Reel Opinions


Saturday, December 31, 2011

The 6th Annual Reel Stinkers Awards

As the final hours of 2011 tick down to the promise of a new year, the time has come for an annual tradition I have here at Reel Opinions - Looking back on the worst films of 2011. The films so bad, I was already thinking ahead to December when I saw them, so I could save them a special place on this list. As most critics confess, I'm not really a fan of making lists at the end of the year. But there is something oddly satisfying about giving the movies that stole my time one last knock before I forget about them.

As always, my "best of" list is still on the way, since there are still some movies stuck in limited release that I will hopefully see. I usually get that out Oscar weekend, so it's still a little ways off. Well, enough of this intro. Time to give some bad movies the punishment they deserve.


THE 10 WORST FILMS OF 2011:
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10. I AM NUMBER FOUR - I'm kicking the list off with a movie that is, yes, very bad, but I would be lying if I didn't say it wasn't entertaining for all the wrong reasons. This Michael Bay production is a hilariously misguided attempt to mix a bad teen romance drama with supernatural themes (ala Twilight), with the big, dumb, and loud action sequences from Bay's own Transformers film franchise. I Am Number Four is a soulless corporate product without a scrap of imagination, and nothing that hasn't been borrowed from something else. And yet, when the film's big climax came around, which features a battle between alien forces on a high school football field, and a cute little dog (who's been following the teen hero around the whole movie) suddenly morphs into a monstrous alien, revealing that he's been a shape shifting monster the entire time, I was laughing out loud at the ineptitude of it all. There are comedies with less laughs than this Sci-Fi "drama" that was supposed to kick off a franchise, but since hardly anyone went to see it, will go forgotten.

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09. SUCKER PUNCH - Director Zach Snyder's attempt to mix video game and Japanese anime imagery with a thinly told story of female empowerment brought about one of the most chaotic, loud, and incomprehensible films of the year. In Sucker Punch, things are constantly happening, and special effects keep on being thrown up on the screen, but we have absolutely no involvement at all, because the characters and plot are so thin, they might as well not exist. We are initially drawn in by the visuals, but then we quickly begin to discover that the movie is not interested in really going anywhere, and the truly tedious and repetitive nature of the film's structure reveals itself. There is absolutely no joy to be found here. It's just a lot of high tech CG garbage, while attractive young actresses stand around, trying to pretend there's a point to all of this. One of the most empty-headed spectacles I have seen in years.

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08. MONTE CARLO - This past summer, Bridesmaids proved that comedies aimed at women could be truly funny enough to appeal to just about anyone who watched it, regardless of gender. The same summer, we got Monte Carlo, a comedy aimed at women that is so vapid and idiotic, you would have to have gone through a recent frontal lobotomy to find any of it amusing. This tale of three young friends who con their way into having a luxury overseas vacation was a tired and endless exercise in the Idiot Plot, in which everyone is forced to act like a total moron in order for there to be a movie in the first place. The lead characters are clueless and unlikable, the supporting characters are oblivious morons, and nobody gets to act like a real person. When this movie came out, I read that this was originally intended to be a starring vehicle for Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman. For some reason, Kidman stayed involved as one of the film's producers. Roberts got out while the getting was good.

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07. THE ROOMMATE - This early-year thriller stood out as one of the first truly awful movies of 2011, which earned it an automatic spot here. The Roommate is nothing more than a watered down remake of the 1992 thriller, Single White Female, only set on a college campus, and the characters are about five times dumber and less interesting than the ones in the earlier movie. Leighton Meester (who appears in back-to-back stinkers, having also appeared in Monte Carlo) plays a psychotic young girl who becomes obsessed with her new roommate, and starts mimicking her look, style, and eventually, starts taking over her life. The problem is, the movie doesn't really have a handle on her as a villain, as she seems to do a lot of her evil deeds (like throwing kittens in washing machines, and taking lesbians hostage) just for the sake of being evil. It doesn't help that Meester's performance is so over the top, it's more humorous than scary. Funny thing about The Roommate - It flat out steals from a lot of movies it wants to be like, but doesn't manage to capture even a fraction of the tension or memorability of the films it desperately wants to mimic.

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06. New Year's Eve - If anyone wants a textbook example of everything that's wrong with modern day romantic comedies, they need look no further than the dull, boring, overlong, unfunny, idiotic, and completely contrived New Year's Eve. This movie tackles multiple plots, and features a cast of 20+ celebrity actors, but can't think of a single thing to do with any of the actors, the characters, or the plots. Hilary Swank plays the woman in charge of the Times Square New Years Eve party, who just wants to make sure the giant New Years ball drops on time. Robert De Niro plays a man dying of cancer, who wants to be wheeled up to the roof of the hospital, so he can watch the ball drop one last time before he dies. Ashton Kutcher plays a New Year Grinch who hates the holiday, but learns how to love it after he gets stuck in an elevator with a young woman who teaches him how to enjoy New Years. Jon Bon Jovi plays a rock star who wants to patch things up with his ex-girlfriend (Katherine Heigl). Sarah Jessica Parker wants to find her teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin) who has run off with her friends to party, even though she didn't want her to. While I was sitting through this movie, all I wanted to do was bolt for the nearest exit.

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05. THE CHANGE-UP - Thanks to movies like The Hangover and Bridesmaids, raunchy R-rated comedies aimed at adults are big business right now in Hollywood. If we get anymore movies as bad as The Change-Up, that could change very soon. This raunchy take on the moldy old body swap comedy formula is bad in just about every way you can think of. But mostly, it's just a very vile and hateful little movie. It hates men, women, children, and babies. It has no respect for anyone, and just expects the audience to laugh at the characters out of spite, instead of humor. The movie concerns two best friends (Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds) who are as different as can be, and switch lives when they both take a piss in a magical fountain that allows them to switch bodies. The problem is, we never believe that Bateman and Reynolds are friends, or even like each other. They have such terrible chemistry together, they look like they can't wait to get away from each other during a lot of their scenes together. This would be bad enough, but throw in how unfunny and how much contempt this movie has, and The Change-Up easily ranks as one of the more unpleasant movie experiences of the year.

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04. JACK AND JILL - The first of two movies from Adam Sandler's Happy Madison production company to appear on this list. 2011 was not a good year for Adam Sandler. He once seemed unstoppable, really. Sure, his movies were always blasted by critics, but they still managed to be massive success stories at the box office. This year, he released four movies (and acted in three of them), all of which underperformed. Anyone who actually sat through Jack and Jill has a pretty good idea why. This is a misguided and stupefyingly dumb comedy that has Sandler in a dual role as brother and sister. This is a movie built entirely around the gag of seeing the actor dressed in drag, and talking in an annoying screechy voice. This would have been tiresome in a three minute sketch back on Sandler's Saturday Night Live days. In a 90 minute movie, it's excruciating. Throw in a bizarre and over the top performance by Al Pacino playing a caricature of himself, and you have a movie that pretty much defines the phrase "what were they thinking"?

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03. BUCKY LARSON: BORN TO BE A STAR - The other movie from Adam Sandler to appear on this list. He was wise enough not to actually act in it, but his name is still all over the movie, both as lead writer and producer. The fact that he released both Bucky Larson and Jack and Jill within two months of each other makes you wonder if he was going for some kind of endurance test. Bucky is a goofy and not very interesting young man (played by Nick Swardson) who talks with a lisp and has all the common sense of an escaped mental patient. He heads to Hollywood to get a job in the porn business, after he finds out that his parents were porn stars in their younger years. It may sound dirty and raunchy, but the movie itself is so mind-numbingly boring. Nothing happens during the course of the movie, there's next to no plot, and the movie is so concerned about getting us to fall in love with Bucky that it never allows him to do anything truly funny. He's just a dorky, overly-nice sap of a guy. The character is a total bore, and so is this lifeless and completely inert movie.

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02. CONAN THE BARBARIAN - The only movie that can top The Change-Up in terms of sheer unpleasantness. This is an ugly, vile, movie that throws a lot of dirt, mud, blood, and gore up on the screen to try to hide the fact that there's absolutely nothing worth watching up on the screen. Conan tries to revive the long-dormant franchise (made famous in the 80s by Arnold Schwarzenegger), but ended up giving us a movie so bad and unmemorable that the fans pretty much stayed home in droves. It was cheaply made, badly acted, ugly to look at, reprehensible at its level of violence, and a total chore to sit through. The only saving graces were some moments where I found myself laughing at the film's ineptitude. There's even a moment where Conan is having a sword fight with the film's villain, and as they do battle, the villain cries out, "I don't like you, barbarian!" That makes two of us.

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01. ATLAS SHRUGGED PART 1 - It was a very close call for the number one spot, but when I had to think of a movie I saw in 2011 that I would never in my life ever want to sit through again, Atlas Shrugged took the prize. This movie was so bad, I remembered I didn't even want to review it after watching it. I just didn't want to talk about it. Based on the controversial novel by Ayn Rand, this movie is really just an endless series of scenes of second rate actors sitting at tables, talking about nothing that remotely interests us, with random footage of trains and people putting together railroad tracks thrown in from time to time. Everything about this movie seems cheap and slapped together. The actors are second rate, it looks like a low budget made-for-TV movie, and it's probably the most excruciatingly boring movie I have ever sat through in a theater. This is one of those movies that required a superhuman effort on my part just to stay in my seat. Considering that nobody went to see this movie, I can at least take comfort in knowing that Part 2 won't be coming anytime soon. Now if only I could somehow go back in time, and stop Part 1 from happening...

Well, that covers the Top 10, but I'm far from done yet. It's time to cover the Dishonorable Mentions, the movies that were bad, but not quite bad enough to crack the upper tiers of awfulness. Most of these movies are out on DVD by now, so if you should see them, do not make eye contact, and proceed with caution.


DISHONORABLE MENTIONS:

The Green Hornet, No Strings Attached, Sanctum, Big Mommas: Like Father Like Son, Beastly, Battle: Los Angeles, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules, Your Highness, Priest, Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer, Green Lantern, Apollo 18, Shark Night 3D, Abduction, Dream House, The Three Musketeers, J. Edgar, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1, The Sitter, Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-Wrecked, The Darkest Hour


THE INDIVIDUAL REEL STINKERS AWARDS:

WORST SEQUEL:
Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-Wrecked

MOST UNNECESSARY SEQUEL:
Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son

WORST PERFORMANCE BY A RESPECTED ACTOR/ACTRESS:
Al Pacino in Jack and Jill

WORST OVERALL PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR/ACTRESS:
Tie between Nick Swardson in Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star and Adam Sandler as Jill in Jack and Jill

WORST USE OF 3D:
Tie between Sanctum and Conan the Barbarian

WORST REMAKE:
Conan the Barbarian

WORST IDEA FOR A MOVIE THAT NEVER COULD HAVE WORKED:
Jack and Jill

REPEAT OFFENDERS (ACTORS WHO WERE INVOLVED IN MORE THAN ONE STINKER IN 2011):
Leighton Meester in The Roommate and Monte Carlo
Ryan Reynolds in Green Lantern and The Change-Up
Adam Sandler for writing and producing Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star, and for writing, producing, and starring in Jack and Jill
Alex Pettyfer in I Am Number Four and Beastly
Taylor Lautner in Abduction and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1

WORST ON-SCREEN TEAM:
Three way tie -
Adam Sandler and Al Pacino in Jack and Jill
Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman in The Change-Up
Seth Rogen and Jay Chou in The Green Hornet

MOVIE BLOCKBUSTER THAT DIDN'T DESERVE TO MAKE MONEY:
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1

STUDIO THAT RELEASED THE MOST STINKERS IN 2011:
Sony Entertainment, who through the multiple studios they own (including Columbia, Tri-Star, and Screen Gems), released The Roommate, Jack and Jill, Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star, The Green Hornet, Battle: Los Angeles, and Priest. Keep up the great work, guys!

And with that, I close the book on the stinkers of 2011. Here's to hoping that the people involved with these films learn from their mistakes, and appear in better films in 2012. I guess all that's left to say is let's put the ugliness of bad movies behind us, and look forward to the promise of a new year. Have a happy and safe 2012, everybody!

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Darkest Hour

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Whenever I see a movie as generic and as dull as The Darkest Hour, I have to ask myself if the filmmakers really actually believed that they were making something worthwhile, and would stick out in people's minds. Sure, nobody ever intends to make a bad movie, but when I see a movie like this that doesn't hold a single original idea, image, or character worth caring about, I wonder what the thought process was. Did they really say, "Hey, guys, let's play it safe, and make a movie that looks and feels like a million other movies just like it"? I hope not, but I have my suspicions.

picNot that the movie didn't have all the tell tale signs of a stinker when I was walking into the theater. It's a moderately budgeted Sci-Fi thriller being released with little fanfare over the Christmas weekend, and was not screened for critics. In other words, it's designed to suck in bored teenagers who tried to get in to see Mission: Impossible or Sherlock Holmes, but they were sold out. The Darkest Hour is yet another post-apocalyptic movie, where a group of people try to cling to hope after a terrible catastrophe, usually caused by a natural disaster or alien invasion (in this case, alien invasion), has wiped out most of the people around them. You've seen dozens of movies just like it, and this one is no different. It follows the playbook of these kind of movies word for word, the only thing setting it apart from others is where the story takes place.

picIn this case, the film's setting is Moscow. Most post-apocalyptic films (especially ones aimed at a youth market) take place in New York or L.A., so I must give credit to the filmmakers for choosing a different backdrop to set their story. But, I'm afraid I must give partial credit, as they fail to think of anything interesting to do with their unique setting. Our heroes are a couple of young best friends from America (Emile Hirsch and Max Minghella) who come to Russia to become web entrepreneurs by selling a phone app they've designed. Unfortunately, their idea is stolen by a slimy business rival (Joel Kinnaman). Their hopes of becoming instant success stories shattered, the two friends head to a local bar to drown their sorrows and pick up women, specifically two young American women who are touring Moscow (Olivia Thirlby and Rachael Taylor). While they're partying, the lights in the building and the entire city go out, and the alien invasion begins.

picGlowing spheres of yellow light fall from the night sky, representing the arrival of mostly invisible hostile aliens that can turn anyone they touch into ash. The effect of the aliens turning people (and in one scene, an unfortunate stray dog) into ash seems to be lifted entirely from Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds film from summer 2005. The young people from the bar must now band together if they want to survive. Sure, we've seen this idea many times before, but it still could have worked if the characters had been written with some form of personality. No such luck. Nobody gets to show any personality or character development (other than one of the main characters falling in love with one of the girls they met at the bar), and their dialogue doesn't get much more complicated than "look at that", or, "hey guys, over here"!

picThe aliens are not much more interesting, since we usually can't see them in the first place. They're usually represented by long, whip-like strands of electricity that they use to capture human victims. I'm not saying the idea of invisible aliens couldn't work, but it would require an intelligent screenplay to pull it off, and a director who knew how to build tension and a sense of paranoia. Director Chris Gorak does not display this talent, as not a single sequence of the movie builds to any emotion except indifference. I should give him the benefit of the doubt, though. His last film was a horror movie called Right at Your Door, which I have not seen, but have heard very strong things about. I'm guessing this is a case of the director bending to studio pressure.
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Another sign of studio interference - The movie is only 90 minutes long, and seems to end quite abruptly, as if there was supposed to be more. I'd say that they were hoping to get to do a sequel, but given the treatment the movie is getting (a quiet release over a big holiday, not being screened for critics), I doubt this is true. The Darkest Hour is the kind of movie that deserves to be swept under the rug. It's not memorable in any way, it's not well made or well acted, and it's yet another movie that proves my theory that movies that take place mostly at night should not be in 3D, as the glasses just make the picture extra muddy and murky. And no, the 3D effects are not worth the extra price of the ticket.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at Amazon.com!

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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

My Week with Marilyn

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It's impossible to watch My Week with Marilyn, and not be drawn in by Michelle Williams' performance as Marilyn Monroe at the height of her fame, and just six years away from her death. In the movie, we can already see the warning signs that would later effect her career and private life. While it's true that Williams is not a picture perfect match for Monroe physically (though she's so close, I wasn't complaining), her performance, and how she is able to capture the multiple sides of the actress, both her private and her public image, is nothing short of remarkable. It's one of the great performances of the year, and is sure to earn Michelle Williams a gold trophy or two during the winter award season.

picDespite the performance at the center of it all, the movie itself is not entirely about Marilyn Monroe. It is rather the story of Colin Clark, a man who in 1956 earned the chance to work as the third assistant to the director on a troubled film project titled The Prince and the Showgirl, a high profile film at the time that teamed up directing and acting royalty, Laurence Olivier, with the sexy young starlet. The film is not exactly remembered today, but due to Clark's two autobiographical books (which served as the basis of the screenplay) before his death in 2002, the behind the scenes story of the struggle to make the film, and the relationship that Clark managed to build with Monroe during the shooting of the picture have become quite famous. This is an accurate docudrama that, despite dealing with the serious topic of Monroe's early signs of descent into drinking and pill popping, manages to stay fairly light in tone for most of the film, and is highly entertaining. The movie manages to be warm and nostalgic, while not shying away from the darker edges of the story.

picWe meet Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) as a young man obsessed with the movies, and dreaming about leaving his stiff, intellectual family home behind, and chase his goals of making movies. Through sheer persistence (he shows up everyday at the office of the studio head, and waits for any sort of job to open), he winds up getting a low level job on The Prince and the Showgirl, a romantic comedy that's viewed as a sure fire winner, as it stars the renowned Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), and Monroe, who is trying to branch out and be taken seriously as an actress. Almost from the beginning, there are problems, due to Marilyn's personal insecurities off camera with her recent marriage to playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), and her inconsistent performances on camera, which drive Olivier almost to madness. She is frequently late to the set (or sometimes does not show up at all), and despite emotional support from a fellow actress working on the film named Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench), and Monroe's personal assistant, Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), Monroe still frequently feels lost or unwanted on the set.

picClark comes into the picture when he develops an unexpected relationship with Marilyn. He has always been fascinated by Monroe, and is awed simply to be in her presence. As for her, she senses a kind of compassion from him that she doesn't receive from anyone else on the set, and she begins to ask to see him privately at the home she is staying at while shooting the film. This leads to lengthy "dates", where Colin Clark gives her a chance to see London as a real person, not as a celebrity. As he is drawn into Marilyn's private life, he sees the warning signs of alcohol and pills, but he still holds a deep respect for her. Unfortunately, the time he spends with her puts a damper on the relationship he was building with a young woman who he likes that's working in the wardrobe department for the film (Emma Watson). But he is so drawn in by Marilyn, and the fact that she seems interested in someone as "small" and normal as him, that he does not care, or perhaps does not realize he is hurting someone.

picDuring Clark's time with Marilyn, he gets to see all the different sides of her, and so do we, thanks to Michelle Williams' performance. She perfectly captures the "normal" and frightened Norma Jean who lost her mother when she was very young, and the sexy bombshell that is Marilyn Monroe. There are scenes in My Week with Marilyn that show how she could change from one personality to the other in an instant. One minute, she is a normal, timid woman, enjoying the city sights with Colin. But when the fans discovered who she was, and began surrounding her, she could turn on her sexy screen personality without missing a beat. We see that even though Marilyn Monroe may have been an image she created for the screen, it was still obviously a part of her.

picWe also get to see the growing relationship between Clark and Marilyn, due to the fact that the movie takes enough time to show the two together, talking, and being alone. Their relationship does not feel forced, and though we know that Marilyn's manager is right when he warns Clark not to get involved with her, as she will only end up breaking his heart, we still sense a genuine respect between the two. This is partly thanks to the screenplay by Adrian Hodges (which stays fairly close to the facts), but mainly to the wonderful screen chemistry between Williams and Redmayne. I have not seen Redmayne in much else, but his performance as Colin Clark is appropriately low key, without being boring or thinly developed. As for the rest of the cast, they don't get as much screen time or development, but they do get to stand out in their own way, especially Branagh as Olivier, who comes across as someone who is torn by his love and desire for Monroe, and his outrage over her sometimes flaky behavior on and off the camera.
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My Week with Marilyn has been made with great energy by director Simon Curtis, whose previous jobs were mainly in television. He shows here a talent for staying true to the facts, while not getting mired in the details. This is a bright, entertaining, and informative look at the height and the early stages of the downfall of a classic star. It's certain to be a crowd pleaser to anyone who seeks it out as it slowly expands its theatrical release over the holidays. If anything, the movie deserves to be seen for Michelle Williams' performance alone. Fortunately, the film is good enough to stand on its own, as well.

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Sunday, December 25, 2011

War Horse

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I remember seeing the stage play of War Horse during a trip to New York this past April, and thinking to myself that there was no way a film adaptation of the original source novel could live up to the experience of the play. After all, the story behind it is rather cliched and predictable. What made the play one of the better theatrical experiences of the year was the technical wizardry of the life-sized puppets used to represent the horses, battlefield tanks, and other effects. Would a straight forward adaptation be able to hold the same spell over me as an audience member?

picIn many ways, the answer that Steven Spielberg's film has given me is yes. Even though the film cannot match the "theatrical magic" quality of the play, it more than makes up for it in emotion and the realism of the battle scenes. While it is a far cry from his work in Saving Private Ryan (this is, after all, a PG-13 family film), you can still see Spielberg digging up the same emotions and raw tension that he put forth in that earlier movie's depiction of the chaos and senselessness of war. As in that earlier movie, we get a sense of actually being there on the battlefield. This is not the choreographed or staged battles that we get in so many movies. Spielberg has a talent of making war as dirty, lonely, and frightening as it is in real life. How he is able to tap into such emotions, I have no idea. All I can say is that the battle sequences on display are some of the most harrowing and heartbreaking to come in a while.

picBut long before that, War Horse is a simple story of a boy bonding with a farm horse in a plot that could have been lifted from any number of movies from the 1930s. The boy is Albert (newcomer Jeremy Irvine), a British teenager who acquires the horse when his alcoholic father (Peter Mullan) buys the animal with the money the family needs for the mortgage and food, just so he can show up their landlord (David Thewlis), who was trying to purchase the horse for his son. In order to pay off the debts they owe, Albert trains the horse (whom he names Joey) to plow and work in the fields. When heavy flooding rains destroy the farm's crops, Albert's desperate father is forced to sell Joey to the British military, as World War I is starting, and the army needs horses for their Calvary.

picIn the original novel by Michael Morpurgo, the story was told from Joey the horse's point of view. Fortunately, screenwriters Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and Richard Curtis (Pirate Radio) find other ways to show the horse's story, without having to resort to an unintentionally comical voice over narration. They do this by following Joey's experiences in battle, and various situations he finds himself in, such as when he is involved with two young German soldiers deserting their duties, or when he is adopted by a young girl and her kindly grandfather. It does make the movie become somewhat fragmented, as Joey is dragged from one situation to the next, but it works in the case of this film. We also follow Albert, who joins the military in a desperate attempt that maybe he can find Joey, and bring him home with him. Seeing war from both a human soldier, and an animal that cannot comprehend what is going on around it is kind of fascinating in a way. Both are probably feeling the same emotions of confusion and terror. But only one of them went into war willingly.

picI'm sure that there will be many who accuse the movie of being cornball, and the movie does certainly wear its heart on its sleeve. But unlike less successful films that try and fail to be heartfelt, I never got the sense that Spielberg was pandering here. He believes in the story he is telling, and he sells it effectively, too. His cast help sell the material, with veteran actors like David Thewlis and Emily Watson both giving fine turns here. They also come across as good sports, since pretty much the entire cast has to be upstaged by the horse in just about every scene. There are also some really nice smaller moments, such as when a British and a German soldier briefly put aside their differences to help Joey get free from some barbed wire he's trapped in. Can this movie be manipulative? Oh my, yes. But Spielberg knows how to do so in such a way that I wasn't annoyed. I was actually kind of drawn in.
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I said earlier that War Horse is a PG-13 family film, and the studio is marketing it as their big Christmas release. That said, the movie does get pretty intense at times during its war scenes, too much so for very young children. Older kids will have no problems, but little ones who might be drawn in by the beautiful horse in the ads will likely be frightened by the death, violence, and trauma that Albert and Joey have to go through. This is a harsh film about war, that also manages to be sweet and heart tugging at the same time. Maybe that sounds like a strange combination, but this movie manages to make it work.

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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

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It may seem like an odd decision on the part of the studio to hire Brad Bird, an animation filmmaker best known for his work with Pixar on films like The Incredibles and Ratatouille, to helm the fourth installment of the 15-year-old Mission: Impossible film franchise. But watch the first 90 minutes of Ghost Protocol, and you will see that Bird delivers some of the finest action, stunts, and special effects Hollywood has to offer. Wait, did I say the first 90 minutes? Indeed I did, as this is a 133 minute long movie, and the remaining 43 minutes unfortunately are not as strong. Still, the movie doesn't suffer too much, and even at its worse, this still stands head and shoulders above just about any action film release you could mention to come out in 2011.

picTom Cruise returns as Ethan Hunt, who is this time on the trail of a madman named Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), who wants to get his hands on some weapons and some nuke codes so that he can start a war. The movie doesn't go a whole lot deeper than that into Hendricks' motivation. Anyone looking for deep espionage would be better off looking elsewhere. The movie is almost pure action, with sequences sometimes coming one after another, such as when Ethan Hunt first has to climb up the outside of a 100+ story building, then pose as an arms dealer to fool the villains, then gets in a fistfight, and then gets in a high speed chase, while a massive sandstorm is closing in. I'm sure you can picture such a chain of events as being tiring and maybe even overkill, but the movie is skillful, the action sequences are clean and precisely edited, and the whole thing is just over the top enough that we are still able to suspend disbelief. The whole thing works quite beautifully on a thrill ride level.

picAccompanying Hunt on his latest mission are Benji (Simon Pegg), a computer expert and the only returning supporting character from the last movie, Jane (Paula Patton), who delivers the film's sex appeal and gets to show off her fighting skills in a memorable girl fight sequence with an evil female terrorist, and Brandt (Jeremy Renner), who is just an analyst for Hunt's agency, but seems to have an awful lot of battle experience. Their mission to track down Hendricks becomes complicated when the villain blows up the Kremlin, and frames Hunt's team. Our heroes find themselves "disavowed", and the head of the organization sets up a Ghost Protocol, in which Hunt and his team can still continue their mission, but will have to do it on their own, without the help of the agency. This begins a world-wide chase across places like Dubai and Moscow in order to prevent Hendricks from setting off the nukes, and destroying the fragile relationship between the U.S. and Russia.

picThe first 90 minutes or so of Ghost Protocol left me nearly as breathless as the film's pacing, with Hunt racing from one location after another after Hendricks, and the movie leaping from one spectacular sequence after the next. After I saw the sequence where Hunt chases down the villain in the middle of a sandstorm, I actually found myself wondering how the movie was going to top itself. The answer, disappointingly, is that it doesn't even try to. Once this sequence is over, the movie seems kind of at a loss at what to do. While it never becomes boring, the remaining 43 minutes are never quite as exciting as what came before, and the climactic action sequence is somewhat of a let down. Please don't read this as me saying that Ghost Protocol is disappointing, as it certain isn't. It's just that everything that comes before it is spectacular, while the remainder is simply good.

picAs is to be expected, this is pretty much Cruise's movie, as he is not only the star, but also the lead producer. He gets most of the big stunts and action sequences, although co-star Jeremy Renner does get to perform a pretty big stunt near the end. Regardless, the movie is pretty much about Cruise and his fellow actors leaping from one big set piece to the next. The dialogue exists mainly to take us to the next sequence, or to give the characters some slight motivation. I think a big part as to why the film manages to still work is that despite its formula of all action-almost-all-the-time, director Brad Bird does know how to pace himself. He builds up our expectations, and then he manages to deliver. He also shows a sense of humor, giving Hunt and some of his supporting agents a few more one liners than I think they had in previous films. The fact that the one liners are actually funny manage to give the characters more personality.

picThe real test to which Ghost Protocol should be judged, however, is how does the movie make you feel during its action sequences. Let me tell you, when you see Tom Cruise climbing the outside of a massive shimmering building like Spider-Man, you won't be thinking about why doesn't anyone inside the building happen to look out the window and see him. You also won't be thinking about how the stunt was pulled off. All you'll be thinking about is the awe that the sequence is able to convey. I don't care if they used CG or a lot of film trickery, the sequence works, and the sense of danger it creates is palpable. That's all that matters. I'm sure the sequence is even more of a stunner in IMAX (which the film is also being show in, and has been designed for). Would it be worth it to check out one of the special IMAX screenings? Normally I would say no, but given the absolute power of some of these action sequences, it just might be worth it.
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So yeah, the movie's not that well developed in its characters or plot. And no, I did not care for a minute. I really only started to get annoyed when the movie seemed to run out of gas slightly in the home stretch. But hey, if that was the worst thing I had to say about every action movie I saw, I'd be recommending them left and right. This is not a movie of tremendous brains, but it certainly took a lot of tremendous skill and talent to make, and it's all right up there on the screen.

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Friday, December 23, 2011

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

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I walked into David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo completely cold, having not read the books by the late Stieg Larsson, or seen the original Swedish film adaptation. Judging by other reviews I have read, this may be the best way to approach the film, as many reviews seem to lean too heavily on the novel or the foreign films. Having no preconceived expectations, I can say that this is a well made, but somewhat uneven film. On a technical level, the movie is flawless (as one would expect from Fincher), but I found the movie a little cold and distant on an emotional level. But then, I have a sneaking suspicion that this was intentional.

picThe story (adapted here by veteran screenwriter Steven Zaillian) is actually two different stories about two very different people. The first concerns a disgraced journalist named Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), whose career has just fallen apart due to a libel suit around an article he wrote. It's around this time that he is invited to visit a wealthy old man named Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), who hires him to investigate a family mystery, under the guise of doing research to write a biography about him. The mystery in question deals with the disappearance and suspected murder of a beloved niece over 40 years ago. Henrik believes that the killer responsible is someone within the family, and as Mikael accepts the job and begins digging into the Vanger family history, he suspects that the old man might be onto something. Most of the family members he interviews or questions seem to be very guarded or secretive. Even the ones that are more open to him can't seem to be fully trusted. The premise of Mikael being drawn into this decades-old unsolved mystery, trapped on an island with all these possibly distrustful or even murderous people is when the film is at its most suspenseful.

picIn the second plot, we are introduced to Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a bisexual goth girl who works as a computer hacker and researcher for hire, using her hacking skills to get information on anyone she's paid to investigate. Lisbeth has a complicated history of her own (which the movie is somewhat vague on, obviously saving it for the inevitable sequels), and due to her somewhat unstable and violent behavior, is under the care of a legal guardian. Unfortunately, her current legal guardian suffers a stroke, and she is placed under the watch of a crooked man who demands "sexual favors", including tying her to a bed and raping her. Lisbeth is able to get her revenge and escape from underneath the thumb of the man. It's at this point that Lisbeth is pulled into the plot concerning Mikael, when she is hired to help him dig up the complicated Vanger family history. The relationship that builds between Mikael and Lisbeth is a complicated one, built out of a business partnership, eventual respect, and then ultimately sexual.

picYou would think that the relationship between the two main characters would be fascinating, but I found it to easily be the most forgettable part of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Maybe something did not translate right from the page to the screen, but for me, a bigger problem was the fact that Craig and Mara, though they are both fine individually, never really created any strong chemistry in my eyes. Their relationship, and the path that it takes while they are working together, seems forced. It's almost as if the screenplay is hitting the highlights of the relationship from the original novel, but leaving out the stuff that comes in between. Like I said, I have not read the books, so I cannot judge. It's just how the relationship came across to me. Maybe the later books and films go deeper into the relationship, and help flesh it out a little more. I can only hope.

picWhat works much better in the film, and what ultimately makes it a success, is the mystery that drives the plot. Fincher's last film, The Social Network, managed to take a subject that could have been technical and dull (in that film's case, the creation of Facebook), and turn it into a fascinating tale of jealousy and betrayal. Here, the mystery is mostly solved by digging up old photos and articles, which once again could have been very technical and dull, but Fincher and the script by Zaillian manages to keep the pace high as Mikhail and Lisbeth race about the island, bringing the past to light. The island itself actually becomes part of the mystery, as we are never sure just who to trust, and all the inhabitants don't seem to be very happy about their history being dug up by outsiders. There is a genuine sense of dread that the movie beautifully builds, and it's during these moments that the movie works the best.

picWhat doesn't work is a lot of the stuff outside of the mystery. Until the two plots merged, I was not that involved with Lisbeth's story of being a victim to a cruel man, and then taking revenge on her. Yes, the violence during these sequences is quite shocking (although I hear they've been toned down considerably from the original Swedish film), but outside of that, I had a hard time caring about Lisbeth. This should not discredit Rooney Mara's performance, which manages to be quite subtle and quiet, with a lot of hidden strength, so we can believe it when she does suddenly lash out in violence or anger. I can't tell if something was missing, or if the script just did a poor job of drawing me in, but whenever the action would cut away from the mystery and focus on Lisbeth, the movie would kind of grind to a halt for me. I have a feeling this won't be a problem in future installments, but for now, I had a hard time being drawn into her plot.
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Don't get me wrong, I'm glad I saw the movie. It's well acted, beautifully shot, and has a lot going for it. There are moments of intense power, and an intriguing mystery, surrounded by a lot of moments that just don't work as well as they should. Still, something tells me that Fincher is merely building up to something, and that the remaining two films will not only fill us in on some unanswered questions, but also be a lot stronger.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin

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In a lot of ways, The Adventures of Tintin is a pretty big gamble for director Steven Spielberg. Not only is it his first time directing an animated feature (his past efforts with animation have been as a producer), but it's a motion capture film - a technology that a lot of viewers are quite divided on as to its effectiveness of capturing human emotion. But perhaps the biggest gamble of all is Tintin himself. He is a famed comic book character known the world over...except for the US, where he is somewhat obscure.

picHopefully this will not keep audiences away, as they would be missing out on an exuberant adventure that's right up there with Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark. No knowledge of the character or the comics is required anyway. This is a fast-paced, frequently laugh out loud funny, and always exciting movie that evokes childhood fantasies of faraway places and dangers. It's impossible not to picture Spielberg having a big goofy grin on his face the entire time he was making this. He gets to play around with a lot of tools, and makes great use out of all of them. The fact that the film is animated allows him to create sensational action sequences that would be next to impossible to pull off with live actors. The film's 3D is used to enhance the look of the film, rather than be a tired gimmick. And finally, the motion capture, while by no means perfect (they still can't quite get the eyes right with this form of animation), is amongst the best around. Those who criticize the movie for having a lack of plot or strong characters can go see Spielberg's other movie this Christmas, War Horse. This is the director being a giant kid, creating and dreaming in a $100 million sandbox built of his imagination.

picThe character of Tintin (voiced here by Jamie Bell) is, despite his boyish appearance, an experienced journalist and globe-spanning adventurer. He doesn't seem very concerned with his job or deadlines, as he can just race off to the farthest corners of the Earth for a new adventure at a moment's notice. He is usually accompanied on these adventures by his faithful dog and sidekick, Snowy. Snowy is quite clever for a dog, although he can get easily distracted from the mission by unguarded food, or a bothersome cat. His other main sidekick is a burly and usually drunken man of the sea named Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis). He serves more as comic relief, but he can be quite useful to our young hero in a fight or a tough situation. The adventure kicks off when Tintin purchases a model ship from a street merchant, not knowing that an evil man by the name of Sakharine (Daniel Craig) is seeking it as well. The model apparently holds a clue to a great treasure, and Sakharine is not below killing in order to obtain its secrets. Tintin, Snowy, and Haddock must now stay ahead of the men they suddenly find pursuing them, in order to learn of the model's secrets.

picIn the tradition of the Indiana Jones films, Tintin concerns itself with harrowing escapes, daring plane flights through dangerous storms, deadly pirates, high speed chases in cars and motorcycles that usually result in massive property damage to whatever faraway place our heroes happen to be, and secrets of the past hidden by cryptic riddles that lead to lost treasure. When you consider that these are elements of both the film and the comics and inspired them, it's easy to see why the comic's creator, Herge, insisted that Spielberg was the only man capable of bringing his stories and characters to the screen. He was right. The movie is able to tap into that ridiculous classic Saturday matinee serial vibe that pays tribute to the great adventures of old, while having a little bit of fun at its own expense. Not only is the action frequently fast and tense (but never so chaotic that we feel overwhelmed), but they are filled with several blink and you'll miss it visual gags that the filmmakers have thrown in to show that this is all in fun.

picAnd what fun this movie is. And if the screenplay by Steven Moffat (TV's Dr. Who), Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) and Joe Cornish (Attack the Block) seems like it was dreamed up by a child's imagination, then that's part of the fun, too. The movie is thrilling, exciting, funny, and upbeat enough that kids of a certain age (I'd say around 10) will find irresistible. Adults won't be left out of the fun, as the movie has plenty of sly dialogue exchanges, and a sense of wonder to many of its visuals. This is a beautiful movie, but most of all, this is a movie that is full of wonder. It's a rare combination of innocence and frantic action. I have a feeling that many young boys who see this will have a new favorite movie walking out. I know it would be one of mine had I seen this at their age.
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It's hard to describe just how The Adventures of Tintin made me feel. It's so full of joy, action, and humor that I got lost in the thrill. I didn't care about the thin plot, or the somewhat two dimensional characters. I suppose there will be those who see them as shortcomings so strong, they can't enjoy the film. The way I saw the movie, I was having too much fun to care. I guess this is one of those movies that will either work for you or it won't. It worked for me in a big way.

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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-Wrecked

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In a season where wonderful family films like Hugo, The Muppets, and Arthur Christmas are playing, there is absolutely no reason to see Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-Wrecked. In fact, even if those other movies weren't playing, there would still be no reason to see this. The movie is a cynical cash grab targeting the kids who were delighted by the previous two Alvin films. It's an 87 minute dead zone devoid of imagination, wit, and substance. Parents who take their kids to see this get what they deserve.

picLet's be honest, the Chipmunk movies haven't exactly been the cream of the kiddie movie crop. But, I found them mostly harmless, and kind of cute in certain moments. The latest entry, in comparison, is a total con. It lures kids in with the promise of more adventures with their favorite characters, and then gives them a movie where the Chipmunks and the Chipettes (girl singing chipmunks) doing very little for almost 90 minutes. The plot (such as it is) kicks off with Chipmunks Alvin (voice by Justin Long), Simon (voice by Matthew Gray Gubler) and Theodore (voice by Jesse McCartney), along with the Chipettes Brittany (voice by Christina Applegate), Jeanette (voice by Anna Farris) and Eleanor (voice by Amy Poehler) about to embark on a luxury cruise vacation with their human surrogate father, Dave (Jason Lee). The movie goes out of its way to make sure we know that they are sailing on a Carnival Cruise ship, through various signs placed strategically in the background, or having the name mentioned in the dialogue. Were it not for Jack and Jill managing to work Dunkin' Donuts into its own plot just one month ago, this would be the most blatant use of product placement I've seen in a long time.

picAlso on board the cruise ship is Ian (David Cross), a former music executive who served as the villain in the last two movies. His career has been ruined, and he's hit hard times, so he's now forced to work on the ship as a costumed mascot character. David Cross can be very funny, as anyone who has seen his work on the TV shows Arrested Development or Mr. Show already knows. The fact that he spends the entire movie dressed in a cartoon pelican costume shows that he's a pretty good sport. The fact that he can't think of anything funny or interesting to do during the film's running time shows that he probably should have walked away from this one. But, I digress. Alvin, the Chipmunks, and the Chipettes all get separated from the ship during a mishap with a kite that carries them out to sea. They wash ashore on a deserted island, and wait for Dave to rescue them, who is forced to team up with Ian, after both men go overboard as well while trying to rescue Alvin and the others.

picThis makes up the bulk of the film, with the Chipmunks and Chipettes trying to survive, while Dave and Ian put aside their past differences and look for them. This is where the movie sputters into hopelessness. The stuff with the Chipmunks trying to live on the island is not funny or interesting, there's a subplot where the brainy and cautious Simon gets a spider bite, which somehow effects his way of thinking, turning him into a dashing and suave adventurer named Simone, and there's a volcano off in the distance that looks like it's getting ready to erupt and threaten the entire island. There is nothing exciting in any of these storylines, especially the stuff concerning the volcano, which includes some of the least convincing special effects I've seen in a big budget movie in a while when it finally goes off. There's also a woman who lives on the island named Zoe (played by Saturday Night Live's Jenny Slate). She's looking for a lost treasure, and has been isolated on the island so long, she talks to volleyballs with faces drawn on them in a ten years too late parody of Tom Hanks in Cast Away.

picEverything unfolds in such a sluggish manner. The previous movies never wowed me, but at least I wasn't completely bored like I was here. This is a movie where it looks like everybody came back just because of the paycheck. Nobody's heart is in it, the sets and special effects look surprisingly chintzy this time around, and there's just an overall feeling that nobody cared about making a good movie, and just slapped a product together. Chip-Wrecked is like one of those cheap made for DVD movies that parents sometimes use to appease kids when they want time to themselves. The only difference is that you have to pay theater prices to watch it. And once the theater has your money, the movie doesn't have the decency to give the kids anything of value. It's just a lot of bright colors and mindless music montages.
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There are plenty of great movies for kids out there that spark their imagination, make them think, or inspires something within them. This is a soulless cash grab that doesn't want to do any of those things. This is cinematic junk food that nobody needs, especially young children, who deserve much better.

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