Looking Back at 2014

04-Jan-15 9:01 AM by
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Happy New Year! It's been four years since I took this opportunity to reflect on the past year of movies, so I have some catching up to do!

For about a decade, my moviegoing was stable at 10–16 outings a year. I've never been one for Hulu or Netflix, so anything I didn't catch in theaters, I'd either borrow on DVD from the library or miss entirely. But lately, my habits have changed:

2014 year in review

Not since I was in college have I gone to the movies as often as I did in 2014! What changed? I attribute this uptick to several causes, in order:

  1. This was my first full year living in Boston. I now have easy access to so many theaters that it's easy to hop on a bus or subway and see one after work or on a weekend.
  2. Likewise, I also have easier access to friends who live in Boston, where I went to grad school. Many of them don't have cars but can use public transit to coordinate outings. More invitations to the movies equals more movies.
  3. The Brattle Theatre, a non-profit theater in Harvard Square. It has only one screen and generally shows a different film every day, ranging from classics to indies to regional debuts. I'm a patron of the Brattle, which grants me a dozen free tickets a year. Darned if I'm going to let them go to waste! However, this also means not every movie I saw in 2014 was necessarily a 2014 release, such as Labyrinth and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
  4. RiffTrax Live. The creators of Mystery Science Theater 3000 have kicked up the number of live-streaming comedic commentary events, with four in 2014 alone. I backed two of them via Kickstarter, so of course I was going to see my name up in lights!

Having gone to the theaters so many times, I thought the competition for best films of the year would be stiffer, but the choices are fairly obvious — especially if you like children's films: Frozen (which technically came out in 2013), The Lego Movie (essentially a retelling of The Matrix), and Big Hero 6, which I liken to a cross between How to Train Your Dragon and The Incredibles. All three films were a pure joy, and though there is a place for cinema to be challenging and address dark or difficult subjects, I felt like these movies made moviegoing fun, while featuring believable characters and some plot twists that elevated them above being insubstantial tripe.

I'm not going to make predictions for 2015. The last time I offered predictions, they included promises that I would not be seeing X-Men: First Class or the Footloose remake. I ended up seeing and thoroughly enjoying both! So enjoy whatever the year has to offer. Showbits' official debut was eight years ago this month, and though my energy for blogging has mostly been directed elsewhere, theatergoing is still a big part of my life. I look forward to sharing those experiences with you for years to come!

Star Trek: TNG on Blu-ray & silver screen

14-May-12 9:55 PM by
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As a geek, I may surprise you by not being beholden to the latest and greatest technology. In addition to cell phones and tablet computers, I'm not yet convinced of the need for Blu-ray DVDs. Their improvement over standard definition seems minimal, especially when a good BD player will upscale existing DVDs to take some advantage of a 1080p display.

However, it's hard for me to ignore the differences between the standard and high definition editions of a show like Star Trek. Having already remastered The Original Series (TOS) for Blu-ray, Paramount and CBS are now turning to The Next Generation (TNG). I hoped this announcement would not undermine my fairly recent investment in all seven seasons of TNG & DS9 on DVD, but this trailer suggests I am, in fact, missing out:

If you want a hands-on experience with TNG in high definition, a $22 sampler was released in January that included the show's two-part pilot, as well as episodes "Sins of the Father" and "The Inner Light". That disc apparently was sufficient proof of concept for the studio to commit to releasing the entire first season, hitting store shelves on July 24th with an MSRP of $118. But even that will have its own sampler — not on yet another retail purchase, but on the silver screen. TVShowsonDVD.com reports that, on Monday, July 23, 600 theaters in 49 U.S. markets will screen episodes "Where No One Has Gone Before" and "Datalore", in addition to some behind-the-scenes extras, as part of the show's 25th anniversary.

Star Trek series are becoming just like Star Wars: now you can own them again for the first time!

Looking Back at 2010, Looking Ahead to 2011

01-Feb-11 12:00 PM by
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Although 2011 is now a full calendar month old, a friend reminded me that it's not too late to be reflective. And since I'm always curious to see how my moviegoing habits stack up against past years, I figure it's not too late to see how 2010 stacked up and predict what'll draw me to the theater in 2011.

First, let's see how many movies I've historically seen in public venues:

Movie trends 1995 - 2010

Now let's take my granularity to an unprecedented level by looking at exactly which months were most popular:

2010 movie outings timeline

The myth of the summer blockbuster season doesn't hold much weight here, seeing as how it drew me to the theaters no more than the holidays did. In fact, many of the holidays films I saw could've easily stood up to the summer competition: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, TRON Legacy, and Voyage of the Dawn Treader. (The fourth "holiday" movie was a screening of Bicycle Dreams, a documentary that's been around for awhile.)

The best movie I saw last year was Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, which was as much a video game as it was a movie; shame the enthusiasm of Comic-Con fans was not enough to make it a profitable film. The worst movie of the year was Predators, which was more akin to psychological horror films like Cube than it was an actual Predator movie.

The most surprising movie was How to Train Your Dragon — it wasn't a kids movie but was instead an ideal fantasy (and even anti-war) film. And the most disappointing film was Inception — actually a decent movie, but nowhere near deserving of the universal praise it received.

Will 2011 be much better? There isn't much on the docket that's caught my interest. Films I'm likely to see include:

Apollo 18 (Mar 4)
When I saw the trailer for the next Transformers movie — but before I realized it was a Transformers movie — I thought a secret, historical NASA mission a great concept. I was delighted to discover it's an actual movie, without giant robots.
Thor (May 6)
I don't know the Marvel superhero, and the trailer looked iffy, but it's part of the universe that includes Iron Man and the Hulk, so it can't be that bad.
Kung Fu Panda 2 (May 27)
The first film was surprisingly funny with broad appeal. I have high hopes for the second.
Green Lantern (June 17)
I'm still disappointed they didn't choose Nathan Fillion for the lead role, but Green Lantern is still one of my favorite DC superheroes.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (July 15)
The first half of this conclusion was possibly the first Harry Potter movie to be better than the book, thanks to its condensing of a hundred pages of camping.
Captain America: The First Avenger (July 22)
See Thor.
Cowboys & Aliens (July 29)
The last time a movie featured James Bond and Indiana Jones, it was The Last Crusade. So this graphic novel adaptation should be awesome. Right?
The Muppets (Nov 23)
You're never too old for Kermit and the gang.

Movies I'd see if I could convince a child to accompany me:

Winnie the Pooh (July 15)
Both innocent humor and traditional animation are rarities these days.
The Smurfs (August 3)
I actually am not a fan of adapting cartoons to live action, but I have a morbid curiosity about this one. Hank Azaria as Gargamel has to be worth something, at least.

Movies I will definitely not be seeing:

Your Highness (Apr 8)
A fantasy comedy is a great concept, but the dialogue in this one sounds asinine.
X-Men: First Class (June 3)
I've never seen a Matthew Vaughn-directed film, but I've also never seen a good X-Men movie that wasn't directed by Bryan Singer — X-Men Origins: Wolverine was awful.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon (July 1)
I didn't see the second film in the Transformers trilogy, but I did see the first one twice (both with and without RiffTrax), and it was horrible both times. Pass.
Final Destination (August 26)
No longer called 5nal Destination (perhaps due to its resemblance to a porn title?), this film is part of a series that started off strong and quickly lost momentum.
Footloose (Oct 14)
It has a good cast (Dennis Quaid, Andie MacDowell, and Julianne Hough), but I'm just not sure a remake is necessary.
Puss in Boots (Nov 4)
A spin-off of Shrek, another series than ran too long.
Happy Feet 2 (Nov 18)
The first film was cute but couldn't tell if it wanted to be an action, comedy, musical, or social commentary.
Rise of the Apes (Nov 23)
Planet der Awful!
Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-Wrecked (Dec 16)
See Smurfs.
Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol (Dec 16)
This franchise is actually pretty strong, but I like it enough to warrant a rental only.
Sherlock Holmes 2 (Dec 16)
I love Robert Downey Jr. but didn't see the first Sherlock Holmes.

What's on your must-see list for 2011?

The Films of 2009

30-Dec-09 12:27 PM by
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As we prepare to kick 2009 to the curb, it seems an appropriate time to review the films that marked the year. Building off my list from two years ago, here's a rundown of my theatergoing habits over time:

Theatrical outings 1995 - 2009

My visits to the cinema have been fairly consistent this millennium at just over a dozen outings per year. In 2009, films taken in ranged from the independent documentary The Accidental Advocate to the classic American Graffiti to an original take on Plan 9 From Outer Space. Of the few mainstream films I saw, the best were Star Trek (which composed three of my sixteen theatrical outings) The Soloist, and Up; good but not great include Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The Surrogates, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, and Night at the Museum 2; while the stinkers consisted of X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Terminator Salvation. Also of all the mainstream films I saw this year, the only original IP was Up.

There were a lot more films released than these few — 342, by one person's count. This enterprising individual has tried to compile all the year's releases into one montage. I don't know if his sources were limited to theatrical trailers, but he references some films multiple times, which makes getting around to all of 2009's contestants even more challenging. Some of the transitions and juxtapositions are clever, though:

What were your cinematic highlights of the decade's final year?

The Majestic Jim Carrey

23-Apr-09 1:15 PM by
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I recently rewatched the 1998 film The Truman Show. I've often considered the movie, ostensibly a comedy, to be Jim Carrey's first dramatic role, representing a turning point for the actor similar to what Stranger than Fiction did for Will Ferrell. (The two movies aren't all that different in plot, either.) Not to say that comedic roles are of lesser value, or that Carrey wouldn't or shouldn't continue to capitalize on that strength; but The Truman Show demonstrated that he was not limited to that genre. Inspired to trace his growth, I turned to his next dramatic film, The Majestic.

The Majestic (click for full size)One morning in 1953, Jim Carrey wakes up on a California beach shore with no memory of anything that's come before. The residents of the nearby sleepy town of Lawson find the amnesiac Carrey to bear a striking resemblance to Luke Trimble, one of their 60+ young men who died in World War II. Since Luke's body was never found, and a decade can age both a person's face and his father's and fianceé's memories, it seems plausible that their lost son has returned.

But there is a fundamental flaw: this is not the movie's opening. We are instead introduced to Peter Appleton, a Hollywood screenplay writer whose career is a victim of the Red Scare. Depressed and with nowhere to turn, he goes for a drive one rainy night, resulting in the accident that leaves him on Lawson's shore.

As a result, the audience finds no mystery in Carrey's identity; even as we can relate to the hope that he is Luke, we know that he is not. This approach is not without benefit, as we are able to cringe as we see the townsfolk expect of "Luke" what only we know he cannot provide. But if we are to be introduced to Carrey first as someone who is decidedly not Luke, then further exposure to Appleton's life would've made the development of Carrey's character more marked.

Despite that one scripting decision, characters are what the film is all about, and the director knows how to use them. The Majestic is directed by Frank Darabont, who later relied on some of the same talent in The Mist. Luke's fianceé, played by Laurie Holden, has a worldliness that sets her apart from the townsfolk, yet they share a faith and hope in common. Jeffrey DeMunn as the town's mayor is more optimistic than a stereotypical politician, yet two scenes — one in which he speaks not a word — subtly make a more serious character of him. Its these smaller roles that are perhaps the show's strength: though Carrey is the star, The Majestic is ultimately an ensemble show. Carrey is given scenes with almost every character, major and minor, giving a depth to what would otherwise be throwaway extras. Even smaller parts by Bob Balaban and Bruce Campbell find their talent effectively exploited.

Everything ties together in a story that gives its characters numerous obstacles, but not without believable means for resolution. The climax comes in a scene that is so tense, and in which Appleton is so nervous, that I was overwhelmed by the tension and had to pause the movie to calm down before proceeding. For something that powerful, the buildup is worth it. Otherwise, at 2.5 hours, the film might be a bit long — and oddly, and the titular Majestic, a theater Luke Trimble and his dad used to run and which Carrey works to restore, is featured prominently for only 20 minutes, starting 1:15 into the film. But ultimately, though I was initially surprised by much of the plot, many of those surprises proved to be pleasant ones, as even if I didn't know what the director was doing, he proved that he did.

This cross between Random Harvest, Pleasantville, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (with an incongruous tip of the hat to Saving Private Ryan near the end) deserved better than the reception it received upon its 2001 release. Even if the script is as unoriginal as the critics decried, Carrey's performance had me on the edge of my seat, something Ace Ventura never could've done.

Count Me In for the Drive-In

12-Jun-08 5:54 PM by
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Spring has sprung, summer looms, and Hollywood blockbusters abound — though you may not want to spend the season in a movie theater… so don't! Instead, take in your movies in the great outdoors by patronizing your local drive-in.

It's easy to forget this artifact of a bygone era. The first drive-in movie theater opened on June 6th, 1933, in Pennsauken, New Jersey. Though that theater no longer exists, the second-oldest drive-in opened in 1934 and is still in operation, as are 393 others in 48 of the United States (sorry, Alaska and Louisiana).

Showbits.net says, Support Your Local Drive-In! I was plotting my own upcoming trip to the drive-in when, coincidentally, Major Nelson pointed out the venue's recent 75th anniversary. I thought I too would do my part by again highlighting this oft-overlooked alternative. I've previously written about the draw of the drive-in, and those attractions are no less true now. Most such theaters are open on Friday and Saturdays only, and it's tempting to fill those few weekend nights with expensive outings — but the more affordable drive-in needs your support today. So enjoy the great weather and some big-budget films in what's sure to be a memorable night.

2007: The Year in Review

04-Jan-08 12:19 PM by
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It's time for a brief look back at 2007 — brief, because my theatergoing is not what it once was. The number of movies I saw in theaters has fluctuated wildly since a decade ago, though it seems relatively constant over the course of this millennium:

1995: 22 1996: 43 1997: 70 1998: 53
1999: 37 2000: 30 2001: 12 2002: 16
2003: 15 2004: 11 2005:  9 2006: 14

This past year was very similar to its predecessor, with me taking in 15 theatrical films. It is not the prohibitive cost that keeps me from seeing more movies: a genetic condition permits me free tickets to any movie, anytime. It's more a matter of the time investment and working around the theater's schedule, whereas I can watch as much of a DVD as I want, whenever I want. Theatergoing also has a more social element than sitting at home in my pajamas, so I'm further limited by other people's geography and availability. Add in the fact that I don't have TV service and thus am not exposed unwillingly to commercials and trailers, and it takes some other rare factor, such as brand recognition, to make me aware and interested enough to warrant seeing a film.

Of the 15 films I saw in 2007, the best were Live Free or Die Hard, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and National Treasure: Book of Secrets. (I'd include Star Trek: The Menagerie as a theatergoing experience, but it technically was not a movie.) All three were rock'em, sock'em good action flicks that may've relied on tried-and-true formulae, but executed with finesse and humor.

This year's most disappointing movies were Spider-Man 3, 300, The Simpsons Movie, and The Golden Compass. And downright loathsome was The Transformers, which I recently saw the RiffTrax version of. Sadly, even Mike Nelson and crew could not improve on The Transformers, as I found it even more tedious on a second runthrough. Again, each of these films was based on an existing property, which perhaps led to high and ultimately unfulfilled expectations.

Which of 2007's films did you enjoy the most or least? Did I miss any you recommend?

The Stage Is Alive

24-Nov-07 12:20 PM by
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Welcome to the holiday season! I hope everyone survived American Thanksgiving and Black Friday. I'm taking the holidays off from performing so that I can instead be in the audience of the many wonderful shows that open this time of year. Already I've seen My Fair Lady, The Importance of Being Earnest, Murder in the Wings, Reefer Madness, The Full Monty, and Seussical.

All these shows were produced by local community theaters, which offered stunning quality for a vastly more affordable price than Broadway charges. And with Broadway stagehands currently on strike, leaving Broadway dark, community theater is the only alternative for many of us who would otherwise be making an expensive holiday trek to the big city. Fortunately, it is an abundant and enjoyable alternative, with a full dissertation of the reasons why after the jump.