Monday, August 30, 2010

Tim's Trailer Talk, Vol. 2

127 Hours

Chances of me seeing it: 100%. Aron Ralston's grim, gruesome, and fascinating story is interesting enough to get my ass in the theater all by itself. Combine that with Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle and you got a movie I'm certainly not gonna miss.

Chances of me liking it: 80%. The irony of this incredibly kinetic trailer is that the movie is about a guy trapped by a boulder, a film Boyle himself has described as "an action movie with a guy who can't move." There's no denying that it's an interesting concept, but it's been said that Ralston is going to spend at least an hour of this film completely alone onscreen and it remains to be seen whether or not James Franco can carry a movie more or less all by himself. Tom Hanks was able to pull it off in Cast Away, but with all due respect to Franco who I have enjoyed in several roles, Tom Hanks is a much better actor than James Franco is. But this is all just nitpickings and musings. Boyle is a great director and if they stick to the viscerally disgusting events of what actually happened I'm pretty confident that this movie is gonna be a must-see.

Gemma Arterton and not one but two movies that start with the letters "Leg" after the jump!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Tim's Trailer Talk, Vol. 1

I have decided to start doing weekly round-ups and thoughts on recent movie trailers. I reserve the right to skip a week if there is absolutely not a single trailer of interest or if I'm dead. Obviously, the former is preferable, unless there's a trailer for a new Aaron Seltzer & Jason Friedberg project, in which case I'll go with the latter.

Black Swan

Chances of me seeing it: 100%. I've seen all four of Darren Aronofsky's films to date and he's yet to make one that even approaches being bad, not to mention that his last film The Wrestler was his best ever and one of the best movies of the last ten years. If ol' Darren can get me riveted with something I care as little about as math in Pi and wrestling in The Wrestler I don't see why he can't pull off the hat trick with ballet. I'd see it even if it got horrible reviews, which I doubt will happen.

Chances of me liking it: 90%. It looks much more along the lines of traditional Aronofsky weirdness than The Wrestler, with some bizarre body horror shit with Natalie Portman growing feathers (possibly just in her head, but with a filmmaker this crazy who knows?), so I'll provide room for the possibility that Aronofsky's ambition could get away from him. But The Wrestler proved that he tends to get career-best performances out of his actors and Portman gives a better performance in this trailer alone than the entirety of the last half-dozen films I've seen her in, and the movie looks visually beautiful, intense, creepy, and lesbiany enough that I think it's poised to be one of fall's most fascinating offerings. I'm hyped.

New trailers for Narnia, documentaries, mockumentaries, lousy horror movies, and more after the jump...

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Green Zone

On August 19th, 2010, the Iraq War officially came to the most awkward and anticlimactic end in the history of American combat operations. It would be easy for the layman to entirely miss the fact that this even happened, both because 50,000 troops are remaining as a peacekeeping and training force until December 31st, 2011 and because the news made the tiniest blip imaginable in the media, spending all of a few hours on CNN's front page before quietly vanishing. The simple truth of the matter is that no one wants to talk or think about the Iraq War anymore — in fact, the war's most aggressive initial supporters seem today like the people who least want to acknowledge that any such war ever existed, which is understandable, because I'd be ashamed too.

But the Iraq War did happen, and Bourne Supremacy / Bourne Ultimatum / United 93 director Paul Greengrass made a movie about it called Green Zone, and the movie kind of bombed, making $35 million domestic on a $100 million budget, because no one wants to think about the Iraq War. "But wait!" you might say, "wasn't The Hurt Locker a hit?" And the answer is no, The Hurt Locker was not a hit. It made $16.4 million in America, enough to recoup its budget, but it was only a hit amongst critics and awards shows. In the grand scheme of things only about 1% of Americans saw it, because no one in America wants to think about the Iraq War, even in the context of an apolitical action thriller like Locker.

Green Zone's an even harder sell, because Green Zone is very political. Unless you focus entirely on a specific soldier like Locker did, it's nigh impossible for an Iraq War movie not to be very political. Maybe one day some filmmaker will make an uber-patriotic Iraq War movie where America rolls into Iraq to defeat the supervillain Saddam Hussein, conquers his armies and henchman, kills him in a badass hanging, then immediately rolls out and back home set to heavy metal music, but I'd say we're a good twenty years away from such brilliantly jingoistic revisionist history. For now we're stuck with uncomfortable flicks about how we went to war for oil and there never were any WMDs and our government lied to us like Green Zone.

But unlike Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer, where the liberal propaganda stuck out like an awkward and boring sore thumb, Greengrass actually manages to mix it into a fairly muscular action-adventure thriller reminiscent of Ridley Scott's Body of Lies. Shootouts and explosions aplenty, good guys and bad guys, lots of excitement and whiteknuckle tension.

It's 2003, and Matt Damon is in full-blown wooden badass mode as Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, like Jason Bourne but with less backstory and more political convictions, who becomes angry after taking his men into dangerous warzone after dangerous warzone to find WMDs that never quite seem to turn up. So with the aid of a journalist played by Amy Ryan and a CIA officer played by Brendan Gleeson (a terrific and versatile Irish actor who in this movie proves to have one weakness: the American accent) Roy Miller does some investigation and winds up in a race against Pentagon Special Intelligence agent Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinear) to reach an Iraqi general who can confirm that there were no WMDs before Poundstone has him assassinated.

The performances get the job done and nothing more except for Khalid Abdalla as Freddy, an Iraqi who through circumstance winds up becoming Miller's impromptu translator and who really engages us in his people's desperation, and Jason Isaacs as Poundstone's stooge Maj. Briggs. I've seen Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy in lots of Harry Potter movies and of course as the Satanesque British commander Colonel Tavington in The Patriot, so it speaks to his skill as an actor that I absolutely did not recognize him at all underneath his facial hair and flawless American accent. When his name rolled by in the end credits I was like, "wait, what?" That's a real actor right there.

The film's action elements inevitably pale next to the sheer intensity of The Hurt Locker, but while I wouldn't say this film is as good as that one it's still pretty darn good. A bit preachy, perhaps, if you consider pointing out utterly objective facts like that there never were any WMDs to be preachy, but it manages to mix its liberal fanfiction with enough Bourne that it stands up as a worthwhile work. I'm willing to bet based on its weak box office reception that we won't be seeing too many more Iraq War movies, at least not for a while, so you got plenty of time to catch up on the few worthwhile ones (i.e. The Hurt Locker, Green Zone, The Messenger, and Body of Lies).

3 Stars out of 5

Friday, August 20, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

The relationship between a film's quality and its box office revenue is a nebulous and fascinating one. It's tempting to argue that no such relationship exists at all, or, if you want to be really cynical and hone in on Independence Day and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, that's there's even a negative correlation. But that's not quite right, is it? I mean, The Dark Knight not only lit the box office on fire but was also one of the best films in years. The Lord of the Rings and Pixar movies are excellent and have no trouble making bank, and despite what some internet crybabies may claim, even current reigning champ Avatar is pretty darn good.

But for every one of these examples you'll find near the top of the all-time worldwide box office charts a handful of soulless empty spectacles, insipid star vehicles, inferior sequels that outgrossed their superior predecessors (and the exact opposite for the Harry Potter franchise, where the bland first movie remains champ while the series' best entry, Prisoner of Azkaban, ranks lowest), and a smattering of Ice Age, Shrek, and Twilight films. You'll be taunted by The Da Vinci Code and 2012 and visibly cringe as you notice that The Phantom Menace is the highest-grossing Star Wars movie.

But the single film that jumps out at me the most has to be Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, landing in fifth place. What did so many people see in this film? Is the Alice in Wonderland franchise way, way, way more beloved than I thought it was? Are people not sick of seeing every fantasy movie, regardless of how jarring and inappropriate it is to the underlying story, end with CGI armies charging each other? Has no one gotten sick of Tim Burton's forced, manufactured quirkiness after over two goddamned decades of it? Am I the only one who found all the dialogue about Alice's "muchness" to be beyond excruciating? How did a film with so little merit become one of the biggest moneymakers in the history of cinema?

What Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland resembles more than anything is the first Chronicles of Narnia flick if Disney's Alice in Wonderland vomited on it. Sure, there's some familiar Wonderland (or Underland, as they call it in this movie, but I'm not gonna type that again because I'm just not) sights and characters to be seen, but the plot about our hero getting drawn into a fantasy land, meeting weird people and talking animals, and finally joining up with the good guys to lead a fantasy army against the evil queen's fantasy army is pretty much just Narnia, and I already saw that movie and I didn't even like it that much the first time.

Alice herself is a frightfully bland and wooden protagonist who makes Jake Sully look like Charles Foster Kane (through no particular fault of actress Mia Wasikowska, who has been fine in other roles I've seen her in). She spends over three-quarters of the movie insisting over and over and over again that Wonderland is a dream when we already know perfectly well that it's not, so when she finally figures that out herself you don't feel any satisfaction at the character's realization so much as "thank god we don't have to hear anymore dialogue about it being a dream." She begins the film not wanting to be wedded to some boring dandy her family has set her up with, and ends the film... well, not wanting to be wedded to the same boring dandy. So she has no character arc to speak of, let alone a tangible personality.

Johnny Depp has the exact opposite problem, giving his Mad Hatter so much personality that you want him dead as much as any of his enemies in the film. Mostly Willy Wonka with a bit of Jack Sparrow and a smattering of Edward Scissorhands and Sweeney Todd in there, covered in Joker makeup, this is a truly, truly obnoxious character brought to life with one of the most jarringly overacted performances in some time. It's almost like Johnny Depp is doing a parody of himself. But I gotta give it to Depp; last year he starred in one of my most disliked movies of the year, Public Enemies, but himself was too bland for me to even consider for my worst actors list. In 2010, Depp has proudly earned his spot on that list. Congrats, Johnny, you made it!

The only hints of life in the proceedings come from Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway. I normally cringe at Burton's routine nepotism, but his wife actually fits pretty well into the evil Disney queen role as the the Red Queen — don't get me wrong, she is no way an intimidating or memorable villain and you not for one fraction of one microsecond believe any of the good guys to be in danger, but Bonham Carter at least gets some playful moments that aren't overacted as hideously as the Mad Hatter's. Anne Hathaway's natural charisma shines even through gallons of white makeup and Burton's forced quirk, and she plays the good White Queen as flighty and possibly a hint crazy, making exaggerated queenly motions with her hands while talking that made me chuckle. Sadly, Mad Hatter has way more screentime than both of them put together.

As the plot tediously unfolds towards its ultra-generic fantasy battle conclusion and we're forced to endure endless dialogue about Underland (ugh) and dreams and Alice's muchness, all that's left to do is drown in Burton's CGI world. Visually it's a lot like Attack of the Clones, tons of technology and hundreds of CGI artists serving no meaningful artistic vision, but instead of at least getting to enjoy a John Williams score we have to sit through more Danny Elfman circus tunes. There's an origin story sequence that reveals how the Mad Hatter went crazy, because of course there is. Finally, they strap little old Alice up with a sword and armor and we march. Into. BATTLE!

I'll admit, the whole CGI fantasy army thing blew my mind when we first saw a tantalizing glimpse of it in the intro sequence to The Fellowship of the Ring nine years ago. I thought it was really, really cool, and 2002's The Two Towers was the ideal orgasm to follow up on Fellowship's sweet cinematic foreplay. By 2004's Troy I was over it. That's not to say that it can't be used well if we care about the characters behind the battle, but I didn't care about Alice or the Mad Hatter or the White Queen, so that's problematic, right? I mean, all three could have died and the credits rolled over images of the burning, ruined wasteland of Wonderland, and my thought process during said credits would have been "hm, I wonder if I should grab a burger on the way home."

So the armies fight, and it all comes down to the final battle between Alice and the CGI Jabberwocky, which has all the weight and drama of Harry Potter's battle with the CGI basilisk at the end of Chamber of Secrets, i.e. not much. At least Harry seemed intimidated; there's no indication that a battle to the death against a giant dragon is in any way whatsoever scary or difficult for Alice. Then Johnny Depp does a terrifyingly unfunny dance to conclude our Wonderland storyline (although you can see in that clip how Anne Hathaway is more likable in her half second of screentime than Johnny Depp is in his thirty), and Alice goes back to the real world and does the same dance in front of her family, because that's a conclusion to a character arc, right?

Granted, the movie is occasionally pretty to look at and, uh... I was gonna try to find another compliment to pay it, but nope. Flat characters, mostly lousy performances, boring and weightless CGI action scenes, self-aware Burtonesque quirk, and a score that you will actually forget as you're listening to it coalesce to make this one of the worst films of the year. If it's between watching one sequel to this movie or having to sit through all five remaining Narnia stories, then please, I'll take the Jesus lion and the White Witch and those stupid Pevensie kids over and over again, although the box office returns may mean my pleas fall on deaf ears caked in white makeup.

1 Star out of 5

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Star ratings!

After two and a half years of writing movie reviews I have decided for the first time to add star ratings on the end of them. Reading the user comments on, I grew jealous of all the critics who regularly get death threats whenever they dislike a film, and realized the thing that most of them have in common is that they give quantitative ratings. Hell, I decided, I deserve death threats for my opinions about movies too, right? If star ratings are the way to achieve that lofty dream, so be it.

I am using a five star scale instead of the traditional four, because I would honestly prefer a wider range of ways to describe a movie as good rather than bad, and am eschewing half stars and zero-star ratings, because that shit's for cowards (and don't even get me started on sites that rate movies on a 101-point scale of 0.0 through 10.0). Five options, period.

One star, in plainest terms, signifies a movie I would not recommend to anyone regardless of how much they may enjoy the film's genre, actors, or anything else. It's a somewhat broad rating that can be applied to everything from an incomprehensibly terrible, completely unwatchable piece of shit like Babylon A.D. to movies I wanted to like but just couldn't like Transporter 3.

Two stars is for movies that, upon exiting the theater and being asked "so what'd you think?", you'd respond with any combination of a shrug, "it was alright," "it was okay," or "eh," and if someone else in your group loved it you wouldn't be offended enough to really argue the point. Fundamentally competent but unremarkable films, difficult to recommend to anyone but big fans of the genre.

Three stars is for movies I can unambiguously say I liked and feel comfortable leaving it at that. Not timeless classics, but movies that stepped up to the plate to genuinely excite, surprise, amuse, move, scare, involve, or entertain me. Unlike sites like IGN where this rating's equivalent (6.0) is a dire insult that sends fanboys into a frothing rage, this rating is not something I give out by default. Two stars is default. Three must be earned.

Four stars is for movies that I want everyone to see even if they don't care for the genre or the actors or the premise. The movies that energized my love for the medium and where I walked out of the theater with a grin plastered ear-to-ear (unless it's like a really good movie about the Holocaust or 9/11 or something, in which case I guess I should have my cheeks plastered with tears and tears).

Five stars is for movies I deem masterpieces. Note that I don't mean that in a snooty critical way where a masterpiece has to be high art about infinite human suffering; a comedy or an action movie absolutely qualifies for this rating... if it's perfect. Don't count on seeing more than two or three of these a year.

I have gone back through this blog and added star ratings to every single movie review going back to June of 2008, so if you're curious how I'd rate anything from the past, feel free to check it out.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Love. That most lofty of human ideals remains difficult to describe, but whether it's for a person or a work of art, you know it when you feel it, right there in your gut. And I fucking loved Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. It's a film that appealed to my every comedic, aesthetic, and pop cultural sensibility with such eerie precision that I suspect director Edgar Wright spied on me personally via webcam for years before one line of the script was written or one storyboard drawn. Perverted, but, watching the movie, obviously true. It's not only the best film of the year so far but among the very best of the last five years, and I can't tell you how rare and how viscerally satisfying it is for the credits to roll on a movie and my first reaction being "I have to see that again!"

There's been quite a few movies adapted from video games by this point, none of them legitimately good (Prince of Persia took a noble swing earlier this summer, but still fell short of having merit), but the well of narrative movies not adapted from but about video games runs bone dry. Once, not long ago, all a retro gamer could do is watch 1989's longform Nintendo commercial The Wizard, a movie with kitsch value but little else that clearly wasn't made with any fire or passion from its director. But Edgar Wright does have the fire, he does have the passion, and most importantly, as you already know if you've seen Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, he has the talent, and Scott Pilgrim is now by a hundred thousand miles the best film about video games ever made. Retro video games, at that!

And this distinction is significant. Gaming culture tends to have a poorer sense of its own history than film, music, or literature — it's the only medium I can think of where products from three or four years ago are straight-facedly referred to as "old" — so to see a theatrically-released movie in 2010 that features music and sound effects from Zelda and Sonic and Final Fantasy, not to mention dialogue references to Mario and Pac-Man and even more obscure NES games like Clash at Demonhead, was unexpected. Blissful, actually. And far from being empty Family Guy-esque "hey, remember this!" asides, these references crucially inform the characters and the story. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is not just the tale of Scott Pilgrim but of an entire generation of young nerds that see life through the prism of nostalgic pop culture.

But I don't want to make it sound like retro video game references are all Scott Pilgrim has going for it. Far, far from it. Yes, I'd be lying if I said the film didn't win my heart the second it opened with the title jingle from Zelda: A Link to the Past, but the underlying movie's so terrific that that's really just the cherry on top. The story's pretty simple if you don't get into all the side characters: a 22-year-old Canadian garage band singer named Scott Pilgrim falls in love with a girl named Ramona Flowers, who has seven evil exes. So Scott must fight seven boss battles and defeat each ex in mortal combat. That's pretty much it, but the magic of this film doesn't lie in its overarching narrative but in its astonishingly hilarious script, incredibly creative editing, cool action scenes, and wonderful performances.

What this movie has in common with Wright's previous films Shaun and Hot Fuzz is its perceptive and knowing commentary on pop culture. Where it differs is in its astoundingly propulsive pacing. I'm not saying that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World will be nominated for best editing at the Oscars, because it won't, but it is the most brilliantly-edited film of the year, if not the last five years. Scenes move with sheer kinetic energy, flinging jokes and funny dialogue and gorgeous visuals at you with barely a second to breathe — dialogue will be missed because of laughter, I'm afraid — and that's when we're not in the thick of one of many incredibly creative fight scenes.

The purposefully jarring, funny, tangible way Wright transitions from scene to scene is difficult to fully describe without seeing it firsthand except to say that it humiliates movies like Sin City in how it evokes the feel of a comic book without just dryly copying the visuals straight out of one. But it's safe to say that out of the total number of times I've laughed out loud at scene transitions in any film or television show in my life, at least 50% of that pool now belongs to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

I'm not a huge fan of the label "action-comedy," simply because it almost always refers to a comedy that has some halfhearted action thrown in there. This year's Kick-Ass was one of the few films I felt truly earned the moniker, and before that, shit, I dunno, Beverly Hills Cop in 1984? But Scott Pilgrim is here to not just earn the label, but take up residence at the top of the hill, perhaps never to be dethroned. The comedy is swift, surreal, irreverent, gleefully absurdist, deals equally in broad slapstick and character-based humor, and made me laugh as hard as Arrested Development at its peak, which is all I really need to say. That's rare enough as is, but fact that the fighting holds up its end of the picture too makes this film nothing short of lightning in a bottle.

The best part of the fight scenes between Scott and Ramona's evil exes, along with the way they evoke a rich history of fighting game iconography, is that they make no attempt whatsoever to contextualize the fights within a real-world setting. The movie doesn't end with Scott waking up to discover it was all a dream. We aren't seeing things though his video game-adled perspective. This is just very simply a world where everyone is a kung fu master and people throw fireballs, employ telekinesis, run with anime speed, and command dragons made out of sonic energy to the interest of bystanders but not that much more interest than an ordinary fight in our boring old real world would. It's wish-fulfillment but more importantly lets Wright cut loose with the full force of his potent imagination whenever it comes time for Scott to do battle. I wouldn't dare give away the details of any specific bout, but each is completely distinct and vastly entertaining.

Scott himself is of course played by Michael Cera of Year One fame of Superbad and Arrested Development fame. If you've spent time on any movie-centric internet message boards you may be aware that a certain bizarrely angry backlash has developed against Michael Cera over time despite his brilliant comedic timing and the unique energy of his onscreen presence. But I actually suffer from an extremely horrific disorder than affects approximately one out of every million internet-users where I have the mental capacity to form my own opinions without latching onto any hype, backlash, or counter-backlash movement and letting them tell me what I think, so I have no problem acknowledging his talent.

It goes without saying that he delivers all the funny dialogue as well as he always does when the script gives it to him (of course, even Cera couldn't save Year One), but he also sells the fight scenes. No, he doesn't look like much of a brawler, and has even said in interviews that he still has no idea how to fight and this movie's battles basically amounted to learning and performing dance choreography, but having seen both Scott Pilgrim and the muscle-laden-and-testerone-oozing The Expendables this weekend, I can tell you that Scott Pilgrim's action scenes are approximately ten thousand times more vibrant and interesting. In the end what a good movie fight scene comes down to is energetic filmmaking and choreography, not behemoth biceps on the actor performing said choreography, because sorry stud, however many muscles you got, you're still doing a dance.

But Scott Pilgrim's bench of talent runs deep, and Michael Cera isn't carrying this thing alone. Kieran Culkin manages to breathe unprecedented, hilarious life into the tired "snarky gay friend" archetype as Scott's snarky gay roommate Wallace Wells, while Alison Pill creates one of the funniest misanthropes in recent cinematic history as Kim Pine, the drummer of Scott's band Sex Bob-omb. Even characters with minimal screentime make the most of it, namely Brie Larson creating a magnetic femme fatale as Scott's ex and singer of rival band Clash at Demonhead, and Brandon "Superman" Routh and Chris "Captain America" Evans oozing delightfully cartoonish evil as two of Ramona's exes. Mae Whitman — who played Michael Cera's girlfriend Ann Veal on Arrested Development — also shows up and does great work, although in one of my few distinct disappointments with the film, no one ever refers to her as "...her?"

Despite all that talent I think that the theoretical award for my favorite performance in the film might have to go to newcomer Ellen Wong as Knives Chau, the Chinese schoolgirl Scott is dating as the film opens. She abandons every shred of dignity and self-awareness and flings herself into the role with abandon that rivals actors who have been performing on the big screen for decades, pining after Scott with emotional vulnerability that is alternately (if not simultaneously) hilarious and heartbreaking. With a fraction of Scott's screentime Knives manages to have the most moving character arc in the film, and I hope to see Wong have a long and successful career.

The one character I will admit isn't quite up to par with the rest of film in writing or performance is Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Ramona Flowers. Not that she's bad or holds back the movie; she's pretty and droll and snarky but the film already has these elements accounted for in spades and she has little character arc, mostly just being a walking plot device to create strife and kung fu battles for everyone around her. The female lead being flatly written is a very, very common flaw in movies starring men, but although it's not nearly as bad here as in many other romantic comedies I've seen this year alone, it's still undeniably present.

Altogether though, I truly loved Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. There's been a lot of recent films that successfully streamlined nerdiness into something palatable for everyone, like The Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man, and The Dark Knight; hell, the nerdiest franchise on earth was improbably made sexy and cool with last year's Star Trek. But Scott Pilgrim is something else, something impossibly rare: a movie that unapologetically speaks fluent nerd to the exclusion of non-nerds. It's a film for pop culture junkies, retro gamers, and Arrested Development fans. It feels like a cinematic gift just for me. That I'm gonna buy it on DVD and watch it dozens of times over the remainder of my life goes without saying, and I have to personally thank Edgar Wright for giving me such a damn good time at the movies.

5 Stars out of 5