Friday, February 27, 2009

Top and Bottom of 2008 - #2

Wall-E (2008)
One of the things I love about the Pixar shorts is that they each tell a complete story without the use of dialog. Now we have Wall-E, a feature length film which has no dialog (except for a few commercial voiceovers) for the first half of the film. What results is a masterpiece of character animation. Not since Buster Keaton has a character shown so many emotions with so little facial movement. Also of note is the fantastic work of Ben Burtt who created such a lush soundscape for the film and gave Wall-E his voice, all against the backdrop of Thomas Newman’s beautiful score. I almost put this one at number one.

Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter (2001)
I’m not quite sure what I was expecting, but I was definitely not expecting an amateur production with unexciting slapstick fights, vampires preying on lesbians, Jesus joining forces with a Mexican wrestler, and the occasional musical number from out of the blue (one of which I am sure was inspired by "Every Sperm is Sacred" from The Meaning of Life). The production values are shoddy, the script is on par with your average student film, and overall the film is more dumb than sacrilegious (which says more about its intelligence than its theology).

Coming up next: the best of the best and the worst of the worst. Any predictions?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Top and Bottom of 2008 - #3

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
This film tells essentially two stories. First is the story of the trial. Charles Laughton stars as a defense lawyer who is presented with a nearly impossible murder case to defend: lots of circumstantial evidence against the accused and a shaky alibi. And then his only witness, the accused’s wife, testifies for the prosecution, and things really get interesting. Laughton is riveting in the courtroom scenes and I could not take my eyes off his every tic and unorthodox delivery. The second story is Charles Laughton versus his nurse (a very funny Elsa Lanchester). Since he is just coming home from the hospital after a heart attack, her mission in life is to keep him from his favorite vices of whiskey and cigars. It is immensely entertaining to watch the cat-and-mouse game the two of them play as Laughton tries to escape from his nurse for a quick cigar while she is relentless in her attempts to pin him down to take his pills. Both stories are highly entertaining and compliment each other superbly.

Love Story (1970)
"Love means never having to say you're sorry."
"That's the dumbest thing I ever heard."
Those immortal words from What's Up, Doc? pretty much sum up my reaction to both the signature line and the film in general. Ryan O’Neal hates his father, so he ignores his father’s sensible advice and marries his college crush. She tells him "Love means never having to say you’re sorry," then gets sick and dies. His father tries to reach out to him, and he tells his dad, "Love means never having to say you’re sorry," and the credits roll. The line makes no sense and every way I try to figure it out it comes out saying something very incorrect about love. When Ryan O’Neal’s beloved says it, it’s dumb but excusable because she is a free spirit and can get away with saying things like that, but when he utters the silly phrase to conclude the film it makes absolutely no sense and puts a perfectly idiotic ending on an already silly film.

Coming up next: two saviors who save humanity from life-sucking entities.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Top and Bottom of 2008 - #4

The Dark Knight (2008)
A hero who truly longs for justice. A truly twisted and evil villain. Lots of thrilling actions sequences. Moral dilemmas with serious consequences. Cool gadgets. A beautifully executed bank heist. Really, what’s not to like?
(So there’s not much I can say that hasn’t already been stated by thousands of other critics, and really by this point, you have either seen it or already know if you want to see it for yourself or not, so my vote of confidence is just a drop in a very large ocean.)

Casino Royale (1967)
What a piece of trash! There were very few laughs in this "comedy" and the plot was so disjointed it seemed that every scene was completely unconnected to the previous one. Even the presence of Peter Sellers, David Niven, Orson Welles, and Woody Allen could not save this film. If you see only one spy spoof movie, see Austin Powers.

Coming up next: a movie that is a mystery and a movie that is a mystery to me why it is considered to be a great film.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Top and Bottom of 2008 - #5

White Heat (1949)
James Cagney seethes evil as the gangster Cody Jarrett. He has no moral compass other than a messed up mother complex that would have made Hitchcock proud. When the police place an undercover cop in Jarrett's gang, the tension mounts until the inevitable explosive ending. And as Jarrett shoots friend and foe alike with no regard for his own safety, my only thought was "Heath Ledger's got nothing on Cagney."

La Vie en rose (2007)
I watched this film knowing nothing about French singer Edith Piaf, and once the film was over, all I knew was she had a big voice, liked to drink, and loved an already married boxer. The story is annoyingly told out of chronological order, so there is no sense of when anything is happening and what has already happened. People pop in and out of Edith’s life with no explanation as to where they went or how they came back. And if things start to get interesting, the film jumps to a completely different time period with no common thread to tie the scenes together. It is as if the editor misread the slates, and when they said "Day 1" he thought they meant "Scene 1," so edited the film in the order in which it was shot. And to make matters worse, half the film is woefully underlit. Granted, I watched the film on my computer screen which was already dark, but when half the scenes are at night (for no apparent reason) or in dimly lit interiors, the fault is not solely in my computer hardware.

Coming up next: a couple alternate versions of already established movie characters.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Top and Bottom of 2008 - #6

The Dirty Dozen (1967)
The film tells the rousing story of a group of misfit soldiers who elect to go on a suicide mission during WWII in lieu of serving out their prison sentences. While we don’t get a full look at each member of the titular dozen, the film does a wonderful job juggling its large cast in a way that we still get to know most of the twelve. Lee Marvin lights up the screen in every scene, and watching the film makes me want to check out more of his extensive work. The film has a lot in common with The Great Escape: a war movie that feels like a comedy until the third act when the tension ratchets up several notches, leading to a sobering ending that still does not seem out of place.

Mean Streets (1973)
My roommate walked in while I was watching the movie. "What’s happened?" "Nothing." "You just started?" "No, I’m an hour in." And it was downhill from there. I have never enjoyed Martin Scorsese’s exercises in ugliness, but this one didn’t even have a plot to pretend to engage me. In fact, I had to read the back of the DVD case to get the story of the movie I just watched. Most of the characters are thoroughly unlikeable and all the scenes take place in dingy, dirty environments that most people would clean before inhabiting. While it may have some interesting camera work, all the fancy camera work in the world is useless unless it is showing something worth looking at.

Coming up next: a crazy protagonist and a crazy chronology.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Top and Bottom of 2008 - #7

The King of Kong (2007)
I have played a little bit of Donkey Kong, and it is hard and frustrating. So I was intrigued when I heard about a film that chronicles two men: the Donkey Kong high score record holder, and the man out to beat that score. While it did not give me any enlightening tips on how to beat the game, the film does provides an interesting look into the world of competitive gaming and ranks high on the nostalgia factor, featuring many old-school arcade games. But the film is even more than that, providing heroes, villains, and many who we’re not sure what side they’re on, and thrilling the whole way through. And as an added bonus, as the credits roll, we are treated to clips chronicling the evolution of video games from the earliest arcade games to the most recent, state of the art console games.

I Know Who Killed Me (2007)
This is an ugly movie with a "surprise twist" that is more like a bad Twilight Zone episode that has absolutely no redeeming value that I can think of.

Coming up next: films that are dirty and mean.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Top and Bottom of 2008 - #8

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
Few movies are as much of a joy to look at as this one is. Each frame is filled to the brim with lush, glorious Technicolor. The audience is treated to a plethora of visions: beautiful palaces, immense statues, a flying carpet, a flying horse, a giant spider, and a six-armed blue guitar player. All these sights are brought about through a combination of magnificent sets, luscious matte paintings, and ground breaking visual effects. The highlight of the film is the giant genie played by Rex Ingram who, while still being a comic character, never lets us forget how truly powerful and dangerous he is. The story is pulled from several of the 1001 Arabian Nights tales and features an exiled king, an evil vizier, a trapped princess, and, of course, a thief. This film holds its own alongside other fantasy epics such as The Lord of the Rings and The Wizard of Oz.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Gorgeous photography and camera work. Excellent performances all around. Characters so abrasively angry and uncaring that half an hour into the film I was looking at the clock, wondering when the movie would be over. Elizabeth Taylor yells at Richard Burton. Then Richard Burton yells at Elizabeth Taylor. Then they belittle each other. Then they alternate between making their unfortunate guests uncomfortable and setting each other up to look foolish in front of their guests. Lather, rinse, repeat. There is a bit of hope present in the last moments of the film, but by that time I had almost completely lost interest in the whole affair.

Coming up next: a film that won more Razzies than it should have, and a film that should have gotten more Oscars than it did.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Top and Bottom of 2008 - #9

Sons of the Desert (1933)
Laurel and Hardy want to go to Chicago for a national lodge retreat. There is one problem: their wives will not let them go. They trick their wives into letting them take a trip to Hawaii instead (for health reasons), and head off to Chicago. Of course their wives learn of the deception and much hilarity ensues. While the plot alone is pretty funny, what really makes Laurel and Hardy’s comedy stand out is their physical humor. They work off each other perfectly, and even when their gags are predictable, they are still funny. The most memorable sequence is one in which Laurel and Hardy (who live in adjacent apartments) keep managing to lock themselves out of their apartments. The sequence runs surprisingly long and they milk the premise for all it is worth, and yet it never gets dull.

Sideways (2004)
Maybe if I was a disaffected middle-aged man who liked to drink wine I would like this movie more. As it was, I was bored through most of the film and did not care for any of the characters. Drinking lots of wine and having lots of sex is the goal of the two main characters, and lying to anyone and everyone in order to either get away with or get more of drinking lots of wine and having lots of sex is a perfectly good way to go about business. And when one lie gets them in trouble, they make up an even better lie for someone else. I didn’t laugh once during this "comedy."

Coming up next: a movie that is a joy to look at and one that sucks all the joy from the room.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Top and Bottom of 2008 - #10

So here we go with my best and worst picks from all 131 movies I saw in 2008. People are welcome to guess which film comes in at numbers 1 and 131 (who knows, there might even be a prize connected with it).

Rio Bravo (1959)
This western is the story of three men: John Wayne's sheriff who refuses almost all offers of help to bring down the town outlaw (in a direct contrast to the Gary Cooper role in High Noon), Dean Martin's deputy who is a recovering alcoholic, and Ricky Nelson's hotshot new gunman who worms his way into John Wayne's graces. What results is a highly entertaining western that focuses more on the interactions between characters than the shootouts. Also worth noting is Walter Brennan as a partially over-the-hill deputy with an injured leg who is assigned to guard the jail. His cranky old man performance adds some wonderful humor to the mix, keeping the film from getting too serious. The inevitable final shootout lacks dramatic gravity, but that is a minor complaint compared with the rest of this highly entertaining film.

Videodrome (1983)
If you like gross films with disturbing, sexual images, this is the film for you. The rest of us should probably stay away. The plot made very little sense, and with so many dream sequences and double-crosses, it was impossible to keep track of who was what, and the ending was anything but satisfactory. I do think it is interesting that James Woods' television producer tries to air a program that features a combination of pornography and torture. Did director David Cronenberg predict today's torture porn?

Coming up next: 2 movies about 2 men going on a road trip.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

My 2008 Movie Odyssey - Part XXVI

Here we go. This is the final entry of my 2008 movie odyssey. I will probably be doing something similar again this year, but I haven't decided yet what format I want it to take. Ten word movie reviews? Movie X meets movie Y? The same thing all over again? Something completely different? Cast your votes in the comments section.

Australia (2008)
It’s a story about an impossible cattle drive. It’s a WWII drama. It’s a story about a woman finding her way in a new world and love in unlooked for places. It’s about the problems that arise when two very different cultures collide. And so much more. The problem with all these different elements is that with so many of them the film lacks any sort of uniting theme and the audience is treated to about three movies for the price of one. It is Giant in Australia.

Nicholas Nickleby (2002)
A star-studded cast brings this Charles Dickens story to the big screen with lots of memorable characters. The film is lots of fun to watch, as should be expected from Dickens.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Maybe I’m getting old, but more often than not I sided with the adults in this high school coming-of-age story. On the other hand, Sean Penn gives his only good performance as the very funny terminal slacker Jeff Spicoli. The rest of the film, not so much.

Gunga Din (1939)
Cary Grant and his two compatriots have an excellent entrance in this film as each one’s heads come crashing through an upper story window as they are called to by their superior officer during a bar fight. This scene sets the tone for the rest of the film: light-hearted high adventure. Gunga Din is an obvious influence on the Indiana Jones films as Cary Grant and company encounter many of the situations that Jones later encounters. While the film’s treatment of the Indians is far from being politically correct by today’s standards, there are still plenty of thrilling action pieces that make the film more than worth while.

The Kid (1921)
I am not a big fan of Chaplin, much preferring the works of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, but I felt like I ought to see this film. It was pretty enjoyable, but it is readily apparent that Chaplin was still learning the language of cinema as there were several narrative rough spots that are not evident in other films from the same era, and there are far too many title cards. There is also an extended dream sequence at the end which is not very funny and adds nothing to the rest of the film. On the other hand, Jackie Coogan as the titular kid is amazing to watch and his scenes with Chaplin are very sweet.

Christmas Vacation (1989)
Sometimes, finding a good movie feels like searching for a pearl in a pile of pebbles. For me, finding a good 80s comedy often feels more like searching for a diamond in a pile of manure. There are the handful of comedies that stand proudly alongside the great comedies of the 30s: Airplane!, Ghost Busters, Back to the Future, Tootsie, and The Princess Bride. They all are very funny, have many memorable characters, and you feel good about laughing at the movie. Then there are the rest of the 80s comedies, which seem more interested in wallowing in uncomfortable situations (Planes, Trains & Automobiles), excessively ruminating on sex and nudity (Animal House), and featuring a cast of characters that are so far removed from reality that they bear no resemblance to anything even close to real people (Caddyshack). Christmas Vacation falls squarely in with the majority, featuring far too many uncomfortable situations with highly unbelievable characters. I guess I should have expected that with two 80s non-stars: Chevy Chase and Randy Quaid.

Coming up next: #10 on my top and bottom 10 list for 2008.