Reel Opinions


Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Best Films of 2010

Well, it's Oscar night, so I think it's time I look back over the past year, and pick out my favorite films of 2010. Yeah, I know, it's nearly March, and most people do this sort of thing at the end of December. You know, when lists like this are relevant. But, as a regular paying filmgoer, I choose to hold off on this list until I get to see as many of the year's films as I can. And since many of the big films released at the end of the year usually expand slowly (sometimes very slowly) into wide release from December-February, I prefer to wait until the day of the Oscars to post my picks.

As usual, I will be naming my favorite film of the year, followed by listing the great films. The great films can be anything that really grabbed my attention, so they can be dramas, comedies, kid's films, whatever. Then, I'll be listing the "honorable mentions" (all the runner ups), and my 10 favorite actor and actresses performances of the year. Aside from "Best Film", all of these choices are listed in no particular order.

So, with that out of the way, let's get down to the really important stuff - The movies.


THE BEST FILM OF 2010

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THE SOCIAL NETWORK - I question how people will view this movie in future years. It's very much a product of its time, and will most likely be seen almost as a curiosity in the future, due to its subject matter, which is sure to become dated at some point. But, relevant or not, I cannot deny that this is the tightest, best written, best edited, best directed, and best scored movie I saw in 2010. Director David Fincher, along with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, made a film that could speak to anyone, even those who have never been on Facebook, by focusing on such universal themes as personal isolation, ruthless business tactics, geek culture, and emotional rejection. Not only is it a joy to watch, thanks to Fincher's direction, and the wonderful performances of the entire cast, but it's a joy to listen to as well. Sorkin's dialogue is whip-smart, funny, and brings us into the world of the characters. The Social Network is a rare Hollywood instance of everything coming together to create a whole experience.


THE GREAT FILMS OF 2010 (IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER):
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THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT - If this was a movie about a traditional family unit, The Kids Are All Right probably would not have been seen as an "art film", and be hailed as one of the funniest and most honest films about families in a while, which it is. But the angle that the parents in this family are lesbians (which the movie wisely does not draw attention to or make a huge deal out of) makes it stand out even more. Throw in the memorable performances by Annette Benning, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo, and you have something very special. Director Lisa Cholodenko (who co-wrote the script) gives the film a light tone, while never sacrificing the honesty and the drama that the characters find themselves in. This movie is a rare treasure.
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THE GHOST WRITER - This tale of a fictional British prime minister (modeled after Tony Blair), and a ghost writer working on his memoirs, is the sharpest thriller to come along in a while. A lot of this is due to filmmaker Roman Polanski's decision to go with a no thrills, gimmick-free approach to the storytelling, and also to the direction. Everything feels so honest, we can't help but get wrapped up in the increasingly complex web that the writer (played by Ewan McGregor in the best performance of his career so far) finds himself drawn into as he begins to dig into the prime minister's (Pierce Bronsan, also great) past. Tight, polished, and unsettling, this is a perfect example of the mood the filmmaker creates adding so much tension to the story. No matter what you may think of Polanski personally, you can't deny after seeing this that he is a master craftsman when it comes to film.
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INCEPTION - Christopher Nolan's mind-bending summer blockbuster got it's share of supporters and naysayers, which is to be expected. But, what cannot be denied is how well thought out and executed it was. Inception is not a movie that guides you by the hand, but instead is a wonderful puzzle to figure out. This is the rare summer movie where the ideas and the plot interested me just as much as the visuals. And the visuals are indeed beautiful, as city streets bend, twist, and defy gravity (as do the characters eventually as they venture back and forth between the real world and a dream world). Emotionally rewarding, thrilling, and exciting as hell, this was one of the rare movies where you got the sense that the director was not only challenging his audience, but also himself. If that's not the mark of a true filmmaker, I don't know what is.
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THE OTHER GUYS - My pick for my favorite comedy of last year. Many comedies start out strong, but lose momentum. Some take a while to find their momentum. The Other Guys was the rare comedy where I found myself laughing just as much near the end as I was at the beginning. Will Ferrell (a hit or miss comic actor with me) finally found the perfect role to play, as his deadpan delivery of the script's hilarious lines make it all the more funnier. Mark Wahlberg surprisingly holds his own as his partner on the police force, as they get wrapped up in and try to solve a financial fraud case. The movie won me over with it's off beat humor and dialogue. It almost sets itself up as a parody of cop buddy movies, but instead of going over the top, it keeps the characters grounded in some sort of reality, as they say the most absurd things. The key to the movie's success is that the actors pretend they're not in a comedy, and that makes many of its moments twice as funny.
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BLACK SWAN - This one caught me off guard in a lot of ways. I loved the way that director Darren Aronofsky used a handheld camera that follows its heroine Nina (Natalie Portman), so that we feel like we are almost seeing what she sees. I loved its depiction of her slow descent into madness as she struggles to find the darker recessions of her personality to fill a challenging role, while also dealing with the drama in her personal life, due to a controlling and manipulative mother (a fantastic Barbara Hershey). I loved the performance of Mila Kunis, as Nina's professional rival (or is she?), which I feel largely got overlooked by Portman's obviously wonderful lead performance. Basically, I loved everything about this wonderful psychological thriller. Black Swan grabbed me as few films can, and transported me into its dark and wonderful world.
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LET ME IN - A melancholy coming of age story, and also easily one of the most haunting and atmospheric looks at adolescence I've seen. Despite it's horror undertones dealing with vampires, this is really a bleak but strangely heartfelt film about a young boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who feels alone and isolated from the world, until he befriends the young girl who moves in next door (a fantastic Chloe Moretz), who is actually a vampire that has lived for hundreds of years. He is drawn to her by her unnatural worldly and wise nature, and the film itself becomes a fascinating character study as the boy and girl's friendship deepens, and they become dependent on each other. This film (a remake of a Swedish film, which itself was based on a popular novel) is not romanticized, like the inferior Twilight films. The little girl is dangerous, yet at the same time compassionate. It creates a form of tension, as we know she could turn on the boy at anytime. More than that, it holds the best child performances of the year outside of True Grit. Chilling, complex, and compelling, Let Me In deserves to be discovered on DVD after it's too brief theatrical run.

That concludes this year's list of great films. Now let's take a look at the Honorable Mentions of 2010.


HONORABLE MENTIONS:

Youth in Revolt, Shutter Island, Green Zone, She's Out of My League, How to Train Your Dragon, Date Night, Oceans, Just Wright, Letters to Juliet, Shrek Forever After, Splice, The Karate Kid, Toy Story 3, Cyrus, Winter's Bone, Despicable Me, Salt, Ramona and Beezus, Dinner for Schmucks, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Nanny McPhee Returns, The Switch, Machete, The Town, Easy A, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, Red, Hereafter, Megamind, Unstoppable, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 1, Tangled, The Warrior's Way, Tron: Legacy, True Grit, The King's Speech


MY 10 FAVORITE PERFORMANCES BY AN ACTOR IN 2010:

Christian Bale (The Fighter)
Jeff Bridges (True Grit)
Pierce Bronsan (Ghost Writer)
Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network)
Colin Firth (The King's Speech)
Jonah Hill (Cyrus)
Ewan McGregor (The Ghost Writer)
Geoffrey Rush (The King's Speech)
Kodi Smit-McPhee (Let Me In)
Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right)


MY 10 FAVORITE PERFORMANCES BY AN ACTRESS IN 2010:

Annette Benning (The Kids Are All Right)
Barbara Hershey (Black Swan)
Mila Kunis (Black Swan)
Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone)
Melissa Leo (The Fighter)
Julianne Moore (The Kids Are All Right)
Chloe Grace Moretz (Let Me In)
Natalie Portman (Black Swan)
Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit)
Emma Stone (Easy A)

That's it for this year. Enjoy the Oscars tonight, and may the best film win!

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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Drive Angry 3D

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You can't help but wonder what Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez could have done with a movie like Drive Angry. They would have been able to add a touch of style and much needed wit to a movie like this. The movie that we did get, directed by Patrick Lussier (My Bloody Valentine 3D), is certainly well made and is sure to become a cult classic with certain audiences. I just wasn't won over by the relentless noise of the film, and the eventual sameness of the graphic, over the top violence.

picAt least they got the casting right. Could anyone else but Nicolas Cage get away with playing a character like John Milton? Not to be confused with the famous poet who shares his name. this film's Milton is a hard-edged felon and murderer who's escaped from Hell and returned to Earth in order to seek revenge on those who murdered his daughter. How did he escape from Hell? The movie's a bit vague on the details, but it apparently involved stealing a hot rod car, and a mystical gun that has the power to kill gods and demons. Now he's driving around the streets in said stolen car, tracking down and killing the people responsible. The killers are members of a satanic cult led by a man named Jonah King (Billy Burke from the Twilight films). One of the red flags that popped up early on with me is that the Jonah King character isn't all that interesting of a villain. Despite the fact he has hundreds of faceless extras who view him as a messiah, and pretty much exist to be blown away or run over by Cage, he's not the least bit charismatic, and I had to wonder what his followers see in him.

picNot only did Jonah arrange for the murder of Milton's daughter, but he's now holding her infant daughter hostage, and is planning to sacrifice her in a ceremony during the next full moon. Despite time being short, Milton does still have time to stop in every sleazy bar and restaurant in town, and pick up a woman to come along for the ride. She's Piper (Amber Heard), a foul-mouthed waitress who senses a strange connection with Milton, and joins his quest after he saves her from her abusive trailer trash fiance. I'm guessing about the strange connection part, actually. The movie doesn't give her much motivation to come along, other than the screenplay called for a sexy woman who could throw a punch and handle a gun when needed. There's also a character called The Accountant (William Fichtner), who is the best part of the film. He's a guy who answers directly to Satan, and is trying to hunt Milton down and send him back to where he belongs.

picThe reason why The Accountant character works isn't so much the way he's written, but the way Fichtner plays him. He's the only one up on the screen having any fun. Cage is surprisingly dour and downbeat, with vengeance and killing being his only character motivations. (Though he does get off one impressive sequence where he participates in a gun battle while having sex with a woman at the same time.) And while Heard gets off a couple zingy one liners, she's really just there for eye candy. Fichtner, meanwhile, fills his performance with glee, and hits the right tone in every scene he's in. It's a shame he disappears for such long stretches of the film. There's also a character played by David Morse, who shows up as an old friend of Milton's, but he's really just there for exposition purposes only. I don't expect deep characters in my shoot 'em up exploitation movies, but most of these people are dull even by cardboard cutout standards.

picThe movie's big selling point is the violence, which is appropriately bloody and over the top, but gets repetitive, as many of the action sequences seem to drag on. The car chases and shoot outs are shot with little flair, despite the addition of the 3D. On that subject, I do have to say, this is one of the few films I've seen that did not suffer a tremendous drop in picture quality due to the glasses. Yeah, a lot of the 3D is gimmicky with stuff flying at the camera non-stop, but I must admit it's done well, and no detail has been lost in the process. It almost seems like a joke that movies with much bigger budgets than this can't get it right, but this cheap exploitation film that will most likely turn off all but the most hardened gore fanatic does just fine. I'm not changing my mind about 3D being the biggest scam in cinema of the past decade, but I can admit when it's used well.
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Drive Angry has plenty of fast cars, beautiful women (in various stages of undress), and gory carnage. For some viewers, that will be more than enough. It wasn't for me. I wanted a little more wit to go with it. It shows itself every now and then (mostly when The Accountant is on screen), so you know the filmmakers were onto something here. It's a shame they didn't have the desire to go further. I will say this - The movie did give me further appreciation for Machete, a similar and recent action movie that got it right.

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Friday, February 25, 2011

Hall Pass

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Reviewing a comedy is simply a matter of reporting whether I laughed or not. With Hall Pass, I laughed out loud quite a few times, and smiled during a lot of scenes where I wasn't laughing. It doesn't always work, but the jokes that do work hit so hard they're worth the wait. This is a movie that's not only a lot of fun, but maybe a little bit smarter than you might be expecting walking in.

picNow, I don't want to give the impression that this is a profound or even a wise film. It's often not afraid to resort to shock value for it's laughs. This should come as no surprise when you consider it's co-written and directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly, the guys best known for pushing the envelope in comedies like There's Something About Mary. But then, some of their more recent films like Shallow Hal or Fever Pitch have been more gentle, romantic affairs. Hall Pass is a combination of both of their styles. It's often crude and sometimes gross (though never outright offensive, and always funny), but there's a heart behind it all. We like the characters, and there's a nice message concerning relationship insight. You get the feeling that the filmmakers are performing a difficult tightrope act between heartfelt sentiment, and juvenile humor concerning bodily fluids, frontal nudity, and pot brownies. The Farrellys show their skill by pulling this tricky combination off in the first place.

picThe plot centers on two married couples - Rick (Owen Wilson) and Maggie (Jenna Fischer), and their close friends Fred (Jason Sudeikis) and Grace (Christina Applegate). Both couples have been together for years, and have settled into a comfortable rut of children, chaperoning playdates and birthday parties, and family get-togethers. Not surprisingly, the routine has taken its toll. Maggie pretends to be asleep when Rick wants sex. And Rick and Fred have made no effort to hide their wandering eyes, especially with Rick fantasizing about his kids' 20-year-old babysitter (Alexandra Daddario), as well as the sexy young Australian woman who works at the coffee shop (Nicky Whelan). A friend of Maggie and Grace (Joy Behar) thinks she has the answer - give the men a "hall pass", which will give them a week of freedom away from marriage to follow their desires, and ultimately show them that they're happy where they currently are.

picThe women are naturally skeptical, but it makes sense the more Behar's character describes it. It's common nature for men to desire what they can't have. Left to their own devices for one week, the guys will see the reality of the situation, instead of the fantasy. After an embarrassing incident at a friend's house, Maggie, and eventually Grace, decide to give Rick and Fred a week off of marriage to do whatever they want, while the wives go off on a getaway of their own. The humor comes from the fact that Rick and Fred have been out of the dating game so long, they don't remember what to do when they have all this freedom before them. They gather their guy friends, and expect a week of wild partying and sex, only to make their first stop to pick up women the local Applebee's restaurant. ("Maybe we should try Olive Garden", one suggests, when the idea turns out to be a bust.) As for the wives, they get a bit of fun of their own when they catch the eyes of some men while on their vacation.

picWhat surprised me about Hall Pass is how sweet it ultimately is underneath the jokes about sex and the over the top scatological humor. There's genuine emotion with some of the characters, especially with Wilson's portrayal of Rick, who learns during the week just how good he actually has it with his family. Through it all, Hall Pass is ultimately a love story, and one that might inspire conversation amongst couples when it is over. I think that's what surprised me about the film. The commercials play up the more raunchier aspects of the comedy, and while it certainly has that in spades, it's not where the film's mind truly is. Actually, it's the smaller and more down to earth jokes that got the bigger laughs from me, rather than the over the top ones dealing with things like (literal) explosive feces. I'd go into more detail, but it's probably best that I don't.

picI think what sets Hall Pass apart from some inferior sex comedies is that there's actually something behind it all. There's a message, and something that people can take home with them. Yes, they'll laugh while watching it, but they'll also think back on certain moments when it's over. That's rare enough from a movie, but especially rare with the genre the Farrelly Brothers are working in here. I also enjoyed the casting. Wilson, Sudekis, Fischer, and Applegate are all given enough time to create sympathetic characters, and make their performances a little more relatable than you would expect walking in. There's also a great third act cameo for dramatic character actor, Richard Jenkins, to show off some rare comic talent. Jenkins has long been an actor who could brighten up any film (he was one of the few things that worked for me in last year's Eat, Pray, Love), and it's no different here.
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So yeah, I laughed while watching Hall Pass. But it's also well-acted, and a little more honest than you might expect. Is it a great movie? Far from it. But it is the first comedy of 2011 to generally make me laugh out loud, and that's reason enough to recommend it. One final note - Don't leave when the end credits start.

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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son

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To live in the world of Big Momma, it helps if you have the intelligence of a box of instant potatoes. That way, Detective Malcolm Turner (Martin Lawrence), and now his 17-year-old stepson Trey (Brandon T. Jackson), can pass themselves off as women, despite both of them looking like they escaped from a bad Saturday Night Live sketch, and not arouse suspicion. That both of them are able to fool an entire girl's college campus is one mental hurdle the movie asked of me that I just could not accomplish.

picOf course, given the attempts at humor on display in Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son, it probably couldn't hurt if the audience watching it shared the IQ of the characters up on the screen. There's not a single laugh to be had. Believe me, I counted. But, that's not surprising when the film's sole joke was explored to the fullest a little over ten years ago in 2000's Big Momma's House. That was the movie where Lawrence went undercover as a 300 pound Southern granny in order to crack a crime. Somehow, this idea struck a chord with enough people to see the movie gross over $100 million, which led to 2006's Big Momma's House 2. It was less successful at the box office, but here we are with the third film. Not only does the Big Momma disguise that Lawrence dons look a little more worn out than usual, but Lawrence himself seems confused as to what he's doing back in the role. It's an encore performance that no one, not even the star, asked for.

picLawrence is back as Malcolm, although his love interest (played in the previous films by Nia Long) is nowhere to be seen. I guess they couldn't offer her enough money to come back, so they explain in dialogue that she's away at a retreat. This leaves Malcolm to deal with family problems on his own, such as stepson Trey wanting to ditch a college education at Duke University so that he can become a rap artist. Trey is underage, and needs his dad's signature in order to sign a contract with a music producer. In what is probably not the brightest of ideas, Trey decides to follow Malcolm on a bust of some Russian gangsters, hoping he can corner him and convince him to sign the contract. (I told you these characters were dumb.) This leads to Trey witnessing a murder, and having the gangsters gunning after him. Malcolm decides that the best way for his stepson and him to remain inconspicuous is to dress in drag, a fat suit, and clothes that look like they were stolen from a circus clown's wardrobe.

picThey head for the Georgia All-Girls School for the Performing Arts, where incriminating evidence against the mobsters has been hidden, and most conveniently of all, a position for housemother has just opened up. No need for credentials or background checks, apparently. "Big Momma", with Trey posing as her granddaughter, show up and immediately get wrapped up in campus life, and the various emotional problems (boys, the stress to be popular and "perfect") that the girls at the school face. The movie can't think of a single funny thing to do with its premise. Every scene ends with a tired physical gag (Big Momma poses in the nude for an art class!), or sometimes no laugh at all, just an awkward transition to the next scene. I guess we're supposed to get caught up in the subplot of how Trey falls for one of the girls at the school (Jessica Lucas), and is forced to keep his secret. All I could think about was how does the girl not realize that Trey and his female disguise are one and the same person, since she spends ample personal time with both of his identities?
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I don't think I'm spoiling anything by revealing that Big Mommas closes with the gangsters getting what they deserve, and father and son bonding during their time in drag together. This is an unwanted and miscalculated comedy that is so lacking in entertainment and energy, it's mind boggling. Nobody up on the screen looks like they want to be there, and as the movie dragged on through its overlong 107 minutes, I felt a connection with them. I was glad to be feeling something, at least.

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Unknown

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There is a brain within Unknown. While it's not the greatest thriller, and it only works for part of its running time, I did appreciate that this was not a standard moronic thriller that relies on coincidence and contrivance to hinder its hero's search. Here, its hero, Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) asks the right questions and keeps on going to the right people, but keeps on meeting roadblocks. Someone doesn't want him finding out the truth behind the mystery.

picAnd it's an intriguing mystery too, for the most part. For the first 90 minutes or so, I was kind of caught up. There are a lot of good questions, Neeson makes for a good every man caught in the middle of it all, and there's even a very well-done high speed car chase half way through the film. But then, those pesky old revelations have to come during the film's final 25 minutes or so. It's a mix of stuff we've seen in other films before, which I will not reveal, save you figure it out before seeing the film. It also has to do with corn. Yes, literal corn, not just the stuff coming from the screenplay during the last half. As the revelations played out, I wanted to go back to when I didn't know anything. Kind of the same feeling I got while watching the ending revelations in director Jaume Collet-Serra's previous film, the killer child movie, Orphan. At least Unknown's final twists are nowhere near as loopy as that film's.

picBefore all that happens, though, we have Dr. Martin Harris arriving in Berlin with his wife, Elizabeth (January Jones), for a science conference at a luxury hotel. Just as they arrive at the hotel, Martin realizes that he left a briefcase back at the airport. He immediately hops back into a cab, and starts to make his way back, when a major traffic accident occurs (which is staged almost like something out of the Final Destination films), sending his cab plunging off the road and into the river below. He's saved by the quick thinking driver, and taken to a hospital, where he's in a coma for four days. He awakens with fractured memories (he hit his head during the crash), but seeing a news story on TV about the conference reminds him of why he's in Berlin, and that his wife is waiting for him. But when he checks himself out of the hospital, and races back to the hotel, he finds his wife has no idea who he is, and there is another man with her (Aidan Quinn) who claims to be Dr. Martin Harris.

picHe tells the authorities to do an Internet search on him, and sees the other man's photo on his professional profile, instead of his own. He remembers he had a meeting with a noted scientist before the conference, but when he arrives for the meeting, he finds that mysterious other man already there, having the meeting. He tries to prove who he is by recalling all the things he talked about on the phone with the scientist before they met, but the other man claiming to be him knows everything that was said, as well. Martin begins to feel that maybe he's not who he thinks he is, but that doubt is pretty much cleared away when shadowy figures start trailing him everywhere, trying to kill him. He knows that someone is trying to silence him, or at least keep him from remembering anything more about his fractured past.

picHe has some allies in his search for the truth, primarily the cab driver who saved his life the day of the accident. She's Gina (Diane Kruger), who gets wrapped up in the mystery when she offers Martin a place to stay, and the mysterious men start coming after her as well. There's also a former member of the German secret police (Bruno Ganz), who gets a bit of a thrill reliving his old spy days by helping Martin figure out what's going on. All of this is strong stuff, and we hope that the answers that eventually come won't disappoint. The answers in Unknown come with the arrival of Frank Langella late in the second act of the film. It's all downhill from there, as characters unwisely start spelling out everything for the audience before they do anything. Therefore, we get a lot of scenes where either the hero or the villain should be fighting or running away, but instead they just stand there talking, giving the other character ample time to act.

picEven before the big reveal sends things crashing down, there are other small problems. Other than the accident sequence and the previously mentioned car chase, there's a surprising lack of tense sequences in the film. We're interested in the mystery behind it all, but the story itself unfolds a little slower than we expect, which might try the patience of some viewers. Still, most of this is overlooked by the strong production values (this is a beautifully shot film) and the likable performances of Neeson and Kruger, who have good chemistry together in their scenes. It's only during the film's last half hour or so that things topple down, and the contrivance of the screenplay overtakes everything else.
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A lot of movies seem to know how to set up a good mystery, then blow the reveal. I was hoping against hope that Unknown would be different, but it sadly lives up to the trend. While I was walking out of the movie, I heard an elderly couple griping that the movie was an insult to their intelligence. I wouldn't go that far, but there is certainly a lot of wasted potential here.

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Friday, February 18, 2011

I Am Number Four

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Every so often, a bad movie comes along that is so goofy, ungainly, and wrong-headed, I almost want to embrace it. I Am Number Four is a soulless corporate project without a scrap of imagination, and nothing that hasn't been borrowed from something else. And yet, the movie has so many bad and unintentional laughs, it almost works as a comedy. What's a bad laugh, you ask? It's when you know the material you're watching is supposed to be taken seriously, but the way it's been written and acted is just so unconvincing, you laugh at the attempt.

picAnd yet, I have a certain admiration for its ineptitude. This is a movie that succeeds at being bad on multiple levels. It takes the worst parts of the various franchises that inspired it, and mashes them together into one big mess. We have the unconvincing and wooden romance of the Twilight films (only with a handsome but bland alien, instead of a handsome but bland vampire), we have the alien's super powers lifted from just about every recent superhero movie of the past five years (He shoots energy blasts from the palms of his hands like Iron Man! He has the strength and speed of Superman!), we have stock high school cliches that have been around since time immortal (the bully jock, the misunderstood artist girl, the geek), and we have a climax ripped right out of a Michael Bay movie, with lots of stuff getting blown up, guns and energy blasts going off, people flying through the air, and giant CG monsters on the attack. In fact, Bay himself serves as a producer. My guess how this project came about? He saw Twilight, and thought it needed more super powers and stuff blowing up.

picThe movie opens with some rushed exposition - Our hero is a teenager who appears normal, but (wait for it...) is not from around here. He originally hailed from a distant planet known as Lorien, which was destroyed by a vile race known as the Mogadorians. Nine children escaped from the planet before it was destroyed, and have been living on Earth in different parts of the world since then. They're all connected with some sort of psychic bond, however. That's how our lead character, John (Alex Pettyfer), knows when one of the nine has been killed by the Mogadorians, who are now on Earth, hunting down the escaped children. Three have been killed already, and John is number four. Why are the Mogadorians hunting down these children? What did they want with planet Lorien in the first place? My guess is those answers are coming in another movie, as this film serves merely as a set up for a six-part franchise. Wishful thinking on the part of the producers, given the quality of this film.

picBut, I digress. John, and his Lorien protector, Henry (Timothy Olyphant), have been on the lam, trying to stay one step ahead of the Mogadorians, by moving to different parts of the country, living under assumed names. Henry is supposed to be the mentor, and to teach John how to use his super powers that he is slowly developing as he gets older, but he doesn't do a whole heck of a lot, other than look disapprovingly when John sneaks off to have fun. They're supposed to be keeping a low profile, after all. Henry's lectures to John actually bring a lot of the film's bad laughs. When John tells Henry he's attracted to Sarah (Dianna Agron from TV's Glee), the pretty artistic girl at his new school, Henry sternly reminds him that "he wasn't sent here to experience puppy love like a real boy". Then again, the movie is kind of unclear why John, Henry, and the eight other children were sent here in the first place. Still, Henry is sympathetic toward young John's feelings. However, he once again warns them that humans are different from them. "The humans don't love like we do. With us, it's forever".

picWith dialogue like that, it's easy to get sidetracked. Then again, it's also easy to get sidetracked when the plot stays stalled for most of its running time. As the Mogadorians slowly (very slowly) track John down to his new location in Paradise, Ohio, the alien teen woos Sarah, makes friends with the school geek (Callan McAuliffe), who used to hunt for evidence of UFOs with his father, until dear old dad was abducted by aliens, and runs afoul of the local jock and bully (Jake Abel). While all this is happening, John begins to develop super powers, and figures out how to use them with no real training or assistance. Good thing, with the bullies trying to steal Sarah away, and those evil Mogadorians arriving with a giant monster they cart around in a giant crate hooked to a truck. There's also a blonde bombshell (Teresa Palmer) tracking John down, who we later learn is another one of the Lorien survivors, and a little puppy who keeps on following John everywhere he goes for reasons I won't dare spoil. And yes, the puppy actually plays a key role in the climax.

picWith all this happening, I Am Number Four is like an explosion at the screenplay factory. A bunch of pages from different movies somehow got fused together into this ungainly and unintentionally hilarious mess. Keep in mind, a lot of these ideas and characters are not really explained. The movie's open-ended conclusion wants to build excitement for the answers to come, but I highly doubt anyone will be dying to know what role the puppy will ultimately play in this galactic battle of good vs. evil. Or anything else, for that matter. Heck, the movie doesn't even seem interested in itself. Here is this battle between two warring alien races taking place on Earth, and most of the film's running time is dealt with John's puppy love with Sarah, or dealing with the bullies.

picMost of the film's cast hail from television, and if their performances here are any indication, they can stay there. I'll admit, I don't watch a lot of television, so I don't know if it's the fault of the actors themselves, or the director D.J. Caruso (Eagle Eye). His direction does seem rather bland here, almost like he's shooting a made for TV movie, rather than something for the big screen. There is one impressive extended aerial shot at the very beginning, but it's all downhill from there. One curious decision he makes is to shoot most of his major sequences at night, giving the special effects a murky and uninspired look. The film's climax (set at a high school stadium) is a confusing and jumbled mess of CG images, making the whole thing akin to a hyperactive video game.
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I Am Number Four leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions, and though I don't care to hear the answer to a lot of them, there is one thing I'd like to have explained - Why does John have all these super powers, but Henry does not? What makes John, and eventually the blonde girl who teams up with him, so special? I'm sure we'll eventually find out, but in order for that to happen, there would have to be a sequel. That's something I wouldn't wish on anybody.

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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Justin Bieber: Never Say Never

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I feel I should say upfront that this review will really not be about Justin Bieber himself, or his music. Let the music critics, and the millions of faceless people on the Internet who enjoy talking about him (even the people who can't stop talking about how much they hate his music) do that. I'm a film critic, and will be reviewing his concert documentary, Never Say Never. I'm going to stick to what I (hopefully) do best.

picThat being said, the film itself is a bit of a mess. It never quite grabs onto a cohesive angle, or decides what kind of movie it wants to be. Obviously, the young fans of the singer will not care about this. The kids at my screening were laughing and having a great time. I was less enthused, but that's to be expected. The movie wants to be one part concert film, part biography, part hero-worship, part rags to riches story (or, in Bieber's case, "middle-class Canada to riches" story), and part 3D gimmick-fest, as a lot of stuff flies at the camera. The problem is director Jon Chu (Step Up 3D) never settles on a single vision. The movie is sloppily put together, jumps to various points in the Bieber time line whenever it sees fit, and never lets us get quite close enough to Bieber himself. Heck, the kid doesn't even get to tell his own story. His managers, publicists, and celebrity friends (like music artist Usher) do that for him. All Bieber gets to do is smile, sing, and act like a goofy kid backstage, which I guess is kind of refreshing. For all his fame, he still gets to be a kid.

picI want to focus on one of the film's biggest narrative problems. Early on, the film includes a subtitle that counts down the days to Bieber's biggest concert ever at Madison Square Garden. The various talking heads who represent his entourage and friends keep on stressing what a big moment this is. Unfortunately, the movie kills the suspense by actually showing us the concert before he gets there. Randomly thrown throughout the film is concert footage that is, yes, taken from Madison Square Garden. This editing choice also pretty much kills the entire third act of the film itself. That's when Bieber suddenly develops a throat infection from straining his voice, and everyone wonders if he's going to be able to perform at the Garden, or if he'll have to cancel. Since we've been watching footage of him performing there from the very start of the movie, we already know the answer, so what's the movie trying to do here?

picThat being said, there are some nice moments. We see some footage throughout of Bieber having personal time with some of his fans, and it truly looks like he appreciates everything they have done. I also kind of enjoyed how Bieber's rise to fame was kind of an old fashioned Hollywood story combined with modern technology, like Youtube or Twitter. The movie actually opens with an entertaining montage of various Youtube videos (cute kittens, wedding blunders, etc.), before showing us some of the singer's earliest performances, which he posted on the website, and got noticed. I liked this angle, and wish the movie had used it more. If you are to believe this film, his celebrity was an almost overnight thing.

picThat's really the big problem I have with Never Say Never. The whole thing is obviously a sanitized corporate product. We don't really learn much about the kid himself. Sure, his fans already probably know everything about him, but what about us in the audience who walked into this movie almost cold? (My only exposure to Bieber before this movie was some appearances on the Today Show.) The tricky narrative, and the fact that they don't even let him speak for himself, gave me the impression that I was only getting part of the story, or at least the parts that the Bieber corporate empire want me to hear. Despite the personal involvement in the project (Bieber himself is credited as one of the producers), this movie's about as deep as one of those unauthorized biographies that probably popped up as soon as the kid hit fame.
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While I may not be a fan of his music or his movie, I do have some kind of respect for what he's doing. Every generation needs its teen idol, after all. At least the kid has a sense of humor about himself, and the film occasionally shows this. Whatever happens to him in the future, I wish him the best of luck, and hope he enjoys the ride of his career, no matter how long it lasts. I won't be following it, but I wish him the best.

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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Gnomeo and Juliet

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Maybe this movie just caught me in the right silly mood. Or maybe the knowledge that I would be watching a Justin Bieber documentary immediately following it put me in the mood for something a little bizarre. Whatever the reason, I liked Gnomeo and Juliet a lot more than I expected. As the title suggests, the film is yet another Hollywood take on the classic Shakespeare tale, only this time animated and targeted at kids, and featuring a cast of ceramic lawn gnomes. At least the movie is upfront about what it is. Right as the film opens, a little animated gnome shows up on the screen to inform us that "the story we're about to see has been told many times". He goes on to say that now they're going to tell it again...only different.

picThe film, a production of Elton John's production company Rocket Pictures (his music is also featured throughout the story), is brightly animated and well drawn, which of course means that the studio has decided to release the film in 3D, so that all the beautiful colors and details can be muddied by the dark glasses. Fortunately, the movie is also quite clever and funny. The action is set on Verona Drive, home of two feuding neighbors - Miss Montague and Mr. Capulet. Both have prized gardens in their backyard, which are home to a wide variety of ceramic lawn ornaments (gnomes, deer, frogs, etc.) that carry on the war when the bickering humans are not around. The blue gnomes (who live in the Montague garden) frequently battle the red gnomes over on the Capulet side. The Blues, led by the grandmotherly Lady Blueberry (voice by Maggie Smith), frequently plot for ways to sabotage the enemy garden, while the Reds, led by Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine), plan elaborate lawnmower races in order to humiliate the Blues in competition.

picThe most daring of the Blues is Lady Blueberry's son, Gnomeo (James McAvoy). He frequently engages in heated lawnmower races with the resident red gnome bully, Tybalt (Jason Statham - great casting). Gnomeo has been born and bred to hate the Reds indiscriminately, and feels them all to be inferior to his kind. But one fateful night, he lays eyes on Lord Redbrick's beautiful daughter, Juliet (Emily Blunt), and it's instant love. As for Juliet, she's a sheltered girl who has (literally) been placed on a pedestal by her father. When she ventures from home and finds forbidden love with the blue Gnomeo, she begins to feel for the first time. As the two lovers plan secret meetings in an abandoned yard across the street, things escalate between the Reds and the Blues, to the point that both gardens are placed in danger. Will love prevail? Will the two young gnomes meet the same fate as the similarly-named lovers in the classic play that the film borrows from?

picConsidering that this is a G-rated kid's comedy, you probably already know the answer to that last question, and it's not a spoiler to reveal that this movie ends a little bit differently than Shakespeare's version. However, at least the movie does pay tribute to the original ending, by having the Bard himself (in the form of a statue with the voice of Patrick Stewart) show up at one point to defend the play's more tragic ending. Gnomeo and Juliet also has some fun with Shakespeare's other works, such as when the owner of an unruly dog cries out, "Out, out, damn Spot"! I also enjoyed some of the film's offbeat supporting characters, such as a nanny-like ceramic frog (Ashley Jensen) who watches over Juliet, or the goofy pink flamingo ornament, Featherstone (Jim Cummings), who lives in the abandoned yard where Gnomeo and Juliet have their secret meetings, and teaches them that love is stronger than hatred by sharing his own tale of lost love. Both of these characters get some of the best lines in the film.

picI mentioned earlier that the film is brightly colored and well drawn, which it certainly is. The animation is nothing groundbreaking, but it gets the job done, there's some good detail, and kids are sure to appreciate all the little visual gags that the animators have thrown in, while adults will enjoy the frequently sly dialogue. In fact, the only thing that holds the film back from joining the recent great animated movies is some of the stunt casting. Aside from the names mentioned above, Dolly Parton, Hulk Hogan, and Ozzy Osbourne show up in cameos. The movie quickly turns into a distracting game of "guess the celebrity voice". But, at least the script (credited to no less than 7 different writers, with 2 more "based on an original screenplay" credits) is clever enough, so that famous voices aren't the only thing the movie has to fall back on.
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Even if it's not a great film, Gnomeo and Juliet is smart and funny enough for kids and adults. Shame that it had to be released in 3D, though. As usual, the extra cost is just not worth the experience. This will be a great movie to watch on DVD, with the colors all vibrant. In fact, it might work even better on the small screen. It's sure to become a favorite with kids, and might even get them interested in Shakespeare. That's not so bad, is it?

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