Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Top and Bottom of 2011 - Honorable Mentions

The time has come to reveal the best and worst that I saw this year. In all I watched 147 movies (plus a couple more that I didn't record here on the blog). Far too many of them were mediocre, but a select few stood up and demanded to be counted on both extremes of the spectrum. I will get to those soon, but first I wanted to give out a couple honorable mentions. These were both pieces of note that for different reasons I deemed them ineligible for either list. But since I'm the one making the rules I can bend them any way I like. So without further ado, here are the official honorable mentions from this 2011.

The Doctor’s Wife (2011)
The best thing I saw all year was actually an episode of a television show. This episode of Doctor Who is funny, thrilling, sweet, and heartbreaking, and all in about 45 minutes. While I’m not sure this would make a good first episode for someone looking to get into Doctor Who, it has become an instant favorite. And I highly recommend the show. There’s a reason an episode of Doctor Who has won the Hugo award for “best dramatic presentation - short form” five times over the past six years (with a total of sixteen nominations).

Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (1972)
Back when I started making these end-of-year lists, I decided that any movie I saw that was an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 would be ineligible for consideration for the bottom ten list. I made this decision mostly because it would be just too easy filling the list with the dregs of cinema that Joel, Mike, and the Bots found for me instead of using films I sought out myself. Mystery Science Theater 3000 is no more (pause for a moment of silence) but Rifftrax has come to take its place. While they make downloadable commentaries for recent big-budget blockbusters, they also continue the spirit of MST3K by unearthing really bad movies from yesteryear. This was one of those movies. Santa’s sleigh is stuck in the sand and his reindeer have flown away. So he enlists the aid of the neighborhood kids who try to pull his sleigh out of the sand using various barnyard animals while Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn look on. When everything fails, Santa says, “This reminds me of the story of Thumbelina.” So he tells the neighborhood kids the story of Thumbelina as they look on in boredom, wishing they could be doing something exciting and interesting like homework instead of listening to the old man drone on and on. The story of Thumbelina is an entire short inside this movie with its own credit sequence and is mostly a long commercial for a defunct amusement park called Pirates World. When the story is done, the Ice Cream Bunny drives up on his fire truck. Santa says, “Of course! The Ice Cream Bunny! Why didn’t I think of that?” Then everyone is happy and the movie ends. This was hands-down the worst movie I saw all year. The plot has an IQ of -3, no one can act worth a lick, and the whole thing is interminably slow. However, I deemed it ineligible since it was essentially another episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Coming up next: Movies that are fun (and not-so-fun) for the whole family.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

My 2011 Movie Odyssey - Part XV

Drive (2011)
This is a surprisingly smart action movie with some really slick driving and shockingly brutal violence.

The Help (2011)
This film examines what life was like for African American women in the South working as maids in the 1960s. This is the type of movie that seems to be made to get lots of end-of-year awards, dealing with an Important subject and featuring a cast of notable performances. Fortunately it is still quite entertaining and very rarely does it scream, “Look how Important I am! Give me lots of golden statues!”

Hot Lead and Cold Feet (1978)
This is a fun little western comedy with Jim Dale playing three different roles. More Disney fun.

Ip Man 2 (2010)
This is a pretty good follow-up to Ip Man that follows a very similar story structure. The first half is devoted to lots of mostly light-hearted kung fu hijinks while the second half has Ip Man defending the honor of the Chinese people. But this time his opponent is not the Japanese but the British Empire.

The Sleeping Beauty (2010)
It starts out as a kind of interesting re-imagining of the Sleeping Beauty story. I liked some of the fairy tale aspects as Sleeping Beauty dreams a series of adventures for herself while she sleeps for a hundred years. But then things got really weird and it felt like an entire act of the story was missing and the whole thing stopped being interesting in any way.

David Copperfield (1935)
I don’t know if I’ve seen a bad movie based on a Charles Dickens novel. He fills his stories with so many wonderfully quirky characters that they are just begging to be performed by an all-star cast. This movie is no exception. There are wonderful characters galore, with my absolute favorite being Edna May Oliver as the somewhat cranky, set-in-her-ways yet lovable Aunt Betsey.

Best Worst Movie (2009)
I am fascinated by bad movies. In fact, I am almost more excited to compile my bottom ten of the year than my top ten. So this documentary was right up my alley as it looked into the cinematic atrocity that is Troll 2. It was fun to watch interviews featuring the actors in the movie as they told stories of what it was like on set. Most of these actors were fully aware both of how bad the movie is and how bad their performances were. But the ribbing was all in good fun. We also get to see a bunch of fans of the movie who love it because it is so bad. Unfortunately it does get a little painful when they interview the director of Troll 2. He is under the delusion that it is a good movie and doesn’t seem to understand that the only reason people love the movie is because it is so bad. I felt a little sorry for him since he was the only person in the room not laughing at the joke.

And so ends my 2011 Movie Odyssey. Coming up soon is my top and bottom ten of the year. Any predictions?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

My 2011 Movie Odyssey - Part XIV

The Last King of Scotland (2006)
Forest Whitaker puts in an all-out performance as African dictator Idi Amin, a man who is instantly personable yet morally repulsive.

Contagion (2011)
This is the kind of movie that Roland Emmerich keeps making, but done right. A mysterious illness spreads over the world at an alarming rate, killing millions. The film tells the story of a wide variety of people and how they respond to living in the worldwide epidemic. The bulk of the screentime is devoted to the doctors and scientists who work trying to isolate the disease and develop a vaccine. Each is a hero in his or her own way. But we also get Matt Damon as the husband of the first person to die of the disease as he tries to keep together what’s left of his family and stay alive. We also get Jude Law as a conspiracy theorist/blogger who tries to profit from the epidemic. There’s Marion Cotillard as a World Health Organization agent who is kidnaped and held for ransom so that a village will be the first to get the vaccine. Director Steven Soderbergh deftly weaves all these story threads together to tell a story of how the world might cope if faced with a similar crisis in real life. Each storyline is compelling in its own way and is believable every step of the way. Which makes the movie all the more chilling as this could actually happen.

Summer Stock (1950)
Judy Garland and Gene Kelly put on a show! The story is amusing if nothing special. The main reason to see this movie is the scene in which Gene Kelly dances with a squeaky board and a newspaper. (Trust me, it’s amazing.)

Do You Like Hitchcock? (2005)
I do. Quite a lot, actually. Which is why I don’t recommend this movie. It makes direct homage to Strangers on a Train, Vertigo, Psycho, Rear Window, and Dial M for Murder but is vastly inferior to each of those films. If you like Hitchcock, watch more Hitchcock, not this second-rate imitation.

Hanna (2011)
It’s fun watching Saoirse Ronan kick butt, but I wish movies like this didn’t have so high a body count. The good guys kill random bystanders almost as frequently as the bad guys.

Marjorie Morningstar (1958)
The first half feels like a musical without any musical numbers and is kind of fun. Of special note is Ed Wynn who is very good as a protective, somewhat eccentric uncle. But the second half goes into full-on drama mode and gets really boring.

The Muppets (2011)
I’m a big fan of the Muppets, especially their work on The Muppet Show. One of the things that I noticed with their movies starting with Muppet Christmas Carol is that the humor wasn’t quite as sharp. It was as if the Muppets had been tamed. I was hopeful when the screenwriters claimed they were trying to recapture the feel of The Muppet Show and the first couple movies, but they were the same screenwriters who did very adult comedies. Would they be able to reign in their baser instincts and deliver a movie fit for the whole family? Fortunately, they did. The movie does an excellent job of keeping the feel of the television show. The jokes are funny, the songs are fun (with “Life’s a Happy Song” being an especially catchy standout), and there are some wonderful celebrity cameos. It was like spending time with old friends again, and I had a smile on my face through the whole movie.

King Kong (1976)
It’s not so much that it’s a bad movie, but that it’s not interesting, and the guy in a monkey suit is not nearly as convincing as the stop-motion Kong.

The Mummy (1932)
The makeup on Boris Karloff is really good, but the story is rather lackluster. And I never really understood the whole Egypt craze back in the day.

Les Girls (1957)
This musical takes the idea of the unreliable narrator and runs with it. The same basic story is told from three very different perspectives and it is quite fun watching the story unfold from each unique perspective. There are also some fun musical numbers including “Ladies in Waiting,” a surprisingly risque number for the time period.

Friday, January 20, 2012

My 2011 Movie Odyssey - Part XIII

Vampyr (1932)
There is some wonderful use of shadows, but the movie really wishes it was a silent film and the story is confusing.

Gran Torino (2008)
Humor can come from a lot of places. It happens when people say funny things (like Groucho and Chico Marx), it happens when people do funny things (like Harpo Marx), and it happens when funny things happen to someone (like Bringing Up Baby). Humor also can happen on a more subtler level when you get folks just being folks (like most of Garrison Keilor’s Lake Wobegon stories). There is plenty of this final kind of humor in Gran Torino. Not to say that it’s a comedy since the movie deals with some serious subject matter as Walt (played by Clint Eastwood) tries to keep his next-door neighbors from getting caught up in a destructive gang world. But I was surprised at how much I laughed as set-in-his-ways Walt was continually nudged out of his comfort zone. I loved watching the characters interact with each other, especially the scenes of Walt teaching his neighbor how to be a man. (There is a disappointing dearth of scenes like this in movies today, though that’s a rant for another day.) And I loved the ending. Too often a movie like this may end up with an ending that is either too contrived to be believable or too convenient to be satisfactory, but this ending feels so right I can’t come up with a better one. Every once in a while a movie comes along that completely surprises me with how much I like it; this is one of those.

Destiny (1921)
There are some striking visuals in this silent movie as a woman tries to convince Death to return her beloved to her.

Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924)
Called the first Soviet science fiction film, I was interested to check it out. It starts out promising enough as a scientist tries to build a rocket to fly to Mars. But by the time he gets to Mars and starts a Communist revolution there, I had lost all interest in the movie. The visuals are interesting only in a “this is what Russians in 1924 thought futuristic and exotic looked like” way as they look rather silly today.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
I just couldn’t get over how bad the scientists were in this film. First they start off making rash assumptions and promises due to incomplete research. Then, when one of them gets exposed to the airborne version of the “make monkeys smarter” drug, do they put him in quarantine, or at least under observation? No. He just continues on his merry way. And then when he start showing unusual symptoms, does he go to a doctor or tell the other scientists? No. Instead, he tries to continue on his merry way, and is ultimately responsible for the future destruction of the human race. There are some fun action sequences and Andy Serkis’s motion capture performance as the main ape is very good, but the poor science just reeked of sloppy storytelling.

Source Code (2011)
Time travel stories can be really tricky. This one mostly works though the ending was too convenient.

The Last Unicorn (1982)
I’m glad I read the book before I watched the movie, as I’m not sure I would have liked it as much had I not known the kind of story it was trying to tell.

Strange Days (1995)
While some of the science fiction ideas were interesting, the movie goes into some really dark and gruesome places.

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)
I really liked this story about a man who tries to defy fate to be with the woman he loves. I liked how simple and subtle most of the effects were and it asks some interesting questions about the nature of free will and even God. I also liked how it ties in neatly with Tolkien’s concept of the music of the Ainur from the Silmarillion.

Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2010)
How is it that a movie can be as inept as this one is in every single aspect possible? The acting is flat, the dialog is clunky at best, the sound is worse than most student films, and the effects are less convincing than the grasshoppers-on-a-postcard shots from Beginning of the End. The story is the illegitimate child of The Birds and An Inconvenient Truth. And for some reason, all the birds explode when they run into things. I have a hard time coming up with the worst scene in the movie. It could be the one where our heroes defend themselves from hovering CG birds by randomly waving around coat hangers. It could be the one where the protagonist extolls the benefits of solar panels (or as he calls them, “sorpaos”). It might be the scene where our heroes walk out of a screening of An Inconvenient Truth and one of them says, “That was a really good movie. I’m going to buy a hybrid now.” But my vote probably has to go to all the scenes devoted to either parking or cautiously pulling into traffic. No other film I have seen has devoted so much time to these two activities that are marginally more entertaining than watching paint dry.

I'm almost done with 2011!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

My 2011 Movie Odyssey - Part XII

Wizards (1977)
I consider the animated movie of The Lord of the Rings to be one of the worst movies I have ever seen, but I was willing to give director Ralph Bakshi another chance. This time around he was telling his own story and didn't have to adapt something as massive as Tolkien's masterpiece into a reasonable running time. Unfortunately, free range Ralph Bakshi isn't much better. The fantasy world he creates makes little sense as most of the rules seem made up on the fly. The animation is cheap, often relying heavily on rotoscoping and stills. (Not-so-small side note: I categorically dislike rotoscoping in animated movies. It's as if the director can't decide whether to make an animated movie or a live action one so says, "Let's do both!" But instead of getting the best that each medium has to offer, what we are left with is the worst of both worlds. Rotoscoped images almost always look woefully out of place once they are placed into an animated world. And one of the main reasons for doing an animated movie as opposed to a live action one is the freedom animation affords filmmakers. Rotoscoping throws that freedom right out the window and deprives animators of the chance to fully ply their craft. Rotoscoping can occasionally be used for interesting stylish effect, most notably in Waking Life, but 99% of the time it is just garish. I'm also left wondering if motion capture is the new rotoscoping.) Characters flip-flop their allegiances on a whim, powerful magical people don't even know how to use their own magic, the bad guy motivates his army using the power of Hitler, and the fairy princess spends the whole movie dressed in extremely revealing lingerie. It claims to be a kids' movie, but I don't find it suitable for people of any age.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
This is a very entertaining movie and Steve Rogers/Captain America is quite a compelling character. I liked how they went with a historical context for him, placing the movie during WWII. Unfortunately, the final scene felt out of place and tacked on. It really should have been the first scene of the next movie or the post-credits scene.

Machete (2010)
What started out as a fake trailer in Grindhouse has become a full-fledged movie. It's quite enjoyable as mindless, over-the-top entertainment.

Waiting for “Superman” (2010)
This documentary takes a sobering look at the state of public education in America today. While it does a great job at pointing out many of the flaws, there aren't a whole lot of solutions to be seen. And I've never been advertised to so much during the closing credits as half a dozen times I was encouraged to send a text to number X "for more information" (not to mention the number of times the film's website was thrown at me as well).

Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010)
Maybe I was just expecting too much, but I was rather underwhelmed by this movie. It tells a fine story, but it left me wanting more.

The Cove (2009)
A group of animal rights activists team up to do their part to stop the systematic slaughter of dolphins at a cove in Japan. Many of their efforts to capture the killings on camera are as thrilling as many spy movies and as intricate. But through the whole thing I found myself disagreeing with almost everything they said. After all, they're just dolphins. If dolphins are as intelligent as the filmmakers claim, couldn't they figure out a way to not get trapped by the dolphin fishermen? All the time, energy, and money they spent trying to save those glorified fish could have been better spent digging wells in Africa, teaching English in China, or working at a homeless shelter in Denver.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)
With all the boring stuff out of the way in Part 1, Part 2 ends up being a fast-paced, action-packed thrill ride that barely gives its audience time to catch its breath. I could quibble with some of the ways the narrative was translated from the book, but they would be little more than sour grapes. This is easily the second best of the movies (after Prisoner of Azkaban).

Kick-Ass (2010)
This is a slick, energetic movie that is loads of fun.

The Colossus of Rhodes (1961)
Sergio Leone does a sword and sandals movie! While some of the sets are really nice, there's very little that separates this movie from the other films of the genre.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
John Barrymore does an admirable job at portraying both the virtuous Jekyll and the despicable Hyde. It's also interesting to note that the musical took many of its narrative cues from this movie.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

My 2011 Movie Odyssey - Part XI

The Gnome-Mobile (1967)
This is a fun little movie as two children (the ones from Mary Poppins) and their grandfather (Walter Brennan) try to help a group of gnomes find a new home. I keep using the word charming to describe these live-action Disney movies, and it’s starting to sound redundant, but that’s the best word I can think of to describe them. They are pleasant and almost always leave you with a smile on your face, even when the humor falls flat. They are trying to be fun entertainment that the whole family can enjoy without talking down to younger audience members or boring the older crowd. I find it very disappointing that Disney nowadays seems to be content aiming for the lowest common denominator with its live-action fare.

Paul (2011)
I was really looking forward to this one. I really like Shaun of the Dead and the televison show Spaced, and I love Hot Fuzz, so the latest teaming of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost was a guaranteed success. Except it wasn't. The humor was not nearly as sharp as in previous efforts and too often aimed for the lowest common denominator. But was really irked me was their treatment of conservative Americans, especially in the character of a sweet, Bible believing young woman. She is shown the enlightened truth of atheistic evolution and suddenly she is swearing up a storm and trying to jump into Simon Pegg's pants. It is supposed to be funny but it really comes out as just pathetic writing. There were some good sci-fi references, but mostly the whole thing was a giant disappointment.

Cowboys & Aliens (2011)
I really liked the first half as Daniel Craig tries to figure out who he is and why he has a weird metallic object strapped to his wrist. The second half, however, is pretty run-of-the-mill action stuff, with the answers to the questions asked in the first half being far less interesting than the questions. The whole thing is still a pretty fun summer action movie.

Splice (2009)
Once I got over how short-sighted and impulsive the scientists acted, this turned out to be an interesting piece of sci-fi/monster horror.

The World’s Greatest Athlete (1973)
The Disney formula doesn't always work. Sometimes you get a movie like this one, that has a couple good sequences, but ultimately is just too silly for its own good.

The Singing Ringing Tree (1957)
I read an article that claimed that this might be the best children's fantasy movie ever made, so I decided to check it out. It is a very pretty morality/fairy tale with lush production design. Some of the costumes and effects are extremely dated, but they rarely look cheesy as they are still interesting to look at. It was quite an enjoyable movie (though I wish I could have watched a subtitled version instead of one with an English narrator). And for the record, The Wizard of Oz is still the best children's fantasy movie ever made.

Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
Eddie Murphy is engaging, but there was very little to distinguish it from similar 80s movies.

Blade II (2002)
I was eager to see this since it was directed by Guillermo del Toro but was very disappointed. The story was unengaging and the big plot twists were dumb.

Oldboy (2003)
In the middle there is an amazing fight sequence. It takes place in a hallway where the main character fights off about a dozen attackers, armed only with his fists and a hammer. The fight is brutal and is staged in one continuous shot. It is an astounding piece of filmmaking. I just couldn't connect with the rest of the film. And by the end, when all the secrets are revealed, I was repulsed by the directions the narrative took. It also didn't help that Netflix streaming only had a dubbed version of the film.

The Adventures of Hercules (1985)
THIS is the Hercules movie that has him turn into a cartoon as the climax. In the sequel to 1983's Hercules, Lou Ferrigno once again stars as the Herc, this time tracking down the seven thunderbolts of Zeus which have been scattered across Greece. The plot is no better than that of a video game; Hercules defeats a monster to reclaim the thunderbolt then instantly travels to the next place where he faces off against the next monster. There are visual effects all over the movie, but they all look terrible, especially the scene in which Hercules battles a glowing ball of light and when he faces off against a gorgon in a blatant (and terrible) ripoff off Clash of the Titans. The dialog is laugh out loud atrocious, and for reasons known only to the filmmakers, every time Herc lands a punch, the screen flashes red. But the absolute cinematic pinacle of the movie is the climax. Hercules and Minos battle each other in the stars as bad rotoscoped images of themselves, occationally transforming into various animals to make everything more thrilling. Then, once Minos has been defeated, Herc gets huge and stops the moon from colliding with the earth. I was wrong earlier; THIS is the worst Hercules movie ever made.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

My 2011 Movie Odyssey - Part X

Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus (1960)
Disney regular and ultimate precocious redhead Kevin Corcoran finally gets a movie all to himself. It's a joy to watch him as he learns the ins and outs of the circus business while charming every adult in sight. Toby's pet monkey gets a little too much screen time, but overall the movie is quite entertaining and a wonderful showcase for one of cinema's more underrated child actors.

The Illusionist (2010)
An animated Jacques Tati roams the countryside performing a series of mediocre magic tricks. I really wanted to like this movie, since I love Tati and it was directed by the director of The Triplets of Belleville, but the whole thing was far too melancholy for my tastes and an animated character is no substitute for the real Tati.

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (2011)
The movie is fun to watch, and director Morgan Spurlock is a wonderfully engaging character, but the movie didn’t tell me very much about the world of product placement that I didn’t already know. I also wish Spurlock had been more biting in his analysis of product placement; the whole thing came off disappointingly tame.

Gymkata (1985)
Who comes up with these ideas? An American gymnast is enlisted by the US government to compete in a dangerous competition so they can build a Star Wars satellite station. He is able to come out victorious by combining his skills in gymnastics with martial arts. The movie is full of cliched or implausible moments, the absolute best scene being the one in which he fights off a village full of crazy people by using a stone pommel horse that just happens to be in the middle of the village square.

Zardoz (1974)
The screenshots from this film of Sean Connery wearing massive red boots and not much else are all over the internet and I was curious to see if the actual movie was as bad as the pictures promised. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been, as some of the story ideas were interesting, but mostly it was just silly. We get a giant floating stone head that vomits guns, trippy, psychedelic visuals in lieu of conflict, and lots and lots of running around for no apparent reason.

Freaky Friday (1976)
This is another winner from Disney. Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster are both very fun as the mother and daughter who switch bodies. The whole movie is full of laughs, and while the climax ventures from preposterous into absurd, the film is very entertaining.

The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
I don’t know whose idea it was to make Geena Davis into an action star, but I wish whoever it was would have kept his or her ideas to him or herself. She already proved a year earlier in Cutthroat Island that action was not her forte, but here she is again beating people up and then blowing up their houses. The premise is kind of interesting, but each new plot twist got more and more ridiculous and by the end I just didn’t care about anything.

The Happiest Millionaire (1967)
This is a flawed but at times entertaining musical. It is full of quirky characters and a few fun songs, but it is far too long for its own good and the narrative needs actual structure. Fred MacMurray stars as the titular millionaire who combines boxing and Bible study, keeps alligators as pets, and is a very patriotic American. He’s fun to watch, but he can’t sing very well, and when he tries to speak his songs it just sounds awkward. The movie can’t decide if it’s about the millionaire or his daughter, as long stretches (and many of them rather dull) focus solely on her and her efforts to become a lady after being brought up as a tomboy. The problem is that we never really get to see her act like a tomboy - we just hear her complaining about it. We are also introduced near the beginning to her two brothers who have a really fun musical number, but then disappear for the rest of the movie with almost no explanation given. At almost three hours long in its full version, the movie could really stand to lose about an hour of running time, focusing the plot on Fred MacMurray.

Winnie the Pooh (2011)
I was wary when I first heard about this movie. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is one of my favorite Disney films and I am a fan of A.A. Milne as well. Most of what I had seen of previous movies trying to bank on the Winnie the Pooh name (like The Tigger Movie and Pooh’s Heffalump Movie) they bore very little resemblance to both Milne’s original stories and the look of the first movie. So I was quite pleased to find out that the story was taken from three of the original stories and the look was a return to the 1977 film. The movie is quite charming and I was very pleased that they kept the characters’ interactions with the narrator, never letting the audience forget that these stories originally appeared in a book. It is a worthy sequel to the original.

Good Hair (2009)
This is a fascinating look into the time, effort, and money that African American women (and some men) put into making their hair fall down straight instead of frizzing up in an afro. The documentary is very entertaining and informative, though it made me sad to see an entire culture of people trying to model themselves after other people instead of trying to do things with their hair that are uniquely their own and that white women can’t do.