Sunday, May 24, 2015

Top Ten Movies of 2014

"Comparison is the thief of joy."--Theodore Roosevelt

"Boyhood was overrated."---Some jackass on the internet who only talks about James Bond and superheroes

Hello everyone, and welcome back to another long-overdue musing by me on the best films of the past year. For those of you who do not know, this is an annual tradition of mine that strangely takes up about 1/3 of the posts on this blog. Now, as you definitely noticed, this one is overdue as well but, in my defense, while I start thinking about the list around October, I don't really start compiling it until awards season. And while I saw enough Imitation Catchers  and The Selma Games to be able to make awkward verbal quips while watching the Oscars, I always give myself a few weeks to catch up on the movies I did not see. Then, give or take a few more weeks to deal with homework and attempt to be social during spring break, and I'm usually ready to compile the list around April. Of course, this particular April set me back again by quickly proving to be the worst April I've ever had, for reasons I will not get into because this is not that kind of blog. I don't talk about my feelings here; I just tell you what opinions on popular culture you should have if you want my respect.

Anyway, now it's May, and I just graduated.

Now, I admit, this one was difficult. Some of your favorite movies of the year may not be on here. But fret not, that has more to do with just how many great movies I saw this year (hint: way more than last year). Maybe it's because I actually had a brief stint as a critic for a news blog, or maybe it was because I started my own online web show with my friend Chase at Shirtless Reviews (it's as professional as it sounds). But, I had access to some truly great films this year, and I can't wait to yell at you about them.

10. X-Men: Days of Future Past

20th Century Fox/Marvel
Yep, there's a superhero movie this time, although are you honestly surprised? I've already explained in my comic-con post about why I love X-Men movies, but Days of Future Past is more than just an X-Men movie; it's a really good X-Men movie. Good enough that it took the Number 10 spot away from other great movies about fictional American superheroes like Captain America and American Sniper. I also struggled with Imitation Game, another quality movie about a troubled British man who uses a machine in his basement to help people who persecute him. In the end I gave preference to X-Men if only because of the involved scope of the story, and the unbelievable cast.

And Future Past does have arguably the greatest cast ever assembled for a superhero movie. The plot, in which we discover that the world from the movies we (or at least, I) grew up with has gone to shit, when the bigoted and awful people of the world invented giant evil robots that have destroyed civilization, and the X-Men, namely the benevolent Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and the villainous Magneto (Ian Mckellen), have come up with a way to send Wolverine (do I even need to say it?) back in time to the seventies to stop a series of events involving Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). But that's not the good part; that comes when our favorite Marvel anti-hero finds out that his mentor (James McAvoy) and hero was, at a younger age, a drug-addict, and his most powerful enemy (Michael Fassbender) was in prison. Worse, he needs both of their help, and he needs them to get along.

Obviously, this is the fourth superhero movie to make my list, and doubtful to be the last, but what Days of Future Past adds to the genre is a story that tries (not always successfully) to balance an enormous cast with character interaction and intimate relations. The result is a darker, more sentimental special-effects blockbuster anchored by bravado performances by the always underrated McAvoy and the (shall-we-say) magnetic Fassbender, and steadied by the always-capable Jackman. Lawrence, Stewart, Dinklage, Ellen Page, a mostly-silent (but expressive as ever) McKellen, and a borderline movie-stealing scene from Evan Peters even out the movie even more. While it functions as arguably the greatest work of fan-service in recent memory, it's also a surprisingly sentimental and affecting bridge between two generations of cast and fandom, and an appropriately entertaining experience.

9. Fury

Columbia Pictures

David Ayer's epic WWII action film about a group of assholes who live in a tank went strangely unreported on during the end of the year season. It's not paced incredibly well, there are a couple plot elements that don't add up, and the gritty, violent World War II epic is not exactly new. However, Fury has several elements that more than elevate it from the standard war movie fare, and indeed make it one of the best action films, and certainly the best war films, in several years. Key among those is the grittiness. Fury's situation is not likeable, and neither are most of its characters, with Logan Lerman's Pvt. Ellison acting as the lone conscience of a tank crew charged with leading the invasion into Germany at the end of the war, only to find that, even at the war's end, there are still irredeemable horrors he must not only fight, but live with.

Most of these horrors come from his own experience with his fellow soldiers in the tank, a talented cast including Michael Pena, Shane from Walking Dead, and of course, Brad Pitt, who heads the film with powerhouse work as the group's haunted and brutal leader. But, as you may have heard, it's Shia LaBeouf who makes the film worth-watching, with a performance so authentic it could only have come from someone who quite literally went insane on set. All of that, combined with several truly
harrowing action scenes involving tanks, including an unforgettable sequence with a German Tiger I, and enough flying tracer bullets to make you think you're watching Star Wars. Fury is not an easy film to watch, both in terms of it's subject material and it's direction, but is as authentic, intense, and harrowing an experience as I've had in a while.

8. The Babadook
IFC Films

I'll have to admit, it's been a pretty long time since I've recommended a horror movie this highly (or it was at the time of writing this, recently I've also seen It Follows). Don't let the hilariously unpronounceable name trick you, this is the most terrifying movie I've seen in a very long time, and certainly the best horror movie to come out in nearly a decade. A lot of this is simply the lighting and imagery. Jennifer Kent (give a hand for a female director everybody!) makes an effort to bring a dingy, shadowy presence to a suburban house. Dark top hats, cloaks, black lampshades, and other stretches of darkness will make the more paranoid viewer think he is seeing the central monster (one of the more creative I've seen) everywhere. He might be.

Like the best works of horror, it's the plot and the setting that drive the movie. We follow Amelia, a stressed out, working-class, single mother who has had to raise her almost seven-year-old son alone since the husband died in childbirth. Or, rather, on the way to the hospital. As a result, her child, while exceptionally bright, even likeable at times, is something of a little shit, and his relation to her, particularly around his birthday, causes her anxiety. She loves her son, she really does, she just has to keep reminding herself that she does. There's an unexplained shadow in their relationship, a shadow that is given life when they find a mysterious pop-up book on the bookshelf that introduces them to an unstoppable, violent apparition that feeds off of Amelia's stress and anger. It works because it draws off character relationships, carries masterful craftwork, and just because it's damn scary. If one were to keep in mind Donnie Darko and Take Shelter are as much psychological thrillers as horror films, and that Trick r' Treat technically never saw a theatrical release, then I may very well call this the best pure horror film to see a theater in decades.

7. Snowpiercer
CJ Entertainment
Don't be fooled by the fact that the main character is played by Captain America himself, Bong Joon-Ho's masterful take on sci-fi/action (a genre combination I may have something of a like for, if you couldn't tell) is technically a South Korean movie, albeit one with a diverse cast including Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Song Kang-Ho, and at least one other casting I won't spoil for you. I mean most of the main actors are still white and the movie is almost entirely in English, but the crew and extra cast is meant to give the film a universal quality, owing to it's setting: a train that travels around the world and, after the world ends in a global freeze, stands as the last bastion of human civilization. Naturally, it represents a not-so-subtle microcosm of human society. In other words, if you're rich, and paid for VIP room on the train, you're in the front. If you're poor, and paid standard fare, you're in the back. And if you snuck onto the train because, you know, the world was ending, you belong in the way, way back.

Like, you're at a water park with Sam Rockwell. That's how way back you are.
Curtis Everett (Evans) is in the way, way, back, and is not very happy about, so he plans, with an army of his oppressed buddies, to force his way to the front to make things better for everyone. Axes are involved in his plan.

Snowpiercer is a thoughtful and engaging action thriller that's pushed not only by it's performances, but it's creative and frequently fascinating setting. The fact that Evans and Kang-Ho, action stars from entirely different parts of the world who speak entirely different languages, can act off one another as well as they do, particularly in one scene near the end, is sort of magic. These characters, good and bad, are put through circumstances not normally seen in films of a larger budget, and, in his quest to get to the front of the train, Everett frequently engages in behavior that makes both him, and the audience, question his very humanity. The green-screen effects could be better and there are a few unanswered questions about the train, but this is still a violent, thrilling ride that begs to be seen.

6. Frank

Film4/Irish Film Board
Frank is probably the most unknown movie on this list, and it might also be the most bizarre. Up-and-comer Domnhall Gleeson stars as Jon, an aspiring songwriter with high ambitions but absolutely no talent who comes across the world's strangest band, the Soronprfbs, an indie rock (?) group centered around an enigmatic singer named Frank. Like the movie, the man is borderline unexplainable. He spends most of his time on a compound in Ireland, creates odd music, and is played by Michael Fassbender. Oh, and he wears a gigantic paper-mache/fiberglass head which he refuses to take off. There's something magical and ingenious about Frank, and the entire band is drawn in by the guy's cult of personality, even though it very soon becomes abundantly clear that he has fairly extreme social instabilities. As a result, he is guarded by his number-one fan and keyboardist Don (Scoot McNairy), and his equally unstable love-interest Clara (Maggie Gylenhaal).

Jon is drawn in by Frank's apparent musical prodigy and attempts to introduce the band to the world, hoping to make it big, but very soon realizes the extent of the group's, and Frank's, problems. Like the character, the movie Frank is incredibly strange and weird, but has a magnetic charm and brilliance to it. However, it's not quite the quirky zane-fest it might seem; Frank deals with issues of art, fame, and most importantly, mental disorders, in a mature and realistic way. It's also driven by a both affecting and hilarious, if mostly faceless, performance by Fassbender. There's no real explaining Frank, it just is. And what it is is pretty fantastic.

5. The Lego Movie


Oh boy, have I been waiting to tell you about this one. There's no reason a movie that is unabashedly a two-hour ad for Legos should be a good movie. The fact that it's pretty clearly one of the year's very best movies is a miracle that requires nothing short of narrative brilliance, which it very clearly has. The Lego Movie is one long validation for its own existence. It doesn't just justify why a movie so clearly commercial can still be entertaining, its very themes are an explanation of how, in today's world, the messages in commercialized content may very well be the only messages we still have. The important thing is to not let those messages strip you of your individuality.

I could go on about this movie; about how Phil Lord and Chris Miller strive to recreate the feel of playing with the blocky toys as a child, about how the movie serves as a brilliant defense of the millenial generation and the concept of "everyone being special" (a theme expounded upon by better writers than me; they do exist, believe it or not), about how the CGI is so well-done you can see the tiny imperfections in the fucking plastic, but I'll save most of that for another paper. Instead, because it's how I've been filling my paragraphs this long, I'll talk more about the voice cast, including Hollywood's new "It-Man" Chris Pratt as a little Lego construction dude who may hold the secret to saving the Universe, Elizabeth Banks as his badass love interest, Will Ferrell as the evil President Business, Morgan Freeman as a literally blind prophet, Nick Offerman (perfectly cast) as a pirate cyborg, and Will Arnett as fucking Batman. But it's Liam Neeson who steals the movie by voicing a comically schizophrenic police officer literally named Good Cop/Bad Cop. The Lego Movie is one of the most genuinely creative, clever, and outright hilarious movies I think I've ever seen. Everything is indeed awesome.

4. Interstellar

Paramount Pictures/WB
It just wouldn't be a Ryan Downs top ten list without a Chris Nolan movie would it? It's been asked around why people from my particular age range have such an affection for the director, and the simplest answer is just that he makes films that are huge and affecting, while also serving as some of the more thrilling insights into science fiction we have today. Much like Inception, Interstellar is an entirely original piece that, against everything we have been taught about how modern Hollywood works, somehow manages to accumulate the budget to tell it's thoughtful narrative. The end result is a science fiction film that, while not completely realistic (it's a movie), still manages to keep closer to what we currently know about theoretical physics than a science fiction blockbuster logically should. It's more in the realm of Sci-fi than last year's Gravity was, yet it's also probably, against all odds, more sensible. It's also a better movie. This is all almost as against-the-grain for the modern blockbuster as the fact that it exists on film, not digital, or the fact that large swaths of the movie are filmed using practical effects; including several scenes that would surprise you.

But what keeps Nolan's film tied to his last original Sci-fi thriller is the story, which, like that film, plays with the concepts of space and time, and their manifestations, and the notion of a man trying to conquer them in the pursuit of the important thing in his life, returning to his children. In this case, we follow Cooper (the latest in McConaughey's glorious recent run), a former NASA pilot who is forced, along with the rest of the planet, into an agrarian lifestyle following a worldwide plague, only to eventually realize his dream of going into space, farther than anyone else has gone, when a Dr. Brand (Nolan's muse, Michael Caine) informs him that Earth has become too toxic to sustain life. The only hope for mankind lies on Cooper piloting a ship with several astronauts through a wormhole through space, which will spit them out in another galaxy where, hopefully, the group can find a planet hospitable enough to serve as the future home for the human race. Among the candidates are a planet covered in water, with waves the size of mountains. Another, a planet where the very clouds are frozen solid. As if saving the future of humanity isn't enough, Cooper has to find a way to save the humans already on earth, and, just maybe, make it back to his family; a goal that may very well require him to defy every known law that governs reality.

Like I said, Nolan is no stranger to telling intimate stories in humongous ways, and Interstellar is, in many ways, his most emotional. As a result, there are some inconsistencies, and gaps in pacing, that the more nitpicky will notice. With his previous films, most notably the Batman saga, the director has used his multi-million-dollar lens to judge the United States's shortcomings, but with this film he praises the country's biggest public endeavor (and one it, sadly, seems to have given up on with the decision to defund NASA, a choice pretty blatantly condemned by the movie); while analyzing the humanity, courage, and optimism that pushes men to travel into space. It also features performances from Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, John Lithgow, and a few more which I will not give away. Those robots are pretty cool too.

3. Foxcatcher

Annapurna Pictures
Foxcatcher is like the R-rated Super Mario Brothers movie; it's a story about a famous brother, a less-famous brother, and a creepy monster who lives in a castle. To say that the movie that stars American comedy treasure Steve Carell as legendary American creepy asshole John Du Pont is the most uncomfortable viewing experience I've had this year is probably not very surprising. It's also probably not surprising that Bennet Miller's Foxcatcher is also the best shot, and probably best acted, movie of the year. It's the sort of movie my film class warned me about; the kind where far more of the storytelling is done through the visuals than through dialogue. Foxcatcher tells the true story of the heir to the unspeakably large Du Pont fortune, John Du Pont, and his relationship with Mark Schultz. Schultz, a former Olympic medalist, has a meager life, and is persistently in the shadow of his more successful older brother, gold medalist Dave Schultz. Wanting to be "the best", Mark becomes ecstatic when he is recruited to help coach a wrestling team with Du Pont, a man who doesn't know anything about wrestling or really how to communicate with people.

Mark believes in Du Pont's notions of American exceptionalism and helps recruit a team, but begins to realize the extent of Du Pont's mental instability and loneliness, while Du Pont begins to realize that he needs Dave to be truly successful and begins to court him instead.  The rest, as they say, is history. I mean don't look up the history, if you don't already know about it, because it spoils the movie. Foxcatcher's pacing is incredibly slow and deliberate; this is not a thriller, although it's atmosphere provokes such a profound feeling of discomfort it may as well be. There's also those career-best performances from Ruffalo and Tatum as the central brothers, and the now-infamous, startling transformation of Carell into Du Pont. It's a consistently unnerving, fascinating performance from a great actor, although the brightest spot may still be Ruffalo's Dave. This is a visually fascinating film about a lonely old man's obsession, but, in many ways, it's also a film about a lonely old country's obsession with it's own supposed superiority. This is a film that should be watched, but you'd be forgiven for not wanting to watch it twice.

2. Whiplash

Sony Pictures Classics
This is probably the one you heard the most about, and for good reason. Whiplash tells the story of a young drummer named Andrew who joins a prestigious conservatory with the dream of becoming a part of a jazz band. His aspirations, not unlike Mark Schultz, involve becoming, simply, "the best", so when he is put into the top jazz group in the school, he counts his blessings initially, until he discovers that the group's instructor, a man named Terrence Fletcher, to be a loud, abusive, abrasive, and generally terrifying man. The rest of the movie is a power-play between the two to see how far Andrew can make it without being broken by Fletcher.

The pacing is tight as a drum (get it?), that rarely drags or rushes (get it??) and is consistently intense. J.K. Simmons' now-legendary performance as Fletcher, easily the year's best villain, pushes the piece and forces the viewer to come to terms with questions about verbal, and even physical, abuse and whether it helps or hurts someone who truly wants to be "the best". But don't forget to give credit to Miles Teller, who grounds the movie as it's obsessive hero with another great performance. I first mentioned him last year when talking about "The Spectacular Now", and he's phenomenal here. The thing about Whiplash is that there's not too much to say, it's brilliantly written, economically directed, and sublimely satisfying. To say anything more would be to overcomplicate a fantastically simple premise and possibly spoil a great story.

1. Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance

New Regency Pictures/Fox Searchlight
I liked it first. Let the record show that I saw this beautiful piece of work back in October, when it was released in only fifty theaters. The film follows Michael Keaton, an actor who rose to fame for playing a comic-book superhero thirty years ago. He's playing Riggan Thompson, an actor who rose to fame for playing a comic-book superhero thirty years ago. The similarities between Thompson and Keaton have been snarked about by people snarkier than me (yes, those exist too), but it's important to note that both left the superhero business during their prime. While we know that Keaton did so out of loyalty to Tim Burton, and because Batman: Forever was a hopeless piece of crap from day one, Riggan's reasons are a bit more suspect, although "general apathy towards the Hollywood studio system" seems to be a fitting one.
Can you blame him?
As a result, Riggan Thompson has been struggling with his success and artistic integrity for decades, although when we meet him, in the middle of casting a broadway play based on a Raymond Carver book, he has neither. He's homeless, hears the voice of his star character in his head, and his only real family are his actors, Zach Galifianakis, and his daughter, a recovering drug-addict played, in a career-best performance, by Emma Stone. She represents the "millenial" generation in the script in a realistic way; our main character does not understand her and is frustrated by her, when he may just be projecting his own insecurities about life onto her. Edward Norton shows up as well, his performance as Mike Shiner, a famous actor brought in to give the play life, being as much of satirical look at his own supposedly difficult reputation in Hollywood as Keaton's background. You probably know this as well by now, but the entire film, or the majority of it, is edited too look as if it's one long take. The shooting is breathtaking. The score is also probably even more percussion-based than Whiplash.

To get one thing straight, Birdman is a superhero movie, and it probably takes a superhero nerd to know that. You have a main character who is stuck trying to decide if he is who he thinks he is, or who the world apparently needs him to be (the latter option being a violent man in a mask), he may have superpowers, and there is a large, bombastic, blatantly pointless CGI action scene in the third act (ok, not really). In the process, it's also a film made by an industry, and for a generation, trying desperately to decide the very same identity dilemma. Do we make art, or do we make superheroes, and are they mutually exclusive?  This is a gorgeous, hilarious, and affecting movie that doesn't always get it's point across, but maybe doesn't need to. But it does need to be seen to be believed.

Monday, July 28, 2014

That one time I visited a creation museum

Creationism is kind of a funny thing.

It seems like it's been in the news a lot lately; especially since actual scientists like Bill Nye and Neil Degrasse Tyson have begun to raise awareness of the ideology's creeping encroachment into our schools, government, and other public places it probably doesn't belong. It's these worries that led to the infamous debate between Nye and Ken Hamm of AnswersInGenesis, as well as to Seth MacFarlane's most recent television reboot. I'm talking of course, about the uber-successful relaunch of Cosmos.

And not the decidedly more creation-friendly Flinstones reboot, which we were luckily spared.
 Are people like Tyson, MacFarlane, and Nye correct in their assumption that creationism is slowly becoming a major American problem? It might be a bit of an exaggeration. Most of the country's institutions besides Congress are fairly science friendly, and also not run by psychopaths. But in certain, more conservative corners of the country, it carries a defined prevalence. 

Case in point: Lakeside, San Diego County. California. America. Earth. It's a place I visit often because I have a good friend in the area who I like to hug, feed, and ride. And no, it's not a woman; it's my horse, Cocoa Puffs. Have I told you about Cocoa Puffs?

Anyway, we hang out a lot because I've always felt you don't need a woman in your life as long as you have a disturbing relationship with an animal. However, because Puffs is an adult now and refuses to get off his ass and get a job at Pavillions, we keep him in kind of a shitty area. Well, it's cool for a horse; the stable's awesome and the trails are great. But for people, Lakeside is kind of like white person Compton; and by far it's most noticeable offering is the Institute for Creation Research located right next to the freeway. I've visited several times, but rarely have the balls to actually go in; until one day a few weeks ago, after a long ride, whence I gathered up my courage, and stepped inside.

So a bit of background; for those of you who don't follow these things. Young-earth creationism, or creationist theory, is a belief in the origin of the planet, universe, and, most importantly, species, that comes from a philosophy of biblical literalism. In other words, they come from the perspective that the creation of the planet followed a narrative similar, if not identical, to the story of Genesis. This means that the entire universe was created in a period of six days, with the holy, all-powerful creator god resting on the seventh to watch the game. As a result, everything that exists in the natural universe; everything from stars and planets to human beings and dinosaurs, all came into existence at the same time. Which is usually stated to be about 6,000 years ago following the biblical model.
Photo credit:

Anyway, I parked next to the building and my made my way to the entrance; where I was greeted by a large T-Rex in the front, complete with a plaque explaining to me that this was, in fact, a T-Rex; and not in fact his lookalike cousins Tarbosaurus or Albertasaurus.

My lookalike cousin's name is Sevie.

 So far, so good. And, like any natural history museum/accredited science facility/X-Men movie worth it's salt; the museum knew it's target audience: ten year olds boys and the occasional 22-year old man. Granted, natural history museums, accredited science facilities, and X-Men movies all have a better grasp of evolution than the average creation museum, but I digress.

You see, I had a few rules during my visit; the first and foremost being that I would not be an asshole. For many of you, that seems like it should be a given. You must not have read my film reviews. The thing is, I don't actually think creationists, at least not all of them, are stupid, or manipulative, or hate paleontology.

All of those things describe Transformers: Age of Extinction

You see, I have a problem with beliefs being forced on me when they have no rational basis behind them; e.g. in a school. However, this was not a school; it's a privately funded institution in the middle of buttfuck, North County San Diego, that cost $7 to get in. The very act of being there requires one to go out of one's way, so I had no excuse to complain about having views forced upon me. It also doesn't hurt that any motive I had to leave dissipated when I discovered they had air conditioning, as it was the middle of June. I also decided I was going to be as respectful as I could to the information given to me, read as much of it as I could, and keep as open a mind as I could have. Mostly because I paid $7 to get in, so damn it I was getting my money's worth.

However, even I have my limits.

Part 1: Space and Matter

The early portions of the museum were split into six "days", one for each day of creation. I began in a long hallway that explained to me how, on the first day, God said "let there be light", and in a bright flash, the Universe came into being. Not in a bang though, because that sounds like the big bang, and the museum was very clear that that doesn't make any sense. What does make sense is how God was able to create light as a concept, and then split the dark from the light, and that was the first day.

A heathen would call that illogical; as the concept of day and night do not exist in space, and are relative to life on earth; which had not been made yet. That occurred on the second day, where "God separated the water from the firmament" was somehow skewed to mean "God created matter and planets now" So far, not so good, but I would be lying if I said I wasn't vaguely intrigued.

On the third day, God creates the plants, which use his recently-created light to photosynthesize. Where is this light coming from? Hard to say; God doesn't create the stars or the sun until the fourth day, when he creates the other celestial bodies. I would imagine the earth is also a celestial body, so how it was around up until this point is anyone's guess.
The Big Bang Theory is full of shit apparently. I've been telling people this for years, but they watch the damn show anyway.

Now, the stuff about space is important, so it got its own room, and I have to say it was one of the only rooms in the building that genuinely irritated me. This was mainly because I was actually somewhat curious in what their alternative to the big-bang theory and the reason for the existence of other planets was, but I was distracted by what seemed like an audio track reminding me how "Jesus Christ is lord", which I didn't think had that much to do with planets. Among the arguments presented was how the big bang theory violated the theory of conservation of energy and matter; neither of which existed before the bang (and also doesn't the biblical account do the same thing?) and the law of increasing entropy somehow.

Keep in mind, I'm still being kind of an asshole. A lot of the gripes I have with the claims of the museum had explanations, occasionally interesting ones. The problem is none of them had any evidence behind them. It seemed like the point was to disprove scientific theory in any way possible by poking holes in it's logic. This tactic isn't always unfair; one poster reminds that the big bang theory cannot account for the dark matter that makes up 90% of the universe and is mostly a mystery to scientists. The problem is the alternatives offered by the museum don't offer any evidence besides the bible. It's sort of like that one episode of Arthur, where DW says that common notions of evolution are wrong, and that snakes came from lizards who lost their legs running from dinosaurs. When her noseless, aardvark brother points out (in so many words) that this is obviously bullshit, her excuse is that he cannot prove his ideas of evolution because he doesn't have several million years to spare. Therefore, her completely nonsensical idea is every bit as valid as his is.

Poking holes in the other guy's argument doesn't make yours right.

Part 2: Animals are awesome and it's your fault they're dead

Its red because it's bad.

This was more what I was looking for, and I'm sure I'm not alone; the part where animals are introduced, and where we learn how dinosaurs coexisted with men, dogs, and wooly mammoths. And all in the same climate too. I am introduced to what is essentially a small zoo filled with birds and reptiles, including a few snakes. I was careful not to listen to what they had to say. Immediately adjacent was a section detailing the fall of man and about how death entered the world because a guy ate a fruit I guess.

Part 3: Noah's Ark and Dinosaurs

Now, here's where it got interesting. There are essentially two schools of creationist thought regarding what happened to the dinosaurs. The most commonly accepted one is that they all died during the flood. How this accounts for the destruction of the incredible diversity of prehistoric sea life that should have survived is that you're a sinner and you're going to hell. The other school of thought asserts that Noah saved the dinosaurs on his boat, which is more in line with the biblical assertion that Noah saved all the animals. Once again, explanations were offered for the common gripes about how every animal on the planet could not have fit on the ark, by offering that they were all babies you see. How they didn't all die by being nearby their natural prey and predators in conditions that may not have been perfectly suited to their individual specifications is another question they may have answered when I wasn't paying attention. Again, these people aren't stupid, they've taken the criticisms into mind. The problem is, once again, they have no reason for their alternatives besides "it happened in the bible". There are a lot of explanations on the wall for possible evidence of the Ark's existence, most notably a bunch of wood found on Mt. Ararat. Sure, if the Ark exists, that would be a good place to look, but science isn't about drawing conclusions and looking for the evidence, it's supposed to be the other way around.
Evidence=Pictures of where something from mythology could have been.
Now, this part is closer to my heart than a lot of what I found in the place, because, at the end of the day, paleontology is and always has been my deal. I have my assured suppositions that most of the claims about physics and biology I found in the museum were wrong; but I'm positive the people there knew next to nothing about paleontology. Among my favorite claims made about dinosaurs was an attempt to discredit the commonly accepted belief that they evolved into birds by pointing out that none of them had hollow bones or feathers; a claim that ignores just about everything we now know about Dromeosaurids (aka Raptors), which had both. But, again, no other explanation for what happened to dinosaurs is offered, just that they might have been the dragons that pop up in regional mythologies. "Might have been" being the phrase that once again raises its unwelcome head.

Even if this is true, it does not address how they died out, why they are spaced so far apart in layers of sediment (some of them had trouble "getting to higher ground during the flood" is the explanation; which is curious considering Pterodactyls usually show up far underneath Argentinosaurus in the sediment), or why most of the humongous, nightmarish monsters that populated the ocean no longer show up to eat people or perform at SeaWorld.

Or both.

Part 4: Ice Age: The Meltdown

In the next part, I walked through a neat little mine shaft or whatever that explained to me how bats prove evolution isn't real because apparently convergent evolution isn't a thing, and how radiometric dating can't be trusted because different forms of dating produce different results. It bears mentioning, over millions of years of existence, bones can be irradiated at different times, and none of these measurements fall within "6,000 years." Then we learned that the Ice Age occurred after the flood as a result of falling temperature levels that came as a result of all the leftover water freezing and then disappearing into the aether. Or something. At this point I was starting to get a brain aneurysm.

Part 5: Other religions/cultures are clearly ridiculous

 I was becoming dangerously close to not being able to stand this shit anymore. My open mind and wild fascination with different opinions was quickly turning back into cynical frustration. And the next room did not help.

Here, I was introduced to human society after Noah's Ark and the Ice Age, which, in the few short centuries since every bloodline on the planet, save one, was wiped out, managed to repopulate itself into a diverse series of middle-eastern and european societies, which worked together to build the tower of babel; an astounding achievement of human peace, cooperation, and mutual respect among many different creeds with the combined interest of building a tower to reach god in the sky; despite the fact that we now know that's clearly not where he resides. Now that god's dream of a cooperative and peaceful world had been achieved, he seemed to take the tower as a challenge, destroyed it, and created languages and race so that nobody could ever work together again. The resulting inability for various cultures to understand one another is considered one of the prime examples for nearly every problem facing the world right now.

Ok, so the display was pretty cool.

Now, if there's one utmost important test of a museum's strange ideas; it's how it reacts to other strange ideas. In this room, I found the Christian creationist's impressions of the creation myths of other cultures, most notably the Egyptians. At one point, I was introduced to the creator god of Egyptian mythology, Ptah. The myth surrounding him and his creation of the universe was not expanded upon, however. This was because, and I swear to god I'm not shitting you, the Egyptian creation myth is "totally unacceptable to intelligent, thinking people."

After that, I was introduced to a long hallway, describing to me the major Enlightenment and Renaissance thinkers, inventors, scientists, and philosophers who were christian; and contrasted them with those who took issue with the notion of a creator god. Naturally, the description of the atheist thinkers was accompanied by a snarky comment about how they were racist or evil in some way. This all led up to a beautiful billboard describing how evolutionary theory (which is not a strictly atheist ideal, mind you) leads to the holocaust, abortion, racism, and, I assume, Girl Meets World. So now, believing in evolution not only makes you wrong, it makes you a bad person as well. By this point, I was almost completely checked out.

Part 6: Everything else

After that, I visited an exhibit on the human body that, surprisingly, didn't mention god at all. And was actually pretty interesting. Then there was a little room where a guy on television talked to me about how family is the building block of the country and the government wants to ruin it or something. Then the guy at the front, I guess sensing my skepticism, kindly told me that he had once found it odd as well, but came to see how the ideas in the museum made perfect sense. He seemed embarrassed. Then he was nice enough to show me a large theater that showed me a diorama of a Hebrew Tabernacle, complete with its very own Ark of the Covenant. No one was looking so I ran around inside the display. Then I left and went home.

Now, here's the thing. Again, I'm not here to try and call people stupid or anything. The fact is, it was an interesting experience. I was impressed by the museum's conviction in it's beliefs, and the effort it took to try and explain it's mythology. I don't have to believe something to be drawn in by it's interpretation of the facts. Otherwise I would have been offended when Fox's viral marketing campaign for the new X-Men movie says that Magneto killed JFK. Obviously that's false (he was scapegoated after attempting to rescue him, clearly), but the point is I can accept, even by drawn in by, someone trying to explain a story to me if I can respect the lengths they're going to sell it to me.

However, there are a few obvious differences between something theatrical and something "educational"; the main one being that the point here isn't to entertain, but indoctrinate. The thing is; entertainment and indoctrination both use an important technique; knowing your target audience. In the case of creation museums around the globe, this is usually based around an important premise to reel in the kids: dinosaurs are awesome, and they used to live with people! It's a cool idea, and it sounds a lot more fun than the scientifically-accepted theory that states that they all lived hundreds of millions of years from each other, let alone you. Not only that, but they could still be alive today. Once they've captured the children with this admittedly awesome prospect, they hit them with the shocking revelation: dinosaurs, and every other animal on the planet, suffered disease and death because of human error. Now the fear, and guilt, of god have been put into them, and bang! You've got a bunch of christian converts.

For adults, it's a bit more complicated. Kids don't have quite the attention span to read up on the museum's literature pertaining to radiometric dating, cosmology, or, of course, evolution. Those are for the parents to read; the sort of parents who are scientifically literate enough to understand the museum's precepts, but illiterate enough to fall for them (hint: the former does not have to apply for the latter to). Again, the trick here is simple; the museum does not exactly hide the fact that its ideas are rejected by mainstream science, confident in the fact that it's audience will not be deterred by this, but rejoice in it. Then, all these neat ideas (which you need only read the bible to understand) are perfectly legitimate; only "rejected" by those who are blinded by their own arrogance. I can't judge this mode of thought too harshly. The viewer is free to poke holes in the works of major scientists and get a smug satisfaction out of it. It's fun to think you are smarter than people who have worked, studied, and experimented harder than you ever will. Hell, it's the reason I have a blog!

But there's two problems with this. The first is that, most of these adults don't realize that the alternatives offered by the museum are not very sound themselves; assuming they offer an alternative at all. In many cases, the museum seems to feel that if evolution is sufficiently disproved (which it isn't), this validates creationist theory. In real life, if science fails, we turn to other science. But the museum seems to operate under the assumption that, in the failure of science, we turn to faith and religion. And we can't turn to non-Abrahamic creation myths, because those are all ridiculous!

The second, and larger problem, however, is how it not only tries to disprove other lines of thought, but criminalize them. The correlation of evolutionary theory with atheism is not a fair one to make, in the first place, and even if it was that doesn't allow for the idea that either of those are in any way bad.  But that's part of the indoctrination process; the message being that dinosaurs and god are both very real, but you killed them both, and if you disagree with either of those facts, then you're not just wrong; you're a bad person and you should be ashamed! It was, after all, the search for knowledge that put us in this position.

As a final note, I'd like the reemphasize that, again, the point is not to get all offended or angry at creationist theory. The point is to share my experience with others; my experience being that I went in somewhere and saw some weird shit. The museum does not take any tax money, as far as I know, and is privately-funded and operated, so there's nothing immoral about its existence. It's just sort of silly. Again, it's good to keep an open mind about these things and explore ideas that aren't your own. That doesn't mean you can't make fun of them later though.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Worst movies 2013

Movies are magical things. They can take you to magical places, introduce incredible ideas, and make you feel strange and new things. Especially if you're going through puberty.

Unfortunately, some movies take you to places you rather you didn't go, introduce ideas you probably already knew, and make you feel things that precede foul language and the throwing of things at the screen.

Now as many of you know, I try to see as many good movies as I can, so my bottom list of the year is usually pretty small, and composed of movies that are not really bad, just not worth paying money to see. This year I was especially interested in making my top ten list the best I had, so I purposefully avoided movies that would have made this list more interesting; movies like Grown Ups 2 and After Earth, because, to put it mildly I did not have the balls for it. So basically any list I make involves the worst movies I was just unfortunate enough to wander into, expecting a good one. I once watched  The Lone Ranger to see if it would be bad enough to warrant a mention, but alas, it was only sort of offensive and stupid, but, for the most part, pretty entertaining. So, basically, I didn't even have enough movies to make a full "worst of 2013" list; even the one I have includes a few movies that aren't that bad, and at least one that I think came out last year.

But, the show must go on! For every black there is a white, for every good there is an evil, for Democrat there is a Republican, and for every top ten film list there must be a bottom film list! So let's see what awfulness I stumbled into this year.

The Wolverine
20th Century Fox/Marvel Studios

I'm sure putting this on my list is almost as controversial as putting Iron Man 3 on my best-of list, so please here me out. For one thing, The Wolverine is not exactly a bad movie. Hugh Jackman is great as usual as the gruff, grumpy, immortal warrior, and it's pretty cool to see a movie actually try and evaluate the man as a character. I was also happy with how most of the cast is a whose-who of talented Japanese actors, including an inspired performance from Rila Fukushima, and Lost's Hiroyuki Sanada. Then there's at least one pretty cool action scene, and it leads in nicely to this year's Days of Future Past so, what's my problem with this movie? Well, as you can already tell, I'm reaching with this list, and yes, this movie is Citizen Kane compared to the last Wolverine movie. Hell, it's bound to please X-Men fans more than Last Stand did too. However, a lot of that has to do with the fact that nothing of real consequence happens. It kind of feels like a long commercial for the new movie, as well as a way to cash in on the character. There's no real interesting twists, the villain, a slimy mutant named Viper, gives Malekith and Zod a run for their money as the most boring, vaguely motivated villain of the year, and the ending is very, very, silly. Not a bad movie, hell it might even be worth checking out for an X-Men fan. I did actually like it. However, if you're not really that interested in the characters, it might not be for you.

The Lone Ranger

Okay, let me get something off my chest. I love this movie. Okay, love is a strong word, but after hearing the enormous hate surrounding it, I was prepared to see one of the stupidest films of the year. And......that's what I saw! The Lone Ranger is full of offensive stereotypes, including a clearly white man wearing face paint to play a Native American; shockingly dark tropes, including a scene where hundreds of Native Americans are gunned down but our white hero is saved; and a ridiculous character arc, where the main character learns to not care about the law and just rob and kill like a vigilante. It's abominable, and it's aware of it. There is one fantastic scene, where our hero meets Tonto's tribe, and speaks to them in the broken-english tongue of his friend, only to get offended and confused looks from the articulate tribesmen. It all leads up to a bugshit ridiculous scene involving the hero riding a horse on top of, not one, but two trains. It's ridiculous and stupid and it deserves a watch.

The Purge
Platinum Dunes/Blumhouse Productions

The year's breakout horror movie, in a year that apparently had several far better ones, was this, admittedly creative film, about 12-hour period of time that occurs once a year, when everything short of starting a nuclear war is legal, just so everyone can get all the theft, murder, rape, and (let's be honest) illegal downloads out of their system. While this year's sequel, Anarchy, will show a broader sense of this night, this film focuses on a small, upscale neighborhood, where a man who has made a ton of money off of security systems for this very night (modern-day scream queen Ethan Hawke) has his house on lockdown, and plans to wait out the night in luxury. But when his son allows a homeless man into the house, they become the targets of a roving group of angry rich white people with guns (why yes, this takes place in California, how did you guess?) who are enraged that they couldn't kill the homeless man, so start trying to break into our hero family's house. I kind of liked The Purge, it had some interesting social allegories and I admire the film's attempt to use the horror medium to tell a story about class warfare. It's not wrong, it's just hopelessly cliche; the characters (as they always do in these movies) make infuriating choices, and a lot of the dialogue is cartoony. This easily could have been a horror comedy, but it wasn't. There's also a great introduction to Rhys Wakefield as the villain. Not as awful as its been made to seem, but not necessarily a must-watch.

Man of Tai Chi
Village Roadshow/Universal Pictures

Let me get something off my chest: I really like Keanu Reeves. I'm a fan. Not only is he supposedly one of the friendliest people in Hollywood, if not the entire city of Los Angeles, but I don't really mind him as an actor. He's learned to underplay himself so well that sometimes his screen presence and delivery give me chills. So when I learned that he was getting into directing, a martial arts movie no less; in which he would play the villain, I have to admit, I was pretty psyched. Man of Tai-Chi is a modern-day action parable that follows Tiger (played by newcomer, and friend of Reeves, Tiger-Chen); a young practitioner of Tai-Chi, who decides to use his skills in the traditionally meditative art for more combative applications, so he can put the money and fame towards building a better life for himself. However, while working security for a guy named Donaka Mark (Reeves), he winds up in a fight club; where his purpose, art, and soul face corruption. It's a very simple movie, with some good fight choreography courtesy of Yuen Wo Ping, but it gets bad when it tries to do too much. Reeves should work as the stoic, steely Donaka, and for the most part he does; it should be the kind of role he was born to play. However, unfortunately, he gets into some serious overacting territory, which is bad territory for him. The results are hilarious. This keeps the movie down; like Reeves himself, its good when it's just playing straight; the second it tries to hard, as it often does to avoid blandness, it gets silly.
In the end, Man of Tai Chi is a pretty inoffensive movie. It's a martial arts film directed by, and starring Reeves, and if thats what you're looking for, that's what you're going to get. Just don't expect anything more.

The Counselor
Scott-Free Productions

The director is Ridley Scott, the writer is Downs-family legend Cormac McCarthy, and the star is The Fass? Questionable reception or not, you bet your ass I was going to watch this movie! Too bad I did, too. This movie, about an unnamed legal Counselor who gets in over his head with a drug cartel he invests in, prompting them to try and kill him and his whole family, is wrought with the tropes of a good McCarthy novel; the good man getting involved with bad people, the villain who stands for something elemental about humanity, the hit man who means well and wears white, Javier Bardem. Unfortunately, it's rife with holes (how does the cartel trace him again? Something about a guy he bailed out of jail? Wait, why does he need the money anyway if he's that fucking rich? How does a legal counselor have that much money and not have at least some experience with illegal activities?), and, as I'm sure I'm not the first to point out, even more philosophical dialogue, at least a quarter of which is about sex. This would have made a great Kevin Smith movie, is what I'm saying. The rest of the dialogue is about moral philosophy, which is a bit straightforward for Cormac. The talented cast, including four of the best actors working, is game for the task (although Pitt and Fasbender are clearly struggling with some of the more awkward lines), but the pacing and story isn't.
It seems weird to admit after the director's recent slump, but the saving grace here isn't McCarthy, or even Fassbender, it's Ridley Scott. He makes some of the scenes appropriately murky and very suspenseful, and that's when it works best. Unfortunately, the suspense that made No Country and The Road so great just gives way to more pandering here. I would have liked to exit the movie saying that Cameron Diaz blew me away as a great, McCarthy villain, but she's probably the most awkward of all here. Did I mention she has sex with a car?

Ender's Game
Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate

Now, we're getting more into the territory of movies I really couldn't get into. I'm well aware that Ender's Game is based on a supposedly brilliant book by Orson Scott Card, and while I can see the movie working on paper, it didn't work for me on film. Apparently, I'm not the only one who felt that way; the film bombed on it's release, a factor attributed to Card's blatant homophobia, and not the fact that it's just a really boring movie. Let me start by getting the plot out of the way, and explaining how, far in the future, humanity is almost wiped out in an interplanetary war with a race of bug-monsters called the Formics, and now young children are picked from a young age for their intelligence and ferocity to attend space-school so that the future military can be properly prepared for another attack. Ender Wiggin is one specific boy who is picked by Harrison Ford (does his character name matter?) as a prodigy that will one day save the human race. Now, let me also start by saying that, contrary to what is taught in the nitpicking culture of today's film geeks, plot holes do not ruin a movie. However, they can really hurt the movie's internal logic if not properly dealt with, and they can be hard to ignore when everything else about the movie; from the characters, to the actors, to the action, to the special effects, is aggressively bland.
For example, why are children recruited as the primary tacticians in this warfare? We get some vague explanation about how they have the empathy to understand their enemies and how their minds work better. But, then the superiors like Ford and Ben Kingsley and Viola Davis constantly judge their choices (if they know so well, how come they aren't leading the war effort?). How do we know Ender is brilliant enough to fight the formics? Because he plays video games and solves puzzles in ways most people don't think of, but only because he fails multiple times and then just fucks around. It's sort of like Harry Potter, only without the magic and sense of wonder, and with ten times the amount of douchey entitlement in its main character. Furthermore the cast is completely on autopilot (you know, in a cast with this many Oscar nominees; if the lone bright spot is Moises Arias, something's wrong), the special effects are not that impressive, and the inevitable twist, while interesting, is kind of predictable. The last five minutes are brilliant enough to warrant reading the book, but everything up to that is not just bad, it's completely forgettable.

Man of Steel
Warner Bros./DC Entertainment

This, like Iron Man 3 and Thor 2 is another installment in the most love-it-or-hate-it year for comic books in a long time. Well, it's on this list, so you can imagine how I felt about it. Man of Steel is so much more than the worst superhero movie of the year, it's a pretty awful movie overall. This reboot/remake/reimagining/rewhogivesafuck of the greatest superhero story of all time, makes the ambitious, but unwise, decision to retell (there's another one) Superman as a gritty, realistic, hero. For one thing, when your idea of accomplishing this is by taking a guy who flies around with the underwear on the outside of his pants, and just removing the underwear altogether, then you're probably not approaching the premise appropriately. Now I'm not one of the many to make the assertion that Kale-El of Krypton is uninteresting, I always thought there was something very charming about him as a character, but that charm is missing here. In fact, any charm is missing here.
Now I suppose I don't hate the movie, I'll even sit down and watch it if its on at Fry's. I like the foreshadowing, that awesome score, and "Lorie-darlin'" herself, Diane Lane. Some of the shots are breathtaking beyond belief, the special effects are impressive, and I kind of like the central story, about a man trying to find out what huge role he's going to take in the world, and then just decides "fuck it I'll get into journalism". I can relate to that. There's also an extended scene where Michael Shannon and Russell Crowe yell at each other while wearing silly astronaut suits, which should be worth the price of admission. The problem is nearly all of the actors are playing this ridiculous material so straight, it makes them look stupid, rather than making the material look better. Half of them (primarily Adams and Shannon) look like they don't even want to be there half the time. I get that Snyder and Goyer want to describe the concept of how the world would react if something this powerful came into existence, but that's hardly a new angle for a superhero movie, and stripping the material of all it's joy and replacing it with post-9/11 cynicism and some of the worst dialogue I've ever heard, is not the way to do it. Did I mention the fact that this movie has more penis-shaped spaceships than Alien?

Oz: The Great and Powerful
Walt Disney Pictures
Oz is not the first prequel to The Wizard of Oz, nor is it the best, nor is it even the most famous. Most of those things describe Wicked. What this movie actually is is several hours of James Franco mugging for the camera. Like the Spider-Man movies, the film is directed by Sam Raimi (no stranger to actors who chew the scenery), and like those movies, Franco's character feels less like a character and more like James Franco sarcastically trying to imitate one. He seems like he was on drugs the whole time. We also get the great Michelle Williams who is too good to be playing the two-dimensional and mostly bland Glinda the good witch, and Rachel Weisz plays Evanora, the wicked witch, although whether she becomes the most famous sorceress of all time or the one one who gets flattened by a house is meant to be open to interpretation, except it obviously isn't. Finally, in the one convincing role in the entire film, Mila Kunis is Theodora, whose part to play is initially ambiguous. During this stage, she's pretty great, as usual, and nearly saves the film, but as the film goes on she gets extremely hammy and ridiculous, to the point that she actually becomes the worst thing about the film. The latest attempt in the "darker, more serious, reimagining of a fairy tale" isn't very dark or serious, which is probably a good thing. Raimi's direction at least knows to keep the fun. But it's just sort of kiddy and insipid and, ultimately, pretty boring.
Zach Braff is a monkey.

Not Fade Away
Paramount Vantage
Ok, so this came out last year, but I deliberately did not put it on last year's list because I thought it came out in January of 2013 for some reason. Also I need it to pad out this list a little so work with me. To be honest, there's a lot of reasons why this shouldn't be here, the foremost one being that I forget most of it. But I was trying super hard to pay attention, I swear. The problem is, this origin story of a young man trying to find his way in the musical world of the sixties is every bit as pretentious, boring, and uninteresting as that sounds. And don't watch it for the late, great, James Gandolfini, whatever you do; the guy's barely in it. Yeah, it sucks that the first film from Sopranos creator David Chase, and one of the last films from Sopranos star Gandolfini, is this dull and unlikeable, but it is.
Well, for what it's worth, I saw Enough Said too late to put it on the "Best of" list. It was really good.

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
MTV/Dickhouse Films
Bad Grandpa is a hidden camera movie where an old horny man played by Johnny Knoxville has to escort a little boy across the United States. Along the way, they pull hidden camera stunts to trick people for the amusement of the viewing audience. Some of it is funny, but most of it is tactless and kind of stupid. This would be fun to watch as individual segments on youtube but not as a movie.
Johnny Knoxville gets his penis stuck in a vending machine for some reason. That's about it.