Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Pirates and Emperors

This was probably the best December I can remember, thanks to friends and wife.

More to write, but later.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

2006 movies in review.

This year I saw a lot of new movies. So many in fact, that I wanted to look back and take stock at what I had seen. I must say, I started the year well, seeing some very, very good movies. In compiling the list, I realized I had seen a lot of crappy, crappy ones as well. Some of this can be blamed on just tagging along with others to movies we all knew were going to be lame, and some were honest-to-goodness disappointments. Either way, I saw about 25 new releases this year and that equals close to about 75 hours of my life wasted. That's 3 whole days! What am I doing with my life?

So let's begin. I shall render my judgements. Feel free to comment on how I was wrong and didn't understand the myriad shifting subtleties of An American Haunting. I'll be employing the ***** rating system for easy skimming.

Brokeback Mountain ***** - I know that this was technically a 2005 release, but it didn't hit the Altoona theatres until January. So you're looking at my rating and already making assumptions about me, my faith, my stance on political referendums. Don't. This is a fantastic and beautiful movie about love, confusion, repression, loss and regret. The movie dosen't paint a rosy picture of anything... these seem like guys you know, for the most part making the exact decisions you'd expect them to make. But when something happens between them and neither of them understand it, it all but destroys the rest of their lives. They make huge mistakes and pay for them, dearly. But never once does the movie pontificate, or bring their experiences down to a political pitch. Making that kind of movie about this subject matter these days is an epic feat. Heath Ledger is also amazingly good, capturing his character with rarely-seen precision. Michelle Williams is also brilliant, sad, and faded as his conflicted wife. I can't stress how powerful this movie can be, if you come to it and experience it for what it is, and accept these characters as people, not political statements.

Hostel **- The buzz for this movie said intense gore and other such unpleasentries. It's not that gory, the torture parts are over quickly, and there really isn't a whole lot of anything scary. Not that I'm just peeing myself in anticipation of watching torture, but Spence and I went to be shocked and we were not. Shame on Eli Roth! Also, the plot writes itself, the acting is pretty bad, the dialogue stupid, and good lord someone buy the girls of europe some clothing. This movie advertised it's gore; it should have advertised it's teenage nudity as there was far more of it and they would've snared more frat boy movie-goers. This isn't the worst horror flick ever, and there are a few inspired touches (such as the roving bands of feral children, the american client wondering about how best to enjoy torturing his victim). So as a party rental, you could do worse. Or better.

Capote ****- Speaking of capturing characters, Phillip Seymour Hoffman's oscar-winning portrayal is the strongest reason to see this movie. While the film itself drags at times, the performances by Hoffman and Catherine Keaner are worth the price of admission alone. The shots are wonderful and the entire film has the feeling of Capote himself as he wrote In Cold Blood : obsessive, yet strangely detached.

Thank You for Smoking *****- This is one of those brilliant satires that is actually brilliant. I'm not going to go into everything this movie nails perfectly, or the smart and funny dialogue, or the great performance by the leading man. I'll just say see this movie, thank me later for reccomending it to you.

V for Vendetta ** - Spencer lent me the graphic novel a few years ago, and I think Buck has it now. The novel is fantastic, the movie is ok. Granted, it was better than I thought it was going to be, but as they say, you can take the Wachowski bros out of the Matrix movie production but you can't take the Matrix movie production out of the Wachowski bros. They do say that, right? Like the Matrix, there are slow-motion-obviously-cgi action sequences set to mediocre techno fare. Like the Matrix, this is a flashy and cool flick grasping at deeper truths whose surfaces it barely scratches. Where the graphic novel dealt with the complexities of the characters, and how ambivelent most of them were on a moral level, the move draws sharp black and white portrayals of good and evil that in the end seem almost arbitrary. I'll return to that criticism for Apocalypto. Entertaining, but shallow. 2 stars.

Brick ***** - So I was pretty sure Brick was gonna suck. It did not. In fact, it did the opposite of sucking. I was pretty rivetted for the entirety of Brick. It's a gutsy mashup of old-timey noir and modern day high school. Yes, some of it is a bit improbable. Yes, the dialogue is highly stylized. But it works, and it works well. Wonderfully written, acted, directed and shot, it gives me hope for the future of pseudo-noir type films. For the flipside of this, see the take on The Black Dahlia below.

Silent Hill *- Okay, so here's where things really start to go downhill (hill! get it?). Silent Hill is based on a video game series that I have no small fondness for. In fact, Silent Hill 2 is probably in my top 20 games of all time. This movie, however, sucked. Terribly. I'll say that they did a good job of capturing the wacky ambience of "The Hill", as the faithful fans call it. The environments are pretty true to the games, and some of the situations and characters are taken straight from one or more of the installments. Everything else about this movie was terrible, from the writing, the acting, the plot, the pacing, the special effects, and the very very stupid conclusion. Sean Bean's overacting was actually the high point of this god-awful movie. Play the games, don't see the movie.

An American Haunting *- So in all honesty I knew this was going to be terrible before we even got there. Cleo and I were bored one night and were all "Let's go out and see a movie, any movie". An American Haunting ended up being that movie. Instead of a long tirade on all the faults of this movie, I'll try to sum up the most glaring errors:

1. Soccer had yet to be introduced to the USA. That kid was CLEARLY playing goalie, and was in front of a makeshift soccer goal.

2. The movie claims it's based on the true story of the only case in US history where a man's cause of death is offically listed as murder by ghost. In the movie, his wife poisons him for molesting their daughter.

3. So the poltergeist is summoned by the girl to protect her, as an extension of her tortured adolescent psyche? Can you explain it's actions, then? Can you? You can't.

4. Wolves, even ghost wolves, can't jump that high. But it was kinda sweet in a stupid way.

5. Them is some fake sets and wigs.

6. The font used in the opening credits. Spooooooooooky!

The Proposition *****- This is a brilliant movie, probably my pick for best of the year. I say probably because it shares that distinction with a not movie further down the list. Written by the talented and all-around-awesome Nick Cave, this is a bloody morality play set in the Australian outback. It's the best western I've seen since probably Unforgiven. The movie explores the depths of human violence and depravity, and unlike other movies this year, actually treats the subject with depth and subtlety, not content to merely label villains and heroes. Even the worst of criminals are dealt with using sympathy and tenderness, a task that seems harder and harder for films to do in this day and age of labeling our enemies as mere animals. It's fabulously shot and fantastically acted. Do yourself a favor, if you have the stomach for it, and go find this on dvd.

Over the Hedge ***- Those sure are some emotional, flighty animals.

The Da Vinci Code **- I haven't read the book, other than the first page at the behest of my sister. The plot was muddled, the history was... fake, the acting was actually pretty terrible given the caliber of actors, and the dialogue was unreasonably expository. It was very long, yet in the end I felt like nothing had happened. The saving grace of this movie was Paul Bettany's homicidal albino monk, as his character had actual depth and his performance provided insight into his inner struggles and motivations. Then again... a homicidal albino monk? Can he have a robot arm?

X-men: the last stand **- So Cleo has this series as a bit of a guilty pleasure, since she was such a fan of the cartoon show back in the day. I've never really liked it, since I and a friend sat in the front row at the opening weekend of the first X-men movie and ended up just mocking it the entire time. This movie is interesting, since alot of big and emotional things happen in small and unemotional ways. It just dosen't work. Dialogue was also pretty awful. I'm convinced that Halle Berry is a hollowed out shell of a human, and Hugh Jackman is a walking sideburn. These are completely one-note characters. In fact, the only interesting relationship that this series had (that being Prof. X and Magneto's friendship/mortal rivalry) was downplayed and then eliminated halfway through, in a scene that comes out of nowhere and feels cheap and lacking in any emotional resonance. Also, this is a bit of a personal quibble, but I don't get how that kid can run through walls but dosen't sink through floors. And how the fire kid can keep having clothes on when they'd obviously burn up. And I like how you can tell who the bad mutants are from their leather, tattoos and piercings. Just saying. That may be superhero 101, but it keeps me awake at night.

Lady in the Water **- I really wanted to like this movie. I liked alot of M. Night's other work. There were parts of this that worked, such as Giamatti's always-great, jittery performance and Shyamalan's sometimes interesting ways of ratcheting up tension. Also, the very fake but very interesting shot near the end of the eagle picking up Narf Howard was great, as it was shot up from the bottom of the pool as rain fell on the water. Again, all cgi, but creative. Then again, casting yourself as a messiah figure writer in your own movie about how stupid people are who question the fantasy of others is generally a bad idea. Especially since the vast majority of the characters in your movie don't act like anything resembling natural humans... and the fantasy feels like you're making it up as you go along, from one handy loop to another. This is what it looks like when talent and ego cave in on themselves.

Little Miss Sunshine ****- We looked long and hard for a theatre in which to see this. It was worth it. This is a pretty dark and desolate comedy about a highly disfunctional family. Everyone begins lonely and closed off form one another, each nursing their private hurts, but a long, disasterous road trip causes them to open up and accept one another and life itself. My only complaint is that the dance scene at the end seems to be a bit corny, especially in comparison to the rest of this rather quiet movie. But that is a minor quibble in an otherwise wonderful movie. Oh, and it's very funny, too.

The Descent ****- Let's face it, modern horror movies are nearly uniformly either mediocre or awful. The Descent surprised me, though, as it was a movie with few gimmicks. A group of friends are spelunking, bad crap happens, people get eaten, etc. No nu metal, no crappy editing. In fact much of the copious amounts of tension come simply from the environment of the tight caves and the dangers inherently found in them. By the time the albino cannibal bat people show up, you're already on edge. It's certainly worth a look as it was my favorite new horror flick in years.

Talladega Nights :The Ballad of Ricky Bobby **- So I had no intention of seeing this, as a Nascar comedy is right up there with a wrestling comedy for me. But a group of friends were going and I wanted to hang out, so I saw it. To be honest, there were several laugh-out-loud moments in the movie. Strangely enough, they all involved animals. Wierd. But the 4 times I laughed just dosen't cut it when there are hundreds of jokes per scene, and the forced emotional payoff at the end is rather... well, forced. Also, I don't know if the people in the audience understood that this movie was mocking Nascar, not simply using it as a backdrop for the story. Or maybe it wasn't, and I just didn't get it. Or maybe I just hate Nascar too much to enjoy this movie. Maybe I hate myself deep down, and cannot allow myself to enjoy anything ever. Hmm.

Snakes on a Plane **- HA! This was the year of Snakes! On! A! Plane! Everyone talked about it, nobody went to see it! Cleo, Brijoh and I turned up that saturday night hoping to see fashionable scenester teens having crazy fun times in the theatre. Alas, we were 3 of only 7 in the whole theatre, the day after it was released. And the movie? It's exactly what you're expecting. Exactly. No more, no less. It's fun as a little strange cultural event, and as an awesomely bad title/premise. But that's all. Them is some fake snakes.

The Illusionist ***- We were very excited to see the Illusionist. Long time have I loved Edward Norton. Paul Giamatti is also great, and he really had to do a good move it make up for Lady in the Water. Honestly. So this is a little movie about eastern europe or russia (i can't remember which), classism, currupt power, jealously, and MAGIC! Ooooooooh! The 4 leads do an excellent job of doing what their parts call on them to do, though only Giamatti seems to go above and beyond and make his character really seem to have layers, a guy who has his own agenda but still some sense of morality and "what the heck are these people doing"? I also enjoyed the post-production-feaux-lumiere-look. It's been done a few times recently, but I'm a complete sucker for it. The main complaint about this movie is that the supposed plot twist isn't really a twist at all. At the end I was shocked that the movie actually tried to play it off as a twist, when logically it was the only thing that could've happened. Cleo saw it again last saturday with some friends at a bargain theatre and she reports that there was actually guy sitting behind her who was audibly amazed at the ending. So perhaps we're just jerks. It's good, if forgettable flick that is fun enough for a rental.

The Black Dahlia - Yes, you're seeing that right. No stars. It fails at every single thing it tries to do. But that isn't to say you shouldn't see this movie. Where to begin with this absolute train wreck? Ok, this is a spiritual successor to one of my favorite films of all time, LA Confidential. It's based upon the work of the same author, writing about similar times and themes in Los Angeles. Josh Hartnett plays a scowl. Scarlett Johanson stands there with her mouth open a lot. The casting, acting, and scene blocking are terrible. You can seriously drive mack trucks through the pauses in some conversations. There are ridiculous close-up POV shots. The dialogue is atrocious, the editing is insane, the acting is some of worst I have ever, ever, ever, ever seen. It's as if everyone involved in this movie were drunk for a year and then woke up the next morning wondering "OH MY GOD WHAT DID I DO LAST NIGHT?". There is one character in here that figures heavily into the plot that is guilty of the absolute worst overracting I have ever been privy too. I would need several pages to go into detail about all the things this movie does so horribly wrong. It is a loud, audacious train wreck, like Olive's dance at the end of Little Miss Sunshine (but without the heart, honesty, earnestness and love). This is the work of a director with a singular vision and a lot of money, and apparently no one to tell him that it is the worst movie of the year, hands down. So that's why you should rent it. Watch LA Confidential and then watch this. Because you WILL laugh.

The Science of Sleep ***- Oh Gondrey! You crazy man!

The Departed *****- This movie was amazingly, surprisingly great. Every shot was well done, every actor giving it their all. This remake of Infernal Affairs set in the corrupt Boston police dept is like getting punched in the face repeatedly, and I mean that in the best way possible. Along with The Proposition, I say this is far and away the best movie of the year. From the credit montage set to "Shipping up to Boston", this movie goes straight for the throat and pulls no punches. Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Leonardo Dicaprio, Alec Balwin, Marky-Mark (or his brother, I always get them confused... I know I'm going to look on IMDB in a few minutes and feel very dumb), and just about everyone else turn in some of the best performances of their careers. There are jaw-dropping sequences and some truly great plot to be found here. The funny thing is, you know who's behind everything to entire movie... there are no hidden things really to speak of. But it is written and directed with such amazing intensity and (dare I say) nihilistic energy that it just burns itself into your brain. It's one of the only movies I've seen where weeks later, hanging with our punk friends at the hibachi joint, the only thing you could say was "My God, that was AWESOME." SEE. THIS. MOVIE.

Marie-Antoinette **- So this was another movie we sought out, thinking we were going to absolutely adore it. I mean, Sophia Coppolla did Lost is Translation, which is a wonderful, understated movie. Kirsten Dunst is an adorable, reliable actress. And it was supposed to be all 80's party girl themed, so that seemed to be interesting. The tragedy is that it was not! Like De Palma and his train wreck, perhaps Sofia was stuck in a place where no one would tell het how bad some ideas were, and that the characters were undeveloped and uneven, and there are only so many shots of shoes allowed in a movie, or that filming a bee for a full minute only to follow it up with another full minute of Marie feeding a sheep is no replacement for depth. The funny thing is, the movie seems to try to sweep away anything interesting that happend to Marie Antointte... these things are merely hinted at or are shown quickly, so the movie can get back to showing her gambling and stuffing her face. Yes, I understand that this could be the director trying to show that she herself was like that, but her character is not... at least not most of the time. In fact, her character oscilates between two extremes seemingly at random, as does the movie itself. The set design and costumes were exquisite, and that's obviously where the attention went. When we left this 3.5 hour movie, we found that it was in fact only a 1.5 hour or so movie. THAT is not a good thing.

Borat ****- Oh, the hype for this movie was intense. "Funniest movie ever!". It's not, but it's still pretty amusing and to an extent frightening. I'm a big fan of linguistically-based humor, such as poor translations and earnest attempts to communicate that go terribly wrong. That was actually the draw to this movie for me. Sure, there's alot of cheap, gross-out humor and the plot is almost nonexistent. But the extent to which Sacha Baron Cohen goes to in order to really become his character is wonderful. You never doubt the character or Borat for a moment. The real tragedy/comedy of the movie is not the penis jokes, the nude wrestling, or the poop humor, but the way in which the people in the movie act and react to Borat. It seems like I've known every type of bigot that feels comfortable enough to say horribly racist, sexist, wrong things when they feel that someone is agreeing with them. This movie is hilarious because the joke is on us, upon anyone who holds these ridiculous predjudices. Also, there is a bear.

Casino Royale ***- I've never really been a Bond fan, but this movie was a marked improvement. Character development! Interesting direction! Daniel Craig dosen't come off as a complete oaf! It's a good rental, especially if you're a Bond fan. Cleo liked it, so that's a stamp of non-Bond-fan approval. The Skull yelled at the screen when we saw it and that made it pretty great indeed.

Apocalypto ***- So I'm almost the only person I know who didn't think that this was the greatest thing ever. Mel Gibson dosen't do himself any favors, but he knows his way around a half-naked guy being tortured. Just saying, is all. With the opening quote you know what you're in for, but the movie only delivers on a very shallow level. It purports to be about depravity, brutality, and the decay of cultures. It plumbs the depths of human indecency, and come back with a story of clear-cut good guys and bad-guys. The bad guys are... bad. The good guys are... good. The violence dealt out by the good guys is good. The bad guys are bad for their violence and cruelty. A movie like The Proposition understands people, understands violence. This movie, like Braveheart,sees the world in black and white, that some people are just animals that should be killed, and some people are so heavily principled that whatever they do is right. This dosen't make for a bad movie, but Gibson very obviously thinks about his morals before hand and hammers them home with his movies. The sad thing is that if you are, say, a proponent of The Project for a New American Century, you will really connect with the themes. That is sad. However, this is a well shot, well acted flick with almost uniformly realistic effects. Did I mention, like all other Gibson flicks, this has a preponderance for gore? Yes, Mel really likes torture and graphic violence. Perhaps he's going for the Last House on the Left "let's show such brutal violence as to make an anti-violence statement, but I kinda doubt it. Oh well. Worth a watch, perhaps you'll like it more than I did, or find something in it that I did not. If you're just looking for a violent, crazy movie, then you could do alot worse. It's just the delusions of depth or possibly the absolutely wrong-headed ideals that ruined this a bit for me.

So there you have it, the new movies I saw this year. I hope you enjoyed skimming through them, and by all means, go see some of the better ones.