Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Top and Bottom of 2011 - #2

Ip Man (2008)
This is a fictionalized account of Ip Man, a martial arts master who trained Bruce Lee (and many others). The first half is a whole lot of fun featuring plenty of martial arts hijinks in a largely pre-industrial Chinese town. Then the Japanese invasion of WWII happens, and the film takes a decidedly serious turn. Ip Man and his fellow countrymen struggle to get enough food to feed themselves while still maintaining their honor in occupied territory. Ip Man is fascinating to watch, both in moments of quiet dignity and when he is laying down some martial arts smack-down.

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 as birds attack a small town for no reason while the main characters spew environmental propaganda. 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.

Coming up next: The best of the best and the worst of the worst.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Top and Bottom of 2011 - #3

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)
This is a fascinating look at the world of street art and the artists who make it. It starts with a montage of street artists plying their craft - some clever, some vulgar, and some outright vandalism - all while a song plays in the background declaring that “Tonight the streets are ours.” Then we are introduced to Thierry Guetta a clothing shop owner/documentarian/aspiring street artist. He’s quirky, full of life, and enjoys almost unlimited access to some of the biggest names in street art. But when he starts doing his own street art it’s derivative and repetitive (and most if not all of the actual artwork is done by other people). Is he a true artist, or merely a flamboyant hack? What results is a wonderfully entertaining look at several interesting people and the work that they do, even when their art is completely illegal.

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 of 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 pinnacle of the movie is the climax. Hercules and Minos battle each other in the stars as bad rotoscoped images of themselves, occasionally 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.

Coming up next: Defending yourself against a horde of invaders.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Top and Bottom of 2011 - #4

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.

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!)

Coming up next: A movie where a man is turned into an artist and one in which a man is turned into art.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Top and Bottom of 2011 - #5

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.

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.

Coming up next: A movie carried on the shoulders of its actress and a bad movie made worse by its actor.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Top and Bottom of 2011 - #6

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.

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.

Coming up next: A movie with enough joy for two movies (which is a good thing since the other one doesn't have any).

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Top and Bottom of 2011 - #7

The Social Network (2010)
This is a slick movie that is full of energy. The opening scene between Mark Zuckerberg and his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend is immediately arresting with dialog so quick it would make Howard Hawks proud. The conversation continually goes on tangents then loops back around in a way that reminded me of reading a comment thread on facebook. Jesse Eisenberg is electric in the role of Mark Zuckerberg, graduating from “poor man’s Michael Cera” status to becoming a force to be reckoned with. The Social Network is engaging all the way through, with fascinating characters, memorable performances, and a taut script, all held together masterfully by director David Fincher.

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.

Coming up next: Two unexpectedly funny movies (though not for the same reasons).

Friday, February 17, 2012

Top and Bottom of 2011 - #8

Tangled (2010)
This is a really fun movie. The animation is gorgeous and features several wonderful moments of pure character animation (with the animators constantly coming up with new and inventive uses for Rapunzel's hair), the songs are all pleasant (though none of them are particularly memorable), and Rapunzel spends most of the movie barefoot. Really, what's not to like?

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.

Coming up next: A movie that has no business being as good as it is, and a movie that had no business even getting made.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Top and Bottom of 2011 - #9

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 screen time 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 I left the theater wondering if this could actually happen.

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.

Coming up next: Two movies about overgrown things.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Top and Bottom of 2011 - #10

Disney Live-Action Movies
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. This journey through the Disney vault reminded me of why I liked the live-action Disney movies so much as a kid. 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. When I thought about these movies, the word that kept coming to mind was charming. The particular stand-outs of the crop that I watched last year are The Cat from Outer Space (1978), Toby Tyler (1960), and Freaky Friday (1976), though any and all of the ones I watched this year are worth a look. Even the not-so-good ones.

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.) 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.

Coming up next: Two single-word titles with sprawling stories.