play before. In her relationships with her mother, uncle, and deceased father, she resembles a gender-swapped version of Hamlet, but without a ghost or a Horatio to guide and support her and with additional sexual baggage which provides two of the movie's most chilling scenes, a piano duet and a shower scene. Shower scenes always end up disturbing in horror movies.

The plot reveals at the end are in part predictable, but the sexual dynamic complicates things in interesting ways. Less predictable is an epilogue of sorts. There's a point the movie seems like it could end on a satisfying note, but the kicker sends it new heights of disturbingness. Considering recent events and political debates, it's relevant and sure to be a conversation starter amongst those who see it. It simultaneously connects to the artistic whole and yet still feels like a frustrating loose end of plot, but perhaps that's the point. Perhaps the script could be more developed, but Stoker is still very much recommended to those who think they can take it that to Park's excellent direction and provocative ideas. B+
Tumblr "You Tried" Star for Not Sucking in Expected Ways While Still Sucking: Haywire

Most Disturbing Unintentional Horror Film: Ruby Sparks

Most Amazing Scene in a Severely Lacking Movie: tie between The Hobbit (riddles in the dark) and Les Miserables (I Dreamed a Dream)

Best Teen Ensemble Acting: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Most Unfairly Maligned Fun Popcorn Film: John Carter (of Mars)

Most Powerful Suspense Despite Such Little Character Development: Zero Dark Thirty

Best Bearded Men Ensemble Acting: Lincoln

Best Marathon of the Best TV Show that Barely Qualifies as a Movie: Madoka Magica The Movie Parts 1 and 2

Futurama Award for Witty Philosophical Dilemmas with Creative Bullshit Non-Answers: Wreck-It Ralph

Most Unexpectedly Perfect Casting (Jack Black): Bernie

Best (unfortunately only) Documentary I Saw But Didn't Review Because Doc Reviews are Hard Especially When the Leads are so Hate-able: The Queen of Versailles

Best Subversive Stop-Motion to Rile Up Creationists: The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists

Best Ass-Kickings I Didn't Review Because the Painful Dubbing Made it Hard to Fully Embrace: The Raid: Redeemption

Best Oscar-Nominated CIA-in-the-Middle-East Based-on-a-True-Story Thanks to a Sense of Fun and Character: Argo

Wes Anderson Award for Being Wes Anderson at His Most Enjoyably Wes Anderson-iness: Moonrise Kingdom

Best Hair/Best Mother-Daughter Story: Brave

Best Archery/Most Worthy of Gratitude that an Actual Smart Feminist Story is in the Spotlight Once Occupied by that Twilight Crap: The Hunger Games

Best Cinematography (Digital)/Best Bond Movie I Didn't Review Because Not Really Knowing Bond the Attempts at Continuity Really Made No Sense: Skyfall

Best Subversive Stop-Motion to Rile Up Homophobes/Best Antagonist Who's Not Really a Villain/Best "It Gets Better" Video with Zombies: Paranorman

Best Actor (Joaquin Phoenix)/Best Cinematography (Traditional)/Most Enjoyable Puzzle to Ponder: The Master

Best 3D/Best Effects/Most Amazing Single Hour of Any Movie This Year Sadly Bogged Down by that Ending Leaving Us with a Puzzle Less Fun to Ponder: Life of Pi

Best Editing/Most Overlooked Movie of the Year/Most Movie of the Year: Cloud Atlas

Best Subversive Stop-Motion to Rile Up Science-Hating Fundamentalists in General/Best Dog/Best Tim Burton Movie in A Long Time: Frankenweenie

Best Argument in Favor of Making More Traditional Animation/Best Treatise on Our Inevitable Mortality (you know, for kids!)/Most Annoying Release Since Disney Made it Ineligible for a Best Animated Feature Oscar: The Secret World of Arrietty

Best Anne Hathaway Performance (and remember, she already earned her other movie its award here)/Best Reflection on Important Political Issues Using Superheroes/Best Sequel That I Imagine People Would Love Even More if it Wasn't Standing in the Shadow of Heath Ledger: The Dark Knight Rises

Best Argument in Favor of Legalizing Pot/Best Monster Menagerie/Movie I've Rewatched the Most and if Anything it's Gotten Better: The Cabin in the Woods

Best Experience in a Movie Theater/Best Smashing/Best Line I Missed Because Everyone Was Laughing Too Hard to Hear It ("Puny god"): The Avengers

Most Fascinating Villain That's Also the Most Sam Jackson's Had to Act Since Forever/Most Disturbing Violence/Most Awesome Violence/Best Epic Mythmaking: Django Unchained

Best Time Travel/Best Reasoning Not to Talk About Time Travel/Best Original Screenplay/Most "Holy shit!" SPOILER ALERT: Looper

Best Actress (Quvenzhane Wallis)/Best Adapted Screenplay/Best Score/Most Tears Shed/Most Promising New Director/Best Pigs/Movie Scientists In the Future Will Watch/Favorite Movie of the Year: Beasts of the Southern Wild

And my top 10 (or 11) most Anticipated Movies of the Next Year:
10. From Up on Poppy Hill's wide release and/or the next Miyazaki film if we see its release here this year
9. Iron Man 3
8. Thor: The Dark World
7. Much Ado About Nothing
6. Kick-Ass 2
5. Elysium
4. The World's End
3. Wolf Children
2. Star Trek Into Darkness
1. Pacific Rim

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