Sunday, April 25, 2010

"Date Night"

Hollywood is an unpredictable old booger. You never know quite what to expect from its products or its stars. Just when you think you’ve got someone figured out, whether good or bad, they’ll throw out a game changer that leaves you questioning your previous commitment or lack thereof. (Unless we’re talking about John Travolta. That guy always sucks.) Sandra Bullock, for example, has been an instant “out” for me since the late 90s but her role in “The Blind Side” was excellent and put her back into tolerable territory. It does, however, work the other way as well, such as with the stars of “Date Night.”

I love Steve Carell and I love Tina Fey even more. They are two of the funniest humans in the entertainment industry today and I am always excited for their involvement in any project. But both have disappointed me lately. Carell was the star of the incredibly mediocre “Get Smart” and Fey was most unfortunately involved with “The Invention of Lying” which was entirely unfunny. Both movies just served as reminders that you can’t trust the name. As such, my thoughts going into “Date Night” were divided. I was stoked about the concept of this film from the get go, especially considering the stars. But as more and more advertising made its way into my mindgrape, I started focusing on “Smart” and “Lying” and wondering if this was going to be one of those times where all the good parts are in the trailers. Thankfully this was not the case and star power prevailed.

“Date Night” drops us into the sadly average lives of Phil and Claire Foster who have found themselves in the classic relationship rut. Work, kids, book club, and once a week Date Night at the same restaurant for the same food form the base of their everyday lives. Sparked by another couple’s recent divorce, the Fosters decide to change it up and bring Date Night to Manhattan where, upon being denied a table at a posh restaurant, they take the reservation of a missing couple called the Triplehorns. Things are going well until two thugs, mistaking them for the Triplehorns, drag them outside at gun point and demand the merchandise that was stolen from a local mob boss. What ensues is one crazy night of shenanigans as the Fosters dodge cops and crooks alike with the aid of Holbrooke (Mark Wahlberg), a former client of Claire’s. Their adventures take them deep into the seedy underbelly of New York where they discover their vanilla boring lives are actually pretty darn good.

Carell and Fey make the perfect comedic couple. Their talents and attributes compliment each other brilliantly, bringing out the best in one another. Both of these actors are so natural in their roles that at times it feels like they are a real life couple who just happen to be really, really funny. There are a few surprisingly real, candid moments that would not come to fruition without these two in the lead. Carell especially brings honesty to the film that it would seriously lack otherwise. As the movie progresses, the two take turns being the dunce and the hero, and while that might fall flat with other pairings, here it furthers their connection. The Fosters are a great team. A bit dramatic and prone to inane plans, sure, but a great team nonetheless.

On screen support for the stars is strong for the most part, though Academy Award nominee Taraij P. Henson is horribly miscast as the police detective in charge of the Foster investigation. A quick confession: I'm a huge fan of Mark Wahlberg. I know I shouldn’t be and I certainly can’t defend some of his acting choices (“The Happening”, anyone?). But he seems to have a good time with each role and that makes it hard for me to dislike him. Holbrooke is a throw away character in many ways but Wahlberg makes the role bigger than it really is. Likewise, James Franco (as one half of the real Triplehorns) is rapidly becoming one of my favorite supporting actors. His five minutes on the screen are, for me, the funniest of the entire movie. Franco doesn’t seem to care about whether or not a part is too small for him, instead choosing his roles based solely on how much he’ll enjoy the filming (“30 Rock” and “General Hospital,” for example).

The behind the camera work is solid if unspectacular. Director Shawn Levy (“Night at the Museum”) seems to know where his bread is buttered, allowing Carell and Fey to do their thing without too much interference. He doesn’t let the film stretch itself too far and I mean that in a good way. There’s only so much that can be done with this story and it would be very easy to let it get off the rails. The script (written by John Klausner) is perhaps the weak link, though it isn’t bad, just a bit lacking. Some of the laughs are cheap and ultimately unnecessary given the comedic genius of the collective cast. The second act wanes a little and suffers from a bit of laziness but again, not in such a way that causes the audience to tune out. If nothing else it’s certainly a step up from Klausner’s last script, “Shrek the Third.”

“Date Night” is exactly what you can reasonably expect from a spring comedy. The laughs are abundant and the story is fun and entertaining. Without Carell and Fey, the movie probably comes off as fairly generic and mediocre but don’t you have to give some credit for securing the right cast? If you’re a fan of the two stars you won’t be disappointed. Overall it’s a very enjoyable experience and it goes a long way to making me forget the transgressions mentioned above.

Grade: B+

I already regret my Wahlberg statements,

"Clash of the Titans"

I am not often willing to spend the money to see a movie in theaters when I feel the movie is likely to suck. I’ve written before that “it’s all about expectations” and if I expect a movie to be bad, why would I put my $10 (or $15, as the case may be these days) into helping said bad movie make bank? But there are rare occasions when common sense is trumped by a Voice and the Voice leads me into the lion’s den, so to speak. Sometimes the Voice is that of my wife. Did I think “Bride Wars” would be terrible? Yes. Did I see it anyway? Yes. Did I want to kill myself afterward or halfway through? A little bit, yes. But the Voice took me there anyway. Sometimes the Voice is that of The Nerd Inside. Did I see all the terrible signs leading up to “Terminator: Salvation?” Yup. Did I let that stop me? No, I was there at Midnight and yes, the warning signs were correct.

Sometimes, however, the Voice takes on the form of Childishness. Full of precociousness and wonderment, the Voice of Childishness calls out, “Come on…come on…come on…” until I give in and find myself doing something stupid. In this case, Childishness sparked when a Thursday email reminded me that the next day was Good Friday and I didn’t have to go to work. What shall I do with my new found freedom, I asked myself. Immediately I realized what I must do: assemble a group to recreate the magical Summer of the Nerd and see a sure-to-be-terrible nerdy movie. And so, at 10:45 (because there were no Midnight showings that weren’t in 3D and weren’t at the Rave where even Childishness couldn’t drag me), two friends and I found ourselves in a theater watching “Clash of the Titans.”

“Titans” is a remake of the 1980 cult classic of the same name. I’ve never seen the original but everything I’ve heard suggests it’s about on par with the review I’m about to give for this version. “Titans” follows Persues (Sam Worthington) as he wages war against some of the gods and monsters of Greek mythology in an effort to…well, I’m not really sure. I guess to save this princess of some random human city that he just met 10 minutes prior to taking on this challenge and to avenge the death of his human father. The setup isn’t really a big part of the “plot” here. Perseus is actually the fun-baby of Zeus and so there are some conflicts of interest here as you can imagine. Zeus wants to crush the spirit of the rebellious humans so he unleashes his brother Hades on the world but he also doesn’t want his son to perish. Meanwhile Perseus wants to put a beat down on the gods but isn’t completely sure how he feels about Zeus. Add into the equation the guy who would have been Perseus’ Earthly father had he not cast him and his mother into the sea plus some ridiculous monsters and a weird demi-god who’s been watching Perseus since he was born (creepy) and you’ve got yourself a movie! Sort of.

I will say three things in “Titans” defense. One, the action sequences are pretty solid. Not great, mind you, but solid. If you like sword fights, giant monsters, and primal screams, this could be the movie for you. Worthington does an admirable job in exhibiting the looks, behaviors, and actions of an action star and the supporting cast don’t make fools of themselves in the action shots. Two, the dialogue isn’t atrocious. It’s not good, you understand, but it’s not teeth-grinding awful which is what I fully expected. There were only a couple of lines that made me wince and getting through a movie of this nature without really drawing attention to the dialogue is a good thing. Third, the movie doesn’t take itself seriously at all, which is a stroke of genius, considering the weak content.

Now I will say three things NOT in “Titans” defense. One, the “plot,” as noted, is just horrendous. The movie honestly feels like a video game in which you jump from one Level Boss to the next, only there’s really not any work to get to the next Boss. Two, the acting is predictably rough. While no single performance stands out among the rest as truly terrible, that’s more indicative of how mediocre the entire cast’s work is than anything else. I guess that’s not a huge surprise given that the majority of the cast is made up the type of actor you’d expect to get a mailed-in stinker from (even Liam Neeson is guilty of this). But Ralph Fiennes?! Ralph Fiennes?! Et tu, Brute?! I’ve always felt I could trust Fiennes but that trust is now in question. Three, the post production 3D installation was a huge disaster, and this has drawn my ire.

I get the appeal of 3D, I really do. It’s retro-new, it’s exciting, and it allows theaters to charge $5 extra to borrow their Buddy Holly glasses. If people are willing to pay for it, more power to you. My issue, however, is the hasty post production retro fitting that I fear we’re going to see a lot of in the next year or two. “Titans” was not shot in 3D, it was instead turned into a 3D film after the crazy success of “Avatar.” As a result, the print looks blurry and out of focus. Even the film’s director has thrown a fit regarding the 3D treatment. In truth, the shoddy nature of this feature just exemplifies the sloppiness that runs amok throughout the film’s mercifully short run time.

Now, all that’s not to say I didn’t have a good time. Childishness had come ‘a callin’ and darnit if I wasn’t going to have fun when Childishness was in charge. While I usually remain as quiet as possible in a crowded theater, I soon found I could not keep the Urge to Joke trapped inside for very long. After my nerds and I had cracked a couple of quiet jokes, the rows around us murmured their approval and before long the three of us had reinvented Mystery Science Theater 3000. The jokes were quick, easy, and plentiful. And really, given the less than serious tone “Titans” takes with itself, maybe that’s the whole point. Maybe that should even be the movie’s tagline: “Have fun! Make some jokes! Let Childishness take over for 83 minutes! Give us 10 bucks!” To that I say: “I accepted your invitation, “Titans.” In spite of your ridiculousness, I had some fun, I made some jokes, and I did let Childishness reign for 83 blessedly brief minutes. You may keep my ten dollars, but don’t push your luck looking for a good grade.”
Grade: C-.

Release the Kraken,

Post-Oscar Thoughts

While Oscar was kind enough to open its doors to more audience-friendly fare this year ("Blind Side," "District 9," etc.), the winners were still more often than not the critical darlings that I expect to see rewarded every year. The theme of the night was substance over style but overall I thought the Academy did a good job this time around in honoring the right films and performances. A brief "Cheers and Jeers" look at the big categories and the show itself.

"Precious" wins Best Adapted Screenplay - Perhaps this is less a "Jeer" and more a "Meh." I haven't seen "Precious" though I've heard only good things. But Jason Reitman's script for "Up in the Air" is incredible in every facet of its content. The movie clearly didn't have the backing it needed to really get into the Best Picture race, yet I felt it more than deserved an award in this category. This had the feel of an award given more for social relevancy than for actual achievement in writing.

"Up" not a serious player for Best Picture - Sure it got nominated, but going into the night everyone knew this category was a two-way race between "Avatar" and "The Hurt Locker." I'm not saying either of those movies is underserving of the attention. If I'd had a vote I would have voted "Up in the Air" fifth, "Avatar" fourth, "Inglorious Basterds" third, and "The Hurt Locker" second. They were all excellent films and I think "Locker" is one of those movies that gets better the more you think about it. But "Up" is absolutely brilliant, truly unique, and emotionally compelling. If it wasn't an animated film, it would win Best Picture hands down.

Producer pulls a Kanye - In the only real awkward moment of the evening, the producer of "Music by Prudence" (Elinor Burkett) ran on stage and pushed the film's director to the side so she could get in her own, semi-intelligible speech. Turns out the two are feuding, to the point of lawsuits, but still this idiot came across as the loser of the night. See for yourself.


Jeff Bridges named Best Actor ("Crazy Heart")
- Personally this would have been a very difficult category to vote in. Jeremy Renner and George Clooney were incredible in their roles and maybe even equal to Bridges. But when I walked out of "Crazy Heart," I felt like I had just seen the best leading performance of the year. Bridges' Bad Blake is magnificently true and authentic. And in general, it's good to see the impressive body of work Bridges has put together honored in this way.

Christoph Waltz named Best Supporting Actor ("Inglorious Basterds") - Waltz was absolutely mesmerizing from minute one of "Basterds." He was terrifying, methodically brutal, and yet verging on likeable in the strangest way possible. The most eloquent Nazi of all time to be sure.

Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin hosting - The duo displayed perfect chemistry and managed to be funny and relevant without dominating the spotlight. In fact I think you could make a case for their being underused. I love what they brought to the table.

John Hughes tribute - Even for a guy who doesn't quite get some of Hughes' more popular works, his tribute, overseen by some of his bigger stars, was quite touching. The ovation given his family in attendance was even more touching. And for some reason it's always cool/weird to see Macaulay Culkin as an adult.

Lack of preaching - I can't remember the last time I was able to watch a Hollywood-sponsored event without feeling like I was being inundated by an agenda. I hate being preached to when I'm not in church, even if I agree with the theme of the sermon. Because it was honored so often, those associated with "The Hurt Locker" had numerous opportunities to slam the anti-war message down my throat. Instead, time and time again they opted to go with the overall message of the film which was to point out the atrocities of war without preaching about the politics. "The Hurt Locker" was incredibly powerful and significant and that message would have only been diluted by excessive preaching. Kudos to the entire cast and crew, particularly director Kathryn Bigelow.

Sean Penn is still a tool,

"Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief"

Here’s the problem with being a movie nerd. When you make a point of going to the theater as often as I do, you often run out of viable viewing options for those celebratory moments when you might want to see a movie with friends or loved ones. It was my birthday recently and my wonderful wife, knowing my love for the silver screen, thought it would be a great idea to check out a movie on said birthday. The idea was solid, clearly, but the choices…yikes. The first couple months of the year are pretty barren movie wise and I’ve already seen most anything that really interests me. Hence, we ended up in a Sunday afternoon showing of “Percy Jackson.”

“Percy Jackson” is based on the first book in a series written by Rick Riordan. The books and the movie follow young Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) as he discovers his ancestry and the abilities he owes to that ancestry. All in one day, Jackson learns he is the son of Poseidon, the Greek god of the seas, and he is in great danger. He is transported to Camp Half Blood by his caretaker Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) who turns out to be a satyr. At Camp he is reacquainted with his former teacher Chiron (Pierce Brosnan) who turns out to be a centaur. As you can tell, it’s quite an exciting day for Percy. Before he knows what has hit him he is thrown into a world in which the stories of mythology are very real. He, Grover, and his new friend Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario) soon set out on a quest to track down the god Zeus’s stolen lightning bolt.

I give these books a whole hearted “eh.” The stories are interesting enough but the writing is marginal at best. In truth they come across as yet another attempt to replicate the magic of the Harry Potter series. But whereas the Potter books are written for children but sophisticated enough for adults, most of the knock offs are childish and immature. They only become popular because Potter fans are always attempting to find that next fix to fill the void left by the ending of the Potter world. So what happens, you may ask, when you take sloppy and average source material and attempt to hastily turn it into a feature film? Well, you get crap like this movie.

“Percy Jackson” was, for all intents and purposes, worthless. I tried to will myself to ignore the inane dialogue and witless comedic relief. I tried to pretend like the early special effects weren’t pathetic. I even tried to convince myself it wasn’t that bad and I was in fact enjoying my movie going experience. But within about 15 minutes I was contemplating whether or not I could get a refund for this mess. The acting of Lerman and Daddario is bad but truthfully I expected that. Both are fairly inexperienced and usually your first turn as a leading character is rough. The rest of the cast, however, have no such excuse. Pierce Brosnan, Joe Pantoliano, Catherin Keener, etc. all feel as if they’re here only to collect a paycheck. (Joey Pants! What the heck happened, man?! You haven’t been in a real movie in years and THIS is your triumphant return? You were in “The Matrix” dude, come on!) Uma Thurman, Rosario Dawson, and Steve Coogan all stop in for cameos and all sleepwalk through their respective scenes. Jackson, however, is the worst of the worst. And I don’t just mean this film in particular; I mean in all of Hollywood, this is my least favorite kind of acting. When comic relief isn’t comical, it makes a decent movie seem bad and a bad movie seem miserable. This is the latter. Jackson is AWFUL and every cliché line he speaks only serves to highlight the low quality writing and acting you are currently subjecting your brain to.

Writing and direction are even worse in “Jackson” than the acting. Screenwriter Craig Titley truly lives up to his IMDB resume that is “highlighted” by his writing of the story (not the script) for “Cheaper by the Dozen.” Dialogue, scene structure, you name it, it’s bad. And then there’s Chris Columbus and his sloppy work behind the camera. There was a time when Columbus was one of the premier family-movie-makers in the industry. “Mrs. Doubtfire,” the first two “Harry Potter” films, and of course, one of my all time favorites, “Home Alone” were all excellent works of kid-friendly fare that had at least some adult appeal as well. Then came “Rent,” “I Love You, Beth Cooper,” and now this. Suddenly he’s looking like a guy who’s on his last legs. The actors don’t seem as if they’ve been challenged in any way and the plot lines are laughable. “Jackson” doesn’t even have the decency to come across as desperate. Instead it seems uncaring and haphazard, like Columbus knew he had a pile of trash on his hands and there was no way to make it look like anything but a pile of trash so he just threw it on the screen and hoped enough fans of the book would show up to break even. The best comparison I can make about this would be to call it “High School Musical” without the musical. It is of that quality or lower.

The final act of “Jackson” has some decent action sequences which keep this movie from being a complete and total loss. But it’s pretty darn close. This is lazy, sloppy, and careless filmmaking based on source material of the same ilk. Like the books, it doesn’t fill the void left by the soon-to-be-concluded “Potter” films but rather leaves the viewer wishing those “Potter” films could just keep going.

Grade: D.

A lovely cheese pizza just for me,

"Shutter Island"

If there’s anything I’ve learned about the movie industry over the years it’s that the studios haven’t learned anything. If they can screw up a project, they will, even one with a pedigree like that of “Shutter Island.” This movie was supposed to be released back in November, right in the middle of Award Season. Apparently it didn’t test well or Paramount didn’t feel it was Oscar caliber and as a result it was pushed back. That’s not the end of the world, it happens all the time, and it’s not necessarily cause for concern. What is cause for concern, however, is the new release date (mid February, a dumping ground for Hollywood) and the new trailer. I have see the “Island” trailer approximately 128 times in the last six months and suddenly, a few weeks before the release, we got a different trailer cut to play up the “scary” factor and make you forget that this was supposed to be an award winning movie. Therefore, my excitement going into “Shutter Island” was only equaled by my nervousness.

Opening in 1954 New England, “Shutter Island” is set an isolated mental institute (found on, coincidentally, Shutter Island) for the criminally insane. The institute is equally dark, depressing, and creepy, a place no one would ever want to stumble into even if it didn’t contain the worst of the worst nut cases. It is in this world that US Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) finds himself, summoned to the island to find an inmate who has escaped. Daniels is the definition of a flawed hero, struggling with both the ghost of his murdered wife and flashbacks of his actions in The War, but he is nevertheless extremely tough and determined. He has his own agenda for taking this case, namely that he wants to expose the acts of Shutter Island’s front man Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley). Before too long, however, Daniels becomes acutely aware that Cawley is on to his little game and is working diligently to lock him away with the crazies. The film is filled with mind games, fantastic twists, and extremely intense sequences, culminating in a final act that is both heavy and thrilling.

Though it is a departure from the type of movie director Marin Scorsese usually brings us, “Island” is nonetheless exquisite in its craftsmanship. It kind of made me wonder if Scorsese could have revolutionized the suspense/thriller/horror genre if he had dedicated himself to it so many years ago. The pacing is SPECTACULAR, never quick to move until the very end and yet I never once felt as if it was dragging or became even slightly disinterested. The tension and suspense builds throughout the film while using none of the typical gags and bits you expect to get in a thriller. Music, sound effects, and the like are used to heighten the suspense, not cause the suspense, adding ambiance to the feel of the movie. Likewise, there are some action sequences here and there but unlike so many other thrillers, the action doesn’t allow for release of the suspense, rather allowing it to plays further on the tension of the subject matter as well as your own emotions.

The technical aspects of “Island” are equally magnificent (though that’s what I expect from Scorsese). Shutter Island is a frightening place and the use of color, sound, and shot selection left me feeling as almost a bit claustrophobic, as if I myself was trapped inside the asylum. I am a big fan of a director allowing the actual sounds of the film’s setting and environment to provide the soundtrack. “No Country for Old Men,” for example, is soundtracked (not a word, I know) almost exclusively by the action of the film and the dusty plains on which it takes place. “Island” often does the same. One scene in particular in which Daniels lights match after match to guide his way is amazing in its use of sound. My wife jumped EVERY SINGLE TIME he lit a match. (Though maybe that’s more about her than the film but I’m going to spin it in favor of the film.)

I wouldn’t say the on screen performances are quite as good as the behind the camera work, but in all honesty, I don’t know how it could be. I was (clearly) blown away by the direction. However, DiCaprio is as strong as ever, continuing his work toward a lifetime achievement award for making me look like an idiot for calling him a crappy actor who’s only made it in life because he’s good looking. “Island,” “The Departed,” “Catch Me If You Can,” and “Blood Diamond” have all gone a long way in forcing me to forgive him for his part in “Titanic.” Teddy Daniels is rough, gritty, and haunted and DiCaprio pulls it off well. His support, including Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Michelle Williams, and Jackie Earle Haley, are all strong characters requiring strong performances. All of them come through admirably, with the exception of Mark Ruffalo. I just don’t know what to do with Ruffalo. I want to like him and I have nothing against him. It just seems to me that he is the exact same character in every single movie, whether it be a thriller like “Shutter Island” or a throwaway RomCom like “Rumor Has It.” He just bores me at this point and as he is perhaps the second biggest player in this film, I felt like he held the whole thing back a bit.

“Shutter Island’s” closing act is tremendous and the final words should, for my money, be added into the lexicon of memorable movie lines. My only real complaint about “Island” is that it often feels too self important. The script is based on a book by Dennis Lehane, who also penned the books that “Mystic River” and “Gone Baby Gone” are based upon. Those books cover hard, important subject matters that lend themselves to significant adaptations. “Shutter Island,” on the other hand, isn’t significant in terms of the topics and issues therein. It’s a straight thriller. An excellent, compelling thriller to be sure, but still not quite on the level of Lehane’s other works. At times it feels like Scorsese (or perhaps screen writer Laeta Kalogridis) is trying to make “Island” more important, more impactful than it really should be instead of just allowing it to be one of the better thrillers of the last few years. This forced significance by no means overshadows “Island’s” strong points but it does keep it from reaching its fullest potential.

Grade: A-

I have no idea how to pronounce that screenwriter’s name,

"Valentine's Day"

Because of what you are about to read and the opinion expertly crafted within, I have been accused of being a Movie Snob. I fervently disagree with this diagnosis and think the perpetrator should be forced to read the work of Owen Gleiberman (or any number of mainstream critics, for that matter) for a week so she can see what a true Movie Snob sounds like. But I’ll have to let you be the judge. Personally I think I’m the anti-movie snob. Sure, I call out the truly terrible movies but I also find good in movies that get seriously panned by the rest of the known universe. I mean, come on, I gave a B- to “Transformers 2” for goodness sakes! I ask a movie to do just two things: set a goal as to what type of movie it wants to be and work towards that goal as strongly as possible. For the most part it’s all about entertainment for me. Quite simply, I love movies. I did not love this movie.

“Valentine’s Day” is an ensemble set on a particular Memorial Day. No, wait, I mean Valentine’s Day. My bad. From a doctor to a football player, a florist to a soldier, the lives (and particularly their love lives) of a dozen or so Los Angelinos are examined for a brief moment in the effort to remind us about what love is all about. Whether successful in love or otherwise, these people are, I guess, supposed to represent the wide range of emotions we experience on Valentine’s Day. And, as always, all of their lives interconnect in one way or another. The best way to describe this movie would be to compare it to “Crash” but annoyingly upbeat or “Love Actually” without a competent writer.

My guess is we’ve all, at one time or another, come in contact with that relative who’s gotten a little older and started to lose it. You know, the one who used to be of major influence in the family, the guy who made decisions. Now he’s not quite all there but he doesn’t want to admit it and no one has the heart to tell him. You know the type, yes? That’s the feeling you get watching “Valentine’s Day.” You know director Garry Marshall used to be good at his craft but the longer this film drags on, the more you think the guy has lost his movie marbles. I will not for one minute argue that I, as a twentysomething male, am the primary audience for “Valentine” or any other Marshall film. But I have appreciated (some of) Marshall’s past work and I am not diametrically opposed to the Chick Flick. “Pretty Woman,” for what it is, is a classic and “Runaway Bride” is solid (though both would be better without a hack like Richard Gere involved). Even “The Princess Diaries” had redeeming qualities for me until I was stuck in a waiting room for six hours a few years back and had to watch it three times. But “Valentine’s Day” is the type of thing that happens when a big name starts to lose it and no one around him has the heart to tell him no.

It isn’t all bad directing, though. The writing, while not atrocious, is certainly far from good and leaves an all star caliber cast with very little to work with. It’s cheesy and laughable but not in such a sophisticated manner as to become tongue-in-cheek or campy. There are several things that immediately identify poor writing but the one that drives me the craziest is when a set of characters have a conversation that shouldn’t take place on screen. If two characters have been sitting next to each other on an air plane for somewhere between ten and twelve hours, they would not introduce themselves when the movie starts. Period. Stuff like this denotes half-hearted storytelling.

And then we get into the issue of the ensemble. Ensembles are, for me, almost always very good or very bad. There isn’t much middle ground. If your actors are invested and your source material is strong, you can produce fantastic results. On the flip side of that, poor writing and direction allows an ensemble cast to give lazy, mailed in performances that do nothing to bring the material to life. The result seems, for lack of a better term, sloppy. Plot holes and bad dialogue look and sound worse when they’re happening to and being spoken by characters that are undeveloped and uncommitted. It is never a good sign when Ashton Kutcher gives the best performance in any movie, let alone one with this much talent. Too many characters are miscast and/or misused. Jamie Foxx is so uninspired that it makes one wonder what could have happened for this guy if he’d used his Best Actor Oscar for good instead of evil. And Patrick Dempsey continues to amaze me and by that I mean I’m amazed that he has any sort of career resembling the one he’s carved out for himself. That dude has some incriminating evidence against somebody who is very important in Hollywood. Even Taylor Swift is better in this than these guys were.

There are some nice moments in “Valentine’s Day” and some humor. As mentioned, Kutcher is quite funny and even George Lopez provides a laugh or two. Up to this point I’d always thought it was illegal for him to tell a funny joke. It’s always a personal joy to see Julia Roberts on screen (even if she is horribly miscast) and there’s a solid scene here and there. The overall product, however, is mindless, lazy, and lacking in execution. It is overly sappy without connection or relevance and rendered me completely uninterested. And if that takes me into the realm of movie snobbery, then I guess so be it.

Grade: D

I can’t believe I laughed with George Lopez,

Oscar Thoughts

Oscar nominations are out and everyone in the Blogosphere has been discussing the most prestigious award ceremony over the last few days. I don't usually get too caught up in the Oscars because, for one, everyone else covers it so throrougly and two, I usually haven't seen a ton of the nominated films. Often the nominees are obscure titles that haven't been in wide release or ones that I have no real interest in. But what the heck, I'll throw my two cents in this time around. I'm covering only the major awards, of course, and for each category I'll be predicting who will win, who I would vote for if the Academy was dumb enough to induct me, and someone who I felt was worthy of nomination. That's not to say (generally speaking) that he/she/it should be nominated in place of someone/thing that was nominated. I think the Academy did a better job this year than they have in recent years in terms of nominating the right people. So way to go, Academy!

Jeff Bridges, "Crazy Heart"
George Clooney, "Up in the Air"
Colin Firth, "A Single Man"
Morgan Freeman, "Invictus"
Jeremy Renner, "The Hurt Locker"

Prediction: Jeff Bridges - I still haven't seen "Crazy Heart" but Bridges seems to be a sure thing here.
My vote: Clooney, though Renner was great as well. In truth, this is an extremely strong category this year. I don't think you can make a legit case against any of these guys.
Also deserving: Sam Rockwell, "Moon", Joseph Gordon-Levitt, "500 Days of Summer" - Rockwell was spectacular in his own version of "Cast Away"/"I Am Legend." Levitt showed great range in the unique "500 Days."

Sandra Bullock, "The Blind Side"
Helen Mirren, "The Last Station"
Carey Mulligan, "An Education"
Gabourey Sidibe, "Precious"
Meryl Streep, "Julie and Julia"

Prediction: Bullock - this one is completely locked up, the other nominees need not show up.
My vote: Having only seen one of these movies, it would have to be Bullock.
Also deserving: Maya Rudolph, "Away We Go", Amy Adams, "Sunshine Cleaning" - It was shocking to see Rudolph in a serious role and she delivered a stirring performance. "Cleaning" has gotten no award show love but I'm still not convinced Amy Adams didn't give the best female performance I saw all year.

Matt Damon, "Invictus"
Woody Harrelson, "The Messenger"
Christopher Plummer, "The Last Station"
Stanley Tucci, "The Lovely Bones"
Christoph Waltz, "Inglorious Basterds"

Prediction: Waltz - if Bullock is a lock, Waltz is like the kind of lock that goes on a state of the art bank safe. No one else is coming home with this award...
My vote: Waltz - ...and no one else should take home this award. Waltz was perfect.
Also deserving: Brad Pitt, "Inglorious Basterds", Jude Law, "Sherlock Holmes" - I thought Pitt was comedic genius as the head of the Nazi hunting troop in "Basterds." With his take on Watson in "Sherlock Holmes," Law breathed a new life into his career that he will surely destroy when his new film "Repo Men" hits screens later this year.

Penelope Cruz, "Nine"
Vera Farmiga, "Up in the Air"
Maggie Gyllenhaal, "Crazy Heart"
Anna Kendrick, "Up in the Air"
Monique, "Precious"

Prediction: Monique - I haven't seen "Precious" and I don't intend to, but I've heard Monique is a shoe-in.
My vote: Kendrick/Farmiga - Honestly I can't decide who was better and I have a feeling that will only help Monique's campaign; Farmiga and Kendrick will split the vote too much for one of them to win. If pressed, I would vote Kendrick.
Also deserving: Emily Blunt, "Sunshine Cleaning", Melanie Laurent, "Inglorious Basterds" - Again, "Cleaning" got no love and it's a shame. Blunt was incredible. And for the first time, I'm calling foul on the Academy. Melanie Laurent was GANGBUSTERS in "Basterds." I haven't seen "Nine" but there's no freaking way Penelope Cruz did ANYTHING in that movie that equalled Laurent's work.

James Cameron, Avatar
Kathryn Bigelow, "The Hurt Locker"
Quientin Tarantino, "Inglorious Basterds"
Lee Daniels, "Precious"
Jason Reitman, "Up in the Air"

Prediction: Bigelow - This will be the first time in the history of the Awards that a woman has won Best Director. Totally deserving.
My vote: Cameron - All of these directors are more than deserving (again, excluding "Precious" as I haven't seen it). But I don't know how I could not vote for Cameron. You can rip Cameron on his script and his story all you want (and it would be deserving) but as far as direction, the work he did on "Avatar" is so extensive that I don't think you can vote against him.
Also deserving: Neill Blomkamp, "District 9" - Blomkamp's work came out of nowhere. An excellent sci-fi tale with powerful yet subtle Apartheid themes, it is SHOCKING that this dude put this together on the budget he had (reportedly under $30 million).

"The Hurt Locker"
"Inglorious Basterds"
"The Messenger"
"A Serious Man"

Prediction: I think they'll balance this out. If "Avatar" wins Picture and Bigelow wins Director, I think the voters take care of either Tarantino or the Coen Brothers and vote for "Inglorious Basterds" or "A Serious Man."
My vote: "Inglorious Basterds" - I haven't seen "A Serious Man" yet but I think "Basterds" was the best, most inventive script I've seen put to the screen in a while.
Also deserving: "Moon," "500 Days of Summer" - Both were truly unique which is what I usually look for in this category.

"District 9"
"An Education"
"In the Loop"
"Up in the Air"

Prediction: "Up in the Air" - And the splitting up of the awards continues. This was a fantastic, real, sometimes depressing but never devastating movie that was wonderfully structured.
My vote: "Up in the Air"
Also deserving: "The Road," "Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince," "Where the Wild Things Are" - Bringing "The Road" to the screen without losing the tone of the book was a difficult process. "Harry Potter 6" was perhaps the best of the bunch in terms of bringing the book to the screen as it was invisioned. And "Wild Things" tackled an incredibly difficult task in turning a beloved children's book of about 8 pages into a full movie that captured the essence of said book.

"An Education"
"The Blind Side"
"District 9"
"The Hurt Locker"
"Inglorious Basterds"
"A Serious Man"
"Up in the Air"

Prediction: "Avatar" - I think "The Hurt Locker" is "Avatar's" biggest competition. But for all its flaws I'm not sure the Academy is going to pass on "Avatar." Honestly, though, I don't think you can go wrong with "Avatar," "Hurt Locker," "Basterds," "Up," or "Up in the Air." They were all excellent.
My vote: "Up" - The first Pixar film to get the respect that company deserves, I personally think "Up" was the best movie I saw all year. It is unique, it is funny, it is visually appealing, and it is emotionally relevant in a way that most of these movies weren't.
Also deserving: "Moon" - Having no budget hurt but having no support from the studio hurt worse. This was a fantastic movie and unfortunately no one will ever see it.

I might actually watch this junk this year,

"Edge of Darkness"

Imagine for a moment that you are one of today’s teenagers, say eighteen years old. Imagine that you’re a big film fan who hits the theater every weekend and tries to stay up to date with the current releases. Imagine, however, that you’re not big on “old” movies, like, for example, anything made prior to 2004 when you first starting taking notice of movies that didn’t have talking squirrels. Now imagine sitting in on “Edge of Darkness” last Friday and wondering who in the world this Mel Gibson character is and where exactly he’s been for your entire film-going lifetime.

Maybe that sounds a bit ridiculous to anyone who isn’t eighteen, but consider that Gibson’s last star turn was in 2002’s criminally underrated “Signs.” A planned hiatus to work on directing combined with the infamous drunken rants that made the rounds a few years ago have kept Gibson out of the movie spotlight for eight years. Eight years. For all intents and purposes that’s an entire movie going generation that hasn’t had any big screen contact with a man who used to be a bankable, $20 million-a-film superstar. And that’s a shame, no matter the fact that Mel made the bed that he’s found himself in.

“Edge of Darkness” is based on a British mini-series of the same name. In a very rare Hollywood twist it is directed by Martin Campbell, who actually oversaw the original in 1985. Boston cop Thomas Craven (Gibson) welcomes his beloved daughter, Emma, home only to have her gunned down on his doorstep a few hours later. What follows for the rest of the film involves Craven trying to figure out who killed his daughter, digging deeper and deeper into the sordid political mess she found herself in prior to her death. Craven’s hunt takes him into contact with corporate villains, crooked lawyers, environmental activists, dirty senators, and a British bagman named Jedburgh, played exquisitely by Ray Winstone.

Craven is a hard cop, a guy who you wouldn’t be surprised to learn had roughed up a criminal or two. But his daughter’s death sets him free from any bureaucratic chains that might have inhibited him before. He is out for the truth of Emma’s death, revenge for that death, and to expose the political cover-up he’s investigating, but he’ll settle for the first two if that’s all he has time for. What sets Craven apart from many other tough-movie-cops is his ability to switch tactics to get what he wants. He threatens one man, outsmarts the next, and simply outtalks the one after that. He fights when he has to but he waits for the game to come to him. His moves are calculated. Again, however, when it comes time to stop talking and start shooting, he’s up to the task.

While the lead character is a fine example of an action movie hero, the whole of “Edge of Darkness” is a mixed bag. Campbell’s wildly inconsistent directing career (the man is responsible for both the saving of James Bond with “Casino Royale” and the absurdity that is “Vertical Limit”) shows up here as it seems he’s not sure whether “Edge” should be a political thriller or a “Taken” knock off. In truth it often feels like a foreign director is trying to pack his movie with the type of action he thinks the average American moviegoer wants to see. So what you get is an odd combination of outstanding, methodical dialogue built around slightly over the top action sequences. The result left me a little off balance, not completely sure what the film was actually going for. I came away feeling that the film had some failed award aspirations and compensated by adding some cliché action movie fodder. I am left to wonder if this wouldn’t have been better if Campbell and crew had just made this a darker, grittier version of “Taken.”

Acting wise, this is the Gibson Show through and through, with strong support from Winstone. Everyone else, even veteran character actors like Jay O. Sanders, seem out of their depth with Gibson. The normally powerful Danny Huston in particular seemed off his game. His corporate villain Jack Bennett is, for the most part, simply off putting and not in the way that you might expect a good villain to be. Comments and actions that are meant to come across as cold instead feel just plan weird. Winstone, on the other hand, is magnificent, the perfect compliment to Gibson. Jedburgh is a philosophical bad guy, a man who goes out of his way to respect those he is sent to “deter.” He gives you the feeling that he would be a “good guy” if only the good guys got paid a little better, while his cockney accent makes him simultaneously more menacing and appealing. The scenes he and Gibson share and the conversations therein are superb, especially their first encounter which brings forth memories of the diner conversation between Pacino and DeNiro in “Heat.”

Overall “Edge of Darkness” is a slightly bumpy ride that rests almost entirely on its leading man. Gibson delivers better than you might expect for someone who’s been out of the game for so long. He looks quite a bit older and more worn since last we saw him. Yet he still displays the same characteristics and mannerisms that made William Wallace, Martin Riggs, and the rest jump off the screen the way his characters have over the last 30 years. This is, for me at least, a triumphant return for a great actor, even if the movie isn’t up to par with the performance of its star. Will this resurrect his career and work to earn him back his place with the Hollywood elite? Who knows, but if nothing else, at least a generation of eighteen years can finally have the opportunity to get to know who the heck this Mel Gibson guy really is.

Grade: B.

If you don’t like “Signs” you’re not watching it right,

"The Book of Eli"

I am a big believer in a film owning its place in the world and being true to itself; sticking to its guns so to speak. If the goal of a film is to educate then it should strive to be educational. If the goal is to be funny it should darn sure make me laugh and laugh a lot. If the goal is to entertain then it should truly be entertaining. Obviously those movies that choose to handle tough subject matters are usually the ones that garner critical acclaim, but award nominations isn’t what it’s all about, at least not for every film. On the whole I think the first goal of the average film should be to entertain; to provide escape or release from the daily grind of real life. And if it’s done that then really I feel that’s all we should ask of it. So it is with “The Book of Eli.”

“Eli” drops us in the relatively near future, 30 years since “the war” tore a hole in the sky and the sun scorched the earth. What’s left behind is a desolate and bleak Earth on which an ever decreasing number of humans remain. Law, government, and the like are of the past, as are education and literacy. Everyone wears sunglasses in this scorched world and there is the obligatory lack of water as well as a large number of cannibals. (Though cannibalism is apparently frowned upon here, as opposed to the “everyone is doing it” position taken in “The Road.”) It is not a pretty world that “The Walker” aka Eli travels.

Eli (Denzel Washington) is a guy who knows how to take care of himself, as I imagine you would have to become to survive 30 years in this world. He’s heavily armed (including a wicked sword) though you get the impression that he could probably handle himself just fine without any weaponry. Along with a sack full of weapons and a rechargeable MP3 player, Eli also carries a leather bound book from which he reads every day. That book, as it turns out, is the last remaining copy of the Bible on the planet. Having discovered this copy sometime after the hole-in-the-sky thing, Eli wanders the path set before him, looking for a place where the Bible can be at rest. The majority of this movie deals with the happenings after Eli stops in a “town” lorded over by a slumlord named Carnegie (Gary Oldman). Carnegie realizes what is in Eli’s possession and begins a relentless pursuit to take the book from him, waging an all out war against the man.

“The Book of Eli” is far from perfect as far as action movies go. It is filled with clichés and is a bit “color by numbers.” This is one of those movies where you wonder, “Okay, what’s the twist going to be?” throughout the entire back half because you’ve seen this type of thing before so you know there’s going to be a twist. It is also, of course, highly unrealistic but seriously, has there ever been a realistic post-apocalyptic movie? The entire premise of this type of film is built on fantasy. The characters are pretty typical: virtuous hero, sly bad guy, bad guy’s right hand man, and helpless female who brings nothing to the story. Seriously, the female lead, played by Mila Kunis, is simply unnecessary. She is asked to do next to nothing and delivers appropriately. There are a lot of plot holes in what is a fairly jumpy plot line to begin with and I found there to be several wasted scenes which drives me crazy.

The biggest issue for me, however, was the seeming attempt to draw an R rating. A couple of edits here and there would have easily trimmed “Eli” down to a PG-13 rating but instead it feels like the directors (the Hughes brothers) went out of their way to ensure the R. That’s quite disappointing because in doing so they have alienated a large portion of the would-be audience. “Eli” is unashamedly Christian in nature. In fact I would say it is the most openly Christian film done by the mainstream that I have seen in quite some time, and maybe ever. It’s not just the whole “power of the Bible” thing or “screen religiousity” as I like to call it (meaning, cliché “this is how Christians would behave” acting). I’m talking very Christian ideas, quoting of fairly obscure Scripture, and open prayers that go far beyond the normal “movie prayer.” This is a film that the Christian community could have potentially rallied around but the R rating erased that opportunity, which is a shame.

Still, if the goal of “Eli” is to entertain the viewer, then it has succeeded. It is a very slick, (possibly overly) stylized portrayal of this potential future with strong action sequences that use very little CGI (something to be commended). The Hughes brothers do an excellent job of allowing the ominous landscape to become a focal point. More importantly, they hold to the world that they created and that’s a real key here. One of the biggest mistakes a director can make when he takes on a post-apocalyptic or sci-fi setting is to fall away from the reality he has created. The Hughes brothers don’t try to answer too many questions about why or how the world became this way and they tend to hold to what they have set forth as true in the world Eli inhabits. Gary Oldman is good, though perhaps a bit underused, and Denzel Washington is excellent. Eli is, clearly, a deeply religious, spiritual man and you can feel the connection Denzel had to his character. When he quotes Scripture it flows from his mouth not in the way a great actor would deliver it but the way a believer would and that makes a serious impact on the film. And the twist provides a great payoff and gives depth to the film as a whole. It does, however, make the films weaknesses stand out even more as you start to wonder if it could have been a great film instead of just a pretty good one.

Grade: B.

I can’t spell apocalyptic,

Movie Rankings 2009

I've still yet to see a couple of the more important films from the year ("A Serious Man," "The Informant!") but I don't guess I'll get a chance until next month when they hit DVD. So we'll have to move on without them. 2009 was a top heavy year for me. I gave out a lot of "A" grades this time around; more than I have in several years. After that, however, there wasn't just a whole lot to get excited about one way or another. I didn't see nearly as many bad movies this year as I would usually anticipate but there also weren't a whole lot of those movies where I came out thinking, "that was exactly what I thought it would be: not great but entertaining." Most of the movies that wind up in the middle of this list were disappointing as opposed to surprisingly good. Kind of a weird year all around.

A word about rankings. I have for years struggled with how to describe my rankings. I don't necessarily rank in order from best film of the year to worst film. Rather, I grade and then rank based on a combination of quality and enjoyment. I also take into account the supposed goal of the film. If it aspires to be an Oscar winner but falls short, that is usually taken into consideration. If it is, however, just meant to be a fun escape from the real world and attains that goal, I think there's something to be said for that. The point is, I think a lot of really entertaining films that deliver exactly what they are designed to deliver are looked down upon by mainstream critics because they aren't "award worthy." And that's a shame in my book. I would not make the case that "Sherlock Holmes" is a better film than, say, "Invictus." If I were voting for Best Picture between the two, I'd vote for the latter. But when the rankings come around, "Holmes" and "Invictus" both hit on quality and aspiration, but "Holmes" was more enjoyable for me and is therefore ranked higher. And that's the way it goes for me.

1. "It Might Get Loud" - The best film experience I had all year. A+

2. "Up" - I have always had a great love for the Pixar films. From "Toy Story" to last year's "Wall-E" Pixar delivers great entertainment and heartfelt story lines time and time again. "Up" may be the best Pixar has to offer and the one that finally garners a Best Picture Oscar nomination instead of just Best Animated Picture. This is as emotionally compelling as any live-action film I've seen in a long time. A+.

3. "Inglourious Basterds" - From the opening scene where Christoph Waltz's Nazi Jew Hunter completely CRUSHES a French dairy farmer using only his words to the final triumph of Brad Pitt's Aldo Raine, "Basterds" is brilliant. I've never been a big fan of Quentin Tarantino but I very much respect the work he is capable of doing and this, for me, is his best work. Say what you will about "Pulp Fiction," "Basterds" is, from a film standpoint, his crowning achievement. It is a slow burn built more around excellent dialogue and performances than anything else but has enough well placed action sequences to keep "Kill Bill" fans happy. A+.

4. "Up in the Air" - This was perhaps the best depressing film I've ever seen. Centering around a man whose job it is to fly around the country and fire employees for companies that can't do it themselves, this film borders on the "masterpiece" level despite the subject matter. The script and direction (done by superstar-in-the-making Jason Reitman) are both excellent but the true strength of this film is in the performances of it's three leading stars. Vera Farmiga is at her sultry best as a fellow traveler that our main character tragically falls for. Anna Kendrick surprised the heck out of everyone going from the dregs of the "Twilight" movies to this brilliant turn as the up-and-comer in the firing business. And George Clooney gives, for me, the best leading man performance of the year. He brilliantly navigates the complexity of a man who is equal parts driven, satisfied, and begrudgingly lonely, allowing the man to become neither depressing nor overly smug. Clooney again gives you the feeling that there is no other actor who could play his role. He is Daniel Day Lewis if Daniel Day Lewis had a sense of humor. A+.

5. "Avatar" - I've gone back and forth on where exactly this movie belongs in the rankings and I'm still not sure I'm settled. There are definite holes from a filmmaking standpoint but I cannot stress enough how incredibly enjoyable and entertaining "Avatar" is, and in the end that's what this thing is all about. A+.

6. "Moon" - Without question this is the least-seen movie of any on my Top Ten List. "Moon" centers around a man (Sam Rockwell) who supervises a drilling station on the Moon, his only companion being a talking computer voiced by Kevin Spacey. Really, however, it's about paranoia and good old fashioned sci-fi twists and turns. There aren't a lot of frills, special effects, or explosions but the story is so classically science fiction that I couldn't help but love it. Another writer I read a lot said that at the end of his screening, another patron stood up and yelled, "Now THAT is what a sci-fi film is supposed to be." There's very little that I can say about "Moon" without giving away too much. Sam Rockwell has received no support from the studio for his work here which is a shame because his performance is masterful. Director Duncan Jones looks like a superstar in the making and I can't wait to see what he does in the future. A.

7. "Star Trek" - Unquestionably the most fun I had in the theater this year. This was an absolute blast from beginning to end and left me and about 250 million other people dying for the next installment. A.

8. "The Hurt Locker" - I would call this the first legitimate war movie about the current war in Iraq. "Locker" centers around a bomb disarming unit and the mental beating these soldiers take. Jeremy Renner gives a coming-out performance that should catapult him to the Hollywood A-list. His character is addicted to the rush and imminent threat of death his job entails. And yet as unaffected as he would have you believe he is, his fragility is evident in many of his actions. It seems he would welcome death were it to happen on his terms while still knowing how much he has to live for. I almost wouldn't classify this as a war movie because the battles that usually mark a straight war film are lacking here. But if it is a war movie, it's the best I've seen since "Saving Private Ryan." A.

9. "Sherlock Holmes" - If "Star Trek" was the most fun I had at the theater this year, "Holmes" was the second most fun. The chemistry between Robert Downey Jr.'s Holmes and Jude Law's Watson is extraordinary, the dialogue is quick and hip, and the action sequences are perfectly placed. It is ridiculous and out of control in many places but that only adds to it's appeal, at least for me. "Holmes" is one of those rare films that doesn't take itself too seriously and still manages to come across as brilliantly structured. My only complaint is the lackluster use of both Rachel McAdams and Marc Strong. A.

10. "Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince" - I am a total Harry Potter nerd so it should be no surprise that I love each and every one of these movies. Now, there are some issues for me with what was left out of the book but just based on the film itself, I think this was the best of the group so far. The film's makers work seamlessly to pair outstanding visuals with acting performances that continue to get better and better with each film. I absolutely cannot wait for the final two parts of this story. A.

11. "Away We Go" - Maybe too hipster for some, I likened this to a poor-man's "Juno." John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph were both excellent in this tale of two people abandoned by family who trek across country looking for a new home for their expected child. There is a lot of quirky humor in "Away We Go" but also a couple of HAUNTINGLY authentic scenes about life. One of two movies this year that made me cry (along with "Up"). A

12. "The Hangover" A
13. "Zombieland" A
. "Invictus" A

15. "District 9" - When I saw this I thought it was destined to sit on my Top 10 List. It would have definitely made it in 2008 or 2007 and the fact that it slipped to 15 this year shows how strong at the top the movie calendar was in 2009. Absolute genius work here all around. A

16. "Fantastic Mr. Fox" A-
17. "The Road" A-
18. "Taken" A-
19. "Sunshine Cleaning" A-

20. "500 Days of Summer" - One of the cooler films of the year and a badly needed fresh take on the romantic comedy. "Summer" features Zooey Deschanel at her most charming and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is so good you almost forget he also starred in "G.I. Joe" this year. A bit depressing at times, it is nevertheless realistic and beautiful. A-

21. "This Is It" A-
22. "State of Play" A-

23. "Where the Wild Things Are" - Spike Jonze did an incredible job of capturing the up-and-down mood swings of a child and incorporating that into the fabric of his film. He did this so well, in fact, that the film feels so roller-coastery as to leave the viewer slightly uncomfortable throughout the whole run time.

24. "Brothers Bloom" - No one saw this little con movie starring Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody and that's a real shame. If you're a fan of the con, this is highly recommended.

25. "Funny People"
26. "Watchmen"

27. "Orphan" - I don't watch a whole lot of scary/horror films so you'll forgive me if this wasn't super original, I honestly have no idea. The twist at the end makes "Orphan" extremely memorable but the work done by Isabelle Fuhrman as child to Vera Farmiga's adoptive mother creates an excellent cat-and-mouse game throughout.

28. "Whip It"
29. "9"
(not to be confused with "Nine")
30. "The Soloist"
"The Blind Side"

32. "Public Enemies" - It's hard for me call a movie I gave a B the most disappointing film of the year, but I think that's where I'm going with "Enemies." It's a good film, don't get me wrong, but when you tell me you've got Michael Mann directing Johnny Depp and Christian Bale in a story about one of the most famous criminals in the history of America, I'm going to expect a GREAT movie, not a good one.

33. "Big Fan"
34. "A Perfect Getaway"

35. "Fanboys" - If you're a "Star Wars" nerd like I am, "Fanboys" is more than worth the viewing. It's cheap laughter, sure, but it's still laughter. Highly enjoyable, at least for this nerd.

36. "17 Again"
37. "Inkheart" - Much better than I thought it would be.
38. "Couples Retreat"

39. "I Love You, Man"

40. "Adventureland" - I didn't love this coming-of-age film as much as a lot of critics did but I definitely appreciate it. It has a slightly more unique take on the whole "going to college, becoming a man" thing than the average film.

41. "X-Men Origins: Wolverine"
42. "Monsters vs. Aliens"

43. "Transformers: Rise of the Fallen" - Not nearly as bad as everyone wants to make it out to be. Is it an Oscar caliber film? Of course not, but if you're expecting Oscar, don't go to a Michael Bay movie. This is what it is and what it is is pure entertainment, nothing more.

44. "The Taking of Pelham 123"
45. "Duplicity"

46. "Terminator: Salvation" - Another film that got destroyed by expectations versus reality. "Salvation" doesn't live up to the original "Terminator" or "T2" but from an action movie standpoint, it wasn't a complete disaster.

47. "Land of the Lost" - Another that wasn't nearly as bad as it was made out to be. It's all about expectations, people. If you expect an earth shattering, ground breaking, original comedy, don't go see "Land of the Lost." If you're OK with cheap laughs based on Will Ferrell's typically juvenile humor, this isn't far off from many of his other films.

48. "Underworld: Rise of the Lycans"
49. "He's Just Not That Into You"
50. "Confessions of a Shopaholic"

51. "Extract" - Highly disappointing. There just really isn't a reason this movie should have been made.
52. "Push"

53. "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" - I watched this three times over the course of five days on a cruise. It was hell.
54. "The International"

55. "The Invention of Lying" - Ricky Gervais is a certifiable comedic genius, but this proves that even genius goes bad when left unchecked. The entire movie is built on a false premise: it's not a world without lies but instead a world without filters - everyone just blurts out what's on their mind. The laughs are few and far between and somehow this even manages to make great comedians like Tina Fey seem unfunny.

56. "Bride Wars"

57. "G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra" - Just so bad on every single level. The longer I've thought about this mess, the more I've come to hate it. Somehow "Transformers," "Land of the Lost," "Wolverine," and "Terminator" took all the heat this summer but in truth I'd rather watch all of those movies every day for the next month than watch this movie once. Terrible.

58. "Year One"

59. "Post Grad" - Occasionally my wife drags me to a movie I don't want to see. It doesn't happen too often, we both usually go out of the way to see movies we know the other will hate without them. Much like "House Bunny" last year, this is one of those cases when Lindsey dragged me to a movie and she ended up hating it as much as I did. "Post Grad" is incredibly inept in every single way. I did not laugh more than three times. In fact, it made me sad and not sad like I connected with the story line and felt for the character. No, I was sad because Michael Keaton and Carol Burnett were both in this freaking trainwreck of a film and I remember both of them actually having a career at one point. It's truly a tough thing to be worse than "G.I. Joe" or "Year One" but "Post Grad" fit the bill and brought strong contention to 2002's "Cabin Fever" as Worst Movie I've Ever Seen.

I'm hoping to see "Crazy Heart" this week,

"Fantastic Mr. Fox"

It’s an interesting thing seeing a movie during the middle of a work day. You can expect a much different environment during this time than any other. The staff is always either much friendlier or give off the impression that the previous night was a rough one. The popcorn tastes a little fresher and the bathrooms seem a little cleaner. Even the tickets are cheaper, reason enough to hit the mid-day showing whenever possible. But the real difference is the audience. If I see a movie on an average weekend evening, I can expect a large crowd of diverse people. If I see a mid-day movie on say, a Wednesday however, I know almost exactly what to expect.

The mid-day audience is made up of four standard groups:
a.) The Elders - I have found that no matter what the movie, there is almost ALWAYS an elderly couple in the theater;
b.) The Housewife - sometimes with kids, sometimes without, the mid-day movie is a big player for the housewife;
c.) The Student - sometimes it’s a college student who was smart enough to get all his/her classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, sometimes it’s the high school student who’s skipping class, but you can always count a student in the audience. These often comes in pairs;
d.) The Professional - you can always count on at least one “9-5er” showing up for the mid-day movie. Maybe he’s got the day off, maybe he doesn’t, but he’s there regardless. My attention today rests here.

“Fantastic Mr. Fox” is the latest film from director Wes Anderson, maker of such oddball comedies as “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “Rushmore.” Based on a story by famed children’s author Roald Dahl, “Mr. Fox” is the tale of a talking Fox, his fox family, and his animal friends. Mr. Fox is a thief by trade and a darn good one. He steals chickens, apple cider, and turkeys from human villains Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. After almost getting caught, he promises his wife he won’t steak again. However, as he enters the twilight of his life (he is seven fox years old, you know), he returns to his old ways and plots a great caper that throws his life and the life of all those around him into disarray.

As is the case with all Anderson films, “Fox” is an ensemble that is built on the strength of all characters involved. The voice work here is exquisite. Anderson assembled the usual suspects, such as Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, and added more A-list talent to the equation. George Clooney and Meryl Streep provide the voices for Mr. and Mrs. Fox and both bring the exact kind of quality you would expect. Clooney in particular makes you feel as if he is the only guy who could voice Mr. Fox, just as he does with every role he takes. The script is witty, intelligent, and original. It’s never “I nearly died laughing” with Anderson but “Mr. Fox” delivers fun and entertaining scenes throughout. The real attention grabber, however, is the use of stop motion animation. It was a daring move for Anderson to film this way and a huge departure from what he’s done in the past. The film is, for lack of a better term, fantastic to the eye. Each shot is as dynamic as the one before. The longer the movie ran, the more I found myself riveted to what played out on the screen. This was a daring move that paid off.

I’ve never been Wes Anderson’s biggest fan. I’ve found all of his films to be incredibly promising but ultimately incomplete. There have always been too many scenes that felt like they belonged only in a director’s cut that distracted from the overall point of his films. Unlike most others, I actually liked his latest release, “The Darjeeling Unlimited,” the most because I felt like it actually progressed from point A to point Z in the most direct route. It was a step forward from a filmmaking standpoint, even if the storyline wasn’t up to par. “Mr. Fox” takes that promise shown in “Tenenbaums” and “Rushmore” and adds the steps taken with “Darjeeling,” finally delivering a complete project.

But while I may not be Anderson’s biggest fan, the man has developed an amazing cult following. Which brings me back to The Professional. As I settled into my seat and the previews began to play, the last person into the theater was the day’s representation of The Professional. He snuck in wearing a suit and tie, bags under the eyes and a general attitude that said, “I kind of hate my life.” He came in nervous but when he sat down in the aisle in front of me, you could almost feel the tension rush out of the dude as the opening credits rolled. As the film progressed The Professional got more and more into the movie. At times we were the only two in the theater laughing at the witty banter between a fox and a badger. I figured him for an Anderson fan when he started chuckling over bits that only someone who’d seen his other films would appreciate, like he was in on a joke that the rest of us weren’t privy to. When “Mr. Fox” came to an end and the lights came on, The Professional was the first out of his seat. Back to the grind I assume. But there was a slight difference in him. A pep in the step, if you will.

I don’t know the guy’s story, though I could guess. I would bet he’s a twenty-something in a job he doesn’t like who feels like a sellout every time he looks in the mirror. He just had that air about him. On this day, however, he got to remember what life was like before we had to grow up. Maybe he got off early that day or maybe his boss thought he was on a sales call. Either way, he was there and the 87 minutes spent in Anderson-land were enough to get The Professional through the day. “Mr. Fox” was fun and bright throughout, a truly enjoyable work that served as a great distraction from the grown-up world. A-.

I still have Milk Duds stuck in my teeth,


I hate “Titanic.” HATE it. I’m not against the Chick Flick or the romance movie in general. Those movies have their place and some of them I actually quite like. Heck, I would probably name at least two Chick Flicks (“When Harry Met Sally” and “Serendipity”) on my list of all time favorites. So that’s not my problem with “Titanic.” My problem is that James Cameron turned it into a romance in the first place. I was obsessed with the story of the Titanic as a kid. There was a book in my school library about the Titanic and I bet I checked it out once or twice a month. So you can imagine how excited the 13 year old version of myself was when he learned there was a movie about the Titanic and it was being made by the man who gave us “Terminator” and “Aliens,” only to find out it was a romance starring Leonardo Dicaprio. That Cameron could turn one of the most fascinating stories in history into a romance still makes me angry. Clearly it was the right choice considering how much money it made. But still, the sting of having a favorite childhood story ripped away and replaced with some old lady throwing a dumb diamond into the ocean is ever present. Boo.

And so it was with great fear and trepidation that I entered a theater for a 3-D showing of Cameron’s latest, “Avatar.” The movie follows wheelchair-bound Marine Jack Sully and his pals as he explores an alien world known as Pandora. Sully is entrusted with endearing himself to the indigenous people of Pandora, called the Na’vi. To do this, Sully (along with several others) essentially transfers his mind into the body of an Avatar, a combination of Na’vi and human DNA that looks like a Na’vi. Sully quickly finds himself caught between the love for the alien planet he is quickly developing and the mission he has been charged with by the military. Inevitably the two worlds clash and he is forced to choose which side he is really on.

Since I’ve bored you with my tale of why I hate “Titanic,” I’m going to skip right to the point: I loved this movie. It is a magnificent piece of work that certainly makes you understand why it took Cameron so long to bring his vision to the screen. “Avatar” is expertly crafted from start to finish and it is the single most beautiful and stunning film I have seen in a long, long time. Not a single scene is wasted, which is no small feat considering its 160 minute run time. In fact I think the case could be made for an extra 20 or 30 minutes of development (looking forward to the director’s cut). The world, the creatures, and the weaponry are all spectacular and the effects are amazing. And whereas I usually find 3-D to be a distraction at best, for this movie it does nothing but add to the spectacle. Cameron uses the 3-D technology, along with the tremendous sound editing, to bring you into the world of Pandora rather than going the standard route of bringing the action out to you. This to me makes a huge difference not only from an enjoyment standpoint but also in regards to respectability. No matter how good a movie this turned out to be, if Cameron packed it with cheesy shots designed to do nothing more than show off 3-D, there is no way it would get the critical respect it has thus far received.

It should be noted that, while he is a great director, Cameron isn’t a great writer. The actors in “Avatar” do an admirable job and at times the cast, Zoe Saldana in particular, step up as the driving force behind the movie. But they aren’t asked to do that much. As far as the story goes, there isn’t much that hasn’t been told before. One review I read criticized Cameron for taking the best parts of his other movies and throwing them altogether for “Avatar.” To that I say, so what? Sure, the story isn’t all that original but truth be told, it’s hard to come up with something that hasn’t been done before in some way or another. We’re approaching 100 years of the spoken word in film and complete originality is hard to produce. I have always been of the opinion that it doesn’t really matter if you’re retelling parts of a story as long as you’re retelling it well. And this story, while secondary to the stunning visuals, is well told.

I love movies. Whether in the theater or on Blu-Ray/DVD, I see a lot of films every year. Because of that, sometimes I get a little jaded and get caught up in catching as many reasonably interesting movies as I can. Sometimes even good movies start to blend together for me. But there are a few movies that I wish I could see again for the first time. “Star Wars” is one. “Jurassic Park” is another. “Avatar” now takes a prominent place on that list. I saw this movie almost a month ago now and I have thought about it over and over ever since. It is a landmark achievement in film, the kind of movie that you have to believe will have a ripple effect on the rest of the industry. Maybe more importantly, “Avatar” made me feel like a kid again, taking in a fantastic world that I truly did not want to see end when my 160 minutes was up. It reminds me of the magic and the majesty of the silver screen in a way that I haven’t experienced in many years. A+.

I’m still mad about “Titanic,”

Top 10 Anticipated Movies of 2010

My annual Movie Rankings column is about ready to go, but I've got to catch two of this week's Blu-ray releases before I'll feel like I have a good handle on the year. In the meantime, after an exhaustive search, I've put together a list of my top 10 Most Anticipated Movies of 2010. All around it seems like we're in for a pretty average year at the box office and certainly not one that is up to the standard of 2009, which was for me a very strong year for film. Yet as always there are some highlights.

10. The Book of Eli (January 15)
I'm purposely trying not to know much about this before I see it. What I do know is Denzel has never done a straight action/fighting movie like this before and I'm excited to see it. And it doesn't get any better than Gary Oldman in the role of the villain.

9. Shutter Island (February 19)
I was a lot more excited about this Scorsese pic when it was supposed to come out last November. The newly cut second trailer is making it seem like it's going to be closer to a horror movie than I want it to be. Still, pedigree is a big thing and "Shutter" has that along with an insanely intriguing story line.

8. Stone (May)
As you will be able to tell from my list, my movie choices are often actor-driven. Edward Norton plus a potential career saving turn for Robert DeNiro is enough to get me in the theater, even if I'm not really sure what this is all about.

7. Alice in Wonderland (March 5)
2009 was the year of the visually stunning film ("Avatar," "The Road," "Fantastic Mr. Fox") and "Alice" looks to follow that up this year. Tim Burton tends to polarize audiences: you love him or you hate him. I guess I'm one of the few who can pick and choose depending on the project. This one looks fascinating.

6. Green Zone (March 12)
Matt Damon is my favorite actor right now and a guy who delivers time and time again. Seriously, the last poor movie he took a starring turn in was "Brothers Grimm" and even that you could see why he took the role. Pair him with "Bourne" director Paul Greengrass and I'm there.

5. Inception (July 16)
Of all the movies on the list, this is the one that I know the least about. The trailer doesn't really tell me much of anything. But it looks amazing and director Chris Nolan has proven to be a trustworthy name many times over even before his success with the "Batman" reboot.

4. Robin Hood (May 14)
What can I say, I love the Robin Hood story and pretty much every film version. I love the Errol Flynn film, the one with Costner is a guilty pleasure, and the Disney cartoon is my favorite Disney movie of all time. So the story line alone is enough to get me interested. Adding in Ridley Scott and his best buddy Russell Crowe is just overkill.

3. Iron Man 2 (May 7)
The first "Iron Man" was slightly surprising in its awesomeness and that surprise factor has me a little worried about the sequel. It's really easy to fill a sequel with a ton of big names (Mickey Rourke, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell) and get lazy on the storyline (see: "Ocean's 12"). Still, if Damon is my favorite actor at the moment, Downey is right up there and the first "Iron Man" was incredible.

2. Toy Story 3 (June 18)
Pixar made its glorious debut 15 years ago with the first "Toy Story." I'm a huge Pixar fan and I have a deep attachment to the "Toy Story" movies.

1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (November 19)
Ya, I'm a nerd, what about it? The Harry Potter books are phenomenal and the movies are tremendously fun for me. I have enjoyed the Harry Potter world so much that, as much as I look forward to its on-screen conclusion, I will be sad to see it come to an end.

No Will Smith movie this year,