Reel Opinions

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Best Films of 2011

Well, it's Oscar night, so I think it's time I look back over the past year, and pick my favorite films of 2011. Yeah, I know, it's nearly March, and most people do this sort of thing at the end of December. 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 choose 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 the great films of 2011. The great films can be anything that grabbed my attention, so they can be dramas, comedies, kid's films, whatever. Then I'll be listing the "honorable mentions" (the runner ups), and my 10 favorite actor and actress performances of the year. Aside from "Best Film", all of these choices will be listed in no particular order.

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

THE DESCENDANTS - In his eight year absence from making films, co-writer and director, Alexander Payne, has thankfully not lost his gift for mixing quiet observation and dark humor, or his ability to perfectly depict a man silently breaking down in the midst of a personal crisis. He displays all of this in The Descendants, which just may be the top of a very fine career. George Clooney gives one of the best performances of the year as a married man who is forced to be a father for the first time in his life to his two daughters, when his wife goes into a coma after a speedboat accident. He is then forced to question his entire relationship, and even his life up to this point, when he learns that his wife may have been planning to leave him for another man before she was in the accident. This is probably the most realistic film to come out of 2011 - Nothing seems forced or calculated, and the performances are top notch throughout. This movie won my heart like very few were able to last year.

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS - Woody Allen's light and frothy meditation on nostalgia is a pure delight, and was one of the more pleasant surprises of the year. Owen Wilson is charming as a man vacationing in Paris with his materialistic fiance (Rachel McAdams), who just wants to get lost in the romance and the romantic history of the city itself. He finds a way to journey back into the past when a mysterious car picks him up at the same spot every night at the stroke of midnight, and takes him into the past to meet some his favorite writers and playwrights like Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, and most importantly, a young woman named Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who has connections with Pablo Picasso, and fantasies of the past as well. Midnight in Paris is a very funny and heartfelt look at our tendency to romanticize the past, and how the present may not be quite as bad as it seems. It may not be revolutionary or very hard-hitting, but it is a lot of fun, and a very sweet fantasy.
50/50- Or know by the large number of people who refused to give this great little movie a chance, "that comedy about cancer". Giving 50/50 such a simple brushoff is a real crime. This is an honest, emotional, and yes, frequently funny look at a young man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who's life nearly comes undone when he is diagnosed with a rare and life-threatening form of spinal cancer. Screenwriter Will Reiser based this film on his own experiences with and beating cancer, and it shows in this very realistic, thoughtful, wise, sad, uplifting, and highly entertaining film. There's some fine acting on display, including Anjelica Huston (as his supportive and worrying mother), Seth Rogen (as Levitt's best friend), and especially Anna Kendrick, as the therapist who is assigned to work with him during his illness. A lot of people missed this one at the theater, so I'm hoping it gets a second chance on DVD.
THE IDES OF MARCH - George Clooney is two-for-two here in this engaging political drama, which he not only co-stars in, but also co-wrote and directed. Based on an Off-Broadway play, The Ides of March follows an idealistic young campaign aide (Ryan Gosling), who fully supports Presidential candidate Mike Morris (Clooney), and believes that Morris truly has the ability to change things for the better in the government. The film deals with the aide's dreams of honesty and integrity crumbling as he discovers the dark political secrets of the people he's working with, for, and even working against. The story and theme of corruption in government is sadly nothing new, but that does not take away from the fact that this is a taut and emotional drama, filled with A-grade performances, and a tone that starts out casual and almost documentary style, and then turns into a gripping emotional thriller. The Ides of March paints a very bleak picture, where everyone is corrupt and no one can be trusted, but it is no less entertaining, thanks to Clooney's energetic direction.
HUGO - Martin Scorsese's engaging and heartfelt fantasy, Hugo, not only celebrates the early special effects pioneers in cinema, it is also a masterful demonstration of modern day 3D, and how it should be done. A young boy named Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives alone within the walls and clock tower of a massive train station in Paris in the 1930s. The plot involves his friendship with a young girl who is always at the station (Chloe Moretz), a mysterious mechanical man that Hugo's father was obsessed with repairing before he died in a tragic fire, and the grumpy old man who runs a toy shop within the station (Ben Kingsley, giving his best performance in a while), who not only eventually warms up to young Hugo, but may also hold the answers he seeks about the mysterious mechanical man his father brought home from a museum years ago. Full of imagination, passion, charm, memorable characters, ingenious set designs, and a sense of wonder that most big budget epics can only dream to match, Hugo is one of the year's most unforgettable films.
THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN - Steven Spielberg's lively and exciting motion capture animated adventure story, based on the classic comic books by Herge, was a huge success all over the world...except in the United States, mainly due to the character's relative obscurity over here. Nonetheless, this is Spielberg in rollicking adventure mode, and he brings us a lot of memorable action set pieces, some very sharp humor, and a wonderful art style. The film follows the adventurous young Tintin (Jamie Bell), his companion Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), and Tintin's faithful dog, Snowy, as they go on a globe-spanning adventure to seek out a lost treasure, the clues leading to said treasure contained within three model ships. This movie captures the fun, excitement, and thrill ride action sequences of the Indiana Jones films much better than Spielberg's own Crystal Skull did. He takes full advantage of the 3D animation, bringing us memorable images, and some action sequences that would be near impossible to do in live action. This was some of the most fun I had at the movies last year.
THE ARTIST - The favorite to win at the Oscars tonight. While I greatly preferred The Descendants to this, The Artist is still a remarkable achievement in the way it perfectly recreates the look, feel, and tone of a 1920s Hollywood melodrama. The plot is familiarity itself, as we witness two actors - one, an established star (Jean Dujardin) whose career goes downhill when movies go into sound and talking, and the other a young hopeful (Berenice Bejo) who starts out as a background actor in the established star's movies, and quickly finds her career rising to the point that she has been dubbed "America's Sweetheart". The movie follows both of their lives and careers as they intersect over a five year period, from the final days of silent movies, to the rise of talking pictures, and finally the early days of the Great Depression, when the established star hits rock bottom, and the hopeful may be his only chance at a new life and a second chance in Hollywood. This is a simple, graceful little film that embraces what it is - a throwback to a simpler time of storytelling in Hollywood.

That concludes this year's list of great films. Now let's take a look at the Honorable Mentions of 2011.


Rango, Gnomeo and Juliet, The Adjustment Bureau, Cedar Rapids, The Lincoln Lawyer, Source Code, Arthur, Win-Win, The Conspirator, Thor, African Cats, Bridesmaids, Kung Fu Panda 2, X Men: First Class, Super 8, Horrible Bosses, Winnie the Pooh, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 2, Captain America, Crazy Stupid Love, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, One Day, Buck, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, The Debt, Contagion, Warrior, Drive, Moneyball, Real Steel, The Big Year, The Skin I Live In, Paranormal Activity 3, Norman, The Way, The Muppets, Arthur Christmas, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, War Horse, My Week with Marilyn.


Albert Brooks in Drive
George Clooney in The Descendants
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 50/50
Ryan Gosling in Drive
Ed Helms in Cedar Rapids
Jonah Hill in Moneyball
Ben Kingsley in Hugo
Nick Nolte in Warrior
Andy Serkis in Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Max Von Sydow in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close


Viola Davis in The Help
Elle Fanning in Super 8
Anjelica Huston in 50/50
Anna Kendrick in 50/50
Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids
Chloe Moretz in Hugo
Octavia Spencer in The Help
Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady
Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids
Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn

Well, that's it for this year. Another year topped off. Enjoy the Oscars tonight, and may the best movie win!


Act of Valor

I have no doubt that Act of Valor will be a major success at the box office. Not only is it being promoted by an aggressive marketing campaign, but it has a can't miss gimmick of featuring real life-active duty Navy SEALs as its stars in realistic missions. This automatically leads the audience to two conclusions. One conclusion is that the action sequences will be incredibly well done and authentic. The other is that the acting in the non-battle sequences is not exactly going to be the highlight of the film. Act of Valor lives up to both expectations.

picThe project was initially envisioned as a training and recruitment film for the SEALs, but directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh eventually decided to take their movie in another direction, and turn it into a film for mass audiences. The end result is a disconnect between the action sequences (which are executed flawlessly), and the more quiet, dramatic moments (which are wooden and uninvolving). The simple plot that's been shoehorned into the action involves terrorists trying to sneak into America's borders through Mexico. There are a number of action sequences, which involve the SEALs being dropped down, and then essentially mowing down everyone in sight. Here's a way to describe what kind of a movie this is - Did you ever see Team America: World Police? Well, this is the kind of movie that one was parodying. No wonder I had Team America's anthem, "America: Fuck, Yeah!" in my head during a lot of this film's scenes.

picOf course, the movie's sole purpose is to honor the soldiers who put their lives on the line every day. It's a noble cause, but not enough to sustain an entire movie. Especially not an entire movie filled with characters who barely reach one dimension. Of all the SEALs that we spend time with on the front line of battle, the only thing we really learn about them is that one of the guys has a pregnant wife back home. Everyone else pretty much does their job on the battlefield, which I guess is what a lot of people have come to see, but a bit of dramatic tension or character building would have been appreciated. And the villains are of the cartoonish over the top variety that could have wandered in from any B-war movie. For a movie that's using realism as one of its selling points, they could have at least given us villains who wouldn't feel right at home in G.I. Joe.

picAnd yet, whenever the cameras follow the Navy SEALs as they dive off choppers and into battle, we forget all about the narrative and acting problems, and focus on the intensity of battle, which the movie does a great job of recreating. Of course, I can only assume this is what it feels like to go behind enemy lines, and perform a rescue mission in the jungles of Costa Rica. It at least feels authentic, with the camera doing a great job of conveying the chaos and intensity of war. There is a certain documentary feel to the battle sequences, that is only broken up when the film switches over to a forced first person perspective that makes the whole thing kind of look like a video game. Every time the filmmakers switched to that point of view, it broke the mood, but outside of this decision, the battles really are flawlessly filmed.

picFor a lot of people, this alone will be enough to recommend Act of Valor, and I suspect they'll have a great time. But I wanted more dramatic intensity to go with the action intensity. I can't really say I cared about any of the SEALs up on the screen, as they're underwritten and developed so poorly, it's sometimes hard to tell them apart. The only one who does stand out is the senior chief SEAL, who at least gets to display a sense of humor a couple times in the film, and also comes across as the most natural actor in the movie. The rest of the acting by the SEALs is better left ignored. I guess it's kind of silly to criticize this aspect. After all, they're not actors to begin with. But in a movie playing on thousands of screens and asking people to pay top price, we expect at least some kind of professionalism. Outside of action, these guys have a hard time conveying the slightest emotion.
I suspect that Kathryn Bigelow's (The Hurt Locker) upcoming movie about the team that hunted down Osama Bin Laden will be more successful at blending emotion and battle realism. As it stands, Act of Valor is well made, and does manage to stir up some feelings of patriotism. It's just very thin stuff in its narrative and its emotions. We should definitely be grateful for what these soldiers do for us. Just don't ask them to act in another movie after this.

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Saturday, February 25, 2012


It's obvious that Gone wants to be a Hitchock-style thriller about paranoia, but it fumbles almost right out of the gate by the casting of Amanda Seyfried. She doesn't know how to sell this material. Her character should look like she's constantly on the edge, terrified, and more than a little desperate. The way Seyfried plays it, she looks only mildly peeved that her sister could possibly be in the hands of a deranged serial killer, and the police think she's crazy. If only the lead performance was all that was wrong with this movie.

picJill Conway (Seyfried) is a tortured young woman still traumatized by the events one year ago, where she was abducted from her bed by a shadowy figure, and dumped in a hole in the middle of the woods that was filled with human remains. When her kidnapper climbed down into the hole to have his way with her, she managed to conk him on the head with some bone from one of the past victims, and escape. When the police eventually found her, they were skeptical of the story, since she could not I.D. the man responsible, nor could they find any evidence of the hole she was supposedly dropped into when they searched the woods. Jill persisted, and the police eventually threw Jill into a mental hospital, since she had a history of mental trauma since her parents died years ago, and thought she was just seeking attention.

picSince being released from the hospital, Jill has been released into the custody of her younger sister (Emily Wickersham). The sister tries to help Jill lead a normal life, and set up dates with various men for her, but the trauma of past events still haunts every aspect of her life. She even takes self defense classes every night before she goes to work at a local diner during the midnight shift. Jill returns home from work one morning to find that her sister has mysteriously vanished without a trace. Jill is certain that the man responsible for her kidnapping has come back, and took her sister in a sort of vengeance for escaping. She has no proof, obviously, other than she finds it strange that her sister would leave their home in the middle of the night in her pajamas the night before a big college exam she was studying for. She goes to the police, but they are not in the mood to believe her story. "People have a right to go missing", one of the disbelieving officers rather cruelly tells her.

picJill just can't shake the feeling that someone has her sister, however. And who can blame her? Jill apparently lives in the red herring capital of the world. Almost everybody she meets and questions is shady, menacing, or a Steve Buscemi lookalike. There's the creepy guy across the street who hasn't been the same since his wife died. He claims he saw a locksmith truck parked outside Jill's house late last night, which leads her to the local locksmith, where she questions the creepy and suspicious looking man who owns the business, as well as his equally creepy and suspicious looking son. This conversation leads her to a guy who works at a hardware store who is so friendly and sunny, you know he has to be harboring the darkest secrets of anyone in the town. He leads her to a seedy hotel, where she has a run-in with the creepy and suspicious looking janitor, who in turn leads her to...Do I need to go on? The movie's one big chase, broken up by occasional scenes where the heroine questions people who exist to set off red flags in the audience.

picAs a thriller, Gone never quite tries hard enough. It's leisurely when it should be intense, and a lot of this has to do with Amanda Seyfried. Someone really should have taken her aside, and asked her if she understood what this movie is supposed to be about, as she seems far too controlled to pass herself off as a desperate woman on the edge. Her character has been written with intensity, but the performance never matches it. But then, no one gets to make much of an impression - Not Seyfried, not the actors playing the cops trying to hunt her down (who always seem to do the wrong thing for the sole reason the plot requires them to), and certainly not the psycho, who wen we learn the identity of, creates a new low for letdowns.
Finally, there's the ending. Hoo boy, the ending. I won't spoil it, but should you see this movie (and I'm not recommending you do), ask yourself if it was all worth it. All the trouble, all the red herrings, and all the running around leads to a lame brained climax that gives new meaning to the phrase "pulling an ending out of thin air, and seeing if it sticks". But by that point, I didn't really care about the answers to the questions the movie had been asking for some 95 minutes or so. I just wanted to leave. At least Gone has the good sense to wrap up right around this point, rather than drag it out any further.

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Tyler Perry's Good Deeds

There are a few things you know you're going to get in a Tyler Perry movie. You know that it's going to be an urban melodrama, usually revolving around the haves and the have-nots, and that the characterizations are going to be so simple, that if you wrote down all their character traits, it wouldn't take up half of a cocktail napkin. His latest film, Good Deeds, has everything I expected, but also some things I didn't. The melodrama, while still blunt, doesn't seem as blunt as in his past films, and he actually allows his film to have a couple likable, quiet moments. Could Perry be growing somewhat as a filmmaker?

picPerry plays Wesley Deeds, a man who comes from a wealthy family and background who has pretty much had his entire life planned out for him by his business head father (now deceased), and his somewhat-manipulative mother (Phylicia Rashad). Wesley has since taken over as the CEO of his father's computer software company, and everything in his life seems to be in order. He has a beautiful and supportive fiance (Gabrielle Union), business is booming, and his life has fallen into somewhat predictable and comfortable routine. In fact, the only thing in his life that seems to be out of order is his eternally hotheaded brother, Walter (an over the top Brian White), who also works at the company, and is still visibly angry that their dad picked Wesley to run the company instead of him.

picWalter is a perfect example of the traditional old Perry as a filmmaker and writer - He's one-note, he's over the top, and he brings everything that does work in the film to a screeching halt whenever he's on the screen. Nothing about the character seems genuine. He exists simply to walk around and be an ass to everyone he just happens to be sharing the screen with. The opening moments of the film are mainly centered on the tense relationship between the brothers (as well as the equally tense relationship Walter has with their mother), which did not fill me with hope. But then the film's central plot kicks in, and things improve a little bit. This concerns the lovely, yet blunt and outspoken, Lindsey (Thandie Newton). Lindsey is a working class woman who works as a cleaning lady at the company, and is struggling to support her six-year-old daughter (the adorable Jordenn Thompson) after they were kicked out of their apartment.

picWe're pretty much one step ahead of the characters the entire time. We know that Wesley and Lindsey are initially not going to get along at first (an argument erupts when Lindsey parks in Wesley's private parking space), but as they spend time together, they learn that they have a lot in common, and Wesley begins to sympathize with Lindsey's private struggles. Originality has never been Perry's strong suit, and he proves that again in Good Deeds. But, Newton and Perry have a surprising amount of chemistry together on screen, and actually get a couple scenes together where they get to act like real people, not characters being manipulated by a lame brained soap opera plot. I liked these moments, and groaned a little whenever the more over the top characters showed up to kick the plot back in motion.

picI'm sure it's no surprise that the relationship between Wesley and Lindsey grows to the point that Wesley's fiance begins to feel threatened. Once again, Perry shows a sign of maturity in how he handles this subplot. The woman Wesley is set to marry is a decent and kind woman. We like her, and we sympathize with her when she vents her frustrations about how predictable and dull their life has become together, even before they are actually married. And when she does find out about Lindsey, she does not suddenly turn into an over the top and evil villain character. Her last scene with Wesley is quiet, rational, and almost touching. This shows a remarkable amount of restraint on Perry's part, who usually makes his characters into such broad live action cartoons, we can't believe them as people. Here, there are moments of honesty, mixed in with more than a few of his traditional over the top moments.
I guess you could call Good Deeds a mixed bag. It shows signs that Perry is trying to move away from what he is known for, but he still feels a need to throw in some elements that his fanbase have come to love. I will say this - this is the closest I have come to actually enjoying a Tyler Perry movie. I'm not recommending it, as it's far too uneven and melodramatic at times to work. But, watching the film, there were a few moments where I actually found myself interested in the characters.

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Friday, February 24, 2012


The opening half hour of Wanderlust filled me with hope. I was laughing out loud, I was smiling, and I was enjoying the two lead performances. I settled in, confident that the movie was going to keep on the path it was going. But then, little by little, that confidence faded. While not a total loss, the movie seems to run out of gas just when it reaches its point. The set up is the most promising part. It's all downhill from there.

picAt least the lead performances remain enjoyable throughout. Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston play George and Linda, a married Manhattan couple who sink all of their money into a "micro-loft" apartment, which is a fancy way of saying it's an overpriced tiny room with a fold out bed. Still, the couple are confident they can pay for their lifestyle. After all, George is a successful businessman, and Linda is a documentary filmmaker who's latest film (a depressing nature film about penguins with cancer) is almost certain to be picked up by HBO. Alas, things don't work out. George loses his job when his boss becomes the focus of an FBI investigation, and Linda's documentary isn't picked up. They're forced to sell their apartment at a loss, move to Atlanta, and live with George's obnoxious brother (the film's co-writer, Ken Marino).

picOn their way to the brother's home, George and Linda find what they initially think is a bed and breakfast, only for it to turn out to be a modern day hippie community built around the ideas of free love, living off the land, and non-violence. The leader of the commune is a long-haired, bearded spiritualist named Seth (Justin Theroux), who entices the couple with talk of love and freedom. When life with George's brother turns out to be an endless series of insults and misery, George decides that they should just leave modern life behind, and live on the commune. Linda is initially hesitant about the idea, but soon begins to embrace the alternative culture, to the point that she starts staging naked protest rallies when big corporations come, threatening to build a casino on the commune's land. As for George, he quickly begins to regret his decision, and becomes increasingly frustrated by the modern day hippies and nudists who now surround him.

picWanderlust aims to satirize different forms of life, from the hectic city rat race, to the suburban "mcmansions", and yes, the free-spirited modern day communes. But all of its jokes lie mainly on the surface. There's no deep, cutting humor that we expect. But what surprised me the most, especially considering that this is a Judd Apatow production, is that there is absolutely no heart in the movie. Apatow has made a name of himself with a series of "romantic comedies for guys" with movies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. And yet, the romantic angle we expect isn't that strong. The relationship between George and Linda never builds into anything we can care about, despite the obvious chemistry between Rudd and Aniston. Even when their relationship is threatened in the third act, it feels more like a plot contrivance, rather than something we can concern ourselves about.

picThis is a likable enough comedy, and it never offends. But it just feels so safe and by the numbers. Nothing is surprising, not even the frequent full frontal nudity shots the movie throws at us strictly for shock value. The movie's rating states that it has been rated R for "graphic nudity". Trust me, the MPAA makes it sound more exciting than it is. This is a tame and sanitized little comedy, when it should be raw. This movie needed more manic energy, the kind that's often displayed in the performance by Justin Theroux. His character of Seth has an intensity that the rest of the film lacks. Everybody else is pleasant enough (including Rudd, Aniston, and Alan Alda turning up as the original founder of the commune), but don't get to break free or do anything memorable. Instead, we get a lot of mugging, which I suspected was improvised. I was proven right by the outtakes that play over the end credits, where we get to see alternate takes of certain scenes.
I really wanted to like Wanderlust. I walked in with high spirits, and the early scenes only strengthened them. But the movie just deflates and goes limp. It never quite becomes a chore to watch, but I couldn't help but wonder why this movie seems to run out of gas at only the 30 minute mark. Maybe co-writer and director, David Wain (Role Models), ran out of ideas. All I do know is that after a very promising start, the only question that was going through my mind was "what happened"?

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Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Secret World of Arrietty

There is so much to admire in The Secret World of Arrietty that it may require a second viewing from me just to see if I didn't miss anything. This is a simple, yet wondrous, animated film, adapted from Mary Norton's beloved children's novel, The Borrowers. I'm sure almost everyone is familiar with the story of the tiny race of people, only five inches tall, who live in the walls and floorboards of us regular people, and "borrow" from us only what they need to survive. While the story may be familiar, the movie is filled with so much meticulous attention to detail in its presentation, it truly succeeds at creating another world within our own.

picThe film is a production of Studio Ghibli, the most famous and acclaimed animation production company in Japan. The studio's founder, Hayao Miyazaki, has adapted Norton's novel into a leisurely-paced, yet involving, story of friendship that, much to my delight, had absolutely no problem captivating the children at my screening. It's hard to know where to start in praising the people involved with the production, as everybody has done an exceptional job. The original direction by Hiromasa Yonebayashi is gentle and sweet, but never cloying or calculated. He takes full advantage of the film's laid back tone, giving his characters plenty of opportunity to grow and become attached to us. The look of the film is also truly astonishing. The Ghibli artists give us something to admire in just about every scene, right down to the tiniest detail. Even the Celtic-inspired music score by Cecile Corbel had me hunting down the original Japanese import CD on line as soon as I got home. I'm also happy to report that the Disney Studios (who are handling the film's US theatrical release) have done a fine job, both in adapting the screenplay by Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, and in dubbing the dialogue into English.

picWe are introduced to the world of the "borrowers" by Arrietty (voice by Bridgit Mendler), a plucky and free-spirited teenage girl who, despite only being a couple inches tall, seems to have no problem venturing into the world of the big people, where she has to constantly deal with threats like cats, crows, and bugs that are larger than her. Her parents, Pod (Will Arnett) and Homly (Amy Poehler), are always worried that their daughter, or they themselves, might be discovered by the big people, and will be forced to move. The family of tiny borrowers currently live under the floorboards of a home in the country, where a sickly boy named Shawn (David Henrie) has come to rest in preparation for an upcoming life-saving heart surgery. Shawn is the first human to discover the presence of the borrowers, and through many encounters with the tiny Arrietty, tries to befriend the girl. Unfortunately, his efforts catch the attention of sneaky housekeeper, Hara (a very funny Carol Burnett), who has always believed in the existence of tiny people living somewhere within the house, and now wants to perform some "pest control" so that she can prove her theories once and for all.

picThe Secret World of Arrietty benefits greatly from the traditional Studio Ghibli style, emphasizing completely hand drawn animation (no CG is used here) with a particular eye for detail. Great care has been given in the design of the hidden world of Arrietty and her family, which exists within the walls of the home itself. Nails serve as bridges and walkways, flowers are hung meticulously within Arrietty's room to act as decoration, and when Pod the father ventures into the big people's home on a nightly borrowing run, he straps pieces of tape to his gloves and boots so that he can climb up tall chairs or desks to reach out of the way necessities. There is an attention to detail here you don't usually see in animated films, from the way the water reacts when it is disturbed, right down to the way the wind blows individual blades of grass in a field. The best way to see a Studio Ghibli movie is on the big screen, and that is no more evident than here.

picAlso keeping in the Ghibli style, the movie is fairly laid back and low key in tone. Yes, there are threats to the characters - Shawn is grappling with the fact he may not survive his upcoming operation, or that it may not help him in the end. And Arrietty is afraid that her friendship with the boy may put her family in danger. And yet, through it all, there is a warmth and gentleness to the film that is unique. This is a truly heartwarming film, and it's sure to resonate with adults, as much as it will with the children it is intended for. With so many animated films today trying to wow us with CG wizardry, this movie stands out with its stunning attention to simple details, and just by telling a very basic and genuine story of friendship. This is a movie that is not only beautiful to look at, but at its center is a story beautifully told.

picAnd then there's the English adaptation. Under the supervision of Disney animation studio head, John Lasseter, and directed by seven-time Oscar winner, Gary Rydstrom, very little has been left to chance. As in past efforts to bring the works of Studio Ghibli to an American audience, the dub remains faithful to the original dialogue, with Karey Kirkpatrick (The Spiderwick Chronicles) doing the honors this time around. Also, great care seems to have been taken in choosing the voice actors. While there are some famous names to be found in the American cast, they're never distracting. We're focused on the story and the characters, not the famous voice behind them. It's a bit surprising to see comic actors like Will Arnett and Amy Poehler playing somewhat low key roles here (though Poehler does get a couple laughs as Arrietty's frequently worrisome mother), but neither seem miscast or out of place.
The Secret World of Arrietty is a total delight, and a film that's almost certain to captivate any child that watches it. Its innocence and charm draw us in, but there's an elegance to the way the story is told, and the bond that grows between the two main characters. I see so many movies where I don't care about what's going on up on the screen, that I find myself thankful when a movie truly captures my attention. This is a movie that certainly demands attention, and is the first great animated film of 2012.

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This Means War

When you think about it, there's no way that This Means War could have worked. Its premise is just too off-putting. This is a movie about two best friends, both of them CIA operatives, who fall in love with the same woman. They compete with each other for the woman's love, and use their fellow operatives as well as hi-tech spy equipment to basically stalk this woman. Not even the presence of usually likable and reliable actors like Tom Hardy, Chris Pine, Reese Witherspoon, and Angela Bassett can make this material work. Then again, nobody seems to be on their A-game here. It's like they knew they were all caught in a hopeless stinker.

picHardy and Pine play the agents, named Tuck and FDR, respectively. They've both been best friends for years, and as the movie opens, are closing in on a terrorist named Heinrich (Til Schweiger). The character of Heinrich does not exist to be a villain in the movie, like you would expect. In fact, he disappears for almost the entire thing, only to show up again at the end. He's simply in the movie so it can open with an action sequence, and close with a car chase. Tuck and FDR fail to capture Heinrich in the film's opening shoot out, and wind up destroying a lot of private property in the process. Their boss back at headquarters (Angela Bassett) chews them out, and demotes them both to desk work. That the talented Bassett is reduced simply to scenes where she crosses her arms and yells at the two male leads is the first of the film's many missteps.

picHere, the movie shows us a little bit of the private lives of the two friends. Tuck is a lonely divorced dad, with a cute little kid who is trotted out whenever the movie needs a sympathetic moment for him. FDR is equally single, and lives in the kind of apartment that I think only the wealthy 1% could afford, complete with a swimming pool on the roof. They both see a commercial for a dating site on TV, and Tuck is the one who decides to try sending in a profile. At about this time, we meet Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), a cute and likable young woman who is unlucky in love. Maybe it's because the screenplay forces her in many scenes to act like she has the I.Q. of a teenage star on one of those Disney Channel sitcoms. Her alcoholic and sex-obsessed best friend, Trish (Chelsea Handler), puts a profile up for Lauren on the same dating site. Within seconds, Lauren and Tuck are matched up, they're dating by the next scene, and there's instant chemistry between the two.

picBut what a hilarious coincidence! After her date with Tuck, Lauren runs in to FDR at the video store. The guy wastes no time in acting like a childish jerk around her, but she decides to give him a chance anyway, and wouldn't you know it, she learns over dinner that there's more to the guy than there initially seemed. Now she feels a connection with both guys! It doesn't take long for Tuck and FDR to realize that they are both dating the same woman, and rather than talk and work things out like real friends would do, they begin a lengthy and unfunny war where they gather up a bunch of spy equipment, bug Lauren's house with cameras and hidden microphones so they can monitor her 24-7, and hire their fellow friends at the CIA to watch her every move. This is the Idiot Plot run amok, and also adds a certain creepy factor to the two guys the movie wants us to see be around Lauren.

picThis Means War is unlikable from its very premise, but then the screenplay makes matters even worse by being not the least bit funny, and by making the characters so moronic, there's no way we can relate to them. It also forgets crucial elements, like making Lauren have real chemistry with either Tuck or FDR, so we can at least hope that one of the guys do end up with her in the end. Director McG (best known for the Charlie's Angels films) also seems confused as to the tone of the movie he wants. Even in the film's quieter moments, there's a certain manic energy that just doesn't work. And if he can't think of anything funny to do in a scene, he throws in tired physical humor, such as the scene where FDR and Lauren are visiting a dog shelter, and FDR suddenly starts getting attacked by dogs for absolutely no reason. The movie thinks it's funny that Lauren doesn't notice this happening, as the attack happens when she's not looking. It's not.

picThis is not a rare occurrence unfortunately, as the movie forces Lauren to be oblivious to a lot of things going on around her. Witherspoon is one of the more likable actresses out there, and seeing her playing such a clueless airhead isn't funny, it's depressing. As for Hardy and Pine, their "friendly" banter is so wooden and forced, they often come across as if they've just met each other moments before the cameras started rolling. This movie miscalculates in just about every way. It thinks its lead stars are likable, but they're not. It thinks the idea that these guys are using spy equipment to stalk this woman is funny, but it just ends up being creepy. It also seems to think that the character of Lauren's best friend and her tired sex jokes are comedic highlights. All they made me want to do is wish that I never see Chelsea Handler in a movie again.
I know it's only February, but This Means War is the first strong lock for worst movie of 2012. Supposedly, this script's been making the rounds in Hollywood for years, and has had a large variety of stars attached at different times. What so many people saw in this project, I have no idea. Whatever it was, it didn't make its way up on the screen.

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Friday, February 17, 2012

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

In Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, we are reunited with Johnny Blaze (played once again by Nicolas Cage), the motorcycle stuntman who unwisely made a deal with the devil in the earlier movie, and is now cursed to become the Ghost Rider whenever evil is around. The Ghost Rider is a demonic biker with a flaming skull for a head, making him look like he escaped from the cover of a heavy metal album, or maybe a 14-year-old boy's sketchbook.

picIf you remember 2007's Ghost Rider movie, you are a better man than I, as I only have a few vague memories of watching it during its opening weekend. However, when looking back on my review, I see that I opened it by saying that it was "one of the silliest and goofiest movies to come along in many a moon". That means it must have left some kind of impression on me at the time. I also halfheartedly complemented the movie for having a "light and slightly humorous feel to go along with the silliness of the plot". I think that right there spells out the problem with the newest film. Directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (Gamer) take this stuff too seriously for the most part. This is a movie about Nicolas Cage turning into a biker with a flaming skull head, and a motorcycle that leaves a trail of fire in its wake, so he can battle Satan. The only way you can approach that idea is with a strong sense of irony. The film does have its moments of fun (there's a funny gag involving a Twinkie), but they're few and far between in a plot we care nothing about.

picAh, the plot. This is going to be fun to recount, as I don't think I'm clear on all the details, but I'll do my best. Johnny Blaze has been in hiding since the last movie, and has shut himself away from all his friends and family. The movie describes it that Johnny is on a personal quest to find a way to free himself of the curse of the Ghost Rider, but in reality, none of the original actors except for Cage agreed to come back for the sequel. Johnny is approached by a motorcycle riding, gun-toting holy man named Moreau (Idris Elba), who somehow knows who Johnny is, and also about his deal with the Devil, although how he came upon this knowledge is not explained. However, Moreau just might know how to lift the curse of the Ghost Rider, so that Johnny can be normal again. If he can complete a certain task, Moreau will give him all the answers.

picThe task involves a small boy named Danny (Fergus Riordan), who is being hunted down by Satan himself, who currently walks the Earth in the guise of a human by the name of Roarke (Ciaran Hinds, who at times resembles an even doughier Robert De Niro in this movie). Danny and his mother, Nadya (Violante Placido), are on the run from Satan's henchmen, which seem to comprise of some generic thugs, and Nadya's lowlife ex-boyfriend (Johnny Whitworth). Imagine you're the Devil, and you have to hunt down this child in order to perform some kind of Satanic ceremony. Would you really need hired help? Couldn't he just use his powers to track the kid down faster? The movie's a bit sketchy on this issue, as Roarke claims that he's weak in human form, yet in one scene, he somehow has the ability to put a spell on Danny over the telephone, so that the Ghost Rider won't be able to sense him and track him down. (He still finds him easily enough, though.)

picSo, we have a boy in danger, Satan walking on Earth and trying to start a new reign of evil through an ancient ceremony, and Johnny Blaze trying to free himself from a demonic curse. All of these elements could work, but Spirit of Vengeance ends up being deadly dull. I had a big problem with the Ghost Rider himself. Aside from his appearance, nothing really stands out about him. He's a walking special effect with no personality, or even any clever catchphrases. But then, maybe that has to do with the fact that his secret identity is Johnny Blaze, who didn't strike me as being that interesting either. Nicolas Cage tries to liven the character up with some of his trademark overacting, but he's fighting a losing battle against a screenplay that forgot to give its hero any compelling features, let alone a reason to be interested in him.

picThis is just an odd film all around. The plot tends to leave us in the dark for far longer than it should. (We don't find out why the Devil is after Danny until long after the chase has begun.) There are also some oddly edited sequences, such as the scene when the Ghost Rider picks up a thug, draws him close and then...Well, the movie just lingers on close ups of the Rider and the thug's faces for far too long. With the right music and mood, you could be fooled into thinking it was going to become a romantic moment. There are a lot of jarring edits, or scenes that easily could have or should have been left on the cutting room floor, which leads me to believe that either this movie was severely tampered with by the studio, or directors Neveldine and Taylor really have no idea what they're doing.
The motto during the making of Spirit of Vengeance seems to have been throw in more noise and shots of a flaming skull head in order to kill time. As you can imagine, it doesn't take long for that approach to get annoying. Even with all that noise, we still find ourselves commenting on the glaring holes this movie never bothers to explain. Like, why do the chains that the Ghost Rider use as weapons cause some people to burst into flames upon touching them, while others, it just wraps around them? And why does a grenade send Ghost Rider flying backwards, yet a direct hit from a missile barely phase him? And could I be putting more thought to this stuff than the filmmakers did? Most likely, yes.

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