Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Top 10 Movies of 2008

It’s funny how things come full circle sometimes. 2007 was a year proclaimed by many critics to be a landmark period in cinema, and I can’t really disagree. The art-house films released were indisputably great, but as a connoisseur of summer blockbusters, I can’t deny a little feeling of disappointment last year. Well 2008 took things in the complete opposite direction with a ho-hum awards season and a fantastic lineup of summer spectacle including 2 films I already consider all-time classics that I expect to be watching regularly with my kids and grandkids.

10 The Wackness
This Sundance sensation, turned little-seen gem proved to be a fairly standard coming-of-age indie flick, but it won me over by dripping with two things I can’t get enough of: early 90’s hip hop and New York City. I also thought they did a great job selling the love story, which is something many many movies attempt and fail miserably at. Add to that a great performance by Sir Ben Kingsley as an aging pothead, and you get a movie that easily squeezes into my top 10 for the year.

9 Mongol
The first of a planned trilogy of films chronicling the rise and fall of Genghis Kahn, Mongol is a great example of how to properly do a historical epic. I wish I’d gotten to see this film on the big screen, because my 20 inch Polaroid did not do the kick-ass battle scenes justice, but I will be getting this on blu-ray soon enough. Now let’s just hope they get around to making the other two parts of this story.

8 The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
At this point, I think it’s pretty well settled that David Fincher is one of the great filmmakers of this generation. Benjamin Button is certainly a departure for him, but his style lends itself just as well to a sentimental love story as it does for the dark and cynical movies he’s made. The story does bear a heavy resemblance to Forrest Gump, which admittedly dropped it a few slots for me, but I know which one of those is going to be getting more re-plays in my house.

Oddly enough, I went to see this one as a bit of a novelty, when the Angelika promised a post-screening Q&A with Van Damme himself, but alas, the Muscles from Brussels did not show. To my pleasant surprise however, the movie turned out to be great. The film, which stars Jean-Claude Van Damme as washed up direct-to-video action hero, Jean-Claude Van Damme is funny, suspenseful, and surprisingly touching (i.e. everything you don’t expect out of a Van Damme movie). While I don’t expect this to resurrect any careers, it’s nice to see that great movies can sometimes come from unexpected places.

6-5 Iron Man & The Incredible Hulk (tie)
I know that Iron Man is the one that gets all the acclaim, but I thought Incredible Hulk did just as good a job bringing the Marvel Universe to the big screen. Both pictures give you exactly what you want from a movie starring their respective heroes and both were perfectly cast. I absolutely can’t wait to see what Marvel Studios does next and how they continue to build on this universe they’ve created.

4 Milk
Gus Van Sant’s biopic for the first gay man elected to a major public office in America is certainly conventional, but it does conventional very very well. The issues brought up by the film are both timely and (for some reason) divisive, but the central message of standing up for what you believe in and not crumbling to “the way things are” is one that Hollywood will never tire of making, and I’ll never tire of watching.

3 Let the Right One In
I find myself going back and forth on the genre of horror a lot. The overwhelming majority of the time I find myself somewhere between disinterested and completely bored by horror movies, but when I find one I like, I really tend to flip for it. Such was the case with this Swedish vampire flick. I love it when a director really nails the atmosphere in a horror movie, and Let the Right One In oozes atmosphere like a freshly gnawed open neck. Then there’s that finale that simultaneously made me want to recoil and jump up and cheer.

2 Wall E
I have to admit, in most years this would be my #1. The level of craft on display here is so far beyond just about anything I’ve seen in an animated picture (or any picture for that matter), and there are scenes and moments in the film that are absolutely breathtaking to behold. The movie is without a doubt the best love story and the best sci-fi film I’ve seen in years, and I am not exaggerating when I say that I found myself favorably comparing the film to classics like Star Wars and 2001 more than once as I watched it that first time. Am I gushing a little? Well brace yourself….

1 The Dark Knight
Ok, so this was pretty much the least suspenseful list I’ve ever written. If you’ve known me at least an hour, you know that I am hopelessly in love with comics, and The Dark Knight served as the genre’s magnum opus. I could go on and on about Heath Ledger’s singular performance, the choreography and staging of the highway chase, the note-perfect ending, and a million other things, but what really floors me about the film is the way that super-hero movies represented one thing before it was released, and now they represent something else. I have little doubt that the film does not have an Oscar prayer, but I am equally confident that years from now The Dark Knight will be remembered as THE movie that 2008 produced and one of the essential films of the decade.

Top 10 Most Anticipated Movies of 2009

So will 2009 produce anything that I go as nuts for as The Dark Knight and Wall-E? Probably not, but it’s always fun to speculate. Here’s what I’m looking forward to next year.

10 Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
Hmmm, this is familiar. I seem to remember writing something about this one last year. You know the drill. Harry Potter, most consistent film series currently running, love the books, awesome cast, and so on and so forth.

9 Green Zone
This year, Generation Kill proved that it’s not impossible to make a great film about the still-in-progress Iraq War (just very unlikely). That said, I’m very interested to see what Paul Greengrass, the man behind United 93 and the Bourne series, has cooked up. Considering what he did with 9/11, I’m confident that he’s more than equipped to handle material just as tough.

8 Public Enemies
Michael Mann’s new film about the hunt for John Dillinger, starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. Uh, yes please.

7 Shutter Island
Is there any need to explain why I’d be excited for a new Scorsese film? How about mentioning that it marks his fourth collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio, a partnership that brought us The Aviator and The Departed. Yeah, I think that’ll do it.

6 Star Trek
I have a lot of respect for the original 1960’s Star Trek series as a groundbreaking and tremendously influential work of science fiction, but I’m at best lukewarm on the franchise in general, and I’m not a fan of the director, J.J. Abrams by any stretch of the imagination. So why am I excited for Star Trek? Well that trailer was pretty fantastic, and with Hollywood all franchise-crazy right now, my hope is that these movies can do what the Star Wars prequels failed with, and we’ll have a new series to look forward to every few summers.

5 The Lovely Bones
I’m a sucker for popcorn movies, and Peter Jackson is arguably the reigning king of popcorn cinema. His next film, The Lovely Bones, isn’t popcorn at all (it’s an adaptation of a novel about a young girl who is murdered and watches her family from heaven), but I’m still looking forward to seeing what the man who brought us Lord of the Rings and King Kong has up his sleeve.

4 Up
Pixar’s next film, Up seems like it has an almost Miyazaki-like vibe to it, and if that awesome trailer is any indication, the movie should be another homerun for the makers of the best animated movies in… well, pretty much ever.

3 Inglorious Basterds
2009 promises many movies that we thought would never be released, including Inglorious Basterds (no, that’s not a typo), Quentin Tarantino’s WW2 epic that I believe we first heard about sometime around the release of Pulp Fiction. Tarantino’s movies have gotten increasingly fetishistic, but if he can do for the war movie what he did for the samurai flick, then we are in for a treat.

2 Watchmen
A year ago I would’ve given a brief (yeah, probably not) primer of Watchmen for people who weren’t familiar, but things have changed in the past 12 months. I’ll just reiterate what everyone already knows. A film adaptation of the greatest comic book story of all time is finally being released in theaters (we hope), and as New York’s self-proclaimed #1 comic geek, you can be sure I will have my opening night tickets a month in advance and request that day off from work.

1 Avatar
Avatar marks the first major motion picture from director James Cameron since directing the biggest movie of all time over 10 years ago. I’m not the biggest fan of that boat movie, but Aliens? Terminator? The man is a geek-movie god. So all this alone would be enough to entice me, but the fact that the film is being made with technology that he has been developing in that decade span that’s even got guys like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas excited gives this one just enough of a push to top the greatest comic book ever written.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Top 10 Movies of 2007

Well here we are again. 2007 is drawing to a close, and as usual the foremost thing on my mind is discussing my favorite movies of the year. This particular year featured an unusually strong art-house, disappointing blockbusters, and any comedy worth seeing had Judd Apatow’s name on it. I saw just shy of 50 movies this year, and the following was the cream of the crop. (All entries subject to change a week after I write this, yadda yadda yadda. You know the drill)

10 Eastern Promises
The first film on my list is the second collaboration between director David Cronenberg and star Viggo Mortensen. I enjoyed their first, History of Violence, but wasn’t really knocked out by it. Eastern Promises on the other hand did a much better job of sucking me in. As you watch it, you just want to know more about Mortensen’s mysterious Russian mobster, and when you do start to learn more, it’s not at all what you were thinking. And I certainly can’t go on without mentioning the steam-room fight, which might be the most badass moment on a list filled with them. I’m sure most of us could do without seeing Viggo naked, but when he’s kicking asses (and taking names) in that state, it’s kind of hard to cry foul.

9 300
The big criticism that people level at this one is that it’s style over substance. Do I plan to argue that one? Not at all. Does it still get a spot on my top ten? Hells yeah. 300 builds on many of the filmmaking advancements brought about by Sin City in 2005, and for good or ill, this is a style that will only continue to grow, especially considering the return on investment for this one. The acting is dialed up to 11 at all times, but I can forgive that when you have some of the best action of the decade. I mean, how much did overacting hurt Predator?

8 American Gangster
Although this movie didn’t inspire me to go record an album about it, I still had a lot of fun watching it. The film effectively blends the glamour and action of Scarface (grossly overrated) with the realism of The Wire (grossly underrated), with a standout performance by Denzel Washington. The film tries to place equal focus on the 2 leads, but Denzel’s arc is considerably more compelling than Russell Crowe’s, which is probably my only real complaint. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the third lead: 1970’s era New York. Equal parts glitz and grime, the setting plays a huge part in the film’s success, and though I never got to experience it for myself, after leaving the theater, I felt like I had.

7 Zodiac
Director David Fincher has been responsible for 2 of the best films of the past few years, so my expectations for Zodiac were sky-high. After leaving the theater I couldn’t help feeling somewhat underwhelmed. My mind wasn’t blown the way it was following Se7en, and in an odd sort of way, Fincher had me exactly where he wanted me. The film isn’t about some grand revelation. It’s about being taken aback by some shocking events and then being slowly frustrated as you feel yourself getting closer to answers only to have things fall apart as leads go cold. In the end there are no answers, and you never quite get a handle on what really happened, which puts you in the same boat as the people investigating the case. The other truly remarkable aspect to Zodiac is Fincher’s ability to put CGI to use in ways that no one else seems to even consider. Rather than using the technology for showy effects, Fincher uses it to intricately recreate 1970’s San Francisco down to the smallest detail without the audience even having the slightest clue they’re looking at non-existent sets. Fincher seems to be getting into a rhythm lately after taking some time off. I hope he stays this productive, because I really see him turning into one of the greats.

6 Juno
Every year features a quirky indie-breakout and well, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a sucker for them. That honor belongs to Juno in 2007, the second film from director Jason Reitman (yes, the son of the guy who made Ghostbusters) and the debut from next-big-screenwriter, Diablo Cody. The film features a stellar cast that includes 2 former Arrested Development cast-members, but it lives and dies on the performance of former X-Man Ellen Page, who shows that she’s more than up to the task of being a leading lady. If I had a complaint, it would be that the hipster dialogue can be a little overly clever at times (though some have suggested that Cody purposely botched some of Juno’s pop culture references to bring her down to earth), but the hit-to-miss ratio is definitely in its favor, and it has enough heart in it to forgive any minor quibbles.

5 Michael Clayton
I’ve often stated that the 1970’s are in my opinion the greatest decade in the history of cinema, and the films of 2007 featured plenty of nods to said decade. Michael Clayton, while being set in present day, felt closer to a 70’s style thriller than any film I’ve seen in a long time. It’s shocking in how plausible it feels and how quickly it all gets out of control. Tilda Swinton in particular gives an amazing and scary performance as the villain of the piece. The thriller is becoming dangerously cookie-cutter these days, so it’s refreshing to see one that feels so unique by taking its cues from the classics.

4 Ratatouille
We all know by now that Pixar, not unlike Wolverine, is the best there is at what they do. It’s gotten to the point where no one bats an eye when they release an amazing movie. What’s truly remarkable however is when Pixar releases a film that makes you go “Oh man, this might be the best thing they’ve ever done”. Few movies this year (animated or otherwise) were as touching, funny, and inspiring as Ratatouille which makes director Brad Bird (The Incredibles) 2 for 2 on blowing me away. I’d love to see the guy tackle live action sometime, but if he keeps making animated films at this caliber I won’t complain.

3 No Country for Old Men
Of all the films on this list, this modern-day western has gotten the most hype and awards buzz, but it’s well-deserved. I spent the months preceding No Country’s release devouring the works of the Coen brothers, and as much as I loved most of their films, I’d have to rate this one near the top. The cat-and-mouse game between Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin was easily the most exciting thing in the theater this year, and didn’t use a single shot of CGI, which is saying something in this day and age. The ending is anticlimactic to say the least, but anyone who lets that ruin their opinion of the rest of the movie probably dismissed 7 years of The Sopranos after 10 seconds of black screen.

2 Superbad
Between this and Knocked Up, Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen ruled the box office this summer, and any time 2 movies that have so much in common find so much success, it’s practically required that everyone pick a side and argue about which one is better. While I love Knocked Up, I have to go with Superbad in that match-up. This may shock a lot of my female readers, but the dialogue between the teenage boys in Superbad is so dead-on, it’s scary. It’s vulgar, disgusting and yes, hilarious, but what’s so amazing is that it sounds exactly like my friends and I do whenever we get a chance to turn off the censors (in a friend’s living room, on a crowded train, at Friendly’s, etc). The movie is also filled with memorable performances from Michael Cera’s star making role, to Seth Rogen’s ever-expanding resume of awesomeness, to possibly the most memorable character of the year. Yes, I am referring to McLovin. 2 years after Apatow and Rogen’s first film, I still laugh myself silly every time I watch The 40 Year Old Virgin, and I fully expect to say the same thing about Superbad in 2009.

1 The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
I honestly don’t know what happened here. One day, I’m watching the red carpet of the premiere out of my New York hotel window and trying to spot Brad Pitt (yes, I caught the back of his head), the next day I’m waiting for it to get a wide release. And waiting. And waiting. Finally I got a chance to see it at a run down theater in Ocean City (which is a complete ghost town after Labor Day), and was knocked on my ass. This film was one of the most stunning westerns I’ve ever seen, and stars, Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck both knocked it out of the park. If you read the title, you know how the story ends, but every second of the movie is filled with tension as you get closer and closer to the inevitable conclusion. That tension is amplified any time a character is holding a gun. In a time when shootouts are as disposable as kisses on the big screen, Jesse James achieves some of the most shocking gunshots I’ve seen in a film, by knowing how to make the audience wait. It depresses me that a film this great managed to slip through the cracks, but I intend to sing the praises of this one for years to come to anyone who’ll listen.

Top 10 Most Anticipated Movies of 2008

You may notice that this list tends to skew a little more toward blockbusters than my top ten for 2007. What can I say? I never learn.

10 Pineapple Express
2008 promises lots of movies featuring Judd Apatow in the producer’s chair, but this is the only one that was written by Superbad scribes Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. This one is a stoner comedy, which doesn’t exactly speak to me personally, but I have no doubt there will be tons of laughs.

9 Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
Watching Order of the Phoenix tonight, I was amazed at how much improvement the series has displayed from its humble beginnings. Book 5 was my least favorite book, and so far represents my second favorite of the movies. Book 6 is one of the best books (7 tops that list), so I can’t wait to see what Phoenix director David Yates does with that one.

8 Valkyrie
This is the first film Bryan Singer has made without superheroes since 1998, and while I love the man’s work on the X-Men and Superman films, I love his debut, The Usual Suspects just as much. Valkyrie concerns a German plot to kill Hitler during WWII, which sounds like a good change of pace, so Bryan can come back refreshed and knock our socks off with a second Superman.

7 Synecdoche, New York
Synecdoche, New York marks the directorial debut of my favorite screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman. The man wrote one of my favorite movies ever in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, so I can’t wait to see how he does behind the camera. I have a hunch it will be incredibly bizarre and hilarious.

6 The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
This is the first re-teaming of David Fincher and Brad Pitt since Fight Club. For those with short memories, that’s the director of my #7 favorite movie of 2007 and the star of my #1. And it also stars one of my favorite actresses, Cate Blanchett. Yeah, I’d say I’m looking forward to this one.

5 Wall-E
So I’m sure you’re all wondering when I became such a Pixar fanboy. Do a quick search and watch the trailer for Wall-E and you’ll understand. This one has the earmarkings of potentially being this generation’s E.T., which is ludicrously high speculation for me, but there it is. I defy you to tell me that this little robot isn’t the cutest thing you’ve ever seen, and if the wizards at Pixar can do for Sci-Fi what they did for superheroes, this will be one phenomenal experience.

4 Bond 22
No, that’s not the name of the next James Bond movie. They’re pulling a JJ Abrams and not telling us (which I guess would imply that it was the name), but that’s what we’re all calling it right now. Casino Royale was one of the best Bond movies ever, and far and away the best one that didn’t star Sean Connery, so the sequel can’t get here fast enough for me. Hollywood is very franchise-oriented these days, and the Bond franchise is the granddaddy of them all. I’d like to see it leading the pack in terms of quality too, and so far it’s off to a great start.

3 Iron Man
With both the Spider-man and X-Men series showing signs of fading enthusiasm, it’s tremendously exciting to see a new Marvel hero taking the stage. They’ve had mixed results with their characters in the past aside from the 2 mentioned above, but the casting choice of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark is absolutely perfect in this fan’s opinion, so I’m with them so far. They’ve also done a great job courting the fans thus far (reminiscent of 300 and Batman Begins), so signs are pointing toward success, but I want to remain cautiously optimistic for the time being. Oh, who am I kidding? It’s freakin Iron Man!!!

2 Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Now this one I’m not so sure about. Steven Spielberg is my favorite director ever (and in my opinion he’s on a pretty good streak), and the Indiana Jones series is one of my favorites, but I just don’t know if they can recapture the magic of the originals. Come next summer it will be a full 20 years since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (which is 4 years more than the gap between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace). So yeah, this could certainly go either way, but once I get in that theater and hear that music I’ll probably be about ready to jump through the roof.

1 The Dark Knight
With Spidey and the mutants winding down, Batman seems poised to take over as the superhero film series, and since Batman Begins was just about perfect in every way, I’d say it stands a good chance of doing just that. And then there’s the bad guy. Ra’s al Ghul and Scarecrow are pretty sweet villains, but they have nothing on the one Dark Knight boasts. I am speaking of course of the best comic book supervillain ever written. The one, the only Joker. Anyone who’s seen the trailer can sense the insanity Heath Ledger has brought to the character, which may even rival Jack Nicholson’s classic performance that changed the Hollywood blockbuster forever. But then, after watching Spider-man 3, we all know there’s no such thing as a sure thing.

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Top 10 Movies of 2006

Well another year has gone by, and not much has changed except that I’ve seen a whole lot more movies than I had 12 months ago. The first half of 2006 had its share of disappointments, but the latter 6 months proved that good things come to those who wait. As always I didn’t get to see everything I wanted to, so the following list is subject to change (I saw my favorite film of 2005, Munich, 2 weeks after making my top ten list last year), but of the 40 movies I saw this year, these were the cream of the crop.

Honorable Mention: The Wire
I’m not really one for honorable mentions, and rest assured that the only reason I’m making an exception for The Wire instead of putting it at the top of the list with a #1 next to it is because it is a TV show. Simply put, season 4 of The Wire is both the highest achievement in filmed entertainment of 2006 and the greatest season of television ever produced. I know this is high praise, and I know us Wire-fanatics can be annoying with our overwhelming love for the show, but it’s 100% deserved. I have never in my life felt more personally invested in fictional characters than I did with the 4 Baltimore 8th graders who were the focus of this season. When one of them achieves a small victory you feel it yourself, and when one suffers a crushing defeat you feel that too. There’s a scene near the end of the season where a character takes out his frustration by beating the hell out of his steering wheel, and I could only laugh because I had done the same thing to my sofa cushion minutes earlier. Believe the hype on this one folks. You’ve never seen television like this before.

10 Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
In 20 years 2006 will be remembered for 2 things: pirates (more on them in a bit) and Borat. More than just a movie, Sacha Baron Cohen’s horny, racist reporter from Kazakhstan became a full blown pop-culture phenomenon. It’s not hard to see why though, as the film is one of the funniest and most thought-provoking comedies in a decade or more. Many comedies claim to push the envelope with shocking humor you’ll have to see to believe, but Borat actually delivered with scenes that this jaded movie-goer could not believe they got away with.

9 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
I’m not sure how many people reading this list have actually seen this one. If this movie slipped under your radar though, I’d recommend checking it out. In all seriousness, the film wasn’t perfect (I personally could have done without the whole island natives sequence), but it was definitely the best of this year’s summer blockbusters. The scenes of the Kraken’s attacks were some of the most stunning action sequences I’ve ever seen, and Davey Jones is easily one of the most impressive CG creations to date. I know a lot of people are getting sick of all the sequels these days (though box office receipts suggest otherwise), but if they continue to make them as quality as PotC, I say keep ‘em coming.

8 The Science of Sleep
Michel Gondry is kind of a weird guy, but he makes some great, quirky films. His last effort, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of my all time favorites, so I was interested to see how he followed that one up, although I knew a big piece of the puzzle was missing in the form of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Turns out I didn’t have anything to worry about though, as The Science of Sleep ended up being every bit as funny and touching as I’d hoped. I was also very impressed with the star, Gael Garcia Bernal (who I believe is the only actor to appear in 2 films on this list). Like Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine, he plays a character with plenty of flaws, but you can’t help but understand what he’s going through and root for the guy. Much as I loved it, the film isn’t for everyone, but if you’re up for a strange and challenging film, Science of Sleep definitely fits the bill.

7 Casino Royale
I’ve been a fan of James Bond movies since I was 12, but somewhere over the years I lost interest in the series aside from occasionally revisiting the Connery originals. Casino Royale reminded me what was so great about those films, and why the post Connery installments didn’t quite measure up. The film has its share of action movie spectacle with sequences that should excite any action junkie, but it’s the suspense and intrigue that sets Casino Royale out from the Bond pack. There were scenes that made me sit up and go “That’s why it would be so cool to be a spy!”, as well as the series’ most cringe-worthy torture scene since Goldfinger’s laser. And of course no Bond movie would be complete without the Bond-girl. Eva Green is gorgeous as expected, but she also adds more to the movie as a character than any Bond-girl I can remember. If they can keep the series at this level for future installments, consider me very happy to be a Bond-fan again.

6 Brick
Over the past year or so I’ve gotten very into film noir (Thank you Frank Miller), which is a genre that I couldn’t explain if I tried, but if you watch Brick, I think you’ll walk away with a good idea. Pretty much every trademark of noir is present in the film, except in this case it’s set in a contemporary high school. The film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whom you might remember from 3rd Rock From the Sun. He’s come a long way since those days, knocking out several indie performances in the last few years. The guy has obvious talent and I expect him to blow up in a big way in the near future. And if you’re not interested yet, I should mention that it has Tavon from FX’s The Shield in it.

5 The Proposition
I’m not generally a big western guy, but there are some big exceptions including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Deadwood, Unforgiven, and Once Upon a Time in the West. Well you can add the Proposition to that exclusive list. The film set in the Australian outback is absolutely brutal. It starts out very slow, but that just makes it all the more shocking when the blood and guts start flying. You don’t see a lot of movies like this anymore, but I’m glad they’re still making them.

4 Children of Men
Now THIS is what I’d like to see more of in Hollywood, a completely original science fiction movie that spends less time throwing special effects at you and more time making you think. While so many movies struggle to accomplish one theme, Children of Men creates an effective cautionary vision of the future, a message of hope, and a window to the world around us by holding a mirror up to ourselves. The film comes from director Alfonso Cuaron whom I’ve been singing the praises of since his addition to the Harry Potter series in 2004. Seems I picked the right horse to bet on, because the film is beautiful to look at, but you’re so drawn in by the story the first time around that you need to watch it a second time just to see the amazing filmmaking on display.

3 Babel
I frequently have trouble getting into ensemble films because you are given so little time to connect with the characters and often there’s 1 or 2 standout storylines that you wish were on screen whenever they focus on the others. Thankfully that does not happen with Babel. There are 4 (or 3 depending on who you ask) parallel stories that are equally compelling, and the acting is stellar across the board (particularly Brad Pitt who gives a career-best performance). There was no point during the film where I found myself wishing that they’d cut back to another character, and that is no easy feat. Another thing that separates Babel from other ensemble pictures is how hard it is to nail down the theme of the film. When you see it you have an understanding of what ties the stories together but explaining it is another matter entirely. A far cry from simply going “This movie’s about x”.

2 The Departed
Here’s a movie that I can’t imagine anyone not liking. Martin Scorcese is one of my top 3 favorite directors ever, and I consider The Departed one of his best films (yes, I’d even rate it above Goodfellas). There were a lot of movies this year with all-star casts, but The Departed tops them all, with every single major actor in the film absolutely killing whenever they’re on screen. Are you a Leonardo DiCaprio fan? You have to see this movie. A Mark Wahlberg fan? You have to see this movie. Jack Nicholson fan? See this movie. Perhaps the best thing about the film though is that at its heart it’s really just a popcorn crime thriller. The movie sets out to do one thing, and that is entertain. I can’t think of another movie I saw this year that I had as much fun watching.

1 United 93
I know most people really don’t like the idea of a movie about the tragedy of 9/11, and when these films were first announced, I was in the same boat as you. Then I saw United 93 (not Flight 93 which was a made for TV movie) opening weekend in Times Square, and I can honestly say it was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. Check any preconceived notions you have at the door. There is nothing manipulative or exploitative about this film. It is simply a reminder of one of the greatest acts of heroism of the 21st century with a finale that is one of the most inspiring movie-moments I’ve ever seen. It’s not an easy film to watch, but if you are an American or a lover of film or both, you owe it to yourself to see it.

Top 10 Most Anticipated Movies of 2007

10 Brief Interviews With Hideous Men
I suppose you could call this film my “sleeper” for this list. It’s written and directed by John Krasinski who plays Jim on The Office (TV’s best comedy). That may not sound like much to excite you, and I’ll admit that I have no idea if the guy can write or direct, but the last time a down-to-earth, twentysomething, indie-rock-loving actor from one of my favorite TV shows decided to make a movie, we got Garden State. So if history repeats itself, expect a lot of gloating from me at this time next year.

9 Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
In a time when we’re increasingly getting the same thing over and over from Hollywood, the Pirates films have been unlike anything we’ve seen before, and it’s apparent that audiences are responding to that originality in a big way. They’ve sort of followed the Matrix formula, with a stand-alone film followed by 2 back-to-back sequels, but in this case it seems that they got it right. I’m really excited to see how the 3 films stand as a trilogy once the series is complete. Between this, Transformers, Fantastic Four 2, Shrek 3, and two others on this list, next summer could easily be the biggest summer in box office history.

8 The Simpsons Movie
OK, so The Simpsons hasn’t been too great for the last 7 or 8 years, I admit. But every fan of the show’s heyday has been wondering if we would ever see that long promised theatrical movie. We finally find out if it’s been worth the wait next summer. They’ve recruited many of the writers from the show’s best seasons, and so far the trailers I’ve seen have been hilarious, so I’m cautiously optimistic right now.

7 300
You might remember seeing this on my list last year (along with 2 others below). Well we finally get to see the finished product this March. Seems like every year there’s a little-known comic movie released in the spring (Sin City, V for Vendetta, Hellboy), and this year is no different. Based on the work of Frank Miller, expect this one to be similar to an ancient version of Sin City (with more action, if that’s possible).

6 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
The Harry Potter series is possibly the most ambitious project in Hollywood history. I really can’t get over the fact that they’ve managed to build such an epic saga with a young cast and not fall prey to diminishing returns. The fifth installment (of 7) will see its release this year, and the series has only gotten better over time (both in the films and the books). The director is an unknown quantity, but hopefully he can keep up the high standard set by Alfonso Cuaron and Michael Newell. Anyone avoiding these movies is missing out on the Star Wars of our generation.

5 Zodiac
Another holdover from last year’s list. It’s still directed by David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club). It still stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr. It still marks the director’s return to the serial killer genre. And I still can’t wait to see it.

4 Beowulf
The great thing about the movies these days is that technology has allowed for stories that could never be done justice on film to finally make it to the big screen. As you all know, Beowulf is one of the oldest works of literature still being read today, but it’s never gotten the proper movie treatment. Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump) is directing from a script by Neil Gaiman (Sandman) and Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction), with the film to be entirely CG. So far the attempts to do a realistic looking movie with computer animated visuals have been mixed, but the set reports I’ve heard so far have me confident that this film could be the one to pull it off. And if you’re not sold yet, there is going to be an NC-17 cut getting a limited release.

3 Knocked Up
I’m of the opinion that The 40 Year Old Virgin is the best comedy of the 00s, so I can’t wait to see writer/director Judd Apatow’s follow-up. Judd also created the shows, Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, both of which would be on many of your favorite TV show lists, had they come out in the age of iTunes and Tivo (unfortunately both only lasted 1 season). Knocked Up stars Apatow-regular, Seth Rogen (the bearded guy from 40YOV) who us fans of the above shows know is hilarious in everything he does.

2 Grind House
What started out as a pair of short horror movies has morphed into a full-on double feature with 2 full-length films. One is a zombie movie from Robert Rodriguez (From Dusk Till Dawn, Sin City), while the other is a slasher flick from Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs). I’m a big fan of Robert, but QT is one of my top 3 favorite directors, so I’m chomping at the bit to see his follow-up to the awesome Kill Bill series. This one is definitely not going to be for everyone, but it should be a dream come true for any fan of either filmmaker.

1 Spider-man 3

Sunday, May 28, 2006

X-Men 3 Review

Well, after flirting with moving up to a bigger and better movie website, I’ve decided to stay here where I’m the boss (read: they hired someone else, ahem). Anyway, it’s the start of my favorite time of year: summer-movie season, and I’ve just seen the first big movie that I was really looking forward to. I am of course speaking of X-Men: The Last Stand. As anyone who knows me is well aware, I am quite the comic geek. What most probably do not know, is that my level of obsession for X-Men easily dwarfs any other super-hero franchise. That’s right. That attention to detail witnessed in my Batman and Fantastic Four reviews amounts to a passing interest in comparison to my X-attachment. So where do I stand on the new film (the third and “final” installment in a series I have loved so far)? First let’s borrow a trick they’ve yet to allow in the movies and go back in time a few years. It’s summer of 2000 and I’m driving to the Midway Theater to see the first X-Men movie in the middle of a thunderstorm with bolts of lightning cracking down on the horizon. On the drive I was thinking about the irony of the storm and wondering if some African weather goddess wasn’t responsible. Turns out I had the symbolism of the storm all wrong though. It didn’t represent a character in the movie I was about to see, but rather an era in filmmaking that was beginning that night. I don’t need to tell you that X-Men became a huge hit and drove studios everywhere to scoop up every comic property they could get their hands on, turning the super-hero genre (along with “sword and sorcery”) into the defining film genre of the decade. Quite appropriate that the team that started my comic addiction would spawn the very same affliction in Hollywood. So it was a bit of odd symmetry Friday night standing outside the theater waiting to see the X-Men’s big finale while hearing light thunder off in the distance behind me. But I’ve rambled enough. How’s the movie already? Pretty damn great to be honest.

As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, the third X-movie marks a change in director from Bryan Singer (who defected to DC with Superman Returns) to Rush Hour helmsman, Brett Ratner (or “the Rat” as he’s not-so-affectionately referred to by the internet “fan” community). There was quite a bit of doubt (to put it lightly) as to whether Ratner could make a successful sequel for our merry mutants. Fans needn’t have worried though, as Ratner preserves the established look and tone of the series while escalating the action. Oh man, does he escalate that action. Fans clamoring for mutant mayhem on a large scale have finally been given their wish. War is declared, powers rage out of control, and casualties mount. We also get to meet some new mutants along the way. First and foremost, there is Hank McCoy or the Beast, one of the most popular X-Men and a character fans having been begging for since day one. Here he’s played by Frasier’s Kelsey Grammer, who disappears under that blue fur and make-up. I was worried I was going to see a blue Frasier, since he has become such a recognizable television personality over the past 25 years or so, but my fears were unfounded. He simply is the Beast on that screen, and when you finally hear his lifelong catch-phrase, it’s one of those moments us geeks dream about. Also new is Kitty Pryde (a.k.a. Shadowcat) who had small cameos in the last two, but appears here with a fully fleshed out role for the first time. Ellen Page is yet another great casting choice in a series that has been pretty much spot-on for 3 movies now. I was initially a little worried about the love triangle they’d set up with, her, but it’s actually handled very well. Unfortunately the other new mutants do not get nearly enough screen time. Angel has a role much smaller than what I expected and Colossus basically amounts to a recurring cameo, as do the new members of the Brotherhood. I can understand this decision though. These characters do fulfill necessary roles and if these roles were given to nameless generic mutants, the fan complaints would be coming through just as loudly. Besides, the last two did the same thing, with recognizable characters introduced in small parts and expanded in subsequent movies. Anyway, it’s hard to complain about the small characters when the big ones are handled so well. Jean in particular takes a wonderfully dark turn in this installment and the depiction of her raw power at its fullest makes for 2 of the coolest moments in the series. Speaking of dark turns, is there any better actor working today than Ian McKellen? His Magneto is one of the best movie villains I can remember and as usual they give him most of the best lines in this one. And he’s earned them. I can think of no other actor who makes gesturing and pointing so dramatic. Of course, I can’t run through the villains without mentioning Mystique who while given a reduced role is still a blast to watch when she’s there (when has Rebecca Romijn ever been so good outside this particular series?). I had somewhat of a love-hate relationship though with the Juggernaut, going back and forth between thinking he looked pretty cool and finding him silly. On the heroes’ side, Storm is much better in this one than the past two, and we get to see better displays of her powers. Halle Berry is still the film’s weakest actor (unusual for an Oscar-winner), but she’s certainly more believable here than she was in the first one. Xavier is presented to be a little bit less saintly in this one, and I think it’s a good change. He’s certainly made some questionable decisions in the comics over the years, and I’d say his depiction here is consistent with that. Wolverine as you may have guessed is his usual badass self. Some have complained that we get the PG-13 sissified version of Logan here. Let’s think for a moment about the likelihood of getting a hard R version of Wolverine complete with Kill Bill style fight scenes littered in blood and severed limbs. To me this is just the complaint of those upset that the movie was not made for them specifically and I think it reflects the whining of a lot of the fans out there. Like the other two films, they got the important stuff right and made a pretty exciting movie that can be enjoyed by experts and novices alike. Quibbling over the fact that the Juggernaut isn’t given his powers from the Crimson Gem of Cyttorak is just petty at best. This isn’t to say that the film is without criticism however. I really wish they didn’t sideline Cyclops the way they did. They’ve been shrinking his part since the first movie, because most viewers seem to hate him out of some irrelevant loyalty to his rival, Wolverine. This is unfortunate though, because he really is one of the essential X-characters. There were also a few scenes where the utter ridiculousness of the situation came through with cheesy deliveries and less-than-ideal shots (particularly during the present-day scene at Jean’s childhood home). Luckily these things are kept to a minimum for the most part, so there were only a few moments where I was pulled out of the movie. Also at an hour and forty-fiveish, I wish the movie was a bit longer, giving more time to breathe in between action sequences and develop some of the characters more. However, I’m aware that I’m the kind of fan who could sit through a 4 hour X-Men movie without checking my watch once, so I can appreciate the desire to keep the film brisk and succinct for the rest of the audience. Finally, after re-watching the original X-Men movie last night, I did find that I somewhat missed the realism they had in that film, which was traded for action-movie spectacle in this one. But these are mostly small complaints. This is a very nice way to wrap up the trilogy and the principle characters all reach satisfying conclusions (now would probably be a good time to suggest staying until after the credits roll). Plus I have to admit I was totally jazzed to see an almost completely new line-up of X-Men at the film’s final battle which should nicely set up the next movie. What? You didn’t think this was gonna be the last one did you?

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Top 10 Movies of 2005

Well this was certainly an interesting year at the theater. Overall ticket sales took a big hit this year as DVD and home theater sales soared to new heights, while studio executives continued to bury their heads in the sand from an evolving industry and assume that the product simply wasn’t up to snuff. Well I’m here to present a list of ten films that pose a pretty big argument against that sentiment. Without further ado, I give to you my top 10 movies of the year.

10 Walk the Line
I’ve never really been that into Johnny Cash’s music, and biopics do not usually top my must-see list, so although I was interested to see the reportedly phenomenal performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, I did not expect to like Walk the Line as much as last year’s Ray. What the promotion didn’t tell me was that this film forgoes the usual “greatest hits” approach to biopics and is instead a love story. Few on-screen romances feel as earned as the one presented here, and I felt genuinely happy when Johnny and June finally work things out.

9 Jarhead
Despite what you may have heard, this movie is not anti-war or pro-war, and it takes no overt political stances. It’s simply one man’s account of his experiences during the first Gulf War. What you bring away from it depends entirely on what you bring with you into the theater in the first place. Myself, I saw a very eye-opening discussion on what happens when a person is trained to be a killer and how that affects them when they have nothing to kill. It’s also one hell of a beautifully shot film. Who knew there was so much to see in the middle of the desert?

8 Elizabethtown
The most critically lambasted film on my list. I’ll be the first to admit that Elizabethtown is self-indulgent and completely unrealistic, but it’s also the most honest and personal film I saw this year. This one tanked at the box office, but I’m willing to bet that anyone who watches this movie with un-jaded eyes will fall as hopelessly in love with it as director Cameron Crowe is with his record collection.

7 War of the Worlds
Somewhere in the past few months it became fashionable to trash this film even though it was widely praised by critics and scored the summer’s second highest box office take. It might not hold up quite as well outside of the visceral theater experience, and yeah the ending sucks, but this is classic Spielberg here, which even on an off day tops pretty much every other blockbuster filmmaker ever. I see this one becoming for kids today what Jurassic Park was for my generation.

6 Sin City
If you took a quick look at all the films on this list, you’ll notice that I have a predilection towards movies that are visually stimulating. If I was making the list solely on that criteria, there’s a good chance this one would top it. Put simply, this is the coolest movie I’ve seen in a long time, and while it might not have the depth of say Schindler’s List, I’ll bet you find yourself revisiting it quite a bit more. For anyone with a love of classic cinema and a strong stomach.

5 The Constant Gardener
By far the best of this year’s smart, political films, The Constant Gardener is much more than your run of the mill Oscar-baiting Hollywood “liberal porn”. It’s equal parts murder mystery, love story, and scathing criticism of the world’s military industrial complex (in this case focusing on the prescription drug industry), which if I’ve done my math right should provide something of interest for just about everyone. While other recent films mining similar material had me checking the time and fidgeting in my seat, this one kept my eyes glued to the screen the entire time and offered incentive for me to keep up with it.

4 Oldboy
The first of two cheats on my list. It opened in the US in 2005, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s eligible. This movie is a hand grenade. It goes off without warning leaving death and devastation in its wake. The less you know about it going in, the better. Just know that you are not prepared for this movie (which is what makes for such a great experience). Imagine David Fincher’s Korean counterpart directing a revenge movie that would make the Bride’s roaring rampage of revenge from Kill Bill look about as vicious as a housecat. I’ll say no more, just trust me on this one. (note: The DVD default is dubbed English audio. I highly recommend switching to Korean audio with English subtitles).

3 Batman Begins
Anyone that knows me knows that I’m a huge comic book fan. Well, in this fan’s opinion, this is about as perfect a superhero movie as you can make. First forget everything you remember from the last two Batman movies. Then forget everything you remember from the first two. This one trumps them all. I still love the operatic take on Batman from Tim Burton’s 1989 film, but Begins does a much better job of capturing the character and the world of the comic. Anyone who’s getting sick of the comic movies, but liked the Spider-man and X-Men movies should definitely put this on their list to see.

2 Layer Cake
If you like Guy Ritchie’s gangster films (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch), chances are you’ll like the directorial debut of his producer, Matthew Vaughn. What I did not see coming was how much better I’d like Layer Cake than those films. Since Reservoir Dogs, there have been more Tarantino clones than you can shake a severed ear at. Vaughn is the first follower I’ve seen who actually approaches QT’s flash and style without overtly ripping him off. Before seeing Layer Cake I was disappointed that Vaughn left the production of the third X-Men movie. After seeing it, I was downright devastated. On the bright side, my favorite movie mutants are not going to be needed to have me eagerly awaiting this young director’s next effort.

1 Corpse Bride
When I reviewed this in September, I called it the best movie I had seen all year, but to be perfectly honest I did not expect it to top this list. Admittedly Corpse Bride probably has the most narrow appeal of any film on this list, so as far as recommendations go, I’d feel more comfortable steering people towards the other movies on here. In all honesty I don’t even remember the film that well, but I do know that there was no other movie this year that I walked away from as head-over-heels in love with. After watching The Nightmare Before Christmas again this past Halloween and enjoying it every bit as much as I did the first time, I have little doubt that Tim Burton’s latest masterpiece will see the inside of my DVD player just as much. What can I say? I’m just a sucker for dead girls constructed out of clay dancing to Danny Elfman music.

Top 10 Most Anticipated Movies of 2006

So now that you know what my favorite movies were this year, what am I looking forward to for next year? You might want to grab a pen, because these are 10 films you are not going to want to miss (Angry Talkbacker takes no responsibility for movies that should be cool and end up sucking).

10 The Da Vinci Code
As of right now I know nothing about this movie beyond the basic premise and the fantastic team they have working on it (director: Ron Howard, stars: Tom Hanks, Amelie Tautou, Ian McKellan). I also know that it’s based on the most popular book of the century not starring a boy wizard, but I’m hoping to find out as little else as I can before it hits theaters in May.

9 Sin City 2
It’s not often you see a sequel released the year after the original, but if anyone can do it, it’s the fastest man in Hollywood: Robert Rodriguez (with 2 films in between no less). Like the first one, I know pretty much the whole thing going in, but hopefully there are still a few surprises in store. If nothing else, I just want to see another beautiful picture in glorious black and white with splashes of red in all the right (and wrong) places.

8 300
300 is another Frank Miller adaptation (like the aforementioned Sin City), this time set in ancient Greece. The film is being directed by Dawn of the Dead helmer, Zack Snyder and is being shot in a style similar to that other Frank Miller movie. I doubt it will top Sin City, but I’m intrigued to see how they use the techniques developed there, as I think there will be quite a future with filmmaking of this type. Plus it’s got a great story to work from.

7 The Departed
Martin Scorcese’s latest marks his return to the gangster genre with a cast that just screams all-star (Leonardo Dicaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, and Jack Nicholson among others). Over the past year I’ve become a big Scorcese fan, and I’m hoping that this one finally gets him that statue he’s more than earned.

6 V for Vendetta
I was skeptical about this one at first since past adaptations of Alan Moore’s work has been beyond abysmal (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell), but the early word on V has been ecstatic. By all accounts, first time director James McTeigue and the Wachowski Brothers (officially listed as producers, but rumored to be taking a very active part in production) hit this one out of the park. This is going to be a political firebomb when it’s released, and will be the topic of endless debate, and I for one can’t wait.

5 Grind House
This is actually 2 short horror films directed by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez (think Four Rooms meets From Dusk Till Dawn) with several fake trailers in between. What the final product is gonna look like is anyone’s guess, but any new material from QT (not counting that “presented by” crap) always has me excited.

4 Southland Tales
This is the second film from Donnie Darko director, Richard Kelly. I have no idea what it’s about (despite my best efforts to find out), and it seems that no one else does either. That shouldn’t sound too surprising to anyone who’s seen Donnie Darko though as Kelly’s work defies any description. It seems that Kelly has gone out of his way to cast actors against type in this film (The Rock, Sean William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, the list goes on), so I expect a lot of people will dismiss this one outright when they see who’s in it. From what I’ve heard from people who read the script however, this will be one of the most revolutionary films to come out of Hollywood in years. Or it could just be a big mess, I’ll be eager to find out either way.

3 Zodiac
Director David Fincher’s first film since Panic Room sees him return to the subject of serial killers. Fincher’s last foray into that subject matter, Se7en is one of my favorite films ever, and supposedly this one makes that movie look like a bucket of sunshine and kisses, which makes my head spin just thinking about it. It also sports a great cast that includes Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., and Mark Ruffalo.

2 X3
OK, so the buzz on this one has not been the greatest, but it’s X-Men dammit. Of course it’s gonna be high on my list. Despite reservations regarding the director and script, we already know we’re starting out with a dead-on perfect cast, and I for one thought the trailer that was recently released looked awesome. Besides, we’re getting Beast and Dark Phoenix. How cool is that?

1 Superman Returns
A quick tally shows that 5 of this top 10 represent adaptations of comic books, so was it any surprise that this would top the list? Watchmen aside, this represents the holy grail of super-hero movies. Sure we’ve already had 4 Superman movies (including 2 great ones), but this is the first movie in the era of modern blockbuster filmmaking to star the greatest pop culture icon of all time. Not only that, but we have the director of arguably the best super-hero movie ever at the helm in Bryan Singer. Add that to the fact that they seemingly read the collective fandom’s minds with the casting of an unknown in the role of Clark and Kevin Spacey as criminal mastermind, Lex Luthor, and you have a recipe for a film that seems destined to make the list of all-time top grossing movies.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

King Kong Review

First things first, I’d like to apologize for not coming through with a Narnia review. My life became considerably busier the week it opened and I simply didn’t have time to write one up. In any case, it is a wonderful adaptation and I would highly recommend it to any fan of the book, especially those who read it as a child. As for the subject of this review, I’m starting to wonder if the gods of cinema heard my mocking of this seemingly imaginary box-office slump in my Harry Potter review and answered with King Kong. Before Kong had even been released media outlets were proclaiming it the savior of the film industry. If the initial figures are any indication however, those proclamations were a bit premature. As I type this, film industry analysts and studio executives are waiting for the final weekend tally to see if it’s a modest disappointment or an out and out flop. The sad thing is that this wouldn’t even be such a big deal if the picture wasn’t so damn good. Don’t act so surprised. It’s true, remakes usually suck. A good general rule is the better the original movie, the worse the remake will be, and the 1933 King Kong was and is one of the greatest films of all time. Well forget all you know about remakes, because Peter (Lord of the Rings) Jackson’s Kong is a more than worthy re-imagining even if it falls short of the film-nirvana of the original Kong and the Lord of the Rings series.

Right now analysts are scrambling everywhere to figure out the reason for the shockingly low opening, and like most I’m going to throw my own two cents in. For whatever reason, Kong is drawing awful audiences. I’ve seen the film twice now and both times the theater was filled (though it was far from full) with loud, obnoxious theater-goers that would seem more at home watching 2 Fast 2 Furious or whatever terrible teen-horror movie was out that week. I had such a bad time opening night that I had to wait until I had seen it a second time to write a review, because I knew that I couldn’t honestly rate the movie based on that experience. If this has anything to do with why more and more people are skipping the theater and waiting for DVD, then I can totally understand. The thing is, the film really does demand to be seen on the big screen, so if you’re like me and get annoyed by people who can’t keep their mouths shut (no, I most certainly do not expect a silent theater), go to a mid-week matinee or see it three weeks from now when the crowds have died down, but do not blow the film off. But enough about that stuff, let’s get into some specifics. The thing most people seem to be hung up on is the length. At 187 minutes, Kong 2005 is about twice the length of Kong 1933, but in this critic’s opinion the film does not drag and keeps a brisk pace throughout. Sure there’s plenty I would cut (Mr. Hayes and Jimmy’s storyline in particular adds nothing to the movie and pretty much goes nowhere), but I never found myself getting bored, even during the long voyage to Skull Island. I’d be lying though if I didn’t say that the film really gets going once they do get to the island. While the first act is certainly entertaining, the rest of the film is just non-stop excitement straight through to the closing credits. I remember thinking that they showed a little more than I wanted to see in the promotional clips they give to talk shows, but the truth is no matter how much you see in the trailers and clips, you’ve only scratched the surface. Still not convinced? Oh, I get it. Yeah, I was a little taken aback when they cast Jack Black as film producer, Carl Denham too. This isn’t manic funny-man Jack Black though, this is the less seen dramatic actor Jack Black, and he honestly does a damn good job. However, the character didn’t quite land with me the way I wanted him to (through no fault of Jack’s). This problem lies with Jackson and his script-writers, who made Denham a little campy at times and ultimately unlikable when his true colors are revealed. Now I’ve heard both sides on this issue, but when you get down to it, the Denham in the original was just a driven showman. Jack Black’s Denham is a complete and utter bastard, which effectively robs his final line of any resonance since you loathe the source so much (the line was scripted for the original Anne Darrow, Fay Wray before her death). If Denham was a bit of a step down from the ’33 version, Adrien Brody’s Jack Driscoll is a huge upgrade. While the original Driscoll was a chauvinist pig and a cardboard cutout of a character (who even gets the girl in the end), the character we get here is much more sympathetic and heroic. If you’ve seen The Pianist, you already know how great an actor Brody is, so I won’t dwell too much, except to say he’s as good here as you’d expect. The real revelation is Naomi Watts. She’s been deservedly gaining more and more notoriety in recent years, but with this performance, we’ll be seeing her take off into the stratosphere. Like the two previously mentioned, Watts’ Darrow is a bit of a departure from the original character. In this case I wouldn’t call the tack they take better or worse, simply different. Whereas the original Anne Darrow saw Kong as a monster to the very end, Watts’ Darrow develops a symbiotic relationship with him over the course of the film. This choice changes the whole dynamic of the film’s conclusion, and though I can’t say that it tops the original, it certainly works here. And I can’t go through the major characters without hitting upon the star of the show. I am of course talking about the titular character, the 3000 pound gorilla, King Kong. Gollum may have held the trophy for “most lifelike special effect” for a few years now, but I can say without a doubt, that title now belongs to Kong. There is not a second that Kong is on screen where you don’t 100 percent believe he is there, and there are a couple scenes where if you don’t feel sorry for that monkey, you’re reading the wrong blog. Kong isn’t the only fantastic special effect in this film though (just the best one). The dinosaurs (particularly the V-Rexes) look as good or better than the ones in the Jurassic Park series, and the Kong/V-Rex battle is one of the best action sequences ever put to film. I might also let anyone who has bug-issues know that there are going to be some scenes in there that you absolutely hate. While the effects may not be perfect 100% of the time (the humans aren’t blended in so well in a few scenes), they are certainly among the best I’ve seen in a film so far. One visual I wasn’t as taken with was the slow motion “Jackson-cam” shots, which show up at least once too often. I’m all for directors bringing their own style to a film, but in this case I feel it works against the movie and takes the viewer out of the moment. There’s one scene in particular where we get a slow-mo montage of the characters accompanied by a voice-over that not-so-subtly mirrors them, where I could’ve sworn we were listening to Gandalf talking about elves and hobbits. Thankfully none of these complaints touched the finale in New York. If the film takes off when it gets to Skull Island, New York is where it finally touches the greatness I was waiting for. I really can’t describe what it was about the New York sequence that hit me just right. It’s simply a great payoff for a long ride (though the Empire State Building scene runs a tad long). So there you have it. Is it a perfect film? No, far from it, but it’s easily worth $9 and 187 minutes of your life.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Review

$101 million opening weekend (the second highest of the year and fourth all time). What’s this box office slump people keep talking about again? Ok, so these are business concerns and that’s not what this blog’s about. How’s the actual movie? Pretty freaking fantastic if I do say so myself. As with most of the movies I’ve reviewed for this site, I am a fan of the material and find it impossible to review in a vacuum, so I feel obligated to state that right up front. However Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is one film that I feel will be enjoyed by the most die-hard of Potterphiles as well as people who frequently confuse Harry Potter with Frodo.

Based on the above financial figure and the Bookscan numbers on the Harry Potter series, there probably are not many people left who don’t know the story, but I always like to cover my bases, and I hate spoiling things, so if you want to go in fresh, stop reading now. GoF has quite possibly the darkest opening of any family film I’ve ever seen which reflects the PG-13 rating (a first for the series). I wouldn’t worry about kids being too scared to watch it though. I read another review that called it “the good kind of scary”, and that feels like the perfect description. Tim Burton likes to say that children have a better idea of what they can and can’t handle than adults do, and I think he has a good point. I often wonder how long I am going to have to wait to show my kids some of my favorite movies, but when I think about how old I was when I first saw similar movies, it seems that I will not have that long of a wait. Speaking of things coming a little earlier than I expected, the first use of the words “Avada Kedavra”, a very important phrase in the HP series first pops up before the audience knows its significance, a fact that I hadn’t noticed while reading the book. For us fans of the book, hearing these words so early in the movie gives an unexpected moment in a movie that we all thought we knew inside out before seeing. My jaw literally dropped when that phrase was spoken and I can’t wait to hear it come from a few other characters as the series progresses. After this introduction we are thrust back into the world of muggles, mud-bloods, and squibs and can start making direct comparisons to the films that came before. This marks the third director for the series, and many of us were wary that Mike Newell would be able to live up to the standard Alfonso Cuaron set with Prisoner of Azkaban. Consider those fears quickly quelled, as Newell is more than up to the challenge. After the second movie I found myself getting rather bored with the Quidditch scenes in each movie and hoping that they would be trimmed in future installments. With Azkaban, Cuaron managed to make the sport feel fresh and exciting again, but GoF marks the first movie where I wanted more Quidditch. The Quidditch World Cup stadium is simply too damn cool-looking to be used so briefly. That’s a good complaint to have, especially since GoF features the effects team used in the first two films, which I thought looked inferior to Azkaban. It seems that they learned quite a bit since Chamber of Secrets, since every last effect shot looks extraordinary in this movie, a feat even Azkaban fell short of. The visual effects pinnacle of course is the first challenge of the Tri-Wizard Tournament, featuring a particularly nasty dragon. The end of this sequence produced the most bathroom breaks of the movie, as I’m sure a large amount of soda-drinkers found themselves unable to leave their seats no matter how uncomfortable they became. This is a shame though, since the segment in between the first two challenges is probably my favorite piece of the movie. This is where the film morphs into a John Hughes-style 80’s movie complete with a school dance featuring a new wave band (and if you’ve been listening to the radio lately, you know that what was old wave is now new wave again) and teenage girls crying in the hallways. It’s here that we really get to see the young actors show how far they’ve come. Each has their own little moments of both humor and angst (especially Ron Weasley played to perfection by Rupert Grint) as the sexual tension that had been relegated to metaphors up until now, begins to come to the forefront in some hilarious and unexpected ways. This all serves to help us appreciate how blessed the production has been to be able to keep such a large cast together for so long. I can’t imagine getting the same feeling when Hermione laments being Ron’s “back-up plan” if I wasn’t watching Emma Watson cry over Rupert Grint. I remember being amazed at how perfectly cast the original Harry Potter was. To have a cast that dead-on for four (and fingers crossed, seven) films where you can literally watch characters grow up over the course of an epic is something truly special. The next two challenges are similarly strong, although I wish that they could have sustained the tension between the second and third challenges a little better. As it stands, the third challenge just sort of jumps up on you without much build-up. It is here that the film (and the series) takes a dark turn and we are formally introduced to the Darth Vader to Harry’s Luke Skywalker. Interestingly enough Ralph Fiennes is easily recognizable under the Voldemort make-up while at the same time looking exactly how we’ve always pictured “He-who-must-not-be-named”. Fiennes does a good job with Voldemort’s menace, but is saddled with one aspect of the Harry Potter series that’s always bugged me a little. You see, J.K. Rowling can be a little long-winded with her exposition at times, and while characters explaining what just happened or what is going to happen reads alright in a book (except in Azkaban where it seems to go on for chapters and chapters), it tends to bring a movie to a screeching halt (again Azkaban being the exception, where this problem was handled relatively well). This is by no means a deal-breaker, but it’s something that’s popped up a few times in the series, and usually slows the film down right in the middle of the climax. Another thing I’d like to see in future installments is a way to make the wand duels a little more exciting. It works ok here, but there are quite a few of them in the next two books, and I hope they involve more than just standing and pointing. Following this, we have the film’s denouement which demonstrates that this series can effectively handle real human emotion, which is quite encouraging, considering what the next two books bring with them. We are also given the best line of dialogue of the series, and one of my favorite film quotes of the decade, when Dumbledore tells Harry “Dark and difficult times lie ahead, Harry. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy”. Now THAT is compelling writing for a 5 year old or a 50 year old, and to anyone still holding a snobbish attitude toward this series, well I just feel sorry for you. Let the killjoys complain about how movies aren’t any good anymore, while the rest of us sit back and enjoy an era where film has advanced to the point where any story the mind can conceive can now be put to screen.