Tuesday, January 01, 2008
MOVIES: YEAR IN REVIEW
Well, it’s that time again. Time to reflect on the past year and think about the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. Strangely enough, I saw more movies while deployed to Iraq than I ever watch here in the states…and that’s saying a lot, because I am a movie geek (or movie snob, as most uninformed watchers like to call me).
Seeing so many movies, you’d think that I would have been exposed to a lot of hidden gems that most people miss…well, yes and no. I was exposed to some great movies, no doubt, but mostly I was exposed to every piece of filth that was churned out of Hollywood.
When you are deployed, regardless of your job, you lack many options in your free time. You can read, work out, play games, or watch movies. That’s about it. There are no clubs, bars, shopping malls, restaurants, or…well, you get the idea.
The downside to having so many movies available is due to the fact that the majority are bootleg copies, filmed with a camcorder in a theater in India or the like. Complete with laugh track and heads in the way, you could say it’s more like being at the movies than sitting at home watching it in superfine HD.
In some ways, that makes me feel that my opinion may not be fully realized for not seeing the movie in its most pristine format. However, even seeing crap all polished and shiny still makes it crap.
So, no matter who you may be back in the states, EVERYONE becomes a movie critic and everyone watches everything. You find yourself getting sucked deeper into the movie abyss, like Alice in Movie-Wonderland. So, I followed down the Rabbit Hole and this is what I came up with. Enjoy.
Cream of the Crop (In no particular order) – These are what I would refer to as the best movies I’ve seen this year. Granted, you may be shocked by some of these. Even I am. However, I am being completely honest in what I really enjoyed (and usually watched over and over again).
Directed by: Zack Snyder
Based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller (Sin City)
This is what going to the movies is all about. 300 retells the story of the 300 Spartans who, along with accompanying Greek warriors, set out to cut off Persian invaders at the pass of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. The film sets out to adapt the graphic novel moreso than following every historical detail, which isn’t to say that the events aren’t true to form. They are merely stylized and exaggerated (like most ‘historically accurate’ films), giving the movie a metaphoric edge to the events that transpired.
And it’s bloody good fun. 300 delivers where most films of its nature fail; it gives the blood, the gore, the violence, and the harshness of being hacked at with an edged blade. Like the classic “Braveheart,” this film fulfills that primordial desire we all have, like when you slow down at the site of a car accident…you want to see blood. You want to see the worst, even if you pretend like you don’t.
300 also serves as a rousing “fight for freedom” film, which, true to historical fact, the course of action the Spartans took, did, in fact, help to inspire the Greeks to fight rather than submit to Persian rule. Had they not fought, then we would all be living in a very different world today and the predominant reason for fighting was the revelation of the Spartans sacrifice in standing up for their country and their way of life (however, being Spartans, they more than likely did it because that’s simply what they do).
However, I’m not here to give a history lesson. But, knowing a little about it certainly does enhance the experience. Of course, there was quite a bit of backlash from Iran when the film was released. Which boggles the mind, because, while Xerxes is a part of their history, the fact remains that he was hell-bent on conquering the world and did, in fact, invade the Hot Gates, and did, in fact, take a huge hit from the Spartans and was eventually beaten by the rest of Greece, not to mention the remainder of the Spartan army.
What I’m saying is, go fuck yourself Iran. Yeah, maybe you didn’t have big, fat dudes with sharpened bone arms executing weak generals, but try to learn how to interpret art a little maybe. There were a lot of complaints about the “colorful” villains in 300. They serve a two-fold process; both to show the metaphoric range of warriors pulled from all over the earth and also to inhabit the world of a graphic novel adaptation.
There was a lot of speculation about whether or not the men in the film were really in that great of shape or if they were CGI’d. The truth is, the actors trained hard and achieved a physique not uncommon to actual Spartans of their time. If you have any doubt, I recommend checking out GYMJONES.COM.
300 is a spectacularly entertaining slaughter-fest, with brilliantly filmed sequences torn directly from the graphic novel (which I’ve had since its original release, and yes, it follows it near perfect). Director Zack Snyder filmed the movie completely on blue screen stages and the movie looks and feels like a living comic book, exactly what it should be considering the source material, and it succeeds at every level. As a historical tale, and action-adventure, swords-and-sandals epic, or as a comic book fantasy flick, 300 will take you on a cinematic journey, regardless of the context in which you watch it.
Directed by: Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead)
Written by: Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg
The team that brought you ‘Shaun of the Dead’ is back, doing what they do best, which is great satire mixed with an actual solid entry into the genre they are spoofing. Hot Fuzz takes a ride on the formulaic buddy-cop action film. The catch is that it takes place in a small, seemingly docile community in England.
Simon Pegg plays the lead cop, who is moved to the small town for making the rest of the police force ‘look bad,’ as he is making too many arrests and stealing the show from the rest of them. In short, he’s England’s answer to a Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon…stay with me here).
With a stellar cast, including a who’s who of Wright’s earlier films, Hot Fuzz takes off as a murder-mystery that later slowly evolves into a full-blown action film. The gags are great and the team of Wright/Pegg doesn’t pull any punches on the blood and gore factor. You can tell they are having fun, but satisfying the masses at the same time.
The movie is very tongue-in-cheek, all the while hitting its marks as a straight action film. At first it may seem that the movie can’t decide what to be; comedy, action, mystery…but the truth is that it’s all of those things wrapped into one. And it’s a blast.
Pegg is as hilarious as always and Nick Frost (the fat guy from Shaun of the Dead) is great as his bumbling partner. We even have Timothy Dalton, hamming it up as the films villain. You can tell that making this movie was a vacation for him.
While the great cast and playful, satirical script are all well and good, the most impressive aspect of the film is Wright’s directing/editing. Wright is emulating some of the best action directors in the business and pulls it off with his own blend of style and pizzazz. There are some truly brilliant transitional edits and downright rousing action sequences. Many times you’ll be asking yourself if you’re supposed to be laughing or if your adrenaline is supposed to be flowing. The answer is both. And that’s the brilliance of Hot Fuzz.
Directed by: Michael Bay (Bad Boys 1 and 2, The Rock, Armageddon, The Island)
Written by: Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci
Yeah, yeah, I know…what the fuck, Paul?? Transformers? Yes, mothafuckin’ Transformers. I, like most deranged 30-year-old males today, grew up on Transformers and GI Joe. So, sue my childhood.
This adaptation had every plausible reason to fail and that reason is the fact that most toy/video game adaptations do. But, this adaptation had a lot going for it from the get-go; chiefly, the names Spielberg and Bay.
Whoa, whoa, whoa, Paul…what do you mean, Bay? You saying that Michael Bay is a credit to a movie??
Yes. Yes, I am. The truth of the matter is, no matter what Bay loses in his actor’s performances (which almost always feels poorly improvised), the visuals that Michael Bay creates onscreen are unmatched by but a select few in Hollywood. He is, and most likely will always be, a visual storyteller. And that’s a great thing. We don’t “watch” movies on audiotape (that’s called reading for lazy people). Bay embodies the director that puts the visuals we want to see on the cinema screen. He is the facilitator of the dream visuals we always hope to see, rather than the letdown of a director who can barely deliver a nicely lit car flip (*cough*BrettRatnerXmenLastStand*ahem*).
So, shut the fuck up about Michael Bay. He may be a little crazy and paranoid and overzealous and even pretentious, but damned if he doesn’t deliver a damned good show…Bay makes that summertime movie you want to see…and although I didn’t have the privilege of seeing it in the theater, Transformers was it for 2007.
There is a saying that you can’t please everybody, all the time. And it’s the truth. So, there will never be a unanimous decision on any movie (I know people that didn’t like “Aliens” for God’s sake…blasphemy!). Transformers will probably always be torn. There will be people that didn’t like the Autobots at Sam’s House sequence or John Turturro as a dorky secret agent or even Shia Lebouf as the lead.
If there are those that didn’t like Megan Fox…well, either you’re gay or you’re jealous, maybe not of her acting but of her ass. No, I didn’t mean to say assets. That little writing trick has been used to death. I meant to say ass. And tits. However, if you were ever so lucky to get the birthday suit visage of her, you would be treated (subjected?) to a tattoo of the word ‘Brian’ in her pelvic region, which, if you don’t have the misfortune of this knowledge, is in reference to her husband, Brian Austin Green, of Beverly Hills 90210 fame (and, for my own self pleasure, getting his nose broken by Keira Knightley in Domino).
Where was I? Transformers. Yeah. Great time. I had a blast with this movie. Maybe I went in with low expectations, but it surpassed them altogether. The visuals (how many times can I use that word?) are amazing and the flawless transition of vehicle to robot is nothing short of badass. What kid that played with Transformers back when they were represented onscreen as a cheesy 2D cartoon didn’t want to see this live action bonanza? It was an unheard of dream back then.
We didn’t have CGI in the 80’s, okay?? We had claymation and matte painted backgrounds…and Clash of the Titans was our Transformers, okay? So, let me enjoy this Michael Bay robot fest with explosions, transforming transformers in all their real-life glory, Peter Cullen’s raspy Optimus Prime voice, Steve Jablonsky’s too-good-for-this-movie score, and Megan Fox’s short skirted, halter-topped, dream babe bent over the hood of a crappy camaro movie in all its splendor.
Oh, and one quick note to all you little fan boys that were crying about the movie not being like the cartoon that you worshipped as a kid…Dude…you were like nine freakin’ years old. Go back and watch that shit and tell me you want to see that adapted. Aside from the cartoon movie (which actually had some balls) the TV show and subsequent TV shows were and are CRAP. Let go a little, fanchildren. When you move out of the basement and put your thingee in a girl’s thingee and maybe climb a mountain or even walk around the block then maybe you’ll see that these things you are clinging so tightly too were never really that solid to begin with. Let someone else have a go and you might actually enjoy what they have to offer.
Directed by: Greg Mottola
Written by: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg
Following directly on the coattails of “Knocked-Up,” Seth Rogen and writing compadre Evan Goldberg bring us this modern day take on the “let’s go fuck some bitches” genre. Movies like Superbad have been sputtering out of theaters since D.W. Griffith (I’m sure he has a Superbad-ish reel hidden somewhere). Let’s be honest here, for as long as man has been on the prowl for some scamper there have been movies like this, usually representative of the era in which it was made.
Superbad, for all intents and purposes, captures the modern day “scamper-hunt” to perfection and even leaves us with the reality of those hunting parties; that which we least expect to find. In this case, our two main characters are able to acknowledge their friendship and what it means to lose it in the face of change.
Jonah Hill (the fat kid in all the Judd Apatow movies) and Michael Cera (George Michael in Arrested Development) play lifelong buddies about to graduate high school and head off to college…different colleges that is. Hill is given the opportunity (curse?) to supply the alcohol to a hot girl’s party and, as always, hijinks ensue.
What I like most about Superbad is its rawness. Look, teenagers, especially today, swear and are crude and it’s all part of growing up. I’m not saying we have to be manner less barbarians in order to be honest about ourselves, but let’s at least acknowledge who we really are and how we really converse, interact and behave in society. Superbad does just that. It gives us a glimpse into two modern day teenager’s lives, their thoughts and feelings and their own crude and raw realities.
That may seem like I’m getting too Freudian with this movie. Perhaps. But, the honesty of this film, coupled with its rawness, made me laugh harder than any other movie this year. By far, Superbad is the funniest movie of 2007. Not that it didn’t have competition, but it definitely takes the cake for me.
Like Hot Fuzz, Superbad is strengthened by its supporting cast, made up of relative unknowns, with the exception of the always hilarious Seth Rogen and Bill Hader, playing cops that take one of the characters on the ride of his life, attempting to relive their own teenage years.
Creating new iconic characters (who could ever forget McLovin?) and tackling the always trying dilemma of trying to bed a woman as well as coming to the realization that everything must change, Superbad comes off as an in-your-face, hard R comedy, but ends up being, dare I say, a sweet-natured, coming of age tale. A successful bridge of crude with sweet is no easy task, and for that alone, and the fact that the movie is gut-bustingly funny, makes Superbad, superbad.
Written and Directed by: Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin)
Knocked Up is one of those comedies that hits all its marks and then some. Usually, we call these classics and no doubt Knocked Up will fall into this category. It’s a high-concept comedy, like most comedies, but the idea doesn’t stop at the one-liner. A one-night stand couple forced into growing up and accepting the responsibility of having a baby is like the joke you never hope comes true. And here, Apatow and co. hatch that golden egg for all to see.
Seth Rogen showed true comedy grit in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and I was surprised to see him thrown into a lead role so quickly (watch for more Apatow alums breaking free in the next year; see “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”). I guess, in comedy, rolling the dice and taking a chance is how stars are born, although most of them cut their teeth on SNL for a few seasons first. Apatow’s crew seems to skip that step, which is fresh to see some people with talent from another pool.
There are so many laugh out loud moments in Knocked Up and it was the main competition for Superbad, as far as best of the year is concerned. However, I must admit that I was annoyed with Seth Rogen’s character (not Seth the actor) at the onset of the movie. The concept of the loser guy that smokes weed and has no ambition, coupled with his character’s sarcastic laziness rubbed me the wrong way at first.
However, as the movie wore on I was won over by Rogen and I came to appreciate his character as he developed and evolved (like all good characters should in a movie) and ultimately ended up rooting for the slob.
Kat Heigl is another story. For someone who has never done comedy and relied mostly on the heavy dramatics on “Grey’s Anatomy,” I was surprised to see such a fun, playful, and natural performance from her. Must have been the tongue-in-cheek chops she no doubt developed while working with the ol’ Seagal on Under Siege 2: Dark Territory.
Heigl pulls off the performance nicely and, surprisingly, coupled with Rogen, they make a great team. For me, though, I was really impressed by Leslie Mann, an actress who has been around forever, usually in smaller toss-away roles. Mann (who is married to Apatow) gives a heartfelt, honest, and funny portrayal of a middle-aged woman who is simply going through the journey of becoming a mother/woman and letting go of the girl/club hottie persona she secretly still desires.
Like Superbad, the comedy mixed with honest emotion gives this movie the edge it needs to have you rolling with laughter one minute and then choking back the tears the next. When it comes to the formula of good comedy this has always been the case. It’s great to have someone like Apatow and his crew carrying on the tradition with their own blend of hilarity.
Reno 911! Miami
Directed by: Robert Ben Garant
Written by: Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon
This one probably sounds like an odd choice and that’s probably because you haven’t seen it. I don’t think many did (It topped off at $20 million). I had never seen the TV show, but heard about it from many people who swore allegiance to it. I recognized many of the faces from “The State,” an old comedy series that first aired on MTV and featured many of the same actors (The State was actually the name of their comedy troupe).
Reno 911! Focuses on a group of Reno, Nevada cops that are actually worse cops than those from the Police Academy movies. The Reno 911! Cops are bumbling morons who screw up every call they respond to and with the most hilarious results. For Reno 911! Miami, the cops travel to a police convention in said city. Upon their arrival, a terrorist attack causes the hotel in which the convention is being held to be quarantined, leaving the Reno 911! Crew as the only police force in Miami.
Naturally, they are called upon to handle the local police business, while the quarantine is being handled, as well as finding who is responsible for the attack.
The movie is full of guest appearances and some great improv comedy (the majority of the show is improv). There are so many great scenes, but a few that come to mind; After a hard day of work, the Reno crew are all trying to get laid in one way or another and the camera follows each character in one shot, zooming in and out, as we peer through their hotel room windows to see the results of their attempts to score some nookie.
Another scene, in which two of the cops try to break up a famous rapper’s birthday party after noise complaints, finds the cops biting off more than they can chew when the entire party draws guns on them. Improvising their way out of the situation they pretend to be strip-o-gram cops and after losing the majority of their clothes, high tail it out of there.
There are so many other brilliant scenes that left me laughing continuously throughout the movie. You can feel that everyone had a blast making this movie. It sometimes feels like you are watching it all unfold for the first time, much like the actors did throughout filming, working mostly off an outline.
I still don’t watch the TV show (which airs regularly on Comedy Central) but I’m sure it’s just as funny as the movie. More than anything, this was way more surprisingly funny than I ever anticipated from what looked like a slightly amusing TV comedy show, and will now be on my recommend list to anyone who hasn’t seen it.
Black Snake Moan
Written and Directed by: Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow)
I have never seen Hustle & Flow, but have always heard raves about it. A lot of talk and hub-bub was made of writer/director Craig Brewer after H & F hit, but for whatever reason I still have not seen the film.
When I saw the trailer for Black Snake Moan I thought it looked like one of the weirdest movies ever and wondered if the studio had bumbled the marketing campaign. “What the fuck is this movie?”
I love movies like that. They are usually what people call “fresh” and “original” and BSM is certainly that. I can’t think of a movie to compare it to and it’s not that it is the most tantalizing and groundbreaking film ever made…it’s simply different. And usually, different is good.
The film follows Sam Jackson as a man whose wife has left him for his brother and who now finds himself in a state of pain and betrayal. The other center to the film is Christina Ricci who plays a nymphomaniac whose boyfriend (Justin Timberlake) goes off to war, leaving her to her dastardly ways.
After a hard night of partying, drinking, and drug use, Ricci’s character finds herself being advanced upon by her soldier boyfriend’s brother, who, after being rejected by the usually slutty Ricci, proceeds to beat her and leave her on the side of the road in nothing but a torn shirt and underwear.
Taking out the trash the next morning, Sam Jackson sees this half-naked, beaten white woman lying in the road. He takes her in and nurses her back to health and after talking to some townspeople about who she is, he finds out more than he bargained for. Jackson decides that he will save this girl from herself and chains her to his radiator and tells her that he will keep her there until she is healed.
Naturally, the premise of a white girl chained to a black man’s radiator may seem like a really fucked up movie. And it is no doubt weird, but it ultimately makes sense and adds a metaphoric dimension to the story.
This is a movie that starts off with you not really knowing what to expect, where it’s going, or what you’re in for, but once you sit back and settle in, the movie takes you on a journey of weirdness, salvation, comedy, heart, and some really good blues music.
In one scene, Sam Jackson plays a song for Ricci’s character and it’s a brilliantly edited sequence with an unexpectedly poignant performance from Jackson. The music ties the entire movie together, which is where those damned metaphors come in again. The movie itself is a tragic blues song, full of pain, betrayal, hurt, heartbreak, and ultimately, redemption.
Don’t let the kick-ass box cover fool you; this is not an exploitive genre movie as the ads may leave you to believe. That’s the hook that sinks the line. Once you’re in, you are definitely in for something much more.
“Planet Terror” written and directed by: Robert Rodriguez (Sin City, Desperado)
“Death Proof” written and directed by: Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs)
So, where were you? I was at war, what’s your excuse? What’s that? Oh, you didn’t hear of this movie? Oh, you did hear of it, but you heard it was 3 hours long? What’s that? Oh, you had to take the kids to see that new Ice Cube movie? The “Are We Done Making Bullshit?” series? Really?
Oh, you are one of those people, huh? Constantly complaining about Hollywood making crap, huh? But you did go see that Ice Cube movie on the same weekend that Grindhouse came out, right? Making it the number one movie and just forgetting about this little Grindhouse thing?
Let me tell you something…Moviegoers fucked up big on this one. Moviegoers cost me to lose a lot of faith in the American movie-watching public. It’s not the first time, but this was a big hit. It’s not that Grindhouse (or any of the filmmakers behind it for that matter) needed money. Hollywood is rich enough. But, it is a business, and what doesn’t make money certainly will not be replicated. It will be shoved in the “never do that again’ category.
And so it is, that Grindhouse grossed $25 million domestically, sinking this brilliant jem into obscurity, forcing the studio to break it apart and sell it in pieces (you can only see the two films as standalone movies now, cutting out the phenomenal “fake” trailers).
You failed, America. You can no longer complain about crap at the theater because you supported it. You let something great burn away while you pumped money into an empty void, which will be redone a thousand times so that we can all suffer through some family fun crap, leaving with you a worse headache than what you’d get after drinking a mega-slushy within 30 seconds.
For those that missed it (i.e. all of you) Grindhouse is pure brilliance. A throwback to the grindhouse films of the 70’s with a truly ALL-STAR cast, filmmakers Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino deliver the goods and then some with this double feature bonanza.
Grindhouse is a filmmaking experience that was made out of a pure love of cinema and the enjoyment of a double feature that doesn’t exist anymore. Combining their talents, Rodriguez’ Planet Terror is a zombie gore-fest, which feels like a John Carpenter movie before he lost his talent. Tarantino’s Death Proof, a car-serial killer movie with the always great Kurt Russell as the lead villain is chock full of the Tarantino “death by dialogue” but also features a rousing, death defying car chase with one of the best endings ever.
The whipped cream with cherry on top to this bowl of sweet vanilla ice cream is the “fake trailers” that play in between the features. Rob Zombie gives us “Werewolf Women of the SS,” a werewolf/nazi horror flick trailer, Eli Roth (Hostel) gives us the phenomenal “Thanksgiving,” a slasher flick that takes place during said holiday and fits perfect into the 80’s slasher flicks of that era, and finally Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz) gives us “Don’t” a haunted house horror flick that tackles all the traditional scares to near perfection.
These trailers are moviemaking fun at its finest and unfortunately because of the failure of the film as a whole are now lost to everyone. I hope that one day Grindhouse can be restored in its entirety on DVD and that everyone can be given a second chance at this awesome experience.
However, until then, I guess you guys can go see P.S. I love you. (After writing this statement, I saw AVP: Requiem, and since I was berating those that would see something like P.S. I love you instead of AVPR, I have to relent and say that I would rather have been subjected to a root canal than having to sit through AVPR, which would mean that seeing P.S. I Love You would have been a Godsend in its place. Ho-hum.)
Hostel Part 2
Written and Directed by: Eli Roth (Hostel, Cabin Fever)
For whatever reason, audiences didn’t take to this sequel like they did the original. I really enjoyed the original and felt it was a great entry into both the genre and the talent pool for horror films. I think Eli Roth has got great vision to what can be done in horror and I look forward to his future entries to the genre.
Saving (or ruining) the mystery for you, the lead character from the first Hostel is killed within the first five minutes of the sequel and we are quickly introduced to the new three lead characters…, which is now three females. The females in question are a well-rounded bunch (yeah, yeah, pun intended, whatever) with Bijou Phillips, Heather Matarazzo, and Lauren German.
German takes the lead as the dark-haired beauty with Phillips as the “hot one” and Matarazzo as the third wheel dork. Matarazzo plays it sharp witted, but naïve. In one of the most surprising and brutal scenes of the film, we see her (ALL of her) subjected to some severe cinematic torture from the most unlikely of torturers.
The sequel highlights the more villainous side of the original, giving us an all access pass into the lives of the men and women that pay to torture and kill people in a fucked up European country, right down to the bidding war for their prey. Great stuff!
Like its predecessor, Hostel 2 is chock full of shock and gore, including the full on amputation of a very important limb, which I’m still surprised made it into theaters.
The acting is dead on and devoid of that typical horror film cliché where blood overpowers acting chops. What’s great about Hostel (and the other horror films along this line, i.e. Saw) is that it wraps you up in the characters and has you guessing till the very end, because you never really can know what’s going to happen.
I am like a 16-year-old girl when watching these films, screeching and covering my mouth at the truly shocking and vile, which I love to high heaven. A successful horror movie will have me doing the O-face and pointing and yelling at the screen. For me, Hostel 2 hit every mark. Although not a huge success, it certainly didn’t seal the fate on Roth’s career and I’m sure he has a lot more up his sleeve.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Directed by: David Yates
Screenplay by: Michael Goldenberg Based on the book by: J.K. Rowling
I’ve read all the Potter books and enjoyed them immensely. There are lovers and haters not in-betweeners on this series, so if you’re a hater, this review won’t mean dick to you. The books, like the subsequent films, have followed a pattern of aging with their audience. The first book is light, fluffy, intriguing and fun. As the series goes on and the stakes get higher and higher and a body count begins to rise, author Rowling doesn’t hold back. Harry Potter isn’t Bart Simpson, forever stuck in the fourth grade.
Potter is a growing adolescent wizard, on the brink of adulthood and dealing with things that no other teen/wizard should be dealing with. Being the chosen one is never easy (Darth Vader anyone?). The last three books in the Potter series are the darkest, most violent, and the most fun. They really invite the spirit of a rousing adventure with high stakes and create a sense of urgency that will have you turning pages long past your bedtime.
Order of the Phoenix is the book that marks the beginning of the end for Potter, winding down his seven-volume run and putting him on a collision course with fate. With the death of a friend in the last film and now faced with another major death in this one, we see Potter not only stepping up to fight, but eager for it.
This entry, directed by David Yates, truly captures the spirit of the book and infuses it with the epic feel that is needed for such imaginative material. Yates uses all his resources to create a sprawling and immense world of wizards and magic and creatively knocks it out of the park.
Like director Alfonso Cauron did for The Prisoner of Azkaban (third in the series), Yates lends a director’s touch, that signature that lets you know this is a focused piece of work and not a paint-by-numbers directorial effort. You can feel the love of the material onscreen and this makes a huge difference, especially to such a rabidly loyal fan base.
What really sold this film to me was the end battle, good wizards versus evil wizards. For the first time we see a “battle royale” within Rowlings universe and it’s about time. It’s like that epic lightsaber battle you wait for at the end of Star Wars. Yates stages the fighting with surprising brutality, creating true heroes and villains within the confines of the struggle. Yates, who is directing the next installment, has my vote to finish off the series.
After reading the final book, I can say that, if done as well as this entry, will be the knockout the series needs and deserves in cinematic form. Until that time, Order kicks off the journey with panache, style, and grace. My fingers are crossed for the last two.
The Bourne Ultimatum
Directed by: Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, Flight 93)
Screenplay by: Tony Gilroy Based on the novel by: Robert Ludlum
Wow. Rarely does a trilogy improve upon itself, but the Bourne series has proven that it can still be done. Director Greengrass is back after giving us a rollicking, shaky cam, bad ass entry with Supremacy and delivers more of the same with a little extra in this outstanding finale to the trilogy of Jason Bourne.
I read Bourne Identity years ago and, although interesting and compelling, ultimately was too long winded for me to even care if they adapted it line-by-line. Thankfully, screenwriter Tony Gilroy trimmed the fat and added the spices necessary to make one kick ass movie steak out of this series.
Matt Damon embodies the character of Jason Bourne. We always knew the guy could act, but to elevate to the level of celluloid super agent was an impressive feat. The fight scenes are raw, brutal, and yet still graceful. When Bourne is about to throw down you start to squirm in your seat in anticipation of what inventive (yet believable) way he is about to dispose of his quarry.
And the chases! Not since William Friedkin has a filmmaker captured a car chase so vividly and in-your-face as Greengrass, with his steadi-cam car carnage. The chases are filmed in such high volume traffic areas that you almost wonder if the filmmakers just grabbed a camera and a shitload of film and just drove into rush hour traffic and shot what they needed until the cops showed up.
Supporting actors have always been strong in the series (and fleeting, as they are usually killed off), but kudos to Joan Allen, who plays a tough, smart, ball-grinding agent in charge of catching Bourne. Allen has the chops to play just about any role, but seeing as it’s such an unlikely choice for her, it lends a lot to the film. And she looks smokin’ hot to boot.
Author Robert Ludlum only wrote the three novels in the Bourne series before his passing, but there is plenty of room to grow with the character. I would love to see a continuation of this hard-hitting, stylistic series, but there’s no rush. I’d rather wait for something great than get slammed with something half-assed.
Either way, with the trilogy complete and, in my opinion, Ultimatum sealing the deal as the best of the series, we are left with the satisfaction of a job well done and a standard for filmmaking hopefully to be replicated in the future.
Good Luck Chuck
Directed by: Mark Helfrich
Written by: Josh Stolberg and Steve Glenn
Hey, not every great movie has to star Tom Hanks and be directed by Steven Spielberg. And, to be honest and realistic, Good Luck Chuck is not a “great” movie by any conventional means…but…the fact remains…I laughed my ass off throughout this fairly by-the-numbers high concept comedy, which revolves around Chuck (Dane Cook), a womanizing dentist (naturally) who is given a curse at a young age, making every woman he sleeps with find true love after he sleeps with them (and by sleep, I mean have sexual intercourse…why do we always doll it up?)
Jessica Alba provides the female love interest for this one and I had my doubts as she has never impressed me much beyond the T & A factor…but what a surprise to find that she was able to pull off the evenly cursed character, who is an unlucky klutz who works as a trainer/caretaker of penguins at a Sea World like theme park.
The chemistry between Cook and Alba is there, surprisingly, and the movie thankfully takes its R-rating seriously, replete with good ol’ fashioned no-no words and uh-oh spots galore. Cook is much more relaxed in this role, coming into his own and giving a good Ben Stiller-ish performance with his own blend of hijinks.
This is not movie art by any means, so don’t get your pipes full of steam if you go to watch this expecting When Harry Met Sally. This is just a fun Friday night date movie that will have you laughing out loud at the ridiculousness cheesiness and outright raw fun that is sprinkled throughout.
And you’ll never look at grapefruit the same again. Or penguins for that matter.
Into the Wild Written for the screen and Directed by: Sean Penn
Based on the novel by Jon Krakauer
Amazing. It’s the only word I can think of to describe this film. It’s no mystery that Sean Penn is a lunatic, which makes it perfect for him to direct this film. Penn is a lunatic, but he is obviously a passionate lunatic (see paparazzi puncher-outer/gun-toting, boat driving hurricane savior/liberal propagandist), which suits him to this material to a tee.
Into the Wild is based on the true life account of Chris McCandless, a recently graduated college student who, for whatever reason, decides that the life that is outlined for him isn’t the one he wants to live and so decides to ditch everything he has for the open road. His ultimate goal? To rough it in the wilds of Alaska. I read the book by Jon Krakauer years ago and found it every bit as inspirational and moving as I did the film.
The controversy that surrounds this story is simple; many people look on McCandless’s journey as an act of ignorance and often beg the question if the guy was ever a boy scout. And, in some respects, they are correct. McCandless could have benefited from a little survival training, no doubt. Maybe a map, sure. However, although I would not tackle a journey such as his in the way that he did it, I respect and admire what he was after and the means in which he went after it and that was bare-boned. McCandless wanted to learn to survive without help, without a trip to REI, without a thousands-of-dollars-in-gear trip.
McCandless had a thirst for knowledge that most people can quench within the confines of a neatly planned family vacation (or a trip to wikipedia these days) and it ultimately led him to his fate. But the journey…the journey is where the gold is and McCandless sought those kinds of riches in his life, even if they were short lived.
Now, I’m not going to wear a McCandless t-shirt or preach to anyone to do what he did, but I think that everyone can learn something from him. McCandless represented that wild flair…that dare that rests on our tongues that we would never speak for fear that someone would call our bluff…but it resides within us all…to seek the unknown, to travel to the places that rest on our desktop background and to return with stories of adventure and danger.
That may sound like an add for a rock climbing expedition, but it’s the truth. I think what best represents the message for McCandless’s life is that we should all be more daring, more adventurous, and we should all let go of the things that bind our lives and seemingly strip away not only our pursuit of that which is unknown, but also our desire to pursue it.
McCandless fought against the grain of a pre-planned life, of something that held no mystery anymore and the path he took most definitely took him away from anything that was laid before him on a silver platter.
This spirit and emotion is captured perfectly in the film and it’s an amazing feat. Adapting the book, which is written from numerous perspectives is nearly impossible, but Penn found a way to make it work and it not only works, it’s flawless and inventive.
Emile Hirsch (The Girl Next Door, upcoming Speed Racer) plays McCandless with a wit, wonder, and passion that you can only imagine possessed the real man. Hirsch has grown into an outstanding talent in Hollywood and I’ve come to appreciate his name as a credit to any production. The supporting talent in the film is what you’d expect from an actor/director…chock full. Hal Holbrook, as an aging leatherworker who befriends McCandless on his journey is especially moving as a man at the end of his rope and pulling at the strings to leave a legacy behind.
What is immediately striking about this film is the visuals. Penn went out of his way to capture the natural beauty of the American vista, from the Grand Canyon to Alaska. We are treated to a Planet-Earth style cinemascape that draws you in and leaves you breathless…you want to go to the places you see in this film, to see them and touch them and stand in the beauty of them.
I don’t want to ruin anything about the film, but I will say only that Penn handles the journey with the compassion, reality, and spirituality that I can only imagine McCandless felt and when the credits roll you truly feel like you have lived another life.
Hot Rod Directed by: Akiva Schaffer
Written by: Pam Brady
This one seemed to escape everyone, but I thought it looked like a lot of fun from the get-go. After the very popular “Lazy Sunday” and “Dick in a Box” skits from SNL, Andy Samburg started to leave his comedic impression and it was good to see some budding talent give us something new.
Hot Rod follows the exploits of a not-so-great stuntman wannabe (Samburg) and his rag-tag crew (including Superbad alum Bill Hader) as he attempts to save his ailing stepfather (Deadwood’s Ian McShane…minus the F-word) by raising $50,000 for a heart transplant. The reason for saving his stepdad? To kick his ass in a fair fight, of course.
The movie is built on old school rock anthems from Europe and pays tribute to the early 80’s teen music dramas (a la Footloose) while satiring them at the same time. You can feel that the cast and crew had a lot of fun making this movie and the comedic style bounces between the off-the-wall to slapstick to homage/satire.
Isla Fisher provides the love interest, while the raspy-voiced Will Arnett plays the villainous boyfriend. Everyone adds their own bit of goofiness and there’s some obvious improv, which is a trend I am enjoying more and more since the now classic Anchorman.
Granted, Hot Rod is not for everyone and I can see how some people would say that it’s just not that funny and or annoying, but for anyone who enjoys Samburg and co.’s. blend of humor this is right up their alley. I think this will quickly find a wider audience on video and become a great cult comedy classic and it certainly has the chops to earn it.
Beowulf Directed by: Robert Zemeckis (Castaway, Back to the Future trilogy)
Written by: Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery
Based on an anonymous poem of the same name
Using the same animation that he used on The Polar Express, director Robert Zemeckis brings us this more adult tale about lust, betrayal, power, greed, and seduction with style, brutality, and amazement. I wasn’t totally sold on the animation style with Polar Express, but I think they are getting there and Beowulf really utilizes the limitless opportunity to dazzle with it.
We follow Beowulf, a hardened warrior who is beckoned to a kingdom that is haunted by a mysterious creature known as Grendal, who attacks only when the sounds of joy and merriment are heard deep in his cavern. Grendal’s attacks are brutal and horrific and the action throughout is handled with grace as Zemeckis opens the age-old poem up to interpretation with a great script by Gaiman and Avery.
The animation takes the likeness of each actor and gives them a slightly different (or hugely different in the case of Ray Winstone, the actor portraying Beowulf) and places them in the world of Beowulf sans make-up.
I did not have the benefit of seeing this in 3D IMAX, but it is amazing nonetheless, with a great score by Alan Silvestri and a rousing, thoughtful, and dark tone, this is not a cartoon for the kiddies, but a cautionary tale for adults, dripping with mature themes and harsh violence.
There is a lot of room to grow with this style of animation and I keep hoping I’ll see the day when they perfect it. Until then, Beowulf sets the new standard and stands on its own as a great film, great story, and a great time at the movies.
Disturbia Directed by: D.J. Caruso (The Salton Sea) Written by: Christopher B. Landon and Carl Ellsworth
I was completely surprised by this one as it seemed the most unlikely to be anything memorable beyond a mid-afternoon viewing on HBO. This thriller stands alone as the best of its genre this year and delivers on all counts and surprises on many others.
The real success belongs to Shia LeBouf, who turns in a realistic and contemporary performance as a teenager who is put under house arrest after clocking a kid at school. LeBouf seems like a real teen, not some “Bring It On” concoction of a Bratz-style modernista.
A great supporting cast includes Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix) as LeBouf’s mother, David Morse (The Rock) as the suspicious villain, and newcomer beauty Sarah Roemer as the next-door hottie. While this may all seem like a paint-by-numbers thriller, well, that’s because it is, but it’s done so well that it defies the standards by stepping them up a notch.
Disturbia doesn’t rely on just one convention…you get the love story, the friendship, the mother-son relationship, the suspense, the drama, the fun, and the showdown that delivers on all cylinders and is so very rare in today’s thrillers. We are usually relocated to a ho-hum ending that leaves you thinking up a better way for everything to happen as you leave the theater.
This film goes the other way and leaves you with the satisfaction that it all played out as it should, or at least it played out in a way that you can buy, rather than being force fed the usual ‘suspend-disbelief-until-you-don’t-know-what-to-believe-at-all’ ending with contrived and fake performances.
Disturbia is by far the biggest surprise for me this year, because I was ready for the eye roll and instead I was sucked in and had a great time.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Directed by: Tim Burton (Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, Batman, other shit with Johnny Depp) Written by: John Logan Based on the musical by: Steven Sondheim
Wow. I walked out of the theater on this one and could only think about how surprised I was at how much ass this movie kicked. I thought this movie would be fun and interesting in that Tim Burton way, but it was so much more.
I am not a musical guy. I am a fucking Neanderthal. I recently went and saw The Producers play with my wife and at dinner afterward the waitress asked if we liked it and my wife replied politely that we did, in fact, enjoy it and then went as far as to POINT at me and say aloud to the uncaring waitress that, “Even HE liked it,” as if I am the ultimate caveman, Grog, who wouldn’t watch anything without Wesley Snipes or Steven Seagal and only if it went straight to video. My wife may as well have pulled the waitress close and whispered in here ear “I think he just liked it for the sexy girls, but whatever.”
Anyways, that should prove the façade I am given for a man of my age, color, stature, and taste. I’m a Budweiser drinking, belching, poorly dressed Manimal who could never, in a million years of evolution, appreciate a musical.
In Sweeney Todd’s defense though, it’s a trick. It tricks the female audience that would drag their significant others to the film into thinking that they got away with getting their own Manimal into a musical and instead gives the male audience something to appreciate and the afraid-of-needles females something to gasp at.
Sweeney Todd is dark, funny, tragic, and downright bloody. It is that traditional tale of tragedy with double crosses and jealousy and, of course, revenge. I had no idea that this musical existed and I still don’t care. I don’t want it to exist outside the film. I don’t need to go any further than this.
Tim Burton does a masterful job, as always, and lends his eye to this adaptation with the usual dark perfection he always does. His regular, Johnny Depp, is naturally phenomenal and lives and breathes the character of Sweeney Todd, the barber fresh from prison and arriving back to his homeland of London to exact revenge.
The revenge falls on a judge, played by the always great Alan Rickman (Die Hard, Snape in the Harry Potter films), who has taken Sweeney Todd’s daughter and is, for all intents and purposes, a full blown sex maniac/pervert.
Todd befriends a meat pie baker played by Burton’s better half, Helena Bonham-Carter. I hate to sound redundant, so let’s just all agree that the cast in this film are all reliable and are all performers. They have on rare occasions called one in and are always dedicated to their craft. I guess that’s what makes this a natural success.
There is a small role for Sascha Baron-Cohen (Borat) as a competing barber and it’s good to see him branching out from the Borat character, as it is quickly becoming a career-killer for him.
This film is all musical, too. The latest trend has been to throw in about 10 minutes of dialogue and then a song, repeat, etc. Sweeney Todd is nearly all singing, which took a minute to adjust to, but wasn’t difficult. The songs are full of darkness, longing, hatred, comedy, and violence. For the first time I was not reeling back, mouth agape, praying for the shit to end. The Manimal within was oddly quenched.
And the blood! As a deeply violent Manimal my bloodlust is unending and Sweeney Todd delivers the goods. Overly exaggerated slashed throats with a deep red blood spray are sprayed, literally, throughout, which makes for the first time I’ve seen such a thing in any kind of musical.
To the very bloody end, Sweeney Todd is a deathly satisfying ride and leaves you with a bevy of powerful performances with an epic, dark, and visceral experience.
The Darjeeling Limited
Directed by: Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic)
Written by: Wes Anderson, Jason Schwartzman, and Roman Coppola
Let’s get it out of the way now. I love Wes Anderson’s work. For my own personal style, Wes Anderson is my greatest inspiration. His films, from Bottle Rocket to The Life Aquatic have been hugely influential to me, standing as films of such great substance, design, style, and a strong attention to detail. In short, I marvel at the genius of Wes Anderson.
The Darjeeling Limited, coupled with the short film that precedes it, Hotel Chevalier, is another great entry into the writer/director’s legacy. It is, by far, his most grown up film, tackling much deeper subjects of jealousy, betrayal, regret, and hurt, all the while retaining the charm and quirk that defines his style.
We follow three brothers, played respectively by Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, and Adrian Brody, who all meet on a train, the aptly named “The Darjeeling Limited,” bound for India. Wilson, who wears a head dressing for the entire film as a result of an accident/suicide attempt, is the older brother who is pushing the trip along, trying to pull a spiritual journey out of it.
The brothers have not seen each other for over a year, since their father’s death, and their estranged mother has all but disappeared from their lives. Their journey takes them on many stops and Wilson grinds away at his brothers to make it spiritual, to bond, and wants nothing more than for them all to be as close as they were as kids.
Schwartzman, who shared the screen with Natalie Portman in the Hotel Chevalier short film, which showcases the end of their relationship and the fact that Schwartzman has been running from her since their initial break-up.
Brody plays the married brother who is tormented by the fact that his wife is pregnant and doesn’t know how to react to the impending birth of his son. All brothers have had trouble growing into their lives since the loss of their father and the vanishing of their mother. They have all tried to survive on their own, without the support of family, and have languished with unresolved issues and the pain of loss.
Their journey takes them in many directions, including a scene where they attempt to save three boys drowning in a river. This scene ultimately changes the tone of the film as one of the children dies in the process and we are suddenly thrust into a darker venue to the film’s quirky pace. The death, however, is ultimately their redemption, as the brothers are able to mourn and attend a funeral for the deceased boy, an event they missed (which is shown in flashback) with their own father.
The journey close with the brothers finding their mother living in a monastery and confronting her about not attending their father’s funeral and disappearing from their lives. When they awake the next morning she is gone again and they are forced, once again, to fade back into their lives without a mother or father, but with a renewed fellowship with each other.
A deeper meaning can be found in the film and that’s what I love about Wes Anderson’s work…it’s never obvious, but it’s all there. You can pull what you want from it, what you feel, but it’s never spelled out for you. This, to me, is what real life is, where things are not always resolved, where you never really know how someone really thinks or feels (because let’s face it, a lot of times we don’t know ourselves) and gives you all the clues and information to formulate your own thoughts and your own happy (or sad) ending.
If you haven’t seen any of Wes Anderson’s previous work, they all come with my highest recommendation. For those interested, check out these films for a trip to his world;
Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic.
What You Missed
These are just a sampling of some movies I saw that, although not my favorite of the year, they all offer something great and most people missed these films due to poor box office performance, DVD release, or shitty promotion. Either way, these are all on my top recommend list.
This film, which is made by many of the founding members of the comedy troupe “The State” (see Reno 911!) is a small, independent dramedy about life in a small clam-digging town in New York. The film features a stellar cast, including Paul Rudd, Ken Marino, Ron Eldard, Maura Tierney, and Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under) who are all intertwined in some way and are all dealing with some type of crisis. It’s part coming-of-age and part dramedy but it’s a great film in both respects and will no doubt leave you with a smile of satisfaction in the end.
I Could Never Be Your Woman
From director Amy Heckerling (Fast Time at Ridgemont High, Clueless) comes this surprisingly grown-up comedy about an aging producer of a “Saved by the Bell-esque” TV show (Michelle Pfeiffer) who falls in love with a younger actor (Paul Rudd) on the show, all the while dealing with her daughter, who is falling in love for the first time as well. This is a one of those great little comedies that got away with an awesome cast and a fine script that details the may/December romance issues as well as varying topics in pop culture and the pratfalls of getting older in Hollywood. Great stuff.
James Wan (Saw, Dead Silence) directed this Death-Wish-esque revenge film that features Kevin Bacon as a white collar father who is returning with his son from a hockey game when his son is killed in a gas station as a gang initiation. Bacon’s character witnesses the entire thing but is too late to stop it and instead begins his own journey of revenge. However, Bacon finds himself in way over his head as the gang retaliates, causing Bacon to delve further into the darkness and become someone else entirely. This is a surprisingly dark and edgy film, which audiences all but skipped in theaters, but it’s got balls, which is rare in most films that promote themselves as revenge flicks. Give this one a shot when you see it at Blockbuster.
This film, yet another revenge flick, takes place at the end of the Civil War as a retired Lieutenant Colonel tracks down the man who burned down his home, killing his family. With two powerful actors, Liam Neeson and Pierce Brosnan, playing the warring men you know you’re in for a good time. As Neeson’s character pursues the relentless and crafty Brosnan throughout the mountains and wilderness to the open desert, the story never gives itself away and the characters are peeled apart like an onion to reveal things that will surprise and maybe even make you change sides. Great performances, great story, and spectacular locations make this one to see.
Wrong Turn 2: Dead End
This is way out of left field, but for a horror fan, this is such a huge improvement upon the original. Sacrificing the well-known TV stars for a gorier and more villain heavy film, this straight-to-DVD sequel gets it right, despite the terrible acting and unengaging characters, this one has all the right gore and fun of a completely cheesy horror film. If this film had a better director and only slightly better make-up effects it would be right up there with Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Okay, and a little more suspense, but the bottom line, for a rental, this movie kicks bloody ass.
Okay, that’s Part One. Join me in a few days for Part Two (hey, it takes time to write this crap, cut me some slack), where I’ll tackle the WORST of 2007 and give you my thoughts on some of the more high profile projects that didn’t make it on any of my lists.
If you want to hear my opinion on any particular film, just leave a comment and I will. As always, I encourage use of the feedback as a forum, so if you got something to say, spit it out. I will check back to answer any questions, comments, or challenges.
See you soon and Happy New Year!