Monday, February 28, 2011

Top and Bottom of 2010 - #3

Inception (2010)
I don't know how he keeps doing it, but Christopher Nolan has hit it out of the park again. This is essentially a con man/heist movie, but it masquerades so well as a trippy mind game movie that the audience is willingly taken in. There is eye candy galore, thrilling action sequences, and a wonderfully executed zero-g hallway battle.

Eclipse (2010)
There actually are enough elements here to make a good movie: a reluctant alliance between a group of sparkly leech men and a tribe of shape shifters, an evil leech man raising an army of fellow leech men, and two-thirds of a love triangle that are forced to work together to protect the woman they love. Unfortunately all the potential is squandered. Characters’ motivations are unclear, the dialog is clunky, new plot developments are not sufficiently set up, and everyone (except the breath of fresh air Anna Kendrick) suffers from giant pause-itis. Apparently Bella is really important for some reason or another, but the director, the screenwriter, and actress Kristen Stewart never show us why. Things might make more sense if I read the book, but a movie should never rely on the book to make its sense for it.

Coming up next: the beginning and the end.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Top and Bottom of 2010 - #4

Gojira (1954)
This movie is much better sans dubbing and Raymond Burr. Godzilla is downright scary, partly due the to the fact that we don’t actually see him until half way through the film. His immense size and incredible strength make him a virtually indestructible killing machine, and that is before he unleashes his radioactive breath. The scenes showing the aftermath of his destruction are shocking and grim, on par with the best war movies. There is a love story that is little more than filler and the means of Godzilla’s demise are classic B-movie silly science, but when it comes to pure terrifying destruction, Godzilla can’t be beat.

2012 (2009)
I went into this movie ready to nurture some deep hate towards this movie (after all, my opinions of Roland Emmerich’s other “masterpieces,” The Day After Tomorrow and 10,000 B.C. are well documented here) and right off the bat the movie delivered. I was treated to a series of disjointed scenes that are supposed to give the audience a sense of dread, but instead left me silently screaming at the screen, “Just get on with it!” The worst scenes involve respected scientists telling high ranking officials that something really bad is about to happen, but the screenwriters go so far out of their way to keep the really bad something a secret that it all ends up being awkward and forced. Then, fifteen minutes into the movie, we are finally introduced to our main character, played by John Cusack. After it is firmly established (and then some) that he is a bad father and estranged from his kids, he learns that the world is going to end, but that there is a secret government conspiracy that is planning to keep humanity alive. Then we get far too many contrived scenes of driving really fast while being chased by a crack opening up in the earth. Then, once Emmerich decides that driving away from a crack in the ground isn’t good enough, they graduate to a plane and have daring escapes flying through toppling buildings while the earth disintegrates. (Though, correct me if I’m wrong, but can’t airplanes go up? So shouldn’t they have been able to just fly over the tops of the crumbling buildings without a care in the world?) Then it just happens that John Cusack is a chauffeur for a rich guy who has a “get out of the end of the world free” card, so Cusack & Co. join up with him and they get in an even bigger plane and fly through an even bigger crack in the ground. Interspersed throughout all this thrilling stuff are scenes of characters around the world who pop in and out of the movie at random, and I think we are supposed to care about them, but since Emmerich does not invest anything in these characters, neither does the audience. Even when the characters die horribly, the scenes are far more likely to induce yawns than tears. After countless scenes of improbable coincidences and contrived tension (due mostly to the scientists saying, “Oops, we miscalculated, and the world will end tomorrow instead of a week from now; actually, cancel that, the end of the world is six hours away; no, wait, it’s more like thirty minutes”), Cusack & Co. finally make it aboard a giant ark that is designed to weather the storm and save humanity (after all the expendable characters are killed off, of course). And did I mention the politicians who are demonized merely for being pragmatic? Ultimately, 2012 wishes it was Deep Impact with a heavy dose of The Day After Tomorrow, sprinkled with a spoonful of Titanic, but The Day After Tomorrow is the only movie it managed to not be vastly inferior to.

Coming up next: the biggest fanboy and fangirl movies of 2010.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Top and Bottom of 2010 - #5

How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
I saw the trailers (and teaser spots during the Olympics) and nothing really grabbed me. "This is just another in the long line of lackluster Dreamworks ilk," I thought. But then everyone started raving about this movie and I felt that I had to see it. I have rarely been so happy to be wrong. The film is full of engaging characters (especially the main character Hiccup, who has a wonderfully dry humor) and the humor doesn't cater to the lowest common denominator. The story went in some unexpected places and the resolution was completely satisfying. The main dragon is immediately endearing and the scenes of flying are thrilling. The only real complaint I have with the movie is that so much time is spent at the beginning talking about how Vikings kill dragons because dragons kill Vikings, they should have driven that point home with an actual onscreen death.

The Happening (2008)
The movie starts out promising as the people of New York City start killing themselves in the quickest, most efficient ways possible. The scene is creepy and even a little funny in a morbid sort of way. But things quickly go downhill. We are introduced to a science teacher played by Mark Wahlberg who is going through some sort of marital problems with his wife played by Zooey Deschanel. The screenplay never really explores what is wrong with their marriage, and neither character is particularly interesting, which gives the audience absolutely no reason to care. But our intrepid couple do not have much time to dwell on their issues, because whatever caused the New Yorkers to start killing themselves is rapidly spreading across the east coast. Whatever it is appears to be airborne, so they find themselves running away from the wind. That’s right, The Wind. Scary. The group of people Marky Mark escapes with depletes faster than the cast of a Roland Emmerich film and soon just the hapless couple and the girl they are babysitting are the only ones left. And then a completely different movie starts as they find themselves at an isolated farmhouse inhabited by a crazy lady (who of course just happens to be a religious conservative). No character does anything interesting and every new turn the plot takes is more ridiculous than the last. I usually try to be very sensitive about spoilers, but at times the big twist or explanation at the end is so absurd, so laughable, so idiotic that I feel like I am doing my audience a favor by spoiling it. This is one of those instances. The thing causing all this mayhem and death is not some sort of biological weapon. It is not a terrorist attack. No, it is plants, conspiring against humanity to release deadly toxins that are only harmful to humans. The more I try to wrap my head around this explanation, the more ludicrous it becomes. See? I told you I was doing you a favor.

Coming up next: two movies featuring heavy doses of large-scale destruction.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Top and Bottom of 2010 - #6

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)
The visuals are stunning (what else would you expect from Terry Gilliam?) and Christopher Plummer puts in a heart-tugging performance as Doctor Parnassus, the world-weary leader of a four-person traveling sideshow. While the rules of the world don't always make sense, it is a feast for the eyes that is well worth it. (Insert obligatory comment about this being Heath Ledger's final performance here.)

Ultraviolet (2006)
This movie is an absolute mess. It strings one violent action scene after another, held loosely together by something masquerading as a plot involving vampires, a golden child that may save the world, evil government, and some kind of a cure for something or other. The whole thing is rather hazy since most of the plot made absolutely no sense to go along with zero character development. This is a very disappointing followup for director Kurt Wimmer after the underrated Equilibrium.

Coming up next: two groups of people who are struggling to survive against natural elements that are trying to destroy them en masse.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Top and Bottom of 2010 - #7

Wonder Man (1945)
Danny Kaye gets to play two roles: a slick nightclub entertainer and his bumbling bookworm twin brother. Both are very funny and they each get a couple fun musical numbers, giving Kaye the opportunity to play both suave and neurotic to the hilt (both of which he does excellently). Wonder Man stands proudly beside The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and The Court Jester as one of Kaye’s most entertaining roles.

Cutthroat Island (1995)
Geena Davis is woefully miscast in this mess. She is far too quiet and mousy to be believable as a bloodthirsty pirate queen and looks embarrassingly out of place every time she tries to fight. None of the characters are interesting or likeable in any way, and all attempts at humor fall flat. Half the dialog consists solely of grunts and cries. And then there are the action sequences which have so little regard for the laws of physics (almost every cannonball explodes in a giant fireball) that they lose any semblance of credibility.

Coming up next: two movies that transport the audience into a uniquely visual world.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Top and Bottom of 2010 - #8

The Blind Side (2009)
Sandra Bullock is a force of nature as a WASPy wife and mother who takes an African American high schooler into her home, almost on a whim, because he had no other place to stay. What follows is a wonderful movie about unconditional love and how it can change the lives of not only the recipient but the giver as well. This is one of the best examples of feel-good cinema done right.

AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004)
The Alien franchise is full of scares, a sense of dread, and lots of R-rated violence. The lesser Predator franchise is full of new and interesting weapons that do lots of R-rated violence. Alien vs. Predator is full of uninteresting characters, silly ideas, and a distinct lack of R-rated violence. What's so important about the R-rated violence? It's an in-your-face demonstration of how powerful and dangerous the Aliens and Predators are. Tame the violence, tame the monster. And then there is an imprisoned Alien queen and a Predator that has to get assistance from a human, both of which further serve to defang the monsters. And what's with all these Aliens being on earth to begin with? One of the major issues of all four Alien films is "We can't let this thing get to earth. Ever." But apparently they were here all along. Yet all the damage this movie does to its parent franchises could be overlooked if it was any good. Unfortunately, that is not the case. There are no memorable characters, and they spend most of their time running around a pyramid so full of perils and booby traps that it never achieves even a modicum of believability. And what’s with the pyramid? Apparently, thousands of years ago the Predators came to earth and taught ancient civilizations how to build pyramids because there is no way humans could have figured out how to build something as massive as the pyramids with stone age technology. What a dim view of human ingenuity.

Coming up next: a slick movie and an obnoxious one.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Top and Bottom of 2010 - #9

Play Time (1967)
There is no real story to speak of here, merely a series of extended comedic set-pieces enacted almost entirely through the visuals. Jacques Tati as Monsieur Hulot wanders though a sterile, state-of-the-art office building, then through the streets and shops of Paris, and ends up at the grand opening of a restaurant where almost everything goes wrong. There are some wonderful gags sprinkled throughout the film: an elderly doorman confounded by an ultra-modern button panel that is a complete mystery to him, a head waiter and his misadventures with an unglued floor tile, a poor waiter whose uniform gets more and more disheveled as the evening wears on, and a plate glass door that isn’t there anymore. The pace of the film is almost maddeningly slow, leaving the audience to seek out the comedy instead of having it spoon-fed to them.

The Wicker Man (2006)
Nicholas Cage wears a bear suit, punches women, and screams ridiculous lines in this remake that fails in just about every aspect that the original succeeded. Where the original is creepy, this one is boring. Where the original is suspenseful, this one is silly. And while the original has an interesting religious discussion, this one creates an unnecessary back story for Cage’s character that only serves to confuse matters. To fully experience how special this movie is, I direct you to this video.

Coming up next: two unlikely matches.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Top and Bottom of 2010 - #10

Here we go with the 10 best and worst movies I've seen all last year. Any guesses as to which films come in at number one?

The Hurt Locker (2008)
This is a truly intense tale of three soldiers whose job is to defuse roadside bombs in Iraq. Jeremy Renner is riveting as Sergeant First Class William James, the man who actually does most of the dirty work. His unorthodox methods and casual attitude put him at odds with his more by-the-book compatriots, especially when it becomes apparent that he has become addicted to the adrenaline rush of defusing bombs. As the end of their deployment inches closer and closer, the audience holds its breath, hoping against hope that they will manage to survive each new day. Director Kathryn Bigelow keeps the tension level high throughout the film, deftly conducting the disarming of each new bomb so that each one is unique and has its own brand of terror.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
Having seen all seven seasons of the television show, I was interested to see "the one that started it all" (sort of). I went in knowing that it would be a far cry from the television show, but even knowing that I was still let down. The comedy fell flat, the drama was unengaging, the villain was yawn-inducing, and to top it all off, Kristy Swanson was completely unconvincing as any kind of superhero, giving me absolutely no reason to care about her as a person.

Coming up next: Two men who find themselves completely out of place.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

My 2010 Movie Odyssey - Part XXV

Eclipse (2010)
This is the best of the Twilight movies so far, but that is like saying bleach is the tastiest household cleaner. There actually are enough elements here to make a good movie including a reluctant alliance between two factions that are historically at war with each other. Unfortunately all the potential is squandered. Characters’ motivations are unclear, the dialog is clunky, and everyone (except the breath of fresh air Anna Kendrick) still suffers from giant pause-itis. Apparently Bella is really important for some reason or another, but the director, the screenwriter, and actress Kristen Stewart still have yet to show us why.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
I had no idea what to expect with this movie. The book is extremely episodic, which makes it very difficult to translate to the screen and as a result this is definitely the weakest of the Narnia films so far. The added characters did little more than get in the way, the story often felt rushed, and the inclusion of a quest to find a bunch of swords made me feel like I was watching a video game. There were also times when the screenwriters opted to write their own dialog when Lewis’s original words would have worked just as well or better (and never once did the Dufflepuds exclaim “Keep it up, Chief!”). But there is still a lot to like in this movie. The production design looks great, Will Poulter (of Son of Rambow fame) is perfect as Eustace, and the newer take on Repicheep as a pint-sized Cyrano de Bergerac is well done. The best part of the movie is watching the relationship between Eustace and Repicheep grow from bitter antagonists to best friends. And almost all faults were forgiven when Aslan uttered one of my favorite lines from the books at the end.

Baseball (1994)
Ken Burns’ loving yet epic documentary tells the story of baseball through the twentieth century. It chronicles baseball’s humble beginnings all the way to the mega-franchises of today, with numerous highs and lows along the way. There is plenty of talk about Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Ty Cobb, but there is also plenty of time devoted to the Negro leagues and to the way baseball existed outside the major leagues. I would call this a love letter to baseball, except that description falls far too short of the amazing accomplishment that Baseball is. All 19 hours of it.

Baseball: The Tenth Inning (2010)
A lot has happened in the baseball world since 1994, so Ken Burns decided to make a sequel to his epic documentary. This time it was a little different for me since I started following baseball in 1993, so I lived through everything the film chronicles. All the important things are here: Roger Maris’ record falling to Mark McGwire whose record in turn fell to Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron’s record falling to Bonds, Cal Ripken Jr. outlasting Lou Gehrig, and the Red Sox finally winning the World Series (twice). But the largest chunk is devoted to the steroids scandal. What could have been a very angry and vindictive treatment was instead sorrowful and introspective, trying to understand why and how it happened instead of pointing fingers. There were a few things that I wish they had included (most notably Ricky Henderson, Ivan Rodriguez, and fantasy baseball) but overall it is a nice followup to a great film. The only true misstep comes at the beginning when it chronicles the despair of Giants fans who root for a team that has never won a World Series, made obsolete since I just watched the Giants beat my Rangers in the World Series just two months prior.

A Cry in the Dark (1988)
This is the heartbreaking tale of a family which is forced to deal with a personal tragedy under intense media scrutiny. It is also a scathing indictment of how the media can quickly turn heroes into villains almost on a whim and can take a simple story and blow it completely out of proportion.

Being There (1979)
Peter Sellers is charming as a simple-minded gardener who becomes a national voice of wisdom through a series of misadventures. The film is quiet fun with the only drawback being a scene where a character masturbates that is supposed to be played for laughs but is completely out of place with the rest of the movie.

Coming up next: my top and bottom 10 lists from last year kick off.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

My 2010 Movie Odyssey - Part XXIV

Renaissance (2006)
The stark black and white imagery was interesting for the first ten minutes, but as the movie wore on I found myself longing for some shades of gray to add depth and flavor to the world. The story was interesting enough to hold my attention but I can only recommend this film to people who are looking for alternate, more adult animated fare.

White Zombie (1932)
This movie had the misfortune to come out in the early talkie years. As a result the dialog is wretched and the sound quality is uneven. There is plenty of interesting atmosphere here, but the film would have been better had it either been a silent film or waited a few years and been produced by Val Lewton. It has an interesting take on zombies, and Bela Lugosi is creepy as always, but the overall effect is still more silly than scary.

Thelma & Louise (1991)
Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis are electric as the titular duo. And while I can’t condone all of their behavior, I couldn’t take my eyes off them. And once again Brad Pitt proves that he is at his best in off-kilter supporting roles.

Inglorious Basterds (2009)
I never find Quentin Tarantino’s films to be boring yet I rarely find them entertaining. Though they are all high energy thrill rides they almost always leave me feeling cold. This film is no exception. While I can admire the craft that went into making the movie, Tarantino fills the film with so many unlikable characters that I never feel good about rooting for any of them.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
This film has plenty of laughs, a couple good musical numbers, and lots of entertainment in between. There’s not much to distinguish it from the other Technicolor musicals of its day but there’s plenty of fun to be had.

Coming up next: the final six.