Friday, December 19, 2014

Decembrion Invictus (part 1)

And lo, there came a time when there were only seven more work days remaining in all the year, and two of those were likely to be foreshortened by the generosity of the timekeepers, and thus the looking back upon the year entire must needs be done, anon.

Yes, with praise and libations for the god of top ten lists, it's time for me to shout out to a nice round number's worth of stuff that occupied my attention one way or another this year. As always in no particular order, here are (the first half of) my own personal Top Ten Points of Pop Culture for 2014.

1. Best moviegoing format I tried for the first time: IMAX 3D. I went to the movie theater seven times this year (and, knock on wood, should make an eighth trip tomorrow night) and as usual it was always justified in my mind by the sheer spectacle of the movie in question. So there were the sword and sandal epics I saw with my wife (Pompeii and Hercules), the comic book blockbusters I saw with my buddies (Amazing Spider-Man 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past and Guardians of the Galaxy), and some cute little cartoon I took my two older kids to (Frozen). The format of each movie was generally dictated by the people I went to the theater with. My wife gets a bit motion sick so 3D is actively unpleasant for her, and I didn't think either of my kids would be able to keep the glasses on for two hours. For the superhero flicks, it was usually more a question of coordinating schedules, and if the 3D showtime worked better, great, and if not, no worries.

So one of my buddies and I went to see Amazing Spider-Man 2 in IMAX 3D because of exactly those kind of scheduling concerns, and it was the first time either of us had ever seen any movie in that format. To be fair, that was pretty much the only new format I tried this year, so it was basically a lock going in to be the best, and I did enjoy the immersive experience. But really I just wanted to acknowledge how my buddy and I were cracking up even before the movie started, during the in-house promo hype for IMAX 3D itself, which to our ears sounded pretty much like: "PREPARE YOURSELF ... TO HAVE YOUR MIND BLOWN ... AND YOUR SPINE INVERTED ... SO IT COMES OUT YOUR BUTT LIKE A PARTY NOISEMAKER!!!" We did not find the format quite so life-altering as they had promised. But it was fine.

2. Best delayed payoff for a joke: Eleven months between Parks and Recreation season 6 episode 1 and Guardians of the Galaxy. Way back when the sixth season of Parks and Recreation got underway, in September of 2013, I was looking forward to a Marvel movie that would come out the following year with a weirdly near-delirious anticipation. After building a cinematic universe out of several films which only seemed to keep getting better and better, featuring major, recognizable characters that had been utilized in media other than comics since back when the Baby Boomers were watching Saturday morning cartoons, the studio had announced a movie based on an obscure property set in the decidedly ungrounded realm of outer space. And I wasn't sure if the movie would end up being another bonafide hit or a little-loved oddity that proved you can't win 'em all, but I was excited they were willing to try and let the chips fall where they may. The fact that Marvel cast Chris Pratt as the lead hero Star-Lord only enticed me further, since I dug him a lot on Parks and Rec.

At any rate, by the time season 6 started, principal photography on Guardians of the Galaxy was already underway. Pratt was in the season opener, but at that point he had gotten pretty buff to play Star-Lord. He still wore the same doofy, unconstructed outfits as Andy, but even that couldn't hide his weight loss. And Parks and Rec lampshaded that simply by opening a scene with Andy in mid-conversation with Ben Wyatt, who was clarifying a point with some skepticism. "So you just stopped drinking beer?" he asked, and Andy admitted yeah, that was all he did, and he lost like 50 pounds. After a beat of silence he observed, "I was probably drinking way too much beer."

Knowing what little I knew about Guardians of the galaxy at that time, I loved this meta-joke. And then the next summer I actually got to see Guardians of the Galaxy, which was pretty much my favorite movie of the year, in and of itself. But the payoff of finally seeing what had been hidden under Andy's shirt made me laugh all over again, I admit.

3. Most likely candidate for future induction into the Christopher Lee Memorial Geek Icon Hall of Fame: Man, this one is really almost too close to call. But I suppose I should explain what I'm on about. A while back I blogged about my admiration for Christopher Lee, because he has fully inhabited and essentially become the real-world embodiment of so many hugely beloved fictional characters. He more or less is Saruman from Lord of the Rings. He's also Scaramanga from James Bond and Count Dooku from Star Wars and Dracula from the Hammer horror films. The man's a giant, partly because he's so talented and has such presence, and partly because his career has been so long.

Nowadays, though, they are cranking out adaptations of geek properties, and occasionally inventing new series of the same, so rapidly that lots of different actors seem to pop up again and again in potentially iconic roles. One f these days I'm going to get around to cataloging the performers who come closest to mirroring Christopher Lee's "man, that guy is everywhere" accomplishments.

It seems to help if your name is Chris! Chris Pratt had a phenomenal year in 2014, not only as Star-Lord but as the voice of Emmett from The LEGO Movie (I may have alluded to that flick in passing here or there). Both of those movies are going to get sequels, further cementing Pratt's association with the characters. I hear he's going to be in Jurassic World, too, and for that matter some people are lobbying for him to star in a reboot of Indiana Jones. But let's not get ahead of ourselves here. 2014 was pretty good to Chris Evans, too, since he got to turn in his third (or fourth, if you count the Thor 2 cameo in addition to Captain America and The Avengers, either way it's far from last) performance as Steve Rogers. Plus he led the revolt in Snowpiercer, a movie which might not sell a lot of action figures but I think stands a good chance of becoming a geek cult classic. I also got around to watching Danny Boyle's Sunshine this year, and Evans was really good in that, too; this may have inflated his presence in my mind when thinking back over 2014. And then of course there's Kit (real name Christopher, of course) Harrington, a.k.a. You Know Nuthin Jon Snow. He may not have set the world on fire with Pompeii (rimshot) (too soon?) but he also did the voice of Eret the dragon trapper in How to Train Your Dragon 2. (Once I pointed this out, Eret immediately became my wife's favorite character in the franchise.)

If your name is not Chris, it should be something badass like Scarlett. Scarlett Johansson was in a lot of good stuff this year, too, including Captain America: The Winter Soldier with a much-needed deepening of the Black Widow character, not to mention Luc Besson's Lucy (which I didn't see, because it looked fairly dumb, but a lot of people argued convincingly that that's really beside the point, so it may well wind up in the queue), and Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin (which I did see, and I guess I never blogged about; it's almost a conceptual opposite to Snowpiercer, a masterpiece of haunting minimalism rather than bombastic maximalism).

The point, belatedly, is that I felt like I spent a lot of time watching movies and tv shows this year with a lot of the same faces (or voices) popping up again and again, but I'm not complaining.

4. Biggest letdown: Horror of Dracula. OK, so I was singing Christopher Lee's praises as an iconic Dracula before I had ever, personally, technically, seen Horror of Dracula. But I was resolved to correct that oversight, and this year's Halloween countdown seemed like the perfect place to do so! I Netflixed the movie, I watched it on the train, and ... I was largely underwhelmed. Lee is an effective Count Dracula, don't get me wrong; Peter Cushing is pretty fantastic as Van Helsing, too, for that matter. But they can't elevate the movie overall.

For one thing, Hammer Films have a somewhat outsized reputation for being garishly lurid spectacles, and I found Horror of Dracula to be about as square as you'd expect a vampire movie from 1958 to be. I do understand that Horror of Dracula was one of the very first Hammer Horror productions, and the reputation for boundary-pushing gruesomeness and titillation came about as a cumulative effect; they had to start somewhere, and go crazier and crazier from there. But still.

The other problem I had with Horror of Dracula was that it made some significant changes to the underlying source material, all of which were either strangely arbitrary or fundamentally altered the ideas of Dracula to the movie's detriment. I ended up not blogging about Horror of Dracula in October at all, because it took me longer to process my disappointment than if I had loved it immediately. Maybe next year I'll delve a little deeper into just how misguided an adaptation I found it to be.

5. Best comic series I finally got around to reading: Saga by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples. I'm pretty sure the last time I mentioned the series Saga it was to passingly note that I had never read it, but my dad was into it, and one of these days I was going to have to borrow it from him. This spring I did, and it more than lived up to its reputation as imaginative and perfectly executed and unlike anything else out there. It's not exactly science-fiction, not exactly fantasy, not exactly romance, not exactly political intrigue, not exactly anything, and yet all of those things at once and a few other genres we don't have words for in English. I read other comics for the first time this year (Neil Gaiman's old Black Orchid mini-series, and the first volume of seminal Japanese manga Ghost in the Shell) but Saga is the one I was most kicking myself for after dragging my feet about hopping on.

Ahem. With all due respect to ghosts who cannot kick themselves and do not, per se, have feet.

OK, so next week I will cover the back half of 2014 In Review, which amazingly should manage to get into some topics that have nothing to do with comic book movie franchises!

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