Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road is the best new action movie that I have seen in years.  If you care about action movies, go see it now!

I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting much going in.  I assumed it would be yet another cynical cash-grab reboot of an old series. I figured it was made not because someone had a good story to tell, but simply because it was something people had heard of and the studio could bank on the affection for the original without having to bother developing a good movie that people want to see in itself.

I was debating whether to see it in theaters or wait for Netflix, when I saw that it had a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  At first I thought that was a typo.  But it isn’t.  The movie really is that good.

It is a spectacle movie.  There isn’t much in the way of character development, and no plot beyond “Good guys try to get away from bad guys.”  It’s just one long chase scene.  But what a chase!  It features amazing action, stunts, and vehicular madness that you’ve never seen before.  It’s done mostly with practical effects, which gives the movie a sense of physics and immediacy that you don’t see with CGI.  Now that anyone can put any fake-looking fake thing on the screen that they can imagine, our brains have stopped being impressed by CGI, and seeing something done for real makes a huge difference.

Fury Road is a rare reboot that is significantly better than the original.  But I’d go beyond that.  The action in Fury Road is so amazing, that I would say it completely negates the need to watch the original Mad Max series.  Everything in the original trilogy is just a lesser version of Fury Road.

Fury Road is awesome and you should definitely see it.

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Star Wars Episode 7

Look, I would absolutely love it if Episode 7 was an amazing movie.  And I do have to admit the teaser trailer looks good.

This comic sums up the way most of my friends have been reacting to it:

But I’ve been burned before.  I remember how excited we were in the late 90s, based on the delusion that new Star Wars would be as amazing as old Star Wars.  I remember how there was a (false) rumor that they would show the first preview for Phantom Menace before the X-Files movie.  As each preview was starting, everyone in the theater cheered in anticipation.  Then when they really did show the preview before Meet Joe Black, people bought tickets to Meet Joe Black just to watch the previews and then walk out afterwards.  We all thought back then that Episode one would be awesome.

Then there was the enormous let-down of seeing the actual movie.  I’m convinced that this disappointment was a major contributing factor to the cynicism of the 2000s.  We got the thing we had been wishing for our entire lives, and it turned out to be awful.  The world just didn’t seem as bright and hopeful after that.

It’s easy to make a teaser trailer look good.  The teaser for Phantom Menace looked incredible.

It doesn’t look so good now that we know the context of those clips – how annoying Jar Jar and Anakin are, the wooden dialog, the boring incoherent plot.  But when the teaser was originally released, just seeing the Lucasfilm logo was enough to make us squeal with delight.  There was a double-sided lightsaber, cool looking ships, thousands of droids, Samuel L. Jackson, and a fully emotive Yoda.  We had no idea just how wrong it would all go.

Now people are getting their hopes up again.  And it reminds me of this scene from Fanboys:

For those of you who didn’t watch the clip, the joke is that someone is so excited about the upcoming release of Phantom Menace that he gets a full back tattoo of Jar Jar, on the assumption that the character will kick all sorts of ass.  We can laugh at that now.  My fear is that by the end of the year, we will look back at those who were excited about The Force Awakens in the exact same way.

Nothing would make me happier than if I turn out to be completely wrong about this, and the movie is great beyond the fanboys’ wildest dreams.  But for now, I’m not going to get my hopes up.

Batman vs. Superman

I’ve said many times that I don’t think there could ever be a good Superman movie, because of the eponymous Superman Problem.  Superman is just so powerful as a character that the only way to make him face a challenge is for him to be so stupid that he forgets his own powers.  That’s just not interesting to watch.

But if you make Superman the villain, then he becomes an incredibly daunting challenge himself.  If that challenge is faced by someone with much weaker superpowers*, that could be interesting.

I’m not convinced that Batman vs. Superman will be good.  I have plenty of reservations about Ben Affleck, and plenty more about Zack Snyder.  Especially after the steaming pile of crap that was Man of Steel.**  But unlike most Superman movies, Batman vs. Superman could be good.  So I’m cautiously hopeful.

* Yes, Batman does have superpowers.  He has the power of infinite money.  And in many incarnations, he also has the powers of magic technobabble, rapid healing, and making everyone around him stupid.

** There are a lot of bad things you could say about Man of Steel and how it betrayed the whole point of Superman.  But I never even got to that point because it violated the only absolutely unbreakable rule of movies/screenwriting, which is never be boring.  It was so dull that I quit watching after an hour, and never even got to the parts that everyone else hates.  (Other than the scene where he stands around with his thumb up his butt and watches his father die for no reason, which gave me a taste of how little I was missing by not continuing to watch.)

New on Netflix March 2015

Here’s the stuff coming out on Netflix that I recommend:

Aziz Ansari Live at Madison Square Garden (3/6) – I really enjoy Aziz Ansari’s standup, and am looking forward to this.

Finding Neverland – This drama about JM Barrie creating Peter Pan is both entertaining and poignant.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (3/11) – I haven’t seen this yet, but will watch it on Netflix. I though the original was fairly entertaining. Nothing amazing, but an enjoyable use of my time. I expect the sequel will be about the same.

The Man With the Iron Fists (3/31) – This is an entertaining dumb action movies. It takes the tropes of cheesy martial arts movies, and ramps them up to an insane degree. It’s kind of like Kill Bill on crack, and I mean that as a compliment. Very entertaining.

Other stuff you’ve heard of:

A Different World (complete series – 3/15)
Brothers Grimm
Life Itself (3/19)
Patch Adams
Rules of Engagement
Teen Witch
Third Rock From the Sun (complete series – 3/15)

Indiana Jones Remake

A god-damned Indiana Jones remake.

Face::Palm

On the other hand, at least this couldn’t possibly be as bad as that awful weird alternate reality fan-fic film that explored what would happen if an elderly Indiana Jones fought aliens.

On the third hand, one of my Iron Laws of Filmmaking is that every time you say, “Movies couldn’t possibly get any worse,” you are wrong.

At least this is still in the hypothetical phase, so we still yet may be saved from this abomination.

2014 in review

Apparently people were most interested in Domino’s Specialty Chicken.  Which makes sense, because that chicken is pretty good.

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,000 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 50 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Year-End Review of New Fast Food

This Buzzfeed article is a good opportunity to review new fast foods that I’ve tried during the year.  Running through the list:

1. 7-Eleven Doritos Loaded – I intended to write a review for this, but then got too busy doing work at work, never got around to it, and then after a while mistakenly assumed I had already written up the review and moved on.  Anyway, these are wonderful.  Probably the best food that 7-Eleven makes, although I suppose that isn’t particularly high praise.  If you’ve ever had fried mac and cheese bites, these are similar, but greatly improved by the Doritos crust.  Highly recommended, and at $2 for a 4-pack, probably the cheapest weird fast food around.

7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded (U.S.)

2. Taco Bell’s Waffle Breakfast Taco – I reviewed it here.  This is bland and skippable.

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3. Subways Fritos Chicken Enchilada Melt – I reviewed this on Facebook before I started the blog, so I’ll copy-paste the facebook post here.  (I’m glad Facebook now has a search function.)

“Meh.” By trying to split the difference between Subway and Taco Bell, they end up with something that is less than either of them. Also either they didn’t toast mine long enough, or they added enough cold stuff that the entire sandwich ended up cold.  So I won’t be ordering this again. Either I’ll get a better sandwich from Subway, or I’ll get a better enchilada-like-food from Taco Bell.

4-8, 10, 12, 15-16, 20. 23-26, 28, 32-33 Domino’s Starburst Chocolate Lava Cake, Pizza Hut Doritos Crust Pizza, McDonalds Black & White Pie, KFC Crispy Cheese Chicken, Burger King Burger Topped Poutine, Pizza Hut Surf & Turf Pizza with Dessert-Stuffed Crust, KFC Popcorn Chicken Nachos, Pizza Hut Chili Dog Stuffed Crust Pizza, Burger King Premium Berry Burger, KFC Dipping Fries, KFC Creamed Corn Chicken Sandwich, Domino’s Subwich, McDonalds McSbrinz Burger, KFC Double Down King, Pizza Hut Sausage Roll Crust Pizza, Pizza Hut Quesadilla Burrito & Nacho Pizzas, Tim Horton’s Buffalo Crunch Doughnut – These are all foreign offerings that I haven’t had an opportunity to try.

9 – Carl’s Jr Bisnut – Somehow I missed this one, even though I regularly eat at Carls.  I have tried Jack in the Box’s cronut, which is decent but not amazing.  It takes like a cross between a fast food donut and a fast food croissant.

11 Jack in the Box’s Hella-Peno Burger – I haven’t tried these, though the other offerings on JitB’s late-night stoner menu are pretty good.

13-14, 17-18, 31 – Papa John Frito Chili Cheese Pizza, Taco Bell Starburst Strawberry Freeze, Church’s Chicken & Waffle Bites, Del Taco Bun Taco, White Castle Waffle Breakfast Sandwich – I haven’t had the chance to try these.  The Frito Chili pizza and Chicken & Waffle Bites sound good.  The others not so much.

19 – Dominos Specialty Chicken – Review here.  This is one of the best fast-food offerings I have ever had.

That's the BBQ Bacon on the left, Jalapeno-Pineapple on the right.

21 Carl’s Jr Double Loaded Omelet Biscuit – This is just the regular loaded omelet biscuit with twice as much stuff.  It’s a pretty good fast-food breakfast sandwich, though this is too much food for me and I would prefer the regular biscuit.  (Although I rarely order breakfast sandwiches from Carl’s, as I prefer their burritos or biscuits and gravy.  But that’s just a personal preference.  The regular omelet biscuit is my wife’s favorite fast food breakfast of any chain.)

22 Jack in the Box Chick-N-Tater Melt – Another offering from their late night stoner menu.  This is pretty good.  The chicken, tater tots, bacon, and sauce mix well.  I wish they offered this all day instead of just late nights.

27 – Pizza Hut Pretzel Piggy Pizza – I haven’t had this particular pizza, but I have had the Pizza Hut pretzel crust.  I prefer pretzels to regular pizza crust, so this is an improvement.  But it doesn’t make a huge difference.  It only matters when you get down to the ends, which at lot of people don’t eat anyway.

29 Taco Bell Quesarito – Review here.  This is pretty good, and I like it better than Taco Bell’s similarly priced burritos.

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30 Subway Flatizza – I reviewed this on Facebook before I had this blog:

Mediocre. You can’t really mess up a flat-bread pizza, since it’s just flatbreat, cheese, pizza sauce, and toppings. But there wasn’t anything particularly good about this. It’s probably a step below TV dinner flatbread pizza. I won’t get this again.

World’s Tallest Roller Coaster

The Skyscraper roller coaster being built in Orlando looks both awesome and terrifying.

It’s interesting that it’s 535 feet high, yet the designers chose not to have a huge drop.  But I guess that allows them to do a lot of other interesting things in little space.

Anyway, check out the video rendering of the ride experience.

Interstellar and Idea-Based Spectacle Movies

[WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS FOR INTERSTELLAR AND INCEPTION, AND MAJOR SPOILERS FOR INTERSTELLAR IN ITEM #4]

I’ve talked about spectacle movies before. These are movies which either don’t have a story, have an incoherent story, or have a bare-bones generic story, but succeed through showing the audience some sort of spectacle they’ve never seen before.

Usually this spectacle is comedy, action, something visually stunning, or song-and-dance numbers. But there’s another kind of spectacle I haven’t talked about: The spectacle of interesting ideas. The ideas can be real or fictional, as long as they’re compelling concepts we haven’t really seen on film before. Some examples are 2001, Inception, Memento, and Terry Gilliam’s non-Python movies.

Interstellar tries to be an idea-based spectacle movie, but it fails. Everyone I’ve talked to about the movie, including myself, considers it somewhere between lousy and mediocre. (My own opinion is that it’s on the mediocre side of things.) I think it would be interesting to compare it to Inception, an idea-based spectacle movie by the same writer, same director, and in the same style, which ended up being much better.

Here are the reasons I think Interstellar doesn’t work while Inception does:

1. The ideas aren’t that big or interesting.

We’ve seen planetary exploration countless times, most notably in Star Trek. We’ve seen the idea of traveling through wormholes in Disney’s The Black Hole, Star Trek Voyager, and the children’s book A Wrinkle in Time. We’ve seen a world in decline in 75% of movies that take place in the future. I suppose the idea of a Magic Equation to Manipulate Gravity and Fix Everything ™ is new, but that really doesn’t play out in any visual or emotional way in the movie, so the audience can’t care about it.

Contrast this with Inception. I suppose we’ve seen the idea of dream-jumping in A Nightmare on Elm Street. But Inception did this much better, with coherent and well-explained rules that don’t rely on outright magic.

2. The core idea that the movie is trying to resolve is meaningless disconnected technobabble.

In Inception, the key problem that the hero is trying to resolve is how to go into someone’s dream to create a specific desire. We know this is extremely difficult because everyone in the movie insists it’s impossible. (Though Cobb knows it’s possible because he’s done it before, albeit with horriffic results.) The potential solution to this problem involves an intricate heist, multi-level dream journey, and lots of ass-kicking. That’s a clear, unambiguous goal, where the audience can easily understand what success and failure look like, and the journey to solve it is visually compelling.

In Interstellar, the key problem is to reconcile the gravity-whatsit equation to quantum-whoozit, in order to, uh, do something or other, maybe launch entire buildings into space or something, I guess. The potential solution to the problem involves Jessica Chastain staring at a chalkboard and being alternately sad and angry. The audience has no idea what any of that means, why it’s difficult, what success or failure looks like, or how to gauge progress toward a resolution. Which makes it impossible for us to care.

3. Inception is based on imaginary science, while Interstellar is based on real science that the movie gets wrong.

There’s no such thing as dream-jumping, and Inception wisely avoids trying to explain the science behind dream-jumping beyond “We have this machine that does it.” You might notice some logical inconsistencies, but beyond that, nobody can watch the movie and say “That’s not how dream-jumping works!” The movie is making up dream-jumping in the first place, so the rules of dream-jumping are whatever the movie says they are.

On the other hand, space travel, relativity, and basic physics are real things with real rules that exist independently of what the filmmakers make up. Which means that knowledgeable people will notice when the physics of the movie is wrong. And as I’ve said plenty of times, it’s okay for a fun silly movie to be dumb, but a movie that thinks of itself as smart cannot get away with dumb stuff.

4. The resolution to the big idea is a deus ex machina that makes no god-damned sense and has nothing to do with any of the characters’ actions throughout the movie.

[WARNING: THIS ENTRY IS A MEGA-SPOILER FOR THE END OF INTERSTELLAR. IF YOU WANT TO AVOID SPOILERS, SKIP AHEAD TO THE LONG DASH]

So here’s how the big idea of the movie gets resolved, and they’re finally able to reconcile the gravity-whatsit to the quantum-whoozit: People from the future construct a magical tesseract inside a black hole, with the knowledge that Cooper will fall into that black hole, survive, and then land in the tesseract, where he will be able to send messages back in time to his daughter’s childhood bedroom, and he can translate the data that will solve the equation into morse code that he can transmit to his daughter’s watch, but he can’t send that information back in time and can only send that to the present when she revisits her childhood bedroom, which luckily is at the exact right moment. The fuh? If people In the future can do all that, why would they make it so the only means of communication was banging on a bookshelf in a little girl’s room? Why didn’t they send the necessary data further back in time? Why wait until a bunch of astronauts have died on an exploration mission that people from the future would know was pointless? For that matter, why wait until billions of people on Earth have died from the blight? Why couldn’t they just send a temporal e-mail to Michael Caine long before the movie began? Or if it’s only possible to communicate from the future by banging on things, bang on his chalkboard in morse code when he first started working on the equation.

The ending was flat-out stupid, and nonsensical even by the rules the movie sets up. Plus it made all of the action of the movie a complete waste of time. Why should we care about Cooper exploring these planets when it turns out they could just zip there using magic gravity equations? And note that in the end of the movie, old Murph suggests to Cooper that he go find Brand, who is all alone on her planet. Which means that humans didn’t even bother settling on the planets the mission was exploring.

Contrast that with Inception, where they said “We’re going to accomplish this nigh-impossible task by doing something very difficult.” Then they did it, and it resolved the problem. (Unless it was all a dream.)

Anyway, the moral to this is that if you’re going to make an idea-based spectacle movie, you need to make sure that your idea is novel, compelling, logical, and plays out on screen in a visual way that involves the characters. If you don’t do that, you’re just left with a generic or incoherent movie with no character development that is entirely forgettable.

Nick Hornby on why you shouldn’t read novels you don’t enjoy

Nick Hornby, the author of High Fidelity, Fever Pitch, and About a Boy, makes an excellent argument that if you are reading a high-brow literary book and don’t enjoy it, you should stop rather than struggling through it.

This seems like an obvious point, but it’s an obvious point that a lot of people who think of themselves as brilliant don’t seem to understand.  Just look at the comments to the article.

You should read what you enjoy, and not read what you don’t enjoy.  If you like challenging literary novels, then go ahead and read them.  But recognize that’s a matter of taste, and your tastes don’t make you superior.  Nor should you try to impose your tastes on others or insist they must be stupid for not sharing them.

If you like Moby Dick, read Moby Dick.  If you like Nick Hornby novels, read Nick Hornby novels.  If you like trashy romance, young-adult adventure, pulp sci-fi, potboiler mysteries, comic books, or Dr. Seuss, you should read those things that you like.  And if you don’t like any of those things, you shouldn’t waste your time and energy forcing yourself to struggle through them.

As Hornby argues, reading shouldn’t be a chore or obligation.  It should be something you want to do, much like watching TV is for people that like TV.  And to make that happen, you’ve got to pick the books that you want to read rather than the books that pretentious people tell you you ought to read.

Struggling your way to the end of a challenging book doesn’t make you superior.  It means that either you are someone who enjoys challenging books, someone who been tricked into thinking that you have an obligation to accept the highbrow tastes that have been imposed upon you, or a full-of-yourself douchebag seeking an excuse to look down on others.

If the first option describes you, then good.  Keep doing what you’re doing.  If the second is the case, then you should free yourself from this self-imposed obligation and switch to reading books that you like.  And if you’re the kind of twit that looks down on people that don’t share your taste in literature, then get over yourself.

It’s pretty sad that there are so many of these twits that it’s necessary for Hornby to make such a self-evident point.

Also, the comments to that article are pretty funny, as the full-of-themselves douchebags sputter and drop their monocles over a respected author attacking the core of their imaginary moral superiority, but can’t agree over which books make them superior and which ones are dismissable pap.  (There are also plenty of sensible people in the comments agreeing with Hornby.)

(Note: I’ve never personally read a Nick Hornby book, but I did enjoy the movies of About a Boy and High Fidelity.)

What makes movies great and how they can be better

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