Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Film Faves: 2005

Welcome to the fifth edition of Film Faves!  This time I revisit 2005, the year in which George Bush incomprehensibly began his second term, Pope John Paul II died, Saddam Hussein went on trial, and Bob Geldof organized Live 8.

Before I continue, I should say that the purpose behind Film Faves is not to offer you the best in film for that year.  It is my biased, fun list of the movies I enjoyed most from any given year.  Instead of a top 10 list with honorable mentions tacked on at the end, I make a list of twelve (12) movies that I enjoyed and recommend the most.

So, 2005 was a really good year for movies, but it wasn't without its share of crap (Hollywood will be Hollywood, after all).  Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire; The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe; and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory had not only some of the longest titles to a movie in that year, if not ever, but also were among the highest-grossing movies of the year.  Crash won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2005.  Also among the highlights released that year: The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Kung Fu Hustle, Fever Pitch, Unleashed (aka Danny the Dog), March of the Penguins, A History of Violence, and Good Night, and Good Luck.   Unfortunately, what was also released that year was Elektra, Fantastic Four, Madagascar, Stealth, The Legend of Zorro, Rent, and Wolf Creek.  But my favorites were:


12. Star Wars Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith

Say what you will about the weak dialogue, the kiddie-friendly robots, the hugely broad acting, the CGI, or the prequels’ inferiority to the original trilogy – this chapter accomplished everything it needed to; all loose ends were tied with this gap-bridging finale. We learned how Palpatine became emperor, how Anakin and Padme were separated (as well as the newborn twins), how the Jedi Council and school fell under the might of the Dark Side, and how Skywalker, Sr. became severely wounded and turned into Lord Vader. As a long-time fan that worried for five years whether Lucas would successfully recall every needed detail, I couldn’t help but be satisfied (if only Vader’s appearance at the end weren’t so campy). It’s still not on par with any of the original films… but as close as Lucas ever got.

11. Red Eye

A surprise for anybody who paid it any attention, Red Eye is one of Wes Craven’s few departures from straight horror. Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later) stars as a charmer who happens to share the same flight as Rachel McAdams. Of course, there’s more to him than coincidence and charm. Just like its brilliant trailer, the film initially appears to be a meet-cute romance, but tension slowly builds, as do the thrills. As is the case with most great thrillers, Red Eye takes its time and trusts its audience rather than jumping to the scares as soon as possible. Murphy is excellent as a love-to-hate adversary and McAdams proves her worth in her first non-romantic starring role.

10. Bride & Prejudice

I admit, this musical romantic comedy was initially released through most of the world in 2004. But its release just before Valentine’s Day in the U.S. made it eligible for this list. Bride & Prejudice is an India-flavored take on Jane Austin’s novel, directed by Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham). A colorful and musical delight that makes Indian culture – and its women – so appealing you’ll want to seek them out yourself right after the credits roll. The commentary on westernized Indians is amusing also. It’s worth noting that this is the film that made Aishwarya Rai a cross-over hit from Bollywood to Hollywood. Lost’s Naveen Andrews also makes an appearance in this overlooked crowd-pleaser.

9. Hard Candy

A 14 year-old girl meets up with a thirty-something Nice Guy she met online over the prospect of a photo shoot. As he takes her to his place, it appears he’s a pedophile luring his newest innocent into his lair. But who has caught who? And to what end? Though she’d had over ten other roles previously, Hard Candy is what debuted Juno’s Ellen Page to most audiences – and with great critical praise. Her performance is mature beyond her years. To say more would be to spoil this unique thriller that may cause you to question your feelings about corporeal punishment and sex offenders. Even if it doesn’t, it’s guaranteed to stick with you. Directed by David Slade of 30 Days of Night and this summer’s third Twilight film, Eclipse.

8. Walk the Line

This is how a biopic is done. Rather than focusing on a cradle-to-grave storyline, screenwriter Gill Dennis (whose only past writing credit was 1985’s Return to Oz) chose to focus on the beginnings of Cash’s love of June Carter, reaching as far back as a boy listening to the Carter family on the radio. It supposes that all of Cash’s destructive behavior was in part motivated by his rocky and epic courtship of his future wife. That may sound thin, but everything in this works. Dialogue is recalled effectively throughout, the singing is uncanny, and the leads give the best performances of their careers and that year. Phoenix is perfectly cast as Cash and Witherspoon really digs in and solidifies herself as a dramatic actress.

7. Brokeback Mountain

I’ve already sung the praises of this cinematic western poem when I named it the 4th greatest film of the decade, so I have little more to say here. I will say that upon repeated viewing, naming this among the ten greatest films of the past ten years is no hyperbole. The handling of the story and its performances really held up. As time moves further beyond the cloud of its reputation during its release it’s nice to know this film can stand on its own with future audiences.

6. Wedding Crashers

Wedding Crashers was without doubt the crowning comedy to be unveiled in 2005. From the ‘Shout!’ montage early on to the touch football and dinner table scenes, Wedding Crashers was like that laugh-a-minute best man that you can’t help enjoy being around. While it seems a vehicle for Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughan, it really is Vaughan’s show as he’s drawing the big laughs by constantly being put-upon and desperately trying to escape the sultry paws of the kooky yet irresistible Isla Fisher. Credit must also go to Rachel McAdams who is a worthwhile and appealing love interest despite her “you lied to me!” moment. Yes, it could’ve done without the Will Ferrell departure and been trimmed by a few minutes, but the movie remains a feel-good romp and one of my favorite comedies of the past decade.

5. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

This is quite probably the best possible adaptation of a rather un-cinematic, quirky sci-fi comedy novel. The movie captures just about everything that I loved about the source novel, which was one of the first reads to make me laugh out loud. Where else will you find singing dolphins, intergalactic bureaucracy, an empathy laser, and malevolent mice? A perfectly cast assortment of English and American actors were assembled here including Mos Def, Zooey Deschanel, Martin Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Bill Nighy, Alan Rickman, and Sam Rockwell. Who wouldn’t regret not taking Zooey Deschanel to Madagascar (not the DreamWorks variety) or jump at an improbable second chance with her? If you have yet to see The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy then you are missing out on one of the most unusual and hilarious sci-fi comedies ever filmed. Just remember to bring a towel.

4. Sin City

This is a movie that couldn’t have been filmed as well in the ‘90s, no matter how much certain filmmakers wanted to. This could’ve been a horribly-acted and misguided mess. Robert Rodriguez made a wise choice to involve the creator to the fullest extent possible, cast a huge list of talent to draw in audiences, and take the material seriously. None of its heroes are pleasant, but they are redeeming – especially Marv, Micky Rourke’s broken and vengeful brute who gave him a comeback role that would lead to accolades four years later in The Wrestler. It’s important to note Elijah Wood’s participation in this film. The fact that Wood decided to go from such a beloved, iconic character as Frodo to something as cold and menacing as the cannibalistic Kevin shows great bravery as an actor and solidifies him as an actor to watch out for. Sin City is fun, violent, sexy, and a bit trashy, but nothing less than excellent.

3. King Kong

Bloated? Masturbatory? Not in the least! I recently re-watched this epic adventure to be sure I wasn’t hallucinating this film’s awesomeness years ago. Thankfully, I wasn’t and it is an adventure film that holds up in every way possible. Typically, remakes of classics are a terrible idea (case in point, the 1970s Jessica Lange remake). But director Peter Jackson is such a lover of the original he knew that trying to replace it was foolish. So, he didn’t and instead embraced it (notice several references to the original), fleshed the story out (to a whopping three hours!), tossed out racial stereotypes (thereby making the natives terrifying instead of hokey), and improved upon the special effects (by using Andy Serkis to model for the CGI Kong). He wanted today’s audience to look again at Kong with the same slack-jawed astonishment as audiences did in the early ‘30s. He succeeded. But Jackson was also careful not to make King Kong just an effects epic on par with Roland and Emmerich’s Godzilla. He knew the Beauty & Beast emotional connection was imperative, so King Kong is every bit as much a moving love story as it is an exciting effects adventure. It is a film not to be undermined and is worth every minute of its run-time.

2. Serenity

Do you need to be a Browncoat (devoted fans of the short-lived sci-fi / western TV show Firefly) in order to enjoy Serenity? Absolutely not – but you may want to be after seeing this roller-coaster ride. A group of space smugglers discover they are harboring a psychic youth that is wanted by very powerful and dangerous people. It’s a chase film, but a very fun chase film, which comes as no surprise since it is directed by creator Joss Whedon and stars Nathan Fillion, who has yet to star in a bad movie (knock on wood). If you’ve seen the TV show, you’ll appreciate the story more as it closes the book on these characters. If you haven’t seen the show, but already enjoyed Serenity – what are you waiting for? Regardless, Serenity is a fun movie on its own terms or as part of a whole and one of the best sci-fi action films in recent memory.

1. Batman Begins

If you’ll recall, before 2005 everyone’s last memory of Batman on the big screen was nipples, groan-inducing dialogue, obnoxious visuals, and hammy direction; this was Batman & Robin. The initial announcement of another Batman movie was met with annoyance, but the announcement of a clean-slate approach helmed by Christopher Nolan, director of Memento, was met with eager hopefulness. Anticipation mounted as more and more details about the film and its direction were released. Christian Bale (An American Psycho) as Batman. Michael Cane (The Cider House Rules) as Alfred Pennyworth. Gary Oldman (JFK, Dracula, Leon) as Jim Gordon. Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later) as Scarecrow. All of these are well-known and respected actors at this point. Murphy was the relative newcomer, but 2005 proved to be his year to prove he could do villain. Anyway, Batman Begins took the characters and its world down a notch in terms of theatrics below where it had ever gone before. Nolan took the subject seriously and made the best Batman movie ever… that is, until he released The Dark Knight.

Those are my favorite films of 2005.  Many of them were among the most popular of the year, but I know I threw in a couple lesser-known films.  If there is a film or two you're not familiar with, I highly recommend you check it out.  With the probable exception of Star Wars Episode III, you're not likely to be disappointed by any of these.  Let me know what you think!  What are some of your favorite movies of 2005?  Leave a comment below, on Facebook, Twitter, or email me.

Next time on Film Faves, is 2004 the greatest year in film of the last decade?  Webs will be slung and the dead will rise!  See you then.

The Messenger Delivers Compelling Performances

Last week, The Messenger, a film that went under many people’s radar due to its limited release, became available on DVD. Aside from Woody Harrelson’s Oscar nomination, it seems many people are unfamiliar with this movie. It deserves more attention than it’s getting, so I decided to write about it in order to hopefully turn more heads in its direction.

The Messenger is about two Casualty Notification Officers and how the work they do affects them, how they affect each other and the lives of people who receive their messages, and how their personal and wartime experiences affect their perspective of the job. In the past, we’ve seen movies about soldiers on the battlefield (Sands of Iwo Jima, Platoon), movies about rescue operations during war (Saving Private Ryan), mysteries about what happened during battle (Courage Under Fire), and ones about what happens to the soldiers when they return home (The Best Years of Our Lives, The Lucky Ones, Brothers). As far as I can recall, The Messenger is the first movie to focus primarily on the CNOs – and that makes it unique and intriguing, because it is a subject that carries with it a lot of drama.

This level of drama requires quality acting chops and The Messenger is fortunate in that regard. Yes, Woody Harrelson is very good as an unsentimental, callous, and lonely officer who takes his work very seriously, yet sees it as a “hit and get out operation”. But the real stand-out in this film is Ben Foster. Foster has floundered as a recognizable face for years in Freaks & Geeks, Six Feet Under, X-Men: The Last Stand, 30 Days of Night, and 3:10 to Yuma. The Messenger is his moment to finally shine. His character is apathetic, disinterested, and cares very little about his assignment or courtesy for others. His effect on those around him and his own change is played with a striking satisfaction that keeps you engaged in the story. Foster’s performance is reason enough to watch this movie.

The other aspect of The Messenger that keeps it interesting is how it handles its subject matter. There is nothing saccharine or sugar-coated about this film; it is completely devoid of any score to manipulate your emotions. Each notification scene is played out plainly with reactions from next of kin as raw and genuine as the real thing. This helps the audience share in the uncomfortable situations the officers are put in over and over again each day. It is a refreshing approach, since any Hollywood director would’ve been less confident about simply letting the scenes play out instead of going big and sentimental.

The Messenger isn’t perfect however, as it fails to occasionally make clear why the lead characters do some of the things they do. Why does Foster’s character shift toward caring for another person? Why does Harrelson’s character begin to crumble? The characters are performed without fault in everything they do, but the script fails to occasionally convey the why’s of its plotting.

Regardless, this is a very good film that deserves to be added to more Netflix accounts and be seen. Its subject is very interesting and handled better than that of most films despite its occasional ambiguity. The performances are very strong – especially by Ben Foster - and keep you involved even when the writing falters a bit.


Should you see it? Rent

The Messenger is available now on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Iron Man gets bulky with sequel

In 2008, Jon Favreau and Robert Downey, Jr. teamed up to make the first Iron Man movie. It was also the first movie entirely developed by Marvel Studios. The film balanced mile-high excitement with timely subtexts and rich character development, going on to become one of the most successful blockbusters of its summer.

After two years of anticipation, Iron Man 2 has finally arrived. Does it live up to the first movie? Well, not really. But it’s not a complete disappointment either.

In the first ten minutes of the sequel, we are introduced to no less than four plot points:

- a Russian named Ivan Vanko (played menacingly by Mickey Rourke) plots revenge against Tony Stark
- Tony Stark’s heart device (which was implanted in the first film to prevent shrapnel from entering his heart) is slowly poisoning him
- the United States government is fighting over the right to the Iron Man technology as part of the military industrial complex
- Justin Hammer (played by Sam Rockwell), an ineffective military contractor who admires Stark wants political power and a piece of Stark’s success.

That’s a lot to take in for a superhero popcorn flick. But in the following twenty minutes:

- Stark, playing his personal worries close to the chest, appoints the frazzled Pepper Potts as CEO of Stark Industries
- The friendship between Tony and James Rhodes (previously played by Terrence Howard, is now played by Don Cheadle) becomes strained by Rhodey’s responsibilities to the United States military
- a young assistant from legal named Natalie Rushman (played by Scarlett Johansson) is assigned to aid Potts and presumably keep an eye on Stark’s behavior
- Stark’s behavior starts to become… tipsy
- and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson) is keeping an eye on Stark as part of assembling the Avengers Initiative.

You got all of that?

Well, it’s far more to follow than the leaner, more efficient Iron Man, but Favreau barely manages to avoid buckling under the weight and handles it all rather well. One villain becomes directly related to the other, the seeds and references to other movies are integrated either subtly or in a way that furthers the story, action we’ve come to expect is delivered upon, and some subtext manages to still be slipped in amidst all of this (I can’t explain how this last element is achieved without spoiling anything).

The problem is not just that this is a lot to be squeezed into a two-hour film, but as a result of all this content, character development gets sacrificed. This is the sequel’s biggest flaw, especially since the first film developed its characters so well. What should be an intriguing fight between friends turns into a rock ‘em, sock ‘em mess that’s about as interesting as watching a three year-old slam two action figures against each other for five minutes. Stark’s slide into alcoholic recklessness is played like something you’d see in a Robot Chicken short. And it seems, during his story’s final moments that we should feel something more for Vanko than we do.

Only Pepper Potts, played with great reserve and determination by Gwyneth Paltrow, gets any significant growth. In the first film, Potts was portrayed as a devoted personal assistant who barely tolerated Stark’s late-night ‘trash’ and life-altering career choice. In Iron Man 2, Potts goes from stressed assistant to confident CEO who’s tired of having to manage a Fortune 500 corporation; Tony Stark’s careless behaviors and lifestyle; and her love for Tony, which will never amount to anything because of her job and his actions.

Scarlett Johansson is introduced as the aforementioned Natalie. I don’t think it would spoil anything to share that there’s more to Natalie than her working knowledge of harassment laws. She is actually Natasha Romanoff (a.k.a. Black Widow); an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Johansson has admitted in interviews that she isn’t typically drawn to comics and knew next to nothing about her character. Comic fandom has proven not to be a necessary prerequisite to portraying a superhero well. But Scarlett comes from a history of period films and Woody Allen dramas – and it shows. She mostly seems uncomfortable in her Lycra skin. The only scene where Scarlett is convincing is her one action scene near the end. She gives Iron Man 2 some of its best action moments. This is promising because maybe in a future film (Avengers is preferred over an Elektra-like solo effort) she’ll be allowed the opportunity to grow into and develop her character more.

One of the film’s strengths is Mickey Rourke as Ivan Vanko. Vanko is a third-world physicist whose father has ties to the Stark family. Rourke plays him as cold, menacing, and unpredictable. Vanko is a brute, but a cunning brute whose aim is not to simply kill Tony Stark, rather to ruin his rock-star public image and turn the public against him. This is an intriguing idea, the result of which isn’t handled as overtly as what we saw in The Dark Knight, but does end up posing some questions for the third installment.

There’s much more in Iron Man 2 to keep straight than its predecessor. It’s possible to navigate through, but it’s a lot for a mainstream superhero film. It’s a movie that packs a lot in and is a bit more serious under the surface, but unfortunately a lot of the fun and character got left behind with the first movie.


Should you see it? Rent

Iron Man 2 is in theaters now.

Note: there will be no review next week as I'm taking a vacation.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Remember That Movie: Innerspace

I’ll just come right out and say it: the funniest movie I’ve seen in 2010 is not from this year. It is from 1987 and the movie is Innerspace.

Innerspace stars Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan, Martin Short, Henry Gibson, Kevin McCarthy, and Robert Picardo and is directed by Joe Dante (Gremlins, The Howling, The Explorers). It is a sci-fi comedy featuring Quaid as drunken charmer Tuck Pendleton, an astronaut who signs up for a secret miniaturization experiment. The plan is for Tuck to be shrunken to microscopic size while in a pod and injected into a rabbit, at which point he’d run a few tests regarding the technology of the pod and the biology of the animal. However, just as Tuck is miniaturized, a terrorist group storms the lab, looking to obtain the miniaturized pod and the experiment’s necessary tech. Why? It’s explained that Kevin McCarthy - starring as Victor Scrimshaw, a wealthy villain straight out of a cheesy Bond film - wants to sell the miniaturization tech to the highest-bidding nation.

It is here that I must pause for a moment. I want you to imagine: you’re a nervy, spastic person who’s having terrible nightmares about an old redheaded lady pulling a gun on you at the supermarket. You’ve seen your doctor so many times that he considers you his biggest financial asset. He recommends you take a relaxing vacation. All you want to do is get away to someplace with zero excitement. But as you’re leaving the mall, somebody suddenly injects you with something before dying at your feet - and the next thing you know, your eye feels like its been stabbed with a needle and you hear a voice in your head trying to strike up a conversation. To top it off, somebody is trying to kill you!

Meet Jack Putter, played by Martin Short in only his second film (Three Amigos! was his first). Short provides Innerspace with its biggest laughs, using his talent for neurotic, pratfall-prone physical comedy in what may be the best performance of his career. Putter unwittingly becomes the host of Pendleton’s oblivious speck, which is what throws him into an exciting and relentless adventure with car chases, stakeouts, an escape from a mobile meat locker, run-ins with an assassin that can kill by literally pointing at you - and love. This is not exactly a cruise in the Bahamas, but Putter becomes a better man because of it, which is fun to watch.

Meg Ryan is Pendleton’s investigative reporter girlfriend (back when reporters actually did more than report what was spoon-fed to them). She gets roped into helping the hapless Putter, while inside him floats the man who broke her heart one too many times. It just so happens she’s also tailing an international tech dealer called The Cowboy, played with extra cheese by Robert Picardo. Ryan could’ve been nothing more than The Girlfriend, but being the object of Pendleton and Putter’s affections, she becomes the heart of the movie. In part, through her presence, the characters and the audience learn the real excitement is not the cool action and villains but what is inside us, both literally and figuratively.

That gets to what is one of the most impressive things about Innerspace: the special effects. This may make me a product of the ‘90s CGI boom, but I’m not sure how effects like those in this movie were done without a computer. Much of the film takes place inside Putter’s body, showing us everything from the back of his eyeball to his pumping heart to the inside of his stomach. None of it looks dated and all of it still looks incredible. When Pendleton is at risk of being pumped into Putter’s heart, thereby possibly causing cardiac arrest, we believe the danger and are fully engaged because it looks like we are really inside Martin Short, watching this pod desperately hang on. And don’t even get me started on Putter’s grotesque, yet hilarious face spasms halfway through the movie!

The effects aren’t the only thing that makes Innerspace work. The performances – with Martin Short’s physical comedy and his chemistry with Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan – really help make this more than an ‘effects film’. It has a lot of humor, but also a warmth that makes us care about what’s happening.

It’s also worth noting that director Joe Dante knows a thing or two about pacing. He’s not concerned with cutting to the chase; he builds his characters and he builds up the experiment without explicitly telling the audience ahead of time what it is. Dante allows us to catch our breath, have fun, and only includes action that is relevant to moving the story along.

Dante is the director of The Howling, both Gremlins movies, The Explorers, and The ‘burbs. He seems to be having fun here by throwing in actors from his previous movies (Robert Picardo and Kevin McCarthy), his cinematographer John Hora (as Ozzie Wexler), Australian baddie Vernon Wells, and Fiona Lewis, who worked for over 20 years before Innerspace, but has curiously failed to make another film since.

Innerspace isn’t a perfect sci-fi comedy. It sometimes defies logic and consistency, but that never gets in the way of the comedy and fun. If you don’t remember this movie or have never heard of it then I highly recommend hunting it down. I laughed a lot!


Should you see it? Rent

Innerspace is available on DVD.