Monday, December 31, 2012

My favorite movies of 2012

I've seen more movies in the theater in the past 17 years than anyone I know who isn't a professional film critic. I have every ticket stub since a Saturday afternoon show of "Pulp Fiction" in January 1995. Last time I counted all of them, which was about a year ago, I had just over 900 stubs in my collection.

But the past couple years have been different -- I don't like going to the movies as much as I used to, thanks mostly to the behavior of my fellow moviegoers. But there are other factors: I no longer live two minutes from my favorite theater, I have to be smarter with my money, and, the best reason of all, I'm not such a lonely bastard anymore. (Suddenly, spending time with my live-in girlfriend and our dog seems better than going to see "Jack Reacher," you know?)

I've kept a movie diary of sorts every year since I graduated college; a complete rundown of every movie I've seen, whether I saw it in the theater or at home, and how many stars I'd give it. In 2006, I saw 93 new movies -- that's 93 movies actually released in 2006. I saw 49 of those in a theater.

This year, I am almost embarrassed to say I saw only 28 movies (17 in the theater). In this time of year-end roundups, I keep reading things that say 2012 is the best year for movies since 1999, a magical year that gave us "Magnolia," "The Matrix," "American Beauty," "Three Kings," "Run Lola Run," "The Sixth Sense," "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut" and approximately 11 billion other great, iconic and groundbreaking movies. Hopefully I'll catch up with enough movies in the next few months on Netflix and such to find out if I agree with that statement.

But for now, I can only report on the 28 films I've seen. I'd feel silly making a ranked top-ten list from such a small sample size, so I'll instead list the handful of great and almost-great movies I saw in the last 12 months, alphabetically. Here we go:


"Cloud Atlas," directed by Andy & Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer -- Six stories set in six different time periods. The same actors appear in all six stories as different characters, and sometimes those characters are a different race or gender than the actor playing them. One story has Tom Hanks and Halle Berry speaking in broken English for its entirety. One has Hugo Weaving as an enormous female nurse. Oh, and all of these stories and characters are connected in some way. If this sounds like too much, it is -- and that's why I love this movie. Adapting David Mitchell's novel of the same name was thought to be impossible, and many viewers of "Cloud Atlas" insist that it remains to be. But if you allow it, "Cloud Atlas" will sweep you away with its audacity. It is by turns warm, cold, funny, tragic, small, large, hopeful, awe-inspiring and even confounding. It is the kind of movie I hope to see every year. (Available on Blu-ray/DVD Feb. 5)

"Looper," d. Rian Johnson -- Movies rarely surprise me anymore. "Looper" did, multiple times. (There were even some gasps involved.) Johnson wrote the ingenious screenplay built upon this basic premise: In the future, mobsters use time travel to dispose of bodies. They send a mark back 30 years, where a hitman called a 'looper' is waiting with a shotgun. One day, a looper (Joseph Gordon Levitt) hesitates to pull the trigger when his mark turns out to be the future version of himself (Bruce Willis). That's all I knew about the plot before watching "Looper" earlier today, and that's all I think you should know. I'm getting all giddy again just thinking about it. What a great year for sci-fi fans! (Available now on demand and Blu-ray/DVD)

"Moonrise Kingdom," d. Wes Anderson -- Here it is, the film Anderson's entire career has been building toward. All of his quirks and trademarks mesh in this tale of two 12-year-olds who run away together on an island in New England. Anderson's visual aesthetic -- which has always reminded me of a living illustration from a children's book -- fits this story perfectly, and the romance between the two young leads (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward) is a wistful dream; it feels like something I've always dreamed of, even if I didn't know I had. And of course it's very funny, especially when Jason Schwartzman shows up near the end of the picture. (Available now on demand and Blu-ray/DVD)


"The Cabin in the Woods," d. Drew Goddard -- The less said about this movie, the better; its third act is even more surprising than "Looper," though I don't think the rest of the movie holds up quite as well upon reflection. (But maybe it doesn't have to.) Co-written and produced by Joss Whedon, "Cabin in the Woods" sat on a shelf for three years when MGM went bankrupt and was dumped into theaters in April just weeks before Whedon would conquer the world with "The Avengers." If you are a horror fan, you have to see this -- just don't bail in the first few minutes because you think you're watching the wrong movie. (Available now on demand and Blu-ray/DVD)

"The Dark Knight Rises," d. Christopher Nolan -- I don't want to hear about the plot holes. The plot holes don't matter. What matters is that Nolan injected emotion into the mythic, monumental third act of his Batman trilogy, and an ending that sent me out of the theater with a gigantic smile on my face. I could watch those last five minutes over and over again. (Available now on demand and Blu-ray/DVD)

"Django Unchained," d. Quentin Tarantino -- The most brutal film of Tarantino's career, by far. (And this is the guy that made "Kill Bill.") Gory, unsettling and provocative, "Django" shows us the true horror of slavery in graphic detail, but also revels in its ballet of bloodshed. It's almost like a feature-length extension of "Inglourious Basterds'" final sequence, in which we cheer the deaths of a theater full of people who were cheering the deaths of the people they were watching on a theater screen. (Got that?) The racial politics of and in this movie are tricky, and could probably inspire one hell of a film-school term paper -- and some heated arguments between moviegoers. While not as purely entertaining as some of QT's other works, this could, over time, prove to be his most important. We shall see. (In theaters now)

"The Grey," d. Joe Carnahan --It was advertised as "Liam Neeson Kills Wolves." It's actually a dead-serious, sometimes thoughtful, always intriguing tale of survival. Neeson does some of his career-best work as a hunter working for an Alaska oil company who attempts to lead his co-workers to salvation after their plane crashes in the wild. Not everything that happens in this movie is plausible, but the well-written characters go a long way in selling it -- there are some absolutely devastating scenes along the way to its divisive ending. (Available now on demand, streaming on Netflix, and on Blu-ray/DVD)

THE BEST OF THE REST: "Argo." "Bernie." "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." "Seven Psychopaths." "Wreck-it Ralph." And most of "Prometheus," the most baffling and frustrating movie of the year. (But that's another post for another time.)

Those are my picks. What say you?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

RANK IT: My favorite attractions

"RANK IT" will be a regular feature, because every darn blog in the universe needs to have such a thing. (It's in the rulebook. What, you don't have a copy?)

I'm new to the parks blogosphere, so it's only natural that I introduce myself by telling you about my favorite Disney attractions. Mind you, I've never left this hemisphere, so you'll only see attractions from Anaheim and Orlando listed here.

So here we go!

1. Haunted Mansion (Magic Kingdom) -- The songs. The sounds. The smells. And of course the sights. This is Disney's masterpiece, a not-so-scary spookhouse whose old-fashioned visual tricks still impress. The Disneyland version is wonderful -- as is its controversial holiday overlay -- but the ghosts in Florida enjoy a grander facade, a grander queue, and an unparallelled experience in the realm of themed attractions.

2. Space Mountain (Disneyland) -- Every time I'm in line for this ride, I will inevitably at some point jump up and down like an excited child. I just can't help it. The idea behind Space Mountain is so simple, and executed so perfectly; how has it not been replicated by any other theme park company anywhere else in the world? The Magic Kingdom's queue is better, and the track layout is more exciting if you like your coasters to be a little rickety -- but the overall experience shines at Disneyland. (Big ups to Michael Giacchino's music. Is there anything he can't do?)

3. Jungle Cruise (Magic Kingdom) -- I love this ride because it looks like the coolest job in the world, even if the skippers keep insisting it's not. The MK version wins thanks to the dark temple scene, which, on one of my recent trips, gave one skipper a chance to "create some magic" for a young guest and let him man the wheel.

4. Horizons (Epcot) -- Yes, it really was that amazing. I would have been perfectly content to ride this over and over and over again every time I went to Epcot. I was very sad to see it go, but I also understand why it's not there anymore; it would have required a rather large refurbishment to keep up with our changing expectations of the future. All my favorite stuff, though, could have stayed put: the visions of the future by those living in the past. That cavernous display of neon signs, highways and cars; Jules Verne floating in his space capsule; the crazy kitchen robot ... that's Epcot at its best.

5. Pirates of the Caribbean (Disneyland) -- I feel like it's all been said about this attraction. I'll just add that nothing beats the atmosphere of the first five minutes as you float by the Blue Bayou and into the ominous blue caverns.

6. Star Tours: The Adventures Continue (Disneyland) --Hey, George Lucas got something right! I still haven't seen the pod racing sequence, but I hope to correct that in February. (I hope to be the Rebel Spy, too, but beggars can't be choosers.) I will never forget my first ride on the original incarnation: As Rex took us into the trench and exclaimed, "I've always wanted to do this," my then-41-year-old father yelled, "ME TOO!"

7. Journey Into Imagination (Epcot) -- Horizons aimed higher and was more impressive, but the original Journey Into Imagination left a bigger void. The current incarnation of the ride isn't the worst thing in the world, but it certainly suffers as a reminder of what once was.

8. Spaceship Earth (Epcot) -- We all know how great this ride is, but not all of us like the current ending. It may be tonally jarring, but I can't deny that every guest leaves that ride with a smile on his or her face because of it.

9. Indiana Jones Adventure (Disneyland) -- I did not see this until 2007, so happily I can't bore you with musings about how much better it was when it first opened. It seemed pretty darn perfect to me that first time. I honestly couldn't believe the size and scale of it, the details, the perfectly timed music, the breakneck pace ... it totally lived up to my wildest dreams of what an Indy ride could be. When that boulder came rolling toward us and our vehicle suddenly lurched underneath it, the whole EMV erupted in applause. Something tells me that happens a lot.

10. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (California Adventure) -- That's right, I prefer the shortened DCA version of this ride, mostly because it's the first one I experienced. I prefer the pop of that first drop, too, coming right after you see the ghostly elevator drop out of your view.

Those are my ten, and they're not very surprising, are they? (Some others I considered: The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Undersea Adventure; Mr. Toad's Wild Ride; Mickey's Philharmagic; Matterhorn Bobsleds; the original Test Track.) What are some offbeat or unloved attractions that you value more than any of these? Let's hear it.

Friday, December 14, 2012

TRON's last chance?

When The Hollywood Reporter broke the news last week of Disney moving forward on a "TRON: Legacy" sequel, I was honestly shocked. The 2010 film was a very big, very expensive gamble for Walt Disney Pictures. Though a $400 million worldwide gross seems to indicate a solid hit, there aren't too many people in the industry or the movie blogosphere who honestly believe the picture only cost $170 million to make. (Hah. Only.) Then you throw in the marketing costs, which were obviously substantial -- honestly, had you ever imagined the TRON brand being as visible, as all-encompassing as it was in the last few months before "Legacy" dropped?

Given TRON's potential value as a long-term franchise that would appeal to males, Disney was counting on this improbable sequel to be among the highest-grossing movies of 2010. Here in North America, it just barely squeaked past the Coen brothers' remake of "True Grit" for the No. 12 spot. (Thanks, 3D IMAX!) The critical reception was generally better than you probably think it was, and all of those positive reviews basically said the same thing: It looks great. It sounds great. But it's often dull and dumb, and the Clu head-replacement gag doesn't quite work. I love the movie and have seen it 15 times or more, and I generally agree with those statements.

"TRON: Legacy" didn't leave a huge impression on many people aside from the already-converted, but it did sell a lot of soundtrack CDs and downloads -- and it probably helped Best Buy sell some 60-inch 3D TV sets. The "TRON: Uprising" animated series elicited oohs and aahs from the hardcores, but has already been doomed to a midnight time-slot on Disney XD. Until last week's news broke, I assumed my dreams of a "TRON 3," a TRON attraction at Disneyland and another album of incredible music by Daft Punk had been dashed.

But Walt Disney Pictures' new chairman, Alan Horn, isn't ready to give up on Flynn and friends. "TRON 3" has a new writer named Jesse Wigutow and at least one star on board. The no-name writer of the Michael & Kirk Douglas weepy "It Runs in the Family" and the rather bland presence of Garrett Hedlund (Sam Flynn) don't exactly inspire confidence, but I'm not going to refuse a third TRON movie under any circumstances.

What can we expect from this new movie? One can reasonably assume that Disney doesn't want to spend quite as much on "TRON 3" as they did on "TRON: Legacy," which could put most of the movie's action in the real world (also known as a studio backlot). Lucky for them, Sam and Quorra (Olivia Wilde) escaped The Grid at the end of the second movie, and there's already a potential villain waiting for them in the form of Edward Dillinger Jr. (Cillian Murphy). Will Jeff Bridges return as Kevin Flynn? Probably, but I bet we won't see him until the last 10 minutes of the movie.

We can also expect the screenplay to stick to the current blockbuster playbook: Extravagant opening action scene. A villain out for revenge who gets captured halfway through the movie, only to escape and up the stakes. Lots of explosions. An ending that wraps things up but teases another sequel.

But forget expectations; what do we want? I can think of a few things:

• A TRON movie that actually gives TRON (Bruce Boxleitner) a big role would be nice.

• More focus on Quorra. Wilde did everything she could to inject life into a movie that needed it, and a more substantial role for her in "TRON 3" would definitely help the movie and would almost certainly vault her into the superstardom she deserves -- assuming the movie is well-received.

• The Grid bleeding into the real world. I want to see blue and orange trails taking out Priuses on the San Diego Freeway. I want to see a Recognizer floating over Graumann's Chinese Theater.

• A real sense of danger. Maybe you kill off a main character halfway through. (Like Sam!)

• Small parts for Cindy Morgan and Dan Shor.

• Better dialogue. (Is that asking too much?)

Hopefully "TRON 3" (or "TRON: Revenge," or "TRON: Clu Rises," or "TRON: Dark Grid" or whatever) is a huge success, and ten years from now we'll all be lining up to ride a lightcycle at Magic Kingdom. Until then, I guess Test Track 2.0 will do!

What do you want from a new TRON movie?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

To all who come to this angry place...


If you're here, it's most likely because you follow me on Twitter, a place where I've had a lot of fun and met a lot of great people -- 673 so far, to be exact!

Most of you don't know why I call myself @AngryDisneyNerd, or who I am, or anything about me other than my love of the Disney parks, film music, and @LostOnTheFringe.

A little less than a year ago, I was a total pixie-duster -- the kind of Disney fan who thought The Mouse could do no wrong, and who couldn't stand to read any criticism of the parks and the way they are managed. The legion of critical MiceChatters and tweeters whipped me up into such a fury that I started @AngryDisneyNerd specifically to lampoon the people I deemed to be Disney haters. My entire Twitter persona was sarcastic, mean-spirited, and altogether unpleasant.

This got really old. Quickly.

I realized my shtick was tiresome around the time I called Michael Crawford (@ProgressCityUSA) a "Disney-hater" on Twitter. Anyone in this fan community with half a brain knows that's completely wrong. I decided it was time to stop being annoying and start being me -- a sometimes bitchy but always enthusiastic Disney fan who loves way bigger than he hates.

So the persona changed, but the name didn't. I thought about changing it to @HappyDisneyNerd, or @NotAngryDisneyNerd, but ultimately I decided that I should own up to my faults and keep the name. It reminds me of the annoying guy I can be and the even more annoying guy I used to be. I don't wanna be that guy, but I have to own up to it.

So who am I, anyway?

I'm Sean, a lifelong nerd who lives in the Chicago suburbs and works as a copy editor and designer. My Disney nerdery is hereditary -- my parents love the Disney parks even more than I do. This past October, they went on their 29th trip to Walt Disney World (their 36th Disney Parks trip overall). A family friend once joked that I was conceived on Pirates of the Caribbean, and I can't deny that it's a possibility. (I've never really asked them about that special night, you know?) Nearly every conversation with my family comes back to Disney somehow. One of my sisters worked at Epcot as part of the WDW College Program, and I was supposed to go myself -- on Sept. 12, 2001. The events of the previous day kept me home, and I wound up getting a full-time job with the company where I interned that summer.

My life was park-free from 1994-2007. In that period, I went to Las Vegas for the first time and thought, "Well, who needs Disney?!?!" But when I made my triumphant return to Disneyland in January 2007, the mania came rushing back, and it's been full-steam ahead ever since.

Why do I love the Disney parks so much? The sounds. The smells. The laughs. The anticipation. The people. The bad jokes on the Jungle Cruise. The realization that yes, you actually are going to ride Space Mountain today. The odor of the Harbor House's food when you exit Haunted Mansion. The finale of Hallowishes. The cream cheese-filled pretzels. The ghostly caves underneath New Orleans Square. The ferry ride to Magic Kingdom. The smiles of all those kids riding their first roller coaster. The cast members who say "Happy birthday, Sean" as I walk by. The guests at Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party who wore DHARMA Initiative jumpsuits while riding Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. The day my best friend got his "My First Visit" button. The day my girlfriend got her "My First Visit" button. The day I shared a kiss with that special lady during World of Color. The days I shared with my parents, my sister and my co-worker at the Food & Wine Festival. The day my sisters and I held hands as we walked out of the park as my mother took our picture. The first, perfect ride on Star Tours in 1988. And so on and so on.

I expect the best of Disney, and I want to believe they will deliver the best. I've been to Universal Orlando, and they do have some wonderful rides, but nothing touches the atmosphere that Disney can create. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey may be the best theme park ride in the world, but only Space Mountain makes me jump up and down with the giddy energy of a 7-year-old.

Am I angry? Sometimes. But mostly I'm a smiling, laughing, hopelessly idealistic nerd. And this is my blog. Hopefully you'll like it.