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2011 – Year in Review

Posted by on December 30, 2011 | 23,462 comments
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As 2011 winds down, I thought I might look back at the films reviewed this year.  While I stand by the grades I doled out, there are a few films I would slightly modify in retrospect.  For example, I gave Drive an A-, but it was probably the best movie of the year, and should have earned an A or A+.  Conversely, I gave Super 8 my only A+ of the year.  It was a very good movie, but probably more worthy of an A or A-.  Finally, Frozen received a D+.  While it was a bad film by most measures, it is kind of campy fun – probably worth a C.  Finally, I stand by the worst grade I gave out this year:  a D for The Way Back.  It was breathtakingly boring.  Second worst (but it was close): Battle: Los Angeles.  So here is the final report card for 2011. Please share your thoughts on the good, bad, and ugly of 2011.

 

A+

Super 8

 

A

Win Win

Hugo

50/50

 

A-

Drive

Another Earth

Midnight in Paris

The Ides of March

Margin Call

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Cedar Rapids

 

B+

Moneyball

Rise of the Planet of the Earth

Bridesmaids

Insidious

 

B

The Adventures of Tintin

Paul

 

B-

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

Crazy. Stupid. Love.

The Green Hornet

 

C+

The Adjustment Bureau

Paranormal Activity 3

Thor

 

C-

Tower Heist

 

D+

Frozen

Battle: Los Angeles

 

D

The Way Back

 

 

The Adventures of Tintin

Posted by on December 29, 2011 | 13,852 comments
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Apparently, Spielberg has been thinking about making this film for decades.  It shows.  If nothing else, it is technically and visually impressive.  Using motion capture technology, the animated characters look so absolutely life-like, that you occasionally believe you are watching a live-action film.

The story, based on the first three of the many world-famous Tintin books – is adventurous and fun.  Its essentially an animated version of Indiana Jones.  No more, and no less.  The boy and his dog get into crazy situations and see all parts of the world as they try to piece together the clues of a puzzle.

In the end, it doesn’t quite live up to the hype.  It’s a high tech, fun cartoon.  But a cartoon none-the-less.  And the story is OK, but we’ve seen these kind of clue-based adventures in many shapes and forms before.  One wonders how this film will hold up when the technology used to create it becomes old hat.  I can see see how this movie will generate multiple sequels, but it is not a great film.

Final Grade:  B

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

Posted by on December 23, 2011 | 7,255 comments
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Tom Cruise is a polarizing actor – you either really like him, or you can’t stand him.  And he’s, without a doubt, weird off-screen.  But he was born to play Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible series.  In MI4 (Ghost Protocol), he once again is trying to, nearly single-handedly, save the world (this time from a Russian nuclear launch).

The movie is absolutely predictable, but that’s not all bad.  It’s exactly what you would expect from a summer action blockbuster (OK, it’s December, but this movie has July written all over it).  Predictable dialogue: Check.  Over-the-top explosions: Check.  Tom Cruise in ridiculously precarious life-threatening situations: Check.  And finally, sexy colleague: Check (Paula Patton).

The one unexpected twist to this movie is the addition of Simon Pegg, who plays a wonderful comedic side-kick to Cruise’s Hunt.  Pegg, playing a character who is new to this whole save-the-world stuff,  is funny in a fish-out-of-water kind of way.  He brings the same lovable comedy style that won fans over in Shaun of the Dead.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol isn’t the best of the MI series (that honor belongs to MI3).  But this one still packs a good punch, and actually leaves you open to seeing an MI5.  As long as Cruise can continue playing Hunt, this series can keep going (can you say “James Bond”?).

Final Grade:  B- 

Hugo

Posted by on November 27, 2011 | 24,984 comments
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Hugo is one of those increasingly rare movie experiences: a film that is a unique and magical experience.  Adapted from the Brian Selznick book – “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” – this is the story of Hugo, an orphan who lives in the walls of a train station in 1930s Paris.  He is determined to solve a mystery surrounding a half-finished invention his late father had left him.

I am normally not a big fan of either CGI or 3D.  Hugo, however, uses both to create a visually stunning film.  There are no cheap 3D tricks (e.g. some character randomly pointing a sharp object towards the audience).  Rather, director Martin Scorsese uses the technology to bring to life the strange world in which Hugo lives.  CGI and 3D enhance the story, but the story is not dependent upon them (big difference from most of the heavy 3D/CGI movies out there today).

The acting was fantastic.  14-year-old Asa Butterfield, brought Hugo to life,  playing him with the nuance and believability that is rarely seen in child actors.  Butterfield is surrounded by a cast of wonderful supporting actors, among them Ben Kingsley and Sacha Baron Cohen (of Borat fame).

Hugo is a film that children and adults will truly appreciate (though at one point there is an homage to early film-making that may bore younger children a bit).  But overall, Hugo provides a welcome break from the standard family film fare.  It’s not Disney, it’s not Pixar, and it doesn’t end with a “2″ or a “3″.  It is a beautiful, original film, and one that will stand the test of time.

Final Grade:  A

Tower Heist

Posted by on November 20, 2011 | 13,106 comments
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This movie didn’t need to do much to meet expectations.  A fun story and a few laughs.  Apparently that was too much to ask for.  The premise is essentially Ocean’s  Eleven meets Revenge of the Nerds.  Alan Alda plays a Bernie Madoff wanna-be (he’s actually not bad).  He rips off Ben Stiller and friends and they want revenge.  However, they have no skills, so they bring in Eddie Murphy, a professional crook.  Let the heist begin.

This movie has one joke – everyday people with no skills trying to be big time thieves.  But that doesn’t make for a 2 hour movie.  It makes you realize that the reason the Oceans series is pretty good is because they know what they’re doing.  And the potentially good ensemble cast just doesn’t work well together.  Ben Stiller does his best to hold it together, but Murphy’s character is one he’s played in half a dozen other movies, and the others seem to be randomly thrown together (example: Gabourey Sidibe plays a Jamaican housekeeper who somehow is able to open the world’s most complex safe).

Probably the biggest disappointment is Matthew Broderick.  Broderick is a great stage actor, but it seems to me that since Ferris Bueller he has yet to seem comfortable on film.  In Tower Heist he clumsily mugs for the camera and looks like he is trying way to hard.

Final Grade: C-

 

The Five Films That Most Capture the American Spirit

Posted by on November 6, 2011 | 27,819 comments
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Imagine we make contact with an alien civilization. We can show them one film that most represents what America is all about. What film would you pick? The list of films below, all very different would individually, and especially collectively, provide a wonderful glimpse into the American spirit.

 

5) Rocky – This movie, debuting during America’s Bicentennial year, was overtly patriotic (e.g. Apollo Creed wore red, white and blue trunks, and a big Uncle Sam hat). Ultimately, this film delivers on two very American themes – the underdog overcoming all odds, and a rags to riches story. Of course, any good done by the first Rocky is wiped out by Rocky 5.

 

4) Animal Crackers – Any number of Marx Brothers’ movies could have made the list. First off, at least one comedy needed to make the list, and there are none more enduring then the Marx Brothers. Further, there are themes in Animal Crackers (and most Marx Brothers’ films) that are quite American. The poor, but kind and sincere young man always wins the heart of the beautiful ingenue (typically over the rich aristocrat). And Groucho always pokes fun at the rich, jewelry laden matronly character in the film. If these movies were made during the Occupy Wall Street era, Groucho would be the cultural icon of the 99% crowd.

 

 

3) West Side Story – Since the musical is an original American genre, one should make the list, and there are none better than West Side Story. Further, the love story troubled by cultural clashes could not have been made anywhere other than America.

 

 

2) The Grapes of Wrath – This film shows how resilient the American spirit can be. Destroyed by the Dust Bowl, the Joad family never gives up, moving west, with nothing but the hope of a new life.

And the #1 film that best captures the American Spirit:

 

 

To Kill a Mockingbird – By defending a wrongfully charged black man, Atticus Finch may be the greatest character in cinematic history. Through the eyes of children, this film incredibly shows the worst, and the best, of what makes the America spirit.

That’s the list…Please share your comments.

Margin Call

Posted by on November 4, 2011 | 9,075 comments
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Margin Call is the story of an investment bank unraveling during a 24 hour period at the beginning of the 2008 recession. It’s hard to imagine connecting the word “thriller” to a banking movie, but that’s just what it is. Eric Dale, a grizzled veteran (played by Stanley Tucci) is laid off by the bank. On his way out the door, he gives a mysterious flash drive to the young, brilliant Peter Sullivan (played admirably by Zachary Quinto – the actor who played Spock in the latest Star Trek). With a little math, Sullivan enhances the spreadsheet on the flash drive, only to discover that the calculations used to drive the entire banking industry forward are flawed, and about to fail miserably. The rest of the story involves the unfolding of this financial crisis.

The cast in this movie is incredible. In addition to Tucci and Quinto, we also see Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, and Paul Bettany at their best. This is Wall Street 2, only really, really good. There are no caricatures in this film – just real people (albeit rich), caught in a situation that they can’t control. Writer J.C. Chandor deserves a look come Oscar time, as the script is beautiful. For example, as a powerful, yet not too heavy-handed metaphor, Kevin Spacey has to accept that his dying dog needs to be put down. And Bank CEO John Tuld (played superbly by Jeremy Irons) exudes a rare combination of charm and ruthlessness. He wonderfully creates an environment where underlings tell the truth, but then coldly makes sweeping decisions that have immense ramifications. And his speeches are chock full of memorable quotes. Among them, “There are three ways to make a living in this business – be first, be smarter, or cheat. And we’re not cheaters”.

Margin Call is powerful and raw, visually feeling a lot like Glengarry Glen Ross, and not just because Kevin Spacey is in both.

Final Grade: A-

Paranormal Activity 3

Posted by on November 4, 2011 | 2,810 comments
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This should be quick. If you didn’t like either of the first two movies, there is no way you will like this one. If you DID like the first two, then the third (and presumably the fourth, fifth, and sixth) will probably be worth the price of admission. I happen to be a fan of the series.

Like its predecessors, PA3 thrives on scaring you more with what might happen. Late at night, with the whir of the video camera scanning the room, your eyes are trained to look for scary things that might, or might not, appear. With PA2, the director discovered that kids in trouble are scarier than adults, so in PA3 there are multiple kids invloved (one can only assume that in PA6 there will be a whole schoolhouse of children being terrified.

One of the trailers for the film hypes that “the last 15 minutes of this movie will really mess you up”. It’s good scary fun, but I’m pretty certain I’m not messed up (at least not due to PA3). If a movie has ever messed me up, I would have to go with The Exorcist”

Final Grade: C+

The Ides of March

Posted by on October 9, 2011 | 21,733 comments
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The year of Ryan Gosling marches on. After stellar performances in Crazy.Stupid.Love. and Drive, Gosling delivers again in The Ides of March. Gosling plays Stephen Myers, a brilliant young political advisor who has hitched his wagon to idealistic, virtuous Presidential candidate Mike Morris, played well by George Clooney. Myers believes in Morris, that he not only will win, but should win. Unfortunately for Myers, things aren’t quite as they seem, and the more he tries to hold the campaign together, the more things unravel underneath him.

While this is a well-executed, first rate political thriller, it also excels in its ability to show the grey areas of politics, and life. Despite Myer’s delusion that there is a clean break between good and bad in the world, in the end no one in this film is entirely good or entirely bad, including Myer’s himself. Gosling’s struggles with this revelation are what make this a strong film. Moreover, the story is well-written (it is adapted from the stage, and Clooney is one of three writer’s in the credits). Also to be noted: This film has one of the strongest supporting casts I’ve seen in a long time. Besides Gosling and Clooney, there are the usual strong performances from competing, grizzled political advisors Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman, as well as nice turns by Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood.

Final Grade: A-

50/50

Posted by on October 2, 2011 | 11,501 comments
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We are finally entering the Fall “really good movie” period, and leading the way is 50/50. There is nothing original about the premise of this movie. Nice guy gets cancer. But beyond the premise, everything about this movie is new. And works. Twenty-something Adam, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, discovers he has a 50% chance at survival. His best friend, Kyle, played by Seth Rogen, is determined to help Adam through this. I know, it sounds like a male Terms of Endearment. It isn’t. This movie never goes for the over-the-top emotional scenes (i.e. Terms’ Debra Winger weepily saying goodbye to her children, or Shirely MacLaine screaming at a nurse for more medicine for her daughter). Because it features more real, subtle scenes, the emotions evoked are even deeper and more raw.

Seth Rogen is his usual wonderfully socially clumsy self, and epitomizes what true friendship means. But this movie is squarely on the shoulders of Gordon-Levitt, and his performance is nothing short of breath-taking. He remarkably shows the loneliness of this disease. His subtle expressions are riveting as he moves from failed attempts at dating to late nights alone on his couch. Because of his acting talents (and the strong writing), this movie danced fluidly bewteen genres – at times as dramatic as possible, to at times, a legitimately funny comedy.

I have no doubt that this movie will be up for an Oscar next Spring, and I can’t imagine a Best Actor ballot without Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s name on it.

Final Grade: A

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