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What I’ve Watched In… December 2016

rogue-one-imax-poster

Favorite of the Month: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

  1. I Am Santa Claus (2014), A
  2. A Christmas Carol (2009), B-
  3. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (1983), B+
  4. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), D; RiffTrax Live Riff, B
  5. The Night Before (2015), B-
  6. Santa Claus (1959), F; Rifftrax Live Riff, B
  7. A Muppet Family Christmas (1987), A
  8. Snow (2004), B
  9. Snow 2: Brain Freeze (2008), B
  10. Christmas Eve on Sesame Street (1978), A
  11. Christmas With Rifftrax: Santa’s Village of Madness, B
  12. The Shop Around the Corner (1940), A
  13. Trans-Siberian Orchestra: The Ghosts of Christmas Eve (1999), B+
  14. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie (1998), D
  15. Christmas Eve (2015), A-
  16. Scrooge (1970), B+
  17. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), A-
  18. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), A-
  19. Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July (1979), B-
  20. Trading Places (1983), B
  21. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), A
  22. A Very Murray Christmas (2015), A-
  23. Marvel Super Hero Adventures: Frost Fight (2015), B
  24. The Ref (1994), B+
  25. An American Christmas Carol (1979), B+
  26. Popeye’s Voyage: The Quest For Pappy (2004), C
  27. Ebbie (1995), D
  28. Scrooge and Marley (2001), C-
  29. Die Hard (1988), A
  30. Home Alone (1990), A
  31. Santa’s Christmas Circus (1966), D; RiffTrax Riff, B
  32. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), A+
  33. Santa Claus: The Movie (1985), A
  34. Miracle on 34th Street (1947), A
  35. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), A+
  36. A Christmas Story (1983), A
  37. In the Good Old Summertime (1949), B
  38. Captain Phillips (2013), B+
  39. Hail, Caesar! (2016), B+
  40. Life of Pi (2012), A-
  41. 12 Years a Slave (2013), A
  42. Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016), C
  43. Night Shadows (1984), D-; RiffTrax Riff, B
  44. No Country For Old Men (2007), A-
  45. Keanu (2016), B
  46. 12 Angry Men (1957), A+
  47. Wild Things (1998), B
  48. The Sting (1973), A-
  49. Singin’ in the Rain (1952), A+
  50. The Jungle Book (2016), C+
  51. For the Love of Spock (2016), A
  52. Ghostbusters (1984), A
  53. Ghostbusters II (1989), B

Reel to Reel ranks 2013 in movies

And once again, we reach the end of another year. And as usual, I didn’t get to see as many movies as I wanted to. I saw most of the ones I was really excited about, all but one in fact (which wound up not being made at all, sadly). For the record, the ones I didn’t see yet that are still on my to-see list are American Hustle, Wolf of Wall Street and Her, all of which will be readily available after the holidays, what with being award bait and all.

So here, for the second year (here’s last year’s list if you’re interested), the list of movies I saw this year roughly in order of how much I liked them, along with brief comments on a few films. This list includes made-for-TV, direct-to-video, and streaming films, as long as they were feature length. The rankings are based purely on how much I enjoyed watching the movie, and no other criteria. I caution you, though, that my opinions on rankings and such change frequently, so if you ask me to make this same list tomorrow, it may well be slightly different:

1. Saving Mr. Banks. Simply a beautiful movie that hits me hard as a writer. I get where both the characters of P.L. Travers and Walt Disney were coming from, I sympathize with them both, and I found the movie deeply moving. I know that a lot of it was conjured up for the sake of cinema, but I’m kind of afraid to look up how much for fear it would ruin the film for me.
2. Frozen. Disney’s best animated movie in years. I particularly like that the film was undeniably a love story, but at the same time, broke every major rule in the usual “princess” formula.
3. Man of Steel. A controversial choice to be this high, I know, but I don’t care. As someone who’s loved Superman since childhood, I thought this film was a worthy jumpstart for both the character and for DC’s effort at a cinematic universe.
4. Pacific Rim. The most underrated movie of the year, in my opinion. Visually exciting and a hell of a lot of fun.
5. Monsters University.
6. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
7. Ender’s Game.
8. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
9. An Adventure in Space and Time. TV film about the original star of Doctor Who, William Hartnell, made in conjunction with the series’ 50th anniversary. I really liked it.
10. Evil Dead.
11. The World’s End
12. Oz, The Great and Powerful.
13. Star Trek Into Darkness.
14. Thor: The Dark World.
15. Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox.
16. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part II.
17. The Rubber Room. Intriguing documentary about the New York public school system, specifically the practice that leaves teachers accused of assorted mistakes stranded without work for months or years without the opportunity to defend themselves.
18. Crystal Lake Memories:The Complete History of Friday the 13th. Good and terribly thorough documentary about the horror movie series. Make sure you’ve got the time to watch it, though – it’s SEVEN HOURS LONG.
19. Iron Man 3.
20. LEGO Batman The Movie: DC Superheroes Unite.
21. The Wolverine.
22. The Sound of Music. Live TV production of the classic musical.
23. Necessary Evil: The Villains of DC Comics.
24. Europa Report.
25. Superman Unbound.
26. Kick-Ass 2.
27. Warm Bodies.
28. Upstream Color. I really liked the director’s last movie, Primer, so I had high hopes for this one. I felt somewhat let down, though. The movie thought it was smarter than it really was.
29. Escape From Planet Earth.
30. Side Effects.
31. A Good Day to Die Hard.
32. World War Z.
33. Mister Scrooge to See You.
34. Jack the Giant Slayer.
35. Iron Man: Rise of Technovore.
36. The Purge. Intriguing idea – a world where all crime is legal for 12 hours a year – but the film is handled poorly, set up on a soapbox, has a horribly predictable ending and is so heavy-handed it’s impossible to enjoy as a thriller.
37. The Host. The only thing I have to say about this Stephanie Meyer adaptation is that I initially mistyped it as The Hose, and I couldn’t help but think that would have been a more interesting movie.
38. Riddick.
39. Oblivion. I challenge anybody to explain the backstory and plot of this film in a way that does not invite a six-year-old child to point out how outrageously stupid the aliens are. I DARE YOU.
40. Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.
41. Sharknado. I know that this TV production was supposed to be bad, but I disagree with those who think it was both bad and fun. I just didn’t enjoy it.

Trilogy Trouble

I am, as you may know, an English teacher. As such, I’ve got a particular sensitivity towards using words correctly. The wonderful thing about words, you see, is that by using them properly you can be much more specific in your meaning… more descriptive, more precise and, therefore, more effective in making the intent of your words clear. If I wanted to say, in one word, that something has been broken into ten pieces, I should be able to use the word “decimate,” because that was its original meaning. But too many people used it as a synonym for “destroy,” and now that secondary – and far less specific – meaning is also considered correct. And it irritates me. And it’s the same vein of irritation that strikes me when I hear people throw around the word “trilogy” willy-nilly.

Dark Knight TrilogyStrictly speaking, a “trilogy” can refer to any series of three, but I think using it that way cheapens its usage. The word “trilogy” should be reserved to refer to something a little different than just “three.” These days, it seems to be  popular to group movies into trilogies, perhaps because it’s so attractive package them together in a DVD box set. You can go out and buy the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Dark Knight trilogy, the Back to the Future trilogy, each with three films in a series, each of which fits the definition to varying degrees. But are they true trilogies? How about the X-Men trilogy? There have been two movies released since they started calling it that, although one could argue that they aren’t part of the original series, but rather spin-offs… but next year’s X-Men: First Class seems poised to tie everything together. Can you still make that arguement? There are three films with Evil Dead in the title, but when people talk about an Evil Dead trilogy they mean Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness.  And then there’s my personal favorite, the Star Trek Trilogy. In a series with either six, ten, or eleven movies (depending on how you count), the boxed set with “trilogy” on the cover collects numbers two through four, because technically, those are the only ones that take place (chronologically) one after another.

Let me break this down, guys.

The True Trilogy.

Lord of the Rings TrilogyIn my personal, extremely picky (I know) vernacular, a true trilogy is one story told in three parts. The Lord of the Rings, for example, is a true trilogy. (Yes, I know Professor Tolkien never actually wanted to split the book into three volumes, that it was done on the insistence of a publisher who didn’t think people would want to purchase a novel the length of a phone book. For the purposes of this semantic discussion, that’s not actually important.) For me to consider it a true trilogy, it needs to be planned as such… maybe not necessarily conceived in three parts, but once finished, part three should end with the ending the author was working towards all along. True trilogies, by my definition, are really quite rare.

It’s not uncommon for someone to claim a story was intended as a trilogy even when it wasn’t. These usually don’t hold up to close scrutiny – the original Star Wars trilogy, for example… as much as I love the first three movies, if you watch them together it seems terribly unlikely that George Lucas had decided that Leia and Luke were brother and sister when he wrote the first screenplay, and even the question of Luke’s parentage isn’t a slam-dunk in that first film. Try to handwave it as being a “certain point of view” all you want, Obi-Wan – either you lied to Luke in Episode IV or Lucas hadn’t decided yet that Vader was Anakin Skywalker. The third Scream film also tries to claim trilogy status as well – Jamie Kennedy’s character appears in a post-mortem video that lays out the “trilogy rules” – but it’s written by a different writer than the first two films and the story it tells makes the second film (which was considerably better than the third) largely irrelevant, from a narrative standpoint. True trilogies are hard to find, but easy to confirm.

Far more common is…

The Retroactive Trilogy.

Star Wars TrilogyA Retroactive Trilogy is what you get when a storyteller doesn’t have any solid or specific plans for a sequel, but once the first movie turns out to be a success, comes up with two more films that more or less go together. The original Star Wars, most likely, fits into this category much better than the “true trilogy” category. There are differing reports as to how much of Return of the Jedi was mapped out when Empire Strikes Back was written, it seems that at least some sort of framework was planned… as Luke is leaving Dagobah and Obi-Wan calls him “our last hope,” Yoda replies, “No… there is another.” Did they know the “other” was Leia when they wrote that line? I dunno. But they were at least thinking.

The problem with these Retroactive Trilogies is that sometimes the writers simply try too hard. They build everything up in part two to some gargantuan cliffhanger, but along the way they’re throwing so many things at the audience that the story starts to get lost and garbled. Then, when part three comes along, they’ve gotten so jumbled up that they just can’t untie the knot before the end. I don’t have the hatred for the Matrix sequels that some people do, but I can’t deny they fell victim to this problem. Even worse, I’d argue, were the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean films. Not coincidentally, I liked the fourth Pirates film much better than two or three, mostly because the plot had almost nothing to do with the previous three films, simply throwing Jack Sparrow and Captain Barbossa into another standalone adventure.

Back to the Future TrilogyOne of the best Retroactive Trilogies I’ve ever seen is the Back to the Future series, with second and third installments that are entertaining in their own right, extend the world built in the first, tie back to the beginning in a logical way, and each have their own clear identity. But they’re still, to be clear, a retroactive trilogy. Yes, I know, we’ve all seen that “To Be Continued” logo at the end of Part I a million times… which is why most people forget that it wasn’t actually in the theatrical cut, but added to the VHS release after the first movie was a hit and the studio decided to go on and make some sequels.

The Trilogy in Name Only.

This is the one that really irritates me. When the trailers for Oz the Great and Powerful came out, they identified Sam Raimi as the “director of the Spider-Man trilogy.” Which made me bristle. The three Raimi-helmed Spider-Man movies are in no way a trilogy… not planned as such, not conceived as such, not executed as such. Aside from the lead characters, the only arc that even remotely welds them together is that of Harry Osborne, whose significance in Spider-Man 2 was negligible. Furthermore, Raimi never intended to stop at three. There were plans, at one point, to go to six films, but after Spider-Man 3 left audiences disappointed and Tobey Maguire hurt his back, everyone decided to walk away from the franchise and let someone else take a crack at it. (Incidentally, there are reports that the current Amazing Spider-Man film is intended to launch a trilogy. Whether there’s actually a three-part story planned or whether it’s just marketing using that word because they think it sounds sophisticated remains to be seen.)

Blade TrilogyA Trilogy in Name Only is what you get when a series happens to end after the third installment. Blade, for example. Ocean’s Eleven. The original Robocop franchise. None of these were planned as three-volume stories. These just happened to stop after three movies for various reasons – failure of the third installment, age or lack of interest in the principal actors, whatever. Despite that, these films frequently get packaged and marketed as “trilogies.” Even the Godfather franchise falls under this category.

Sometimes, though, fourth films get made after a series seems over, taking away even its faux “trilogy” status. Toy Story is currently in this category, but every time you turn around it seems someone is starting a rumor about Pixar working on a Toy Story 4. (Seeing as how the third Toy Story had perhaps the greatest ending of any animated film in history, I really think that would be a huge mistake, but that’s an argument for another time.) You can find DVD sets of the TransFormers films marketed as a “trilogy” even as the fourth film is under production, and I distinctly remember the Saw movies marketed as a “trilogy” even back when they were actively cranking out a new movie every darn year.

What’s more, we’ve entered the age of the drastically-delayed sequel, which is taking older films that used to fall into this category and turn them into longer franchises: Die Hard, Indiana Jones… these used to be called trilogies, then fourth films came out. The same thing will happen to Jurassic Park next year.

Remakes or spin-offs incidentally, do not take a film out of this category. They’re working on a Robocop remake, but they’ll still market the original as a trilogy. They marked The Mummy franchise as a trilogy because they can easily (and rightfully) ignore the Scorpion King films.

Evil Dead TrilogyEvil Dead is an interesting case, as the new film is being presented as a remake, while at the same time the creators are publicly talking about continuing the original series (with an Army of Darkness 2) and eventually making a film that would bring the two incarnations of the franchise into a collision course. After AoD2 and a new Evil Dead 2, they’re considering a film that would feature Bruce Campbell’s Ash meeting Jane Levy’s Mia in a film that – I feel comfortable saying – would finally force the American Film Institute to stop placing Citizen Cane at the top of its “100 Greatest Films of All Time” list. At any rate, doing this would make for seven films total… two Ash Evil Dead movies, two Army of Darkness movies (also starring Ash), two Mia Evil Dead movies, then whatever they would call the final film.

None of this is to make any particular claims about the qualities of any film in any given category. There have been bad “true” trilogies and terrible “retroactive” trilogies. Sometimes a trilogy in name only can have three fantastic movies (and by “sometimes” I mean “mostly in the case of the Toy Story films”). This isn’t about judging any film as superior to any other. This is all about a plea from me to use words the way they are intended. If it ain’t a trilogy, don’t call it one.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

What I Watched in… February 2013

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

What I Watched in February 2013

  1. Blazing Saddles (1974), A
  2. Superman II (1980), A-
  3. Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2010), F; RiffTrax Riff, A
  4. Groundhog Day (1993), B+
  5. Dead Alive (1992), B+
  6. Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade (2007), B
  7. X-Men (2000), B+
  8. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), A
  9. Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984), B
  10. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), D
  11. Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995), B+
  12. Dredd (2012), B+
  13. A Good Day to Die Hard (2013), B
  14. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part II (2013), B+
  15. Trekkies 2 (2004), C+
  16. Trek Nation (2010), B+
  17. Cool As Ice (1991), F; RiffTrax B+
  18. Live Free or Die Hard (2007), B+
  19. Branded (2012), C+
  20. Argo (2012), A
  21. The Crucible (1996), B-

What I watched in… January 2013

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

What I Watched in January 2013

1. Die Hard (1988), A
2. True Romance (1993), B+
3. The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985), B+
4. Rogue River (2012), C+
5. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part I (2012), B+
6. The Raven (2012), C+
7. Indie Game: The Movie (2012), B+
8. Comic Book: The Movie (2004), B
9. Finding Nemo (2003), A
10. Wall•E (2008), A
11. Safety Not Guaranteed (2012), A+
12. Monsters Inc. (2001), A
13. Paranorman (2012), A-
14. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), A
15. Lady and the Tramp (1955), B
16. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), A-
17. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), A+
18. V/H/S (2012), B
19. Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013) D-
20. Frankenweenie (2012), B+
21. The Stuff (1985), D
22. Paperman (2012-Short), A
23. With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story (2010), C+
24. Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown (2011), B