Wednesday, February 29, 2012

In Home Viewings: "Higher Ground"

Corinne (Vera Farmiga) grew up quite fast. The child of a mismatched, unhappy marriage, she sought attention elsewhere and married young and had a baby. Her husband, Ethan (Joshua Leonard), tried his hand as a musician and on a band road trip their child nearly dies in a bus crash. After this brush with death, Corinne and Ethan turn to the religion Corinne knew as a child and end up becoming part of an evangelical community. In this commune the young family finds peace and meaning and they embrace the conservative ideas of the group’s leader, Bill (Norbert Leo Butz). But as her family grows, so does Corinne’s doubt and as she wrestles with her faith, she finds that her community is unable to handle her unrest.

Higher Ground is based upon the memoir of screenwriter Carolyn S. Briggs and represents Farmiga’s directorial debut. It is a bold, well-crafted film that, even in its weaker moments, gives notice of what is to come from Farmiga from behind the camera. Higher Ground displays a thoughtfulness that is uncommon in religiously-oriented tales of this sort. Rather than jumping head-first into stereotypes and harsh judgments, Farmiga shows her characters to be simply human; these are good people with good hearts even if they are misguided. The lack of condescension (for the most part) within the film was refreshing and resulted in a deeper experience than I might have expected. This isn’t a story about corporate religion so much as it is about one woman’s personal struggles with faith and that difference is what makes Higher Ground worth watching.

On screen, Farmiga is charming and charismatic as ever. For me, there are very few actresses who command attention the way Farmiga does. She’s a tremendous talent, to be sure, but there is also an inherent presence about her that makes her a wholly intriguing, captivating performer no matter what role she takes on. Her portrayal here is understated and quiet but nonetheless powerful, an excellent illustration of what a great actress can do when given room to work.

Unfortunately for Higher Ground, Farmiga’s work both behind and in front of the camera is no match for the dull nature of the film’s narrative. This is one of the more boring experiences you’ll likely have with a film this year, which is a shame because I found the lacking storyline to be an immense hindrance to becoming invested in the film. I don’t think this is a case of poor pacing or bad choices from the director. In fact, I feel that Farmiga does a good job of piecing together the story and fleshing out the parts that have the best chance of becoming connectible. I believe the problem is found within the source material which is simply doesn’t translate well to the screen. There’s very little within Higher Ground that you could describe as exciting, relevant, or even mildly intriguing. Some stories work well both as pieces of literary non-fiction and films; some do not. In this case, that lack of cinematic value results in a somewhat meaningless and decidedly uninteresting viewing that doesn’t measure up to the quality of Farmiga’s work on the project.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Review: "Wanderlust"

Whether good or bad, love or hate, movies should always elicit a reaction; the stronger the better in my book. When I come out of a theater, I want to have an opinion of the film I just saw and I want to be bubbling over with comments to process and compile into a review. As such, one of the worst traits a film can have is a lack of noteworthy content. If I cannot muster up a few hundred words on a given film, then I can’t exactly give a hearty recommendation. Such is the case with Wanderlust.

Life isn’t going well for George (Paul Rudd) and Linda (Jennifer Aniston). Just days after paying too much for a small New York apartment, George’s company goes under and Linda’s new business idea is wrecked. Jobless and penniless, the couple heads to Atlanta where George has a job waiting for him, courtesy of his obnoxious older brother (Ken Marino). On the way down, however, they stop in at a remote bed and breakfast which turns out to be a commune. Led by a charismatic free spirit named Seth (Justin Theroux), this group of hippies have embraced a simpler way of life that comes complete with all the amenities and ideals you might expect of such a community. Intrigued by the happiness the group exudes, George and Linda decide to move into the commune for a two-week trial run. Shenanigans ensue.

Most of what I liked about Wanderlust boiled down to my affection for the leads, Rudd and Aniston. Rudd is one of the most likeable, perpetually enjoyable comedic actors in the field today and he always manages to come across as a bright spot even in a bad movie. I think Rudd’s charm comes as a result of his ability to bridge the gap between nerd and cool guy; he doesn’t exactly belong in either camp and yet can walk in both. As always, Rudd gives an endearing and appealing performance here and exudes a natural, everyman charisma. I’m pretty sure several of the funnier scenes within Wanderlust are the product of Rudd’s improvised banter and as such, this film owes a great deal to its star. Aniston, too, is a favorite of mine (despite some of truly terrible films) who has proven to possess a comedic touch when given something to work with. Her chemistry with Rudd is solid and while her role isn’t as well developed as Rudd’s, she does her job well and the pair makes for a solid combination.

The other elements of Wanderlust, however, are lackluster. The narrative contains a few promising storylines but they aren’t fleshed out with much pizzazz. There are plenty of laughs but most of them come from easy, “low hanging fruit”-type jokes that get old as the film progresses. And most of the supporting characters are as one-note as they come; each brings a few laughs here and there when they’re in their respective elements but then run out of gas and become tiresome. Theroux, Malin Ackerman, Kathryn Hahn, and several others have their moments but none of them ever really get moving or show any signs of development. This lack of depth and development results in the feeling that Wanderlust is not so much a film as it is a bundle of individual scenes, vignettes if you will, tied together by George and Linda in loose, unsatisfying fashion.

There’s nothing inherently or irrevocably wrong with Wanderlust but outside of a few laughs and the appeal of the leads, there’s nothing truly right about it, either. It simply is and that lack of significance makes for an overly ho-hum experience.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Week That Was and the Week That Will Be - 2/27

The 84th Academy Awards were held last night (duh) and there are many far better recaps than the one you’re about to read.

Overall, I thought it was a pretty good show and definitely a far cry better than last year’s debacle. I may be in the minority but I was pleased with Billy Crystal’s hosting performance. I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Crystal so it’s always good to see him working. Much of his presentation was safe and somewhat vanilla but we knew that going in, didn’t we? I enjoyed it. I also thought the production value this year was top notch. The, “actors talking about the movies they love” bit that was broken up over the course of the broadcast was inspired and touching, a goosebumps-inducing segment that the show hasn’t had recently. And the In Memoriam segment was classy and well-done.

As far as the awards go, I was glad to see Hugo take home an arm-full of awards, even if they were all technical and even if they did take a toll on my Oscar game predictions (I still got 14 correct, however). Octavia Spencer was a big bright spot for me as I always love to see career character actors take home major hardware. And of course Christopher Plummer FINALLY taking home an Oscar was an especially touching, special moment. His speech was perfect, too.

On the other hand, two awards really stuck out to me as idiotic. I understand that many voters, critics, and audience members didn’t understand or care for Tree of Life; can’t blame them for not buying in. However, that’s one of the most visually stunning films I have ever seen. Its loss to Hugo in the cinematography department is absurd. And then there’s Viola Davis who gave perhaps the best performance I have seen from a leading lady in a decade and somehow lost the Best Actress trophy. I get that we all love Meryl Streep and she’s the best actress ever and blah blah blah. But we’re talking about a performance in a film that no one saw ($25 million at the box office) and most critics didn’t care for (53% on Rotten Tomatoes) against a strong, powerful, beautiful portrayal by Davis. Stupid. Just stupid. This award made me actually physically angry.

Weekend Box Office Results
I would never have guessed the ridiculous amount of cash Act of Valor brought in this weekend. I guess there’s just no sating America’s appetite for dudes shooting other dudes. I (somewhat begrudgingly) gave my money to both This Means War and Wanderlust and was underwhelmed by both of them. I’m looking forward to the better days of March.
1. Act of Valor - $24.7M
2. Tyler Perry’s Good Deeds - $16M
3. Journey 2: Mysterious Island - $13.47M ($76.73)
4. Safe House - $11.4M ($98.1M)
5. The Vow - $10M ($103M)
6. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance - $8.8M ($37.83M)
7. This Means War - $8.5M ($33.57M)
8. Wanderlust - $6.6M
9. Gone - $5M
10. The Secret World of Arriety - $4.5M ($14.66M)

New to DVD
What I’ve Seen and You Should Too
Hugo (2011) - Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Chloe Grace Moretz
Hugo hits DVD shelves with perfect timing, fresh off its five Oscar wins. This film struggled mightily to find an audience, partly (or mostly) due to the fact that the marketing campaign was somewhat confusing and no one had any idea what it was all about. Is it a kid’s movie? Is it a period piece? Is it sci-fi? The answer is yes. I found Hugo to be a richly layered, beautiful film that displays the expert craftsmanship that you’d expect from Martin Scorsese. I’ll be buying this one.

What No One Should Have to See
Johnny English Reborn (2011) - Rowan Atkinson, Rosamund Pike, Dominic West
A simple question comes to mind when considering this movie: “Why?” I don’t even know any kids who have seen either of the Johnny English movies and I work with large groups of kids within the target demographic on a daily basis. Apparently these movies make bank overseas. So next time a European gives you guff about how uncultured America is (because I’m sure this happens to you every day like it does to me), make sure you rub this little gem in his/her face.

Also New
I Melt with You (2011) - Rob Lowe, Thomas Jane, Jeremy Piven
The Myth of the American Sleepover (2011) - Claire Sloma, Marlon Morton, Amanda Bauer
Law and Order: Season 10 (1999) - Jerry Orbach, Jesse L. Martin, Sam Waterston
Here Come the Brides: Season 2 (1970) - Robert Brown, Bobby Sherman
Breakout Kings: Season 1 (2011) - Jimmi Simpson, Domenick Lombardozzi, Brooke Nevin

New to Blu-Ray
What I’ll Be Buying This Week
Runaway Jury (2003) - John Cusack, Rachel Weisz, Gene Hackman
I wouldn’t say this is the best film based on a John Grisham novel but I would say that it is the most entertaining. I might even go so far as to call it, “thrilling.” Runaway Jury is the prototypical mid-weekend TNT movie that you don’t really mind watching three times. It also stands as Gene Hackman’s last movie (because we can all agree that Welcome to Mooseport never happened, right?).

Also New to Blu
Johnny English (2003) - Rowan Atkinson, John Malkovich, Natalie Imbruglia
The Buccaneer (1958) - Yul Brynner, Charlton Heston

Coming to a Theater Near You
I went 4-for-4 last week on the Rotten/Fresh predictions but missed the mark fairly widely on the scores. Wanderlust did significantly (and having seen it, probably deservedly) better than I guessed and sat at 58% (versus the 20% prediction) at the time of this writing. Act of Valor topped the box office but failed with critics who gave it a 31% rating. Good Deeds must have been especially bad, even for Tyler Perry, because it came in under my 34% prediction (27%), which was the average of all Tyler Perry films from the last decade. And Gone…well, Gone struck out on all fronts, bringing in very little at the box office and finishing with a 13% rating. There’s a bad pun in there somewhere about Amanda Seyfried’s star potential being Gone but I won’t go there.

Dr. Suess’ The Lorax - Zach Efron, Danny Devito, Ed Helms
In the not-so-distant future (or maybe an alternate reality), trees have become all but extinct, leading one young environmentalist to go on a search that will lead him to the speaker of the trees.The Lorax made my top ten anticipated films a few weeks back and every new advertisement has only served to deepen my anticipation. This is one of my favorite Suess books and it looks stunning. On the other hand, Suess films have not always knocked it out of the park with either critics or audiences so you never really know how this will translate. Hoping for big things. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Fresh, 75%

Project X - Thomas Mann, Oliver Cooper, Jonathan Daniel Brown
Three high school nobodies throw a gigantic party. That’s the plot. Another found-footage film, this one brought to you by Todd Phillips, there’s nothing here of interest for me. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Rotten, 30%

Two limited releases are also on the docket: Being Flynn (Robert De Niro, Paul Dano) could hold some value if executed properly and Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim) will probably satisfy fans of Tim and Eric and fall flat with everyone else. 

Friday, February 24, 2012

Obligatory Oscar Predictions - 2012

I have not seen, nor do I have any plans to see, The Artist. I feel like I need to get that out on the table up front. Most years I make it my duty to see all of the important award contenders before the Oscars roll around and I usually fulfill that duty. This year, though, I shot 8-for-9 and I just can’t bring myself to complete the list. I am not vehemently set against The Artist nor do I expect it to be a bad film (though I believe it’s a film that I wouldn’t appreciate the way many other critics and bloggers do). There’s just nothing interesting about The Artist for me; I cannot conjure up the desire to see a black and white, silent film and since I’ve never been big on catching up on the classic black and white, silent films of the early years of cinema, it would seem a bit disingenuous to get excited about a modern version. And I must confess, the entire concept seems too gimmicky, too cute for my tastes. It would be fine if The Artist was just a nice, quality, independent film that people enjoyed and then went about their business; but the best film of the year? That’s just too much for me.

I say all that to say this: I expect The Artist to come away with a U-HAUL full of awards on Sunday. I can accept that if those of you who are adamant supporters of the film can accept that I will be quietly rooting for the many other worthy nominees in this year’s field. With that in mind, I give you my predictions for Sunday’s show, along with the requisite expressions of opinion that make movie blogging so glorious.

(Please note that, along with The Artist, I have missed out on the following important films: A Separation; Margin Call; A Better Life; Take Shelter; Martha Mary May Marlene; and virtually every film involving the Best Actress nominees.)

Best Original Screenplay
Michel Hazanavicus, The Artist
Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig, Bridesmaids
JC Chandor, Margin Call
Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
Asgnar Farhadi, A Separation

Winner: Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
Should Win: Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig, Bridesmaids
Should Have Been Nominated: Will Reiser, 50/50

I expect The Artist to take home a ton of awards on the night and I’ve come to grips with this. But if a SILENT film manages to win a Best Screenplay award…I might just lose it. Midnight is the best film Woody Allen has made in many years and since it’s all but out of the running for Best Picture and Best Director, I think it gets the consolation prize. Bridesmaids, meanwhile, is a genre-redefining film that packs both easy laughs and intelligent hilarity together. If the Academy, in all its collective wisdom, would have consulted with me during the voting period, I would have told them that it was literally insane not to include 50/50 on this list and that its omission would be an embarrassment. Alas, no one ever asked my opinion.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Alexander Payne, Jim Rash, Nat Faxon, The Descendants
John Logan, Hugo
George Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Beau Willimon, The Ides of March
Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian, Moneyball
Peter Straughan and Bridget O'Connor, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Winner: Alexander Payne, Jim Rash, Nat Faxon, The Descendants
Should Win: Peter Straughan and Bridget O'Connor, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Should Have Been Nominated: Tate Taylor, The Help (I guess)

For the record, I think the Academy nailed it in this category. Outside of Ides of March, which I was thoroughly underwhelmed by on every level, the nominees are spot on. This is basically a two-horse race between Moneyball and The Descendants and it will likely come down to the wire, so to speak. I wasn’t nearly as impressed with Moneyball as others were but having read the book and seen the movie, I can tell you Sorkin and Zaillian did an excellent job of creating a cinematic story out of non-cinematic source material. That said, I think The Descendants is a better film overall and it has been building steady speed since the nominations were announced. Personally I think TTSS is written with exquisite precision and would receive my vote were I given one, with The Descendants following close behind

Best Supporting Actor
Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Nick Nolte, Warrior
Jonah Hill, Moneyball
Max Von Sydow, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Kenneth Branagh, My Week with Marilyn

Winner: Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Should Win: Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Should Have Been Nominated: Albert Brooks, Drive

This is the only absolute in the field this year. Plummer is such a (deserving) lock that right now Vegas won’t even place odds on the rest of the field. If someone strapped a bomb to my chest and forced me to bet on another contestant in order to safe my life, I would put the money on Max Von Sydow and then get right with God. In all honestly, Plummer’s greatest competition would have come in the form of Brooks who was completely and totally screwed out of his rightful place among the nominees. I think Brooks handled this (at least publicly) better than many fans, including myself.

Best Supporting Actress
Octavia Spencer, The Help
Jessica Chastain, The Help
Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
Berenice Bejo, The Artist
Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids

Winner: Octavia Spencer, The Help
Should Win: Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
Should Have Been Nominated: Shailene Woodley, The Descendants

Vegas hasn’t set odds in this category either but it’s not quite the lock that Plummer’s win is. Spencer is a thoroughly deserving nominee and I always, ALWAYS love to see a long-time character actor pick up a major award (case in point: Margo Martindale’s Emmy award for her work in Justified last year). That said, I don’t think her performance is nearly as integral to The Help as Viola Davis’ is. McCarthy, on the other hand, is the driving force behind Bridesmaids (at least when considering the on-screen talent; the writing is pretty spectacular). I was very disappointed that Woodley didn’t score a nod for her work in The Descendants. I’ve said this many times already but there are many great actors who have shriveled in the shadow that George Clooney casts on set; Woodley went toe-to-toe with Clooney and stole numerous scenes from a legend. That type of work deserves attention.

Best Actor
George Clooney, The Descendants
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Brad Pitt, Moneyball
Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Demian Bechir, A Better Life

Winner: Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Should Win: Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Should Have Been Nominated: Ryan Gosling, Drive and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 50/50

This is probably the tightest race at this point. Dujardin is the favorite but there’s some suggestion out there that Clooney will be rewarded for playing a more vulnerable character than we’re used to seeing from him. Likewise, Pitt gave a very likeable portrayal in a pseudo-biopic (always an Academy favorite) and while Oldman is definitely the long-shot of the four, his performance was MASTERFUL and there has to be a handful of voters who want to make sure the guy gets the award when they have the chance. (Poor Demian Bechir is just lucky to be here.) And I won’t waste any more time complaining about Gosling’s TREMENDOUS performance in Drive being all-but shut out in this year’s Award Season but I would be remiss if I didn’t take one last opportunity to say: Absolute bull. That is all.

Best Actress
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Viola Davis, The Help
Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn

Winner: Viola Davis, The Help
Should Win: Viola Davis, The Help
Should Have Been Nominated: Kristin Wiig, Bridesmaids

As is almost always the case, I saw very few outstanding performances by a “female in a leading role” last year. Hollywood as a whole is in a bad rut right now wherein the best female performances are consistently relegated to unappealing and underwhelming films that most moviegoers avoid. Obviously that’s a real shame. That said Davis’ turn in The Help is one of the very best performances by a leading lady that I have seen in many, many years. She is strong, powerful, beautiful, and compelling throughout and (no offense to Meryl who I’m sure was great in yet another movie of hers I will never see) it would be a serious mistake to not to reward her magnificent work here.

Best Director
Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
Michel Hazanavicus, The Artist
Martin Scorsese, Hugo
Alexander Payne, The Descendants
Terrence Malick, Tree of Life

Winner: Martin Scorsese, Hugo
Should Win: Martin Scorsese, Hugo
Should Have Been Nominated: Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive

I’m going with an upset here; I think most Oscar prognosticators will peg Hazanavicus as the winner. I’m taking a leap of faith, however, that Hollywood will recognize a film about the movie industry in some way or another and this seems to be the most likely category. I feel like I’ve been the champion for Hugo of late so obviously I’d love to see it win. Aside from Hazanavicus, Payne also has a decent shot at winning, though I think The Descendants is considered more of a writer’s film than a director’s. And while I can’t say there’s a film among these five that definitely doesn’t deserve its place on the list, I truly believe Refn should have found a spot here considering he made what I consider to be the best film of the year.

Best Picture
The Artist
The Descendants
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
The Help
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
War Horse

Winner: The Artist
Should Win: The Descendants
Should Have Been Nominated: Drive, 50/50

It seems inevitable that The Artist will be taking home the big prize on Sunday. I wouldn’t call it a lock but it is close enough. The Descendants is the only film that has a chance to knock it off and I have to say, I’m rooting hard for its success. Again, it’s not that I’m diametrically opposed to The Artist; it’s just that, from a somewhat selfish standpoint, I think 2011 was a great year for film and when I look back on it, I don’t want it to be marred by awarding Best Picture to a film that will not hold up well over time. I still don’t understand how Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close scored a nomination, a feat even harder to fathom given that Drive, 50/50, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, all vastly superior films, were shut out. Regardless, this is The Artist’s trophy to lose and I expect it will come through.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Ranking the Last 20 Best Picture Winners

Perhaps my favorite thing about the cinema (behind massive explosions, Morgan Freeman’s voice and Rachel McAdams, of course) is the varying opinions moviegoers have about certain films. Most of us can objectively pick out “good” movies and “bad” movies; everyone except Nick Swardson knows Bucky Larson is a cow chip of a film and everyone knows The Shawshank Redemption is a masterpiece (see what I did there?). But when you add in concepts like interpretation, entertainment, and enjoyment, objectivity goes out the window and the whole process becomes complicated. I love that differing of opinion and the good natured debate that often follows. In no setting is the debate of what is good and what isn’t more prevalent than during award season. The Academy Awards in particular bring out the critic in just about every moviegoer and more often than not, I think it’s safe to say we cinephiles disagree with what the Academy thinks is best. This list is not about pointing out what films should have been honored over the last two decades (though that idea may sneak in a time or two); it is simply a ranking (taking into account quality of film and personal connection/appreciation) of the films that have taken home a Best Picture Oscar in the last twenty years. Let the debate begin.

20. Shakespeare in Love (1998) - Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Geoffrey Rush
There are several BP winners on this list that I personally do not care for but Shakespeare is the only one I hold as a straight-up bad film. I feel like I could probably just say, “Shakespeare features Ben Affleck trying to pull off an accent” and leave it at that. Under the impression that perhaps I had given this movie an unfair shake due to the fact that it beat out Saving Private Ryan (a personal favorite of mine) for BP that year, I tried to give Shakespeare another chance recently. I made it through about 15 minutes.

19. The English Patient (1996) - Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Kristin Scott Thomas
From a technical standpoint, English Patient is a fantastic film. Landscapes, cinematography, etc. - all of those elements are great. But from a storytelling standpoint, there are very few films that bore me faster than this one. I’ve seen the whole film in various pieces but I’ve never been able to manage a full viewing from beginning to end. I just can’t make myself care enough to sit through it.

18. Million Dollar Baby (2004) - Hilary Swank, Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman
All cards on the table, I’m not sure why I dislike this movie so much. I’ve watched MDB twice: once right after its release on DVD and once more recently. Both times I had the overwhelming desire to stop watching movies altogether. Maybe it’s just that I’ve never understood the merits of Hilary Swank or maybe Clint Eastwood’s “grizzled old man” bit has worn thin. I’m actually getting a little angry just thinking about this movie now so I’m going to move on to the next film.

17. American Beauty (1999) - Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Mena Suvari
I will not question the quality of the filmmaking that went into American Beauty and I understand why so many people champion it as a great piece of work. But if I were to take all the characters from every film on this list and line them up from my favorite to my least favorite, the bottom half would be dominated by those from American Beauty. There’s not a likeable character in this movie for me and that results in a wholly dissatisfying experience.

16. Chicago (2002) - Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta Jones, Richard Gere
Chicago suffers in my book for three major reasons:
1.) Zellweger has never done anything for me on any level;
2.) I don’t like musicals;
3.) Hearing “All That Jazz” played 100 billion times during that year’s broadcast left me with an indelible hatred for this film.
I also just don’t think it’s a Best Picture-caliber film. 2002 was a down year for award-worthy films (Two Towers excluded) but I have a hard time accepting this as the best film a given a year has to offer.

 15. Forrest Gump (1994) - Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Sally Field
Much like Chicago, one of Forrest Gump’s problems is that I can’t accept it as a Best Picture-caliber film. A heart-warming story? Sure. A well-acted film? Sure. But a Best Picture winner? Really? The final act alone, in which Forrest changes the world through a serious of dumb coincidences, should have kept this film out of contention. Its bigger crime, however, is that it somehow beat out Shawshank and Pulp Fiction for BP. Those are two of the greatest films of all time and somehow neither was recognized in the year of their release.  I hate Forrest Gump; truly and unequivocally hate it.

14. Titanic (1997) - Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane
I must be completely honest: Titanic could have been the greatest film in the history of the medium and I probably still would have hated it. I was borderline obsessed with the tale of the Titanic as a kid and my excitement was immeasurable when, as a young teenager, I heard they were making a movie about the ill-fated voyage. I was furious, then, to learn that my beloved fascination had been turned into a romance; it was a punch in the stomach that I’ve never been able to get past. It was years before I even saw this movie and it’s for the best that I never take it in again.

13. A Beautiful Mind (2001) - Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Jennifer Connelly
I am less sure about my opinion of this film than I am any other on the list. I saw ABM in theaters and loved it but upon my second viewing a few years later, I was less impressed. It didn’t leave much of an impression the second time around and maybe that’s indicative of its overall value.

12. Crash (2005) - Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon
I think Crash has developed an unfair reputation as a disgraceful BP winner. You could convince me that Brokeback Mountain should have taken home the hardware that year but I personally think Crash is a powerful, well-made film that deserves more respect than it gets these days.

11. The King’s Speech (2010) - Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter
If I’d had a vote last year (crossing my fingers that it’ll come through in time for next year’s voting), I, like most of you, would have thrown my support behind Inception or The Social Network. But if those two were eliminated from contention, I’d have no trouble jumping on this movie’s bandwagon. The dynamic between Firth and Rush is superb and while it may have been a bit hokey, I dig the speech in the final scenes.

10. The Hurt Locker (2009) - Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Guy Pearce
The Hurt Locker is not nearly as iconic of a film as Renner’s lead performance is. But wow, what a magnificent piece of acting Renner turns in here. He more than carries the load; in fact, I think he’s the reason this film took home six Oscars. That’s not to say it isn’t a great film, because it is. Kathryn Bigelow manages to dive into the fragile psyche of soldiers at war in a way that dozens of other films have failed to accomplish. It is Renner, however, who makes this film work.

9. Slumdog Millionaire (2008) - Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Anil Kapoor
I don’t have a whole lot to say about Slumdog other than I love it. I love how fresh and lively it is. I love how Danny Boyle’s unique style comes to life. I love how the blended story comes together. And I love that, generally speaking, it has a happy ending. Very few well-respected, BP-quality films conclude on a high note and while I’m not someone who needs that to enjoy a film (obviously), it’s refreshing when a filmmaker is able to pull it off.

8. Gladiator (2000) - Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Djimon Hounsou
There’s a lot to like about Gladiator, including some outstanding action sequences and a strong narrative that works on a number of levels. But there are two reasons why Gladiator ranks high on this list:
1.) It marks the comeback, as it were, of Ridley Scott, one of the industry’s best directors who, in 2000, hadn’t had a hit in nearly a decade (Thelma and Louise);
2.) I think the hero-villain dynamic between Crowe and Phoenix is one of the most underrated of its type in recent history. Phoenix is a perfect match for Crowe. They are exact opposites and yet strangely similar except in the way they react to life’s hurdles.

7. Silence of the Lambs (1991) - Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster, Ted Levine
If you weren’t legitimately freaked out by Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, then you’re either exceptionally desensitized to sheer horror or you weren’t 8 years old when Silence debuted (like me). Holy crap. In the pantheon of great movie villains, I’m not sure I could keep Lecter out of the top ten. Truly terrifying. Beyond Hopkins, though, Silence is a chilling, well-written film that still holds up quite well 20 years later.

6. Braveheart (1995) - Mel Gibson, Sophie Marceau, Angus Macfayden
I’ve heard plenty of criticism of Braveheart over the years but I refuse to truly listen to any of it. Historical inaccuracies, bad accents, and whatever else, the issues don’t matter to me when compared to this film’s wholly engrossing narrative, beautiful sets, and terrific acting. This is a powerful epic that sticks with me no matter how long I go between viewings (which usually isn’t very long).

5. Unforgiven (1992) - Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman
I literally just watched this film for the first time years and it strikes me as one that gets better not only the more times I see it but also the older I get. I don’t think I could appreciate it when I was 18 the way I do now. Unforgiven contains what is in my mind Eastwood’s greatest performance and the blurred line between good and evil that his character exhibits is exquisite. Likewise, Hackman provides the perfect antagonist. The dialogue, too, is MAGNIFICENT. If there’s a problem with Unforgiven, it is Jamiz Woolvett’s somewhat painful acting. I get that he’s trying to pay homage to the Westerns of old but yikes…

4. Return of the King (2003) - Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen, Elijah Wood
When I think about the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I consider them one giant film (and if we’re talking about the director’s cut, then it’s like one Godzilla-sized film) rather than three separate entities. That one giant film is one of my five favorite films of all-time. I probably watch my copies of this film more than any other. But if I’m forced to cut the film into thirds and consider their merits individually, I think Return of the King is the “worst” of the three. The conclusion is especially long and somewhat anti-climactic (warranted when considering the three films as one whole). Obviously, however, the slight step down Return is from the first two LOTR installments doesn’t prevent it from being a wonderful film. Just know that if I put the three together for this list like I do in my mind, it would definitely hold the top spot.

3. The Departed (2006) - Leonard DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson
You either LOVE The Departed like I do or you DESPISE it. I’m not sure I know anyone who falls into the middle ground of those two categories; it’s simply a polarizing film. Personally, I don’t think you can get much better from an acting, writing, or straight filmmaking standpoint. An impeccable cast, a brilliant script, and a genuine sense of passion on Scorsese’s part that exudes through every scene. I would have been fine with The Departed taking home every major award in 2006.

2. Schindler’s List (1993) - Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes
This is, without question, the greatest movie that I will never watch again. One viewing is plenty enough to sufficiently haunt me for the rest of my life. Spielberg’s passion for the project is evident but without two perfect portrayals, Neeson as the hero and Fiennes as one of the most disgusting bad guys ever, Schindler’s List probably doesn’t have quite the same impact. Then again, the closing scene in which the real life survivors that Schindler saved walk by his grave is one of the most harrowing and powerful film-related experiences I’ve ever had with a film. The only “knock” on this film is just what I said at the outset: I won’t/can’t watch it again and, perhaps unfairly, that brings it down a notch.

1. No Country for Old Men (2007) - Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones
When I wrote my review for NCFOM a few years back, it was the first time I ever used the word “masterpiece” to describe a film. And that’s exactly what it is in my mind. It is the picture of perfection. From the phenomenal, understated performances of all the actors involved to the meticulous way in which the film moves right on down to the use of natural noise for a soundtrack, there are no misses within NCFOM. Perhaps the master stroke is the way in which this film concludes, an ending many people disliked but that, for me, served as a perfect representation of the film as a whole. This is, for me, the Coen Brothers’ crowning achievement and that is, of course, saying something.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

In Home Viewings: "Real Steel"

Set in the not-so-distant future, Real Steal brings us into a reality in which human boxing has been replaced by bouts between Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robots on steroids. (This appears to be the only difference between our current society and the one portrayed in the film.) Charlie Kenton, a former boxing champ, makes a quasi-living taking a robot from town to town, engaging in low-rent and sometimes illegal fights for whatever cash he can get his hands on. Needless to say, he also owes some bad people some serious money. Just as he runs out of money and useable robots, he finds out that the mother of his illegitimate child, Max (Dakota Goyo), has died and he is forced to take Max out on the road with him for the summer. After breaking into a robot parts center, Charlie and Max stumble across an aging robot buried in the ground, a machine that Max takes a liking to. As the robot, named Adam, proves to be more important than originally thought, Charlie allows Max to enroll Adam in various underground fights, a path that ultimately leads to the major fighting circuit and a chance at the prize fight that Charlie never got.

On my personal list of 2011’s biggest surprises, Real Steel reaching a high level of profitability would rank fairly high. I thought, along with just about everyone else, that this movie was headed to “disaster” status, especially considering its $110 million budget. Instead, it stayed atop the domestic box office for two weeks and then managed to bring home a huge chunk of cash overseas. Even more surprising, Real Steel found some actual praise from noteworthy critics, earning enough good press that I had to switch move it from “Don’t See” to “Rent” on my upcoming movie spreadsheet (yes, I have an upcoming movie spreadsheet; stop laughing). When I finally did get a chance to check this movie out, I was actually somewhat excited about the prospect of taking it in, a sentiment I did not expect. In hindsight, I probably should have stuck to my original thoughts.

More than anything else, Real Steel is a prime example of how one misstep in the filmmaking process can bring the whole thing crashing down. In truth, most of the elements at play in this movie are good-enough for a family action flick, if not downright solid. The plot is shallow but also light and breezy, the type of narrative that certainly isn’t inspired but does a serviceable job of staying away from embarrassing or irritating. (For the record, I feel that’s all you can ask of a film like this.) Jackman is believable in his role and you get the sense that he enjoyed making this movie, a “plus” that should never be overlooked. The supporting actors around Jackman, including Anthony Mackie (The Adjustment Bureau) and Evangeline Lilly (Lost), do an admirable job of holding up their end of the bargain and even the marginal background actors are fine in most cases. And the action sequences are fun and lively, providing an illustration of how to use CGI effectively in this sort of movie. Real Steel doesn’t suck you in or create an investment the way a normal sports movie does but the action is rapid fire and enjoyable.

You would think that would make for a pretty good movie overall. But you would be wrong. Because no matter how entertaining the fights are, how enjoyable Jackman is, and how easy the plot moves, the combination cannot overcome the head-meets-wall pain brought on by Goyo. I really, really, REALLY try hard not to bag on child actors on the grounds of, “it’s not his/her fault.” They’re just kids, after all, and it’s unfair to expect greatness from a kid. This is, however, a special case. I wish the best for Goyo; I hope he gets better and I hope he has a long and glorious career. But as of right now, this kid is TERRIBLE. His deliberate and overdone mannerisms and disposition are painful and with every word he spoke, I became more and more aware of the tiny gremlin that was stabbing me in the ear with an appropriately-sized trident. Even worse (and unfortunately unforgivable in my book), Goyo bears a strong resemblance, both in appearance and in general acting style, to Jake Lloyd, the poor unfortunate soul whom George Lucas picked to play Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace. (Also known as, “The Worst Child Actor Ever in the History of the Cinema Including Any and All Cinematic Endeavors That Take Place on Hereto Now Unknown Planets.”) Every time I looked at the screen I experienced a Vietnam-esque flashback to the most painful experience of my movie going life. The desire to cry and then punch the poor kid grew each time he uttered an excruciating sentence and his presence made the final product nearly unbearable for me. His casting is a giant screw-up that, at least for this Star Wars junkie, overshadowed everything else Real Steel had to offer and left a bad taste in my mouth when it was all said and done.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Week That Was and the Week That Will Be - 2/20

This week is a big one in the movie world because it is, of course, Oscar week. I'll be publishing a couple of reviews, like always (Safe House should be up tomorrow) in addition to a ranking of the last 20 Best Picture winners. Then on Friday, I believe I'll do the obligatory Oscar prediction piece that every movie writer must put together. So be on the lookout.

Also, please forgive the lack of updates in the layout. I'm working on something big for the site that I hope to launch next month and it's taking up most of my non-writing free time. Thanks for your patience!

Check out all of the week's most important movie news in the Weekly Digest

Weekend Box Office Results
This weekend I gave in and handed over my money to George Lucas (*head hung in slight shame*) and bought into Safe House twice. Twice, you say? Yes, twice. With the wife out of town for the weekend, I assembled a crack team of six manly men to see Safe House at our local theater. I expected that, since it was in its second week of release, we’d have no problems showing up 10 minutes before start time and finding seats for our group. When we walked into the theater, I don’t think there were six seats in the entire room, let alone together. So we ended up getting refunds and heading to another theater for a later showing. I tell you that to tell you this: I don’t think anyone could have anticipated Safe House retaining 60% of its overall take from the previous week and jumping up to the top spot. Seeing as this week brought with a couple of relatively high profile new releases and the fact that the movie received lackluster reviews overall, I would have bet good money on Safe House ending up between third and fifth place at the end of the weekend. So, good for Denzel, I guess.

1. Safe House - $24M ($78.3M)
2. The Vow - $23.6M ($85.52M)
3. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance - $22M
4. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island - $20.08M ($53.2M)
5. This Means War - $17.55M
6. Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace - $7.86M ($33.73M)
7. Chronicle - $7.5M ($50.97M)
8. The Woman in Black - $6.64M ($45.25M)
9. The Secret World of Arrietty - $6.4M
10. The Grey - $3.03M ($47.92M)

New to DVD
What I’ll Be Renting This Week
Mary Marcy May Marlene (2011) - Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes
The Way (2010) - Martin Sheen, Emilio Estevez
Puss in Boots (2011) - Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Zach Galifianakis
I’m giving you a three pack here that could really turn into a four pack when it’s all said and done. (I’m sure I’ll end up watching J. Edgar at some point in the near future.) I recently renewed my “Half Price for a Month” deal at my local video store and I had this week in mind when I made the call. Mary Marcy May Marlene took up residence on numerous top ten lists from people I trust but I never got a chance to see it in theaters. I’m very much looking forward to checking out this career-making performance by Olsen that everyone has been talking about. The Way has the feel of a film that I’ll see because I think I should see it and will wind up disliking it. But the premise (a father takes a pilgrimage to overcome the loss of his son) sounds appealing enough. And after I watch those two potentially very heavy films, I’m going to need to lighten the mood, which is what Dreamworks animation is best at. Puss in Boots didn’t interest me enough to see it during its theatrical run but I’ll make time for it in an In Home Vieiwng.

What I’ve Seen So You Don’t Have To
Tower Heist (2011) - Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Matthew Broderick
I probably shouldn’t put Tower Heist in this category because some critics and viewers I usually agree with really enjoyed it. But for me, it falls flat on almost every level. I didn’t laugh much, Murphy didn’t grab my attention the way I wanted him to, and the execution was porous. So, basically, it’s your typical Brett Ratner film. Not a complete waste of time but close enough.

Also New
J. Edgar (2011) - Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts
Mighty Macs (2011) - Carla Gugino, David Boreanaz, Marley Shelton
The Son of No One (2011) - Channing Tatum, Al Pacino, Juliette Binoche
Retreat (2011) - Cillian Murphy, Thandie Newton, Jamie Bell
London Boulevard (2010) - Colin Farrell, Keira Knightley, Ray Winstone
Nurse Jackie: Season 3 (2011) - Edie Falco, Eve Best
Weeds: Season 7 (2011) - Mary Louise Parker, Hunter Parrish, Kevin Nealon

New to Blu
Unforgiven (1992) - Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman
Honey (2003) - Jessica Alba, Mekhi Phifer
Fort Apache (1948) - John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple

Coming to a Theater Near You
Last week I predicted Ghost Rider 2 would pull in a dismal 22% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. If you are involved with that film, you’re wishing right now that I had been correct. Critics hated this film even more than I thought they would and it wound up with a 15% score at the time of this writing. OUCH. Also falling far below expectations was This Means War (52% prediction vs. 24% actual), which was surprisingly and almost unanimously despised. Meanwhile, The Secret World of Arrietty held strong at 93%, making it one of the highest rated films of the year so far.

This week is…uh… Well, this week is a total mail-in for Hollywood. With the Oscars on Sunday, the thought is that if you’re going to see a movie this weekend, you’re probably going to try to get take in a nominated film that you somehow missed. With that in mind, I give you a very brief look at the total crap we’re being offered this time around.

Wanderlust - Jennifer Aniston, Paul Rudd, Malin Ackerman
An over-worked couple takes refuge within a commune of hippies and learns some valuable things about themselves. The more I learn about this film, the less I like it. Aniston and Rudd seems like a decent-enough pairing but every trailer, every news blurb, every leaked detail leaves me more and more convinced that this is going to be terrible. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Rotten, 20%

Good Deeds - Tyler Perry, Gabrielle Union, Thandie Newton
A businessman’s life is turned upside down when he befriends a single mom who works nights in his building. Tyler Perry. That’s all I have to say, right? Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Rotten, 34%

Gone - Amanda Seyfried, Jennifer Carpenter, Wes Bentley
Two years after escaping from her kidnapper, a young girl’s attacker returns to abduct her sister, leading to a frantic search with no aid from the police. I like Seyfried just fine but I don’t see her taking to this role with much flair. Also, Gone looks like the type of movie Ashley Judd would have been in during her heyday and I hated all of those movies. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Rotten, 38%

Act of Valor - Nestor Serrano, Alex Veadov, Roselyn Sanchez
A group of real-life, active-duty Navy SEALs star in an action-packed thrill ride centering on a rescue mission to save a CIA operative. I think the idea of having active SEALs showing off their skills and expertise is a good one; I also think the final result will not be good. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Rotten, 40%

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Movie News Weekly Digest

Anomalous Material gives us some unique choices in the top 10 most romantic movies ever.

Buzzfeed has chronicled every sentence Bart Simpson has ever had to copy on the blackboard.

The Film Society Lincoln Center has a one hour conversation with Gary Oldman up on their blog.


Not only will Michael Bay helm the next Transformers film, it will be a reboot! (Head meets wall.)

Michael Mann will direct The Big Stone Grid which follows two hardened cops.

Steven Spielberg has confirmed that Peter Jackson will direct the Tintin sequel.

Andrew Stanton has plans for a series of John Carter sequels. Not sure he's going to have to worry about that...

NBC has ordered a 13 episode run of Hannibal based on the characters from Thomas Harris' series of books and the subsequent movies.

Jonathan Liebesman (Battle: Los Angeles) is in talks to direct a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.

Peter Berg says the Friday Night Lights movie script is near completion.

sequel to I Am Legend has been pieced together, though it remains to be seen if Will Smith will join the production.

Disney will adapt another Michael Lewis sports-related book into a film with Coach: Lessons on the Game of Life.

Josh Trank isn't sure about whether or not he'll do a Chronicle sequel.

The writer of the next X-Men film says it will focus on the development of Magneto

Tom Hiddleston and Anna Paquin have signed on for Black Wings Has My Angel, a noir film produced by Elijah Wood.

Gillian Jacobs (Community) has joined the cast of Steve Carell's Burt Wonderstone.

Jennifer Aniston and Dennis Quaid have been added to the cast of Switch, the Jackie Brown prequel.

Gael Garcia Bernal will play Zorro in a futuristic adaptation of the masked hero.

Jamie Blackley will play the lead in the 300 sequel.

Michael Fassbender will star in Irish Myths.

Kyle Chandler has joined Kathryn Bigelow's next project concerning the hunt for Osama bin Laden. 

Mattel is finally making hover boards available. Just don't use try to use one over water.

Dan Aykroyd has threatened to replace Bill Murray in Ghostbusters 3 if Murray doesn't sign on. Let it go, Dan.

The Vow took in a record Valentine's Day total of $11.3 million.

The Academy Awards will not feature The Muppets singing but Kermit and Miss Piggy will present an award.