Sunday, January 29, 2012

Haywire (B+)

Beneath themes of female empowerment, minor reflections on the brutality of violence, and mild commentary on our government's use of third party mercenaries, it's clear all Steven Soderbergh wants to do with his new espionage action flick is thrill his audience. The basic plot of the film is simple: A freelance essential "super soldier" is double crossed by her employers, and seeks revenge for their betrayal. While multiple characters slowly pour into the film (allowing many cameos from the likes of Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas), and a few subplots are included to add layers to the characters, nothing alters this simple premise. We've seen this film before; the "bad-ass" seeking revenge will face trials challenging their "bad-assery", pass them all, and kill or defeat any "bad guy" who dares go against them. The end. Admittedly the film follows this generic structure almost to the tee, but thankfully goes against the grain in form of its execution.

Monday, January 23, 2012

2011: A Delayed Review

Looking at the title of this post, you may be wondering to yourself: "Why has this guy waited so long to make a Top 10 list?". Well, the answer to your question is simple: I'm not very good at making lists. Ever since the end of June I've attempted to write a Top 10 list, but have never been successful. Including now.

This is not a Top 10 list, but rather just a list of movies I enjoyed over the past year.
Hope you enjoy

The Best

The Descendants: The first of many movies you'll see on this list that have no review to compliment them, Alexander Payne's drama set in the beautiful landscapes of Hawaii is about a father of two equally misguided children whose life unravels when evidence emerges that his now comatose wife was unfaithful. Simultaneously dramatic and comedic, the lush cinematography on display coupled with the realistic heartbreaking performances of George Clooney and newcomer Shailene Woodley transform what could easily be melodramatic Oscar bait into a down to earth meditation on our relationships with others.

The Adventures of Tintin 3D: A fast paced adventure in the vein of Indiana Jones, the strangely overlooked Adventures of Tintin is, despite being animated, the strongest popcorn entertainment to be released all year. The film is paced at a rapid speed, never giving the audience any chance to question the film's self generated logic, and assaulting the audience with constant immensely entertaining chase sequences along with wry wit and humor. Never degenerating into mindless action, director Steven Spielberg keeps every fight or chase unique; different in its own separate way. The film ends with an obvious setup for a sequel, and lets hope it arrives soon.

The Muppets/Winnie the Pooh: I believe it's necessary to combine this two films as they are both:
  1. Nostalgic homages to old material rather than reboots
  2. Perfect examples of how to do a "update film" flawlessly
  3. Innocent, yet incredibly hilarious
  4. Amazing arguments for children's movies to contain songs written for the film
  5. Pretty darn great
I believe through those examples I've made myself quite clear as to why these two films are two of "the best".

Carnage: Have you ever wondered what would happen if you locked what essentially four of the finest actors working today into a room for around an hour and just held up a camera to videotape the whole thing? Whether you have or not, Roman Polanski's film presents this question, and then almost immediately answers it: something only short of genius. While I admit that was way over the top, this still is a great film featuring outstanding performances for its entire cast (John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, and Christoph Waltz), and solid directing from Polanski.

Bridesmaids: I'll try to keep this one slightly brief as few films were discussed last year as much as this one. Every positive thing you've heard about this film is true, and if you haven't yet, go see it.

The Tree of Life: A film I've attempted to review repeatedly on the site, only to run into writer's block attempting to minimize this meditative experimental film into five paragraphs. While some may claim the film is merely a bloated pretentious mess, which I can respect, even when discounting the film's lofty ambition it's near impossible to discredit the performances of Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, and Hunter McCracken, and the stunning cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki. While admittedly the film degrades a bit in an overly spiritual conclusion, the two hours before are unlike anything put on screen this year in the most visually stunning form imaginable.

Margin Call: An ensemble drama shot like a corporate thriller; J.C Chandor's exhilarating debut chronicles the collapse of a Leman Brothers type firm, and the repercussions the collapse will have on those employed by the firm, the many traders on Wall Street, and the United States economy. Almost set in real time (the two hour film takes place over a 24-hour period), the crescendo of tension never eases despite the audience already knowing the outcome. This can be attributed to the performances of its ensemble cast, notably Kevin Spacey in one of his best performances in years, a smart script also written by J.C Chandor, and the film's tight direction. Margin Call is given the difficult task of forcing a potentially dull setup (the majority of the film is set in one corporate office) of which we already know the outcome, and defeats this challenge with flying colors. The result is one of the best films of the year.

Hanna: Admittedly the film is more style than substance, but isn't that the point of this early March action/coming of age film? With truly unique action sequences, a fast paced biting script, and an intense score by The Chemical Brothers, it becomes clear almost immediately that story isn't director Joe Wright's first priority. What ensues is a visual extravaganza; an experimental film turned mainstream willing to test the limits of how sound and visuals can be used to provoke response. Using Hanna, a 16 year old girl who has been living in isolation her entire life, as a surrogate, Wright shows us the world through the kaleidoscope of one who has never seen it before. A cinematic experiment disguised as simple popcorn entertainment (and succeeds at simply being entertaining too I should add), Wright undoubtably succeeds in creating action unlike anything else this year.

Rango: It's clear that the big Oscar frontrunner this year is The Artist; a film praised for paying homage to silent films of old while simultaneously replicating the magic of those said films. While my opinion of that said film varies from the norm, for those looking for another example of a movie that replicates as well as it pays tributes, look no further than the animated western Rango. John Logan's script succeeds in paying homage toward the westerns of old, but also constructs a plot of its own. Aimed initially for a younger audience as its animation implies, the film is forced to create a story to compelling enough for children to enjoy, yet succeeds in going the extra mile in Pixar style to truly make the film enjoyable for older audiences. Better yet, homage is not included pointlessly as in other films, but actually adds to the story. With added bonuses such as a rousing chase set to "Rise of the Valkyries" and a surprising cameo, this is one of the better films to be released this year.

My Perestroika: A documentary I've been attempting to champion this year (as many people still haven't heard of it, I suppose I should've done a better job), this film shows what effect the collapse of the Soviet Union had on a group of classmates from the final Soviet generation. A sweet, sad, and educational documentary, the film makes the positive decision early on to focus on the lives of these classmates rather than the setting they lived it. What ensues is a enlightening experience; making the viewer darkly nostalgic for a place they've never lived. While never released on DVD, this film can be seen occasionally on PBS. I assure you, seeing this film is well worth any effort to find it.

The Great

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol: A thrilling adventure with breathtaking set pieces, Brad Bird's live action debut defeated any cynicism (I know, expectations are bad) I had before actually seeing the film.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Stunning motion capture technology and an intense performance by Andy Serkis elevate this film far and beyond the average blockbuster. For the first time in recent memory, when the film ended with a blatant sequel setup I was clamoring for more 'Apes'.

Midnight In Paris: Undoubtably a bit overrated, but still an excellent wish fulfillment fantasy/romantic comedy from Woody Allen. Never elevates past "entertaining", but is that necessarily a bad thing?

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2: The conclusion to the Harry Potter series. Though my initial reaction to the film was much more lukewarm than my 8-year old self could've fathomed, through time my memories have became fonder and fonder. While still not the best in the series as many have proclaimed, the film is still one of the better films to be released this year.

Horrible Bosses: Though it's plot may not be the most original, supporting performances by Charlie Day and Collin Farrell are too good not to acknowledge. Overall this has been a dynamite year for R-rated comedies, and this film easily falls into this positive trend.

Melancholia: A personal disaster film which shows correlation between depression and the complete annihilation of the planet Earth? From controversial director Lars von Trier comes a film which succeeds in making disaster beautiful, with the overture containing (dare I say!) the most scenically shot frames of the year. While the engagement admittedly becomes dull toward the middle, the cinematography on display forces the film to be under acknowledgment for being one of the best of the year.

Source Code: An early Oscar frontrunner now seemingly forgotten, Duncan Jones' followup to 2009's sci-fi thriller Moon is a twisting mind-bending thriller which inevitably draws strange comparisons to Bill Murray's Groundhog Day. Joking aside, this is a very entertaining piece of sci-fi action yarn, with twists that excite rather than induce groans.

Attack the Block: Yet another Oscar contender now seemingly forgotten. Joe Cornish's debut about a British teen gang waring against a group of gorilla look-alike aliens was originally proclaimed to be one of the biggest surprises of the year; that is until the film promptly bombed upon wide release and was immediately discarded. No matter, this is a unique "alien invasion" film, complimented with an outstanding performance by newcomer John Boyega as the gang's troubled leader.

Red State: Sadly eclipsed by Kevin Smith's offscreen hijinks, many overlooked his self financed horror film, or immediately treated it with distain due to Smith's "auction" at Sundance. A surprise treat in which Smith uses his powers for dialogue to invoke fear rather than laughs, and a chilling performance by Michael Parks as the preacher of a Westboro Baptist Church stand in.

Cedar Rapids: A drama disguised as a comedy disguised as a drama, this is a film that delves into sadness and comedy in equal measure. With Ed Helms as our smiley faced small-town surrogate, we see the sad lives of these insurance men and women as they attempt, for one weekend, to leave behind their lives altogether. Hilarious and subtly heartbreaking.

The Trip: Hilarious performances from the two dueling comedians elevate what is essentially a "road trip" comedy into much more esteemed territory.

The Artist: Very overrated by those claiming the film is an ingenious throwback to the silent films of old, but nonetheless very entertaining. With good performances by Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, along with an idea with its heart in the right place, the film is still very recommendable.

The Whale: A sweet documentary focusing on how various different groups and organizations attempt to save a forgotten orca whale, this film takes its melodramatic premise and transforms it into something far more compelling

At this point the "Top 10" list actually just becomes a list:

The Good

Ides of March
Final Destination 5
Puss In Boots
J. Edgar
The Green Hornet
We Bought A Zoo
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

The Mediocre

Catch .44
Cowboys and Aliens
Arthur Christmas
Our Idiot Brother
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
London Boulevard
Pearl Jam 20
Sarah's Key
Kung Fu Panda 2
Cars 2

The Bad

The Change-Up
The Hangover: Part II
Main Street

The "So Bad It's Good"

Spy Kids: All the Time In the World
The Perfect Host

The Abysmal

The Smurfs
Something Borrowed
5 Days of War

Movies I Disliked But Would Like To Revisit

The Future

Admirable Attempt At A Good Movie

I Am

"The Squirmer Award"

The Devil's Double

I hope you enjoyed my delayed conclusion of 2011, and I hope the movies this year are just as great as the last!

The Artist (B+)

Sigh, how can I add new angles or insight to a film that's already been discussed to death by nearly every critic on the planet? Seemingly every aspect of this film has been picked apart, critiqued with immense care for detail, and thoroughly analyzed beyond oblivion. Because the film was originally released in November, and had already played at multiple festivals before then, I'm one of the last people to get their word in, and unfortunately now most my words have been taken by others. However, this is not a complaint in the least; this film I'm reviewing was probably one of the better to be released last year. About four minutes into writing this review, I'm suddenly realizing that being intentionally vague toward which film is being reviewed I absolutely redundant as you (the reader) already know from the title, but the frequently inspected film in question is the surefire Oscar nominee critical darling The Artist.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Whale (B+)

Originally released late September last year, The Whale continues my three film running streak of uplifting family faire. Focusing on the unlikely friendship between the residents of a small lumber town in British Columbia and a social orca whale abandoned by his family, the film seemingly presents the viewer with a situation more fit to a Discovery Network special than a feature length documentary. Knowing very little of the film other than the already mentioned basic premise, my pre-viewing curiosity mostly did not stem from learning of the fate of this unusual friendship (I assumed that something tragic would occur to the whale, but important lessons would be learned), but rather how director Michael Parfit would turn this unfortunately melodramatic real-life tale into something compelling enough to warrant its own existence. Other than the documentary format, what would set this film apart from a 30-minute nature special, let alone cousins in the blooming "Save the Dolphin/Whale!" genre Dolphin Tail and the upcoming Big Miracle?

Monday, January 2, 2012

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey (B+)

If nothing else, debuting filmmaker Constance Marks' biopic on Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash will draw a gleaming smile on your face. Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey is a sweet, incredibly true, inspirational tale of a man's gift to bring joy to others, mostly in puppet form. Unlike most documentaries, this film has no political or moral beliefs it wants to spread to its audience, nor does it attempt to explain key elements of our past. Running at a short 80 minutes, the film's only goal is to share the life of a kind caring man who only wanted to bring happiness to everyone, and succeeds based off positive reinforcement of his family and friends. Other than brief references to his family's low income household along with the mentions of occasional childhood bullying, there is essentially no conflict. Clash receives support from nearly every soul he meets, becomes mentored by master puppeteer Kermit Love and eventually by the great Jim Henson, and is able to achieve his dreams without fail.

The beauty of this film is that no central conflict is needed to engage the audience. Through the sheer charisma and sweetness of the film's subject Kevin Clash combined with the nostalgic warmth of the childhood landmarks he helped shape (most notably Sesame Street), Marks is able to enchant the audience into an 80 minute lazy river of uninterrupted joy. Kevin Clash comes across as a sincere man; not doing Elmo and other muppets for profit, fame, and fortune, but rather to spread optimism and what is essentially love to the world. Though not the deepest and thought provoking story to tell, Marks presents us with the portrait of a sweet kind man, and the film he has created follows in suit.

Grade: B+

Sunday, January 1, 2012

We Bought A Zoo (B)

Cameron Crowe asks many questions in his latest family film We Bought A Zoo such as; "How long should we grieve our loved ones before moving on?" or "Should we ever move on?". Though these questions are fair, nice, and add extra elements to the film at hand, the true question this movie asked me was "Can solid performances be enough to drag a film through its mediocre script?". Cameron Crowe has directed this type of inspirational slightly sappy faire before, but perhaps it's because I hadn't re-watched any of his previous films before viewing this one, other than Elizabethtown, I truly don't remember the scripts seeming like assorted lines ripped out of Crowe's therapy sessions. Other than one slightly intense father-son argument, a scene that felt taken from a better draft of the screenplay, the script almost abysmally plods along offering us nothing but bumper-sticker variety conversation. Despite containing heartfelt relaxed performances from nearly its entire cast (most notably Matt Damon and Elle Fanning), is it that the script forces the film into the shadowy abyss of sappy "Lifetime" inspiration? The answer: No, but almost.