Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 So Far


Now that we've made it past that whole Mayan thing, 2012 is officially in the books for most people. However, I'm still working on it. I've seen less than half of the year's flicks that I plan on seeing. No, I haven't seen The Hobbit, yet, or Skyfall, or many of the others people are calling this year's top films. With that said, here's the best and worst of what I've seen so far. FYI, there are a couple of these I haven't posted reviews for, yet. They'll be up in the coming weeks.


The Worst of 2012 so far:

10. Sparkle
9. Mirror Mirror
8. The Grey
7. Alex Cross
6. The Woman in Black
5. Journey 2 the Mysterious Island
4. The Innkeepers
3. Piranha 3DD
2. Underworld Awakening
1. Battleship


And the Best of 2012 so far:

10. Magic Mike
9. Roadie
8. 21 Jump Street
7. Chronicle
6. Goon
5. Haywire
4. The Dark Knight Rises
3. Marvel's The Avengers
2. The Cabin in the Woods
1. The Raid: Redemption

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Best Movies of 2011

Yesterday I gave you the bad news: what I think are the worst movies 2011 has to offer. Today, we look at the other side of the coin. Here, in my opinion, are...

The Best Movies of 2011



Many of us are jaded enough to believe there are no heroes in politics, only villains. Never is this more true than in a presidential election year. Jobs are won and lost. Fame and infamy are gained. The direction of the nation is swayed. This is true whether we’re talking about the politicians themselves, the people who run and work for their campaigns or the journalists who cover them. The Ides of March drags us into the muck with fantastic results.



The follow-up maintains the original’s magic and expands enough to still feel fresh. It pulls the trick of making us feel like we know these characters and that their adventure is bigger because they’ve grown – not just because it’s a sequel.



23. Warrior
It’s been called just another Rocky clone. I disagree. There is that element to Warrior, but it’s much more. It’s about the painful relationships the three men share. This comes through even in its most Rocky-esque moments. Though one son assumes the Balboa role, the other is no Apollo Creed. He’s much more reluctant hero than villain. The point is to see how much the thrill of victory can be tainted by the agony of defeat.



22. Win Win
Win Win navigates complex issues without becoming complicated itself. Instead of pouring out every ounce of melodrama it can muster, it does most things in a matter-of-fact manner. Supporting players provide comedy and Mike’s family gives us cuteness while the story holds our interest. The key to it all is something I’ve already said: we feel for Kyle. We really care what happens to the kid.



Another Earth is sci-fi for people who aren’t into sci-fi. The entire film takes place here on this Earth. There are no invading intergalactic armies nor displays of futuristic technology. This is the character study of a troubled person and a darned good one.



20. Rango
Fortunately, weaknesses are few in Rango. It’s a wonderful sendup of westerns without alienating the audience at which its aiming. It moves smoothly from comedy to action and uses striking visuals effectively in both veins.



On display is some seriously clever writing to keep this ruse going as long as it does. It also keeps us laughing in the process. That is, you’ll be laughing if you’re a slasher fan and/or can take a joke about our beloved genre. Oh, it helps to have a twisted sense of humor. I suppose a kid accidentally impaling himself on a spear isn’t funny to everyone. Meh…(shrugs shoulders)…I laughed and did so heartily.



When it’s all said and done, Rise… makes itself into a fun popcorn flick that somehow manages to be a little deeper. The visuals are often remarkable but the story gives us a bit more to hold on to. Normally, a prequel to a forty year old movie is a bad idea. Maybe this “was” a bad idea. However, it’s brilliantly executed. They’ve done the franchise proud.



The Artist is rich in symbolism and technique. These elements give the picture the needed depth to stay with us beyond its runtime. The symbols snowball into a collection of things we miss from the films of yesteryear and of the power movies have over most of us. The technique reinforces the symbols by creating a magic all their own.



For Tribe fans, and those of 90s hip hop, the nostalgia factor is off the charts. For younger viewers it gives insight into a legendary group they may not know much about even though many of the artists they currently listen to know plenty. For non-rap fans, it’s hard to say how much value this holds. Thankfully, Michael Rapaport does a nice job of making this a very human story of strained relationships.



Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is indeed a spy movie through and through. However, it’s concerned with the drama of real people who are spies, not the stereotypical action heroes we’ve come to believe them all to be. The effort is placed on trying to figure out where the secret rooms are, who’s meeting there and what they’re saying, not in trying to dazzle us with our hero’s death defying feats.



The potential for this story to spring to life right before us, as it too often has, is far scarier than the prospects of some boogeyman in a dingy, tattered get-up disemboweling all of our friends while cracking witty one-liners. The terror comes from the context. That said, it’s not a movie you’d be pressed to watch alone in the dark. The sinking feeling it gives us has nothing to do with what might be lurking about just beyond our field of vision. It comes more from what we can plainly see but may not be willing to believe.



Whether or not it gets all the particulars of the 2002 Major League Baseball season right isn’t important. What is important is that it symbolizes another triumph for the cyber generation. It’s another nail in the coffin of the 20th century.



Through it all, we bond with Matt and his girls. Our hearts tear for their situation and yearn for them to get some sort of peaceful closure. Even more so, we wish them some semblance of normalcy. We know the things they’re dealing with now will recede into the background of their lives, but we hope that the negative impact isn’t too great. We hope they’ll be okay.



Without question, the subject matter is touchy. Racism has not disappeared yet. This is a movie that will inspire strong feelings. As such, it’s a film that deserves to be seen. Even if you don’t like it, it gives us something to discuss and possibly learn from. It is flawed but poignant.



The secret to the frights it gives is we can envision it really happening. At various points in the not-so-distant past many thought the events depicted here were already happening. This is a movie that plays into our collective germophobia, using it to draw us to the edge of our seats.



Essentially, it’s a film about the fate of its target audience. Like so many things, the strategies that will affect the 99% are begrudgingly agreed upon in boardrooms we’re not allowed to enter. This is one we get to peek into.



To put it bluntly, if you’re not already a fan of Almodóvar’s work you may be in for the shock of your life. If you can get past that, you’ll find a terrifically twisted tale that’s uncomfortable in a good way.



It may be one of the more brutally violent films you’ll ever see. Still, despite the seemingly gallons of blood spilled and dozens of blows to various heads with heavy blunt objects (pipe, fire extinguisher, etc), this is no simple gore-fest. It blends the genres of horror, thriller and action to create an unflinching and slyly complex revenge flick.



Truthfully, it takes a while for our two main characters to actually meet one another. Until then, each is embroiled in their own fascinating drama filled with twists and turns. Mikael’s whodunit progresses not unlike many others, but it’s still well done and maintains suspense. Lisbeth’s life saga is brutal, yet compelling. The warning here is that there are some difficult scenes to sit through. After they meet, the twists keep coming and our intrigue is piqued.



Before we get to the end, we have fun watching the chase and trying to figure out what the aliens actually want. Attack the Block is a tightly wound story, clocking in at less than 90 minutes. That said, it’s still a fantastic ride that brings us to the edge of our seats and keeps us there.



Director Takashi Miike is known for going over the top, often at a relentless pace. He usually offers us a string of delightfully disgusting visuals. 13 Assassins does this, but in much different manner than he normally goes about things. The storytelling is wonderfully patient for first two acts then completely goes for broke during a third act solely consisting of an extended battle scene.



Where most movies would build towards a dramatic showdown and/or a daring escape, this movie is only interested in the possibility of the former and totally downplays the latter. In fact, escape is the first thing that happens and it’s never mentioned again. As a result, we get a movie that plays more like a slice-of-life than a dramatization, albeit a very dark slice. Like many such movies, the ending isn’t a climax, but a stopping point. It’s an intensely interesting one that opens up plenty of possibilities forcing us to confront the questions it raises without giving us any of the answers.



2. Drive
For some, the fact that all the action takes place late will be problematic. They’ll be frustrated by all non-verbal communication and general lack of adrenaline during the first part of the movie. The issue will be that these people have likely seen the trailers for Drive and happily hit the play button expecting something more along the lines of a Fast and Furious retread. They will be severely disappointed. The rest of us will be drawn in by the uncommonly quiet half of the film and will delight in the explosion of violence when it comes.



We get to know these people, understand their fears and regrets. It all culminates in an ending that’s not at all what we’re expecting. It’s a bittersweet redemption tale that threatens to stretch our idea of ‘happily ever after’ completely out of shape. Arriving at the conclusion that it really is a happy ending warrants much debate, even within ourselves. That’s the final stroke of genius in a movie filled with them.


Honorable Mention:

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Worst Movies of 2011

If you visited last year at this time, then you know that I'm running about a year behind on my year end movie lists. In other words, while everyone else is giving their thoughts on 2012 in cinema, I'm hitting you with what I thought about 2011. The fact is, I've finally seen almost all of the movies I've wanted to from that calendar year. Today, I'll start on the downside with last year's worse. Tomorrow, I'll fill you in on what I thought was '11's best. Finally, on New Year's Eve I will give you a "so far" assessment of the 2012 movies I've seen. With no further adieu, here are...

2011's Worst Movies


Allegedly, Our Idiot Brother is a comedy. However, very little of it is funny. Instead, we just roll our eyes in disbelief at how stupid this man is, wonder if he has some undiagnosed disability. Slogging through the movie is made all the more tedious because we can easily tell what this is all leading to.



Robots transform, fight, knock over skyscrapers and blow stuff up. Once again, this goes on for a way too long two and a half hours. I will say that this is a step up, though. The Fallen made me want to gouge out my own eyes with a spoon and puncture both eardrums with an icepick. This one merely made me want to bang my head on a hard surface. Here’s to progress!



It’s clearly meant to have us bawling at the notion of sweetness and enveloped by the warmth of closure. Instead, I merely felt violated as it kept trying to touch my sensitive areas without permission.



17. Priest
Instead of developing anything at all, we’re merely hurried off from one action sequence to the next. The overall effect is we feel like we’ve just watched someone else play a video game for an hour while they tell us their other controller is broken. To make matters worse, one of their “better” friends comes over and starts using it with no problems. I like playing video games. I don’t like watching other people play them.



Everything is over the top, both dramatically and comedically, problems mount at an alarming speed, and there’s plenty of sermonizing. This is the director’s tried and true formula. That formula is largely influenced by the movie Soul Food. Much of his work mimics that movie’s tone and style with Madea and/or others adding extra zaniness and homespun wisdom. Here, we practically get a remake. A television set full of money seems to be the only thing missing.



How is this one on its own merit? I’ll not even dignify my own rhetorical question with a typically lengthy reply (isn’t this review too long, already?). I’ll put it like this: the story is better than any of the Step Up sequels I’ve seen (having not seen part 4, just yet), but the dancing isn’t as good. Decide accordingly.



It never grabs you. The whole thing feels more hokey than scary. It doesn’t help that this set of apparitions is comparatively impotent. They pace back and forth, hide in corners and occasionally reach for someone. Sadly, it’s painfully obvious they’ll never get there. Worse, they look like they know they’ll never get there.



Breaking Dawn – Part 1 continues the tradition of bludgeoning its audience into misery. After all, that particular emotion loves company. The Twilight Saga is nothing, if not a bunch of miserable beings trying to miserize each other to death. “Miserize”? The “Twilightverse”? Dear Lord, I’m so bored I’m making up words to entertain myself but I can’t stop watching. It’s only fitting. This series has beaten all sense, intelligence and joy out of me.



Thankfully, The Sitter clocks in under 90 minutes. It still manages to drag since it’s so predictable and just labors through cliché after cliché and bad joke after bad joke, never doing its own thing. The very few laughs to be had are spread pretty far apart. They drown in an ocean of uninspired writing that sends waves of flat punch lines crashing into us.



11. 11-11-11
(see what I did there?)
It’s derivative, repetitive and almost a sedative. Joseph, by the way, a very interesting first name and purposeful initials, goes through the normal machinations of perplexed protagonists in like situations: plenty of google, seeing the local occult specialist and the local clergy, conveniently his wheelchair bound brother. Between these sessions is when Joseph sees things. It’s usually some guy in a demon costume standing around staring at him. I’m serious.



We’re stuck with Larry Crowne as is. It wants to have something deep to say about the economy but doesn’t . It wants to be an enthralling romantic comedy, but isn’t. Larry gets not one, but two “game-winning” moments that are anti-climactic to the point of being boring. Even the plucky neighbor routine is botched.



Everything that happens plot-wise is telegraphed from the last thirty rom-coms you watched. There is the occasional laugh. The scene involving Griffin (James), Bernie the gorilla (Nolte) and a trip to T. G. I. Friday’s is the most amusing scene. Even that’s only worth a few snickers. At least Rosario Dawson is always nice to look at. Still, ogling her whenever she’s on the screen isn’t nearly enough to save this dreck. Skip it if you can. If not, you have my condolences.



Long review short: Conan is one long gory action scene with a pause for topless wenches (they’re actually listed as such in the credits), another pause for sex and a few brief pauses for talking…er…yelling and grunting. The story is told in a way that makes me believe my 12 year old nephew worked closely with the director.



This crap, thou mustn’t watcheth. I hateth this movie. Immortals is aggressively dumb without the good sense to not take itself so seriously. Nearly every action any character makes can be summed up by one word: stupid. It also breaks its own rules several times. This is noticeable mostly because the film itself makes a big deal out of these rules.



The Roommate is a watered down, stupid, PG-13 rated mess inhabited by non-descript actors giving bland performances. This assessment excludes Billy Zane as the faux-chic, ultra-sleazy fashion design instructor. He's far from bland. Then again, hasn’t Billy Zane become a warning sign that you’re watching a bad movie?

 

The visuals are a treat, but the pieces to the story don’t quite fit in a cohesive manner. First off, there are too many of them. A surplus of things that could’ve been discarded are kept. Conversely, we get the feeling plenty of things that should’ve been kept are thrown out. Second, none of the characters are written well enough for us to really care what happens to them. They’re just mannequins in the window striking poses appropriate for the gear they’re wearing.



Many will praise the movie for being different and for some stunning visuals. Director Terrence Malick does indeed deserve kudos for this. The same goes for the massive quantity of symbolism and the wonderful performance by Hunter McCracken as the young Jack. Still, a huge portion of the movie, while beautiful, bored me to tears. Yes, I know. People smarter than I have put it on many of their “Top 10” lists for 2011. It was even nominated for Best Picture. Maybe I just don’t get it. You’re probably right. I’m OK with that.



Certain people are lucky I’ve not yet been named Supreme Ruler of the Universe. Cataclysmic events may have erupted the very moment it came to my attention that the ever-invisible and unquestionably guilty “they” were going to make another Big Momma’s House. Without doubt “they” would be immediately banished to the farthest reaches of my jurisdiction. By “they” I mean anyone involved with any movie in the series.



As a child, my mother used to tell me “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” O…kaaaaayyy, I think I’m done here.



Chipwrecked Is Wrecked! It is EXCEPTIONALLY UNEXCEPTIONAL! It is BROMIDICALLY BLAND…DEVILISHLY DULL…MERCILESSLY MILD…PARTICULARLY PLAIN…TRAGICALLY TRITE! WithOUT question, the good Lord has placed in MY VERY HEART the perfect word to describe the ATROCITY to which I bore witness: Twee.


Dishonorable Mention:

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Descendants

Directed by Alexander Payne.
2011. Rated R, 115 minutes.

Cast:
Shailene Woodley
Beau Bridges
Matthew Lillard
Judy Greer
Nick Krause
Amara Miller
Robert Forster


Matt King (Clooney) is a successful businessman living in Hawaii with his wife and two daughters. His eldest daughter Alex (Woodley) is a troubled teen away at a boarding school. His world is turned upside down after his wife has a serious boating accident and goes into a coma. Things soon get worse when the doctor tells him she will never wake. Her will stipulates that in such a case she is to be removed from the respirator. Before this is done, Matt has to take on the task of telling family and friends so they can visit her and say goodbye, if they wish. This starts with wrangling the out of control Alex, breaking the news to her and enlisting her help him on this difficult journey.

As expected, everything is a struggle. We see a guy who obviously loves his daughters but hasn’t had to deal with them in the same way his wife had. With her condition looming large over every moment, him trying to bond with the girls and working on a major real estate deal that will affect the fortunes of his entire extended network of aunts, uncles and cousins, it’s easy to see why he’s overwhelmed. He puts his best foot forward as often as possible but the guy’s in pain. Shortly, his pain gets worse. I won’t spoil how, but if you’ve seen the trailer you probably know. It’s a development that alters things quite a bit and makes him an even more sympathetic character than when the movie first starts.

Clooney is perfect throughout. His Matt is normally a strong guy but is under tremendous pressure in every aspect of his life. He’s forced to come to grips with his failings as a parent, namely the detachment of a pre-occupied bread winner. That’s the biggest of many things that must change immediately. He has to confront his wife’s shortcomings while concealing them so he doesn’t ruin other people’s memories of her. Finally, the decision he must make about the real estate deal will not only impact his family but the entire state of Hawaii, too. He always wants to do the right thing. What that is and how to go about it is a frustrating process.



Another standout is Shailene Woodley as Alex. Her words and more impressively, her body language oozes a deep resentment for her mother. As 17 year old girls are wont to do, she’s given to flying off the handle at a moment’s notice, often with an expletive laced tirade. In fact, expletives make up much of her vocabulary. The trick is, even though she lacks more respectable words to express herself, she’s fully capable of using them believably in a moment of caring. Though they’re said with the same verve, we can tell the difference between the two.

Hawaii, itself, is also an important character. There is much talk about how she will be affected by the King family real estate deal. She becomes a living, breathing entity, exerting even more pressure on our hero. Expectedly, she’s a gorgeous lady. Having lived there a couple years, I hesitate to call what’s here cinematography. She’s such a great model, any one of us could just point a camera at her and she’ll do the rest. Nonetheless, she is framed beautifully, not just as a tourist destination but as a place where real people live.

Through it all, we bond with Matt and his girls. Our hearts tear for their situation and yearn for them to get some sort of peaceful closure. Even more so, we wish them some semblance of normalcy. We know the things they’re dealing with now will recede into the background of their lives, but we hope that the negative impact isn’t too great. We hope they’ll be okay.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Skin I Live In

Directed by Pedro Almodóvar.
2011. Rated R, 120 minutes.
Cast:
Antonio Banderas
Elena Anaya
Jan Cornet
Roberto Álamo

Blanca Suárez
Susi Sánchez
Bárbara Lennie
Eduard Fernández


If you’re familiar with the work of director Pedro Almodóvar then, like me, you’ve seen some wonderfully warped films. Strained relationships between parent and child is one commonly occurring aspect. Others are betrayal and sexual identity. Though the two are always present, they don’t necessarily have anything to do with one another. Their importance to each tale varies. The stories are expertly told psychological dramas at their core and branch out into mysteries, revenge fables and other tragedies. The Skin I Live In both follows suit and ups the ante by including elements of horror.

Dr. Robert Ledgard (Banderas) is a popular and wealthy surgeon working on something very important. During a lecture, he informs them he’s been successful in creating an artificial skin that is resistant to burns and insect bites. He says this is integral to the field of reconstructive surgery for burn victims and people with skin disorders. He also tells them he’s been testing this on lab mice with amazing results. However, we learn that he’s really been testing this on a woman he’s been keeping captive in a room adjacent to his bedroom at his estate. Her name is Vera (Anaya) and, perhaps understandably given the circumstances, she’s suicidal.

It is instantly apparent that the two have developed an odd relationship. He watches her from his room, operates on her when needed and seems to genuinely care for her. Though willing to kill herself, she appears on the verge of Stockholm Syndrome, either falling in love with her captor or cunningly making a play for her escape. Through Robert’s trusted servant Marilla, played by Almodóvar regular Marisa Paredes, that Vera bears a possibly unhealthy resemblance to his late wife. To say anything more would be spoiling things.

Trust me, the stuff that follows deserve not to be spoiled. Our journey is a winding trail down the path of the bizarre. Emotions, motives and desperation repeatedly collide with disastrous results. The ethics of any of these people is shaky at best, to begin with. They get completely tossed aside in favor of easing one’s own pain.



To say things spiral out of control is a massive understatement. It would be more accurate for me to say The Grand Canyon is just a hole. The degenerating lives of these people keep us watching in wide-eyed and slack-jawed amazement. Even after we figure out the massive twist about midway through, we just have to know where this is going. When we finally get to the last scene, the depth of all that has occurred to that point sinks in. It’s a moment that the people involved need to be a happy one, but it’s far more chilling and completely beyond the scope of their comprehension.

Through it all, Antonio Banderas gives a superb performance. He’s morose, yet oblivious to the fact since he’s secure that what he’s doing will bring about happiness for all involved. Even as Marilla warns him and pleads with him, he’s dismissive of the idea he could be in the wrong. His logic is simple: Trust me, I’m a doctor and I know what I’m doing. Paredes as Marilla and Anaya as Vera are similarly brilliant making this a very well-acted movie.

If there is a drawback to TSILI is that for some viewers, the envelope is pushed too far. Not merely strange, things can get repulsive at multiple points along the way. Sometimes one already loathsome act becomes worse in retrospect. For instance, there is a rather graphic rape scene. In itself, it could be difficult to sit through. Thirty minutes later, after we’ve gleamed more details, it becomes even more horrific. To put it bluntly, if you’re not already a fan of Almodóvar’s work you may be in for the shock of your life. If you can get past that, you’ll find a terrifically twisted tale that’s uncomfortable in a good way. Then again, you may not make it through the whole thing, wish you’d never started and say a prayer for all of us sick souls singing its praises.