Knee-jerk review: "Spectre"

1. It's way, way too long.  And there's about three endings.  But this is common practice nowadays for Hollywood tentpole franchise movies.  Guess they want audiences to feel like they got their money's worth so they won't stay home with Netflix.
2. We liked it.  
3. In fact, we may have even loved it.  The last Bond movie - Skyfall - had perhaps a more emotional undercurrent, but we hated the ending.  The one before that - Quantum of Solace - was decent, but suffered from the WGA strike that forced filmmakers to proceed with a half-baked script.  So you'd probably have to go all the way back to the stripped-down, slam-bang Casino Royale in 2006 to find a more enjoyable Daniel Craig Bond movie.
4. Fantastic fight scene in the train.
5. Who knew Ralph Fiennes could be an action hero?
6. The tradition of music stars recording the theme songs continues its slow slide into irrelevant, unmemorable oblivion, Adele's "Skyfall" being the only recent exception.  Has there been a truly catchy one since Duran Duran's silly "View to a Kill" earworm in 1985?
7. Daniel Craig cuts an imposing figure.  Despite his reported disinterest in continuing as Bond, he owns this role in a way no one's owned it since Sean Connery.  Stout, suave, unflappable.
8. Fantastic fight scene in the helicopter.
9. Does the white cat make an appearance?  We don't understand this new trend in which filmmakers play coy with audiences regarding a main character's identity.  Everyone knew Benedict Cumberbatch was playing Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness and no one's going to be shocked when Christoph Waltz announces that his name is Blofeld.  It's a cool twist, but not one that need to be preserved at all costs.
10. We are now fans of Lea Seydoux, just as an FYI.
11. Have you ever actually gone to a bar and asked for a vodka martini shaken, not stirred?  Probably should be on our bucket list.
12. What's most fascinating about the movie is the way (even as the series continues to pursue Bourne Identity-style gristle and grit) it's harkening back to the Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan era of 007 excess.  Spectre offers more old-school Bond fun than previous Craig titles.  Most notably, you get a villain with endless army of henchmen in a secret lair - bonus points for the secret evil board room meeting - and proof that Bond is simply (and somewhat illogically in one instance) irresistible to women within moments of meeting him.
13. How can audiences resist the exotic, affluent travelogue nature of these movies?  Bond globehops from Mexico to London to Austria to Africa, all of it while driving the fastest cars, wearing the finest bespoke fashion, and staying at the best hotels.  Here's a free pitch to the Travel Channel: a tie-in with MGM and Eon to make a series about where Bond has visited on his adventures.
14. Somewhere someone's surely written a critical studies paper on the need to kill villains with freefalls from high places.  Why is that so satisfying (because it most definitely is)?  Is it the fact that it takes so long to fall, thereby drawing out the punishment?  Or is it the gruesome, presumably painful nature of splatting on the hard ground that delivers catharsis in a way a knife or bullet can't?
15. Plane sliding down a snow-covered mountain.  Awesome.
16. Worth your while.


Knee-jerk review: "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"

1. Now that's what we call a Star Wars movie.
2. It's not flawless, but it's got way more passion and emotion than those horribly sterile and labored prequels George Lucas foisted on us.
3. There's no way to describe the giddiness, is there, we all feel when that fanfare strikes up and up pops the yellow Star Wars logo on the starfield? That's what dreams are made of, right?
4. We all just got to watch Daisy Ridley become a star.
5. Who wouldn't want to steal a TIE fighter?
6. The most interesting characters were all of the new characters, which surprised us.
7. We certainly didn't miss C-3P0, who's barely in the movie but still overstays his welcome.
8. The villain Kylo Ren is particularly fascinating to us, especially the way he's prone to preschool-style temper tantrums.
9. That is one bad-ass name you got there, Poe Dameron.
10. Who wouldn't want to steal the Millennium Falcon, sit in that pilot chair, and reach around flipping all those mysterious switches?
11. Nice rapport between Ridley and costar John Boyega.
12. BB-8 is amusing and cute, but not in a cloying, cheesy way like the Ewoks.  Or in a transparent attempt to appeal to kids, like the international waking nightmare that was Jar Jar Binks.
13. There are surely other ways intergalactic bad guys can prove their bona-fides besides blowing up planets.  This is the third Death Star in seven movies.  Not very imaginative (but we do give begrudging points for pulling power from a star).  Ditto the way the good guys try to destroy the weapon.  But then again, if it ain't broke... 
14. And as much as we like Ridley's character, sticking her on a desert planet is just too much of a callback to Tattooine.  Why not keep her scenes all as is, but just make Jakku a grassland planet or a mountain planet?  But then writer Lawrence Kasdan didn't ask us for script notes.
15. It's those kinds of retreads of previous Star Wars elements (like Ren's silly Vader mask -  he's just as scary when he takes it off) that make this movie a kind of fanboy mashup.  As a friend put it - it's part remake, part sequel.
16. But it moves with energy and purpose and leanness.  There's no denying that.  It's exciting and offers good surprises and twists.  Two developments in particular made our jaded, seen-it-all mouth drop open. 
17. That stands in stark contrast to the loud, chaotic mess that was the Star Trek Beyond trailer that preceded the movie.  Yuck.  That reboot franchise makes money, we suppose, but what a disappointment overall.  Sci-fi as tent-pole action.  But we digress.
18. Han Solo has a bigger role in the plot than we expected.  By the way, "Chewie, we're home" isn't even his best line.
19. There's something odd going on with Carrie Fisher's voice.  You can discuss the hows and whys amongst yourselves.
20. The final two minutes are undeniably goosebump-worthy.  Epic and sweeping and mythic in a Lord of the Rings sort of way.  We're excited to see what the next two movies bring.  
21. And what they'll look and feel like without J.J. Abrams.  He's okay, but not what we'd call a visionary.
22. We went in wanting to like it very badly, but worried we would be very disappointed.  We weren't.  We liked it.


Knee-jerk review: "Mockingjay Part 2"

1. True story: the night before we saw this in theaters, we watched Mockingjay Part 1 for the first time on Amazon Prime.  An interesting experience because Part 2 essentially picks up moments after the end of Part 1, which means we had the chance to watch a single narrative (totaling about four hours) split between two completely different environments - one, an HD wide-screen television in our living room and two, a huge movie screen in a packed theater.  Cool.
2. The Hunger Games series revolves around a fairly ridiculous premise: a future world, as penance for trying to revolt against the government, agrees to sacrifice children in a battle-to-the-death live television special.  It's a fun, if dark, world... but only if you try not to think too much about how and why this world came to be.  It's just crazy.
3. But the point is that the filmmakers and actors play this stuff completely straight, giving the story genuine gravitas and import.  
4. Having an Oscar-winning actress as the lead for your PG-13 sci-fi franchise series certainly doesn't hurt either.
5. It's a touching and satisfying ending, but we're still on Team Gale.  Which is kind of funny when you look back at what we said two years ago about Gale in our Knee-Jerk Review of the second movie Catching Fire.
6. Woody Harrelson.  He's a genius.  But Jenna Malone always seems to be trying too hard.
7. We remember well reading the Mockingjay book and wondering how in the world they'd ever turn it into a movie.  It's a far cry from the bottle-vibe of the first book.
8. Some of the scares in the mutt-in-the-sewers sequence are certainly cliche.  But they still work.
9. Why do movie characters always risk their lives going back to save a pet?
10. President Coin, tsk tsk.
11. "Real or not real?"
12. Philip Seymour Hoffman completely disappears and we couldn't help but wonder how much of that was planned and how much of that was because of his unexpected death during production.  We get a rather odd sideways shot of him towards the end that feels wholly unnatural, plus another character delivers a letter from Hoffman's character.  If he hadn't died, would that letter have been replaced by an actual dialogue scene?  
13. Here's an interesting analysis of the creepy song "Hanging Tree."
14. That's one fantastic last line (which apparently came from the novel).  Slow clap.
15. Three books, four movies, all top notch.


Knee-jerk review: "The Martian"

1. It was a great book, but at times a little too Robinson Crusoe wonky when it came to explaining scientific minutiae.  The book takes pages to explain steps in making oxygen or growing food in the Martian soil.  It was our only real criticism of the novel.  The movie, of course, takes care of that problem. You get a taste of the science, yes, but the 2-hour running time means a good chunk of detail gets tossed to keep things moving.
2. Matt Damon is great, of course, but his character is so good-natured and cool-and-collected that it's a jarring - and effective - moment when he understandably starts to break down towards the end of the movie.
3. Donald Glover's Asperger's scientist feels a little gratuitous, especially in that it seems like he's doing a spoof of his old co-star Danny Pudi's character of NBC's "Community."
4. Some have compared it to Cast Away.  We get it.  But, to us, it's more like Apollo 13 in that a horrible problem is slowly and surely solved by smart, creative, determined math-geek scientists.
5. And that's the best part of the movie.  All of the math.  It's science and numbers that saves Damon's character and the movie actually shows him repeatedly putting pen to paper to work out calculations.
6. Hexadecimals.  Never heard of it.  So we would have died up there.
7. Going to the moon took days.  A Mars mission would take years.  That's a serious commitment not just of manpower and money, but the lives of the astronauts.
8. Michael Pena's always fun and interesting, but we're still trying to figure out the enduring appeal to casting directors of Jessica Chastain.  She's not really ever bad, but she's just so brittle and closed off.
9. Bonus points for the use of 1970s disco on the soundtrack.
10. The focus of the movie is the plot.  There's not a lot of the sweeping and spectacular "ooh!" special effects shots you might expect in a Ridley Scott science fiction movie.
11. The Hermes ship is pretty cool, though.
12. Speaking of Scott, he's in his 70s.  How much longer can he do this? His movies may not always be good, but they are always compelling on some level.  Three of his movies are, to us, among the best ever made: Alien, Blade Runner, and Thelma and Louise.  This one's probably a close fourth.


Knee-jerk review: "Mission Impossible Rogue Nation"

1. The hanging-onto-the-side-of-a-plane-taking-off stunt that you've seen in all of the trailers and TV spots is undeniably eye-popping, but it doesn't top the ridiculous crawling-on-the-outside-of-a-skyscraper sequence from 2011's Ghost Protocol.
2. Tom Cruise may be a strangely optimistic and intensely driven person (so says our exclusive inside source), but you cannot deny that he is a movie star who knows how to project charisma and make well-oiled, audience-pleasing movies.  Aside: his sci-fi thriller Edge of Tomorrow is criminally underrated.
3. If the adage is true that great movies need only three great sequences, then Rogue Nation is a great movie.  Our favorite was the opera house sequence, which more than one critic has accurately described as "Hitchcockian."
4. That said, the movie's got a few too many climaxes.  It's too long by probably 20 minutes.  We chalk this up to writer-director Christopher McQuarrie's love of plot turns.
5. And how many times will Cruise's Ethan Hunt character have to go on the run to clear his name?  It's becoming a little predictable now.
6. Rebecca Ferguson is certainly a revelation, projecting sass and smarts and keeping the audience guessing as to her true loyalties.  You wonder if Rogue Nation's producers somehow missed the memo: this is an A-list tent-pole action movie here and they make a woman a co-lead rather than a tag-along, damsel-in-distress sidekick?
7. Ving Rhames doesn't look healthy to us.
8. We've always loved how these Mission: Impossible movies treat the credit sequence like an overblown version of a TV show, what with the rapid-fire editing of the "episode" we're about to watch.
9. And how can you not get pumped when that theme song kicks in?
10. Alec Baldwin's having a good time.  "30 Rock" notwithstanding, this is an actor who never got used the right way.
11. Not as good as Ghost Protocol, but it's a close second.

An Ode to Islands

A recent return to Los Angeles led us to revisit one of our favorite restaurants.  There's nothing all that special about Islands, although they do seem to have a well-deserved reputation for excellent skin-on french fries showered with secret spices.  If you mention Islands to someone, they'll probably mention the fries.  Aside from that, it's one memorable element is probably that it uses "hang ten" surf culture as its gimmick, from the plastic tropical birds and thatch roofed hostess stand to the cutesy menu item names and endless surfing footage that loops on all the TVs.  Prior to last weekend, we hadn't eaten at Islands since 2012 shortly before we moved back to Texas.  And so there was a certain pang of nostalgia as we took a bite of the Hula Burger (see? cutesy).  We started thinking about just how intertwined our 20s and 30s had been with Islands...

Our earliest memory of Islands dates back to 1999 - that's 16 years ago people - when we shared tacos with a film school friend to discuss movies and pop culture, like when we had dinner there after witnessing the abomination of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.  That was in Pasadena.  When we moved to West Hollywood, there was a closer Islands store in Century City with awful parking - that was where we had many mid-90s dinners with the ex-girlfriend (not always cheery in the numb, waning days of that relationship) who lived close by and that one late-90s Saturday lunch after a grueling morning of flag football with a married couple who soon got divorced and dropped out of our life.  And then we started to frequent the Islands in Glendale (often paired with a trip to Ikea) - that was the one we went to when our parents visited, the one where I was the first to tell an old friend that his ex-girlfriend was getting married, the one where I argued on the phone with a car salesman who was playing car salesman games. That was also the one we first shared with our girlfriend (who became our fiancee and then our wife) and, eventually, our daughter (the plastic birds weren't dumb to her, they were a source of amazement).

No, nothing special about Islands.  Except everything that happened to us and our friends on all those visits in those vinyl booths.


Knee-jerk review: "American Sniper"

1. Good, but not great.  Mostly because there's a sense we've seen this kind of thing before.
2. The sniper angle is fresh and there are some affecting moments depicting how post-traumatic stress disorder manifests itself.  But The Hurt Locker and The Messenger, to us, offer stronger, more visceral looks at the physical and emotional costs of the Iraq War.
3. Bradley Cooper delivers a strong performance, though.  We're beginning to believe he can do anything.  Come a long way from the one-note jerk he played in Wedding Crashers.
4. Director Clint Eastwood is over 80 years old now.  This isn't his best film (for that, take a look at Unforgiven, obviously, but also Gran Torino and Million Dollar Baby) but it sure doesn't seem like a film made by a senior citizen, either.
5. Yeah, we read the book.  And yeah, we know about the libel lawsuit involving real-life sniper Chris Kyle and all of the other unfortunate untruths he may have told.  But this post isn't about the book.  Or the real Chris Kyle.  This is about the movie, a medium that has it's own unique demands and requirements.
6. Unlike Bradley Cooper, we remain ambivalent about Sienna Miller.
7. As subtle and believable as the movie treats PTSD for so much of its running time, it's a little jarring that in just a handful of scenes towards the end, suddenly Kyle seems cured and back to his old self.
8. We forget where we read it, but somewhere out there is an article about the extra emotional pain felt by snipers who see a bullet's horrific, destructive force through the scope.  There can be no emotional detachment for the sniper.
9. The film's been politicized by people like Michael Moore on one side and Sarah Palin on the other, but is the film itself political?  Not overtly.  It doesn't feel like a right-wing praise of the war.  And it doesn't feel like a leftist critique of the war either.  But you could probably read it both ways.  There's a matter-of-factness to the story, which may be the reason both sides can project onto it their own messages and meanings.