Monday, January 02, 2012

2011--THAT'S A WRAP!

Well that was a year! Not too bad either. Made a lot of headway at my day job, did some amazing exploring in Nevada and Washington state, made some great new friends, did more decent than usual in the female department, and finally started getting back into the swing of things actually finishing some of my own creative work. Student loans are going to be paid off any day now, which will leave things open for even more amazing adventures!

Movie-wise I felt like it was a sub-par year, but at the same time when I went to make the Top Ten List I found myself leaving off several movies that I actually really liked. I guess while there weren't any huge hype-worthy blockbusters like in previous years (i.e. "The Dark Knight"), there were still a lot of creative surprises to be had. A dud of a year animation-wise which is a bummer, but otherwise there were still a lot of solid films even if there weren't that many GREAT ones.

And entertainment in other media flourished--this year brought us "Game of Thrones" and "American Horror Story" on TV, and finally got me into gaming with the superb "Portal 2" and "Arkham City."

Anyway, I've done my best to do my homework and see as many end-of-the-year films as possible. So on to the reviews!

"The Descendants" I got to see this for free at a special screening with Alexander Payne! Yay editors guild!

Like all Alexander Payne movies (that I've seen anyway) it's a solid film about aging males having a crisis of sorts, which somehow I always find incredibly fascinating and relatable despite being in my 20s. The cast is excellent, right down to the supporting roles (even Matthew Lillard). The central twist--that George Clooney's dying wife (on life support) had an affair--is one that agonizingly twists him into several situations at once that no man should ever have to go through. Yet Payne finds a way as always to make it almost charming and light in the midst of such frustration and sadness. I do think the sister's dumb boyfriend turning out to be "wise" was an unnecessary trope used far too often in movie after movie, but otherwise it was great. One of the best things about the movie is that it does such a fantastic job of portraying Hawaii as it actually is. When I visited Hawaii I was still competitively swimming, so instead of doing JUST touristy stuff I hung out with a number of kids on the island and swam with their club teams. Payne perfectly catches the everyday sense of the people who live in Hawaii, where it's not all fun-and-games and paradise as Clooney points out in the opening narration. I WILL say that Clooney has basically become the "narrator guy" in these types of movies ("Up In the Air" for example), and it was a little off-putting in this film since the narration never picks up again or bookends the film after the opening. All in all though, a very solid piece of work.

"The Muppets" If you outright HATE this movie, you have no soul. It's not as good as some of the other muppet films ("The Muppet Movie," "The Great Muppet Caper," "A Muppet Christmas Carol," or my personal favorite, "Muppet Treasure Island") but it's heart is solidly in the right place. In today's somewhat bitter economic crisis age, it's so full of unbridled joy and happiness it's exactly what we need. The music is great, the characters are all wonderful, and the story is bright and uplifting, though it is funny how much it touches upon ideas that were probably spoken at a studio exec meeting ("the muppets are no longer relevant!"). These movies always were self-aware to a point, I guess. On the human side of things, Chris Cooper steals the show as a greedy oil tycoon ("Maniacal laugh, maniacal laugh!").

One gripe I have is that my favorite muppet characters were underused (Gonzo and Rizzo's interplay…Rizzo is practically ABSENT from the film), but even so it's a lot of fun.

"Hugo" People have been split on this one, and I can see why to a point, but I thought this was overall a delightful childhood film (even if lots of antsy little annoying kids I know would probably find it boring and slow). Scorsese has never been my favorite director, but I thought he did a good job here creating a wonderful tribute to Georges Melies, probably my favorite early filmmaker. Granted I didn't know it would be ABOUT Melies when I went into the theater, so discovering this halfway through the movie turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

Visually, there's no denying the movie looks fantastic. The 3-D photography breaks every rule in the (relatively new) book, yet it's some of the best work I've seen. Paris itself has never looked more fantastical, filled with dust motes, snow, and gears that drift in front of the camera, filling every shot with beauty.

Most of the actors are great too. I'm not sure if I actually LIKE Sacha Baron Cohen, but he's always INTERESTING at least. It's a joy to see Ben Kingsley actually ACTING again, and the lead actor Asa Butterfield is great as well (I'm not convinced the "Ender's Game" movie will be any good, but at least they've cast it right). My favorite female child actress Chloe Moretz is strong as well, though her accent isn't always flawless.

I have a theory I've possibly mentioned before on this blog, but it's that all great filmmakers have a through-line to all their stories, in that they keep telling the same story over and over. Finding that through-line for yourself will make YOU a better artist, so it's something to be aware of. I think Scorses's through-line in all his work is that he is good at creating a person trapped in their own personal hell. "Raging Bull," "Taxi Driver," and "The Aviator" all have this in common, and when i was watching this movie I kept wondering if he would have it, seeing as it's about a kid. Sure enough though, in a fun nightmare sequence (even a nightmare within a nightmare…BWAAAAM!) Hugo gets trapped in his own personal terrified world. Gotcha, Scorsese!

So all in all, I liked "Hugo." It wasn't perfect and a lot of the sub-plots could have been trimmed (Baron Cohen's love story, the wiener dog couple), but as an ode to the beauty and preservation of early cinema, it was a lot of fun, and the perfect thing to see with my family over Thanksgiving.

"The Artist" - Speaking of odes to early cinema, "The Artist" is without question one of my favorite movies of the year. It's made by the same actor/director team behind "OSS 117," which is a fun French film that feels like a 60s James Bond movie actually unearthed from the period--albeit with an idiot French agent instead (imagine the lovechild of Inspector Closeau and young Connery). It did take me a while to get the character of OSS 117 out of my head while watching the lead actor, but the characters are similar and I got there eventually. Like that film, the filmmakers here perfectly manage to recreate something that feels born out of the silent era, telling it's own story while paying homage to countless classics you may have seen if you're a film buff (lots of echoes of "A Star Is Born," "Sunset Blvd," and "Singing in the Rain"). The movie is essentially about a silent film actor threatened with the birth of the talking picture (a la "Singing in the Rain"), but what it manages to do so deftly well is make you really FEEL what the main character is going through by reminding you how amazing and different those silent films were. It truly is a lost art form, very different from the movies we have today. At one point the movie even teases us with a moment when everyone ELSE in the film starts talking and things start making noise, but the main character is unable to. I was worried they would turn this into the story for the rest of the movie, becoming way to gimmicky, but luckily it's all a dream and played for eerie laughs.

Anyway, it's a great piece of cinema, and my hopeful choice for best picture this year. Check it out!

"Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" - I didn't LOVE Guy Ritchie's version of "Holmes" that came out last year, but it was a lot better than I expected. They managed to respect the era while still making it hip and cool, his formalistic approaches to filmmaking were different and new, and the cast was mostly pretty good. Making Holmes a bit more action-oriented was a little strange, but there still was enough mystery and puzzle-solving to let it not feel like a betrayal to the source material.

In the new film, unfortunately, they got rid of more of the stuff that made it Holmes-y. The mystery and detective-work stuff is practically gone, and we're unfortunately left with another bland quippy action hero, and Guy Ritchie's bag-of-tricks at this point feels old hat. Forget the Robert Downey Holmes and go watch the excellent BBC "Sherlock" instead.

"Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" - One of the best summer action movies didn't come in the summer at all--it came in December!!! All in all it's a solid outing in the franchise, possibly the best (I still like the first one more, I think…the action wasn't as heavy but the plot twists were a little smarter). Brad Bird proves to be just as adept directing live-action scenes as animation, and his use of continuous flowing choreographed shots works great here. The opening Kremlin scenes are very creative, but it's the film's second set piece that contains some of the greatest action I've ever seen. Tom Cruise scales the Dubai tower, there is some incredibly fun spy intrigue and fistfights within the hotel (including a favorite moment when somebody forgot they removed a pane of glass), and it culminates in an exciting sandstorm. Bad. Ass.

Unfortunately the set piece after this lively section can't quite live up to the earlier moments, but at least the car park section is pretty nifty (though what was that suitcase covered in…vaseline?!). Having all the suspense ride on whether or not smoking hot Paula Patton can convince the host from "Slumdog Millionaire" that she's sexy seemed pretty off; when you look like she does you should have no problem.

I was a little bummed that Josh Holloway (aka Sawyer from "Lost") was underused, because for some reason I thought he was going to play the villain, but he's only in the opening sequences (it's a FUN opening scene though). The REAL villain is also incredibly cookie-cutter, which can be OK I guess, but there isn't much emotional motivation behind Tom Cruise trying to once again stop the bomb and save the world. In the last outing Philip Seymour Hoffman was great as he threatened Cruise's wife, and though the movie as a whole was uneven, at least the emotional motivation rode through. I'm rewriting here, but I say make this villain someone who KILLED Tom Cruise's wife or something.

Also, the Mission Impossible series has always had lots of fun with those nifty masks, and they are usually used to reveal a twist, where we find out one character is actually a double agent or something. Here there's a great moment where Tom Cruise rips off part of the villains "face" in a sandstorm, and I was eagerly anticipating who it was actually going to be. The boss Tom Wilkinson? Jeremy Renner (which wouldn't really make any sense, but whatever)? Ving Rhames, bummed that nobody seemed to care about him anymore? Uh, no…it's just…the other bad guy. So…oh my gosh…it looks like the bad guys are certainly trading places being bad guys! What?

The ending is also rather pathetic…we don't care about Tom Cruise's wife, so there's no reason to have the weird ambiguous diner scene wrapping everything up. But on a surface-level action basis, this movie's got some of the best stuff in years.

"We Bought a Zoo" - A perfectly acceptable family movie that won't offend anyone. Matt Damon is good. Not really much else worth saying about it. Nice, but predictable and unspectacular. Take your parents if they're too sheltered to see anything "twisted" like "Dragon Tattoo."

"The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn" - I really really wanted to like this film. It's made by several of my favorite heavyweight filmmakers, and I'm one of the few Americans who actually read the comics. While I'm not too keen on specifics, I remember them with fondness.

Unfortunately Tintin fails on far too many levels for me to recommend it. Given the pedigree, it's one of the sloppiest first acts I've seen in ages. We suddenly see Tintin buying a model boat for no reason, and people are fighting over it also, offering to buy it for lots of money. We don't know WHO Tintin is, we don't know who the villains are, we don't know ANYTHING (seriously, Tintin, go get another boat…that guy just handed you a wad of cash!). Later we finally discover that Tintin's a reporter, but it takes far too long to get there. I was confused, and I'm a guy who KNOWS Tintin! And it's not the same as the classic "Speilberg open" that so often starts out one of these films--a fun, often self-contained scene usually removed from the rest of the narrative before the plot gets explained. Examples are the boulder chase in "Raiders," the dark scary raptor cage in "Jurassic Park," and the opening shark attack in "Jaws." With "Tintin" it's just a big confusing sloppy early mess.

And Tintin himself is a bland and boring character--ever the goody-two-shoes, nothing about him changes and there are no stakes for his character. This works OK in a fun children's adventure comic, but in a film we need more. Indiana Jones, for example, isn't too complicated, but at least he usually has some sort of self-discovery, gaining respect for the artifacts he uncovers (i.e. "Holy shit, the ark's powers are real!"). And even on the surface, Indy's cool: he's a professor action hero, a neat contradiction that instantly screams "fun!" Tintin's a little asswipe with a clever dog.

Tonally, the movie is all over the place too. I'm still on the fence about motion-capture, but it at least looks GOOD here. But is it appropriate for a movie based on comics dating back to the 30s and 40s? Tintin is also pretty young (arguably even a teenager), which screams "children's film." Semi-animation screams "children's film." Thompson and Thompson, the bumbling cops, scream "children's film." And yet there are countless baddies constantly shooting at Tintin and his dog with GUNS. Indy was a full-grown man fighting evil Nazis…Tintin's a damn KID fighting guys who, while thugs, don't come across as faceless evil stormtroopers.

The movie finally gets interesting with Captain Haddock, an alcoholic sea captain who may hold the secret to a miraculous treasure, but his backstory (which IS admittedly pretty cool) doesn't start unfolding until about halfway through the film and by then it's too little, too late. Also, making jokes about alcoholism may have been OK back-in-the-day, but I couldn't help thinking, "Man, get this guy some help!"

There is some good stuff, though. Snowy the dog is super cute (though he has no hilarious thought bubbles like in the comics), and the motorcycle one-shot chase sequence showcases some incredible choreography and could almost be worth the price of admission on it's own. Even this, though, feels like an etude--an exercise rather than something integrated INTO a grander story. And since it's animated, while it's technically impressive, there's still no awesome sense that it's ACTUALLY happening like some of Cuaron's jaw-dropping long takes in "Children of Men."

It's not awful, but it's not the movie I was hoping for either. I expect more from Spielberg, Jackson, and the others involved.

"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" On a technical level, this movie is superb. Sharp editing, fantastic cinematography, riveting score, and all the heavyweight British (and some American) actors are amazing, top to bottom. On a story level though, it's rather confusing. I don't like to be spoon-fed my movies, but there were many times throughout watching this film that I thought, "Wait…hmm. I hope they explain that" and a few scenes later I quickly realized they weren't going to explain ANYTHING. I think I understood the movie for the most part, but it wasn't easy. The first half hour of the film, for example, is practically impossible to follow until Tom Hardy (excellent, by the way) shows up and starts talking to Gary Oldman (also excellent…again, the acting is stellar), at which point the film picks up steam. Worth watching for film fans, but don't ask me to clarify any details for you.

"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" - First off, please be aware I haven't seen the Swedish film, nor read the book, so I am basing this only only my enjoyment of the American film.

And, frankly, I loved it. It's probably Fincher's third-best film after "Fight Club" and "Zodiac." Remember how I said earlier how great directors center their movies around the same theme or story? I think I've got Fincher figured out…his films are all about obsession (often, but not always, over a crime). "Dragon Tattoo" is perfectly tense as Daniel Craig's character zeroes in on an age-old murder/mystery, drawing deeper and deeper into weirdness and danger. And Rooney Mara as the titular character is fantastic, though I'm not sure she's as good as everyone thinks she is, since she I'm not sure how different she is from Noomi Rapace, who has been terrific in several other films I've seen her in. The opening title sequence, set to a rework of "Immigrant Song" by Trent Reznor, is also one of the coolest things I've seen on-screen in ages (did anyone else catch the Nine Inch Nails t-shirt, by the way?).

I was a little disappointed in that I figured out the killer before I was supposed to (drat my ability to recognize well-known actors!), and the entire ending sequence that goes on for 20 minutes after the mystery gets solved was unnecessary (and it's not like the movie wasn't already long enough). I don't really care about bank accounts in the Cayman Islands or the fact that she buys Daniel Craig a really nice leather jacket. If anything, I thought it sort of stripped Lisbeth Salander (the girl) of her strong independence by showing her to be just another wounded lovesick waif in the final shot. For a movie that grabbed me so hard by the balls during most of it's runtime, it was disappointing to end on such a whimper, but everything up to that point was a gas.

Overall the characters are dynamic and interesting, leaping off the screen and burrowing into my mind and libido. "Realistic" probably isn't the term best-used to describe them, but they were certainly great CHARACTERS in the best way possible. I hated "The Social Network" because, for all the hype about the rapid-fire script, the characters were mostly greedy and all kind of felt like all the same snotty yammermouths to me, but in "Dragon Tattoo" they're all varied and fascinating, each with a different set of values and goals drawn by their own individual experiences. Fincher's delivered a great ride, and I hope you take it.

"Take Shelter" - Sometimes art films can be just as full of disappointment as the big blockbusters. "Take Shelter" does a fantastic job creating a horrifying sense of dread, as Michael Shannon has continuous nightmares of the apocalypse. Convinced it's actually going to happen, he builds a tornado shelter in his backyard while his family, friends, and co-workers worry he's going crazy. Shannon could well get an Oscar for his performance, and Jessica Chastain (who seriously showed up in every movie this year for some reason) does a delicately beautiful job as the wife who both fears and cares for him and her family's safety. And the nightmare visions hit hard with deep fear harder than any jump-scare horror flick (I almost wanted to leave the theater before each dream sequence, they started getting so unsettling).

But if your movie is all ABOUT the lead-up to one climactic event, you've got to really decide what that event is going to BE. Here be spoilers, you have been warned…

Eventually a storm DOES come, and Shannon takes his family into the bunker he's created. We get the feeling that perhaps he was RIGHT, and the storm has actually happened. Eventually the sounds outside die down, and Chastain decides it's safe to go out. Shannon refuses, and finally asks that SHE be the one to open the door. She gently demands that he do it, as stepping out of the shelter into the world is something he must face himself. Shannon finally does so, putting his visions of doom behind him and stepping into the light.

If you want, you can end the film right there and you'd be OK. The movie's not about whether Shannon's crazy or not and the apocalypse is real, it's about the choice he makes to get over his visions. But they don't end there, of course. Instead, Shannon steps out and realizes it was just a regular storm, not the End of Days. A few trees are knocked down, but it's no big deal. Looks like he WAS crazy after all. I don't like this ending as much, but I'd be willing to live with it.

But instead of THAT the movie tries to have it's cake and eat it too. Later when on vacation, Shannon sees a REAL storm brewing on the horizon, and for all intents and purposes his family sees it too. Looks like he was right after all!

Uh, what? So what's the point? I get that this is open to interpretation…metaphorically, his insanity hasn't left. OR it is real, in which case, I guess it's just a big case of, "Whoops!"

There are lots of ways you could read it…all terrible. None of them make any sense and it's ultimately a letdown. Your entire movie hinges on whether this guy is crazy or not, and ultimately you end it with, "Yes, he is…or IS he?" It's such a cop-out to what for the most part is a pretty good build-up, but a build-up is only as good as it's payoff. Instead what we get is ultimately an overlong film-school project from the artsy kid who should have stayed at NYU with a stick up his ass.

Also, is "a storm is coming" not seriously the most overused trope of all time?

Also, very quickly wanted to review "Red Dragon," which is an older film that I finally got around too seeing. It's pretty good, if not rather by-the-book (especially in the rushed "monster-in-the-house" ending). It unfortunately suffers from the fact that you're only continuously reminded how much better "Silence of the Lambs" is, but for Brett Ratner, notorious for his hackery, it's quite decent. Ray Fiennes makes a great villain, and I really enjoyed his fascination with William Blake.

OK, now for the moment you've all been waiting for (and by "you" I mean "me")…my Top Ten and Bottom Five of 2011! As always, it's a "Dan's Favorites" list, not a "Best Of" list…


0. "The Lion King 3D" Gets diplomatic immunity "above" the list because it came out nearly 20 years ago (yeesh...), but it still was the most fun I had in theaters this year. Only movie I saw twice on the screen…long live The King!

1. "Cedar Rapids" For some reason this movie really spoke to me (hopefully not because I related TOO much to Ed Helms' character). It's not easy for a comedy to be both sweet and edgy but this one pulled it off, and John C. Reilly gives the performance of his career, which is saying something.

2. "The Artist" Fantastic celebration of the so-often forgotten silent era and the very different kind of magic they hold over the viewer.

3. "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" They could have chopped off the last twenty minutes and I wouldn't have cared, but otherwise this rocked pretty hard.

4. "X-Men: First Class" Fassbender and McAvoy (with the help of my future wife Jennifer Lawrence) anchor this very fun adventure that reminded me of a 60s James Bond movie more than it did a superhero flick, and Matthew Vaughn continues to show he's one of today's strongest action directors. What can I say? I'm a sucker for vintage superheroes.

5. "Fright Night" Awesome (and much better!) remake of the 80s movie that was a wonderful blend of teen comedy and horror. I wish more people had gone and seen this one.

6. "Midnight in Paris" I'm not a big Woody Allen fan, but darned if this movie didn't sneak up and surprise me with how delightful it was.

7. "Attack the Block" The only alien movie of the year (and there were a LOT) that actually delivered on it's premise. Tense, frightening, and funny, with some very creative monsters to boot.

8. "The Descendants" Alexander Payne continues to make movies that I should find boring but instead find fascinating. Not as good as "Sideways," but close.

9. "Captain America" I already said I liked vintage superheroes didn't I? A good old-fashioned patriotic movie that reminded me more of Indiana Jones than the last Indiana Jones movie did (or "Tintin" for that matter).

10. "Drive" I had a lot of problems with this film, but at the same time I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since I left the theater. The awesome soundtrack helps a LOT.


5. "Rango" Overrated garbage with shoddy storytelling, a meandering plot, and bland characters.

4. "Battle LA" You have a problem when I can't tell your characters apart from each other OR the uninspired aliens.

3. " Spy Kids 4" Did this REALLY need to happen, Rodriguez?

2. " The Big Year" This was a potentially great premise ruined by a director who apparently thinks movies shouldn't have conflict in them.

1. "The Adjustment Bureau" Worse than a dumb movie is a dumb movie that THINKS it's smart. A waste of talent and a cool sci-fi premise.

Movies I wanted to see but didn't get to (lots of docs and foreign films wind up here unfortunately)…

Arthur Christmas, Beginners, The Guard, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Pariah, Shame, The Tree of Life, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Weekend, Winnie the Pooh

(docs) Corman's World, El Sicario: Room 164, Into the Abyss, Life in a Day, Louder Than a Bomb, Senna

(foreign) 13 Assassins, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, Incendies, Scheherazade Tell Me a Story, A Separation, Tomboy

That's it for 2011. Let's make 2012 awesome!!!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

20 Reasons Why "The Lion King" is Still King of the Disney Movies

I wrote this on my facebook wall, thought I'd post it here too:

Seventeen years ago I went to go see "The Lion King" at the Arlington theater in Santa Barbara (my favorite theater to this day). I was already a young Disney-phile at the time, having transitioned from my youngest "Dumbo" phase through my "101 Dalmatians" phase, and was currently stuck in my "Aladdin" phase. Yet upon seeing "The Lion King" on the big screen I was blown away. Here was a lush, gorgeous, fantastic-looking and sounding film that quickly became my new favorite. Classic Disney movies are, for better or worse, 1/3 of the reason I've embarked on the career I have today (Star Wars and Lord of The Rings round it all out), and for me "The Lion King" has always been the best of those films that made me think "I want to work on stuff like that" so many years ago.

So I was delighted when The Lion King got it's 3-D rerelease in theaters, but also a tad apprehensive. Some movies you remember loving as a kid don't always hold up as well when you see them later in life. I recently saw "The Land Before Time" in theaters at a special screening a few months ago, and while the animation and tone is still wonderful, the writing is shallow and the pacing far more uneven than I remembered. Would The Lion King be the same way?

Short answer--NO. It's still the masterpiece I remember. But here are some things I noticed and questions I have now that I'm a bit older and have learned a bit more about filmmaking and life in general:

1. First off, look at this picture of the warthog and the meerkat for a minute. Isn't it awesome?

2. One of my favorite things about the film is it's attention to detail in terms of its wildlife. It would have been easy to pepper the film with simplistic versions of the animals everyone knows (lions, giraffes, elephants, zebras) and call it a day, but it's very clear real research was done not only into how these animals look, but how they move and behave as well. It grounds the entire movie with a sense of realism that could have easily been overlooked. In the opening "Circle of Life" sequence I found myself thinking, "Oh cool...marabu storks! And look at those vulturine guinefowl running between the elephants' legs!" And it works for the main characters too..even Zazu is a pretty accurate example of a red-billed hornbill.

3. I have been known to sniffle through a Disney movie here and there, and "The Lion King" is one of the biggest offenders in the scene when Mufasa dies (oh...uh, spoiler I guess? Seriously, who hasn't seen "The Lion King"?). Scar's line, "What have you done?" gets me every time. I promised myself I would keep it together for this viewing, and while I certainly got chills in this scene, I stayed strong. What I did NOT expect was how the opening "Circle of Life" sequence blew me away. A combination of the music, the stunning visuals, and maybe the fact that I'm maybe a little farther along on my own "circle of life" now really got me choked up, and that was only the opening number! So much for keeping it together.

4. One thing that gets missed on the small screen that really is evident in the theater are the stunning background vistas that go behind all the animation. Where do those things go when the movie is done being made? I want one to hang on my wall.

5. Rafiki says "You're a baboon...and I'm not." Uh, no. He's a mandrill. Look it up!

6. Tim Rice and Elton John are given tons of (deserved) praise for their amazing song work, but people shouldn't overlook the actual SCORE of this film either. Hans Zimmer (THAT guy again!) did a fantastic job creating a unique score inspired by African tribal music, and it really gives the film a grand epic feel unlike anything else Disney has put out. Take some time off from humming "Hakuna Matata" and listen to the score itself for a'll be surprised.

7. I don't know if they remastered the sound mix or not, but part of the reason I wanted to see this in theaters was to LISTEN to it more than anything. And it sounds fantastic. it just me or did they mix down Scar's death scream at the end? I remember Scar letting out one final shriek before the flames rise up, but it was gone in the theater. Can anyone with the VHS confirm this for me? Maybe it was deemed to violent and mixed down. I know "The Lion King" received some flak when it came out for being rather intense for kids, and so I can sort of see that they might decide to lose it for this release. But on the other hand if I were a parent my motto would be, "Hey kid, nature's pretty brutal. You'd better learn about it sooner or later." Plus I always liked the image that scream put in my head of Shenzi ripping out Scar's throat.

8. SO happy this was the version without Zazu's "Morning Report" song. It's a cute tune that works well on Broadway, but it completely breaks up the pacing in the film. Glad they went back to the original version.

9. Yes, we all fell in love with this movie ages ago when it was in 2-D. But let's hear it for the new stereoscopic team! Stereoscopic conversion is NOT an easy job (some of my friends do it), and when rushed it can look absolutely terrible. But you can tell real care was done in this film to make it pop, and it was done very well. It's fantastic how even the muzzles of Mufasa and Simba seem to slope out of the screen naturally, even from an original 2-D image. Great job!

10. "The Lion King" unfortunately falls on my short list of movies where all my favorite parts happen at the beginning. My two favorite sequences are "Be Prepared" (goose-stepping hyenas!) and the wildebeest stampede, which occur at about the end of Act 1/Act 2 transition. After that the rest of the movie is still great, but it's never quite as dynamic and visually stunning as those early scenes to me.

11. Speaking of the wildebeest stampede, can I just say that this is probably one of the best-directed scenes in any animated film in history? That harrowing vertigo-zoom on Simba as the herd starts thundering down the gorge, the percussive thunderous music, the heroic semi-sillouette against the sun as Mufasa leaps out of the herd and struggles up the cliff, and finally the terrified look in Mufasa's eyes as his brother betrays him...this is pure cinema, and anyone who writes "The Lion King" off as just a kid's movie should be devoured by a pack of hyenas.

12. It's kind of neat how the movie's plot is reasonably accurate from a scientific standpoint. One male lion really does control a pride of lionesses, and other male lions will often try to kill that male or its cubs in order to gain control. So Scar plotting to kill Simba and Mufasa actually makes sense. Also, lions and hyenas really do NOT get along in real life either.

13. I'm definitely overthinking this, but I was curious whether or not "The Lion King" makes any sense from a geographical standpoint. Simba grows up on The Pridelands, crosses a desert (complete with HUGE sand dunes), and hangs out with Timon and Pumbaa in some sort of jungle. I pulled out a map to try and make sense of it--Africa is a BIG place after all.

I first assumed the "jungle" we see must be The Congo, though it's interesting that Timon, Pumbaa, and Simba never encounter any chimps or gorillas (a Tarzan-Lion King fanfic, anyone?), and the Pridelands are the Serengeti. But there are not really any deserts to cross to get to the Congo that way, so that doesn't really work. He'd also have to pass through Rwanda, which is pretty well-populated with people I think.

Then I assumed the Kalahari Desert would be the desert Simba crosses. There are some pretty lush areas of Botswana (the Okavongo Delta for example) that could work as the Pridelands, and if he went North he would move across the Kalahari into the Congo area. But this is a REALLY long journey.

Then I remembered that there's that iconic shot of Kilimanjaro in the "Circle of Life" sequence, which means Botswana is out, and places the Pridelands directly back in the Serengeti Tanzania/Kenya area. This also makes sense as a lot of the African names (and that annoying song Rafiki sings!) are Swahili in origin, and Swahili is accurately spoken within this region today. There are also some rain forests on the edge of east Africa that could work as Timon and Pumbaa's hiding place, and while I still don't know about the desert, I think there must be some arid areas in there somewhere. So Simba travels from northern Tanzania/southern Kenya southeast to the eastern coast of Tanzania/Mozambique. Makes sense to me!

14. For a movie that prides itself on its scientific accuracy, I do have one big nitpick. In "I Just Can't Wait To Be King" why are there a group of anteaters supporting young Simba and Nala??? Anteaters are native to SOUTH AMERICA!!! They could have used aardvarks, which would have been fine. Oh well.

15. Can I just mention how much I love the color in this movie? How did they do all that beautiful shading? Simba and Mufasa's manes seem to perfectly reflect moonlight in the starry night scenes, and even the orange-red gradient on Zazu's beak is marvelous to look at. I've learned a fair amount about animation, but I have no idea how this colorization stuff works. It's really cool.

16. When Nala attacks Pumbaa and Simba comes to his rescue, I had always thought Timon was cheering, "Spectacular! Spectacular!" I just now realized he's shouting, "The jugular! The jugular!" Gee...that's a tad more graphic than I remembered.

17. Even a kid I always liked the voice work in this movie. Jeremy Irons is deliciously "fahhh-bulous" as my favorite Disney villain ever (seriously, watch his pinky claws), and it's super cool that Nathan Lane, Rowan Atkinson, and even Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin have fun little roles (off-topic, but hasn't it been at least a decade since we saw Whoopi in a movie?). Yet the one voice that really struck me this time around was James Earl Jones as Mufasa. As a kid you don't really realize how important a role this is, but Jones' resounding baritone really makes him sound like a true wise king and formidable father. His performance really anchors the film with a sense of weight and majesty that I never really noticed as a child. The scene where he teaches young Simba about the kings of the past gave me chills, really hitting home the worst of those father-son talks when you knew you'd done something bad and had to face the music.

The downside to all this is that now animated films usually get big names for the voice talent, regardless of whether or not they actually fit the part at all (Dreamworks is the biggest offender of this, but all the studios are guilty of it).

18. So, what does being a "king" entail, exactly? Because Scar REALLY screwed it up fast. Nala tells Simba, "You're our only hope," but what does Simba actually do to fix anything anyway? It's not like we ever see Simba or Mufasa going over a bunch of taxation paperwork to get the antelope better wages. Sure, Mufasa does get his "morning report" from Zazu, but he kind of shrugs it off and instead gives his son a "pouncing lesson." I guess Mufasa's job partially entails bashing in the heads of a few hyenas now and then, and when Scar takes over there is mention of how the hyenas are overhunting everything. But why would that cause a drought too? Was it just bad luck that Scar took the reins during a long dry spell? And where were all those hyenas living in the first place? Being stuck in an elephant graveyard can't sustain a population of that size for very long! Maybe it's just one of those "aura" things. Simba and Mufasa are just "good dudes" with a respect for the "circle of life" and "balance" and "nature" and letting things be totally groovy, man. Scar's just a lazy jerk and a bad guy (his fur is BLACK AND DARK ORANGE!!!), so everything just withers and dies wherever he goes. Wow, now I feel kind of bad for him; talk about determinism at its worst.

19. It was so cool to see this movie in a theater full of KIDS!!! Hearing them laugh of get scared again was a delight (yes, actually hearing kids get SCARED in a movie again is a welcome sound). I think "The Lion King" is a far more mature movie than many children are used to these days (aside from much of Pixar...yay Pixar!), and I think it's good that they're seeing it in theaters the way it was intended.

20. Finally, the main reason I think "The Lion King" holds up so well as a classic is because it is truly a timeless story. It borrows heavily from old biblical and Shakespearean tales of destiny (it's basically "Hamlet" with talking animals and a happy ending), and it's a story that resonates deeply with adults while still being simplistic enough for kids to understand without talking down to them. It's a movie that you can tell was made by filmmakers and artists with a respect and love for nature and storytelling, and not a bunch of suits or a committee (hate to rag on you again Dreamworks, but I'm looking at you and your four "Shrek" movies). Most of the humor in the film comes naturally, not through pop culture references. I love "Aladdin" for example, but it hasn't aged as well for this reason. Even Timon singing "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" is still an old enough song to feel classic; if he was singing something like, say, Toto's "Africa," it would have been pretty funny too, but it wouldn't have felt right.

Every little section of this movie is realized beautifully, and the ultimate tone it hits is greater than the sum of its parts. Disney has tried to recapture this film's magic with varying success, but it still stands alone as a unique and glorious artistic vision yet to be equaled in my opinion.

Bottom line...I really like "The Lion King." Anyone want to go again?!

Alien Summer

Well surprise, surprise, I've yet again fallen behind in writing about the movies I've seen this year, so what I had originally hoped to be a nice in-depth essay comparing a few alien movies to each other is going to have to get cut short out of sheer necessity.

Anyway, the summer has finished. Some fun stuff, but nothing that's entirely blown me away. Let's review!


One of the most frustrating things about Hollywood is its bandwagon-mentality of grabbing whatever seems to be "hot" at any given moment. I like superheroes, but now the market feels oversaturated. I used to LOVE vampires and werewolves, but Twilight sort of killed that. And as a die-hard sci-fi junkie, I ADORE aliens. For whatever reason, Hollywood decided this year that they were the big "it" thing, so we had a lot of those sort of films this year (even "Green Lantern" and "Thor" crossed the boundary between superhero and alien). I honestly hate that this happens all the time because it so thoroughly kills originality--one alien movie here and there can feel fresh, but having every blockbuster be centered around this theme kills the mood (and even on TV..."Falling Skies" anyone?). But let's check out some alien movies and see how they fared, shall we?

"Battle LA" There is a bit of an interesting story behind this movie. The company that did the VFX for this film, halfway through doing work on it, decided to make their OWN alien movie "Skyline" and rush it to release before this film. I saw most of "Skyline" (though I didn't bother to review it), and it was pretty terrible. Thankfully the movie tanked at the box office, and I heard the VFX company that made the film ultimately got sued by the "Battle LA" folks, since all the VFX hardware they were paid to create for "Battle LA" they more-or-less stole to make their own alien flick.

I was somewhat hopeful that "Battle LA" would be marginally enjoyable because they at LEAST spent more time making it than "Skyline," but I was unfortunately disappointed. It IS a better film that "Skyline," but that's like saying getting stabbed repeatedly is less painful than being drowned to death. The set-up is fairly interesting and could have made for a thrilling film...basically tell the story of the alien invasion from the point-of-view of the defending marines--on paper it's "Black Hawk Down" meets "Independence Day." Though I don't really like "Black Hawk Down" that much, part of why movies like it can succeed are because they're about real soldiers in war, and even with large casts they try to find a way for us to relate to all the guys. Unfortunately the script for "Battle LA" is laughable and cliche-ridden. I have no problem with cliches if executed right, but they have to be done with a sense of purpose. In this film I couldn't tell a single character apart from each other aside from Aaron Eckhart (barely), and the fact that all their outfits looked the same didn't help matters.

Obviously (in my "filmmaker's" opinion) character comes first, but if your movie doesn't have them, so be it. At least the action sequences and special effects were cool, right? Well...not really. I've said it many times before, but I'll say it again. Shakey-cam action sequences CAN offer a sense of realism to your movies if done right, but they aren't an excuse to be sloppy, which is what seems to be the norm these days. All the action in this movie was sloppy and headache-inducing, so even that didn't really pan out.

And worst of all, the aliens didn't even look cool or creative! If you're going to do a movie about aliens, at the VERY least your creatures need to have some sort of cool and freaky design to make them memorable. We never really get a good look at these creatures, but when we do, they don't really look like much of anything...just big squishy things that walk around like people. It's bad enough I couldn't tell the soldiers from one another, but with all the hand-held shakiness, I could barely tell the aliens from the humans!

A perfect comparison to this movie (hell, it's probably WHY this movie got green-lit) is "District 9." While some of the peripheral characters in D9 aren't too complex, there's no denying the antihero Wikus is a character who sticks in your mind, as is the alien character "Christopher Johnson." And the "prawns" are immediately memorable, with their multiple jointed legs, tentacly mandibles, and strange affinity for cat food (there's even a "cute" baby alien!). There are also some pretty hefty action sequences in the film, and though they are rather frenetic, they still have a sense of purpose and drive, and use the hand-held shaky style to make the movie feel like a documentary. "Battle LA" lacked all of this...avoid it at all costs.

"Cowboys and Aliens" I found this film to be one of the bigger disappointments of the summer. On paper I thought this would be fantastic. With so many alien movies coming out, what better way to make them fresh than by throwing the space invaders in the Old West, combining two of my favorite genres? Mix in some solid casting, a good director (forget "Iron Man"...ever seen "Zathura"?), and you could have an awesome retro adventure blockbuster. Right?!?!

Well, no. The biggest problem with "Cowboys and Aliens" is that it takes itself WAY too seriously. Call me crazy, but when your movie is called "Cowboys and Aliens" why not have a little fun?! The inherent silliness is in your title, why not go with it? I'm not saying we need slapstick zaniness here, and handling it more-or-less like a real western is kind of cool...but look at the best action-blockbusters of our time--James Bond, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Die Hard--all those films have moments of lightness to keep us from getting bogged down. Even westerns themselves were B-movies of a sort (masterpieces such as "High Noon" aside). But in "Cowboys and Aliens" the movie comes with such a sense of self-importance it's downright ludicrous. Learn to have a little fun why don't you?

This problem is all over the movie, but it is most obvious in the two leads. It's fun to see Harrison Ford play off his star status as the unscrupulous cattle baron, and I actually enjoyed seeing him play a grumpy old man. Unfortunately he is paired with Daniel Craig (whom I usually like). Craig CAN be a good actor, and has the ability to be somewhat snippy and fun when the role calls for it...we've seen a bit of it in "Casino Royale." Overall though people like Craig because he is a no-nonsense tough guy. Fine, but pair that with Harrison's consistent grumbling and you have a movie that just feels like to bulldogs snarling at each other. Personally, I would have switched Craig out with someone a little lighter to play off Ford (it's the "buddy-cop" formula that works every time). Imagine Ford snarling, "We'll never get our people back" and Craig (or whoever) just laughs and gives him a slap on the back, "Sure we will. Can't be any harder than robbin' your damn stagecoach. The ranchers you hired to guard that had brains full of goo too!" Not a perfect line, but you get the idea...immediately there's a fun dynamic going on. A perfect example is "Men In Black" (ironically created by the same comic book developer), where Will Smith's streetwise nonchalance is paired with Tommy Lee Jones no-nonsense take-care-of-business attitude. That movie could have also taken itself too seriously, but had fun with the premise, and at the end of the day it just turned out to be really really COOL.

While the tone is the main problem, a lot of that stems from an issue of too many subplots. Again, I've got nothing wrong with cliches, but they have to be executed right. "Cowboys and Aliens" uses every cliche in the book, but there are so MANY of them that none of them have a chance to breathe. I personally would have cut the one about the kid and his grandpa (I liked the sheriff, but the kid from "The Last Airbender" is annoying here too) and the one about Ford's Native American ranch hand, but it doesn't really matter. Something should have gone, because the movie constantly feels like it has so much INFORMATION to get out of its system that we're never allowed to stop and enjoy what we're watching. I know for a fact that funny moments existed in the dailies...Sam Rockwell especially is an actor known for his improvisational ability. But none of that lightness made it into the final film because it would have just taken so much damn TIME.

And there ARE moments of humor in the film, at least for a while. Paul Dano as Ford's bratty son is pretty funny, especially as he is abused and pushed around by Craig. And the sheriff had a nice sense of western gravitas that added an old-timey flavor to the film. However both these cool characters get abducted at the end of the first act. If you have fun characters, don't lose them so early!

I will give the movie credit where credit is due (though here be spoilers): there is a sequence where Olivia Wilde's mysterious character gets "killed" by one of the big creatures. Then a tribe of Apaches (I THINK they were Apaches) arrives, and takes Olivia Wilde's body in some sort of strange Native American ritual. All the other characters think they are just burning her body and are angry and confused, but in a delightful send-up of the hokey "Indian mumbo-jumbo ritual" we've seen a thousand times before, Olivia Wilde emerges from the flames naked and very much alive. Turns out she's an alien too (albeit a different species) and the Apaches were just helping restore her to her natural form! It's a great reversal of all the hokey Indian scenes we've seen in westerns before, and the movie could have used more clever twists like this one on the downtrodden western formula.

It's too bad...I'm convinced "Cowboys and Aliens" could have been awesome, even while keeping a lot of the same elements intact. But choices were made that caused it to be a wasted opportunity. Stop taking yourself so seriously, Hollywood!

"Attack the Block" So, these days, what DOES it take to make a good alien movie? Why, it takes doing it outside of Tinseltown!
"Attack the Block" is fun alien-invasion horror flick from Edgar Wright collaborator, Joe Cornish. In the film, aliens (not alien ships...the alien beasties themselves arrive like meteors) crash in the British projects, and its up to a gang of street kids to stop them. Like many British films, it takes a while to get a grip on the kids' slang and understand what the hell they're saying, but once the action starts it's a frightful good time. As with a lot of the better science fiction out there, a lot of the fun comes from the subtext; these characters are on their own because nobody bothers to help out a bunch of ghetto kids, and it's topical that I saw the movie right when this years' British riots were going on. The kids have been used to handling things on their own for quite some time now...a bunch of voracious aliens are no different than a rival gang. "What kind of aliens would land here?" one kid asks. "One that's looking for a fight!" the other retorts.

And the aliens themselves are pretty clever too, especially for a movie made on a (relatively) low budget. Rather than your usual CGI mess (which on a lower-end film, would look even worse), they look like giant black menacing furballs--but a PURE black that seems to absorb all light around them, the only visible part being their day-glo snarling fangs (originally mistaken for eyes). They manage to be both whimsical and frightening at the same time.

I will say that "Attack the Block" is shockingly gory at times, so it's something to be aware of if you're squeamish. But aside from that, it's a great little flick that I highly recommend checking out.


"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" If you had told me this would be one of the better movies of the summer (perhaps the year) I'm not sure I would have believed you. The "Apes" franchise is quite old, it's campy, and Burton's version left us with such an awful taste in our mouth it seemed unlikely to spring back any time soon, if ever.

BUT "Rise of Planet of the Apes" is not only a fun summer movie, it's actually a pretty darn good film as a whole, dealing with issues of animal rights and where the line of humanity is drawn. Sure, it all ends with campy visuals of apes destroying San Francisco (kind of awesome), but it spends its time developing a compelling drama (amongst a bunch of CGI apes no less) so that it earns this goofiness at the end. Even the Alzheimer's stuff at the beginning with Jon Lithgow is poignant and heartbreaking.

Visually the movie is stunning as well. All the apes are done with motion-capture. I've remarked before how motion-capture can often come across as creepy when dealing with human characters (I'm looking at you, Zemeckis), but it sails over the uncanny valley perfectly when dealing with creatures that are similar to humans, but not quite there anyway--it's why Gollum's performance was so brilliant in the Lord of the Rings films. And it works wonderfully on the apes for the same reason. There are a few shots where it's hard to believe you're not watching real apes, and even when the VFX don't hold up quite as well, the ACTING they still gives makes you forget about it. Andy Serkis has clinched the market on these roles, but he deserves it. As the titular ape "Caesar," he imbues the character with such pathos and empathy that you can't help but root for the furry beasts when they start taking over. One particular moment, a clever reversal of the "get your hands off me you damn dirty ape" line is so exhilarating and shocking you forget the visual effects entirely. And at the end of the day, THAT'S what I love about special effects. They don't exist to make us marvel at a bunch of dumb explosions, they exist to serve the story!

And while Serkis is good, kudos must be given to the filmmakers and the other actors for how this film was pulled off. Serkis may have played the main ape, but each and every one of the other apes in the compound is played by a very specific actor, giving them all a uniqueness that shines through and allows them to not be a bunch of faceless animals. And when that's the POINT of your movie...that there are real BEINGS behind these bars, it's a very smart way to hammer that point home. My favorite part of the movie--where Caesar gains control and power over the other apes in the compound through his wits--is handled in a pretty hefty sequence all done with non-dialogue; only looks and gestures. It's storytelling at it's best and I was enthralled, completely forgetting that these were really a bunch of guys in goofy golf-ball suits who were THEN scanned into a computer and digitized by a bunch of video wizards. And it's also nice to know that one reason why it was chosen for the apes to be CGI was because real "movie" apes are often mistreated, and they didn't want to make a movie on the subject of animal cruelty while ENGAGING in animal cruelty. A Hollywood blockbuster with ethics behind it? Maybe this business isn't so bad after all!

And while the apes are the stars of the show, one shouldn't ignore the rest of the filmmaking techniques taking place here too. There are some fantastic and dynamic one-take shots that move with Caesar as he swings through his human home or redwood forest that cleverly show the passage of time. And the human cast overall is very solid, though the best side character has to be Tom Felton stepping out of the Harry Potter films to play the nasty ape caretaker (even if he still is just another asshole with a magic wand). Though I couldn't help but one point he tries to impress a couple hot babes by showing them where he works. Would girls ever really be impressed by a guy who works in a smelly ape prison, especially when you show them how terrible you are towards the creatures you are handling? Doesn't seem like much of a chick magnet to ME.

All in all, I'm not sure "Rise of Planet of the Apes" is going to make my Top 10 for the year, but it has a decent shot if none of the upcoming Oscar-bait films live up to their potential. It was a great surprise.

Oh yeah! I also thought it was cute to see humans watching the original "Planet of the Apes" film at one point.

"Spy Kids 4" You can shrug off films like this by saying, "Oh well, Rodriguez needs to make these films so he can keep making his 'Planet Terror's,'" but I'm not sure that's entirely true. As far as I know the "Spy Kids" franchise isn't that lucrative it???

I actually sort of enjoy the first "Spy Kids" movie. For all it's cartoonish logic, it still has a fun tone, those kids were decent actors, and Carla Gugino and Antonio Banderas seemed like they were having fun riffing on their "sexy" personas. Dare I say the first "Spy Kids" even had a little style here and there?

"Spy Kids 2" was pretty lame, which is too bad because it was supposed to be an homage to my favorite old timey effects artist, Ray Harryhausen. I never bothered to see the third film, and I was forced to see this one because of my job (hooray!).

Anyway it's pretty bad. The two new spy kids brought in to restart the franchise have none of the charisma of the old kids, and the plot is more nonsensical than any of the other films thus far (which is saying something). Ricky Gervais phones in a terrible performance as a talking dog with lame one-liners that feel like the stuff a six-year old shouts at you, and then won't stop grinning into you falsely chuckle so he'll leave you alone (which he doesn't of course...then he just tells you another dumb joke). Jessica Alba is flat in just about every movie she's in, so no surprise there. The real shame is seeing Joel McHale slum his way through the film. I love him on "Community," my new favorite comedy TV show. Clearly the guy is trying to push into film (more power to him), but sadly he is above this dopey script. Shame on you, Rodriguez.

It's a dumb idiotic movie. Kids deserve better, be they spies or movie-goers.

"Fright Night" With all the Twilight b.s. out there, it's hard to be a fan of horror monsters these days. I've always been a werewolf guy myself, but vampires are pretty cool too. Hollywood has experimented in various ways to capitalize on the Twilight phenomenon (look at all the revamped fairy tales we have in development!), and so we've seen vampires in a number of forms as of late. Last year "Let Me In" sort of failed (I didn't like it that much anyway), and on paper it seemed like a remake of the 80s flick "Fright Night" to grab some Twilight fanboys might be a really bad idea.

I was shocked to discover the remake of "Fright Night" was fantastic, done so by solid direction, some smart updating, and a wonderful cast. Updating the movie from generic suburbia to Las Vegas is a smart move, as the desert atmosphere gives the film not only a unique sense of place, but also a slight sense of danger. When the characters have to flee from their home, running off into the desert actually seems pretty scary! In addition the kids' final plea to the "real" vampire hunter makes a lot more sense (and is a much cooler twist) when they go to aVegas magician and not some hokey B-movie TV star.

The direction is solid, but the cast is what sells it. Colin Farrell can be very hit and miss, but he sinks his teeth (haha!) into this role with gusto, clearly having the time of his life being both sexy and scary. The always solid Toni Collette is lots of fun as the mom, Christopher Mintz-Plasse continues to prove that McLovin wasn't just a fluke as the main character's cloying best friend, and one of my favorite young actors these days (and a nice guy in person) Anton Yelchin plays the hero with wonderful teenage vulnerability. The movie also does a good job of giving the female character a little more to do, and she is played well by the beautiful Imogen Poots (though her last name IS "Poots"'s hard not to chuckle). All in all it's a blast and the new "Fright Night" does a great job of updating the vampire genre while still sticking to its tried and true roots--if you know your vampire films you're not going to see anything TOO new, but rarely will it be able to pack this much FUN into its scares.

So why oh why did "Fright Night" not make any money??? Was it the R rating? Moviegoers, this is why you can't have nice things!!!

"Drive" To start out, I had a LOT of problems with this film. For a movie called "Drive" there isn't that much driving. It runs the cardinal sin of having it's best scene be the first one. The lack of dialogue and awkward pauses is disconcerting. The sudden violent tone halfway through is too shocking and we should have had some hint of it earlier. And (spoiler!) Gosling should have killed that one guy WITH the slick racecar he was given, not just some beat-up junk vehicle.


Even though I had issues with the film, more than any other film this year, "Drive" has been unable to leave my head since I saw it. It hits such an amazing groove and such an exotic feeling that I've been thinking about it constantly since I left the theater (the retro soundtrack helps a LOT, I might add). It is the one film this year that feels like it was made by a FILMMAKER and not by a director working to get a paycheck from a bunch of suits. Though I didn't always agree with all the choices, I definitely felt like they were conscious choices made completely within the filmmaker's control. From an artistic standpoint, you should see it. You won't be able to get it out of your head either.

Also, I went as The Driver for Halloween (made the scorpion jacket myself). I looked badass.

"Moneyball" Interestingly, I felt about "Moneyball" the opposite I felt about "Drive." I didn't expect to like the movie going into it ("sports and math" might as well be "cancer and herpes"), but I was surprised how good it turned out to be. However days later I realized I didn't really remember a single scene from the movie for the most part, aside from Brad Pitt's rapid-phone-call-deal sequence.

Anyway, I remember it being a good movie, and that Jonah Hill was surprisingly fun in his (only?) dramatic role. But I can't tell you much more than that other than it was actually accessible to somebody like me who doesn't give a shit about sports.

"50/50" Hey, speaking of CANCER movies!

This is a good dramedy, but I don't think it's as great a movie as the reviewers would have you believe ("it's a good movie about stars for everyone!"). It has a likable cast and overall it feels very genuine, but ultimately I don't think there's much more to the film other than that. I did think the relationship stuff between Bryce Dallas Howard (purr...), Joseph Gordon Levitt, and Eddie Munster (excuse me...Anna Kendrick) was the most interesting. How do you healthily develop a romantic relationship when you might be dead in a matter of months? It's a flick worth seeing, and could even make a good date movie, but it's not going to shatter your perception on life or anything.

"The Big Year" A movie about birdwatching? All right!

As anyone who knows me, I actually LOVE birdwatching, and think in the right hands this movie could have been great. The story about birdwatchers (and science freaks in general) that Hollywood never tells is that we are CRAZY, constantly stopping the nature bus or leaning out of windows to catch the field marks on something that just MIGHT be a rare species ("or...wait...never mind...just a blackbird"). If this movie was handled by, say, Wes Anderson or even Christopher Guest it could have been these birdwatchers for the poetic lunatics they are! "Best in Show," for example, isn't really about a dog show, it's about the weirdos who own the dogs (and Fred Willard as the awesome announcer). Even the central plot device of the movie...that these three characters are in competition to get the highest bird count, could be brilliant as these idiots undercut and back-stab each other at every turn...for a bunch of birds!

Unfortunately "The Big Year" was not directed by anybody whimsical or awesome. They got the director of "Marley and Me," so it's bland, uninspired (despite a decent cast), and sugarcoated to the point where I felt sick. Instead of the three birders fighting amongst each other, they all become buddies about halfway through the film, killing any possible tension that could exist in the story. What?! Why?!

I do applaud the movie for sort of going out of their way to include accurate bird identifications. One of my favorite movies, "Finding Forrester," frustrates me to no end because it incorrectly identifies a yellow warbler as a Connecticut warbler. So that's nice (though they seem to think "red-tailed hawk" is some sort of rare bird when they're really the coyotes of the sky). Otherwise though, this movie has absolutely nothing going for it. People are convinced birdwatching is a boring subject for a movie, and it ISN'T...but it certainly is if you present it like this.

"Puss In Boots" Oh Dreamworks Animation...always one step forward and two steps back (kind of a bummer year for animation, really). It's not enough to have four Shrek films (the last two of which were atrocious), you have to keep milking it with Puss too?

Admittedly, Puss is probably the best character to crawl out of the Shrek series, AND the one most likely to hold his own film. At least for the first act, the movie does a decent enough job setting a cool spaghetti western tone to the whole proceedings. Cute cat jokes can go a long way, and while I normally hate pop culture casting, it's pretty cool that this movie is basically Robert Rodriguez's "Desperado" with cats, since it not only features Antonio Banderas as Puss (basically cat-Zorro), but also Salma Hayek as the slinky cat burglar Kitty Softpaws.

But as the story introduces more fantasy elements like Humpty Dumpty and Jack's Beanstalk, the movie starts to grow tiresome quickly. It's not as bad as the last two Shrek outings, and it's a little more clever than the Madagascar series, but for the amount of WORK that goes into an animated feature, there should be no excuse for phoning it in. Overall "Puss in Boots" just feels...unnecessary.


"Android" An old low-budget sci-fi movie exploring themes of humanity vs. artificial intelligence. I usually applaud low-budget filmmaking from any era, but this one felt extremely dated and the effects didn't hold up. I remember it had some interesting ideas, but I've honestly forgotten most of it at this point. Gah, remind me why I keep this blog again?

"The Andromeda Strain" Based on Stephen King's sci-fi book (which I read ages ago), it's actually a decent film about an alien virus that starts wiping out humanity. I will say that most of the film feels like a fairly standard thriller-drama, but the sudden action-adventure ending felt extremely out-of-place (though memorable). It's an interesting watch. Also, "The Andromeda STAIN" would be an awesome porno.

"Scarecrows" For a low-budget slasher/horror film, I actually really liked this one. A group of burglars crash-land near an old farmhouse (their sin already committed by being, well, burglars), and are picked off one by one by sinister scarecrows lurking in the cornfield. The scarecrow-monsters themselves are creative and scary (they sew pieces of their victims onto themselves to become more human), and there are some very creative kills and shock moments (one person's body is gutted and stuffed with straw...pretty shocking). Even some of the acting is actually pretty good. A recommended watch for 80s horror fans. Maybe grab it around next Halloween.

"Silent Running" I appreciate this movie for what it stands for...thoughtful science fiction as opposed to the explosive space opera. The movie supposes that all plant life on Earth has gone extinct, but a gardener (played by Bruce Dern) aboard an orbiting space freighter takes care of the last remaining bits of flora in existence. When an order is sent from his superiors to destroy the plants, the gardener finds a way to fight off the rest of the crew members and (spoiler?) jettison the plants out into space to survive on their own, though he will run out of oxygen and die in the process.

A neat idea for a movie, to be sure. However it moves at a snail's pace, and I found myself getting very antsy. Slow pacing is not the worst thing in a movie if your actors are riveting, but unfortunately Bruce Dern's performance is one of the worst I've ever seen anywhere.

Even so, "Silent Running" is one of the forerunners of the narrow genre of thinking man's sci-fi, (it directly inspired Duncan Jones to make "Moon"), so I have to stand by it for that reason alone. But aside from this film's historical context, you can skip it.

"Wet Hot American Summer" Gee, how do you even review this movie? It's a fun period piece about summer camps, basically used as a framework to string a series of sketches featuring a large number of up-and-coming comedians. The sketches are definitely uneven with some better than others, but as a whole it's impossible not to be delighted at this movie's sheer irreverence, which reminded me of my favorite parts of "Wayne's World." The movie is definitely worth seeing at LEAST for Paul Rudd, who is always enjoyable but probably gives the best performance of his life this time around as the jerkwad boyfriend of the main character's love interest (interestingly, the budget was so low on the film that Rudd isn't even sure he was paid).

"Broadcast News" Great film! Classic! What can I say? Holly Hunter, John Hurt, and Albert Brooks are brilliant! It is interesting to see how the big "moment" in the film that is revealed to Holly Hunter at the end (where Hurt acts the news) has changed over the today's world people don't really trust their news stations anymore, and it's not quite as shocking as it might have been then. I can't really say too much else other than that it's considered James L. Brooks' best film for a reason. Go see it! I do have one question though...just once (once!) I'd like to be a John Hurt character and not an Albert Brooks character in my life. I've had a couple Holly Hunters leave me out to dry in the last couple of months.

"Death Becomes Her" The perfect Halloween movie to take a girl who hates horror movies (though I would never date that kind of girl anyway). I had no idea what to expect from this film, but it turned out to be quite the fanciful trip. Bruce Willis gives on of his funniest performances ever, and Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn seem to be having a blast as the catty lovers fighting over him. To say too much else would give the film away, suffice to say it's clever midpoint twist that is the crux of the movie is one of the loopiest, funniest, most macabre things I've seen in ages. Wow, Robert Zemeckis, you used to be so GOOD.

"The Offspring" (aka "From a Whisper to a Scream") I like low budget horror especially around this time of year, and I REALLY like anthology films, so I was hoping this would be a lot of fun.

Some of the stories are OK, but mostly it's just gory and disgusting rather than enjoyable. A creepy old man who has an incestuous relationship with his sister and lusts after a beautiful girl, then he accidentally kills her? So what? There's nothing FUN about this idea, it's just skeevy. And the rest of the tales aren't any better. Skip this flick and watch "Creepshow" instead.

"Return of the Living Dead" Once upon a time in film school I wrote a paper I was really proud of comparing George A. Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" to Zach Snyder's "Dawn of the Dead." I ultimately said that I preferred Snyder's version simply because, while Romero tried to add a bit of consumerism subtext to his film, Snyder's was just way more FUN (for the record, it's probably the ONLY time I've ever been on Snyder's side over methods of an "Watchmen" review was not kind).

Romero may have "invented" the zombie genre (he certainly is responsible for our basic image of zombies today), but aside from "Night of the Living Dead" his movies aren't necessarily that well put together (I did like "Land of the Dead" but I'm in the minority).

I thought "Return of the Living Dead" was just another Romero movie I had somehow missed along the way, but it's actually an outrageous send-up of the zombie genre. The movie presupposes that "Night of the Living Dead" was actually embellished from true events, and goes from there. It's campy, it's stupid, some of the gore is completely ridiculous, and it's a blast. It's not as good as "Re-Animator," but it's definitely born of the same cloth...err...braaaaaaain.

"Sherlock (TV Series)" Again, I usually don't review TV shows, but this one was too good not to at least mention. The Robert Downey Sherlock movie that came out last year was OK, but it definitely "Hollywoodized" the story too much. When someone recommended the BBC version, I wasn't really sure what to expect.

At first I was nervous when, upon watching, I realized the entire thing was set in the modern day. But luckily the spirit of Sherlock Holmes is actually MORE intact here than in the Guy Ritchie films, and updating the mysteries to include things like cell phones and other modern technology actually works incredibly well. And it's really cool that Watson served in Afghanistan in the original stories...some things never change! Cap it off with Martin Freeman as Watson, and you've got a winner on your hands. It's a great series of three "mini-movies," and I can't wait to see what else they have in store for us next year.

OK, that's it for now. Bring on Oscar season! And SURPRISE me.