What I Watched in January 2017

Movies

Ant-Man – I’ve seen and reviewed this before, but my brother hadn’t seen it. It holds up to repeat viewings. Most of the jokes still land and the action stuff is good enough. I really can’t wait for that sequel. ****

John Wick – I’d heard good things about this and the trailer for the sequel looked great, so I rented it from Amazon for a dollar and gave it a watch. It is a barebones, nearly perfectly executed action movie. It does a great job of building up John Wick before letting you see him in action, and then making that pay off. It also does a good job of hinting at this elaborate underworld that it only barely shows, making this seem like it comes from a world that exists outside of this movie. It is just really well done all around. ****

Duck Soup – This is maybe the best comedy ever made and even now, more than 80 years after its release, it remains relevant. When Rufus T Firefly (Groucho Marx) sings “The Laws of My Administration” it is hard not to see its similarities to problems in the current day. *****

Horse Feathers – I don’t like this one quite as well as Duck Soup, but it is similarly hilarious and relevant, though the problem of colleges making sports more important than education is much lighter than resurgent fascism. *****

Boogie Nights – Paul Thomas Anderson is a master. There is a lot going on in this movie, including a star making performance from Mark Wahlberg, but I don’t really have time to unpack it. It has a completely awesome soundtrack as well. *****

The Last King – This is a Norwegian historical action movie about the real rescue and a child that would eventually be king. It is basically Game of Thrones but with more skiing. It isn’t great, but it more than enjoyable. ***1/2

Ratchet & Clank – I had high hopes for this, but it didn’t play near me. It ended up being like most video game movies; not especially good. It feels a little like a Ratchet and Clank game with all the gameplay taken out. It needs just a little more. It isn’t bad, but it never really rises higher than mildly amusing. Still, it isn’t pure excrement like Angry Birds. ***

Alice Through the Looking Glass – I expected this to be a lot worse, but while it isn’t good was it an abomination either. It is just a mess of CGI and affected performances that occasionally manages to be interesting. **1/2

Live By Night – review here. ***

Cloud Atlas – I skipped this when it came out because the Wachiowskis tend to be more miss than hit with my, but I listened to a great podcast about it (fthismovie) that convinced me to give it a shot, and I’m glad I did. Cloud Atlas interweaves 6 stories in different time periods that all tell one giant story. It is kind of clunky at times and melodramatic, but it is so earnest that the whole thing ends up working. I loved it. *****

Trainspotting – I see why this movie is so well regarded, but I found it really hard to watch. It coats a frank look a drug addiction and hopelessness with a pop aesthetic to make it moderately palatable. It deserves its reputation, but I doubt I’ll watch it again. ****1/2

Fruitvale Station – This is an amazing and harrowing look a specific example of a real and extant problem in the country. This movie follows that last day of Oscar Grant, who was shot by BART police officers on New Year’s Day nearly a decade ago. It is just heart breaking to watch. *****

Small Soldiers – This is not my favorite Joe Dante movie, but there is still a lot to like here. It is a little pseudo-horror movie for kids; it mostly works. It’s central toys fighting toys conflict is only marginally interesting, but there are quite a few nice performances, including one by the late, great Phil Hartman. It is no Gremlins or The ‘Burbs, but isn’t bad. ***1/2

Flowers of War – This wants to be something important and profound, but it ends up feeling a little cheap and awkward. There are some really good scenes and shots, and this is a story that needs to be told, but this is not the best telling. The Asian side of WWII is not one that gets told a lot, especially not about Japan’s atrocities in China rather than US military exploits in the Pacific, but this just feels like it kind of got away from director Zhang Yimou.**1/2

Gone Girl – I am coming to terms with the fact that I am just a Ben Affleck fan. I like watching movies he stars in and I like it when he shows up in bit roles (see the next entry). This is a messed up movie and I’m not sure I like what it has to say and I know I don’t like seeing Rosamund Pike hit herself in the face with a ballpeen hammer, but it is a well-made film. ****

Shakespeare in Love – This was a lot of fun. It didn’t blow me away or anything, but this is pretty much the movie that The Knight’s Tale wants to be. It is a romantic comedy that just happens to star Shakespeare as he writes Romeo and Juliet. It takes some liberties with historical accuracy, mostly because that is far from the point. It is a fun movie with a lot of fun performances. ****

Scoop – I tend to prefer Woody Allen’s straight comedies, like this one. It’s got Scarlett Johansson playing a flighty would be reporter, Hugh Jackman being charming, Ian McShane being irascible and Allen himself playing an ineffectual stage magician. It is only rarely laugh out loud funny, but the whole thing is just kind of pleasant to watch. ****

xXx: The Return of Xander Cage – read review here. **1/2

The Three Musketeers (2011) – This movie has so many things that I like, such as fencing and airships, that I really wanted to like it. But it just isn’t any good. It isn’t horrible, but the sword fights are mediocre and it is stuffed with bad effects. **1/2

Iceman – I love Donnie Yen. He’s stolen two blockbusters in the last couple of months (Rogue One and XXX) and I’ve been binging on his films available on Netflix, like the Ip Man movies. This one is a giant mess. It relies on mediocre CGI over Yen’s considerable martial arts talents. Yen is great, but this movie is not. *1/2

La La Land – Review coming soon. *****

Dragon – Another Donnie Yen vehicle. This one starts out great. Donnie Yen as a small town laborer who takes out a couple of bandits in a butcher shop. A police investigator determines that he must be a master martial artists and they engage in a cat and mouse game as he tries to prove it. But the ending is kind of nonsense, bringing the whole experience down. ***1/2

TV

Always Sunny in Philadelphia Season 11 – It is amazing to see that this show remains so good after more than a decade. I don’t know that Season 11 is my favorite season of the show, but it has its share of excellent episodes. All of the stars continue to do excellent work exploring the unique ways that all of these characters are really just completely awful.

Turn Season 2 – An improvement over the tepid first season, but it still struggles with an unlikeable protagonist and way too much emphasis on stupid stuff rather than on actually spying. It isn’t Jamie Bell’s fault, but the central character is just completely unlikeable. He seems neither skilled nor principled; simply leaping from one blunder to the next. Even its villains, like the frequently despicable Captain Simcoe, get more of chance to seem sympathetic than the shows protagonist. While Abe Woodhull is a black hole at the center of the show, his allies Ben Tallmadge and especially Caleb Brewster are a lot of fun, but they get too little time.

Tarzan & Jane – It takes way too long to get up to speed and never stops looking ugly, but Netflix’s teenage take on Edgar Rice Burroughs famous jungle man isn’t terrible. In fact, the back half of the season gets quite good. Its mixed race, highly active Jane is a highlight. I can’t help but wish this show came in a better looking package, because I think it is up to the level of some other well liked action cartoons, at least over its first dozen episodes, but its blocky 3D look is simply unappealing.

Sherlock Series 4 – There is a real sense of diminishing returns with this show. It has almost always been better when the stakes were smaller, but now it doesn’t seem to know how to lessen the stakes, or how to tell a compelling mystery. That is offset by just how much fun it is to watch Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch. And Mark Gatiss, who has been equally good as Mycroft. There is still enjoyment to be had from this show, but two out of three of this series’ plots were duds.

Danger 5 Season 2 – I liked the first season of this show, but I found it best taken in small doses. Somehow they managed to amp up the craziness in season2, but while I found it easier to binge, it just wasn’t quite as satisfying. Some jokes were overused and while the switch from the 60’s to the 80’s was great, things ended up feeling kind of scattered. Still, there is nothing else like this.

The Man in the High Castle Season 1 – This show is not unlike Turn in that it has a great premise, but it doesn’t know how to build its characters. Does it want the viewer to root for the Nazi spy? That’s not a good direction to go. But it doesn’t succeed at making anyone else compelling. Their actions only vaguely make sense and any time they seem to be making progress they seem to spin off in a completely different direction. After 10 episodes I couldn’t tell you what any of the characters want. They have no goals; they merely exist in the nightmare alternate reality. Everything else is good enough that I am going to keep going, but this show better find some direction if it wants me to watch past season 2.

Voltron The Mighty Defender Season 2 – I thought the first season of this show was fine, but with all of the origin stuff from season 1 out of the way season 2 shines all the way through. It is the Voltron that exists in the memories of the show’s fans, a spell that would be broken by actually rewatching the original, a lesson I learned from going back to TMNT as an adult. It is just the sort of show I would have loved to be able to watch as a kid.

Taboo – This Tom Hardy vehicle as me enthralled, but it is all mysteries and no solutions so far. I’ll be back next month with my overall thoughts. Maybe it gets its own post.

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One thought on “What I Watched in January 2017

  1. I know that Voltron is supposed to be a kids’ show but I love it so much!! And I agree that Season 2 was better than Season 1 and it’s going to be such a long wait till the next season…

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