Friday, August 28, 2009

Top 20 movies for the rest of the year

I figured it's time to post the top movies I'm looking forward to for the rest of the year. These are in no particular order (mostly in order that they're coming out)

Taking Woodstock

I know this one is already out, but I haven't seen it yet, so it's leading off my list.

This looks like a fairly standard romantic comedy (except that it actually looks funny). I'm a big fan of Jason Bateman, and think that he makes a really good underdog romantic lead. Add to that a supporting cast of Mila Kunis, Kristin Wiig, and Ben Affleck, who is always so much better as a supporting actor, and I think we'll have a winner.

There's never a shortage of zombie-esque movies. Carriers looks much better than the overly, albeit intentional, cheesy Zombieland which comes out around the same time. Carriers plays up the isolation and the forced mobility that made movies like 28 Days later so good. Carriers may end up being terrible, but I hope it'll at least be scary.

This is Shane Acker's feature length debut. After directing a short of the same name, Timur Bekmambetov and Tim Burton gave him the opportunity to turn it into a feature. There's no shortage of animated movies rounding out the year (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Planet 51, Princess and the Frog) but this seems to be the only serious one, and the only post-apocolyptic animation I can recall since Heavy Metal.

No Impact Man
This seems to be a fairly interesting documentary on a family's attempts to minimize their carbon footprint, and the struggles that follow. If anything, it may just show how futile this attempt really is.

The Informant
This seems like a very funny case of the wrong man for the wrong job. The Informant is a corporate dark comedy that seems to be in the same vein as last year's Burn After Reading. And Matt Damon as a lovable goof? Sound good to me.

In a very plausible future, people are able to live their lives through a robotic proxy, while staying in the comfort of their own home. But then people start dieing while hooked up to their surrogates, and Bruce Willis must actually go out in the world to figure out what's going on.

A Serious Man
I don't know what this movie is about, other than a perennial loser's life spiraling out of control. But the fact that it's from the Cohen Brothers nearly guarantees a winner.

Whip It

In general I've become sick of the quirky indie film. I had no interest in 500 Days of Summer or Paper Hearts. Whip It, however, looks like it transcends the quirky quicksand (despite staring Ellen Page) and looks like it will be genuinely entertaining.

The Invention of Lying
This one may be entertaining or awful. Ricky Gervais is one funny guy, but doesn't have a very good record in film. Hopefully this will be better than Ghost Town.

Good Hair
This is one of two documentaries on my list. Hosted by Chris Rock, this study in the history and stigma of African American hair seems genuinely compelling. And judging from the trailer, despite some serious undertones, it does not take itself too seriously. With Chris Rock leading it, it promises to be very funny.

The Road
I did not particularly like Cormack McCarthy's book, but i think the bleak post-apocalyptic future will lend itself to a beautiful movie. My concern is that the movie appears to reveal more about what happened before the story begins than the book. It always worried me when a movie takes liberties like this.

Where the Wild Things Are
I have no idea how they can turn a children's book with more than 10 sentences into a feature length movie. If anyone can, Spike Jonze can. What I've seen of it looks absolutely wonderful.

New York, I love You

This is the sequel (sort of) to Paris, je t'aime, which I believe I gave a 5 to. This time the movie is series of short films about New York. The movie doesn't have the same caliber of directors found in the original one, and it lacks the presence of any director who is associated with New York. No Scorsese, no Woody Allen, no Spike Lee. The only person really holding that tradition is Allen Hughs. I hope this will lead to a New generation of New York directors (despite the inclusion of Brett Ratner).

Lovely Bones
Peter Jackson's new story of what happens after a girl is murdered looks exquisit, and thrilling at parts. I never read the book, but this is near the top of the list for movies I'm looking forward to.

Directed by Mira Nair (who also contributes a segment to New York, I Love You), this Amerlia Earhart biopic features Hilary Swank in the starring role.

The Fourth Kind
"based on true events" is always both a draw and a caution. Like many of the movies on this list, this one is a wildcard. It could either be fantastically scary (which the trailer makes it look) or a complete dud. Here's hoping for fantastically scary.

The Boat that Rocked
This looks like one of the funniest movies on the list. It follows the story of a pirate radio station transmitting of a boat in 1960's. With a cast led by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Nick Frost, and Kenneth Branagh, this one can't lose.

The Princess and the Frog
Finally Disney is returning to 2D. This movie adds a cajun feel and decidedly original twist on this classic fairy tale. I'm hoping that this movie does well, because we are in desperate need of a return to classic animation.

Sherlock Holmes
This isn't quite the dignified Hound of Baskervilles Sherlock Holmes, but I think Robert Downy Jr. can bring the famous detective in the new century.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard

This movie is atrocious. But honestly, that doesn't come as any surprise. It had some potential- a great cast (and I mean really great) and a concept that could lend itself to some very funny situations. Unfortunately the film makers doesn't utilize any of these assets, and instead they churn out a criminally unfunny movie.

The Goods is about a band of mercenary car salesmen who travel around the country trying to save struggling dealers. The movie opens on failing Selleck Motors as Don Ready (Jeremy Piven) and his crew come in revitalize the company before it's foreclosed on. Car lots can involve very funny situations- one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes took place at a car dealership. The Goods, instead of including well timed observational humor, focuses on profanity, sexual innuendo, and situations that rival our least favorite parody movies (Including comparing the auto lot to a riot and a battlefield).

Piven tried to capture that sleazy, yet somehow charming jerk. This applies both to moving cars, and his infatuation with the dealer owner's daughter (Jordana Spiro). Aaron Eckhart mastered this role in Thank You For Smoking, whereas Piven just you with a bad taste. This applies to most of the other characters, too, from Ving Rhames' stiff dialog, to Rob Riggle's man-child. The only person immune to this is Ed Helms, who I think is one of the funniest people working today.

Of course the best selling point is the cast. That's what sold me. Ving Rhames, Ed Helms, Tony Hale, Rob Riggle, David Koechner, and even a small but great cameo by Kristen Schaal. And this is just a small sampling of a wonderful ensemble cast. The movie falls well short of the sum of its parts (it's more like the difference of its parts). It suffers the same fate as last year's Step Brothers. Great comedic leads given a terrible script. The dialog is stilted, and as I previously mentioned, it focuses way too much on profanity. This really isn't much of surprise with a fairly green director (Neal Brennan) and writers. Brennan, the most experienced of the team made his break directing Chapelle's Show. When charged with a feature, however, he just can't keep it going. Even though it's produced by funnyman Will Ferrel, the best that comes out is his small cameo in one scene.

The Goods is one of the least funny movies of the year. A great cast is reduced to walking through stilted dialog like their reading it for the first time. Don't waste your time on The Goods.


Sunday, August 23, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds is pure Quentin Tarantino. This movie is exactly what you probably expect. Despite taking its name from a 1978 WWII movie, it bares a much closer resemblance to The Dirty Dozen. Boiling this movie down to one central idea is not difficult. Brad Pitt plays Lt. Aldo Raine, who leads a small band on a covert mission to kill as many nazis as possible. And in true Tarantino fashion, they do so as brutally as possible. Everything culminates in two separate assassination plots.

The movie certainly pays homage to the old Westerns, with a group of rough and tumble vigilantes taking matters into their own hands- a la The Wild Bunch. Though Inglourious Basterds forewent the initial character development found in The Dirty Dozen, and jumped straight into the action. In reality, we never do find anything out about most of the characters, keeping us fairly detached from the "Basterds" themselves. This seems to be a Tarantino trademark (I don't think I've ever really cared about any of his characters). This lack of development doesn't really bother me, as the characters are so outlandish, they're essentially caricatures.

This caricature is embodied most straightforwardly in Brad Pitt's character. The leader of the bastards brings his thick Tennessee drawl to everything (especially when he tries to pass himself off as Italian). The rest of his band (including Eli Roth, BJ Novak, and Omar Doom) offer up similar if more subtle (except Roth's foul mouthed, baseball bat wielding behemoth) performances. In reality, the only real nuanced role was that of Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a Jewish woman in France who witnessed the deaths of her entire family. It just so happens that she has a completely unrelated assassination plot, at the same exact time and place as the bastards'.

Tarantino makes his love of film known. He bends genres almost beyond the breaking point. Despite being rooted in the spaghetti westerns (with the obligatory "Once Upon a Time..." moniker) a scene dealing with a British operative and his commanding officer discussing the nuances of German cinema (yes, that is actually relevant to the story) would make Peter Sellers and George C. Scott proud. And during the effeminate interactions between Hitler, and his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels I could almost see Mel Brooks' hand at work. Not to mention the over-the-top German Corporal Lada, serving as an equally absurd counterpoint to Pitt's character. Tarantino's love of film embodies itself in all aspects of this movie. Many of the characters derive their names from directors, and assassination plots are intricately tied to- what else- the cinema. I must say, though, at some points it was a little unsettling sitting in a movie theater while watching the movie theater scenes.

Tarantino brings his trademark conversational wit full force here. The best scenes involve nothing more than people sitting around a table. The tension is palpable even though most of the dialog was in German or French. He manages to ratchet up the suspense of one party hiding something, and the other party closing in that secret. The shame is that all of these wonderful aspects of the movie don't mesh very well. This makes the film lack the cohesion that made some of his other movies so good. Inglourious Basterds isn't a bad movie by any means, it just doesn't rise any higher than an ample director's love letter to his favorite genres.


Friday, August 21, 2009

Alive in Joburg

Here's the short that District 9 was based on. It was directed by Neill Blomkamp, and after Peter Jackson saw it, he recruited Blomkamp to direct the ill fated Halo movie. When that fell through, District 9 grew out of its ashes. If you haven't seen the actual movie yet, don't worry, this doesn't give anything away. Totally different plot, just the same overall situation.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

District 9

District 9 will doubtlessly be one of the big movies of the summer. The movie tries to shoot for the stars, to create an effects heavy sci-fi classic with something important to say. And it comes pretty close. Unfortunately this incredibly promising movie does disappoint a little, and doesn't quite live up to its potential.

In case you haven't been inundated with the trailers for District 9, the basic premise is that a giant alien craft had come to rest of Johannesburg 20 years ago. The aliens inside were brought down to Earth, and after attempts to integrate, were sealed off in a slum. There are essentially two different movies here. The first is a wonderful documentary style history of the topic, and an incredibly tense visit into the slum. The cameras follow Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), as he serves eviction notices to the alien residents, starting a relocation effort. Director Neill Blomkamp helms this portion of the movie perfectly. The rest of District 9, however, is nothing more than a fugitive movie, which devolves even further in the third act to an ultra violent shootout.

There's no shortage of political commentary here. Science Fiction lends itself so well in this area. It lets the creators postulate on "what if" scenarios, and more often than not- go the dark route. District 9 is no exception. There is the obvious apartheid symbolism (Blomkamp grew up in South Africa). But even further than that, it focuses on refugee treatment, and even touches on the military industrial complex. The movie goes places I wouldn't have thought to, but after seeing it, I can only think "of course." I imagine District 9 hit the reactions the government would have to these aliens right on the head.

Perhaps even more fundamental than the political commentary is the commentary on human (and I guess non-human) nature. Without getting into the specifics because I don't want to reveal much of the movie- themes of trust and self-preservation are at the forefront of District 9.

The movie looks great. With a budget of $30 million it looks better than movies with a budget $130 million. Each alien is unique, with its individual visual personality. And the images of this giant ship hovering over the slums of Johannesburg are haunting. The ending act, however, takes things a little too far. I felt parts were graphic, just for the sake of being graphic. How many times can blood splatter on the camera?

Despite the movie weakening towards the end, District 9 is still an overall strong movie. It's thrilling, actually has a message, and really will keep you on the edge of your seat.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Gake no ue no Ponyo

So the independent summer train keeps rolling on. First it was Hurt Locker, then Moon, and now Ponyo (even though it's been out in Japan for a year). Ponyo demonstrates one of Miyazaki's skills, creating children. Ponyo is easily the cutest thing he's put on screen since 1989's My Neighbor Totoro. The visual aesthetic is, of course, beautiful, and the animation is great. Unfortunately the narrative suffers a bit, which prevents his movie from being among his best.

Ponyo is in the same vein as The Little Mermaid, about a fish (Ponyo) wanting to become a human. Along with this simple and human tale, Miyazaki throws in some epic repercussions. In essence the entire world hangs in a balance because of the decisions of one fish. This lead to some absolutely breathtaking scenes, but the scope of this otherwise intimate story was a tad too much.

On the other end is Sosuke, the little boy who is the adoration of Ponyo. Some of the best scenes are between him, Ponyo, and Sosuke's mother- who is just trying to cope with the concept of this fish who's magically turned into a girl (I must say she takes it very well). There were a number of scenes reminiscent of the Little Mermaid, with learning how to eat with utensils.

An interesting trait that is found in similar Miyazaki films (Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service) is the absence of a true antagonistic force. In Ponyo there is really no villain- even characters that seem a little bad really aren't. In cases like these, circumstance or nature are really the opposing forces. I have no problem with these, he used that force very effectively in other movies. But with the scope of the destruction of the planet in balance here, it seems there should a more conscious force behind the conflict.

Narrative problems aside, the movie was beautiful. Miyazaki's movies always seem like they're paintings in motion, and Ponyo takes this even a step further. In a genuinely exciting scene, Sosuke and his mother are trying to outrun a raging sea, with giant waves that resemble actual fish as they crash over the winding road leading to their house. All the while Ponyo running along along the surface of the water.

Though this isn't in the upper echelon of Miyazaki's cannon, that doesn't say much. Ponyo is certainly weak when it comes to the narrative (it has its fair share of holes that are solved by simply ignoring them). Despite its problems, Ponyo is still a beautiful and thoroughly enjoyable animation. Finally, even though this doesn't have anything to do with the movie itself- I really wish these movies would shown in Japanese with subtitles. I am absolutely tired of dubbed over films.


Friday, August 14, 2009

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

If you're fan a fan of G.I. Joe- either the series or the comics, you'll hate this movie. Neither characters nor plot stay true to the original universe. If you're not a fan of G.I. Joe- there's really no reason for you to see this movie. It's a sorry excuse for a Summer blockbuster (though blockbuster it is indeed). After rising to action prominence with The Mummy and its sequel, Stephen Sommers piloted this movie- his first one after the abysmal Van Helsing. Clearly G.I. Joe will not help that reputation.

The movie is sort of an origin story both for the Cobra (essentially G.I. Joe's legion of Doom) and Duke (Channing Tatum) perhaps the most well known G.I. Joe. The M.A.R.S corporation has created a nanotech weapon, capable of propagating itself and eating through all metal on an unstoppable rampage. Clearly not a good idea. But he manages to sell some of the weapons to NATO, so Duke and his intrepid partner, Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) are charged with transporting them. Of course, they're intercepted by the Cobra, led by The Baroness (Sienna Miller)- Duke's old fiancee. Ripcord, Duke, and the weapons are rescued by the Joes, and after an obligatory montage, the duo join the elite force- none too soon. Because, of course, the Cobra are back.

Now this movie is naturally nothing more than a barrage of visual effects, with a loosely constructed plot to showcase them in the best possible way. The problem with this is that the movie doesn't do a very good job of setting up this effects heavy universe- so when the phenomenal action sequences do appear, they seem out of place. I mean seriously, accelerator suits? I imagine th story session that came up with this idea went something like "hey, let's do a car chase, except on foot!" Don't get me wrong, it looks cool, but they used it so sparingly that it doesn't make much sense. Really this movie is no more absurd than Transformers. But the reason Transformers worked is that they set up the world to be like this- whereas G.I. Joe just through these elements into a world that's pretty much supposed to be ours.

There are a lot of characters in this movie, both good guys and bad guys. And it seems they wanted to explore the back stories to all of them (of course none of them meshing with the comic or cartoon). The result is a cursory introduction, including poorly constructed relationships, mind control devices, and end of movie twists in place for the sole purpose of allowing for a sequel.

G.I. Joe does deliver on the effects, and for $170 million it certainly should. Unfortunately there's really no point to them. This poorly constructed movie I'm sure has left many disappointed.


Monday, August 10, 2009


Moon is the best sci-fi thriller of the past several years. In fact, you might have to go much further back to find a comparable film. This is a difficult one to review without giving too much away. So forgive me for being vague, but I don't want to tell anything that's not given away in the trailer. Suffice it to say that Duncan Jones in his feature length debut throws a fair share of curve balls at you.

In the future we are harvesting clean burning H3 from the surface of the Moon. This mostly automated operation still requires a crew of one. We find Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) a few weeks from the end of his three year contract. As can be expected from anyone spending 3 years alone on the Moon with your only companion being a computer (even though it's voiced by Kevin Spacey), Bell is losing his marbles. He's been talking to himself for years, and is starting to see things. A wrench is really thrown into the works when he goes out and finds a wreck. Inside the vehicle is...well...himself. This is as far as I can go without giving too much away. But I guarantee that whatever you're thinking right now, is wrong.

It would be a disservice to say that this movie has a twist ending. It has a twist, but it happens halfway through. Moon then proceeds to do what almost no movie like it does- takes that twist and actually develops it. It quickly wears off as being twist, and proceeds to be simply an intriguing plot. There are far too few movies that turn your expectations on their head like this.

There are essentially two character- Sam Bell, and GERTY (the computer). It takes a true acting powerhouse to carry a movie solo. John Cusack managed to do it a few years ago in 1408, and though I haven't seen it (I know, I'm ashamed) Tom Hanks allegedly did the same in Castaway. I'm putting Rockwell among those ranks. He's been around for quite a while, and despite some amazing roles (Frost/Nixon, Choke) he doesn't seem to resonate as a true leading man. I seriously hope he gets more notoriety than he has from his already deserving career, because he turns out a brilliant performance in Moon. This is, of course, matched by Spacey's GERTY who seems to be channeling Hal 9000. GERTY made me realize for the first time, how emotive a simple smiley or frownie face can actually be.

Moon is simply a wonderful piece of work. For (what I'm assuming) was a fairly low budget, it looks pretty good. Jones returned to sci-fi roots by using mostly practical models for set pieces and Moonscapes. I'm glad, because the few CG elements really did not look very good. In a movie with so much claustrophobia, despite being sci-fi, does not require visual extravagance. Jones balances this perfectly, not attempting more than he could, and executing what he did perfectly. Moon is a fascinating, and at parts, a heartbreaking, sci-fi thriller. Don't be fooled by the trailer. It makes it seem like an action movie. In reality it's purely about the character development- exactly as it should be.


Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker is one of the best films of the year, and quite possibly the best narratives dealing with the Iraq war thus far. It follows a division of bomb defusing technicians in Baghdad- quite possibly the most dangerous job in the war. Paraphrasing one of the main characters- if you see them coming, run the other way. The movie delves deeply into psyche of these soldiers, what it takes for them to do what they have to do.

The movie essentially opens with Sergent William James (Jeremy Renner) joining Bravo Company. To put things diplomatically, he is slightly unstable. Whether this is a result or a cause of repeated tours in Afghanistan and Iraq is up for debate. The ending sheds some light on this, but still raises more questions. Regardless, his disregard for protocol puts him at odds with one of his partners- Sergent JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). Rounding out the team is Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), the least seasoned of the group, having difficulty cutting his teeth in actual combat. The movie follows the day to day challenges the soldiers face, and what they do to cope.

The dynamic between the three of these actors is what really brings Hurt Locker to life. They're all relative unknowns, and when you throw them in this environment, they really don't seem like actors. Even the few big stars in the film- Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, and David Morse- I didn't recognize. Granted they had small roles. The upshot, though, is that they all just seemed like soldiers.

Kathryn Bigelow shot this movie to look almost like a documentary. The cameras are among the action- shaky, but not too shaky. Instead of the intentionally disorienting direction of movies like the Bourne series, Hurt Locker gives the impression of someone actually trying to keep the camera stable amidst the action. This adds a tremendous amount of realism to the movie.

The Hurt Locker balances extremely tense moments- whether they're disarming loads of explosives or pinned down by a sniper in the open desert- with scenes of the soldiers in their spare time- playing soccer, and just getting drunk. Despite this contrast, you never forget that they're still in a war torn country. Scenes late in the movie bring these two worlds crashing together, and even when they're away from the battlefield, these soldiers are still affected by it.

The closing of the movie left a little to be desired. The style changed drastically, and it left the timeline a little ambiguous (though I'm a part of the campy that thinks everything is actually linear). It leaves you unsure about some important events. But this was a very small part of the movie. For the record, I don't know what Hurt Locker means. I've heard several different ideas, all seeming equally probable. If anyone knows definitively, let me know.


Thursday, August 6, 2009

John Hughes

John Hughes 1950-2009

The legendary comedic director died today at 59. He helmed some of my favorites including Uncle Buck, Ferris Bueller, Sixteen Candles, Breakfast Club, and my very first R rated movie- Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Add to these his writing credits on the Vacation series, Home Alone movies, and The Great Outdoors, and you'd be hard pressed to find someone ranked higher on any comedy list.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


Orphan is a pretty successful scary movie. There are some genuinely suspenseful moments, a genuinely unsettling story, and something completely missing from most modern horror movies- a twist ending that's neither contrived or obvious. Now this isn't an entirely original movie. It bares a striking resemblance to The Good Son, which in turn bares a striking resemblance to The Bad Seed, and about a dozen other movies. This just shows that there are no new stories. Instead what's important is what new ideas are brought to these stories. In this regard, Orphan handles itself well.

The story follows a married couple, Kate and John Coleman (Vera Fermiga and Peter Sarsgaard), just after the stillbirth of what would have been their third child. After this tragedy, they decide to adopt. Probably a poor decision considering Kate wrestling with this recent trauma and dealing with her demons of prior alcoholism (which nearly resulted in the death of their second child- daughter, Max). These problems are exacerbated when they adopt Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), who can nicely be described as odd.

It quickly becomes apparent that Esther is more than odd, when accidents begin to follow her around. This drives a wedge between John (who only sees the disingenuous overly enthusiastic Esther) and Kate (who sees the real Esther). And caught in the middle are Max and their oldest child, Daniel. They are intimidated, and even threatened by Esther, but are powerless to do anything as Esther gets more and more audacious while keeping John eating out of her hand.

What makes this movie good is besides depending on shocking scares (though it has its fair share of those, too), it relies heavily on Kate dealing with her own demons, blaming herself both for the stillbirth and Max's near death. The acting captures these emotions for the most part. Fermiga is powerful, Fuhrman is disturbing (I'm hoping this doesn't get her typecast), and Aryana Engineer who plays the hearing impaired Max is absolutely adorable. Really the weak parts were Sarsgaard, who I generally love, and Jimmy Bennett who plays Daniel. They both seemed to just go through the motions, and Sarsgaard especially came across as simply not being there. I don't blame them, though. The parts themselves were simply poor.

I frequently find myself disappointed by horror movies. Maybe one out of ten ends up being worth my time (and that is a very generous ratio). Orphan is that one. It's not stellar but it's a decent thriller.


Saturday, August 1, 2009

Tron Legacy

I know I'm a little late posting this. But this is the most exciting thing for me to come out of ComicCon.