Sunday, January 29, 2012


This is one of those movies that you don't really have great expectations for, but that satisfies in the way a good hamburger does. When you want what you want, it fills the bill. There is progesterone fueled, tension filled capers and clever plot twists that are not always logical but work anyway. All of it is served up by a competent cast in a well paced couple of hours. I may not hold onto anything here for very long, but that may make the movie very re-watchable because it just meets our needs rather than our hopes.

I have not always been a Mark Walberg fan, but starting with "Boogie Nights" he has gotten better and better. He was overshadowed by the performance of his acting partner Christian Bale in last years "The Fighter", but he was top notch and probably deserved a nomination like almost everyone else in the cast got. This is a part that he can do in his sleep now, the tough guy with a family and a heart of gold. He has more heart and common sense than the other characters in the movie and of course he is the luckiest criminal in the world. Every time something goes wrong, he is johnny on the spot with a solution and good timing. Like most caper films, a lot goes wrong here.   So we get to see him improvise and take advantage of his bad luck and turn it around.

J.K. Simmons is in the movie and while not the bad guy, he plays a pretty unlikable fellow pretty well. His story gets a bit of a nice resolution which satisfies a old family debt that you won't remember was there from early in the movie. Giovanni Ribisi is playing a patented scumbag character that he can do so well. He does not get to do much more than glower though because in the long run there are other issues that the set up wants us to be looking for. There are a couple of unbelievable outcomes in the movie that may be tempered because the audience has a stake in some of these characters, and I guess it makes the resolution more palatable, but the film loses any real tough guy veneer as a consequence. It is Hollywood action that we are getting, not some indie that wants us to suffer for our entertainment. Ben Foster is getting to be a stereotype in this kind of movie and he should be careful because he may end up pigeonholed in this part for the rest of his career. I was surprised to see Lukas Haas from "Witness" as one of the crew and Walberg's brother. He and Walberg  play off of each other pretty well in some intense scenes set in Panama City.

There are a couple of schools of thought about crime movies, one says that we should go ahead and accept the anti-hero as our character and use that as our passage through the story. The other sees these characters as a morality play that warns us of the consequences of living a bad life. I wish more people saw "Scarface" as the morality tail it is supposed to be rather than the hero worshiped scum bag that today's "gangsta" culture has made it. This movie does make contact with the criminal world look unpleasant, but of course it gives a a resolution that is pure Hollywood wish fulfillment. It is not a big idea movie, it is a well made thriller with the requisite hard ass dialogue to sustain the modern audience. I had a giant Coke Zero and a box of Junior Mints to go with this Big Mac, you might like it better with something salty, but you will be satisfied if not really balanced with this movie meal.

The Grey

When I first saw the poster for the movie, and then the trailer, I thought "The Grey" referred to the wolf that is tracking Liam Neeson throughout the movie. Having seen the film, I now feel the title is a bit more ambiguous, just as the color is somewhere between black and white, the subject here is really the middle ground between having a life or giving up on life. This is a man versus nature story, but it is not just an action flick. There is some thoughtful mediation on what makes us human and what life is worth in the long run. It sometimes runs into cliche, but it is never boring and at least the film makers were trying to say something while entertaining us.

At the center of the movie is the great Liam Neeson, an actor I first noticed way back in "Excalibur" in 1981. He has been known as a dramatic actor primarily for films like "Schindler's List" and "Michael Collins", but I know that he was always an action guy since he is Darkman. Three years ago in the movie "Taken", he laid claim to the mantle of action badass, and each January since then we have been rewarded with an action loaded film. This movie is solid and it also contains what may be Neeson's best work on screen. It is a physical role to be sure, but he gets many chances to show us what is in a man's heart and head as well as his hands. There is a scene early on, where he confronts a dying man, he does not coddle him, he does not lie to him, he tells the truth in a way that all people who respect life want us to feel. Later in the movie he gets a chance to back up his words with deeds, but that one quiet scene and his gentile and serious voice go a long way in showing us that the alpha is not necessarily the biggest bully but can be the one with the biggest heart.

In the 1970s, I saw Richard Harris as "A Man Called Horse" and as the "Man in the Wilderness". He was the king of determination against the elements back then. Neeson takes over this role and lives it to it's fullest. There are not huge surprises in the movie. Those of you who watch the trailer know that it basically pits a group of survivors of a plane crash, against a pack of wolves defending their territory. To complicate matters the battle takes place in the frozen wilderness of Alaska, so the threat of death does not come just from the lupine adversaries but the weather itself. Neeson's character doesn't know everything, but he has the common sense that others in the situation don't always show. He also has a strange determination to continue to fight because as we see early in the film, he is ambivalent about continuing to simply exist. None of the guys who survive the crash is a sniveling coward, but some of them have given up and some feel so frustrated by their circumstances that they become a pain in the ass. We don't get to know them as well as we could because the story keeps pushing us forward, and the small bits of character have to come from very brief moments.

The special effects are harrowing in the plane crash and creepy at night as the band is stalked by the pack. There are some pretty gruesome deaths, which make the story all the more frighting because they are rendered in a very realistic way. It almost makes you glad for those characters who are lost without the violence of having their throats ripped out by wolves. There are a couple of scenes in which man is pitted against man, but it never comes to a violent confrontation, just an emotional one. There is very little doubt that the stronger spirit here is the one that drives our involvement with the story. Each of the actors in the final group gets a chance to show what they are capable of as performers. I was impressed by the quiet work of Dallas Roberts and the more flamboyant performance of Frank Grillo. Both of these guys are supporting actors that should work more in more prominent roles.

I don't know how everyone else will feel about the way the story goes. Looking back over the set up it seems the right resolution, but it may be confounding to many. The moral principles that crop up at times may seem like they are mocking the universe and God, but in the long run it is more complex than that. Each man's spirit is freed in a manner that befits the situation. Neeson, being the main character gets the strongest spiritual journey, and in the long run it is the one that is most satisfying. There is nothing of cliche in his actions, and the dilemma of "the grey" is resolved very effectively. 

Saturday, January 21, 2012


Fridays in January are for action films. That is just a personal preference and it seems that Hollywood tends to agree. We get a lot of releases at this time of year that are geared to simple, mindless butt-kicking action. I am anticipating my annual Liam Neeson fix next week, and I am not a fan of the Underworld movies, so this was on the table. The director Steven Soderbergh, has made a lot of films that I have enjoyed. Most of them are character and dialogue driven. They have clever plots and lines to make the movie flow. This film is neither dialogue heavy or full of characterization. I think you can see some of the limitations of his work in this movie. It is a good film, and the story is intricate but as an action film it lacks the drive and rhythms that most of us crave.

Ever since Pulp Fiction, I have noticed that movies and TV shows have employed time shifting story development on a frequent basis. Sometimes it adds to the drama as we anticipate the situation we started in, sometimes it is a humorous device to reveal how foolish the characters have been and sometimes it is simply not necessary. This is one of those movies which employs this device but has no real reason to do so except that it seems a stylish choice. Nothing was added by the back and forth jumps in the story and it made a somewhat confusing spy betrayal story even more confusing. Dramas and comedies can probably make this technique work, but action films need a rhythm to them and this movie never seems to develop any rhythm.

The main feature of the film is the star, a woman who is apparently a Mixed Martial Arts fighter. She has a striking look but is definitely not the typical Hollywood beauty. It appears that instead of casting for a actress who can fight they cast  a fighter who can act a little. Gina Carano is clearly a badass, She handles the stunts and fight sequences really well. There are several really well staged fights in the film, including one that opens the film in a dinner and another one that takes place in a hotel room. The hand to hand combat is brutal and realistic with the exception that most action films have, the participants all stand up to a lot more physical abuse than is ever apparent five minutes after the scene is supposed  to be finished. The main problem with the story is that it really just consists of one chase after another and then a fight scene. Because it is hard to tell where the plot is headed and why, the sequences feel like time killers until the next point of exposition. There is a lot of exposition. People talk on in long sequences without always revealing what the audience needs to anticipate the next action scene.

It was an interesting choice to have all of the fight sequences and most of the chase sequences occur without a music score to increase the mood. There is a nice low key jazz type score in the sections where characters are setting up the next sequence, and there is  a little bit of emotional weirdness in the dissonant score. In the context of a film that is supposed to be all propulsive action, it feels like a failed experiment. The movie never takes off the way the fight scenes and at least two chase scenes do. Also, the betrayal requires a much stronger payoff than we get, at least with the main betrayer. I did think that the final shot worked effectively and does leave something to our imaginations that should be pretty hard. There are several good actors in the film, some of them are under used like Bill Paxton and Antonio Banderas. Michael Fassbender who is on the brink of becoming a major star, has a long sequence in the middle of the film but only take flight in his big fight scene and then a later flashback.

Nothing about the movie should discourage anyone from seeing it if you are interested. I enjoyed it quite well. I just wanted to love it much more than I did. Last year, "Hanna" covered some similar themes and action but with a much more focused story. The style of that movie was much more interesting than this one which feels like a film maker, trying out for the part of an action director. With the Bond films, action helmers like Martin Cambell and John Glen, while not artists by most standards, managed to make movies that feel like they are constantly headed somewhere. Marc Foster, the director of "Quantum of Solace" was not an action director and it showed. We have the same problem here. There is a serviceable plot, a strong central character but a weak execution of the pace and rhythm that most fans of these kinds of film want.  

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

'We Bought A Zoo

Someone once decided that Christmas is the perfect time for a sentimental movie about family issues, redemption, or heartwarming comedy. It does seem to be a natural fit, and it is good counter-programing to the big blockbusters and Oscar bait that get released about the same time each year. Unfortunately for every, "Cast Away", "Lemony Snicket", or "It's Complicated", there are an equal if not greater number of misses. Films like, "Toys", "Seven Pounds", "How Do You Know?" have been big misses with film-makers that have proven track records but could not quite get it done. "We Bought A Zoo" seems to fall more on the side of a miss than a hit. There are a lot of things going for it; it stars Matt Damon and Scarlett Johanssen,  it is written and directed by Cameron Crowe, and it is based on a true story. Still it can't quite work because it tries so hard to be in that niche, it feels inauthentic.

The problem as I see it is that there are just too many themes and issues stuffed into this movie. There are two love stories for the main character, one for a secondary character, a father-son redemption story, a comedy about the characters that populate a zoo, an allegory about an aging tiger, and the little zoo that can story that contains them all. It just feels like this movie is constantly hitting you over the head with the need to be charming and to be loved. As a result, the focus of the story is hardly on the zoo at all, it is on a lead character who can't let go of the life that he has lost. It is a life that we are only given short flashbacks on, and we have to rely on the characters to tell us how wonderful it was, we never really get to see it (except for one bit at the very end of the movie).

One other problem I had was the casting of the lead. Matt Damon is a good actor and there is nothing he does here to hurt the film. The difficulty is that he is so good looking and accomplished that it is hard to buy into the self doubt he has in a lot of scenes. The one scene where he tells his children about meeting his wife, he says that the thing he said to her was "why would someone like you ever talk to someone like me?" I will put it to any women reading this right now, can you think of a reason you might talk to a guy who looks exactly like Matt Damon when he first approaches you? Oh and by the way, he is asking this while he smiles shyly and blinks those big blue eyes.

Things happen in the movie that only happen in movies, and they only happen the way they do in a movie. The story suddenly demands that Damon's character come up with a extra $100,000, after he has been spending without consideration from the beginning. Guess what, that amount of money falls into his lap at exactly the right moment and we get one of the defining decisions that the character keeps making in the story. Will he buy the zoo?, Will he kiss the girl?, Will he decide to spend the money that he comes into in the right way?, Will he finally open the slideshow of his dead wife?, Will he have a defining moment with his son?, Will he step up for the animals in a tough situation?. There are so many set ups and payoffs that it feels like a tennis match at times, Serve and then return and then again.

Crowe also highlights all of this with his signature collection of song cues. Some work fine but others are cloying or repeat the same sad winsome moment over and over again. People accuse John Williams of being heavy handed with an original score, Crowe manages to do the same thing with bits and pieces of contemporary music and classic rock. This is not a bad movie. You will be entertained and charmed at times. It is simply not a great movie and the reasons it is not great are always too apparent. Years from now, someone will have a hard time remebering this film, just like you probably have no recall of "We're No Angels". Another holiday film that tried but was just not worth keeping in your head.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Beauty and the Beast 3D

As I have made abundantly clear on multiple posts, I am a sentimentalist and a marshmallow. If a film moves me, I can take it to heart and love it forever. I did just that 21 years ago with Beauty and the Beast. This was the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture by the Academy Awards, and that was in the days that limited nominations to 5 and there was no animated category for  feature length films. "Silence of the Lambs" won that year, but "J.F.K." and "Bugsy" were also up, imagine that for a collection of diverse films. I am not reducing any of my love for the great Johnathan Demme film, but I thought "Beauty and the Beast" was the Best Picture of 1991.

Today, it was re-released for probably the third time but for the first time in a 3-D format. I am really conflicted about 3-D, most of the time it is unnecessary and  it makes it difficult to enjoy a picture because projection lights just do not seem to be strong enough. Sometimes, the original use of 3-D in a movie, adds an element to the film that makes it really different and enjoyable. Films that are re-engineered as 3-D films raise my natural suspicions. That said, the Disney folks have found a way to keep marketing their films to theaters, despite availability on home video, and 3-D is boosting the reason to see some of those truly great films again. Last year we got "The Lion King" and now Beauty.

To be honest, the movies depth of color and beautiful painted backgrounds often made it seem like a 3-D film, even in 1991. The first shot of the castle through the trees as the image moves through a forest and over a brook was stunning in regular 2-D. It was even more amazing in the third dimension. As Belle wanders the castle and encounters statues and relief paintings, they make the eyes pop with dramatic image response. Gaston's trophy room looks even more ridiculous with a third dimension to all of his antler decorating. That is the main benefit of the 3-D treatment here, the background impress even more than they originally did. The action and characters are not enhanced much by the converstion but that is quibbling, it is still a delight to sit through.

My kids were five and three when we first saw this film. My oldest cried out during the scene where the villagers were on their way to storm the Beast's castle. She sobbed inconsolably in my lap and I was embarrassed but also proud that she could so freely respond to the emotions in the film. Today, just as 21 years ago, we went as a family and all of us had moist eyes at the end of the screening. I know this is a commercial for the video release of the film in just a couple of weeks, but I have been known to cry at commercials as well so I don't feel too self conscious. When people complain that it is simply rehashing the past and that Hollywood has run out of creativity when it starts mutating older films for re-release, I have to ask if you have seen some of the dreck that has been foisted on us in the past five to ten years.

I was happy to plop down the extra price for the 3-D, even for a 10:30 a.m. showing, because what I was being sold was worth the price, even if it did not have a 3-D added element. Someday, when my lotto numbers come in, I will open a small four screen multiplex, and show movies that I want to see on the big screen again. Maybe I will be sitting there alone, but that will make it easier for me to shed a tear for how wonderful a movie can be and not be embarrassed in front of everyone else.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Celebrating 50 Years of James Bond on Blu-ray

I'm having a double Ogasim. This is just too cool. Of course I'm going to be repurchasing product I've owned for the fourth or fifth time. I guess I am the Consumer that Hollywood craves.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Back in the late seventies or early eighties, my best friend Art Franz, turned me on to the works of John LeCarre. I think I only read "The Spy who Came in from the Cold", "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and "Smiley's People".  I don't remember them that well but I do recall that they were intricately plotted, very detailed and focused on the real contest between the Soviets and the West. Smiley was a character that was contained but brilliant and his mind was not really clouded by anything except the game. Alec Guinness portrayed Smiley in a BBC production of Tinker Tailor, that ran on PBS back in the early eighties. I think it was an eight hour project, so you can tell there is a lot of plotting and material that could be visualized.  This new theatrical version is just over two hours and there is still the same amount of plotting in it but it has to develop a lot quicker.

I guess I should consider myself thankful that the concession stand attendant had to move over and put together Ice Cream for someone else, otherwise I might have got my usual large Coke Zero and then might need to leave the theater to relieve myself an hour or so in. Had I done so, I know I would have been lost because every moment in the film has clues and paths that will help develop the story. This is a spy story where the plotters are not known till the end, the main villain is never really seen directly, and the hero is a nondescript bureaucrat, who appears to be as ineffectual at home as he is efficient at work. Phone calls, receipts and words repeated by someone that you did not share them with, are all the evidence that we get for most of the mystery. There are only three quick scenes of violence and everything else is internalized or hinted at.

Gary Oldman has been a wonderful actor for more than three decades. I first remember seeing him in "Sid and Nancy", an unpleasant memory of the Sex Pistols but a grand introduction to Oldman as an actor. I have seen him chew up the scenery in plenty of films. "Romeo is Bleeding" and "The Fifth Element" are good examples of Oldman going full force at an over the top character and making it interesting. He has been the lead, a key supporting character and a passing cameo in dozens of films over the years. Alec Guinness played Smiley as a little more elite and not quite as cold. Oldman takes the character and owns it. His Smiley barely speaks in the movie, he is all reaction and timing. There is a vacuum around his personality that sucks in all the air and makes him feel like the center of the scene even when he has little to do. The end of the film made me want to see him in a big screen version of "Smiley's People" right now. It is a very good example of a performance that is subdued but controls the story around it.

The intrigue and suspicion in the movie is supported by a cast of very good actors that covey exactly the mood the film needs. Toby Jones (who I think is American) plays the new head of the British spy agency known as "The Circus", with unctuous superiority and disdain for anyone else.  Colin Firth is one of the suspects who also oozes an attitude of superiority in the grand British style.  There are so many good performers in the film that it is easy to lose track of the focus which needs to be the story. I did feel at times that a little more underlining would help the viewer keep track, but if you are engaged, you won't have any trouble figuring out what is going on.

The movie is set in 1973, and the director and art director do a fine job showing us London without all the new landmarks and Budapest (although I suspect it has looked the same for a hundred years) looks like it could be behind the Iron Curtain. This is a well made piece of adult entertainment and I am pleased to say there was a pretty good audience for a 10:30 a.m. showing on a Tuesday. This bodes well for financial returns, which maters because there really should be a follow up using the character of Smilely in another story, but if they can't get Gary Oldman to return, they should forget it. You need this kind of performance to sustain an intellectual puzzle movie that would not be very appealing if there were not an excellent cast selling it.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Darkest Hour

January is a dead time for new movies. Most films opening are wide releases of late debut Oscar bait. Then there is the annual Liam Neeson ass kicking movie, and finally there is product that is so dismal, it can't even be opened in September so they wait until January to dump it. This movie actually opened on Christmas day and then it died. It felt like a wake today because Amanda and I were the only people in the theater to see this screening. It actually was kinda nice, I did not have to ask anyone to turn off their phones and save the Facebook updates until after the movie. Counter programming is a strategy that can work if you have no other competition, but this movie has Sherlock Holmes, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Mission Impossible to contend with for the action audience and it was not a contest.

This is your basic alien invasion movie, with horror touches. I had a student in class tonight named Yuri, who said he saw it at a midnight screening for the opening, in 3-D, he said it sucked. Of course he paid $16 to see it when he was probably tired, I paid $6 and saw it all before noon. I used this as an example in class tonight, in making a claim of future fact. Could I expect to make money investing $30 million for a sci-fi action film to open on a holiday among crowded competition ? My answer was no, I'd have waited and tried to open the week before the Liam Neeson movie. Action fans will want something to wet their appetite, and the other movies will be more played out by then. This is a high concept film with no stars, a limited budget and a downer theme opening at Christmas, someone did not make very strong inferences.

I found the movie perfectly satisfying for what it is. There is an interesting concept, a very effective special effect that gets used each time there is an alien attack, and the setting was somewhere that has not been seen a thousand times already in other movies (although Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, did just use the same setting for the opening sequences of it's story). There is nothing groundbreaking here, if you were to cross "Cloverfield" and "Independence Day", you would pretty much get this chase film set in a largely abandoned Moscow. There is enough suspense to keep you involved for an hour and a half, and the people are pretty as are the special effects.

There are four or five main characters, and then some come and go as the movie travels from one location to another. Not everyone makes it out of the scenerio that has been set up and that adds a little bit of credibility to the plot. Although if you think about it, you can probably predict who will survive and who will get wiped by the alien forces. I did like the fact that the American characters had to struggle because they did not speak Russian, and therefore they could not tell which broadcasts or what signs should be listened to. Each character gets a couple of minutes to shine, and even one character that we know to despise, gets a chance at redemption. I did like the courage theme that ran through the film. We all ask ourselves, "how would we cope in this situation?" Here we get a variation on the answers that seems to cover most of the possibilities.

Emile Hirsh is the only name I recognized in the cast. Except for the four Americans, everyone else is Russian or Swedish so they are not household names. I thought Hirsh was the weakest performance of the cast, but he does have one good scene at the end where he is explaing his friendship with his buddy/business partner to one of the girls in the story. That was his most convincing segment in the movie. He also has some rousing moments in the closing of the film, but he is not really an action star. This movie is all about the concept. If you are not too discriminating on dialogue or character, and you like alien invasion movies, then you will be OK with The Darkest Hour. If I were you however, I'd go to the discount 2-D matinee instead of the mid-night 3-D screening.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Biggest Let Downs of 2011

This is not really a worst of list, since there were only a couple of movies that I saw that I outright hated. Most of the films listed here ended up her because they disappointed me in some way. They may have had a premise that was promising but turned out not to be the focus of the film, or maybe it was technically well made but lacking in story. When movies surpise you in a good way, you can remember them and recommend them to others. When films tick you off or step on sacred ground without wiping their feet first, then others need to be warned.

Hangover 2
The Hangover 2

I don't know why I expected it to work. The first one was perfect and there was no need for a second version. The trailers did suggest more over the top insanity so my hopes got elevated and all of us got excited. I'm smart enough to know better. The movie virtually re-makes the first film without adding anything particularly new. The characters we came to enjoy turned into guests that overstayed their welcome. I might see it again on the satellite, because I watch way too much, but I will never get the money back or the excitement spent seeing this in a theater.

Green Hornet

The Green Hornet

There was almost no hope that this was going to be much good. The idea of a comedy based Hornet featuring Seth Rogan, just sounds unlikely. This movie mostly just lays there and does nothing to make us care. The only element that made me care was Amanda delivered product placement materials for the shoot during her internship. Again, it was not bad, just underwhelming. When I looked back on my comments last January, I was a lot more positive, but I was also correct, the movie is not very memorable.

The Mechanic

The Mechanic

I am a huge fan of the original with Charles Bronson. He was the forerunner of all the action guys of the 80's, 90s, and 00s. Jason Statham is the quintessential tough guy of contemporary cinema, so it should be a good match but again it was underwhelming.  This could have been so much better so that is the let down.

Cars 2

Cars 2

Cars is one of our favorite Pixar films. Cars 2 is the first outright disappointment from Pixar. Too much Mater, too frantic, none of the charm of Radiator Springs. 

The Thing
The Thing 

I have no excuse, I just wanted it to be something in the area of the John Carpenter version,that was a ridiculous hope. CGI goes overboard in the Antarctic. I am embarrassed to say I spent the money.

Pirates of the Caribbean:On Stranger Tides
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

It is better than the two sequels but that does not say much. This is a great character played by a terrific actor, but it is being wasted on stories that do not measure up. The first movie was perfect, everything since has been a mildly interesting echo. I probably encouraged this by giving into the herd mentality and going ahead and seeing this. I always let my hopes outweigh my fears when it comes to movies. I keep having hopes for Jack Sparrow to really be used in a good movie.

Transformers:Dark of the Moon

Transformers: Dark of the Moon 

I remember almost nothing about it. It was maybe mid-week, and there was nothing else that was new. We liked the first one, the last two are so ehh that I could see them again and and they would be new to me.


A mix of live action and animation that does not work. It feels like a chipmunk movie without the Chipmunks. The trailer sold me on it, so whoever put that together earned their money, but everyone else was overpaid to make this dull film that had some nice visuals but terrible acting and a weak story. Compare to "Arthur Christmas" to see how basically the same idea for a story can be realized.

The Adjustment Bureau
The Adjustment Bureau     

This movie was irritating while I was watching it and it is pissing me off right now to remember it. Metaphysical B.S. that uses the high tech special effect of opening and closing doors. Whoa. Overwrought claptrap. In looking back at my original comments, I said I was indifferent to it, not that I hated it. I now stand corrected by myself.



I saw the trailer and thought "This will be stupid Awesome!", I was wrong it was just stupid. The idea of a sentient rubber tire rolling around the desert, causing thing to explode with it's could you screw that up? It sounds like trashy fun. Instead we get a pretentious story of obsessed film makers and stupid people who will watch anything. Oh I get it, I'm an idiot for being drawn in by your scenario, and now you want me to see that. F.U. (And since you are French, F. France too.)

Monday, January 2, 2012

2011 Movie Year In Review

I want to be careful about my recommendations and evaluations. I pay to see all the movies that are on my list. These are not screeners sent out that I watched at home, this was hard earned cash that I laid out to see these movies. I sat in a theater and shared the experience with other audience members. Sometimes the only other people in the audience were the ones that came with me. This may say something about my tastes that will make it easier for you to judge how my opinion might compare to yours. There are many quality films that I would like to have seen but have not yet had a chance to. In the old days, when I had more time and the time I had was under my control more, I would see those obscure independents, or an occasional foreign language film. Documentaries also slip in on occasion, but for the most part, I see what is available at the local theaters on a weekly basis. That means that most of the films I saw were mainstream Hollywood pictures. I average a film a week in the theaters, so I saw upwards of 50 movies this year. The following list is not an attempt to predict awards or to measure a film in terms of quality. This is a subjective list of the movies that I was most impressed with or reacted to the most strongly; it is limited to those movies that I saw, it does not mean that other films might not be better.

My Favorites for the Year

1. Warrior

This movie caught me off guard and knocked me over. It looks like it is just some martial arts film but it is so much more than that. We know who is going to be in the final fight, but it was still dramatically set up, and we don't know how that fight is going to play out. There is strong family drama in the story of the two brothers on a collision course and a really fine performance by Nick Nolte, as their nightmare of a Father who is seeking redemption  with both of his sons. I cannot explain why this movie was not a bigger hit, it had more heart and excitement than any action film or drama I saw the rest of the year and it was full of crowd pleasing moments.

2. Win-Win

A small movie that is beautifully acted by everyone in the film. The theme of the movie is self respect and what one must do to maintain it. Sometimes it is tough to face up to our failures but ultimately we are better people if we try to do the right thing, especially when it is hard. There must be something about wrestling movies that works for me, I loved Visionquest back in 1985, and the Wrestler just a couple of years ago. So a second sports based film is at the top of my list, but neither of them are sports that I have ever been a spectator of, go figure. We are also introduced to an authentic young actor who is also a champion high school wrestler. I thought he was great, I hope he works in other kinds of films in the future. 

Captain America

 3. Captain America: The First Avenger  

Of the big Hollywood films that I saw this year, I was most enthusiastic about the nostalgic superhero movie made by Joe Johnson. We just re-watched "The Rocketeer" on Blu-Ray and it is easy to understand why Johnson is a match for this movie. His style is romantic and practical. We don't get a bunch of shaky cam sequences trying to build false suspense, instead we get solid storytelling with terrific technical detail in art design and cinematography. We also get an non-ironic  lead. There is a sub-text in the story about what real heroism is, and it is not simply having super powers. Tommy Lee Jones steals every one of his scenes with the best lines in the movie. There is something about American Exceptionalism in this movie, that some of our fellow citizens need to be reminded of.

Pom Wonderful Presents the Greatest Movie Ever Sold

4. Pom Wonderful Presents the Greatest Movie Ever Sold

 I enjoy documentary films, but I usually see them on TV or video. I was skeptical about Morgan Spurlock after "Super Size" me, which was entertaining but felt like it was full of straw man and ad hominen arguments. He does however have a winning personal style and the concept of this movie is just hysterical. It was fun watching him go through the process of finding funding through advertising. Sometimes to add seriousness to the proceedings, there are some side paths that are followed on the impact of advertising on society, but when it sticks to product placement and the main thrust of the movie, this is a big winner.

Harry Potter
5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Some achievements are so amazing that it is hard to fathom how they were accomplished. While it is not quite Stonehenge or the Pyramids, the Harry Potter series stands as a testament to human endeavors. Eight films in 10 years, each maintaining a high degree of quality and largely managing to stay true to the original source material. The confluence of publishing and film making is highly unusual as the new versions of the movies promoted the next book and the new book promoted the next movie. Anyone who thinks this is merely a children's story is living in their own fantasy world. This is a series of stories about growing up and facing the tough choices that confront us. That it is told with whimsy and adventure is a huge plus. This is the movie that I saw in theaters the most this last year, I paid to see it four times. Each time was as emotionally satisfying as you could want. The series covered the same years of growth that my daughters were going through and they could always relate, despite the fact that the story is fantasy based. Adults and children will share this series for years, much like the Star Wars movies or The Wizard of Oz.


This is a 3-D film that uses the 3-D quite effectively. It adds to the story and makes the setting more interesting as a result. There is a wonderful history of early cinema on display and a nice kids adventure story to boot. The movie looks amazing and the actors are all playing the parts effectively. I think Ben Kingsley too often takes roles to pay the bills, but here he is extremely well served by the director Martin Scorsese. If you haven't seen this yet, treat yourself to a 3-D presentation. If you don't still have it in a 3-D option, it is still a wonderful movie to share with anyone who loves movies.

Super 8
7.  Super 8    

We actually get three Spielberg films this year and the best one was not even directed by him. Super 8 is a movie that has Spielberg's imprint all over it. The story focuses on a group of kids, set in the late seventies, who all have family issues of some sort and all become involved with a science fiction based plot. It looks like it was shot by Spielberg in the 1980s, but J.J. Abrams has simply managed an homage to the master who brought him into film making in the first place. While it is marred by an unfortunate use of a traditional Hollywood bad guy, the real focus is on the kids who are all excellent. There are some really nice moments in the movie and a lot of tension to go along with it.

Battle L.A.

 8. Battle Los Angeles

This is a straightforward action film. It is basically an alien invasion movie with a series of battle sequences that build tension and make us care about the traditional platoon of grunts that we follow in this kind of movie. There are some captivating visuals and the conflict is pretty well set up for reasonable chances of success and failure, so we don't always know how things will come out. There are a lot of cliches in the movie but there is also a lot of truth in the hard work and sacrifice our military makes to try to protect us. This movie works on a very conventional way to show everyday men and women, doing their jobs and accepting responsibility for their choices. Another opportunity to see what heroes are like without the ironic smirking that so often characterizes these types of movies.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
9. Rise of the Planet of the Apes  

This was the most intelligent and well rendered entry into the Planet of the Apes series since the very first movie back in 1968. Andy Serkis is the go to motion capture performer in films today and his Cesar is an indelible creation for a science fiction film. This story develops carefully and logically for the most part. we have a huge amount of sympathy built into the central Ape in the story. This makes the re-boot that was attempted ten years ago look even worse by comparison. It is not the technology for story telling that makes a movie worthwhile, it is the story and the characters that ultimately make a film move us emotionally. This movie manages to do so and build to a climax rather than simply be a series of visual climaxes. It is really smart and involving.

X-Men First Class

10. X-Men: First Class

Here is another comic book movie on my list. I was never a reader of the X-Men comics, but I have enjoyed all of the other films. None of the previous films reached the heights that this movie does. This is an origins story that develops the main characters in a real time and puts them into an historical context very effectively. The visuals are quite good, but what was especially appealing to me were the performances of the two leads who bring to life the main characters first as partners but ultimately as antagonists. This is another example of comic book story telling that does not talk down to the audience. Instead it challenges us to understand the complexities that people with these kinds of unusual gifts would be faced with.

I am adding two additional films that impressed me with their quality.
War Horse
There is something about a Spielberg film at Christmas, that reminds me of the old days. Maybe I remember the Color Purple or Empire of the Sun and just think 1980s. This film version of the hit play features real horses and not the puppets that have made a sensation of the theatrical production. It is beautiful and heartfelt. It is also a tough story with many traumatic elements. 

The Help
This is an inspiring story of the women who helped raise the children of the South but were not always treated as the valued citizens they were. "The world is a different place" is a phrase I sometimes say disparagingly about things I see that irritate me, especially changes that make the world seem less pleasant than it once was, but when I say it about the subject of this film, I mean it in the most positive way. Thank God the World is a different place.