Monday, March 29, 2010

Top and Bottom of 2009 - #1

Here it is, the best of the best and the worst of the worst.

Up (2009)
The film starts with a montage, telling the story of Carl and Ellie: their courtship, marriage, and life together. It is a story of undying love, despite countless unrealized dreams, told solely through images and music. It is both beautiful and heart-wrenching, yet never sappy. Of course this would not be a true Pixar movie without it’s fair share of laughs, thrills, and quirky characters, and all three are in abundance. Of special note is the dog named Dug who is equipped with a collar that lets him speak. The animators and writers never fall into the trap of turning Dug into a human on four legs as many talking animals often end up. Instead, he fully retains his doggie-ness, saying things that I fully believe a dog would say if it could speak. This is a wonderful tale about friendship and adventure found in unexpected places, full of emotional highs and lows. And even when something happened exactly as I predicted, it still provoked an emotional response.

10,000 BC (2008)
After watching the trailer and seeing the billboards, I knew this would be a bad movie, and the movie did not disappoint. The characters are poorly defined with no one even approaching likeability. The geography is highly improbable, as our band of “heroes” travels from a tundra-like region, crossing snow-capped mountains, through a rain forest at the base of the mountains, ending up in the desert, traveling all of that distance in about a week. Each region is filled with giant CG creatures, none of which are terribly convincing. The climax of the film is anything but thrilling, and surprisingly small considering the rest of the movie’s epic aspirations. But the real kicker of the movie is that it is The Ten Commandments (1956) remade by Nietzsche. Instead of God rescuing a nation of slaves from tyranny, the slaves themselves rise up against and kill “God” (really an alien) and then go off to live their lives as they see fit. Ultimately, 10,000 BC passes over the “so bad it’s fun” designation into “so bad it’s painful.”

Coming up next: I'm not sure. I'm working on a couple projects that I hope to unveil here soon. I guess I can at least get a start on my 2010 Movie Odyssey.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Top and Bottom of 2009 - #2

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953)
This is essentially a silent comedy with sound effects as there is almost no dialog, and what little there is carries very little pertinent information. There are funny things going on all the time, but many of them are so subtle the audience can miss them if they are not paying attention. Even in the background, odd things are happening. There’s the bodybuilder who is always doing weird stretching exercises as he walks around, there is the elderly man who is always shadowing an elderly woman, there is the single song that seems to be on all the records, and the door to the dining room that makes a funny sound when it closes, much to the chagrin of the head waiter. Mr. Hulot is charming in this wonderfully pleasant film that is very rewarding if the audience is willing to give it their undivided attention.

You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (2008)
I knew this would be bad, being chock full of Adam Sandler “humor.” What I was not expecting were countless shots of Sandler’s bare behind and an overdose of perverse sexuality as Sandler’s Zohan has sex with every woman possible. And he is considered endearing for it! And then there are the numerous jabs a Mel Gibson. One or two might have been kind of funny and topical, but when they kept coming they were just beating a dead one trick pony. Ironically, I think the Jews should be more upset at this movie’s cartoonish portrayal of them than a single drunken midnight antisemitic rant from Mel Gibson.

Coming up next: The best of the best and the worst of the worst. Any guesses as to which ones those will be?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Top and Bottom of 2009 - #3

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Is the story cliche? Maybe. Is the plot too contrived? Possibly. Is the film highly improbable? Most definitely. But it is still an immensely entertaining film about growing up and finding lost love, set to some snazzy music. Danny Boyle is in top form here, infusing every scene with his signature style, giving it an energy that would be lacking had a lesser director made this film. I also love his use of subtitles. Instead of relegating them to the bottom of the screen in a boring yellow text, they were placed all over the screen wherever there was empty space, often with a box around them to help separate the words from the background. My eye was naturally drawn to them, making them the easiest subtitles I have ever read. It was almost like watching a moving comic book (and I mean that in a good way).

Southland Tales (2006)
This movie is one giant mess. Nothing makes sense and writer/director Richard Kelly goes haphazardly from one scene to another with each new scene having little bearing on those surrounding it. And every time he tries to explain something it only makes everything more confusing. The characters are all either dull or so over the top that they are completely unbelievable. And since there is glaring Budweiser product placement in almost every scene, it felt like I was watching the most bizarre, confusing, poorly written, poorly acted, inconsistent, unbelievable, and downright dirty beer commercial I have ever seen.

Coming up next: two movies about a man who is just trying to get away from it all.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Top and Bottom of 2009 - #4

The Crimson Pirate (1952)
Burt Lancaster is electric as the pirate Captain Vallo in this highly entertaining swashbuckling romp that was clearly an inspiration for Pirates of the Caribbean. But even the charismatic Vallo is upstaged by Ojo, his captivating, non-speaking sidekick who is best described as a cross between Jack Sparrow and Harpo Marx. Together they get into one scrape after another, always the best of friends, and always fun to watch.

Howard the Duck (1986)
This could have been a fun ‘80s romp. Unfortunately, Howard’s wisecracks, Tim Robbins’ “scientist,” the hokey bad guy, and all other attempts at humor fell flatter than a pancake after being visited by a steam roller. And then there is the bizarre and unsettling scene when Lea Thompson tries to seduce Howard that is wrong on so many levels, especially in a movie obviously aimed at children.
(You know I've seen some really bad movies this year when something as infamously bad as Howard the Duck is only the fourth worst movie I saw all year.)

Coming up next: two very stylish movies, one of which is a slick work of art while the other is a confusing mess.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Top and Bottom of 2009 - #5

Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
Robert Donat is captivating in the role of a British school teacher who teaches Latin to generation after generation of Britain’s finest. We see him grow from being a green first-year teacher, easy target to practical jokesters, to being such a steadfast fixture at the school that even exploding German bombs are unable to keep him from having class. He is ready with words of wisdom for his students, never shy from administering discipline when it is called for, and always willing to build a relationship with his students outside of the classroom.

Species (1995)
You would think that a movie with Ben Kingsley, Alfred Molina, Forrest Whitaker, and Michael Madsen would at least have some potential, but unfortunately the promising cast is completely wasted on this dreck. The effects are gross, half the characters have no real reason for existence, the dialog is stilted and unnatural at best, and the climax is predictable and far from thrilling.

Coming up next: a movie that is a whole lot of fun, and one that could have been but failed miserably.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Top and Bottom of 2009 - #6

Ikiru (1952)
When the movie starts it is almost a comedy. A group of women are trying to get the city to drain a pool of stagnant water and turn it into a park where children can play. They speak with one government official after another, each one telling them that they need to talk to a different department until they end up right back where they started. Then we are introduced to Kanji Watanabe, a government official who works in the same building. He mindlessly shuffles papers for a living until he learns that he has cancer and only has a few months to live. What is more depressing than the little time he has left is what little he has done with his life to this point. At first he tries to live it up, staying up late drinking and carousing, but it only leaves him feeling more empty. But then he learns of the plight of the women who are trying to get the park built and he decides to go to bat for them, fighting against the ineffectual bureaucracy that surrounds him. And so what starts as a depressing story about a wasted life becomes an inspirational story of the good that one man can do.

Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie (1995)
The action is mindless, the characters are shallow, the dialog is flat, the big effects set-pieces are unconvincing, and the villain is too comical to be taken seriously. And then there is Alpha 5, a incompetent robot who’s high-pitched cry of “Aye-yi-yi!” whenever anything goes wrong (which is most of the time) is like nails on a chalkboard, only not quite as pleasant. The single redeeming attribute of the film, a song on the soundtrack from They Might Be Giants, lasts only a few seconds. The rest is every bit as dumb as I though it would be.

Coming up next: two movies with two Oscar winning actors each.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Obligatory Oscar Post - 2010

Well, it's that time of year again, and I know all five of my readers are just dying to know my thoughts on tonight's Oscar ceremony.

First of all, a little logistics. I correctly guessed 14 of the 24 categories. Also, there were four categories for which I predicted Avatar would win but went to The Hurt Locker instead, or vice versa. This was not my best record by a long shot, but I also went in much less educated on some of the lesser known categories than in previous years.

The Good
--The "conceited" interplay between hosts Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin was fun, though they did very little once they got the shared opening monologue out of the way.
--I liked that the nominated scores got a good showing, and the dance routines that accompanied each selection were fun.
--I do think it's cool that a woman has finally won Best Director, and like even better that she did it with a movie that isn't a "woman's movie" (something like Sex and the City).
--I was happy to see that the narratively mediocre Avatar failed to win both Best Picture and Best Director. Of course, now I really need to see The Hurt Locker. It may be my favorite movie from last year that I haven't seen yet.
--I am happy that the Academy has recognized Michael Giacchino for his score for Up. Now they just need to give one to Thomas Newman.
--There was no dry, boring, and excessively long speech from the president of the Academy that always brings the show to a screeching halt. Even the members of the Academy sitting in the audience always seem to find it tedious.

The Bad
--What is up with the wall of lamp shades backdrop they used off and on throughout the evening?
--I actually haven't seen very many of the nominees or winners, with The Hurt Locker, Ing. Bas., The Blind Side, and Precious: BotNPbS being the most glaring omissions, so there are very few awards that I actually feel strongly about one way or another.
--Yes, Up got Best Animated Feature and was actually nominated for Best Picture (only the second animated film to do that) but would the academy really suffer a major hemorrhage if an animated film won Best Picture? Or even a screenwriting award?
--The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus transported me into a world of wonder far more effectively than Avatar did, so I was very disappointed (though not terribly surprised) that Avatar won Best Art Direction. I also preferred District 9's gritty, realistic visual effects to Avatar's over-polished, unreal, cartoonish visuals.
--With Roger Corman getting an honorary Oscar, I was hoping to be treated to a string of b-movie clips (complete with endless shots of rock climbing), but unfortunately they presented the honorary awards in a ceremony yesterday, giving us only an extremely brief summary of it.
--Once again they took ten minutes to personally gush over the nominees for Best Actor and Actress, and yet hardly showing any clips of the performances that actually got them in the auditorium in the first place. I have always felt that the most important Oscar is Best Picture, the second-most important one is Best Director, and then there is a 22-way tie for third place. Doing this puts far too much emphasis on the actors. At least they didn't do it with the supporting performances like they did last year.

Overall I think this will go down as a rather unmemorable show. Nothing incredibly great happened (like Return of the King going 11 for 11), nothing wonderfully silly happened (like Whoopie Goldberg's parade of costumes), and nothing outrageously awful happened (like Happy Feet taking Best Animated Feature).

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Top and Bottom of 2009 - #7

Zombieland (2009)
A small band of travelers is trying to stay alive during a zombie apocalypse, headed up by Tallahassee, the best zombie killer in the world who is on a quest to find the last remaining Twinkie. There are lots of laughs as our band of misfits fight and run away from zombies and meet up with a very funny surprise cameo. But what may be the best part about this movie is that the fun never stops. Things never get too serious, even in the rip-roaring third act.

Straw Dogs (1971)
For the first two-thirds of the movie a whole lot of not a whole lot happens. Then there is an overlong uncomfortable rape scene. Then a mob of people attack the spineless Dustin Hoffman’s house. Somehow he is able to fight them all off in a scene that is so violently over the top that I couldn’t possibly take it seriously. And since all the characters had done their best to repulse me through the whole movie, I didn’t really care who lived and who died in this exercise in 70s unpleasantness.

Coming up next: a Japanese movie and a movie based on a television show stolen from Japan.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Top and Bottom of 2009 - #8

Ball of Fire (1941)
This very funny screwball comedy features Gary Cooper as an absentminded professor and Barbara Stanwyck as the woman who disrupts his attentions and steals his heart. It also features a wonderful cast of supporting characters played by a who’s who of old man character actors who are even more fun to watch than the stellar leads.

The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking (1988)
I enjoyed reading the Pippi Longstocking stories as a kid, and I have fond memories of watching the Swedish version from 1969 as a kid. So I was interested to see what an American company would do with the material. I should have stayed away. A story about an incredibly strong little girl already requires some suspension of disbelief, but there were far too many unbelievable moments even within the world created for the film. The adults are all idiots and Pippi’s message of “chaos is better than structure” is highly suspect. Her pet monkey and horse “speak” in animal sounds that are almost English, but while this is supposed to be funny it comes across as just dumb. For some reason the filmmakers decided to make it a musical, so I was also treated to a parade of mediocre, forgettable songs that added nothing. And to top it all off, they played an annoying, silly sound cue whenever Pippi did something magical that completely took me out of what little moment I already had.

Coming up next: two movies about a small group of people defending themselves with shotguns from a hoard intent on their destruction.