December 29, 2012

The Master (12/29/2012)

Lettergrade: D

Excellent performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman (plus a very brief scene where Amy Adams seems to read a letter addressed to Penthouse Forum or something) are not enough to make this oblique and glacially paced movie about a cult leader transparently based on L. Ron Hubbard worth sitting through.  I've said it before and I'll say it again: Paul Thomas Anderson sucks.

Shot in 65mm, so if you saw it projected that way, it might have at least looked really good, I guess.  

December 28, 2012

Django Unchained (12/28/2012)

Lettergrade: A-

Clocking in at 2 hours and 46 minutes, Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained fits the characterization that I've had for his last several pictures, namely that it's very talky and long-winded, but with several sensational moments of payoff.

I'm actually not a huge Tarantino devotee myself, but I've seen most of his movies at least once, and I generally like them.  This new one is a bit more like 2009's Inglourious Basterds than his earlier flicks in that it tells more of a mature, linear story, largely free of kitsch and the retro film tricks of Kill Bill and Death Proof.  Like all his pictures, however, it glides smoothly from scenes that are light and comedic into some extremely dark and upsetting territory.

Set in the American south just before the Civil War, it is part blaxploitation movie, part homage to Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, and (as his last several movies have been) all spaghetti western.  Although I'm tempted to call it historical farce - or at the very least, nothing like a credible history lesson - its depiction of American slavery and the men who profited from it is brutal and disturbing.  There are whippings, scenes of torture, messy gun-shot wounds, and slaves forced to kill each other with their bare-hands.  The N-word is deployed countless dozens of times… There's been a lot of controversy about  that, but I think of how Mel Brooks defended its use in his 1974 classic Blazing Saddles by explaining that he used the word in a way that is historically correct:  The cowboys and town-folk all hated Sheriff Bart in that movie solely because of his race.  They wanted to denigrate and dehumanize him, so they called him "nigger," a word that we now interpret as showing bigotry and hatred on the part of those who use it.  The characters in Django are not timid about doing the same.

The general plot of the movie is relatively simple when you break it down, as I suppose all of Tarantino's plots really are at their core. As the picture opens, smooth-talking German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (played by Basterds' unforgettable Christoph Waltz) forcibly acquires the enslaved Django (Jamie Fox) in order to help him identify three wanted men who are worth a good deal of money.  Schultz's deal with Django is that he'll be rewarded with a percentage of the bounty plus his freedom once the men are bought in.  While on the hunt, Django shares that he is married to another slave (Kerry Washington), but their former owner found out and sold them to different plantations in an act of cruelty.  Schultz recognizes Django as an excellent marksman and a solid partner, and offers a further deal:  If he spends the winter working with him, collecting bounties and making money, in the spring he'll go to Mississippi with him and help him find his wife.  "Kill white people and get paid for it?," Django asks. "What's not to like?"

Although the main cast is generally fantastic, it's Leonardo DiCaprio as the particularly sadistic plantation owner Calvin Candie, and a nearly unrecognizable Samuel L. Jackson as his somehow even more terrifying head-slave Stephen that steal the movie.  The smaller roles are populated with various actors from cinema-past… such as Italian actor Franco Nero, who played the title role in an earlier, completely unrelated spaghetti western called Django from 1966, and Russ Tamblyn, sort-of reprising his title role from 1965's Son Of A Gunfighter alongside his daughter Amber Tamblyn, who is credited as "Daughter Of  A Son Of A Gunfighter" at the end.  These cameos largely provide in-jokes and references that completely sail past me unnoticed, as I have little more than casual knowledge of any of these pictures to begin with.

Part of the mystique of Tarantino's work during the 90s was that since he hadn't actually made that many movies yet, each one seemed to have an almost seismic impact on popular culture, and greatly influenced films that would be made for several years after (sometimes resulting in some fairly terrible movie trends indeed!).  A thought I had during Django is that now that he's making films a little more frequently (there have been five pictures since 2003 alone, vs. only three in the 90s), the power of a new one coming out feels a bit reduced, and his tricks and patterns are starting to become a little more detectable.  DiCaprio has a big, menacing speech at a dinner table about 3/4s of the way through Django that seems to have come from the same template Tarantino used to write David Carradine's big speech toward the end of Kill Bill Vol. 2, even with a few lines that are similar.  Both are dramatically excellent, mind you, but there are certain techniques - elliptical story-telling centering around a larger thematic point, et al - that are starting to feel like Tarantino standards rather than fresh surprises.

And here's something else… A Tarantino technique that has been used several times now is to have his characters allude to some big fight or a battle that's going to happen at some other location later... only to have the conflict abruptly end right then and there, usually with one character suddenly killing the other.  Early in Kill Bill Vol. 1, Uma Thurman and Vivica A. Fox agree to delay their fight to the death until that night so her daughter won't be around to witness it... only to have that agreement immediately broken with a drawn pistol.  Likewise, at the end of  Kill Bill Vol. 2, Thurman and Carradine determine that they should meet at a private beach to finish their business once and for-all, suggesting an epic battle royale to come… only to have her surprise him with the fabled five point palm-exploding heart technique.  There's a scene in the second half of Django that repeats this trick again:  Fox convinces his Australian captors that there's a large bounty to be collected if they help him kill or capture a group held-up at a nearby plantation, suggesting a big action scene that's about to happen there in the next scene.  The temptation is too great for the Australians, so they unlock his cage… and are immediately sorry that they did.  

My buddy Shaun saw the movie the same day I did, and commented that while he liked it a great deal, it felt like Tarantino was "genre-hopping" a bit.  (Remember what he did with WWII movies in Inglourious Basterds?  Well, he's doing it again in the pre-Civil War American south!).  I don't think that's entirely unfair, but again, I think he orchestrates it all for such satisfying and memorable payoff that his wearing of his influences on his sleeve doesn't really bother me.  In fact, it's a big part of the charm.  Tarantino's movies have always been made up of redigested bits of other movies as well as various incongruent nuggets of pop-culture.  I don't mind that his soundtracks are made up of songs and scores from other movies, for example, because he's perverted and repurposed them into some highly entertaining new context.

That kind of thing is essentially what his work is largely about anyway, be it with actors, dialogue, storylines, music or sound effects.  It's interesting because more than any other filmmaker who is working presently, his pictures, while they all have sustainable plots and very effective dramatic arcs on their own, are as much about the time that he himself spent watching genre movies on endless loops as a kid, as they are about whatever happens on screen.

December 27, 2012

Frankenweenie (12/27)

Lettergrade: C-

Tim Burton's stop-motion Frankenweenie, a feature length remake of his own 1984 short film of the same name, kinda bombed back when it was released in September. I think I understand why... I was reluctant to see it myself because I wasn't sure how a story about a boy bringing his recently deceased dog back to life ala the Frankenstein monster would be able to overcome its own premise's innate darkness and survive as a entertaining family movie. Now that I've seen it on DVD, I'm pretty convinced that indeed that is what sinks it. Well, that, I suppose, plus that it feels like a 25 minute idea stretched to a feature's length.

Long ago, I remember my buddy Duane saying that part of the reason that The Simpsons show had to be animated was because a big audience wouldn't be able to take a live-action depiction a family that was so negatively dysfunctional under its comedy veneer. I think the same principle (or rather an inversion of it) sort of applies to Frankenweenie. In the original live-action short film, it is perhaps a little easier to swallow the idea of Sparky getting hit by a car (and later dug up and resurrected by the little boy who owned him) because the dog is obviously an animal actor, the boy's line delivery is a little clunky, and the movie at large sort of plays like campy farce rather than something meant to be taken all that seriously.

Burton succeeded at making this new animated version more convincing and with a much bigger heart, but in a way those same qualities make the material a lot more problematic. The dog is able to express and emote a bit more, thanks to the personality and soul the animators give him, and as such it is more disturbing not only to see his death, but also to see his poorly stitched-together body walking around for much of the movie (although it should be noted that he seems perfectly happy to be doing so). Nevertheless, parts of Sparky routinely fall off and must be reattached throughout the film (successfully giving me a serious case of the willies) and the even creepier image I can't stop thinking about is when Sparky would swallow the flies that buzz around his rotting body, only to have have flies promptly escape through a loose stitching in his neck from where young Victor had surgically reattached his head! Any touch that makes the dog more "real" also made me think about what Victor had to do to bring him back, and simultaneously makes me think that this kid is fucked up beyond all description and needs to be placed under the care of some serious mental health professionals immediately.

And that goes double for the film's ending… I'll try to talk about it without giving much away, but suffice to say that at the end of a story like Frankenweenie, you might expect the sentiment to be something along the lines of, "hey you probably shouldn't dig up your dog who was hit by a car and then run excessive amounts of electricity through him in an attempt to reanimate his mangled corpse." You know... something about not messing with the natural order of life and death, kinda like in the original "Frankenstein" story and in the similarly themed Pet Cemetary (or even Jurassic Park), et al. Nothing of the sort happens, though. This is a film where there are zero consequences - legal or otherwise - or learned lessons at the end. The dog is still around - with the town's blessing, apparently - and no one's going to jail for the massive amount of property destruction that happened during the picture's 3rd act.

Does that really matter? Probably not to the movie's core audience, but I think it's a little sad that Burton had 28 years or so to think about what he might do with a feature-length version of this material, and it came time to do it, what wound up on screen is so limp. 2005's Corpse Bride wasn't as much fun as 1993's The Nightmare Before Christmas - Burton's first foray into feature-length stop-motion - but it made up for it with a better story and by being a better movie. Frankenweenie kinda runs out of juice early and never really justifies its expanded run time.

December 23, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook (12/23/2012)

Lettergrade: B

The early scenes of Silver Linings Playbook can be characterized by a highly irritating nervous twitchiness that's nearly intolerable to sit through. That's probably how director David O. Russell (The Fighter, Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees) wanted them to feel, though, and indeed they're very effective at getting you into the headspace of Bradley Cooper's Pat, who some months earlier caught his wife showering with another man and flew into a violent rampage followed by a complete mental breakdown.

Newly released from an institution in upstate Pennsylvania, Pat moves back in with his parents and tries to put his life back together through a combination of exercise, treatment and therapy... although he desperately yearns to make some kind of contact with his ex-wife (prohibited by court order). His friends lure him to an unannounced dinner date with Jennifer Lawrence, who is also struggling to get along after her cop husband was killed in the line of duty a year or two earlier while they were in the midst of some martial trouble. Cooper and Lawrence are far too hostile and unstable with eachother to be a couple, but she tells Pat that she actually runs into his ex every now and again, and will pass one of his letters to her (illegally) if he agrees to participate in a dance contest that her husband always refused to do with her.

Sorry… I actually hate reducing the general storyline of a movie like this to a few short sentences that don't really do it justice. The strength of this movie is in the actors' excellent performances and the way in which Russell stages everything rather than what gets you from point A to B. I liked the movie quite a bit, and really appreciated that it very ruthlessly goes against one's expectations and veers into some fairly dark territory at times, but I had some big, big issues with the last third or so.

During the first part of the movie, I wondered how The Weinstein Company could really justify marketing this thing as a romantic comedy. Eventually, I got my answer via a scene that marked the pictures' abrupt turn into fairly standard Hollywood product territory and kinda broke my heart in the process. Pat's dad (played by Robert De Niro, making a rare appearance in a movie that isn't completely terrible) has built up a good amount of gambling debt, you see, and so Jennifer Lawrence for some utterly inexplicable reason convinces his bookie to go "double or nothing" on "the big contest" which just happens to take place in the last part of the movie.

Now that's pretty bad, but what I think is worse is that at the end of the movie, Cooper and Lawrence seem to be completely stable and normal… as if all their struggles with mental health have vanished. So in the end, I guess this is David O. Russell's take on a bullshit Hollywood romantic comedy, but it seems so tragic that a movie which contains some disturbing early scenes detailing what effect fragile mental health can have on a life and family relationships eventually offers "find a pretty girl to take dance classes with" as a solution.

But damn… I hate doing this, too: Bagging on a unique movie that is worth seeing for many reasons, even if it is a little erratic and misshapen, and the end feels like a bit of a cop-out. Suffice to say that in spite of my petty bitchings, I'm glad that I saw it and would happily recommend that you do the same.

I'm not sure I agree with all the Academy Awards nominations it got (apart from the ones for acting and editing), but it's quite intriguing for much of its runtime, and I cannot think of many movies I've seen from 2012 that can say the same.

December 4, 2012

Hitchcock (12/04/2012)

Lettergrade: C-

I'm as big a fan of the films of Alfred Hitchcock as anybody who reasoned that a bachelor's degree primarily made up of film survey courses was a surefire way to pave the way for a bright and prosperous future, but I can't say that Sacha Gervasi's new movie Hitchcock really does either the man or his work justice.

Ostensibly, this is a movie about the trouble Hitchcock had making what would be one of his signature films, 1960's Psycho.  It also, I suppose, attempts a psychological profile of the man himself - of his various kinks and obsessions - and ventures to explain some of what motivates him.  The most screen time, however, probably goes to the film's sort-of love story between Hitchcock and his wife/creative partner Alma Reville, whom the film asserts was the key to and secret behind Hitch's amazing success.

Of those, I think the film fails a bit on all counts but the last one.  It is full of fine performances, don't get me wrong, but the whole thing feels a bit "surfacy"… as if we're getting a good deal of trivia and reenactment, but not a lot of enlightenment.  Anthony Hopkins plays Hitchcock, and although he looks the part with help from a fat suit and some Howard Berger prosthetics, he never truly stops feeling like the caricature that my generation may know from catching reruns of Alfred Hitchcock Presents on Nick At Nite.

Hitchcock could be the most talked about and heavily studied filmmaker in our brief history of cinema, and therein might be the problem.  More than any filmmaker I can think of, Hitchcock's motivations, kinks and obsessions are clear by simply watching a few of his key movies.  Although Psycho is probably the film he's best remembered for, it's tough to make a case that it's the most interesting one he made or that it's the one which is the most revealing of psyche.

The film alludes to Alma's distress over her husband's obsession with a certain type of blond actress, but this is something that began to show itself well before Psycho was made, and which got a hell of a lot creepier a little later in his career.  Jessica Biel (as Vera Miles) says at one point late in this new movie, "You know that poor, tortured soul Jimmy Stewart played in Vertigo? That's Hitch, only younger, slimmer and better-looking."  Vertigo, released two years before Psycho in 1958, stars Jimmy Stewart as a private detective who falls in love with the woman he's keeping a tail on.  After she dies, he eventually meets another woman who happens to look a lot like her, and gradually tries to turn her into the woman he's lost... giving her similar clothes, having her style her hair the same way, etc.  The two films Hitch made after PsychoThe Birds and Marnie... both starred Tippi Hedren, who Hitch had plucked out of relative obscurity and attempted to turn into his "ultimate" leading lady.  Historians note that during the production of Marnie in particular, Alma was heard apologizing to Hedren for her husband's behavior on more than one occasion, and Hedren has been pretty vocal about her dislike for Hitch in the years since.

So if we're talking about Hitchcock as a picture that's supposed to adequately detail this aspect of Hitch, I would argue that the scope is a bit too narrow.  I must say that it does not work for me as an informative history of the making of the classic film either.  After 1959's wildly entertaining North By Northwest, Hitchcock thought it might be interesting to make a horror picture using a more sparse, star-free aesthetic.  Paramount, which still had Hitch under contract, didn't want to make it, so the Hitchcocks mortgaged their house to pay for the production themselves, utilizing many of his collaborators from Presents (rather than his normal feature film team), and shooting the picture on a tight schedule.  All this is interesting, but is seeing a dramatic reenactment of this stuff more interesting than reading the trivia section on  I would argue that it isn't.  And you know… whatever difficulties Hitch had in making this movie, he was still a big marquee-name director who was near the high point of his enormously successful career, working within the studio system.  It's hard to think of this as much of an underdog story.

The movie consistently feels like it's "not enough."  The hiring of Joseph Stefano to write the screenplay is reduced to a brief, awkward job interview, followed by a close up on a script page informing us that he got the job.  Shockingly, Stefano is played by a totally unrecognizable Ralph Macchio (of The Karate Kid and My Cousin Vinny fame!).  If his character is present in the background of later scenes, I sure didn't notice him.  Similarly, the editing and scoring of the picture are blown through at warp speed.  At one point, a few lines are exchanged between Hitch and "Benny" about whether or not there should be music during the murder scene in the shower.  An informed viewer might quickly understand that this is composer Bernard Herrmann and the piece of music that wound up in the scene is probably one of the most famous and imitated in modern film music, but the scene is over before there's much time to think about it.  I suspect touchstone moments like this will be somewhat lost on those who do not already know a little about the making of Psycho.  And if you do know a little about the making of Psycho, I have to wonder what much of this movie is saying that you don't already know.

Screen time is frittered away detailing an association that Alma may-or-may-not have had with a writer named Whitfield Cook, who tries to persuade Alma to help him revise his novel into something that Hitch will make into a movie... while Hitch himself watches from the sidelines growing increasingly suspicious.  Numerous other sequences have Hitch imagining conversations with Ed Gein, the real-life serial killer profiled in Robert Bloch's "Psycho" book, loosely used as the foundation for the screenplay.

I'm unsure if either of these things have much basis in what Hitchcock and his wife were really going through during the making of Psycho, but even if that stuff did happen, I question how the film makes use of it.  If Alma's relationship with Whit did exist, wouldn't it be more interesting to see it only from Hitch's perspective (that is, from the point of view of a jealous husband watching his wife quasi-flirt with another man across the parking lot) than it is to sit through lengthy scenes of Alma and Whit working on his screenplay together?   We'd be robbed some damn fine acting from Helen Mirren, sure, (really, she's the most interesting thing about the movie by far) but isn't the film's title Hitchcock and aren't we supposed to be seeing a story about him?

The supporting cast is quite stellar... especially Scarlett Johansson who does a pretty uncanny Janet Leigh impersonation and James D'Arcy who has Anthony Perkins' look and mannerisms down pat.  Michael Stuhlbarg plays Hitch's agent (and future MCA mogul) Lew Wasserman, and Toni Collette steals a scene or two as Hitch's long-suffering personal assistant Peggy.

The real heart of the picture, though, is clearly Mirren.  I suppose that overall you could say that this is a picture about Hitch and Alma falling apart and then coming back together again.  That's fine for a fictionalized movie, maybe, but anyone who knows a little about the real Hitch and Alma know that her frustration dramatized by this movie would continue on for years to come.  This movie kind of suggests that all is resolved once Psycho comes out and becomes a big hit.

Certain key bits of Hitch's dialogue feel like they were probably taken from statements that the director is known to have said (or to have thought) throughout his career.  Sometimes he's rude, sometimes he's dismissive, and sometimes he's a little harsh, but there's always a lilt of devilish glee there - perhaps with a little more malevolence in Hopkins' portrayal than was present in the genuine article himself, who had a somewhat kinder and dopier face than that of his counterpart here.  Nevertheless, for a supposedly biographical picture that bears his name, I feel like it leans a little more heavily on bumper-sticker quotes than on substance.  Maybe there wasn't more much more to Hitch in private than the slightly goofy TV host who underlined words like "fieeeeendish!" and never missed an opportunity for a pun, but I suppose I find it hard to believe that the guy's behavior when he was in his bathtub at home wasn't that different than how he acted and spoke when he was on television.

December 2, 2012

Brave (12/02/2012)

Lettergrade: C-

As I've mentioned in other posts, the arrival of our son 10 months ago has knee-capped our trips out to see current movies at the cinema, in addition to limiting our knowledge of what many recent movies are even about.

In some ways, this is a great thing:  You sit down to watch a flick with very few expectations about what you're in for, largely because you haven't seen a ton of trailers which reveal key aspects in advance.  My sister Sarah sometimes talks about how seeing The Matrix when she was living overseas in 1999 was amazing because she knew virtually nothing about it beforehand.  The flip-side of this, though, is that the early scenes of a movie can kind of set expectations that the rest of the movie doesn't follow or entirely live up to.  I'll never forget when I took my friend Ryan to see 1995's From Dusk Til Dawn...  He really enjoyed the first 40 minutes or so - where it looked like the picture was a gritty thriller about two brothers who kidnap a pastor and his family in an attempt to get across the border into Mexico.  Of course, midway though everyone arrives at a mysterious bar that happens to be a hang-out for the undead, and the film suddenly erupts into an uber-violent vampire slaughter picture ala Evil Dead 2.  Moments after the "turn" happened, I remember looking over at my buddy who was completely slack-jawed.  "This just became the stupidest movie I've ever seen," he said, and he hasn't let me live it down since.

Now, I bring all this up because we watched Pixar's Brave over the weekend, knowing virtually nothing about it in advance.  At first, it appeared to be about the fiery and independent daughter of a medieval Scottish king who does not want to be forced to marry a prince from one of the other tribes.  It was a little slap-sticky for my tastes, but I was surprised by how interested I was in the story of Merida (voiced by the ever-fetching Kelly MacDonald) and that I really cared about her right to make her own choices in life and to choose her own path.

None that ultimately mattered, though, because about 35 minutes in, the movie totally shifts gears and becomes a full-blown fairy tale, complete with an ambiguous witch and all sorts of other fantastical shit that has nothing to do with the earlier storyline at all.  I was pretty ho-hum on the "second" movie... like my friend Ryan so many years earlier, I would have really liked to see where the first one was going instead.  Was the fantastical stuff in the trailers?  Had I seen them, would I have been braced for what was coming?  Unsure, but regardless I found myself a bit unsatisfied by what actually came.

And my wife pointed out something curious... when Merida asks the witch for help in changing her parents' rigid view that she marry a royal son of another tribe, the witch responds by giving her a magic pastry that, unbeknowst to Merida, will turn her mother into a bear.  Huh?  Later in the movie we find out that there was some other asshole in the past who came to the witch and asked to have "the strength of ten men!," to which she replied by also giving him a magic pastry that turned him into a bear.  So that's it, is it?  Anytime anyone comes to this woman asking for help, a baked good that turns someone into a bear will be the universal fix-all, will it?  What bullshit.  Sounds to me like she suspiciously really only has this one trick.

And then later, I guess it's supposed to be a big reveal that it's this earlier bear who mauled off the leg of Merida's father (voiced by the wonderful Billy Connolly) in the prologue of the movie... as if that's supposed to be some kind of meaningful bombshell to the overall story.  Once the "mom-bear" shows up later, the dad leads a blood-thirsty mob against the bear with the intention of brutally killing it upon capture.  My buddy Shaun said that his five year old was extremely disturbed by this aspect of the plot, and I've got to admit that I, a 34 year old, found it to be pretty dark and fucked up myself.

But wait, let's end on some positive notes here...  Um, the animation was really amazing and pretty.  And I appreciate that they got a lot of "actually Scottish" actors to do the voices, and a real Scotsman to write the music.  And I guess it was only 85 minutes or so, making it significantly shorter and nowhere near as excruciating as Pixar's last movie, 2011's puerile Cars 2.  So... you know... all that's good, but jeeeeeeeeeesus does the story get weird.

July 29, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (7/29/2012)

Lettergrade: C

I liked The Dark Knight Rises well enough while watching it, I suppose, but nevertheless something about it felt really "off."  As time goes on and I think back through the various scenes and plot turns, that feeling only intensifies... the whole thing makes less sense to me, and the "whats," "whys," and "hows" of the movie grow steadily more baffling and less satisfying.  It concludes the series, no doubt about that, but in order to get there it amps everything up to a preposterously epic scale that feels completely out of step with the other movies in the series.

Now I thought Batman Begins was good when it came out in 2005, but it didn't necessarily feel like the Batman I knew as a kid right away.  This is the part where I should admit, as I feel I have to in pretty much every blog post I've written this summer, that I'm not a comic book reader at all.  I mostly know Batman from his other films, from the terrific animated series that was on in the 90s, and from the classic Adam West rendering from the 60s, which, while not faithful to the source material at all, was (and still is) a hell of a lot of fun.

But anyway, if Begins didn't entirely sell me on director Christopher Nolan's take on the material, its sequel - 2008's fantastic The Dark Knight - is what turned me into a believer.  I probably saw it 4 or 5 times in theaters (including twice in IMAX, where the 65mm footage was completely thrilling), and whenever I've tried to revisit the Tim Burton movies from the late 80s / early 90s in the years since, I find them almost unbearably thin and simplistic by comparison.  Nolan's Dark Knight kinda redefined what Batman was for me, and even made Begins seem like a better picture after the fact... a rare case where a sequel pulls that off.

If there's a downside to liking a movie as much as I liked that one, however, it's that any potential follow-up has nowhere to go but down, almost to point where I was kinda hoping they would not attempt one.  I tried to be cognizant of that when we went to go see the third picture this weekend, but I am convinced that multiple aspects of it would have still rubbed me the wrong way regardless.

Rises starts some eight years after the events of the previous movie.  New legislation enacted after the murder of Harvey Dent (who became the villainous Two Face toward the end of the second movie, unbeknownst to the general public) has made organized crime in the city practically disappear, and Batman himself has disappeared along with it.  The reclusive Bruce Wayne hasn't been seen publicly in years, and mostly limps around the recently rebuilt Wayne manor, suffering from the emotional and physical effects of the last movie.  He's drawn back into action, however, when the sinister Conrad Bain arrives in Gotham, and puts a plan in motion that ultimately allows him to recreate the exact same scenario from Escape From New York: Quarantining the city off from the rest of the United States by blowing up all the tunnels and bridges so no one can leave, etc, and essentially holding everyone at ransom.

Now, it's that last bit (the "taking-the-whole-city-hostage-for-months-on-end" thing) that totally lost me.  While I didn't find Bane or Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle / Catwoman to be terribly interesting baddies, it's the size and scope of what they're up to in this picture that seemed to betray the more reality-based spirit of the earlier films and take the movie into "bullshit summer time-filler" territory.  In fact, this whole aspect of the movie undercuts one of the most interesting decisions that Nolan made with the earlier two pictures: To discard anything relating to the series' lore that was fantasy-based or even mildly supernatural or far-fetched, and to instead concentrate on grounding Bruce Wayne / Batman in as real of a modern urban environment as possible in which there could still plausibly be a costumed vigilante crime-fighter with a bunch of cool gadgets.

Now, none of the Nolan Batman movies have entirely pulled this off (part 1 opens with a lengthy segment where a billionaire ex-pat trains with a bunch of ninjas in a remote mountain-top lair, for fuck's sake), but in The Dark Knight especially, the view we get into the corrupt inner-workings of Gotham City politics and its police department felt sleek, modern, and real enough, as does the irrational way in which the citizens panic when the Joker's relatively modest attacks on the public start to heat up.  The Gotham City mafia in the first two movies largely consists of Tom Wilkinson and then Eric Roberts putting on the most stereotypical Italian accents imaginable, and yet there's still something there that felt very real and relevant to the cities of today... as if at least some of it could happen..  There was an omnipresent dread in the air, as if all judges and government officials had been bought off everywhere and anyone can be gotten to just by making a call.

That earlier Nolan take on Batman was effective because it existed in the framework of a city that felt more plausible than the Burton / Schumacher films.  This new one doesn't.  It exists in fantasy land:  Where there are flying cars, and you can apparently create massive tunnels under a major metropolitan area and pack them with explosives without any of the utility workers noticing, and where there's a secret prison on the other side of the world that you can get to and from instantly and without explanation (and which also has electricity and cable television, somehow).

Another overall comment is that although the picture is quite long, it also feels like it is missing a great deal of connective tissue that might have better sold what was happening.  Let's pick on the title character again... to recap, Bruce Wayne is supposedly completely wrecked after the events of the last movie (although he didn't seem that beaten up to me when the end credits rolled last time).  Bruce hadn't been Batman or even spent much time out in public for EIGHT YEARS, but seems to return to both with almost casual ease in the course of a single afternoon in this movie, in spite of how extreme his injuries apparently were.  Once he decides to be Batman again, the movie very easily slides into "bat-business as usual" for a while, as if very little time has passed since he had last prowled around the city fighting crime.  No readjustment period, nothing... just right back into it.

And although I don't want get into too much minutia here, there are several big questions that I keep wondering about… So Bruce retreated into a reclusive shell, but was apparently still working on a massive energy project at the same time that just happens to figure prominently into the second half of the movie, huh?  Why did Wayne Enterprises CEO Lucius Fox keep making expensive Bat-gear between this movie and the previous one?  It is established way early in the movie that Wayne Enterprises is having significant financial problems, and furthermore Bruce was very adamant that he was retired from vigilante crime fighting...  Seems like Lucius was pissing away an ungodly amount of cash on the off chance that Bruce didn't really mean it.  On the night that Batman returns to action - when he breaks up the Bane's positively ludicrous heist of the New York Stock Exchange (which now seems to be in Gotham City, by the way) - how did Batman have the clairvoyance to park his new hover-car in a random alley downtown just in case he might need it?  When Bruce Wayne loses all his money, how come his car is repossessed and the electricity is turned off his mansion within, like, a couple hours?

Bane himself, played by Tom Hardy with a voice that falls somewhere between Patrick Stewart's and Goldmember from Austin Powers 3, is an empty shell of a character who spouts bullshit platitudes about "starting fires" and "people rising up" endlessly.  It's a weird anti-rich sentiment that oddly mirrors 2011's "Occupy" movement, but with none of the substance or logic.  There's a positively ridiculous scene where he releases most of the inmates of Gotham City Prison and stands atop a van giving a lengthy and long-winded speech that I could barely comprehend because I fixed on how undeniably stupid he looked while giving it.  

Plus, both in that scene and elsewhere, what he was talking about didn't make any sense, and by "giving Gotham back to the people" he mostly meant all the criminals, but only long enough so Bane and his cohorts could blow the whole thing up in anyway.  Why did he want to create some sort of class uprising when the end-goal was just to destroy the city?  Why didn't he just do that as soon as he had the quarantined off the city and had the doomsday device he needed instead of giving Batman so much time to regroup?

Anyway, I don't know... Perhaps the most damning thing I can say about The Dark Knight Rises is that I looked forward to seeing for years, and I typically don't feel that way about comic book movies or summer tent-pole product anymore.  Now that I've seen it once, however, I can't really envision any scenario anywhere down the line where I'd want to take three hours to sit through it again.

Check out my post on The Dark Knight from 2008 here.

And read this parody from although the guy who wrote it said he really liked the movie, I think it's the most concise road map of everything about this movie that doesn't add up or entirely make sense:

Oh, and when you've done all that, watch this:

May 25, 2012

Men In Black 3 (05/25/2012)

Lettergrade: C+

I recently caught part of the first Men In Black on cable and was surprised that the film holds up surprisingly well after all these years. I think part of the reason I originally liked it in 1997 was that it's essentially a straight ahead (albeit relatively thin) cops-and-criminals story with the added element of amusing space aliens hiding between the cracks of the world we know. Since all the original MIB agents were recruited in the 60s, they were all growing old and needed some new blood in the mix to keep the organization going... thus the recruitment of Will Smith's character, allowing the film to run a few plays from the "fish out of water" stylebook and to work in frequent smart-assed asides ala Bill Murray in Ghostbusters.

Mid-way through Men In Black 3, I realized that the reason neither of the Men In Black sequels have done much for me is because these are characters and situations that were never really designed to last much longer than that original film's 90 minute runtime. Since the first one was so successful, it was a no brainer that more movies would follow, but the closer look you get at the whole Men In Black world, the less interesting the whole thing is. Particularly once Will Smith is a well adjusted MIB agent, the value of having him in the part at all is greatly reduced.

This new one isn't nearly as aggressively shitty as 2002's Men In Black II, but whereas the first picture felt like a throwback to the big and cinematic Amblin pictures of the 80s, both sequels have felt a little more like TV movies in terms of scale and the quality of the writing.

The picture started shooting in November of 2010 with only part of the script "locked" in order to take advantage of some New York state tax breaks that were set to expire at the end of the year. The movie then shut down for many months in 2011 while Will Smith, director Barry Sonnenfeld, and producer Walter Parkes argued about what the rest of the movie should be. As many as six major screenwriters came and went - although only one, Tropic Thunder's Etan Cohen, ultimately received credit - and at one point Sony reportedly considered scrapping the movie altogether and eating the costs.

The resulting movie, in which Smith's Agent J follows an alien prison escapee back through time to prevent him from assassinating the younger version of partner Tommy Lee Jones, now played by a wildly entertaining Josh Brolin, doesn't feel as criminally slapped together as the above would imply. The picture is quite good whenever Brolin is on screen doing his best Jones impression, and it's surprisingly great whenever A Serious Man's Michael Stuhlbarg, playing a new alien who is able to see all possible futures at once, has a scene. Flight Of The Conchords' Jemaine Clement is unrecognizable therefore feels a bit wasted as the movie's big bad, and although the movie is amusing, it's rare that it gets the big laughs of the original or even conveys a similar sense of wonder or imagination.

Ultimately, I'm not sure that Men In Black 3 is a movie that has a good reason for existing (other than profits for Sony Pictures, of course), but as far as cash-grab sequels go, you could do a lot worse.

More thoughts about the franchise... In 1997, the comparisons were mainly to 1984's Ghostbusters and that's not far off, up to and including how terrible the eventual "part 2"s were for each (both of which happened to be made exactly five years after the first).

At the time, I remember people commenting that the film's 90 some minute running time was almost too short, a rare complaint for a movie these days. Now that I'm a little older, it's clear to me that they ended the movie just before things started to get stupid. Or to put it another way, one of my favorite movies as a teenager was Sam Raimi's third entry in the Evil Dead series, Army Of Darkness. The American edit of the film is around 78 minutes or so, I think, while the version that played in Europe is more like 94, containing many deleted scenes and extended sequences. Being a fan, I sought the longer version out when it finally hit the States, and was very surprised by how much less I liked it. The film at 79 minutes is taught, clever, and hilarious. At 94, it's bloated, flabby and borderline unwatchable.

There's something to be said for understanding what your A material is, and then getting the hell out of the way before people get bored. The original Men In Black understood this… II and to a lesser degree part 3 do not.

Check out this Hollywood Reporter article on how MIB3 started shooting without a script.

May 5, 2012

The Avengers (05/05/2012)

Lettergrade: B

I haven't had much time to go to movies since our son was born in February, but to honest with you, there haven't been many of them all spring that I've really wanted to see anyway. I've known for a while, however, that the fast would likely be broken by The Avengers - Marvel's somewhat unprecedented superhero circle jerk movie which brings together Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America, and Thor (among others) into one movie that the other movies have been semi-meticulously setting up for a couple years now.

The cool thing is that they got most of the lead actors who appeared in the earlier movies to reprise their roles in this one (minus Edward Norton, who played The Incredible Hulk in 2008, but was replaced by Marvel as this film ramped up amid allegations that he's an Incredible Asshole to work with). In addition, the movie features Jeremy Renner, Scarlett Johansson and Clark Gregg (who each appeared in some of the earlier Marvel movies) and Samuel L. Jackson, who appeared in them all.

I was surprised by what a talky movie this is, but that's not entirely unexpected, I suppose, as writer/director Joss Whedon (of Buffy The Vampire Slayer fame) was hired to make it. I'm not a comic book reader, but as a movie goer, I found how he brought the characters together to be really satisfying and a hell of a lot of fun. I love crossover stuff. I always have. I loved it whenever the girls from The Facts Of Life would visit Arnold and Willis on Dif'frent Strokes. I just about lost my shit when Cliff and Norm from Cheers had a layover in the Wings airport, and I flocked to see both Alien Vs. Predator movies, despite the fact that of the earlier six movies in which the Alien or the Predator appeared, I really only like the first Predator and think the others in both franchises are pretty terrible.

Nevertheless, as The Avengers begins, the Cosmic Cube, which played a major role in 2011's Captain America, opens up and allows Loki, the half space God / Frost Giant villain who was lost in another dimension at the end of Thor (also from 2011) to come to Earth. Apparently, he fell in with a bad crowd of inter-dimensional space aliens while lost in space-time (as one would), and made a deal wherein he'll get them to Earth in exchange for a bunch of power or freedom or something.

Jackson's Nick Fury showed up in the other Marvel movies (usually around the end credits) to try to recruit each superhero to work on a special project for S.H.I.E.L.D. (Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division or Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate, depending on which entry you believe on Wikipedia). The "Avengers Initiative" was pitched as a contingency plan in case the world ever fell into some serious shit, and when Loki shows up at the beginning of the flick, it's clear that the time has come to put it in motion.

I think Whedon understood that the pleasure of the film would be found in seeing these big superhero personalities and egos bump up against each other, and for the film's first 90 minutes or so, he delivers many highly entertaining segments wherein that exact thing happens. The film's third act devolves into a fairly standard orgy of computer generated violence which left me a little cold, despite the fact that Whedon was able to punctuate the sequence with individual character moments that gave the action a bit more personality than the norm.

The spectacle of the whole package is worth whatever trouble it may take to see, however, and the fact that the picture started to sag and drag a bit toward the end didn't actually bother me much in the grand scheme of things.  When I think about it, though, all the Marvel movies sure do seem to have kind of lackluster action climaxes...

I should make clear, i guess, that when I say "Marvel movie", I mean the movies that Marvel has produced directly... not the Marvel characters who had been licensed by various studios and have been overseen by big-gun producers and directors: Fox's ongoing X-Men movies... Sony's Spider-Man flicks and the upcoming reboot, Ang Lee's Hulk (which I rather liked), Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider, the one where Ben Affleck plays the blind lawyer who is kind of like Batman, and a number of others that I'm too lazy to look up or remember.

No, I'm talking about the ones that Marvel has been funding and controlling themselves, starting with 2008's Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, continuing with 2010's terrible Iron Man 2, 2011's Captain America and Thor, and now The Avengers. The directors they've hired for each of these movies have been interesting... They're usually guys who aren't known for summer blockbusters, which has been good for the engaging character aspects of the films, but bad for the action sequences and spectacle stuff... which in each case has tended to feel a little haphazard and chaotic.

The lone exception has been Captain America's Joe Johnston, an experienced hand who had previously made The Rocketeer, Jumanji and Jurassic Park III among others. A former concept artist on early Steven Spielberg and George Lucas pictures, Johnson is easily the most visual of the Marvel directors, but even so, Captain suffered from the same sort of anemic action and a similar exhaustive more-is-more climax as the other Marvel endeavors have - a consistent trait which I think says more about Marvel's management of these pictures than about the individual artists involved.

For their next Thor, they've hired TV director Alan Taylor, and for the next Captain America, they've gotten Anthony and Joe Russo, who were the directing producers on the first three seasons of NBC's Community and Arrested Development, among other shows. All these guys will likely bring a lot of visual flair to the table, but I'm worried that in hiring relatively inexperienced first-time feature directors for their big summer tent poles, Marvel is more concerned with finding inexpensive directors they can push around than they are with doing what might result in the best possible movie.

I really liked The Avengers when I saw it, but sitting here now, the details are hazy and the specific scenes and themes that have stuck with me are kinda sparse.  I still walked away with positive feelings, you understand, but I'm not necessarily itching to sit down and watch the whole thing again.

Here are my entries on the other Marvel movies... Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America.

And the "non-Marvel" Marvel movies I've caught over the years: the hilariously bad Ghost Rider and Spider-Man 3, and the fourth and fifth entries in the X-Men franchise, Wolverine and X-Men: First Class.

January 1, 2012

2011: The Movies I Actually Got Around To Seeing

There were some really good movies in 2011(and of course some really not-good movies), but my main feeling looking back is that this was a year where my interest in going out to the cinema each week dropped considerably, perhaps indicating that I'm starting to grow up on some minuscule level (although it's probably just a coincidence). There are many culprits for this: An exceedingly busy work schedule, my cable news addiction (made worse by the Herman Cain campaign for President this fall), the fact that a lot of movies in 2011 just didn't seem that appealing, and then of course, that my wife - my most frequent movie partner - became pregnant midway through the year.

This last one, of course, had the most significant impact for many reasons. Once you find out you're going to be a parent, important life-questions like, "Is it really worth 50 bucks and three hours of life to see fucking Cars 2?" become way more relevant. Although we have yet to do so, I'm pretty sure the answer to that one would have been a crisp, definitive "no." In practice, our total number of consumed movies in 2011 was only a little smaller than the year before, but somehow it feels like much of the time we simply chose to do other things that were more rewarding.

On that note, the act of going out to busy theaters and sitting in crappy seats for two some hours sounded a lot less comfortable to her and seemed like a big hassle to both of us. We were perfectly happy to watch flicks at home later... on DVD, BluRay or industry screeners, of which we luckily got several this year.
I know that's not the right way to see big-ass spectacles like Hugo or The Adventures Of Tintin: Secret Of The Unicorn or It's A Very Harold And Kumar 3D Christmas, but hey we take it how we can get it, and it's probably a sign of life-to-be anyway, once our son is out and demanding attention. He'll be about five months old in July, meaning the timing will be juuuuust about right for us to take him to his first movie: The Dark Knight Rises in IMAX. We're planning to go to the midnight showing, which hopefully means he'll be a little more sleepy and therefore not as much of a bother to the other viewers. I'll be sure to let you all know how it works out.

Anyway, here's a quick and dirty ranking of what I saw… I've ordered the whole list from the ones I enjoyed most to the ones I enjoyed least, with handy dividers in between.

No movie in 2011 stuck with me with like director Mike Mills' semi-auto-biographical picture about the time period after his mom died and his father came out of the closet. Unlike other pictures that have very imaginative stylization, this one doesn't buckle under the weight of its own quirk. The picture freely jumps around in time, largely between the year or two leading up to Christopher Plummer's character's death, and the year or two after, but I was really blown away by how Mills tells the story in an unusual way without ever hitting an emotionally untrue beat. I realized when I saw it back in June that it would probably be high up on my list of best movies for 2011, and in fact nothing else ever got close to unseating it.

Paul Giamatti plays a buried-in-debt lawyer and high school wrestling coach who winds up in charge of a troubled run-away. It's not a groundbreaking movie, really (nor is it one that necessarily needs to be seen in the theater), but the thing that struck me about this one is that 10-15 years ago, a good comedic-drama about middle aged people with middle-aged problems featuring top notch actors like Giamatti, Amy Ryan, and the highly underrated Bobby Cannavale might not have had as much trouble getting studio backing and a wide release. This picture didn't really have either (although Fox Searchlight picked it up and gave it a limited run), which I think is a sad sign of the times.

Mission: Impossible: Ghost: Protocol
I'm usually of the mind that anything with the number "4" at the end of it is an artistically bankrupt cash grab on the part of those involved (see Indiana Jones 4, Star Wars: Episode 1, Taboo IV, or Pirates Of The Caribbean 4 at the end of this list). Nevertheless, director Brad Bird bested the three previous entries in the series with some of the most exciting action sequences I've seen in a movie in years (and all on a smaller budget than the other films had).

Midnight In Paris
I'm not much of a Woody Allen guy, honestly, but found this one to be atypically focused, coherent, and by my standards, at least, very pleasurable. Owen Wilson makes a surprisingly delightful Allen surrogate, and the picture has the feeling of one of those old short stories that the director used to write for publications like The New Yorker or Playboy, in addition to existing as beautiful love-letter to the cultural Paris of eld in its own right.

The Descendants
I didn't like this movie as much as several of Alexander Payne's previous films, but I still really liked it. Election, About Schmidt and Sideways all found ways to bring interesting levity to some very dark subject material. This one, a character drama set in Hawaii about Clooney bonding with his daughters and coming to terms with the recent news that his comatose wife was seeing another man and was preparing to leave him before her accident, has moments of that too, but is appropriately a very somber affair, overall. There are stellar performances from Clooney and the show-stealing Shailene Woodley as his older daughter, and a few absolutely electric dramatic scenes in the last part of the film, but the whole thing didn't quite make it into my top tier for the year for some reason. I hear from people who vote on such things that it's got a good shot at winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards, if only because nothing better ever came along, and that wouldn't necessarily bother me. Interesting trivia is that the film was co-written by Jim Rash, who also plays Dean Pelton on Community. If the film wins Best Screenplay, I really hope he does his acceptance speech in character.

X-Men: First Class
I've got a soft spot for X-Men movies. As such, I'm not sure how good this picture really is, but if nothing else, I enjoyed watching it immensely. First Class reboots the franchise a bit and tells the untold story of how mutants both precipitated and then prevented the Cuban Missile Crisis (suck it, Thirteen Days). I thought it was a little weird that the movie only kept continuity with the other movies when it wanted to, but I'm also very glad that it was not entirely beholden to them. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender weren't trying to do imitations of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, instead playing Professor X and Magneto as enthusiastic young men with very different world views. I think that was very effective and 100% the right way to go. I love all the 60s retro James Bond stuff, but thought it was a little weird that January Jones appeared in yet another 60s role that's almost as evil as her Betty Draper character on Mad Men.

The Ides Of March
I thought the movie lost a bit of its potency in its second half, when the sex scandal stuff seemed to usurp the fairly grim commentary about the ugliness of the U.S. political process.

The Help
We caught a screener of this a month or two back… Although I was surprised by how much liked the movie, I can't shake the feeling that it is still a pretty tame Disneyfied version of what it was like to be black in the 1960s south. Nevertheless, there were some great performances from Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, although it freaked me out to see Bryce Dallas Howard and Jessica Chastain, two actresses that I can barely tell apart in the first place, playing opposite each other in the same movie. If Amy Adams and Isla Fisher had appeared in competing roles as well, I think I would have completely lost my shit.

The Muppets
The first Muppet production since Jim Henson's death in 1990 where the characters are as funny and as delightful as they were in 60s, 70s, and 80s. It's not my favorite of the Muppet movies (that's still a tie between The Great Muppet Caper, The Muppets Take Manhattan, and Henson's last project, Disneyland's MuppetVision 3D attraction), but it has the same spirit as those movies, and praises be for that.

The Tree Of Life
I'm just not sure where to put this one, so I'm parking it here. Equal parts unforgettably beautiful and excruciatingly oblique. I've thought about this movie a lot since I've seen it, really, and with time I believe what Terence Malick was trying to do with it has seemed richer and more clear to me. That said, however, I would never want to sit through it again, and I would not really recommend that anyone else do the same.

Your Highness
I'm pretty sure I'm the only guy who is putting this one on any kind of "good" list, but I swear that this thoroughly bizarre parody of early 80s sword-and-sorcery epics like Ladyhawke, Krull, and The Dark Crystal is really funny. I'm not much of a fan of Danny McBride, to be honest with you, but a late night BluRay viewing with low expectations somehow resulted in me enjoying the hell out of this very strange movie.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
I never read the late Stieg Larsson's "Millennium Trilogy" books, but I saw the three Swedish films which were based on them and released in the U.S. in 2010: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest. David Fincher's American remake features a wonderful cast led by current James Bond Larry Craig and newcomer Mara Rooney, and thankfully retains the Swedish setting of the books. Oddly the film doesn't feel substantially different from the earlier movies until about an hour and forty-five in, when we get to the picture's climax. Fincher stages that beautifully, but during the whole first 2/3rd, I had a strange malaise like I was watching a movie that I was already really familiar with. That's not Fincher's fault or the film's fault, but a product, I guess, of having already seen a faithful adaptation of the material previously.

I feel bad, but I just didn't feel a connection to this movie the way many others apparently did (see the comment section on my original post about it!), and I'm sure I'll catch more shit for placing it closer to the center of my list than to the top of it. Although the film is unquestionably beautiful to look at, it seemed to me that once the Georges Méliès story-line heated up, Hugo's kinda got pushed aside instead of dovetailing with it in a satisfying way.

It's a funny movie. I don't have much else to really say about it, though.

I made my wife go see this against her will, which I think represented a major turning point in our marriage. I maintain that it's an alright movie, actually, but I wasn't allowed to pick what we were going to go see for a while after this. Later in the summer, if I wanted to see movies like Transformers 3: Dark Of The Moon or Real Steel (both of which, by coincidence, feature giant robots punching each other), Laura made it clear that I had to do it by myself late at night, after she had gone to bed.

The Adventures Of Tintin: Secret Of The Unicorn
I sorta hate the motion-capture animation medium, really, but admired the thrilling way in which Spielberg used the technology here, staging elaborate action scenes without any "cuts" and using the virtual camera to follow characters like Snowy The Dog through the streets and alleyways in a fashion that you could never do in live action. Surprisingly, though, I was completely uninterested in the movie on a plot / character level, and had trouble staying awake during the talkier passages (such as the painful, seemingly 45 minute segment where hopeless alcoholic Captain Haddock tells a rambling, listless story about his ancestors who got into a pirate fight or something).

Puss In Boots
Adorable anthropomorphized kitty animation kinda makes this movie worth it for cat freaks, but a lousy, irritating villain and a direct-to-video style plot kinda makes the whole thing a wash. It's good for about 15 minutes, though.

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2
Director David Yates committed the unforgivable sin of taking three very engaging, imaginative books and making four anemic movies out of them that barely have a pulse. I thought that the previous film, The Deathly Hallows Part 1, was a huuuuge step up from the TV movie-ish Part 5 and the stuffy, joyless Part 6, but with this eighth and final movie, Yates somehow got me to feel little to no excitement or emotional investment about the climax of a series that I had been manically excited about just a few years earlier. There's talk of Warner Bros. giving him a few other big properties to adapt into films now, but if it were up to me, I would keep him strictly regulated to dog food commercials and cable access sports discussion programs (all, preferably, without pay).

Captain America: The First Avenger
I'm jealous of the blurb about this on "Captain America: The First Avenger tells us the inspiring story of a skinny weakling who takes excessive quantities of a dangerous performance enhancing drug and becomes a national hero." Unfortunately, it really feels like a third rate affair through and through... the villain is uninteresting and I cannot remember what his evil scheme was even all about. Chris Evans was charismatic as the lead, but apart from a few dynamic action bits, the film felt like its primary function was to introduce the character and to get him where he needed to be so he can appear in 2012's Marvel superhero circle-jerk, The Avengers.

Super 8
Saw this one on DVD… I liked the Amblin movies of the 80s, although I kinda have a natural aversion to the idea of trying to make another one of them now. It's more like the movies that Spielberg executive produced for directors Joe Dante and Richard Donner than the ones he directed himself, but still it's a mix that didn't quite work for me on numerous levels, despite some strong acting from the kids. I have a big problem with the sledgehammer sentiment of the film's ending too... That's a Spielberg thing as well, of course, but at least when he would do it, the syrupy finale would be earned to some degree. At the end of this movie, beautiful, soaring music plays in support of a horrible monster who destroyed an entire town and killed a bunch of people, which seems kinda like a disconnect to me.

Young Adult
I was probably way too hard on this one in my initial blog post. I recognize that now, but I'm not taking anything I said back. It's an interesting premise that's reaaaaaaaaally slow to take off. Once it does, the movie is really good for about a scene and a half, but then the filmmakers decided to flush everything at the end for the sake of a joke, which pisses me off way more than if the movie had just been crappy throughout.

The Adjustment Bureau
I kinda liked this movie, but I don't know anyone else who did. It's one of the few times where I had a pretty mild reaction to something that Laura expressed a Lewis Black grade of displeasure with in the car ride home.

Water For Elephants
This is a rare case where perfectly fine acting, direction, cinematography, and music all add up to something that's merely alright. I remember thinking at the time that the performances by the three leads were fine and of themselves, but that they didn't necessarily work up against each other.

I'm pretty sure that this lukewarm comedy about the romantic troubles of the repugnantly wealthy was directly responsible for the "Occupy" movement throughout much of 2011.

African Cats
There's nice footage of big cats running around Africa, as the title might imply there will be, but there's also scary scenes of them trying to kill each other too, and of cubs being picked off by hyenas and other African predators.

Scream 4
I barely remember seeing this. I don't remember seeing the earlier ones either, really.

I like Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and I love director Greg Mottola, who made Adventureland, my favorite movie of 2009. Nevertheless, this movie was a huge disappointment in that it neither had the heart of Mottola's earlier movies, nor the aggressive humor of Pegg and Frost's earlier collaborations, Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz, which were both directed by Edgar Wright. I was kinda hoping that the movie would be a little more savage toward the ComiCon crowd, but since that demographic buys a huge percentage of movie tickets, they puss'd out and went all toothless and Galaxy Quest on them.

Jane Eyre
I just didn't have much of a reaction to this one, honestly. It's in that middle zone... I didn't especially like it, I didn't dislike it. It was there, and then it ended.

Real Steel
Spielberg produced remake of Over The Top and Rocky IV, but with the added element of giant robots punching each other. The drama of a good sporting event kinda works, actually, and alllllllmost makes up up for how unbelievably stupid and contrite virtually everything else about the movie is.

Our Idiot Brother
It's not really bad, but it's just kinda lightweight and clichéd. I like a lot of the actors in it, but thought the writing was pretty insipid.

Transformers 3: Dark Of The Moon
Slightly better than the previous two Transformers movies, but still largely indecipherable and incoherent.

Crazy Stupid Love
Shit sandwich.

The Hangover Part II
Director Todd Phillips' meticulous remake of the classic 2009 comedy The Hangover has a couple good laughs, but bizarrely replays the first movie beat for beat with only a minimum of variables changed up (the main one being that they're in Bangkok now).

Pirates Of The Caribbean 4
Fuck this movie.

We kept wanting to see this one, but could never pull the trigger on it for some reason. I think we were both in escapist moods when it was out, and the idea of sitting through something that was reportedly ultra violent was never appealing.

Sherlock Holmes 2
I loved the first one but since L can't really sit through a theatrical movie right now (and because we did not happen to get a screener of it), we'll have to wait until it hits BluRay.

The Iron Lady
I really wanted to see this comic book adaptation about Tony Stark's female cousin, played by Meryl Streep, who was the Prime Minister of Great Britain for a time in the 80s, but Marvel made the curious decision to do an extended origin story that doesn't even get to the part where she builds a metal suit and flies around the world beating up terrorists. Instead, there are apparently numerous book-end segments which show the elderly superhero suffering from Alzheimers, which sounds like even more of a downer than Iron Man 2 was.

The Artist
We got a screener of this, but had not watched it as of press time.

War Horse
We watched about 45 minutes of this, actually. Pretty photography, a gorgeous score by John Williams (which neverthless seemed sorta overbearing in the movie), but not a lot of generated interest from either of us. We gave up after the plow scene, and I can't really see us going back.

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes
I'm a sucker for the Planet Of The Apes movies except for that horrible, horrible, horrible one that Tim Burton made starring Marky Mark in 2001.

Horrible Bosses
My wife saw this with her friend, but left me out of it. Girls.

I hear it's kinda like Phantasm, but instead of the ball sprouting blades and fucking killing people, it dispenses money or something, which is exactly what recession-stricken America needs right now. Whatever happens in this movie, it won't be nearly as cool as what happens each day on Cash Cab, but then again, what can be?

The Green Lantern
I kinda want to see it just to see if it's as shitty as the trailers made it look.

A Very Harold And Kumar 3D Christmas
Same as above, but I guess there's a scene where Danny Trejo ejaculates at a Christmas tree in 3D or something.

Cars 2
I think this is the first Pixar movie that I've had virtually no interest in seeing. Cars 1 was their weakest blockbuster hit (both critically and financially), but the one that sold the most merchandise... therefore sequel. They're making another Monsters, Inc. as well, which all makes me seriously fear for the company's future.

Twilight: Breaking Dawn - Part 1
I won't watch this one until there's a RiffTrax commentary available for it, but I can't wait to see the scene where Edward uses his vampire teeth to give Bela a C-Section.

And that's it! I can't wait to see what Adam Sandler has in store for us in 2012!