Monthly Archives: December 2010

Best and Worst Films of 2010

According to Movieweb, there were 651 films released in 2010 and no, I didn’t see them all. In fact, there are some movies still on my to-watch list that I know will affect this article (including The Fighter and The Kids are All Right), but I hope to see them soon and add some additional commentary at that point. For now, however, I figure I saw maybe 100-150 new films this year, both clunkers and superb examples of all that cinema has to offer.

It’s inevitable that we’re not going to agree on which films were the best and which were the worst of the year. As a critic, I’m used to it, used to walking out of a theater shaking my head at what a banal, insipid film I just wasted two hours of my life watching, while surrounded by people excitedly talking about how awesome and thrilling it was. Yeah, so it’s totally okay if you disagree,
I also suspect that we look for different things in movies. Generally I look for films that demonstrate the hero’s journey, a mythic tale of growing up, finding oneself and overcoming obstacles to grow and mature at the end of the film. It doesn’t have to be The Karate Kid, however, even Iron Man (not a 2010 release, I know) does a great job of exemplifying what I’m talking about. In my opinion, a film should be a journey, an adventure!
Except for when it’s not. Sometimes big, loud, sexy, exciting, silly and sophomoric is just what works and I will candidly admit that I can enjoy Police Academy just as much as I enjoy Lawrence of Arabia. Well, maybe not quite as much, but you get the idea. Roger Ebert coined the phrase “guilty pleasure movies” and I think that’s a great name for ’em, though I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be guilty about.
Anyway, enough preface! Onward!!

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Review: Gulliver’s Travels

gullivers travels one sheetI attended a preview screening of Gulliver’s Travels about a week prior to it opening nationally. Most film screenings are theaters full of families who have scored free tickets through newspaper advertisements, radio promotions or similar, with a small number of seats reserved for us critics. The more base and crude the film, the more this can feel like the studio manipulating us reviewers: critics generally prefer complex, sophisticated films that tap into the rich language of cinema, but jam a theater full of people seeing a movie for free and it’s date night, paid by Paramount, Universal, Fox, Miramax, or similar.

Gulliver’s Travels was exactly the kind of film where this proved important, because there were many times during the screening of this sophomoric movie that I cringed, even as the majority of the audience laughed or cheered. The example that stands out is when Gulliver (Jack Black) first arrives at the miniature kingdom of Lilliput and puts out a raging palace fire by dropping his shorts and urinating. That’s the level of sophistication that scriptwriters Joe Stillman and Nicholas Stoller targeted in this crude adaptation of the splendid Swiftian story from the early 1700s.
Black is mailroom clerk and general shlub Lemuel Gulliver, the least important employee at the New York Tribune. He’s in love with travel section editor Darcy Silverman (Amanda Peet). After straight-arrow new hire Dan (local Denver comedian T.J. Miller) goes from Gulliver’s sole employee to his boss in a single day, Gulliver fumbles an attempt to ask Darcy out by instead applying for a travel writing assignment. His assignment? Head down to the Bermuda Triangle and unearth its secrets.
Thus begins a ridiculously improbable sequence of events that lands him on the island of Lilliput, a place where everything is 1/12th normal size, including the daft love triangle of Princess Mary (Emily Blunt), pompous General Edward (Chris O’Dowd) and imprisoned commoner Horatio (Jason Segel). The story is so predictable that the only pleasure in the film is the special visual effects, and they are impressive, done by the effects team that created the far more entertaining Night At the Museum movies.
I’ll be blunt: Gulliver’s Travels isn’t worth your time unless you’re a fan of either Jack Black or computer graphics. I wouldn’t even rent this unless you’re entertaining a basement full of teen boys. Black has the ability to make smart, thoughtful comedies, but it’s been a painfully long time since Be Kind Rewind and King Kong.

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Review: True Grit

true grit 2010 one sheetThe original True Grit was released in 1969 (see my review) was one of the films that marked the end of the Western in cinema. Primarily about the relationship between hard-as-nails teen Mattie (Kim Darby) and grizzled old marshall Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne, in an Academy Award winning performance), it worked because Mattie was fearless and dogged in her pursuit of justice for the ranch hand who murdered her father, and because Cogburn was a down-on-his-luck alcoholic with a desire to do well.

The chemistry of this all-important relationship fails to gel in the remake directed by Ethan and Joel Coen because Hailee Steinfeld (who plays Mattie) isn’t tough and fearless and because in their zeal to jump to the pursuit the Coens cut out the first ten minutes of the original, where we meet and learn what drives Mattie. Worse, Jeff Bridges does a poor job as Rooster Cogburn, playing him as a falling-down drunk with has no redeeming characteristics, cold and distant.
Mattie’s father has been killed by ranch hand Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin in one of the best performances in the film), who subsequently bolted into Indian territory and joined forces with the outlaw Lucky Ned (Barry Pepper). Mattie hires Cogburn to pursue him after the sheriff explains that he has no jurisdiction in Indian lands. Tagging along is pretty-boy Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon), who seeks Chaney for his own reasons.
Westerns are morality plays, where there’s no space for ambiguity or temptation. In our morally ambiguous times, it’s satisfying to see this simplicity, and that’s one reason the more slovenly Bridges as Cogburn doesn’t work: unlike Wayne in the original, he’s not a good man fallen on bad times, but a thoroughly unlikeable character, a rehash of his role as Blake in Crazy Heart.
True Grit is a story about vengeance, pursuit and the unforgiving world of the Old West, with sweeping Texan landscapes and splendid production and exteriors. Without sympathetic characters, however, I was never engaged in the pursuit and found the ending anticlimactic and ambiguous. There’s great buzz for this film and Steinfeld’s performance, so if you want to know what people are talking about, this film might just be on your to-watch list anyway.

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Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

tron legacy daft punk ostI’ve been on a bit of a soundtrack binge in the last few months and am finding it a fascinating way to expand my appreciation of films. In more than one case, it’s even making me really want to watch the movie again. It’s not the soundtracks of films like Pirate Radio [my review of Pirate Radio] — which I really enjoyed — but soundtracks known as “OST”, original soundtracks, in the industry, soundtracks where the music has been composed specifically for the film and the scenes within.

As I type this in, I’m listening to the Daft Punk original soundtrack to Tron: Legacy [my review of Tron: Legacy] which is one of the best selling albums on iTunes this weekend, suggesting that I’m not alone in appreciating soundtracks.
The first movie soundtrack I can recall appreciating was — wait for it! — Saturday Night Fever. A double-vinyl LP, it was the great soundtrack of the disco era with hit after hit. Still, it wasn’t an original soundtrack but rather popular songs repurposed for a film that’s still surprisingly engaging, featuring a wanna-be tough guy John Travolta. The first original soundtrack I owned was undoubtedly Star Wars. A ubiquitous composition by the great John Williams, the Star Wars soundtrack expanded my horizons and let me relive the fun of the film (particularly the Cantina scene) dozens of times.
I’ve since gone back and listened to the Star Wars soundtrack again, and find much more richness and sophistication in the compositions, including a wonderful example of how each major character in the film had their own musical signature, their own melody or theme, that recurs based on whether they were in a given scene or not.

jaws john williams ost

John Williams has composed an astonishing amount of great orchestral music for some of the greatest films of the recent decades too, including Jaws, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Empire of the Sun, Star Wars and Jurassic Park. I challenge you to hear the teasing trumpet theme of Indiana Jones or the ominous heartbeat of the cellos playing the theme to Jaws and not be shifted right into the emotional experience of the respective films.
More recently, my two favorite composers are Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman. Zimmer’s credits include Gladiator, Inception, The Last Samurai, Pirates of the Caribbean, Sherlock Holmes and The Dark Knight, while Elfman’s list includes Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Wanted, The Wolfman, Sleepy Hollow and Alice in Wonderland. I’ll also say that I love the signature melody that John Powell created for Jason Bourne in the Bourne series: great series, great theme.
Daft Punk hasn’t done any previous movie soundtracks prior to Tron: Legacy, but they clearly are pulling from the same playbook, with the driving bass lines and exciting percussion interwoven with sweeping strings. Listen to Armory [iTunes link] or Outlands [iTunes link] for an example of what I think is great sci-fi soundtrack music.
There are more soundtracks I enjoy, including Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings music and Bernard Hermann’s beautiful Hitchcock soundtracks, especially from Vertigo and Psycho. If you haven’t checked out an original movie soundtrack recently, I encourage you to pick up a CD or two, or download some tunes from iTunes or similar. There’s some amazing new music being composed for even films that don’t turn out to be a popular success.
Now, a question to you: If you too are a fan of original soundtracks, what are you listening to that you think I might enjoy?

Flashback Review: True Grit

true grit 1969 one sheetWIth the impending release of the Coen Brothers remake of True Grit (starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hailee Steinfeld), it seemed like a good time to go back and watch the original 1969 True Grit, directed by Henry Hathaway and starring John Wayne, Kim Darby and Glen Campbell.

The wrinkle: I am not a fan of John Wayne and find that he played the same gruff bully in just about every film I’ve seen of his. Further, while I always think that I should like Westerns, with their stark morality and simplistic stories, I can’t say it’s one of my favorite genres. Still, I think that to appreciate a remake it’s important to be familiar with the original work, and so I slipped the Academy Award winning film into the DVD player and pushed play.
To my surprise, I really liked the story, the actors, and the film.
True Grit is about teen Mattie Ross (an appealing, tough Kim Darby) who is determined to see justice for the murder of her father by ne’er do well ranch hand Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey). When the sheriff proves unwilling to venture into Indian territory to pursue him, she hires tough-as-nails marshall Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) to track him down and bring him back for justice. Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Glen Campbell) tags along with his own motives: he’s been promised a lucrative reward for bringing Chaney to justice for an earlier crime back in Texas.
The three of them make an unlikely band of bounty hunters, and when they find that Chaney has taken up with the Pepper gang (Robert Duvall in an early role), the situation gets considerably more tense: Chaney’s a simpleton but Pepper is wily and well aware of the dangers and opportunities that the Indian territory presents. Also keep an eye out for Dennis Hopper as the gawky outlaw Moon.
What most appealed to me about True Grit was that the characters were believable and sympathetic, even as each wrestled with their own demons and limitations. In particular, Darby is a standout as the tough, logical and mature girl Mattie, who stands down ruffians and shows no fear, at least outward. It’s also clear why Wayne won the Academy for Best Actor for his role in this film: he’s brilliant as the rough, aggressive, antisocial Cogburn who gradually warms up to Mattie and becomes her champion on the quest for justice.
If you haven’t seen the original True Grit, I’ll recommend it to you: it’s well worth a viewing, whether or not you’re planning on seeing the Coen Brothers remake. Now to catch some of John Wayne’s other works…

Review: Tron: Legacy

tron legacy one sheet

It’s tricky to create a sequel when the original just wasn’t that good a movie. Tron: Legacy had to be thematically related to the original Tron, but sufficiently cool and visually stunning that audiences wouldn’t care about the first movie. Director Steven Lisberger and his team succeed beautifully and Tron: Legacy proved to be one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen this year.
The film follows Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), son of Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) from the original film. Twenty years have passed and Sam still wonders what happened to his Dad, who vanished while he was a boy. He stumbles into Kevin’s research lab and is promptly pulled into the computer-based world of the Grid. Sam finds his father hiding out in the wastelands beyond the main Grid with a beautiful young woman Quorra (Olivia Wilde). Kevin has become a monk, meditating and talking about finding his zen-like center rather than fighting the evil CLU (a digitally mapped, younger Jeff Bridges).
The story is one of journeys traveled, risks taken and challenges overcome, as we’d hope with any epic adventure. That it primarily takes place within the digital realm of the Grid gives the production f/x team complete freedom and it’s an amazing, compelling world. The Grid is also a dark, Orwellian world where stormtroopers march in lockstep, “derezing” apps that seek freedom or think for themselves.
There are depths to Tron: Legacy that I never expected, and the revision of the original story from the banal video game trinket of Tron to the backstory of the new movie was a splendid step. I really dug Tron: Legacy, loved its countless references to other sci-fi films, and found it far more enjoyable and engaging than Avatar, a similar sweeping sci-fi epic. It’s a film I already want to go see again and for once, the 3D version is well done and worth the more expensive ticket.

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Review: The Tourist

the tourist one sheetJohnny Depp and Angelina Jolie!  Is there anything else people needed to know about this movie to make The Tourist a success?  Actually, yes, and while it was reasonably enjoyable to see two of the brightest stars in Hollywood finally share the screen, it turns out that the film has garnered lots of bad – and perhaps unjustified – reviews. Rotten Tomatoes, for example, shows an aggregate score of 20%, making it the most disliked film currently in the theaters.

The story is rather complicated, where beauty Elise Clifton-Ward (Angelina Jolie) is the one connection with the elusive Pearce, who stole $2.3 billion dollars from Brit crime boss Reginald Shaw (Steven Berkoff) and then skipped out on a £744 million dollar back tax bill. Why he owes taxes for money he stole from a mobster isn’t explained, but one presumes that he was supposed to declare it on his taxes and, uhm, forgot.
To throw off the Italian Interpol surveillance team – directed at a distance by gawky Scotland Yard Inspector Acheson (Paul Bettany) – Pearce tells Elise to board a train heading to Venice, find someone who is a similar height and weight to him and befriend the man. The surveillance team will then follow the wrong man (shades of Hitchcock’s classic “the wrong man” storyline) and she’ll be free to meet up with Pearce and resume their romantic relationship.
The slovenly man she picks is Frank Tupelo (Johnny Depp), a math teacher from Madison, Wisconsin who is traveling Italy solo. He’s a bit of a mess, awkward and clearly uncomfortable in the presence of the dazzling Elise. They trade suggestive banter while on the train and go their separate ways once they arrive in Venice, but Elise pops up again while Frank is clumsily looking at a map and trying to figure out the city.
Their continued interaction doesn’t go unnoticed by the surveillance team and Shaw learns about it too, sending in his own goon squad of Russian mobsters to capture Pearce and get his money back. For two billion in stolen funds, however, he seems surprisingly cool: that’s a lot of money. The chase is on with both Interpol and the Russians after poor, hapless Frank, believing he’s Pearce. But he’s just a school teacher…
I have to admit, I found The Tourist an enjoyable escape film and while Depp was surprisingly sloppy, unattractive and unengaging in the film, Jolie was very good with her Sophia Loren-like Italian fashion wardrobe and hairstyle and her “I’m letting you in on a secret” performance. The plot had tons of holes in it, but I expected that and so wasn’t too bothered. What was more disappointing was the surprising lack of chemistry between the two stars. I could believe Frank falling for Elisa – a mysterious, beautiful woman with clearly powerful and rich friends – but there was never a moment on screen that explained why she’d even give him the time of day once the initial deception was complete.

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Review: Black Swan

black swan one sheetWhen I sat down to watch Black Swan I really had no idea what to expect, and frankly wasn’t too enthused about a film about dancers. Yes, there’s lots of drama and politics in a dance troupe – after all that’s where “prima dona” comes from — but would the prospect of watching Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis compete for the lead in a performance really be entertaining?

Turns out that Black Swan is a breathtaking, intense, horrifying and beautiful cinematic essay on obsession, maturity and the fine line between reality and fantasy, and it’s well worth seeing, regardless of whether you’re interested in ballet.
Portman plays Nina Sayers, a dancer in a Manhattan-based ballet troupe who has mastered the technical requirements of ballet but lacks the passion, sensuousness and soul to be an outstanding prima ballerina. The troupe artistic director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) announces their next performance will be Swan Lake, but he’s going to make it edgier, and the lead will need to play both the white swan, an embodiment of all that is sweet, pure and youthful, and the black swan, the dark alter ego, the sexual, aggressive counterpoint to the white swan.
Nina is cast for this role, a role that’ll be the pinnacle of her dancing career, but the pressure of performing, the expectations of her obsessive, controlling mother Erica (a superb Barbara Hershey), making sure that the antithetical Lily (Kunis) doesn’t steal her part and the challenge of finding the “black swan” within her innocent, child-like personality tear Nina apart, and it’s that descent into madness that’s the heart of the film.
Black Swan is a powerful movie with just a few small flaws, a definite contender for Best Picture this year, and a strong statement on just how far Portman has come as an actor from her early role in the Star Wars saga. It’s also intense, with some alarming scenes and a few nods to horror film conventions, so I don’t recommend it for the highly squeamish and will warn you not to be surprised if things aren’t always as they seem on screen.

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