Saturday, December 31, 2011

My 2011 Movie Odyssey - Part IX

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)
I liked the first movie and was an apologist for the second movie, but I can’t do it any more. The movie is loud and obnoxious, most of the humor falls flat, and for a movie that claims to be about the Transformers, there are an awful lot of long sequences that don’t even feature them. I’d love to see more Transformers movies, but they really need to start from scratch and hire a director who is more interested in plot than with explosions.

Mildred Pierce (1945)
I enjoyed this noir-ish mystery and the character of Mildred Pierce is fascinating, but I wanted to strangle her daughter Veda (though to be fair, that’s the response I was supposed to have).

Whip It (2009)
I mostly liked this movie, though I am disappointed by how much better it could have been. Ellen Page’s character is the only one we really get to know, and while I know a little bit more about how roller derby works, the film never fully explains how the sport works. That being said, it was still quite enjoyable, and for a girl power movie you could do a whole lot worse.

Thor (2011)
It is a fun movie, but I found it hard to fully accept Norse gods running around the mostly realistic world already created by the Iron Man movies (even with the mumbo-jumbo about them actually being interdimentional aliens).

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
This black comedy is fairly amusing. The main reason to watch it is to see Alec Guiness play all eight members of an old, aristocratic British family.

Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
The Friedman family is turned upside down when loving father and husband Arnold Friedman is found to have child pornography in his possession. But then things spin wildly out of control as a slew of additional accusations are leveled against him. They are despicable. And yet almost all of them fail the "let's think about this for a minute" test. This fascinating documentary takes complicated subject matter and leaves the audience to try to determine what the real truth is.

The Watcher in the Woods (1980)
I was brought up on the live action Disney films of the 70s and 80s, and have seen most of them. But there were still a few glaring holes in my Disney watching history. That, coupled with an anemic Netflix queue, led me to start filling those holes. The Watcher in the Woods has some wonderfully creepy moments and looks great. Even if the ending left me wanting, it was still an enjoyable journey.

In Search of the Castaways (1962)
It starts out really funny. A science professor goes through a series of misadventures in an attempt to sneak himself and the two children in his care onto a boat bound for exotic locales. This opening act is really entertaining, and Maurice Chevalier is instantly likeable as the professor. But then the globetrotting adventures start, and I found it increasingly difficult to suspend my disbelief since the situations our group of adventurers found themselves in got increasingly far-fetched.

Babe: Pig in the City (1998)
This is a charming movie full of wonderfully quirky characters and excellent animatronic work. I especially liked the look of the film with it's warm, slightly stylized aesthetic that reminded me a lot of Amelie and the television show Pushing Daisies.

The Cat from Outer Space (1978)
It's kind of That Darn Cat meets Escape to Witch Mountain, and is a whole lot of fun, even if it gets a little silly at times. The plot revolves around a scientist who teams up with the cat from the title to collect the materials the cat needs to repair his space ship. Of special note is Harry Morgan as the army general who is in charge of tracking down the alien; nobody can do gruff comedy quite like him. And of course the film is further proof that cats make wonderful movie characters. I really wish there were more cat movies out there.

Monday, December 26, 2011

My 2011 Movie Odyssey - Part VIII

Thunderball (1965)
It’s James Bond, doing James Bond things. Really, most of the James Bond films, while entertaining, start to all look the same after a while. The only thing really separating this one from the others is the climactic underwater battle at the end. But while it is well-choreographed and very ambitious, everyone moves at half speed since they are underwater, and much of the energy is lost.

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Everyone in this movie is a mean slimeball looking to advance themselves in society so they can be even bigger mean slimeballs.

Wait Until Dark (1967)
Audrey Hepburn is amazing as a blind woman who unknowingly gets caught up with a group of drug dealers. There is plenty of thrills and suspense throughout the movie, and the way Hepburn’s character finally deals with her antagonists is wonderful.

The Big Heat (1953)
This is one of the first “obsessed cop does whatever it takes to bring down the bad guys” films and also one of the best. Glenn Ford stars as Dave Bannion, a cop on a mission to take down a local drug lord. Along the way he encounters damaged dames, truly evil thugs (especially the one played by Lee Marvin) and corruption that goes all the way up to the police commissioner. I especially liked the scenes of Bannion interacting with his wife; they are so warm and amusing they paint a wonderful portrait of marital bliss in the midst of an otherwise very dark movie.

Troll 2 (1990)
Every once in a while a movie comes along that is famous for being so bad. This movie is so inept that someone made a whole documentary about how bad it is. First of all, there is not a single troll to be seen in this movie. Instead we get a town full of goblins. The goblins look like cheap Halloween costumes and apparently their favorite food is half human half plant. The acting is bad across the board, especially Deborah Reed as the goblin queen, who chews so much scenery that it’s a wonder there was a set left by the end of the movie. All the characters are idiots, none of them even approaching likability. And then there is the script, full of clunky dialog and loads of “as you know, Bob” exposition. But the absolute best part of the movie comes during a car trip. Mom tries to cheer up her son by getting him to sing. “Sing that song I like so much.” Taking a page from Manos: The Hands of Fate, I mockingly started singing “Row, row, row your boat.” And then the kid started singing. “Row, row, row your boat...”

Time Runner (1993)
Mark Hamill tries his best to break away from Luke Skywalker, but unfortunately he’s just not a good enough actor to pull it off. The story is pretty mediocre and the time travel elements don’t really work since the screenwriters never really bothered to set rules and follow them.

Cars 2 (2011)
Is it the weakest Pixar movie to date? Yes. Does that mean it’s a bad movie? Absolutely not! While the story is pretty pedestrian, there is plenty of imaginative eye candy on the screen. In many ways it reminds me of the opening sequence of Toy Story 3 - we get to see inside John Lasseter’s mind as he played with his toy cars as a child.

Super 8 (2011)
This movie does an excellent job of capturing the feel of a late 70s/early 80s Steven Spielberg movie. It is also just as entertaining.

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
I like how this isn’t an origin story trying to tell the story of how Abraham Lincoln became Abraham Lincoln. Instead, it’s merely a chapter in the life of someone who eventually goes on to become a great American. The bulk of the movie centers on a court case where Lincoln is defending a couple young men who are accused of murder. Henry Fonda is a joy to watch as Lincoln, and he commands the screen wonderfully, both in dramatic courtroom scenes as well as quiet moments with the family of the young men accused of murder.

High Sierra (1941)
I liked Humphrey Bogart’s character of a gangster who just can’t seem to make it in the outside world. But I couldn’t stand the stupid dog that Bogart adopts, who gets way too much screen time and always brings trouble to the people around him.

Monday, December 12, 2011

My 2011 Movie Odyssey - Part VII

The Italian Job (1969)
It started out kind of slow, and it was difficult keeping straight who all the different characters were and what was really going on. But then the infamous car chase started and the movie instantly skyrocketed from mediocre afterthought to minor classic. It is so much fun watching a trio of Mini Coopers evade the authorities through city streets, across the Italian countryside, and even on top of a building.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
This is an ugly, depressing story about unpleasant, unhappy people who wallow in an unclean world (until the bathhouse/brothel gets up and running, making the uncleanliness more metaphorical). I didn't like anyone in the film, and the background music was both out of place and annoying.

Never Let Me Go (2010)
It's kind of like The Island (or Parts: The Clonus Horror, if you prefer) with all the chases and explosions replaced with character development and musing on the human condition. With no special effects wizardry to worry about, the film is able to explore what life would really be like for people who grow up knowing that they will one day have their organs harvested from them. What results is a melancholy story that I found surprisingly engaging and beautiful as the film asks, "How do you live your life when you know your time is limited?"

Blindsight (2006)
This movie tells the tale of an expedition to take a group of Tibetan teenagers and have them hike the mountain that is right next door to Mount Everest. The kicker: the teenagers are all blind. Throughout the film we get to know the teenagers, their troubles and ambitions, as well as their handlers on the journey and several family members. It is heartwarming as the team conquers each obstacle, tense as the leaders have to make the hard decisions about whether to continue on when half the group is suffering from altitude sickness, and heartbreaking as various parents try to reconcile their child's blindness with their Buddhist beliefs.

Evil Dead II (1987)
It has its moments, but it's mostly 84 minutes of gross violence that is sometimes scary.

In a Lonely Place (1950)
Humphrey Bogart is rather unlikeable as a screenwriter who tries to clear his name when he is the prime suspect in the murder of a young woman. To be honest, I'm not that fond of doomed love stories.

The Way Back (2010)
I really wanted to like this movie. Peter Weir has directed two of my favorite movies (The Truman Show and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) and I've been anxiously waiting for his next movie for several years. Unfortunately, it was a long, arduous movie whose characters never really distinguish themselves from one another. There were a few sequences that really worked, especially a cleverly edited montage at the end, but for a true story about a group of men achieving the impossible, the whole thing was rather flat.

Charlie, the Lonesome Cougar (1967)
This simple little Disney film is kind of charming as it tells the tale of a cougar who is raised by a group of loggers. It’s the type of thing I would have liked as a kid, though I’ve kind of outgrown such stories.

Reds (1981)
This movie can’t decide what kind of a movie it is. It starts with a series of real life people talking about journalist and communist John Reed and his girlfriend/lover/not wife Louise Bryant. Then we get Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton running around as Reed and Bryant, doing the things that the talking heads were just talking about. Then we get more talking heads. Then another dose of Beatty and Keaton. Just pick one: documentary or biopic. And at over three hours, the movie is interminably long. The filmmakers really needed to remove the talking heads (or even better, the Beatty and Keaton melodrama) to give the movie a more taut running time. Of course then I started to wonder what was the purpose of even having this movie at all. I disagreed with almost everything Reed said, and the relationship stuff was an unending cycle of fighting, moping, and making up.

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)
It is a tragic story, but the screenplay works so hard to paint the protagonist in the best light possible that it quickly loses any semblance of a reasoned argument. The film is still worthwhile as a historical document, but it has not aged well. And Paul Muni is the 1930s version of Sean Penn, and I don’t mean that in a good way.

Friday, December 9, 2011

My 2011 Movie Odyssey - Part VI

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)
There are some interesting images in this early talkie from Fritz Lang that would have been better as a silent film.

The Country Girl (1954)
Grace Kelly goes plain and won an Oscar in this OK movie. Wait, what am I saying? Grace Kelly is supposed to illuminate the screen in gorgeous gowns by Edith Head. This is a terrible movie.

Three’s a Crowd (1927)
Having seen most of the important silent comedies from Keaton, Lloyd, and that other guy, I was interested in checking out the work of Harry Langdon. My first foray into his films was a major disappointment. The movie is not very funny and the plot is seriously flawed. But the biggest issue I have with the movie is one of missed opportunities. There is a comically long flight of stairs leading up to Langdon's apartment, which he does absolutely nothing with. Chaplin would have walked up and down the stairs in a funny way, Lloyd would have almost fallen off them, and Keaton would have built a whole sequence around them, but Langdon lets them sit there begging to realize their comic potential.

The Chaser (1928)
Fortunately there were two Harry Langdon movies on the disc, and The Chaser was quite funny. Langdon manages to make doing mundane housework and even just sitting there very funny. The plot is rather ridiculous, but I enjoyed Langdon's performance and am eager to check out more of his work.

The Fly (1958)
Constructed more as a murder mystery than a monster movie, The Fly is very entertaining and manages to avoid being hokey like many of its contemporaries. And the final scene is still quite chilling.

King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
This movie is terrible. King Kong looks like a man in a bad monkey suit and his face makes him look incredibly stupid. The fight scenes are uninspiring, the models look like models, and the whole idea of electricity making King Kong stronger is just laughable.

Samurai Cop (1989)
This is a gloriously bad movie. The action scenes fail at being thrilling or believable, the cinematography is shoddy, the dialog is awful (with lines like, “I will bring you his head and I will place it on your piano.”), and it even features Robert Z'Dar and his incredibly huge face. Samurai Cop's sidekick can't decide if he's the stoic silent type, or the wise-cracking black guy, and he manages to pick wrong in every single reaction shot. But the best part about Samurai Cop is the Samurai Cop's hair. The actor sports gloriously long 80s locks, but halfway through filming he cut his hair, so wears cinema's worst wig for half the movie. The great thing is that it switches back and forth between real hair and wig throughout the movie, even in the middle of some scenes.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
This is the kind of movie tailor-made to win cinematography awards. It looks great. Unfortunately the film is way too long for its own good and drags far too often, especially in the final act.

Monster Camp (2007)
This documentary tries to tell the real story behind the people who participate in Live-Action Role Playing (or LARPing), but the production value is amateur, the subjects aren't particularly interesting, and it never manages to really explain how LARPing works or tell much of a story.

Little Caesar (1931)
Maybe its just too much of a precursor, but I found the story to be unengaging and the tough-guy dialog felt hokey. I guess I only like my classic gangster movies to star James Cagney.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

My 2011 Movie Odyssey - Part V

Strange Invaders (1983)
This is a rather forgettable movie that is neither funny enough for a spoof of 50's B-movies nor affectionate enough for an homage.

Let Me In (2010)
This American remake of Let the Right One In brings very little in the way of anything new to the material. In fact, its so similar that there's very little reason to see both versions. (Though I would vote for the first one not only because it was the first, but also because the remake uses a false inciting incident: taking an exciting scene from the middle of the movie and putting it at the beginning to hook the audience then throwing up a "Three Months Earlier" title.)

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009)
The movie was not nearly as bad as I was expecting it to be. If you go in with low enough expectations, it's actually kind of fun.

The Killer (1989)
The main reason the see this movie is the copious amount of gloriously over-the-top gun battles.

Cube (1997)
Six strangers find themselves in a maze-like building of identical rooms. There they must figure out how to survive the deadly traps that are found in most of the rooms and ultimately escape. There's plenty of tension and the various traps are rather inventive, but the whole thing is overly grim, both with the characters and the ending.

A Serious Man (2009)
I didn't like any of the characters and all the bad things that kept happening to the main character just got ridiculous. I expect more from the Coen Brothers.

The Nutty Professor (1963)
I am just not a fan of Jerry Lewis. This is supposed to be his best movie, yet I found both versions of the professor to be woefully unfunny.

Trafic (1971)
While not as good as Jacques Tati's other films, there are still plenty of amusing moments as he tries to get an experimental vehicle to an auto show.

Henry V (1989)
I now know the context for the “Band of Brothers” speech.

Boys Town (1938)
Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan is really awesome and the idea of a Boys Town is a really interesting one (especially once I learned that it is a real place), but Mickey Rooney's troubled youngster was a bit too much of a caricature for me.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

My 2011 Movie Odyssey - Part IV

Ooh! Blog posts two days in a row! I'm going crazy! (Or something.)

When Worlds Collide (1951)
In a precursor to Deep Impact, a rogue planet is on a collision course with Earth. The only way for the human race to survive is to build a space ark and be off Earth when the planets collide. What follows is an interesting and at times intense story of human ingenuity and survival, with both the best and worst of humanity on display.

127 Hours (2010)
James Franco does a one man show through most of the movie as a hiker who gets his arm trapped by a boulder and has to cut it off in order to get free. Franco does an admirable job carrying the movie and the amputation scene is fittingly unsettling. The only real flaw in the film are the occasional dream sequences featuring other people; they break the tone of isolation that is one of the film's strongest features. (It also contains what may be my favorite burp in movie history.)

eXistenZ (1999)
This movie tries to keep the audience guessing as to what is reality and what is not, but I stopped caring about half-way in and the ending left me extremely dissatisfied.

Aeon Flux (2005)
The story is rather silly, but the fight scenes are choreographed well and it has an interesting look.

Unknown (2006)
Five men wake up in a warehouse all suffering from amnesia. It's fascinating to watch as they try to figure out who they are and why they are there, and which of them are the good guys and which are the bad guys. There are a few flashback scenes and a few flash sideways, but the bulk of the movie (and all of the interesting stuff) takes place within the warehouse.

Hercules (1983)
I remember seeing the ending of a Hercules movie some time ago that featured as its climax Hercules going into space and turning into bad animation to defeat the bad guy. It was really bad and I was interested in seeing the whole thing. I hoped this would be it, but sadly it wasn't. Fortunately, it was as bad as I remembered the other one being. Lou Ferrigno stars as the worst Hercules I've ever seen. From the neck down he actually looks like Hercules should look, but his face is too soft to be convincing as a hardened warrior. Add to that wooden acting and only one facial expression of dull bemusement and Ferrigno brings the world of beefy action stars to a new low. Herc fights ridiculous, laser-shooting mechanical monsters, travels from one place to another for no apparent reason, duels King Minos with a light saber, and gets huge. The screenplay has no narrative cohesion with things happening merely due to the screenwriter's whim. This is the worst Hercules movie I've seen. (And it has a sequel!)

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
The first half of the movie tells the tale of Mr. Toad from The Wind in the Willows. While there's nothing bad about it I found the whole thing rather flat. Things get much better in the second half, which tells the tale of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It is dark, atmospheric, a little scary, and very entertaining.

Winter’s Bone (2010)
High schooler Ree has to make sure her father makes a scheduled court date so the family won't lose their house in an isolated Ozark community. Jennifer Lawrence puts in a strong performance as Ree, as she tries her best to keep her family together. What I found most fascinating about this movie is more about what isn't there. There are big things going on with drug dealing but we see almost none of it. Instead, the filmmakers take a minor character from a film noir and make her the hero of her own little story.

The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008)
This Korean re-imagining of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is wild and full of energy. However, I never really latched on to any of the characters and the ending was unsatisfactory. Recommended mostly for fans of Asian cinema and spaghetti westerns.

Tron: Legacy (2010)
I love the 1982 original and was really looking forward to the second chapter of the Tron saga. Unfortunately, the whole thing fell rather flat. The messianic themes of the original are replaced with eastern mysticism. The action sequences were overblown and many felt like they existed just to throw flashy imagery at the audience. In many ways, Tron: Legacy reminds me of The Matrix Reloaded in that it took the unique, original vision of its precursor and expanded it but did it in a way that made everything more muddled and far less interesting. And CG young Jeff Bridges just looked wrong.

Friday, December 2, 2011

My 2011 Movie Odyssey - Part III

Micmacs (2009)
While not as good as Amelie or some of his other earlier work, Jean-Pierre Jeunet still infuses this film with plenty of quirky characters and lots of his unique visual and narrative style. The whole movie ends up being quite fun.

Things to Come (1936)
As a vision of the future, the movie is pretty interesting, predicting what life will be like from 1936 to 2036. It's fun to compare what they got right and what was wildly inaccurate. Unfortunately, it's rather boring. Since it covers so much time the characters keep dying off to be replaced by new characters, depriving the audience of anyone to really latch on to. And the movie is so preachy in its anti-war message that it manages to sap any remaining energy right out of the film.

Shallow Grave (1994)
Danny Boyle's directorial debut is full of unhappy people doing unpleasant things to each other; a real downer of a movie.

MirrorMask (2005)
I give the movie points for creating a new world but take them all back for its visual style. Everything is distorted in a grotesque way and half the time I felt like I was watching the movie through a dirty pane of glass. The plot is little more than a twisted retelling of Alice in Wonderland, and the plot twists were either cliched or contrived.

Blood Simple. (1984)
Several sequences are very well crafted but the overall bleak tone of the movie kept me from enjoying it.

Die Hard 2 (1990)
This seems little more than a bad episode of 24. I found some of the plot twists unexpected, but only because they were really dumb.

It Came from Outer Space (1953)
There's little in this movie to separate it from all the other alien invasion movies of the 1950s.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010)
As I expected, the movie was a little too long and slow and didn't have a satisfying ending. This is the problem with telling a story in two parts that was never designed to be split up. I can't pass final judgement until I see Part 2, but right now I feel that there should be just one really long movie. (And they still left too much for Part 2.)

Catfish (2010)
What starts out as a rather unremarkable documentary about a photographer quickly escalates to being almost a thriller about the way people choose to present themselves to the world.

The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002)
This is an interesting look into the life of Robert Evans, one of Hollywood's most celebrated producers. My main problem with it is that of the four movies that get the most attention, The Godfather is the only one I like and I utterly loathe Love Story and Rosemary's Baby.