December 31, 2010

The Films of 2010: In Memorium

About mid-way through 2010, I started telling people that it really didn't seem like a great year for movies. The summer especially had a huge dearth of flicks I actually wanted to go out and spend a bunch of money to see. The year sure finished well, however, and awards season brought several excellent pictures that I greatly enjoyed. Still, it's strange... I'm getting a little deeper in my 30s, movie tickets are getting pricier, and if I'm not mistaken the dumb summer movies seem to be getting a little dumber. I would have guesstimated that we saw fewer films this year than we have in the previous few, but according to my records (this blog) the movies we saw number in the mid-30s, almost the same as last year. Below, I've attempted to list what we saw, placing the ones we enjoyed the most up here at the top, and ones that flat out pissed me off toward the bottom.

The Social Network
I found The Social Network to be an endlessly fascinating going-into-business story for the modern era. It's the product of two very distinctive talents - screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) and director David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button) - and interestingly retains the artistic signature of both. My main critical thought about this one is that they really portrayed Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg as an evil, anti-social prick, almost to Mommy Dearest levels. It's almost impossible to believe that the real guy is anywhere near as awful, nor could he have achieved the success that he did with such minimal people skills. The real Mark Zuckerberg, recently named Time's Man Of The Year, is putting a ton of effort (and money) behind rehabilitating his public image. Although I don't think this is his motivation in doing so, I believe the PR effort will have an adverse effect on the film's Award Season chances. I would guess they have a great shot at winning Best Screenplay for Sorkin, and possibly Supporting Actor for a surprisingly solid Justin Timberlake (!), but I have a feeling that at the Academy Awards, at least, the Best Picture will be...

The King's Speech
A fantastic movie about the future King George VI (as played by the wonderful Colin Firth) overcoming a massive speech impediment in pre-WWII 1930's England, with the help of a speech therapist played by the excellent Geoffrey Rush, in a rare non-pirate role. It's an historical drama with an excellent historical perspective that isn't dry or uninteresting for even a single frame. I actually saw it again recently, and was surprised to find that I liked it even more the second time.

True Grit (2010)
Joel and Ethan Coen went back to Charles Portis' original novel for this picture, which was famously made before in 1969 with John Wayne, who won his only Oscar for the lead role. Many scenes in the 2010 version directly correlate to the '69 one and the two even share a good amount of dialogue (presumably taken from the book). Some of the words may be the same in this new one, but the feeling and the texture are completely different. It's like the original story as seen through the Coens' very distinctive filter. Jeff Bridges makes the Wayne role his own, and is supported by stellar performances by Matt Damon as a well-intentioned but somewhat novice Texas ranger, and Josh Brolin in a small role as the deceptive baddie both men are hunting. Really, though, the movie is completely stolen by Hailee Steinfeld as the determined Mattie Ross, who hires Bridges to avenge the murder of her father in the first place. She's one of those fast-talkin' characters that the Coens seem so amused by, and it's enormously entertaining to watch her outsmart and outmaneuver adults who are much more dangerous and accomplished than she is. Also, unlike Kim Darby in the original, Steinfeld seems much more at risk while in the wild territory, and way out of her element. Excellent movie all around.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
From the director of two movies I love dearly, Hot Fuzz and Shaun Of The Dead, comes this unique and inventive comic-book adaptation where Michael Cera wants to date Mary Elizabeth Winstead, but must defeat her 7 evil exes first. Infused with the DNA of 8-bit 80s era videogames, the movie is living cartoon that is probably most comparable to Tarantino's Kill Bill movies, if only vaguely. I'm 32, and I feel like this movie was aimed at my age group specifically. Those much older and younger than I didn't seem to care for it much, which doesn't surprise me, frankly.

The Millennium Trilogy
The Girl With The Dragon TattooThe Girl Who Played With FireThe Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest
The three books that make up the late Stieg Larsson's "Millennium Trilogy" were filmed as a Swedish mini-series in 2009, but released as separate films in the US in March, July, and November this year. My wife loved the books, but I knew nothing about them until we saw the fantastic first picture, which I would characterize as an above average detective story where a controversial journalist teams up with the intriguing and enigmatic punk bisexual computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace). The second picture was a bit of a disappointment in comparison to the first, delving deep into Salander's personal history in a way that felt a little more soap-opera-y to me. The third film, which is more or less a direct continuation of part 2, more than made up for it, however, finishing the series on a really strong note. If you can put up with the subtitles (and can handle an intense rape scene), they're well worth the effort to see.

The Kids Are All Right
The children of a same sex couple seek out the sperm donor their mothers employed back in the day and get to know him a bit. It's an interesting and charming movie that won a lot of points with me for being very naturalistic and plausible. The couple - played by Annette Benning and Julianne Moore - have a great relationship that feels very "lived in," - not sensational or glamourous the way lesbian couples sometimes are in movies and TV shows (especially the ones on late night Cinemax). The movie treats them like real people, and doesn't make a big deal out of their sexuality, which is how it should be. The actors who play the kids are solid, and Mark Ruffalo as the donor is layered and interesting. The movie sets up a number of uncomfortable scenarios for which there are no easy answers, but makes it all smooth and fascinating.

Black Swan
I think I admired the craft that went into this highly fucked up story of a big-time ballerina losing her shit on an epic scale more than I actually enjoyed watching it. I have a problem with movies that are kind of built around a device that obscures whether or not things that the movie has spent a great deal of time showing you have actually happened. Like Inception and Shutter Island (which I recently saw on video, and therefore did not blog about), I feel such stories give the director a certain kind of license to do a lot of off-the-wall shit for the sake of creating a mood and without any consequence to the story whatsoever. That sort of thing just rubs me the wrong way, even when it happens in a masterfully staged movie like this one.

I love Christopher Nolan's other movies, but I honestly found this one to be a little cold and off-putting. My hats off to him for coming up with such a unique concept and being able to stage it as effectively he did, but at the same time I felt the mechanics of what the "dream heisters" were doing were awfully cumbersome and unclear. They may indeed make perfect sense, according to the film's own rules, but I was a bit turned around during my one and only time watching it. And truthfully, it didn't intrigue me enough to really go back and figure it out. Nevertheless, it's a powerful movie going experience with some standout sequences.

Toy Story 3
I know this is heresy, but Toy Story 3, while good, just didn't do it for me like the other two did. Much of it even felt like a retread of the second film, actually, which I felt ended so beautifully that a third film would be very difficult to justify. I'm still not convinced they had a good reason for making part 3, but I enjoyed seeing the characters again, even if the film subjected them to terrible incarceration and non-stop torture.

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows - Part 1
Director David Yates did a better job on Deathly Hallows - Part 1 than he did on the previous two entries in the series, but I still think he's unimaginative, emotionless, and pretty much ill-equipped to be making these things. This movie, which covers the first half of the final book in the series, abandons the structure of each movie depicting another year for the kids at Hogwarts, and instead has Harry and his friends on the run from the bad guys, who have pretty much taken over the entire wizard community. This means that it's a story that moves from point A to B to C in a pretty linear fashion, unlike the previous entries where different elements had to be concurrently introduced, developed, and then intertwoven by the end... which Yates was terrible at. Also, since this film and 2011's part two are the last in the series, it was perhaps more clear to him which parts of the story he really ought to focus on, which stands in great contrast to his interpretation of part 6, where he focused on staging the least interesting parts of book, and pretty much left all the good stuff out.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie and The City Of Lost Children) made this imaginative French farce about a circus troupe that takes on a pair of weapon manufacturers. It's a little lightweight, but really charming and I would argue a lot more exciting than the last couple of Mission: Impossible movies or The A-Team, which have similar break-in scenes that are not nearly as tense or as exciting as the ones here.

Huge guilty pleasure. I'll repeat a line from my original review, and say that it's like they took the original Predator (which I love dearly), and mixed in elements of Con Air and The Most Dangerous Game. Only real complaints are that apart from Adrian Brody, Alice Braga, the inimitable Danny Trejo and a goofy cameo from Lawrence Fishburne, the supporting cast feels a little third rate (although they were built upon ridiculous 80s stereotypes, which I appreciated). Also, the movie hits a serious lull after a while, much like the first Predator did.

Never Let Me Go
Insanely depressing movie about a future where clones are raised for the sole purpose of one day donating their organs to non-clones (and die in the process). Like Michael Bay's The Island done as a depressing English drama. I kept thinking about it for a long time after I saw it, but shit is it downbeat.


Please Give
An interesting picture on the subject of how people deal with the guilt they have for wanting the things that they want. Catherine Keener and the hideous, hairy man-blob known as Oliver Platt have bought the apartment next to theirs with plans of expanding their living space once the old lady who lives there passes on. Naturally, the lady's granddaughters, played by Amanda Peet and Rebecca Hall, find their intentions ghoulish. Nevertheless, they all get to know each other in this indie drama from Nicole Holofcener, which is packed with shady morality and interesting takes on proper behavior.

Winnebago Man
I'm a YouTube addict, and one of my favorites is a compilation of outtakes from a Winnebago promotional film from the late 80s where the host continuously loses his shit, forgets his lines, and shouts profanity at the crew. This entertaining documentary tracks Jack Rebney down and examines the effect that the video's infamy has had on the man himself. It really runs out of steam after a while, and takes a dark turn or two, but I love docs like this and found it immensely entertaining.

Best Worst Movie
Similar to Winnebago Man in many ways, including the fact that it's really longer than it should be. The guy behind this doc appeared in a low budget cheapie called Troll 2 as a child, eventually regarded by many as the "Worst Movie Ever Made." This doc offers updates on the people who made it and what the major players are all up to now. If you love bad movies, like me, you might get a kick out this examination of low budget non-Hollywood junk and the lives of the people behind it.

Cute footage of babies doing shit, but I felt there was virtually no order to any of the images that we're shown, and the picture doesn't really "do" anything, other than show us babies. I guess you have to give it points for being pretty much what it claimed to be.

The A-Team
I know I threw some shit at The A-Team a few entries above, but it's actually pretty okay. It's a standard action adventure heist movie, really. Its worst crime is that it is not super memorable (I can't even remember what the plot is about), but Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper and the guy from District 9 are entertaining as the leads. Less successful is Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, who steps into the Mr. T role and isn't really given much to do anyway. I still argue that they should have gotten Mr. T himself out of retirement to do it.

The Last Airbender
You know, even though the first half hour is really sucky, I kinda liked this action / adventure / fantasy from reviled director M Night Shyalaman. I have yet to meet another man, woman or child who doesn't think it's a world class pile of shit, however. Fans of the Nickelodeon series hated what Shyamalan did with the material. People who hated Shyamalan's previous few movies (and I'm one of them!) might have gone in already expecting it to be crappy. And those who saw it in 3D might have been upset by how awful the 3D conversion was (Roger Ebert spent most of his own review complaining about it!). Nevertheless, I liked the chop-socky stuff, and there were moments toward the end that I even found to be a little moving. My friend Megan just saw (and hated) it, and commented on her blog that the only way to watch it is with the hysterical RiffTrax commentary playing at the same time. Well said.

Fair Game
A political thriller about former CIA agent Valarie Plame, her husband Joe Wilson, and a vindictive White House that purposefully blew her cover in 2003. This happened a few months after the second Iraq War began, when Wilson wrote a piece for the New York Times asserting that the administration's claim that Iraq's attempt to purchase Yellow Cake Uranium from Niger, its key justification for invasion, was simply not credible. It's a wildly uneven movie, oscillating between Clear And Present Danger type scenes and family melodrama. Although I have a great deal of feeling for the events portrayed by the movie, I feel like they made an error in judgement by making the representatives of the White House appear so evil and conniving. I'm no fan of them or of the war they started, but I think the film needed to treat them more as highly misguided than teeth-gnashingly wicked. They certainly deserve to be denigrated for destroying this woman's career of service to her country, but in making thin caricatures out of Bush people in this movie, the filmmakers showed their very narrow, limited view of the situation.

Alice In Wonderland
I saw this movie twice, and wrote a rare follow-up review the second time. The first time I thought it was okay, and the second time I was acutely aware of how empty it is. I think a large amount of the blame centers around the presence of Johnny Depp in the cast, frankly. I know that Tim Burton doesn't seem to be physically capable of making a movie without him anymore, but because there's a star of Depp's caliber playing the relatively minor role of the Mad Hatter, he's suddenly the most important person in the film. Alice herself isn't even on the goddamn poster! It's just a shot of Depp in make-up. Lazy, lazy, insipid filmmaking, which is even worse when you consider the richness of the source material. I didn't hate it, but let's be honest: It's crap.

Iron Man 2
Highly mediocre sequel to a moderately better movie. Back in the 1980s, Robert Downey Jr. began what would become over 25 years of extensive research in order to prepare for his role as mega-rich, boozed-up, ego-maniacal, philandering drug-addict asshole Tony Stark. His scenes with Gwyneth Paltrow feel completely improvised and are excruciating to watch. The Wrestler's Mickey Rooney is the bad guy, and I can't even remember what his character's name is. Really, there's no good reason to see this movie unless you were okay with the first one, but wish that it had been less "mildly entertaining."

On one of the A/V Club podcasts, they remarked that an interesting thing about a summer with so few standouts is that movies which would otherwise seem mediocre wind up looking a lot better in comparsion, naming this one specifically. I vaguely liked this John C. Reilly / Marisa Tomei comedy, but the handheld video ultimately made me want to ralph, so I left the theater and hung out in a book store until the end credits rolled and my wife came to find me. Looking at Jonah Hill probably contributed to my nausea too.


Hot Tub Time Machine
No film could possibly live up to this, the single greatest title in movie history. I appreciated the 80s stuff, but I was seriously put off by how dark the movie was overall. Starts off in present times with John Cusack, Craig Robinson and Rob Cordory as bitterly depressed adults (so much so that Cordory even tries to kill himself in the opening scenes!). Once the high temperature, aerated water device with temporal distortion properties that is referenced by the film's title does its thing and they're back in time, there's still loads of regret, self-hate and most disturbing (to me, at any rate) excessive use of cocaine and other popular 80s drugs to go around. I'm not terribly comfortable around hard core drug use, to be honest with you, and so scenes like the one where Cusack locks himself in his hotel room and snorts a metric ton of coke (which would presumably kill most people) are comedy killers for me.

The Ghost Writer
Wow, I hated this thrill-less political thriller from Academy Award winning director and fugitive child rapist Roman Polanski. I like politics. And I find the world of literature to be at least interesting fodder for a movie. But I just don't see what other people saw in this horrible, drawn out snoozer.

The best parts of 2007's Grindhouse were the fake trailers that appeared between the features. The best of the fake trailers was the one for Machete, a faux Mexploitation film starring Danny Trejo. The key mistake this full-length feature makes is that it assumes that people who were amused by the trailer would want to see a film that faithfully incorporates and gives context to the moments that made them laugh the first time. The resulting star-packed feature commits that worst of all movie sins: It's really boring.

It's Kind Of A Funny Story
No it isn't. It's a horribly cliched, derivative knock-off of some much better stories. Children and adults would never, never, never, never, never, never, never be allowed to cohabit in the same mental ward the way they do in this movie, but don't worry, the filmmakers have that covered: Toward the beginning of the movie, they have some of the staff explain that "the under 18 ward is being renovated" multiple times, which is why they're all going to be together. Zach Galifianakis has a short credit line with me: I really enjoyed the The Hangover and while I appreciate that he tried to do something more interesting as a follow-up, if he keeps appearing in junk like this and Due Date (see below), he's f'ing done, man!

The Wolfman
I saw this one mostly out of curiosity. The original director quit right before they started filming, and then the picture lingered in post production hell for nearly two years before Universal shat it out into theaters in February. During that time, reshoots happened, top editors were brought in to recut certain scenes, and composer Danny Elfman wrote an amazing score for the movie, which was thrown out and replaced by techno crap for a while during post production, before a good amount of it was ultimately restored to the picture, which was at that time horribly mangled from all the recutting. It's a sterling example of why films that shoot before they're ready to shoot wind up costing a fortune and are virtually unwatchable.

Piranha 3D
There were a lot of indications that the movie would have a dark, subversive, self-conscious streak of humor in it, ala The Bride Of Chucky. But it's more like a light dusting of that. The rest of the movie is surprisingly gruesome and pretty horrifying. Don't see it, not even for the Kelly Brook topless scenes.

Date Night
Some smart executives at Fox decided that Tina Fey and Steve Carell, both stars of popular NBC sitcoms, would make a great screen couple, which they do. Unfortunately, that's roughly where the script development of this highly silly and thoroughly shitty waste of time ended. So many scenes feel like they just let Fey and Carell make it up as they went. It's the kind of movie that wouldn't be more than a few minutes long if the people in it weren't complete fucking morons and totally divorced from what actual human beings do. I'm being extra hard on it not only for being awful, but for getting such charming actors together and then not doing anything with them.

Due Date
Director Todd Phillips made last year's very funny, highly entertaining The Hangover. I applaud him for wanting to do something different for his follow-up, but it's too bad he went for "not funny, not entertaining." Words cannot sum up how much this movie pissed me off. Downey Jr. was completely miscast as the guy trying to get home, and it's heartbreaking to see Galifianakis slum it so early in his film career with such awful material. Desperate celebrity cameos and horrible segments that don't bear any consequences to the rest of the movie top off this, the biggest shit souffle of 2010.

And that's it! I still haven't seen Tron 2 or Yogi Bear, and that might change everything.

December 4, 2010

Black Swan (12/04/2010)

Lettergrade: Complicated

In Black Swan, Natalie Portman plays a big-time ballerina who experiences some extreme mental strain whilst preparing to appear in a new Carnegie Hall rendition of "Swan Lake." I can think of no other movie this year that was as (intentionally) excruciating or which caused me to squirm as much in my seat as this one did. I can't really call it enjoyable, and to be honest with you I'm not even sure that it's all that good. But it is a hell of an experience to sit in a theater and watch it, and if nothing else its effectiveness at making the viewer feel creeped out makes it noteworthy.

The movie was directed by Darren Aronofsky who, having made Pi, Requiem For A Dream, The Fountain and The Wrestler prior to this one, further demonstrates his interest in private spaces where obsession and addiction fester, and ultimately lead - in most of his films, at least - to some kind of dramatic self-destruction. I was in college when I saw Pi, and it would take more words than I'm presently aware of to accurately describe how much I hated it. The only one of his movies that I've really liked is that last one, The Wrestler, mostly because he abandoned the crazy camera stuff and the insane film-student-run-amuck stylistics, and filed the void instead with a surprising amount of humanity, which I would argue made the extraordinary things that happened in that movie much more relatable.

Black Swan is much more like his earlier movies. Its visual DNA is probably more like Requiem than the others... There's no shortage of shaky nervous camera angles, blood and open wounds, alternating scenes where Portman masturbates then vomits, and non-stop creepy visuals. For a picture about dancers, it's much more like A Nightmare On Elm St. than A Chorus Line. Aronofsky is great at making it scary and disturbing, but what's the point other than to provide a good jolt every now and again? I'm not really sure what this movie is about, and none of the characters in it seem like people who exist outside of movies.

I think that's the root of my problem with Black Swan: The filmmaking is stylish but cold, and the relative thinness of the characters just kind of put it into fantasy territory for me. When we meet Portman's character at the beginning, she's already, like, 95% unhinged to the point where she's imagining people who aren't there and seeing her reflection do things that her body isn't doing. That doesn't seem as interesting to me as a movie about how she got so messed up in the first place might be.

The other characters around her are designed to provide some clues to that backstory, but mostly take the form of cruel caricatures: The Swan Lake auteur, Vincent Cassel, is predictably slimy and lecherous. Her mother is at once over-bearing and protective, but occasionally whips out the crazy. It's intentionally unclear if her attempts to subvert her daughter come out of concern or jealousy, and maybe it's both. Portman herself has virtually no interests outside of dancing and doesn't seem to have any close friends or contacts at all... Can one become a prominent Carnegie Hall ballerina and completely lack interpersonal skills or understand a thing or two about politics? I'm not sure I buy that. We know that she has multiple OCD habits that include scratching herself in her sleep and practicing endlessly. We know that she's super driven to succeed, but we're not given much of a window as to why she feels her career is more important than her own mental health. Lots of symptoms in this movie, but very few causes.

The one person she does interact with outside of the dance hall is played by Mila Kunis, who is kind of a punk rival ballerina, sorta along Tyler Durden lines. Kunis is supposed to be a professional ballerina too, but she treats it more like juvenile detention... she drinks, smokes, does drugs, stays out late, and has a lot of large tattoos on her back. Maybe I'm naive here, but it just doesn't seem like anyone even remotely like that would ever be performing at Carnegie Hall. I think the tattoos alone are kind of a deal breaker, aren't they?

At certain points of the movie, I wondered if all of these characters (again, ala Tyler Durden) might be imaginary. I don't think they are, but the movie does spend a great deal of time showing them do things that they're not really doing. This kind of thing drives me up a wall: You quickly lose track of what's even happening in the movie's "reality." We're shown elaborate sequences, and then told they didn't actually take place. There are a lot of bat-shit crazy characters in the movie, and we see them do a lot of bat-shit crazy things. But which of them actually happened or at least have consequences that ripple into what is really happening? Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't. Are all these sequences just dramatizations of what's going on in Portman's head? Is she even a ballerina at all? Is New York City actually there? Did Tchaikovsky even write Swan Lake in the first place? I'm sure the plot to Inception explains all this somehow, but I have no clue how.

It's one of those movies that was egoistically designed to be watched several times before you really "get it." Sitting here now, I've got virtually no interest in seeing it again, and unlocking whatever brilliant subtext Aronofsky decided to make so unclear to first-timer viewers. In fact, I don't even really want to think about it much more than I have already. And in fact, screw it: I'm going to work on my journal entry for True Grit, a much better movie, instead.