June 27, 2011

The Muppet Movie - 1979

Director: James Frawley
Writers: Jack Burns & Jerry Juhl
Starring: Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, David Goelz

"I didn't promise anybody anything. What do I know about Hollywood, anyway? Just a dream I got from sitting through too many double features." Kermit (Henson) and the gang first meet during Kermit's voyage to Hollywood to become an entertainer.

I hope the Muppets are around forever. This movie works both in terms of script and technically just as well as it did over thirty years ago.  I just wish I had gotten around to it sooner. Still need to see Caper and Manhattan, but I'm looking forward to what Segel's done with it even more now. A+

June 24, 2011

American Splendor - 2003

Directors: Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini
Writers: Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, Judah Friedlander, James Urbaniak

"Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff." Curmudgeonly file clerk Harvey Pekar (Giamatti) rises to fame by publication of a series of comics entitled American Splendor, marries one of his fans (Davis) after a week of knowing her, and battles cancer. The real Pekar narrates the film, as well as appearing alongside other real-life versions of the folks portrayed onscreen.

It's a biopic, a comic book movie, and a documentary...and somehow manages to do all three superbly. I don't think I've ever seen a movie better cast; the performers are nearly undistinguishable when put next to their real-life counterparts. While it obviously doesn't have the scale of your traditional comic book movie, the story carries it through nevertheless. Think Ghost World, but minus the two girls, and Steve Buscemi is a comic writer. I had wanted to watch this for years, and it completely exceeded my expectations.

Welcome to Collinwood - 2002

Directors: Anthony & Joe Russo
Writers: Anthony & Joe Russo
Starring: Luis Guzman, Patricia Clarkson, Michael Jeter, Andy Davoli, William H. Macy, Isaiah Washington, Sam Rockwell, George Clooney

"This Bellini is starting to look like a real Kapuchnik." While in jail for attempted grand theft auto, Cossimo (Guzman) hears about the heist of a lifetime: an empty apartment separated from a jewelry store by an all-too-thin wall. When his lady on the outside (Clarkson) searches for a patsy to take the fall for his GTA charge, she ends up involving a ragtag band of crooks including a boxer (Rockwell), a virtually-single father with a newborn (Macy), and a wheelchair-bound safecracker (Clooney). Naturally, all does not go as planned.

I never would have heard of this film if it weren't for a brief mention in a film book I read, and I imagine many others haven't either. It played in less than 50 theaters in its widest release, and had the misfortune of being an ensemble heist film the year following Ocean's Eleven. However, the movie is the brainchild of the Russo brothers, later a partial creative force behind Arrested Development and Community, and while it's a humbler version of OE, sans frills, it's still an entertaining watch if you have a couple hours to kill. B

June 18, 2011

Cedar Rapids - 2011

Director: Miguel Arteta
Writer: Phil Johnston
Starring: Ed Helms, Isaiah Whitlock Jr., John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Root

"There's palm trees, the whole place smells like chlorine...it's like I'm in Barbados or somewhere." Small-town idealist Tim Lippe (Helms) is sent to the big insurance convention after the usual participant dies in an autoerotic asphyxiation accident. He gets his first taste of big city life, and all the glory and debauchery that comes along with it.

It was really strange watching this film during summer blockbuster season, as it's entirely lacking the sheer scope that your typical summer films have. However, that's ultimately what makes the movie work.  This is, at the end of the day, watching Ed Helms be a country bumpkin and having to cope with the situation he's been thrown into. It's a bit darker than trailers would lead you to believe, but there's humor, a bit of drama, and most of all, heart. Maybe if word gets out, people can look to this for Ed Helms's talent (as well as that of the supporting cast) instead of something disappointingly mainstream like The Hangover.

Tree of Life - 2011

Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain

"There are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace."

I'm not going to lie to you: I don't get this movie, in any form whatsoever. The structure's nonlinear, characters from different points in the timeline coexist at a certain point, there's a kid walking around with a partially shaved head for reasons that are never explained...oh, yeah, and after a brief opening bit depicting Pitt as the (eventually semi-abusive) patriarch of a family in the 1950s, as well as Penn playing an adult version of one of his sons modern-day, we're treated to a montage of the Bing Bang, early evolution, and some dinosaurs. We could have had a nice little film exploring the dynamic of the '50s family, maybe told through flashback of Penn's character, but instead, we have...whatever this is. The cast gives some great performances, even the kids (superlative to that of Super 8 at times), and the cinematography is gorgeous, but the script just isn't the sort I enjoy. Fincher and Nolan did, though, so maybe you might. C

June 17, 2011

Green Lantern - 2011

Director: Martin Campbell
Writers: Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim, and Michael Goldenberg
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard, Mark Strong, Michael Clarke Duncan, Geoffrey Rush

"In brightest day, in blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight. Let all who worship evil's might beware my power, Green Lantern's light!" Cocky jet fighter pilot Hal Jordan (Reynolds) has his fearlessness truly tested when recruited by the Green Lantern Corps, an intergalactic police force, to help combat the Corp's greatest enemy, a being of fear known as Parallax.

Once again, it's time for me to break ranks with the critical consensus. Green Lantern currently has a 22% on RottenTomatoes, but I have no idea what movie that 78% of the reviewers saw, because this was far from bad. Campbell cast the film superbly (Sarsgaard has traces of Malkovich, and Duncan is spot-on), the script is well-paced, and the much-maligned-in-production special effects never cease to amaze. I've even heard that the 3D (only used when off-Earth) is pretty good. Also, keep an eye out for a Marvel-inspired construct in Hal's training scene. However, the film's not without its issues. A couple big changes to the source material really bothered me, but I tried to overlook those and view this just as a movie on its own merit. The villain's appearance got laughs  a couple times when he came onscreen; if the audience won't fear a villain, how can they expect the hero to fear him? In addition, a few scenes involving large crowds and mayhem have the crowds not freaking out as soon as I'd imagine they would have.  As soon as something bad starts happening, that's when you run like hell. All issues aside, it looks great on the big screen, and it'd be a crime to not continue the series's rich mythology. Speaking of which....stay through the first section of credits. A-

June 13, 2011

Midnight in Paris - 2011

Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Michael Sheen, Carla Bruni

Gil (Wilson), a Hollywood screenwriter struggling with his first novel, travels to Paris with his fiancee (McAdams). He quickly falls in love with the city, only to find that after the clock strikes midnight, it becomes quite a different city, and he begins an experience he desires to be a part of even more.

How many filmmakers have put out a film virtually every single year for their entire careers? Next to none. How many have done this for four decades, with an above average level of success? One, and this is definitely one of his great ones. Owen Wilson gives a great performance as the Allen surrogate, talking about Paris the way that Allen talked about New York City back in the day. Familiar like "pseudo-intellectual" and "crypto-fascist" make an appearance to the chagrin of die-hards, and fans of Purple Rose of Cairo specifically will likely enjoy what is on the surface an inversion of that film's plot, as it surprisingly never feels stale. I'm trying to keep a bit of mystery around this one, so you all might actually go out and support the hardest working man in the business, so I won't say much more (the trailer tells you next to nothing about how incredible the film gets), but there's a much larger cast than I've mentioned, and each performance is more enjoyable than the last. This film has all the heart, charm, and laughs of any of his classics, and I can't wait to see what he does with Jesse Eisenberg and Ellen Page in Rome next year. A

June 10, 2011

My Left Foot - 1989

Director: Jim Sheridan
Writers: Jim Sheridan & Shane Connaughton
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Brenda Fricker, Ray McAnally

The true story of Christy Brown (Day-Lewis), a man born with a severe case of cerebral palsy, who overcomes his debilitating condition to become a renowned Irish poet, artist, and author.

The film's the most heartwarming true story I've ever seen on celluloid, and it firmly cements DDL as the best actor of all time in my mind. Saying anything more would be entirely superfluous. A+

Super 8 - 2011

Director: JJ Abrams
Writer: JJ Abrams
Starring: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler

"In the summer of 1979, a group of friends in a small Ohio town witness a catastrophic train crash while making a super 8 movie and soon suspect that it was not an accident. Shortly after, unusual disappearances and inexplicable events begin to take place in town, and the local deputy tries to uncover the truth - something more terrifying than any of them could have imagined." [Plot summary taken from IMDB]

If you're familiar with the media juggernaut that is JJ Abrams, you're no stranger to his latest project. As with others, he enacted a viral marketing campaign with quite a bit of buzz in proportion to information that was actually revealed. With Super 8, Abrams set out to honor the early work of Steven Spielberg, and not only succeeded in that regard, but made what I'm comfortable calling the perfect summer movie. The characters aren't flat (and the child actors come through in spades, especially Fanning), the plot is gripping and unpredictable, set design's spot on for the era...all in all, it's near-perfect. Abrams is having trouble shaking off his attachment to lens flare that was brought to our attention in his Star Trek reboot, and when you finally get a clear glimpse of what the military's been hiding, it looks rather similar to a certain other something that Abrams has ties to, but it's a small price to pay for a film that's as overwhelmingly entertaining as Super 8. A

June 7, 2011

Revenge of the Nerds - 1984

Director: Jeff Kanew
Writers: Jeff Buhai, Miguel Tejada-Flores, Steve Zacharias
Starring: Robert Carradine, Anthony Edwards, Curtis Armstrong, Timothy Busfield

"I just wanted to say that I'm a nerd, and I'm here tonight to stand up for the rights of other nerds. I mean uh, all our lives we've been laughed at and made to feel inferior. And tonight, those bastards, they trashed our house. Why? Cause we're smart? Cause we look different? Well, we're not. I'm a nerd, and uh, I'm pretty proud of it." Upon having their residence burned down by the Alpha Betas, the head fraternity on campus, Lewis (Carradine) and Gilbert (Edwards) lead a ragtag band of misfits in an attempt to gain mass social acceptance.

This is one of those classics I've just now gotten around to seeing, so there's only so much I can say that hasn't been said in the past quarter century. I first heard about this movie via I Love the 80s, so naturally I knew a lot plotwise going into it...and it didn't matter one iota. The performances are great, and while the script had promise, a lot of the best lines were apparently ad-libbed. Aside from the leads, you've got a nice supporting role from John Goodman, and even a brief appearance from a younger James Cromwell. The only bad parts of this movie in my opinion would be the raging stereotypes of the Asian and homosexual characters; it dates the film and seems outright offensive through modern eyes. Then again, I'm sure it's preferable on the whole to the remake that thankfully got scrapped recently. A

Cave of Forgotten Dreams - 2011

Director: Werner Herzog

"Will we ever be able to understand the vision of the artists across such an abyss of time?" For the first time ever, the Chauvet caves of southern France are open to someone aside from the select few scientists who conduct an annual exploration inside the cave. In the span of one week, Herzog and his skeleton crew are allowed a total of 24 hours to film the world's oldest cave paintings in an attempt to bring their majesty to worldwide audiences.

I traveled an hour and paid $14 to see this film. I'd say it's worth one or the other, but not both. Now, don't get me wrong; that's not to say I didn't enjoy it. Herzog is a great storyteller (I plan to see another one of his films soon), and he uses the 3D technology to give the audience a great sense of the spatial aspect of the caves. Yeah, I saw it in 3D, hence the price (and Herzog's career-best opening weekend, box office-wise). This and Martin Scorsese's Hugo Cabret will be the only 3D choices for the year. To get back on topic, it's a relatively interesting subject (especially for the anthropology folks out there), and surprisingly short at only 90 minutes. While I prefer the human interest pieces, at least it's not a stuffy issue film. Might be an Oscar contender, but I can't say for sure. B

June 3, 2011

X-Men: First Class - 2011

Director: Matthew Vaughn
Writers: Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, & Matthew Vaughn
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, January Jones, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Zoe Kravitz

"We have it in us to be the better men. Now's the time to prove it." After Charles Xavier (McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Fassbender) meet, they recruit a young team of misfits to stop the evil Sebastian Shaw (Bacon) from unleashing World War III by pushing Cold War brinksmanship to its breaking point.

OH MY GOD YOU GUYS THIS MOVIE. If you've been following the X-franchise from its beginning 11 years ago, you know that the last two films faltered a bit; while X-Men and X2: X-men United both scored in the 80s on RottenTomatoes, whereas X-Men: the Last Stand dropped to 57% and the series bottomed out at 37% with X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Thankfully, however (at least with Vaughn at the helm), the days of being ashamed of the greatest mutant team are long gone. In fact, I'd go as far as to say this film is the best of the franchise, and on par with (if not better than) The Dark Knight. Blasphemy, I know, but it's the truth in my eyes. Sure, it won't please the purists (but what film can?), and even I as a semi-knowledgeable comic book geek had one major continuity issue, but it was wholly satisfying otherwise. We get to delve into backstory of mutants we already know, get introduced to a great deal more (all but one of whom get lines), and explore great psychological themes and the historical rammifications of how normal folk first learned about the existence of the "mutant menace." There's a lot of nice nods to the other films and the comics, as well as a great lampshading of how the codenames arise, and Fassbender and McAvoy do a great job filling the shoes left by McKellen and Stewart without doing impersonations. The action pieces are perfect, in the sense that you feel real concern for the fate of characters that you know will survive thanks to the existing trilogy, and the effects are great. They even manage to explain away Emma Frost's routinely skimpy outfits in an entirely believeable manner, which is a feat all by itself. Oh, and while Stan Lee's usual cameo is strangely absent from this film, there's an even better one, so look forward to that. A+

June 2, 2011

Gentlemen Broncos - 2009

Director: Jared Hess
Writers: Jared & Jerusha Hess
Starring: Michael Angarano, Jennifer Coolidge, Jemaine Clement, Sam Rockwell, Mike White, Hector Jimenez

"Oh my holy crap, surveillance does... I hate those. This is ridiculous, that's the most well guarded yeast factory I've ever seen!" Aspiring sci-fi writer Benjamin (Angarano) finds his life turned upside down when his latest work is stolen by famed author Roland Chevalier (Clement) while simultaneously being poorly adapted by local filmmaker Lonnie Donaho (Jimenez).

I'm going to keep this short: Michael Angarano and Sam Rockwell are spectacular in this movie. Angarano is the only whole character, while everyone else is the over-the-top weird-for-weird's-sake-type. Rockwell portrays the protagonist of the book within the film, and the duality of the two versions of the character is sublime. However, the Hesses have once again missed the mark completely. Napoleon Dynamite was like catching lightning in a bottle, and it's just not going to happen for them again.

June 1, 2011

Megamind - 2010

Director: Tom McGrath
Writers: Alan J. Schoolcraft & Brent Simons
Starring: Will Ferrell, Brad Pitt, Tina Fey, David Cross, Jonah Hill

"I was destined to be a supervillain, and we were destined to be rivals! The die was cast! And so began an epic enduring lifelong career... and I LOVED IT!" Megamind (Ferrell), the stereotypical villain to the end, finally defeats Metro Man (Pitt), and is faced with an existential crisis when he is suddenly missing an unstoppable force to counter his immovable object.

I'll get straight to the point: this movie is about non-DC-owned versions of Superman and extraterrestrial antagonist thereof Braniac, with Tina Fey and Jonah Hill playing the Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen characters (the latter of which is named for two of the Green Lanterns, for some reason). While this might seem to be a lack of creativity on behalf of the writers, I'll actually give them credit for this one. Having characters be as identifiable as these are really enhances how the writers play with traditional superhero tropes, which they do in spectacular ways. The voice work is pretty good; everyone is at least a decent fit to their roles, especially Brad Pitt as the substitute Superman. I wasn't really a fan of Jonah Hill, but I guess everyone has to start playing adults eventually. As most Dreamworks CGI films do, it also relies very heavily on music from "our" universe, which I'm never a fan of, but this one halfway makes that work, too. Definitely a fun, entertaining little film, though not an Oscar contender by any means. B