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It’s Up On The Shelf’s seventh anniversary, yaaaaay!
I never imagined the blog would come this far or have the loyal band of readers like you. Thanks for sticking around for so long! I understand some of you are disappointed by the lack of updates or movie reviews (believe me I miss them too, but don’t have the time to get back to them just yet), so to mark the occasion I’m doing something a little bit different.
About ten years ago I got into the habit of documenting what movies I watch each month. It’s a fun way of tracking my taste in film, how many times I revisit favorites and mark new discoveries. To that effect, I put every movie I watched each month over the past year (2021) in a Randomizer, and came out with twelve mini spoiler-free reviews for you to take in. Some of these flicks are On The Shelf so consider them previews for when I eventually review them proper. Let’s get to it!
January: Solo: A Star Wars Story
Oh boy, first thing I look at and it’s something Star Wars, and a Disney-era Star Wars product at that. Time to put the comment section on approval-only mode.
Try getting through that, Fandom Menace!
Solo‘s tepid reception kept me away when it was in theaters. I didn’t check it out until my best friend and I got into the habit of FaceTiming/texting each other while streaming films together during lockdown. She hadn’t seen any of the new Star Wars movies and asked if we could watch this one. And after finally viewing it for myself, I can say with absolute certainty that it…
Just fine. It’s not amazing, nor is it a cinematic abomination. It’s not even the worst as far as Star Wars prequels go.
The acting is great all around, with the standout performances being Alden Ehrenreich and Donald Glover. Ehrenreich captures Harrison Ford’s cocky attitude and you can see how he could grow into the character we’re familiar with. Glover is perfect as young Lando Calrissian. He may not be in the film for long, but he’s got the charisma and cleverness of Billy Dee Williams down to a T. I understand why so many people are asking for a spinoff series about Lando’s misadventures between this and when we meet him in Empire Strikes Back. He’s cool, funny, and steals the movie. I even kind of enjoy the unusual relationship between him and his…droid-friend? I don’t know, it got weird towards the end, but I’m not against Lando being a robosexual. I’m not robophobic.
As for the story itself, there’s not much to write home about. It’s a prequel, meaning things that we’re familiar with have to be set up along with new elements to keep the proceedings interesting. Considering how much of Star Wars has bled into the cultural landscape, however, it’s easy to tell where some points are headed. Like, we all know it isn’t going to end well between Han and Daenerys (forgot her character’s actual name, sorry) because he eventually winds up with Leia. It’s common knowledge. What I do enjoy are the seeds planted that will lead to Han becoming the cynical badass we adore. I don’t hate the idea of Han being drafted into the Empire and deserting, or getting his start with a band of smugglers and climbing through the ranks, or seeing how he met Chewie and the details of the legendary Kessel Run brought to light. There’s even a hint towards the end that he’ll cross paths with Jabba next. Maybe that’s what disappointed fans so much; they expected one of cinema’s most iconic characters to have an intriguing, complicated past with unexpected twists and turns, but set their expectations too high (Just do what I do and turn to fanfiction; trust me, it’s not all shipping and terrible grammar).
I’ll always wonder what we could have gotten if Phil Lord and Chris Miller stayed on to direct instead of Ron Howard, but I don’t hold what we ended up with against either party. I’m more disappointed with the fact that its underwhelming box-office and critical performance means we probably won’t get to see the payoffs to the threads that were set up in this installment. Still, there’s enough great aspects that make it an above-average entry in the Star Wars saga. I’d say Solo worth watching at least once. Or, to be more accurate, it’s good for a “solo” viewing.
February: Legally Blonde
Shelf, do you like Legally Blonde?
Yes, it’s one of my favorite movies.
Why is it one of your favorite movies, Shelf?
The lines are instantly quotable, the acting is solid, the soundtrack is a cheerful playlist of early 2000s nostalgia, and Elle’s stereotype-defying journey of self-discovery, confidence and friendship makes it one of the most positive, clever, and entertaining feminist films ever put on screen.
Wow, it sounds perfect…it’s perfect, right? Zero flaws?
Well okay, having the only openly gay characters be a cliché angry man-hating lesbian and a flamboyant scheming Hispanic who gives himself away by being the only guy who can identify footwear brands is kind of annoying. That and Elle’s second love interest feels less like a fully-developed character and more like a prop to bolster her up when she needs it. The former is one of the few aspects that dates the movie and the latter is a nitpick, though, so it’s far from a deal-breaker.
You know, there’s a musical –
Yes, I KNOW, my cousin played Elle in a school production, and it’s pretty good. Just don’t start singing “Omigod You Guys”, I don’t need that earworm stuck in my head again.
How’s the sequel?
Like Bruno, we don’t talk about it.
Bruiser is best boy. That is all.
March: The Quiet Man
My father is a huge fan of John Ford, John Wayne, and Maureen O’Hara, so this movie gets shown a lot of love in our household around Saint Patrick’s Day. It’s a beautifully idealized depiction of Ireland populated by lovable character actors putting on the most over-the-top accents imaginable. The ultra-vibrant Technicolor gives it a dreamlike quality at times, bordering on surreal. In some ways, it’s like a half-remembered tale told through a nostalgic lens.
John Wayne plays an American returning to his Irish roots who falls in love with a spirited redheaded beauty (O’Hara). The thing is, her brother’s the local blowhard who likes to hash things out with his fists. Wayne refuses to fight him for reasons he won’t divulge, which poses a problem since this is a society where a man must defend his woman’s honor the old-fashioned way or be branded a coward.
As far as romantic comedies go, it’s considerably deeper than your average boy-meets-girl plot. I won’t spoil why Wayne won’t put up his dukes because it’s supposed to be an important revelation – one that my dad spoiled for me long before I even watched it for the first time. I remember going into it thinking it was something the characters and we the audience were supposed to be aware of, but nope! It’s a major emotional revelation whose impact was sorely dampened by loose lips. To its credit, the scene is extremely effective, and Wayne conveys so much horror and regret without saying a word.
So on the one hand, you’ve got an intriguing plot, gorgeous visuals, and some fine acting. On the other, moments where abuse is played for laughs, like Wayne dragging O’Hara like a rag doll over two country miles cheered on by the townsfolk, kind of puts my teeth on edge. The outdated views on a woman’s place, both how it’s depicted for the time the story is set in and when it was filmed, could easily rub viewers the wrong way today (and that’s without getting into the discourse surrounding Wayne’s aggressive conservatism in his lifetime). But much of that is intentionally invoked to showcase the culture clash between old-world Ireland and the comparatively enlightened modern American interloper as embodied by Wayne. In fact, how Wayne and O’Hara resolve their end of the conflict shows why they make such a great couple. And of course, the big fight the movie is building up to is loads of fun. So, you’re looking for a film more Irish than Darby O’Gill to watch next March, then consider a date with The Quiet Man.
April: A Very Potter Sequel
I, like so many others, discovered the magic of Team Starkid through its first production on Youtube, a simple yet rollicking parody of Harry Potter known as A Very Potter Musical. The songs were catchy, everyone onstage and off was clearly having a blast, nearly every joke hit its mark, the story successfully combined elements from the assorted books and movies into one coherent narrative – and it gave us more and better LGBT+ characters than anything JK Rowling ever wrote.
An act like that would be hard to top, so I had my doubts when Starkid announced they were following it up with a sequel. Anyone who knows their musical history knows that sequels to theatrical shows are 1) always pointless, since by design every loose thread is made to wrap up by curtain call, 2) always inferior to the first one because they try so damn hard to repeat its success and 3) guaranteed to be awful regardless. It didn’t help that Love Never Dies, the unwarranted Phantom sequel and epitome of these universal truths, came out around the same time this show did.
Fortunately, A Very Potter Sequel proved to be the exception to the rule. Believe me when I say this is the Toy Story 2 of Team Starkid’s shows. For one thing, the leap in visual and sound quality from A Very Potter Musical to AVPS is HUGE. The actors are properly micced and filmed with the best HD cameras you could afford in 2010 (which may not sound like much but the difference between the two shows are like night and day). The performance also incorporates elaborate choreography and puppetry, and even has some decent scenery this time around. Yet for all its budgetary upgrades, the show does not lose sight of its heart. There’s considerable focus on the friendships Harry forms and how he and several other characters learn to overcome the trauma of their pasts. Having the right balance between big laughs and tender revelations is a rare thing indeed, and when coupled with the music of Darren Criss (who also plays Harry), AVPS hits that sweet spot. Again, the songs are excellent, my favorites being the haunting lullaby “Those Voices” and “No Way”, my go-to self-hype anthem whenever something needs doing.
As much as I would like to elaborate on the plot, doing so would reveal some big spoilers, and this is one of those things you want to go into blind. Just know that much like its predecessor, AVPS works on the same lines as the best of Mel Brooks’ parodies: it’s funny and entertaining if you’re not familiar with the source material being spoofed, but it’s doubly so if you already are. The little references and in-jokes that only the most die-hard Potterheads will get add another crisp layer of humor to the side-splitting proceedings.
The cast is astounding, with everyone from the first show either returning to their original roles or playing new expanded parts that show off their incredible talents. It’s difficult for me to choose favorites. That said, I feel I should give fair warning about how Umbridge is portrayed. They cross-cast her with Joe Walker, the actor who previously played Voldemort. While I absolutely love him in the role – the man is devouring the scenery like it was pie and dayum does he work that pink dress – the fact that they made the most hated female Harry Potter character a well-built man in drag who turns evil after being misgendered and dumped…well, suffice to say it hasn’t aged well in light of JK Rowling turning her magic kingdom into a TERFdom. Even worse, Umbridge’s encounter with the centaurs, while left ambiguous in canon, is here explicitly stated to be…um…
Yeah, that kind of humor is a relic of the late ‘00s-early ‘10s which leaves an unfortunate stain on an otherwise near-pristine comic romp. To their credit, the creative minds behind AVPS later admitted to regretting these choices and have since made a greater effort in regards to respectful portrayals of LGBT+ characters in future productions.
I understand that not everyone can invoke “Death of the Author” when it comes to anything Potter-related. It’s okay to be mad and turn your back on the franchise because of Rowling showing her true colors. You have every right to and I would be the last person on earth to hold it against you if you did, especially if you or people you care about are transgender. But if you are able to separate the art from the (initial) artist, A Very Potter Sequel is a fun, loving fan tribute to the series so many of us grew up adoring. Is it the best Starkid musical? No, that title belongs to Twisted, bar none. But is it among the best? Absolutely. Be sure to watch the first Potter musical before you check it out, though, as there are a ton of callbacks (call-forwards?) that either tie into the plot or return as great gags. Both are available to watch on Team Starkid’s Youtube channel, and they are well worth your time.
May: The Mitchells vs. The Machines
Didn’t think my ambivalence towards Solo was enough of a hot take for you? Well here’s a spicy tamale dropped right into your lap:
I like The Mitchells vs. The Machines more than Into The Spiderverse.
That’s not a knock against Spiderverse, by the way; it’s a fantastic movie that breaks a thousand artistic boundaries – though that’s a review for another time. A surface glance might tell you that there’s not much of a difference between these two features: they both boast unique CGI animation, dabble in multiple art styles, feature tons of great jokes and revel in meta humor before they rip your heart out of your chest and punch you in the face with it. But in many ways, Spiderverse walked so Mitchells could run. Once the studio proved they could pull off this type of visual storytelling with the former, they were able to push the envelope with their next feature.
Mitchells’ story is a unique twist on the family road trip movie, one that I would best describe as Edgar Wright’s The World’s End meets A Goofy Movie. There’s the cliches you come to expect, yes, but many of them are either cleverly subverted or utilized in ways that put you right in the characters’ shoes. Best of all, despite what the trailers depict, the moral isn’t “Technology is bad and deprives you of meaningful connections with real people”, but rather “Technology can bring people closer together, but we shouldn’t be over-reliant on it or succumb to the pressures that come with social media.” Oh, and did I mention that this movie is hilarious? It’s not that big a surprise when you know Lord and Miller and some of the team behind Gravity Falls are responsible, and it also explains many of the wildly inventive set pieces.
What really puts Mitchells on a slightly higher pedestal than Spiderverse for me, however, is that the real central conflict and message of Mitchells resonated with me more. Our heroine Katie is a filmmaker whose artistic vision and plans for her future are met with either indifference or lack of faith from someone who should be her biggest supporter, her father Rick. Katie and Rick’s fights will hit close to home if you’re in a creative field your family members aren’t sure of, and I should know. I’ve made connections, written and illustrated four books and gotten an agent, yet I’m still occasionally met with “That’s nice, now when are you going to find a real job?” and it really hurts, despite their best intentions.
Yet as obnoxious as Rick could be at times, I still sympathized with him. He’s clearly scared of losing his child to a strange new world he doesn’t understand, and like many people who are afraid, he doubles down on his irrational behavior because it’s what he’s familiar with. It takes a lot for him to open up his worldview and show some vulnerability, but when it happens you can see a deeply caring family man beneath his foibles.
Katie and Rick’s relationship is one of the most accurate and well-done father-daughter relationships in any piece of media I’ve ever seen. It’s the true beating heart of this bombastic hysterical adventure. While I quite enjoyed Encanto, I know I’m not alone in saying this should have won Best Animated Feature.
I’m also happy to announce that unlike most of Netflix’s animated releases, Mitchells is available to watch on blu-ray. I highly recommend you pick it up in that format. It’s one less reason to give money to Netflix when they keep giving their animated projects and the people who work hard on them the shaft (I will never forgive them for pulling the plug on Bone), and also it comes jam-packed with behind the scenes goodies I adore. Now to sit back and wait for Netflix and SPA to put Klaus on blu-ray next.
Any time now, guys.
Luca has much smaller stakes than your average Pixar film, but after 2020, a little easygoing summer vacation is what we all needed at the time. The comparisons to lighter Studio Ghibli fare like Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro are spot-on. Luca is charming from beginning to end. I’ve seen few features that capture the feeling of hanging out with your best friends during those endless childhood summers. Plans are made, bullies are thwarted, gelato is savored, bikes are ridden (imaginary and otherwise), but the movie isn’t afraid to dwell on the quieter, intimate moments, or dive into the gorgeous fantastical inner life of our main character. Luca gets how children really act; how every change, no matter how minuscule, seems world-shattering, and how a simple goal like obtaining a scooter means life or death.
That’s not to say the movie flakes out on the emotional beats, goodness no. This is Pixar we’re talking about. The ending still chokes me up every time, thanks in no small part to the incredible voice acting and sincere relationships we form with this excellent cast of characters.
And before you ask, yes, I know about the supposed gay undertones – and I love them. You could view Luca and Alberto’s relationship as that or just a close brotherly friendship like director Enrico Casarosa intended, but the film goes out of its way to highlight prejudices and the themes of fear and acceptance in a way that comes across as very queer-coded. The scene where one character “outs” another to protect themselves is played with all the gravitas and heartbreak that comes from a real-life betrayal of that magnitude.
It feels pointless to state how wonderful the film looks as well. My parents fulfilled their dream of seeing Italy a few years prior and they vouched for how authentic the cozy seaside town of Porto Rosso is. You just want to swim in that beautiful blue sea, take a stroll down those cobblestone streets, and watch the sun set from the harbor. That and the character designs and animation, which are a nice cartoony shake-up from the usual Pixar house style, makes me almost wish this was hand-drawn instead of computer-animated. Ah well, c’est la vie.
Luca has been my go-to comfort Pixar film for some time now. Everything about it oozes charm. I just can’t feel down whenever I watch it. So dive right in when you get the chance.
Also, the sequel short “Ciao Alberto” is adorable and exactly what I was hoping for in a follow-up story. Let’s just say if found-family drama and fluff is your jam, this one’s for you.
July: Duck Soup
You never forget your first Marx Brothers movie, and Duck Soup is a great introduction to Groucho, Chico and Harpo’s antics, especially when you’re a kid. The physical comedy, puns and moments of surreal humor made me laugh my butt off on my initial viewing, but as an adult I appreciate the nuances that once went over my head. Duck Soup is a scathing anti-nationalist war satire that paved the way for the likes of Dr. Strangelove. It shows what happens when you put a flippant rich fool who’s willing to destroy countless lives over a petty insult in charge of a entire country.
…Wow, I just remembered why I stayed away from this movie the past five years.
The film is non-stop jokes from beginning to end, which works to its benefit but also to its detriment. Remember how in A Night at the Opera the jokes worked in tandem with the story, which makes it arguably the best of the brothers’ oeuvre? Duck Soup is packed with great humor to be sure, yet it comes at the cost of a well-developed plot, pacing and characters. There’s not even a real denouement, everything just screeches to a halt at the end for the sake of one last gag. I understand that’s the type of comedy the Marxes went for before they signed with MGM, but I do prefer the films where we have some emotional connection to the happenings onscreen. Even so, Duck Soup is considered a classic for a reason. It’s witty, hilarious, and serves as an excellent warning to never give power to those who talk big and carry a bigger cigar.
Just pray that we never ever have to live through such madness in this country again.
August: The Suicide Squad
You know the saying: When God closes a door, he opens a window only to realize once you’re through the window that it benefits his competitors more than him and he shouts “Wait, I opened the door again, we can work this out!!” And thus James Gunn got to have his cake and eat it too, thanks to right-wing idiots who thought they could make cancel culture their bitch.
Anyway The Suicide Squad is the film Suicide Squad (2016) tried to be and failed miserably at. You know those people who say this is what Guardians of the Galaxy would be like if it wasn’t hampered by the PG-13 rating? Well, they’re right. The Suicide Squad revels in its over-the-top violence and batshit insane scenarios. What separates it from its failed startup, though? They got the characters right this time around. They understood who they were, how they worked, and properly devoted enough time to form genuine connections with each other and by proxy, we the audience. I felt bad whenever one of them got killed off (usually). Every member of the squad is distinct and often given plenty of time to shine – well, Harley Quinn gets more than her fair share, but I like her and Margot Robie is great. Oh, and King Shark is precious and must be protected at all costs.
And by god, is this movie funny. James Gunn is firing on all cylinders and it shows, from the rocking soundtrack to the mind-bending visuals to the writing, which finds that balance between deeply cynical and pure wholesomeness. Like I said earlier, if you enjoy found-family dynamics in your fiction, then you will love this movie, even if said dynamics are a bit more messed-up than what you’d normally expect. The Suicide Squad embraces its comic book nature and doesn’t back down, making it an uproarious, outrageous, sometimes emotional and overall uncompromising roller coaster ride.
And no, I haven’t checked out the Peacemaker spin-off yet, but I’ve heard good things about it.
September: Groundhog Day
You know your movie’s done something right when its message is so simple yet so profound that every religion on the planet makes the argument that it’s about them and their teachings. That’s the case with Groundhog Day. It’s one of those films that everyone can relate to on some level. We’ve all felt trapped in an endless loop at some point in our lives, whether it’s a monotonous job, a cycle of bad relationships, or just trying to find your purpose. There’s a great Youtube video (which has unfortunately gone private as of writing this) where Eckhart Tolle discusses how this movie is a wonderful exercise in learning to live in the moment and finding happiness in making others happy. With that in mind, this comedy goes from high-concept to a nuanced character piece. We’re placed directly in the shoes of misanthropic weatherman Phil Connors as he goes through discovering his situation, testing his limits, falling into hedonism, depression and nihilism before using what he’s learned to better the lives of those around him – and thus finding happiness and fulfillment, ending his metaphorical and literal cycle of misery.
This is a feature that has everything going for it. It’s got clever lines. It’s got a great ensemble cast. It’s got a car chase. It’s got Ned Ryerson (BING!) But it also has heart in the right places. Phil’s not just trying to break the cycle and get in bed with Andi McDowell. This is his journey to become a better person, and we hit all the potholes, twists and hard truths he faces on that road as much as he does. Yes, it’s fun seeing him become a piano prodigy and ice sculpting artisan, because who wouldn’t use their infinite time to master such skills? But then we have the old homeless man who Phil, in all his “omnipotence”, can’t ever save from dying. Learning you can’t fix everything, even when time’s on your side, is one of the hardest things to accept, and this film conveys it exquisitely. And to this day I have no idea how they pull off Phil’s suicide attempts (something which is more miss than hit when it comes to my personal tastes in comedy) and manage to make it so tragic, beautiful and hysterical all at once.
Another thing I appreciate is that they never reveal what’s causing Phil to be trapped in a time loop. Sometimes you don’t need to peel back the curtain on the magical realism. At any rate, I doubt any explanation could ever live up to the wonderful odyssey we embark on with Phil.
October: Rifftrax Live: Night of the Living Dead
Okay, I know this one is kind of a cheat since this is a live show involving a riff on a classic movie. Night of the Living Dead is one of the pillars of the horror genre and it’s easy to see why, from its gory premise to its moody black and white photography to its bleak ending – but that’s not to say you can’t get some huge laughs out of it. Mike, Kevin and Bill balance out old-fashioned scares with lots of great jokes. Some of them are timely references, others are lighthearted jabs at the cheap production and hokey acting, yet it all amounts to one of the best riffs the guys have ever done. We’re also treated an “educational” short beforehand, where a mute loser named Norman has every single thing go wrong for him as he prepares to give a speech. All in all, it’s a must-see if you love Rifftrax, Mystery Science Theater 3000, and classic horror. Here’s just a few of my favorite riffs:
- “‘Cause this is Thrilleerrr – Ralph, you’re not even trying!”
- “Young President Obama, thank God you’re here!”
- “All right, dee dee dee deeee…”
- “I’m the black guy in a horror movie, I may as well head straight to the morgue!”
- “Pumbaa! Bambi! Other Bambi!”
- “Say what you will about zombies, at least they’re not Instagramming their meal.”
- “I dreamed a dream in times gone byyyyyy…”
- “Da da da da da – BONK.”
- “Barbara isn’t here, Mrs. Torrance.”
- “Now on the lighter side, a local farmer with a duck who loves to skateboard!”
- “A television? We can watch The Walking Dead!”
- “I’ll just drag this table outside, lay down on it and wait for the zombies. Maybe spread some A1 Sauce on my chest…”
- “She’s been spade!”
- “This is no time to do the opening of “Crazy Train”!”
- “And cut to Ben making breakfast for the zombies, turns out it was all a big misunderstanding.”
- “Karen Deborah Cooper, I told you not to snack on your father before dinner!”
Aye yie yie, Coco, it’s damn near perfect as far as Pixar films go. I really don’t know what to say about it because I have so many thoughts and I want to save it all for a real review. Just because this one will be brief, however, doesn’t mean I don’t have strong feelings towards it. I just love how it portrays the culture (this movie is to Mexico what Spirited Away is to Japan), I love the music, the animation (my god, the COLORS!!) and the characters…I’ve said before that I think skeletons with eyeballs are much creepier than ones without them, but the designers and animators made these ocular-owning bone daddies so sweet and appealing. But this movie lives on its writing and makes a story that’s very much rooted in Mexican heritage feel universal. Even if you’ve heard it all before (kid wants to go against the family grain and be an artist, family disapproves, he has to prove them wrong, etc.) the insane amount of excellent world-building this one feature has on top of some incredibly likable characters (Hector, like King Shark, is precious and must be protected at all costs) makes this one incredible journey through the afterlife.
And yes, both Miguel and Hector’s iterations of “Remember Me” brings on all the onions. Every time.
December: We’re No Angels
I caught this obscure oldie on tv with my family one night, and I’m surprised it’s not talked about more often. Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov and Aldo Rey play three escaped convicts who shack up with a destitute shopkeeper and his family until the heat is off them. Since this story takes place over the course of Christmas Eve and Day, plenty of bonding and changes of heart ensue.
If the premise sounds borderline-Hallmark to you, don’t worry, it’s much funnier than it sounds. The film even veers a little into dark comedy when a venomous pet snake gets loose, but to say any more about that would spoil the fun. Rey, Ustinov and Bogie have phenomenal chemistry. The relationship our three anti-heroes form with their hosts is sweet, especially with the daughter. They become her unofficial uncles and “guardian angels”, even if their methods of securing for her future are…well, it’s all in the title, isn’t it?
My only nitpick is with what the trio decides to do with their newfound freedom in the end. Without giving it away, it feels like it was tacked on to appease the Hayes Code and their stance on sympathizing with criminals. I like to imagine that the three were only joking about what they said they’d do and never really went through with it. Regardless, if you’re looking for something a little different to watch this holiday season, give this movie a try. It’s got the Christmas spirit with plenty of laughs as a bonus gift.
So that’s twelve reviews for the price of one, and I hope you enjoyed them! Let me know your thoughts on these movies and I’ll see you on August 6th for the next Faerie Tale Theatre Review!
Special thanks to my generous patrons Amelia Jones, TylerFG, Sam Flemming and Robert Barnette. Anyone who joins the Patreon party can get such fun perks as sneak peeks of reviews, extra votes, movie requests and more!