Adventures in Marvel Movie-going

I have never been a comics fan. First and foremost, I find the the physical act of reading them really difficult. I suspect they’re too visually busy for me, causing me to get distracted easily and have problems following the narrative thread, but I’m not really sure, as I don’t have the same problem with newspaper-style comics, even the more visually experimental ones like the later Calvin & Hobbes strips. On top of that, I haven’t been overly impressed with the writing of most comics I’ve attempted (which is, to be fair, not many, thanks to the aforementioned problem reading them). To me, they read like something halfway between a novel and a film, but with neither the depth of a novel or the immersiveness of a film. (Sorry, fans, I’ll turn in my geek card now.) On top of that, I don’t like the typical plots of traditional comics – superheroes gifted their powers by some bizarre accident involving radiation (or whatever) are inherently less interesting to me than someone who’s developed their natural abilities to the highest level via hard work and dedication. And supervillains with grandiose plans to destroy the world are even worse. So yeah, nothing against those of you who do like them, but comics so far have just not been for me.

Comic book movies haven’t been that much better, in general. Spider-man and Spider-man 2: yawn. Batman Begins: yawn. The Dark Knight: better, but only when Heath Ledger was onscreen. The Dark Knight Rises: on my list to watch someday on account of Tom Hardy, but not very high on my list. Supermannever watched in any form, unless you count this Smallville humor vid. X-men: on my list to try, but again, not exactly high on the list.

Marvel’s recent oeuvre, on the other hand, has started to pique my interest a bit more. It’s managed to produce not one, but two entire movies based on comic books that I really liked. I’m not sure how long this will continue, considering that the contracts on its biggest stars are running out, but for now, I’m enjoying it.

My adventures in Marvel movie-going, so far:

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3 Idiots Movie Review



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Review:

3 Idiots was recommended to my husband by some Indian and Pakistani coworkers. It was a huge hit in India and is one of the highest grossing Bollywood films ever.

I was a little wary at first because some of the promotional material made it look alarmingly like an Indian Dumb and Dumber, but it’s really not. The story follows two college friends about 10 years after their graduation as they are trying to find a third friend (Ranchoddas Shamaldas Chanchad, aka “Rancho), who has disappeared in the intervening years. The search is interspersed with flashbacks from the exploits of the three friends in engineering school. 3 Idiots is both entertaining story and social commentary about the immense pressure placed on Indian youth by their families and education system, which results in a high rate of suicide. Though Rancho loves engineering passionately, one of his friends really wants to become a wildlife photographer, and the third is under so much pressure from his impoverished family to make something of himself that he nearly flunks out from the stress. The three have an ongoing rivalry with another student who has no talent for engineering but memorizes the textbooks and sucks up to teachers.

3 Idiots is more of a mix of different genres and styles than a typical Hollywood film, which takes a little getting used to. There’s a rather good review on Amazon that covers it better than I could, I think:

Indian film […] is kitchen sink filmmaking, throwing together themes and plots from many diverse genres to create tales of epic scope (this one is nearly three hours long). These sagas whipsaw the viewer back and forth from farcical parody to ghastly tragedy to musical fantasy to weepy melodrama to toilet humor to social protest to romantic comedy. The plots are frequently Byzantine in their complexity and the characters hopelessly unrealistic. As in the Hindu epic Ramayana, they are better thought of as caricatures of love, wisdom, heroism, foolishness, envy, ambition, and other traits.

Though the ride can be dizzying (and the balance between the wacky hijinks of the friends and the serious social commentary embedded in the story results in some nasty cases of mood whiplash at several points), the result is a film that is both funny and moving, and yes, occasionally ridiculous. (The birth scene!!! o_O) The actors seemed like they were having a lot of fun, which always helps with a film like this, and although I was initially kind of side-eyeing the attempt to pass 40-something Aamir Khan (who also starred in my previous foray into Bollywood: Lagaan) off as a college student, I have to admit he’s a really enjoyable actor to watch and he did a great job with the role of Rancho.

Something that struck me watching Khan’s performance was how whole-heartedly he threw himself into the role. It’s possible this is common in Indian film-making (my limited experience with Bollywood films makes it hard to judge) but I have a hard time picturing a Hollywood star of Khan’s caliber allowing himself to appear as ridiculous as Khan does at many points in this film, unless he’s specifically a comedian like Robin Williams or Adam Sandler. Aamir Khan is one of the biggest stars in India, with many “serious” roles under his belt, yet here he is, bugging out his eyes and waggling his tongue like a 4 year old making faces! For example, the supremely silly (and ear-wormy) love song (mild spoilers):

To be honest, I kind of liked it. Some Hollywood stars guard their dignity a little TOO closely and end up just playing the same role over and over because they’re too scared to leave their comfort zone. I prefer a little more versatility.

Based on this film, I’m also guessing that Indian culture doesn’t have nearly as big a taboo against grown men crying as American culture (unfortunately) does – I lost count of how many times Khan and his co-stars teared up with sadness, joy, and everything in between. Again, it was kind of refreshing – men should be able to cry without being branded sissies or wimps.

My rating: (3.5 / 5)

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From Time To Time Movie Review



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Review:

This movie was advertised as a family film on Netflix, but my seven year old daughter didn’t get much out of it and we sent her to bed partway through. I think it would probably be better suited to somewhat older children – maybe 10 or 12.

My husband and I thought it was enjoyable, but not as good as its cast. From Time To Time is one of those films that’s like a game of “Who’s The Great British Character Actor?” It’s got the goddess Maggie Smith, Timothy Spall of Harry Potter, Dominic West of The Wire, Carice van Houten of Game of Thrones (I know, I know, Dutch, not British), Hugh Bonneville of Downton Abbey, Allen Leach of Rome, Harriet Walter of Sense and Sensibility, and more. Unfortunately, none of them were really given a whole lot to do.

The screenplay was written by Julian Fellowes, who also wrote Downton Abbey, Gosford Park, and other favorites of me and my husband, and based on the novel The Chimneys of Green Knowe (aka Treasure of Green Knowe). The main storyline is set in World War II Britain and follows a boy sent to live with his grandmother (Smith) at his family’s ancestral home in the countryside. On his very first night, he bumps into the ghost of one of his Regency-era relatives and soon realizes that he can travel between his own time and hers. When he discovers that his grandmother is struggling financially and may soon be forced to sell the estate, he uses his time travel ability to solve the mystery of some priceless jewels stolen from the ghost’s mother nearly 150 years earlier.

The blending of modern and Regency eras to solve a mystery from the past reminded me somewhat of Arcadia (complete with house fire), but without the play’s brilliant wit. Though Maggie Smith had a few good lines, none were as memorable as her other Julian Fellowes roles, as the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey and Countess of Trentham in Gosford Park. The ending may also be a bit of a downer for some children.

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My rating: (2.5 / 5)

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The Hundred-Foot Journey Movie Review



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Review:

This film doesn’t have a lot of depth or originality, but it’s a charming, feel-good story about an Indian family who opens a restaurant in rural France and it’s helped substantially by good performances, particularly by Helen Mirren, in a role reminiscent of her Oscar-nominated performance as Mrs. Wilson in Gosford Park, and veteran Indian actor Om Puri. The cinematography is also top-notch, with many beautiful shots of the French countryside and mouth-watering shots of various dishes and ingredients, French and Indian alike. Don’t watch this movie if you’re hungry!

My rating: (3 / 5)

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Battlestar Galactica: Razor Review



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Review:

As I mentioned in my Battlestar Galactica season two review, the Battlestar Pegasus arc is one of my favorites in the entire series, so I was really happy when I heard that they were going to make a movie about the Pegasus and her crew.

Pegasus’s story is told through a series of flashbacks from the point of view of Kendra Shaw (Stephanie Jacobsen), one of Pegasus’s officers under Admiral Cain, and interspersed with scenes after Lee Adama names Shaw his XO when he takes command of Pegasus. Jacobsen does a fantastic job with her role, and there’s lots of great material with Cain and Gina in the flashbacks, and lots of good stuff with Starbuck (among others) in the later scenes, so I enjoyed the movie a lot and definitely recommend it for fans of the show. Despite the fact that you already know the outlines of Pegasus’s story (assuming you’ve watched season two, of course), the acting is so compelling that it draws you in and makes the actions undertaken by Cain and her crew in the aftermath of the attack on the 12 Colonies shocking even though you already know they’re going to happen. Razor also includes flashbacks from Adama’s backstory as a young pilot in the First Cylon War, when he stumbled on some gruesome early experiments with making humanoid cylons.

When should you watch Razor?

The movie was released in between seasons three and four, but takes place chronologically in season two, after “The Captain’s Hand.” There are no spoilers for season three in the movie, so personally I’d recommend watching it between seasons two and three, closer to where it fits chronologically. The only caveat is that some fans feel that a few lines of dialogue at the very end of the film suit the tone of season four better than that of season three, and may affect your impression of season three if you watch it first. If you’re concerned about this, fan Thunderpeel2001 has advice for how to skip those few lines.

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My rating: (3.5 / 5)

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Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India Movie Review



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Review:

I’ve seen a few Westernized Indian movies, like Bride and Prejudice and Monsoon Wedding, but Lagaan was my first experience with a real Bollywood film. I think it was a pretty lucky first choice.

The main plot of Lagaan revolves around a poor farming village in 19th century India, which is stricken by a horrific drought and unable to pay the taxes (lagaan) it owes to the British Raj. The hero, Bhuvan (Aamir Khan), makes a bet with the arrogant and cruel officer in charge of collecting the tax that if the villagers can beat the British in a game of cricket, their debt will be forgiven. But if they lose, their tax will be increased by three times.

What follows is good old-fashioned, feel-good fun. Although I’m not much of a sports fan and know almost nothing about cricket, I found it easy to get swept up in the film’s story, and it rarely lagged despite clocking in at nearly 4 hours of running time.

You always hear about Bollywood’s fantastic music and dance numbers, and several of the dances in Lagaan blew me away with how good they were. My favorite was Radha Kaise Na Jale:

Since there’s no subtitles in this copy of the clip, here’s what’s going on: Gauri (Gracy Singh) is in love with Bhuvan but fears he is falling in love with a British woman who has taken pity on the villagers and is coaching them at cricket. During a religious celebration in their village, Bhuvan and Gauri re-enact a ceremonial dance for the villagers (and the British woman) about a goddess (Radha) jealous of her flirtatious lover (Krishna), while Krishna tries to reassure her that his heart belongs only to her. Of course, there’s a double meaning in every line and gesture.

Great film! I highly recommend it.

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My rating: (4 / 5)

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A Royal Affair Movie Review



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Review:

Winston Churchill once said, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried.” A Royal Affair is the sort of movie that reminds you how right he was.

As frustrating as democracy can sometimes be, imagine what it might be like to try and enact any sort of meaningful reform or change in a country ruled by a king who is weak-willed, unstable, and quite possibly insane. Add in entrenched conservative interests such as a powerful Church and aristocracy, and an uneducated and superstitious populace, and you have the unenviable task taken on by Johann Struensee, an ambitious but idealistic commoner who rose to become the de facto regent of Denmark after becoming the personal physician of King Christian VII. Along the way, Struensee also become the lover of Christian’s queen, Caroline Matilda of Great Britain (sister of the hapless King George III, who had his own share of mental problems later in life), which proved the catalyst for his ultimate downfall.

Speaking of helpful reminders, this film is also a pretty good reminder of how much life sucked for the average princess, historically. Caroline is shipped off to a foreign country at the age of 15, her friends and family taken from her, even her beloved books sent back to England due to Denmark’s harsh censorship laws. Married to the aforementioned unstable and possibly insane king, she is all but raped on her wedding night, gives birth at the age of 16, and is left neglected and bored in the palace while he goes off for tours of Europe and wild nights with prostitutes. One can hardly blame her for seeking solace in Struensee’s arms, but the laws of her own time were not so forgiving.

The story of their doomed romance and efforts at reform is beautifully shot, sumptuously costumed (especially given the film’s relatively small budget), and very well acted. Mads Mikkelsen as Struensee and Alicia Vikander as Caroline Matilda have good chemistry together and really make you feel for both characters. I was also impressed by the performance of Mikkel Boe Følsgaard as the unstable but well-meaning Christian. Christian and Struensee’s relationship lacked the UST of Caroline and Struensee’s, but was more complex and ultimately more interesting. It was as sad to watch their friendship fall apart as the more dramatic and involuntary severing of Caroline and Struensee’s relationship.

One minor disappointment – if Wikipedia is to be believed, the real Caroline had a penchant for wearing men’s clothes in public, which scandalized the nation as much as, if not more than, her affair with Streunsee. Although Struensee encourages the film Caroline to ride astride, rather than sidesaddle, there’s no other indication of her cross-dressing habit, which is a pity, really. The real Christian was also notable for affairs with young men, though his most long-lasting and famous extramarital liaison was with a female prostitute.

Despite these and some other emissions and changes, the film overall seems unusually historically accurate for a movie (readers with more extensive knowledge of Danish history are welcome to correct me if this impression is incorrect), yet its accuracy comes without sacrificing good storytelling. Highly recommended.

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My rating: (4 / 5)

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First Position Movie Review



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Review:

After several years without it, I decided to sign up for Netflix again a few days ago. The first full movie I watched was First Position, a ballet documentary that popped up on my recommendation list. When I noticed the date, I was a little surprised that I’d never heard of it before, as I love dance and watch lots of movies and documentaries about various forms of it, but I clicked play and quickly made up for lost time!

First Position is a well-made and interesting documentary that gives a good feel for the lives of the young dancers it portrays. As someone who studied ballet for many years myself, I didn’t learn as much as I did with something like, for example, Jig. As a result, my attention wandered during some parts because I already know stuff like how hideous ballerina’s feet are and how much many of them actually eat. However, my personal experience had advantages as well. With Jig, I could be impressed by the speed and rhythm of Joe Bitter’s set dance without fully understanding what I was seeing. With First Position, I knew exactly what I was seeing in performances such as 12 year old Miko Fogarty’s variation on Don Quixote, and why these kids were so amazing.

The documentary follows a good mix of kids and teenagers of various ages and backgrounds and makes you care about them and feel for the incredible sacrifices they and their families have made to pursue their dreams. To paraphrase Baryshnikov, most of them don’t just love to dance, they need to dance, and their innate passion and talent has driven them to incredible heights for their age. Miko Fogarty and Aran Bell in particular amazed me, since I was still studying ballet myself at ages 11 and 12 (I quit at 16) and could really compare what I was capable of doing at that age to what they were. (Needless to say, they were miles ahead.)

Because the movie was filmed back in 2010, several of the older dancers have since gone on to professional careers, including the Columbian Joan Sebastian Zamora (pictured on the cover), who currently dances with the English National Ballet, and the girl from Sierra Leone, Michaela dePrince, who is currently dancing with the Dutch National Ballet. First Position’s Facebook page also recently announced that Aran Bell, now 15, will be dancing with the American Ballet Theater’s studio company this season, and Miko Fogarty (now 16) also seems to be keeping busy with both studying and performing, if her Facebook page is any indication.

If you love ballet or want to learn more about it, you’ll love this documentary!

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My rating: (3.5 / 5)

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The Emperor’s New Groove Movie Review



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Review:

My second favorite of Disney’s (otherwise pretty mediocre) offerings of the early nolls. (Lilo & Stitch is #1.)

Like Lilo & Stitch, The Emperor’s New Groove is not a “typical” Disney film, which I think has led to it being overlooked and underappreciated by many Disney fans, and by Disney itself. There’s no beautiful heroine or charming prince, no significant romance, and no singing. In fact, the titular emperor, Kuzco (voiced by David Spade), who rules over a land that appears loosely based on the Incan empire, is probably Disney’s least likable hero ever. He’s spoiled, selfish, bratty, and vain. He’s so unlikable that it’s hard to care that much about his ultimate redemption, which is probably the biggest flaw of the film.

At least his sharp, sarcastic, and often downright nasty wit is good for plenty of laughs. In fact, the film is probably Disney’s funniest animated feature thanks to its generous blend of witty dialogue, sight gags, and tongue-in-cheek asides (it breaks the fourth wall more than any Disney movie since George of the Jungle.)

It also benefits from a host of great supporting characters, including one of my favorite Disney villains: Kuzco’s advisor Yzma, spectacularly voiced by the late, great Eartha Kitt. Yzma is an even more unpleasant piece of work than her boss, which says a lot, but like Kuzco, she’s also hilarious. Many of her best moments come in interactions with her big, dumb bodyguard/henchman Kronk, the film’s most memorable character thanks to his unexpectedly diverse skillset (he’s a master chef! he speaks squirrel! he studied interpretive dance!) and repeated conversations with the angel and devil that live on his shoulders. I also love the interactions between the kind-hearted peasant, Pacha, and his clever and outspoken wife Chicha – one of Disney’s best married couples.

The plot itself is a somewhat thin and predictable buddy comedy, but the fun characters and mile-a-minute laughs make The Emperor’s New Groove a pretty enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes of your life.

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My rating: (3.5 / 5)

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Sleeping Beauty Movie Review



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Review:

Sleeping Beauty was my favorite Disney movie when I was a young girl, but it later got superseded by Aladdin and I didn’t see it for many years. Then I watched it again in college, for the first time since elementary school, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that it held up really well. Today, it’s back among my favorite Disney movies.

Why do I like it?

  • The animation is stunning – very stylized-looking and unique.
  • The music is some of the best ever – it’s Tchaikovsky, after all.
  • Prince Philip is quite the hottie – the best of the early Disney princes by far.
  • Aurora is kind of annoying, but not nearly as insufferable as, say, Snow White.
  • The three good fairies are funny, as are Aurora and Philip’s fathers and Samson the horse.
  • Malificent is the most terrifying and awesome Disney villain ever.

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