Friday, January 27, 2012

A Reel Review: THE GREY



The only mistake director Joe Carnahan makes with THE GREY is this: He allowed it to be marketed as a brainless action thriller; a fist fighting thumper with Liam Neeson punching wolves, leaving many to dismiss it early on as WOLF HARD. In reality, nothing can be further from the truth. THE GREY is a thoughtful and philosophical character drama, packed with emotion and full of humanity. Sure, we get to see Qui-Gon duke it out with some nasty wolves, but that is just one small part of Carnahan’s opus of survival and human instincts.

Ottway (Liam Neeson) is a big-game hunter/sniper hired by an Alaskan oil company to pick-off the wolves that are prone to attack the oil workers while they maintain the pipelines. Ottway, having lost his beloved wife, is severely depressed and is ready to kill himself. Distracted just when he is ready to pull the trigger (quite cleverly), he boards a plane with the work crew, which eventually crashes into the wilderness. Ottway, the only one with knowledge of the wilderness and the wolves, pulls together the few survivors and desperately leads them through the wilderness while fending off attacks from the vicious wolfpacks.

THE GREY starts off very strong. The depressed and tormented Ottway snags you right away and never lets go. His sadness is never over the top, but still powerful courtesy of an outstanding performance by Neeson (more on that soon). When the plane crashes and Ottway has to pull himself and the survivors together, we see a man who now gets to struggle with life and death on the inside and the out.

While Ottway is the main character, THE GREY allows for some excellent character studies of the survivors. They are roughneck oil workers, with a milkshake of personalities and backgrounds; there is the wiseass, the faithful, the philosophical, the humble and the asshole. Carnahan takes all these traits, throws them into the meatgrinder and lets the pieces fall where they may; with a tormented Ottway/Neeson thrown in for good measure.

As great as the character drama is, the wolf attacks manage to transcend it. The packs are vicious and bloodthirsty, but Carnahan is wise enough to show just enough gore and violence without going overboard. The way the wolves stalk the survivors is executed like a well-timed, well-paced horror movie; it has plenty of surprises and loads of tension that will give you cramps. It is a masterful piece of filmmaking. Carnahan also pulls off the plane crash in such a frightening manner it’s enough to scare anyone away from an airplane for years.

Shot and cut with a gritty real-world style, THE GREY feels like it was shot real-time with a hand-camera and always has you in the middle of the action. Through all the wolf attacks and characters, Carnahan still manages to make a clever and thoughtful comparison to a wolf pack and a pack of humans; statements about alpha-males, survival instincts, and just who the real animals in the woods really are.

This Blogger has no doubt about Liam Neeson in THE GREY; it is the absolute finest performance of his career. While he may be remembered best for characters like Oskar and Rob, it is in his Ottway where he delivers his most powerful and emotional punch. Tormented and heartbroken, Neeson sells it perfectly, and the scene where he curses the heavens is so good it’s hard to watch. It’s also worth mentioning that the supporting cast in Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts and Frank Grillo are also excellent.

The ending feels like a bit of a cop-out, but after careful thought makes perfect sense when thinking about where Ottway came from and what was motivating him. The bigger question THE GREY asks of you is this: when in a crisis, who will you be? Will you be the panicked, the angry, the fearful, or will you be Liam Neeson?

BOTTOM LINE: See it

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Nicol Williamson 1936-2011



“A dream to some, A NIGHTMARE TO OTHERS!”.

Nicol Williamson, who was once described by playwright John Osborne as “the greatest actor since Marlon Brando” has passed away at the age of 75. The family reports that he passed away in mid December.

The Scottish-born actor preferred the stage to the screen. He was nominated for two Tony Awards for his stage work, and his screentime earned him several BAFTA, Saturn, and British Academy Television Award nominations.

He was best known for his iconic performance of Merlin in John Boorman’s King Arthur epic EXCALIBUR (1981), where he was opposite Helen Mirren. He also played Little John opposite Sean Connery’s Robin Hood in ROBIN AND MARIAN (1975). Other notable film credits include RETURN TO OZ (1985), and THE EXORCIST III (1990). His final film credit was SPAWN (1997).

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This Blogger considers Williamson’s Merlin to be the definitive portrayal of the character; it has not been matched in the various films and TV shows that have come after. He will be remembered in this Blogger’s mind always for his musical deliveries of his lines.

“Be still. Sleep. Rest in the arms of the Dragon. Dream.”

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Reel Opinion: Oscar 2011; The Good, The Bad, & The Glorious



The 84th Annual Academy Award nominations were announced today, with HUGO leading the way with eleven nominations. Hot on its heels is THE ARTIST with ten, and MONEYBALL and WAR HORSE with six apiece.

There is a lot to be excited and pleased about, and a few things to spark some wrath. So here we go…

THE GOOD

-2011 is clearly the Year of the Actress, with the Best Actress category being the toughest to pick a clear-cut winner. Outstanding performances by Glenn Close, Meryl Streep, Rooney Mara, Viola Davis and Michelle Williams make this category the Varsity squad of the year.

-THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN, which won Best Animated Feature in the 2011 Golden Globes, did not secure a nomination. It’s refreshing to know that the Academy was able to look past all the visuals and noise and flash and recognize it as the paper-thin film it was. This exclusion is also another exposing of the Globes’ UK slant.

-Sticking with the Best Animated category, CARS 2 became the first Pixar film since forever to not receive a nomination. Totally justified exclusion, and this Blogger thanks the academy for not letting the Pixar name be an automatic vote.

THE BAD

-Outrageous Travesty No. 1 is the Best Picture nomination for the critically drubbed EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE. Review aggregator Rottentomatoes.com reports that 49% of 117 critics have given the film a positive review, with an average rating 5.8 out of 10. The general consensus has been that the film is exploitative; using the tragic events of 9/11 and the mental handicaps of a child as a blatant attempt at sympathy. One has to wonder if the Academy voters even saw the film.

-Outrageous Travesty No. 2 is the exclusion of the beautiful and exquisitely composed MELANCHOLIA; no Best Pic, no Directing, no Best Acting, no Cinematography. Inexcusable.

-Also aggravating are the Best Pic exclusions of critically praised films such as DRIVE, (93%), MY WEEK WITH MARILYN (84%) and WARRIOR (83%). Again; Academy voters, please go see more movies.

THE GLORIOUS

-Finally finally FINALLY! The great Gary Oldman receives his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor. His performance in TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY was so damn good they should award him for Best Costume too.

- Score one for the old dudes; films by Steven Spielberg (WAR HORSE) and Martin Scorsese (HUGO) combine for seventeen nominations.

-THE ARTIST did not secure the most nominations, but it got the most important ones; Best Pic, Actor, Director, and Screenplay. If Dr. Emmitt Brown told us in 1985 that a silent film in 2011 would be the favorite to win it all, we would have called him crazy. That makes 2011 a unique year.

What say you?

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Reel Review: RED TAILS



RED TAILS can be summed up in the first 15 seconds of movie; things start off very somber and serious by explaining a U.S. Army report which concluded that Negro pilots are too cowardly for combat. The film then switches to a decent aerial battle, kicked off with a gawd-awful line of “Germans! Let’s get ‘em!”. It is an example of terrible comic-book style dialogue that plagues the entire film and puts the seriousness of racism and personal struggle in the military into a tailspin.

It is WWII and the American bombers are being blown out of the sky because their protective planes fail to do their job. Meanwhile, the Tuskegee Airmen, the first all-negro unit, is stuck flying non-combat missions hundreds of miles away from where the war is being fought. The unit’s commander, Col. Bullard (Terrance Howard) fights for his men’s right to fight in combat. Despite the efforts of the racist Col. Mortamus (Bryan Cranston), the unit is eventually given their chance to protect vital bombing missions into Germany.

Any decent war film can and should strive on the characters as they fight the fight. In every unit, there are men from all walks of life who must come together as one, and RED TAILS sets the stage nicely. These hotshot pilots include the (ahem) maverick, the alcoholic, the faithful, the southern boy, and the comedian. A great opportunity seemed to be open to see how this variety of soldiers reacts to the blatant racism. Unfortunately, the race issue and the struggle of the Negro soldier is glossed over, as RED TAILS chooses instead to focus on military clich├ęs over and over and over. It comes back to the comic-book dialogue, which does nothing to develop any character or create any sort of emotional connection or drama. With the race issue pushed to the side and the characters worthless, the entire plane-ride feels wasted.

RED TAILS has some very good visual effects and the aerial combat scenes are executed nicely. The problem the battles have goes back to the lame characters we are supposed to feel for when they are on the ground. We are given no reason to care if our own heroes are blown out of the sky. The heavy usage of CGI, while it looks nice, doesn’t quite sell the danger these men are supposed to be in; most of the film feels very much like a cartoon. The movie also seems to suffer from massive gaps in logic and continuity; the unit complains that they are hundreds of miles away from the enemy, but yet an early scene has our guys attacking German supply runs. Which is it? The film also tries to wedge in a love story and a POW camp escape; both of which feel intrusive and stupid.

RED TAILS has a strong cast, but no one can seem to get past the awful writing. The biggest name on the poster is probably Terrance Howard, but all he gets to do is recite long-winded, flag-waving rally-cry speeches which feel like fifty movie-trailers put together. Smaller roles by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Gerald McRaney are just a waste of space, and the racist colonel character by Bryan Cranston vanishes from the film before the halfway point, for no reason whatsoever.

Directed by Anthony Hemingway, RED TAILS has been a passion project of producer George Lucas for many years, but has very little passion to show for it. The most frustrating aspect of the entire ride is that this was finally supposed to give the famed Tuskegee Airmen the defining tribute that they deserve. This is more like an insult.

BOTTOM LINE: Fuck it

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Reel Facts & Opinions: Concerning SOPA

The internet, tech industry, and the movie industry have been nuts over the past few weeks concerning SOPA, the proposed anti-piracy bill. It’s a bit of a mess, so let Reel Speak spell out the basics while shoveling out some opinion…

FACT: SOPA is an acronym for Stop Online Piracy Act; a proposed bill designed to crack down on copyright infringement by restricting access to sites that host or facilitate the trading of pirated content. SOPA’s main targets are overseas sites which host illegal downloads, and are out of the reach of U.S. movie studios. Similar to the Napster issue of ten years ago, content creators have been battling against such sites and services for years, and have been losing consistently to those overseas sites. SOPA’s goal is to cut off the shipping lanes the pirates sail on; by requiring U.S. search engines, advertising networks and other providers to withhold their services. That means sites like Google wouldn’t show flagged sites in their search results, and services like PayPal couldn’t transmit funds to them. SOPA, as it is written now, has very broad language that promotes censorship and opens the door to punishing innocent sites which may unknowingly have a link to pirated content.

OPINION: Let’s get two things cleared up right away: First, the internet has always been like the Wild West; unregulated, unwatched, and free for the taking. While the Old West was a ton of fun, the rest of the world can and will eventually catch up.

Second…The movie industry, like any other business, is out to make a profit. While it’s easy to shake your fist at the big-nuts studios and their greed, remember that they are out to sell a product; no different than the Hot Dog Guy on the corner. If the Hot Dog Guy doesn’t sell any wieners, he’s not getting paid, and if the studios don’t sell any theatre tickets or DVD’s, they’re not getting paid. Illegal downloading is no different than swiping the hot dog off the cart and walking away without paying. And NO... illegal downloading is not “sharing”; you can “share” a hot dog by cutting it half. You can’t do that with a movie.

The effects of illegal downloading have been hitting the studios hard for years. Box office numbers have been decreasing as people go for their laptops over the big screen. When the studios see their profits go down, they are likely to veer away from future projects deemed as “iffy”. These days, “iffy” meaning original projects with no guarantee of success. That is why studios fall back to their safe haven of remakes and adaptations. Many of them take it a step further and add a gimmick like (goddamn) 3D. If you’ve been illegally downloading movies, you can pat yourself on the back for ALICE IN WONDERLAND 3D getting made.

The movies need dollars to survive, and that is why the major studios are supporting SOPA. Piracy is a major problem, but the broad language of SOPA messes with too many websites and censors too many searches. Innocent websites and blogs could be crucified and shot for being the messenger. We need a SOPA, but not a big one that annihilates everything. You don’t need a nuclear bomb to kill one rat.

What say you?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Reel Facts & Opinions: What to Look Forward to in 2012

Movie fans should know by now that 2012 is shaping up to be a monster of a year. Long awaited sequels, big franchises and significant names are all over the calendar. Friends of Reel Speak should also know that this Blogger is looking forward to three major films; Peter Jackson’s return to Middle-earth with THE HOBBIT, Steven Spielberg turning Daniel Day-Lewis into Abraham Lincoln in LINCOLN, and Christopher Nolan’s grand finale to his Batman vision in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. Other monsters include the long-awaited super-hero teamup film THE AVENGERS, Pixar’s BRAVE, SKYFALL (Bond, James Bond), and Ridley Scott’s long-awaited return to the ALIEN-verse he created in PROMETHEUS.

But what else may be lurking in the shadows behind the big-nuts studio productions? Let’s take a peek:

THE MASTER
THE MASTER is the first film from Paul Thomas Anderson since his THERE WILL BE BLOOD made history in 2007. Anderson has assembled a great cast in the form of Phillip Seymour-Hoffman and Amy Adams, and the film also marks the return of Joaquin Phoenix to real acting. MASTER is about a WWI veteran (Hoffman) who returns home from the war and begins a religious cult. And here is your movie-geekout trivia thing for the year: Anderson is filming THE MASTER with the same 65mm cameras Stanley Kubrick used to film 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.

MOONRISE KINGDOM
Wes Anderson (no relation to Paul Thomas) makes his return to live-action filmmaking in MOONRISE KINGDOM; a charming tale of two kids in love. Along with his trademark quirkiness and unique style, Anderson assembles a fascinating cast; Ed Norton, Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Harvey Keitel, and his usual suspects Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman.

COGAN’S TRADE
The last time director Andrew Dominik and Brad Pitt got together, we got the thoughtful and sweeping Old West character-driven epic in the form of THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD. This time around, Pitt stars as a big bad mob enforcer tracking down cash. This is an adaptation of a George V. Higgins crime novel, and also stars James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Sam Shepard, and Richard Jenkins.

GRAVITY
Alfonso Cuaron is an extremely talented director who has brought us CHILDREN OF MEN and the third film in the HARRY POTTER series, which many consider to be the best in the franchise. In GRAVITY, Cuaron tackles science fiction for the first time, telling the story of a lone survivor of a failed space mission trying to get back to her daughter. GRAVITY stars George Clooney and Sandra Bullock.

Other curiosities worth mentioning are Timur Bekmambetov’s ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER (self-explanatory), Rob Zombie’s LORDS OF SALEM (Salem witch hunts/trials), and Kathryn Bigelow’s untitled film concerning the hunt and killing of Osama Bin Laden. Bringing up the rear in the curious but completely un-original, we have Tim Burton’s continuing career as a half-ass cover band with his DARK SHADOWS adaptation, and Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti-western homage DJANGO UNCHAINED.

2012 should be a fun year. What say you?

Friday, January 13, 2012

A Reel Review: CARNAGE



In adapting “God of Carnage” from the stage to the screen, director Roman Polanski had his work cut for him; making a one-room, one-act play with only four characters interesting, and never tiresome on film. Polanski began his work by casting a trunk-full of Oscar contenders and winners, but how we finish our work is always the most important thing…

After two boys fight on the playground, the parents of the injured boy (Penelope and Michael, played by Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly, respectively) invite the parents of the bully (Nancy and Alan, played by Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz, respectively) over to their apartment to work out the issues. A polite discussion eventually escalates into a verbal war, with all four adults showing their true colors.

Despite a thin plot, CARNAGE excels thanks to the characters and the way they play off of each other. The thrill here is watching two self-righteous couples square off against one another with some of the sharpest and wittiest dialogue written in a long time. Polanski keeps the pacing quick and does a remarkable job in directing around the small confines of the apartment. The couples fight over child rearing, politics, money and values; and never miss a moment to break each other down. During the arguing, alliances between the two are formed and broken, all while no resolution is being made to the problem of who was responsible for the playground fight.

CARNAGE is absolutely driven by the characters and the actors that play them. Reilly, Foster and Winslet are just flat-out awesome, and seems like they are having a blast despite how much torment their characters go through.

Some time must be given to Christoph Waltz. Ever since winning his Oscar in Quentin Tarantino’s INFREQUENT BASTERDS, the man has done nothing but meatheaded crap, and the world must have been wondering if he was good in BASTERDS only because of how well his character was written. In CARNAGE, Waltz gets around that and really makes his character his. He wears the skin of his prick-lawyer and even-bigger-prick-of-a-parent character perfectly. It is a performance that outdoes what he won the gold for.

The shtick of Nancy and Alan unable to leave the apartment, along with the constant arguing does get a tad tiresome in some places, but just when you think things are in the gutter, Polanski lets hilarity ensue. There is never a moment in CARNAGE where you don’t feel like you’re watching a stage-play, and that’s okay. On a stage, characters rule.

BOTTOM LINE: See it

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Reel Facts & Opinions: Science in the Movies

FACT: Earlier this week, a contributor for the movie-geek website aintitcool.com (pen-name Copernicus) hosted a special screening of Michael Bay’s blockbuster sci-fi film, ARMAGEDDON. The screening was held in conjunction with the American Astronomical Society, who were there to help the host ridicule the film for all of the science that it got wrong. The host, a scientist himself, held the event to get revenge on Bay for making a scientifically “stupid” film.

OPINION: As blogged here on Reel Speak in June, Copernicus recently wrote a piece which slam-dunked J.J. Abram’s wildly entertaining STAR TREK film. Getting the science wrong to him is an automatic detractor to the movie. While the written piece was written in good faith, this screening of ARMAGEDDON seems to be going overboard.

Let’s clear one thing up right away. The screening was not held to criticize the film on its quality; things like the acting, special effects and storylines did not seem to come into play here. The event was preaching a Rule stating all movies which are scientifically wrong deserve to be shat upon.

Since that is the Rule being preached, then it will be a curious thing to see if similar events are held to criticize other sci-fi films such as STAR WARS or INDEPENDENCE DAY; two very successful films at the box office and in our culture, but both loaded with scientific errors. If Copernicus has a problem with people walking around on an asteroid in ARMAGEDDON, then he should have the same issue with people walking on an asteroid in STAR WARS. If we don’t see such screenings, then a double-standard agenda will be exposed. Think of it in terms of a baseball game; once you establish the strike-zone, it has to stay consistent throughout the game. ARMAGEDDON gets the same strike-zone as STAR WARS.

Such a Rule can be taken a step further. If science is the absolute by which sci-fi movies must be judged, then logically, historical movies must be measured by their historical accuracies. History is an absolute, after all. How many historical liberties were taken in GANDHI and BRAVEHEART? There were many, but that shouldn’t take away from our enjoyment of them.

History, like science should be given a fair amount of respect in the movies, but that doesn’t mean the filmmakers should go into their creations with hard limitations. Making a movie inside of boundaries can be a frustrating thing and can often lead to a boring film. The imaginations of the filmmaker, and the movie-watcher deserves more than that.

What say you?

Monday, January 9, 2012

A Reel Review: A DANGEROUS METHOD



Viggo Mortensen and director David Cronenberg have had great success working together in this decade, collaborating for excellent films in the form of A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE and EASTERN PROMISES. In their newest trip out, A DANGEROUS METHOD, Mortensen dons the skin of Dr. Sigmund Freud while taking a rare back seat; giving way to newer actors in a complex, yet tame film.

Dr. Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) takes on a new patient, the mentally disturbed Sabina (Keira Knightley), and treats her using the new and controversial methods of Dr. Freud (Viggo Mortensen). Jung’s efforts are a success, and he finds himself having an affair with Sabina. Jung and Freud eventually collaborate together, and discover they have many differences in professional opinion, including Freud’s disapproval of Jung’s love affair with a patient.

A DANGEROUS METHOD starts off very strong. Centered on a powerful performance by Keira Knightley, Jung’s treatment of Sabina and his eventual infatuation with her moves things along very well. His adulterous love affair with her is a strong play on doctor-patient ethics, and it is interesting to see where the road will lead. However, around the half-way point things get complicated and eventually derailed. METHOD veers away from the love affair and moves to Jung’s professional relationship with Dr. Freud, which deteriorates as the film moves forward. By the third act, Jung and Sabina (who is training to be a doctor herself) begin publishing their own theories to counter Freud. What follows then are endless scenes of psycho-babble bullshit, which are not only difficult to understand but feel like they have no real bearing on the film or its characters.

Adding to the frustration is that A DANGEROUS METHOD doesn’t feel much like a Cronenberg film. Other than Knightley’s performance, his trademark shock-value is absent. On the surface it seems like the material he is working with doesn’t quite call for his usual disturbing imagery, but with so much talk and debate on the importance of Freud’s work in the film, it might have been helpful to see and understand how mental patients might have been treated or mistreated in 1903 prior to Freud. This adds to the feeling of very little consequence in the entire film. Fans of Cronenberg may be frustrated by the tameness.

Cronenberg however gets tremendous performances out of his cast. Mortensen is perfect as the intelligent and stubborn Freud, and Fassbender is excellent as well. There is a terrific smaller role by Vincent Cassel, but the real star of the film is Keira Knightley. Her violent mental breakdowns are difficult to watch, and the way she contorts her body (and her face) during the episodes is an unexpected, yet harrowing performance.

A DANGEROUS METHOD clocks in at just 93 minutes, but feels a lot longer due in part to the dull psycho-analysis debates. The many debates may have been interesting enough if their importance was more fleshed out. But since it wasn’t, METHOD just talks a lot without saying much.

BOTTOM LINE: Rent it

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Reel Best & Worst Films of 2011, Part 2

2011 was a year of quantity over quality; box office numbers and attendance were down, and most of the top releases this year did not have that gotta-have-it-right-away appeal for first-day Blu-ray buyers. There might not have been a lot of great films, but were a ton of very good films, with many of them coming from the independent circles; many of the smaller releases reviewed better than the big-nuts studio productions (BLACKTHORN reviewed better than COWBOYS & ALIENS, for example).

Reel Speak reviewed 52 movies in 2011, nine of which went towards the Worst List. So whittling down 43 to just ten was a difficult task. Honorable mention must be given to HUGO, DRIVE, SHAME, THE SKIN I LIVE IN, THE IDES OF MARCH, BLACKTHORN, MONEYBALL, HIGHER GROUND, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, THE BEAVER, THE MUSIC NEVER STOPPED, THE TREE OF LIFE and LEBANON, PA. All fine films.

Now on to business:

Reel Speak readers are certainly aware that there is no such thing as indecisiveness on this blog. With that in mind, no one should have a problem with a TIE for the no. 10 spot; not because this Blogger can’t make up his mind, but because the two films are remarkably similar in many ways. Both TAKE SHELTER and MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE are psychological mind-benders in which their main characters are tortured by a pending threat which may or may not be real. One film answers the question definitively, the other does not…but both methods work in the storytelling and with messing with the viewers head. Both are composed with an atmosphere so looming that you’re glancing over your shoulder, and both have outstanding performances by their leads (Michael Shannon for SHELTER, and Elizabeth Olsen for MARLENE).

Rounding out the trio of brain messer-withers is Lars Von Trier’s deeply atmospheric and tragic MELANCHOLIA. Composed more than crafted, MELANCHOLIA paints an intimate portrait of worldwide Armageddon from the unique perspective of two depressed people, and therein lays the genius; a depressed person is always feeling the end of the world, so why not put them in it for real? Characters rule here; there are no toppling bridges, no collapsing buildings or exploding national monuments, just pure raw emotion driven mostly by a career defining performance by Kirsten Dunst.

The tragedy in THE DESCENDANTS is a bittersweet one, as it tells the all important story of how good things can emerge out of great loss. The theme is centered on a broken family, and the characters are fleshed out so well it is hard to believe that anyone would have problems relating to them or the film. Beautifully shot in Hawaii, THE DESCENDANTS centers around an unexpected emotional performance by George Clooney that is bursting with raw feelings. Despite the tragedy in the story, this is one of the feel-good films of the year.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO feels like the film David Fincher has been making his entire lifetime. All the best elements of his better efforts over the years are present, and this Blogger cannot think of a better director who was perfect for this adaptation. Thick with mystery and deeply atmospheric, TATTOO’s star is the cold and distant Lisbeth, played perfectly by Mara Rooney on many levels. The real super-sleuth of 2011 is Lisbeth, and a certain Downey Jr. ought to take notice.

If you have names like Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Toby Jones and Colin Firth in your film, you dang well better deliver something special; and special is exactly what TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY is. Outside of the incredible performances by the entire cast (Oldman in particular), the film brings the world of the 1970’s Cold War to life so well that you can feel the damp chill of London, the thick smell of tobacco and the sting of the whiskey glasses. Dense with plot and sharp dialogue, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY is very much a film for grown-ups with mature minds; proving that you can have a film full of old men in three-piece suits sitting around talking and still be very, very good. A certain Guy Ritchie ought to take notice.

The animated film RANGO is inhabitated by talking animals. But make no mistake, RANGO is no kiddie film packed with fluffiness and sing-a-longs and toys. Gore Verbinski has created a film saturated in film lore; crafted with the Old West in mind and brought to life with the most stunning and breathtaking animation to date. The detail is jawdropping, but RANGO never rests alone on its visuals. It is a character piece, an adventure, a love story and a caper a rolled into one big fun barrel. RANGO was the most fun to be had in the theatre in 2011.

Thankfully, Steven Spielberg did not hire any talking animals for his WAR HORSE, but he still managed to make his four-legged beast Joey a likable character that everyone just had to root for. Set against a tragically magnificent backdrop of WWI, Spielberg returns to his old (and better) form by putting us on Joey’s back for an emotional journey. Despite its many twists and turns amidst a world gone mad, Spielberg still manages to make this film a simple tale about a boy and his horse. Only he can do that perfectly.

An emotional gut-punch is exactly what the mighty WARRIOR throws and you never see it coming. WARRIOR’s first stroke of genius is ditching the ROCKY formula in which the main character’s opponent is the villain, and instead makes the fighters people that we want to, and have to root for. The second stroke is making those two fighters brothers; brothers set against the backdrop of a broken family. Fueled by powerful performances by Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, and most especially Nick Nolte, the emotional power of WARRIOR sneaks up on you in a hurry. This Blogger hasn’t shed that many tears in the theatre since a certain KING made his RETURN.

Where WARRIOR went for the gut, the top two films go for the heart and are equally effective. Charming is the first word that comes to mind when writing about THE ARTIST; a black-and-white silent film telling the story about the downfall of silent film in the 1920’s. Less of a gimmick and more of an important story, THE ARTIST focuses a lot on character, and the important lesson of what happens when one can’t let go of the past unfolds silently. The silent-film treatment is a joy to watch and is brought to life by clever filmmaking and performances that have not been seen on the silver-screen in almost 100 years. THE ARTIST will be seeing gold.

Taking a nearly-obscure event in Hollywood history and turning it into a feature film is a difficult task, especially when the main character is one of the most beloved and fascinating figures who ever lived. Charming, romantic and fun, MY WEEK WITH MARILYN is the movie that sweeps you off your feet right away and never lets go. Not a biopic, MARILYN is instead a character study combined with a slight coming-of-age spin with loads of whimsical energy. The loveliness and mystery of Marilyn is brought to life by Michelle Williams in a breathtaking performance. MARILYN is the one film that had this Blogger smiling from ear-to-ear from beginning to end. That is a hard thing to do.

THE BEST OF 2011

10. TAKE SHELTER/MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE
9. MELANCHOLIA
8. THE DESCENDANTS
7. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
6. TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY
5. RANGO
4. WAR HORSE
3. WARRIOR
2. THE ARTIST
1. MY WEEK WITH MARILYN

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Reel Best & Worst Films of 2011, Part 1

Starting from the bottom-up…

2011 was a better year than 2010 from a standpoint of quantity; a year ago this time, putting together a list of the Top Ten Worst was a difficult task as there were many choices to mull over. This time around this Blogger could only find nine films worthy of being drubbed for their many faults. To be clear, this Blogger was sober enough to avoid critically-panned turds such as JACK & JILL, NEW YEAR’S EVE, THE THING, and THE THREE MUSKETEERS. The films listed here are the ones that had the potential to be decent, if not good; falling short of expectations is a major factor when judging, along with their own merits, if any.

So let’s take out the garbage…

Not meeting expectations is a big reason why Clint Eastwood’s J. EDGAR makes the Worst List. His biopic on J. Edgar Hoover may have featured some stellar acting by Leonardo DiCaprio, but Eastwood’s directing was bland and dull; leading to a very joyless affair that was un-interesting and snooze-inducing. Throw in some of the worst old-age make-up ever seen, and what you’ve got here is a failure to do anything right; no matter how high or low the expectations may have been.

Falling short again is Guy Ritchie in his second attempt at bringing Sherlock Holmes to life. His GAME OF SHADOWS film often flirted with greatness, only to prematurely pull out and shoot mindless video-game-like action sequences everywhere that were devoid of life. Entertaining, yes; but also empty with loud noises in place of plot and one too many naked fat guys for cheap laughs.

Years ago, Disney had a policy of never making a sequel unless they had a very good story to tell. That rule has gone out the window as of late, as the Mouse House now covets dollars more than standards. The result was the bland CARS 2 and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES. Neither film carried a story anyone could give a hoot about, with the 4th entry in the PIRATES franchise suffering the most. Johnny Depp’s once Oscar-nominated character of (captain) Jack Sparrow was reduced to a parody of itself, surrounded by cheap-ass set pieces that looked like leftovers from a high school stage production. Throw in some boring action and a waste of a villain, and you’ve got a sinking ship.

Remakes and adaptations round out the Top (bottom) Five. Beginning with CONAN THE BARBARIAN, it is not clear if this was intended to be a remake of the 1982 film, or an adaptation of the novels or both; either way it didn’t matter as the film didn’t have anything in there to latch onto or care about, offering a rushed, paper-thin plot and looking a lot like a B or C-movie put together by the SyFy Channel.

The fantasy-spoof YOUR HIGHNESS might have been an original movie, but wound up being so bad one would wish they did try to remake something. HIGHNESS had a few neat ideas and often tried to pull a few Mel Brooks-esque gags, but unfortunately everything gave way to Danny McBride’s fart and dick jokes; not even Natalie Portman in her glorious thong could save this one. The same must be said of THE GREEN HORNET adaptation, which had a few moments of fun but also became just a vehicle for Seth Rogen and his (sigh) fart and dick jokes.

THE GREEN LANTERN may have been very ambitious, and looked like they had the perfect Hal Jordan cast in Ryan Reynolds. However, the film displayed no logic and less substance than the many LANTERN cartoons that have been produced over the years. It was wrought with awful dialogue, CGI-overloaded action and overall felt disjointed. If DC Comics ever wants to compete with Marvel for real in the movie business, they have to take things more seriously than this joke of a movie.

The Worst of 2011 not only falls dreadfully short of expectations, but fails miserably as a movie. Johnny Depp’s second venture into Hunter S. Thompson territory peaked a lot of interest from a lot of people, however THE RUM DIARY wound up being so abysmal the studio shelved the bloody thing for three years before finally releasing it to an unsuspecting public. The film had no plot to speak of, no theme, and had acting so cartoonishly ridiculous it made Fozzie Bear look like Sir Laurence Olivier. Many of these faults may have been able to earn forgiveness had the film put together a decent ending, however THE RUM DIARY wrapped with one of the lamest, cop-out conclusions this Blogger can ever remember; it offered zero closure and made the entire ride feel like a waste of time, a waste of talent, and an overall wasted opportunity. Fuck this movie forever.

THE WORST OF 2011

9. J.EDGAR
8. CARS 2
7. PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES
6. SHERLOCK HOLMES GAME OF SHADOWS
5. CONAN THE BARBARIAN
4. YOUR HIGHNESS
3. THE GREEN HORNET
2. THE GREEN LANTERN
1. THE RUM DIARY