Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy 2011! The Worst Films of 2010

So here we are. 2010 comes to a close, 2011 is around the corner and, as always, there will be more films to see. Most hail from Hollywood, CA, but hundreds of films are also released globally every year, and damned if I won't be seeing at least some of them. 2011 promises to get a more comprehensive look from The Latest Issue, certainly more than 2010, when I basically started in May and was playing catch-up all year. I don't know how long it will take me to see everything I wanted from 2010, but 2011 promises to bring much more to the site, and I'm glad to say I'm ready for it. Big changes are on the horizon, and I wouldn't be here without the support of readers like yourself, or the random Google clicks that brings the rest of you to the site. As many of you already know, I already have a running tally of my Top 10 Films from 2010, based obviously on what I've watched this year. I like to think it's a fairly varied list, representative of the different styles of film I've enjoyed this year, but today I'm doing something different. Today I'm presenting to you (in my opinion) the worst films of 2010. With luck, you haven't seen any of these atrocities, but if you did at least you can live with the comfort that you weren't the only one who saw it and thought it was donkey dung. So without further ado, let's get this show started.

10) Machete
What makes a great short piece does not necessarily make a great film. The original trailer for Machete was a gag shown during Grindhouse back in 2007, but director Robert Rodriguez obviously thought he had a big deal on his hands, because he copy-pasted the silly story into a full-length piece of schlock. Hiring just about every actor in Hollywood with a bit of Latin in their veins, low-lights included Jessica Alba lamely inciting Mexican rebellion and hero Machete's anticlimactic battle with... Steven Seagal? Enjoyable if you shut off all outward sensory nodes, but what might have seemed like vintage exploitation film to the filmmakers comes off as pure crap stuck together with play-doh.

9) Iron Man 2
How do you follow up the surprising and innovative superhero action film that suddenly thrust Marvel Comics films into relevance? If you're director (and occasional actor) Jon Favreau, you take everything that made the original film so cool and throw it out the window of a Concord jet crossing the Atlantic, thereby ensuring it can never be recovered. Even getting past the unjustified firing of Terrence Howard and replacing the role of James "War Machine" Rhodes with Don Cheadle, the film simply lacks even the remotest amount of excitement that made the first so much fun to watch. Scarlett Johansson is completely miscast as Russian agent Natasha Romanoff (though she does have the best scene in the entire film) and Mickey Rourke played a bad guy that was so silly it was difficult to take him seriously. Hopes are high for forthcoming sequels and the Avengers movie, but this one failed to live up to even moderate expectations.

8) Hereafter
Clint Eastwood WOULD make the idea of what lies beyond the end of life dull beyond words. Despite an intriguing concept, Eastwood's latest effort reeks of formulaic storytelling, missed opportunities and characters we don't particularly care about, and for what reason I still can't fathom. Is he trying to get people to talk about the afterlife? Something people don't want to think about? Either way, wasted are performances by Matt Damon, Cecile de France and Bryce Dallas Howard on a script where no answers are really offered, and the whole thing reeks of an advertisement for New Age beliefs and practices.

7) The Tempest
I'll get more into this one on Monday, but here's the skinny: I'll normally watch Helen Mirren in anything, but this bloated retread of Shakespeare by director Julie Taymor is flat out boring, something the Bard should NEVER be in performance. Vacillating between low-tech theatrics and big-budget charlatanism, the film takes some big risks in casting and while some work out better than planned (Chris Cooper), others beg for forgiveness (Russell Brand). Also: Ariel's (Ben Whishaw) man-boobs. Disturbing.

6) The Warrior's Way
Hey, you got your Cowboy Western in my East Asian Fantasy! You got your East Asian Fantasy into my Cowboy Western! Wow, the two together taste like shit! Ninjas invade a small wild west town and not even strong performances by Geoffrey Rush and Jang Dong-gun and a cute baby can save them. Kate Bosworth should have been nominated for a Razzie, but I guess not enough people saw this film to give a damn to do even that. Worst: The best line in the trailer, Rush's "Ninja's, Damn," doesn't make an appearance once throughout the film's 100 minutes. Epic fail.

5) Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
From Jerry Bruckheimer, the maker of films like the horrid Pirates of the Caribbean sequels and G-Force, comes possibly the worst video game to movie adaptation since Doom. He must have asked Uwe Boll for assistance, because while the games for Prince of Persia are amazing experiences, the transformation reveals a film that would have needed more time polishing the special effects just to reach "mediocre" status. Besides the fact that American actor Jake Gyllenhaal should never have been cast as a Persian monarch under even the best of circumstances, any film hiring Ben Kingsley at this point in his career is just screaming that it could do better. That it was successful makes it even worse, since in 2012 it will be getting it's own sequel that you know will probably be on this list as well.

4) Repo Men
A futuristic sci-fi warning about the inherent dangers of Big Business? Based on a book that nobody cares about? With a lead actor, Jude Law, that I don't care for? I'm surprised that Repo Men didn't score higher on the list, but the film would have been worse without the almost criminal amounts of bloodletting that wrap around a plot that goes from zero to "meh" in what feels like four hours but in reality comes in under two. It should have been better with actors like Forest Whitaker, Alice Braga, Liev Schrieber and Carice van Houten, but the scripts does them no favors, lending entirely too much to Law's voice-overs and requiring a suspension of belief from it's audience that is far too unreasonable. One of the worst movies nobody saw this year.

3) Jonah Hex
Two words: Megan Fox. Okay, it would be unfair to put all the blame for the crime against nature that was Jonah Hex on her pretty little head, but the talent-less she-devil sure didn't help matters. A god-awful script by the duo Neveldine/Taylor didn't help, nor stars Josh Brolin or John Malkovich, who are otherwise good performers. Animator-turned-director Jimmy Hayward simply didn't deserve to be put in charge of this film, and I would find it hilarious if he was put in charge of any production crews in the near future. This title could be considered vintage, if that only meant hearkening back to the days of comic book films automatically being so bad that even fans of the comic hesitated showing their heads. And did I mention an awful acting job by Megan Fox?

2) Skyline
I should have known better. I was warned. I even went in with low expectations hoping to be surprised. Wow, was I wrong. Despite the film's amazing visual effects, the film's scope was so small as to be restrictive to possible story arcs, and not a single character was even remotely likable. The result is a film that had so much potential boiling down to a stupid film starring Eric Balfour, which is what we should have noticed in the first place. I'd rather take next year's Battle L.A., since it seems from previews to be everything Skyline wasn't.

1) Legion
What hurts the most is that this film actually made money. I admit to thinking the theatrical trailer actually looked good when I saw it late last year, but the finished product was ugly, derivative, poorly acted and just generally unclean. I'm sorry, but the idea of God waging war on Earth for its transgressions and an angel played by Paul Bettany rebelling to save the last hope of humanity just SOUNDS too cool to mess up. This film is by far the number one reason I can't get excited for next year's Priest, thanks to the unholy link that is director Scott Stewart. And it was by FAR the worst film of 2010. Nobody else even came close.

I hope you enjoyed this special edition of The Latest Issue! We're washing our hands of 2010's mistakes and hoping for a new, brighter tomorrow, complete with a new month, a new year, and new films worth reviewing.

Happy New Year, and I'll see you in the future.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Over the Rainbow

There's no doubt out there that Sofia Coppola is a talented filmmaker. 2003's Lost in Translation, her award-winning second feature film, is a modern classic and exhibited flawless performances by it's leads, Bill Murray and Scarlet Johansson. It spoke of loneliness, alienation and general ennui, all while in a dramatically different land. It was a haunting film, and one that many artists could have just as easily screwed up than replicated. Coppola's fourth film, Somewhere, has just been released, and seems at first to examine those same themes, while trading the exotic land that is Tokyo for a seemingly much more emotionally remote place: Hollywood.

Scaring Elle with his Christian Slater impersonation
In Somewhere, Stephen Dorff plays... wait, wait a minute. STEPHEN DORFF? Seriously? Wow, congratulations, Stephen! I mean, no offense, but you've NEVER been in such a high-profile film before. I mean, we always KNEW you were an actor, but your films have never been ones that people, you know, watched. I mean, will anyone actually ADMIT to having seen Alone in the Dark, or Shadowboxer, or Space Truckers? That's what I thought. I mean, yeah, I reviewed XIII: The Conspiracy earlier this year, but that was pure chance, not a concerted effort on my part.

Interesting fact (lie): Fanning has in fact been invited to more award shows than Dorff
So anyway, back to what I was saying. In Somewhere, Stephen Dorff plays Hollywood bad boy Johnny Marko, a big-time movie star who lives his life in the lap of luxury, driving around an expensive Ferrari and constantly in the beds of numerous beautiful women. Women want him and men want to be him, and from the outside it would seem he's living every American's fantasy life. On the inside, however, he's extremely dissatisfied and is only truly happy when spending time with his daughter Chloe (Elle Fanning), with whom he has always had a strained relationship due to his work.

...and yet, I can actually more believe Dorff as the big movie star than Monaghan
It's clear from the start that the same themes that moved Lost in Translation forward are ever present in this new film. That loneliness, alienation and boredom is what moves Somewhere's plot as well, but having it take place in Hollywood, where Johnny would seemingly be home, instead of in a strange, faraway land is almost more tragic. It's also reasonable to assume that Coppola took bits from her relationship with her own father, director Francis Ford Coppola, as inspiration for the story. But what's lacking is Translation's ability to pace effectively. We have to sit through several scenes that express excess, boredom, dissatisfaction, loneliness, anxiety and back to excess through dialogue-less, drawn-out scenes in which very little actually happens. While it conveys the film's mood well, it does little to keep the film's story going, while in fact alienating the audience as a result. The story in fact almost seems like a side-note, often over-shadowed by excessive moodiness and feelings of despair.

That reminds me... I need to get the new Rock Band
The acting possibly could have been better, but the focus is almost entirely on the film's leads. Dorff is actually subtle and sensitive as Marko, seeking what little enjoyment he can purchase from his glamorous lifestyle while only truly enjoying the time he spends with his daughter. As strange as the idea may be to feel sorry for a Hollywood big shot, I can actually understand what his character is supposed to be seeking. Marko is stuck on this continual roller coaster of false glimmer and idolization. What he wants is something real, and he rediscovers it when he and Chloe are thrust together unexpectedly. Dorff does this while showing us a side to his persona that we've never seen before. While she's not her sister Dakota talent-wise, Elle Fanning is more than adequate as the attention-starved daughter, Chloe. You can see in her eyes that she loves her father despite all his faults, even while silently disappointed in his bed-hopping ways and his lack of having been around. Fanning is simply a cute kid when she needs to be, but when the time comes to step up, she admirably does the job. Other roles which could have been expanded upon and made more interesting were unfortunately left alone, including those of Laura Chaitti, Michelle Monaghan, Lala Sloatman and Chris Pontius as professional and personal acquaintances of Marko. In practice they are mere window dressing to the duo that is Dorff/Fanning, and while that duo may not have the charm of Murray/Johansson, they come close enough for the audience to be sympathetic towards them.

"So tell me, how are you recovering from your masterbatory injury?"
If Somewhere could survive solely on the performances of its lead actors, it would be the perfect film. Unfortunately, it takes more than great acting to make a top-notch production. I can even overlook some unresolved minor plot points, since this is the type of film in which everything doesn't need excessive tying up of loose threads. With far too many slow patches, a serious lack of secondary players, and an ending that, unlike the rest of the film, is completely devoid of grace and subtlety, I honestly can't say that Somewhere impressed me as a feature film more than it's trailer had. Even the soundtrack headlined by the amazing band Phoenix can't raise the title completely from the doldrums of mediocrity. It may seem unfair to endlessly compare Somewhere to Coppola's earlier masterpiece, but to be blunt she put so many of the elements in that made that possible in the first place. And this film, as good as it is in parts, is no Translation. See it for the strong performances, but not much else.

Somewhere will put your kids to sleep. There, that's the tag line

Monday, December 27, 2010

True Disappointment

John Wayne is no longer the definitive Rooster Cogburn. There, I said it.

Some of my older readers may remember my stint as a comics reviewer a few years back. In the comments field for this review, a discussion began on what actors were the "definitive" versions of the characters they played on screen. The commentators, including several friendly blog authors, bandied about several names, including Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman, George Reeves as Superman and Patrick Warburton as the Tick. Then came the comment of The Opinioness (who went by a different moniker back then), recommending the legendary cowboy actor John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn. My first reaction was obvious: "Who the bleep's Rooster Cogburn?"

Marshall, the best picture award got away!
Backtrack and rewind to 1969, when True Grit was adapted for the silver screen from the novel by Charles Portis. A classic western film, True Grit told the story of US Marshall Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn, a one-eyed, overweight drunk who is supposed to have "grit", or a fearless nature that makes him not one to be messed with. Played by the legendary cowboy actor John Wayne, the film won him his only Academy Award and the movie itself is considered one of the greatest westerns of all time. With any such classic, a retelling would warrant quite a bit of skepticism from anyone wishing to see it, as remakes are often lacking in the same intangibles that made the originals so great. Even with the recent modernized westerns such as 3:10 to Yuma and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford showing such promise, there's still room for doubt. So despite the great trailers preceding this film's release, it was with a bit of uneasiness (and memories of the bitter pill that was the final act of the Coen Brothers' 2008 film, No Country for Old Men) that I went into the theaters Christmas day (keeping a family tradition alive). I was hopeful that what I was about to see would be good, but you can never be sure of anything, even if it's trailer uses Johnny Cash to great effect.

I'm %#@&ing Matt Damon!
Following more closely the story from the book than the original film, True Grit tells the story of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a fourteen-year-old girl in 1800's rural west, whose father was killed by by one of his hired hands while on a business trip. Ross decides to hire  the services of Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), because she's convinced he has "true grit", to hunt down the lowlife Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) since she believes otherwise that justice won't come for the crime of her father's death. With the insistence that she go along, and the unwanted help from a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (Matt Damon), the hunt for Tom Chaney is on, with a wild frontier and a nasty assortment of bandits in between the trio and justice.

If the hat doesn't fit, you must acquit!
For the first three quarters of the film, all you can do is sit back and let the experience of viewing the film wash over you. If you've seen the original film, you can appreciate how some scenes in the new version are complete different than before, and how some scenes were surprisingly untouched. Having never read the book, I'm inclined to think that these changes were to make the story more along the lines of the novel, since that was the Coens' stated intention. The script is also appropriately funny in places. While much of the humor is Rooster's drunken ramblings or the occasional quip from La Boeuf, there are some scenes - like one in which Mattie negotiates to sell back the ponies her father had bought to the original seller to raise money to hire Cogburn - are intentionally gut-bustingly funny. That of course is not to say that this western film has been turned into a situation comedy, just that the Coens still have a good grasp on how and when to use humor effectively.

Rooster needs a smoky smoke to make Mattie more bearable
What was probably the biggest challenge would be recasting the inimitable Cogburn, whose prior performer John Wayne created a permanent retinal image for many a western fan. Nabbing Academy Award winner Bridges was surely not difficult, since he'd worked with the Coens before in 1998's The Big Lebowski, but matching Wayne blow for blow would surely be folly. That's why it's great to see this Rooster Cogburn as less sympathetic and more surly than his earlier contemporary. The original film made Cogburn out to be heroic despite his personal failings while the remake shows him to be more true bastard than true grit. Here, his drinking has real consequences, and while he does worry somewhat about the well-being of Mattie, it's often overshadowed by his demons and violent streak. Bridges, to his credit, never tries to make Rooster too likable to the audience, and his personal faults create a divide between him and his allies almost as deep as those between he and his enemies.

Someone's True Grit is spilling out on the ground as we speak...
The rest of the cast put on notable performances, though none near as effectively as Bridges. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, daughter of "Body by" Jake Steinfeld, is the best of the rest, spunky and resourceful as young teenager Mattie Ross. While purposely annoying at times to the elder characters in the film, Ross's single-minded determination to see justice brought to her father's killer despite the hardships involved is admirable, and Steinfeld's performance conveys everything that is good and right about the character. Texas Ranger La Boeuf has far less focus here than he did in the original film, but it does nothing to lessen Matt Damon's performance as the Ranger hunting Chaney for his own reasons. Damon brings a sense of humor and spirit of adventure to the role, and while it's not his best performance, he does enough to keep the story moving forward and his role is actually more believable here than in the first film's tale. I wasn't sure what to expect from Tom Chaney in this film, if the Coens would decide to make him more vicious, but thankfully Josh Brolin is just as mewling as Jeff Corey was in the original. The fact that Chaney was more pathetic than anything made him surprisingly a more effective villain, and the Coens thankfully realized this as well. Barry Pepper rounds out the cast as "Lucky Ned" Pepper (no relation, I'm guessing), the surprisingly-noble bandit who Chaney throws down with after escaping into no-man's land. Pepper in his small role is believable, though perhaps his character is somewhat less so as a supposedly-ruthless gang leader who seems to at least treat Mattie with some respect when the two characters meet late in the tale.

Like La Beuf with his poor aim, Damon has no shot at an acting award this year
Unfortunately, all the good ideas that appears in the film are halted immediately entering the film's final act. Suddenly this movie becomes dull, lifeless, needlessly dark and practically another story rather than an ending to the one we've been watching to this point. I also didn't like the narration from Mattie Ross's older self, as I thought it was unnecessary and didn't add anything to the story. The ending of the original film might have been a bit hokey, but at least it was a satisfying conclusion, of which we have none here. Even more than the aforementioned No Country for Old Men, the film ends in a most unsavory manner, upending all the good that had happened before it.

"I'm just going to close my eyes now. You just keep on talking"
Of course, unlike that somewhat overrated 2008 film, True Grit was snubbed completely at this year's Golden Globe nominations, despite overwhelming critical acclaim. While Bridges should probably still be recognized for his performance of the legendary US Marshall, it's hard to argue with the results. To be completely honest, True Grit didn't need to be remade, and while the slick modern camerawork, excellent acting by Bridges, good performances by everybody else, and tremendous storytelling all come together for a true visual experience for much of the film, it's the depressingly poor ending that ruins that same experience for us the viewers. When you look at the films instead being nominated for the Best Picture category - The Fighter, Black Swan, The King's Speech, Inception and even The Social Network - I would be severely hard-pressed to argue any of these out to make room for True Grit, especially when I feel The Town was a superior film that had been snubbed. Another disappointment from the Coen Brothers, from whom I haven't seen a truly enjoyable film in years, and who will have to perhaps go back to their roots to rediscover what made their earlier films so great. In the end, while John Wayne may no longer be the definitive Rooster Cogburn, his 1969 film is still the definitive True Grit.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Or: The Trials of Mad King George the Stammerer

This past summer, I thought I wouldn't see a better trailer for a film in 2010 than those for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the comic-based film starring Michael Cera that I had been sure would be my number one film for the year. Sadly, the film did not live up to the standard set by Bryan O'Malley's comic series and while I still loved the film, one check of 2010's Top 10 films shows it not to have made the cut. Such is the danger of overly relying on a film's trailer to be an indicator of sed film's overall quality, and I learned my lesson from that experience not to set my expectations too high, lest I be disappointed again. Of course, Black Swan also had an excellent trailer and actually lived up to the hype, so it can be done. My favorite recent trailer, however, was for a film so completely unlike the two that though it has long been hailed by critics as one of the year's best, I wasn't sure if I would even have interest in seeing it. Of course, I did see The King's Speech yesterday, and now the only problem I have may be deciding where it falls in my Top 10.

Well of course he's having trouble: Who wouldn't in that hat?
The basis for the film comes from the true story of England's King George VI. While still serving as the Duke of York, Prince Albert (Colin Firth) begins to see speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) due to a pronounced stammer that made him terrified of public speaking, The creation of the "wireless" or radio means that the days of a member of the royal family simple being seen well not falling off his horse are over, and the King and his family are now expected to speak to their people through the airwaves. What culminates is a friendship between the future King of England and a commoner that is so unbelievable it must be true.

Don't you just want to buy him a drink?
Directed by noted British director Tom Hooper, The King's Speech is a film that lives and dies by its actors. Firth really pulls off the idea that he's a man with a serious verbal handicap, his speech impediment fully believable in its severity and adjustment throughout the film. The role of the future King George may not be as deep or as subtle as that of George Falconer from last year's excellent A Single Man, but that role was so amazing that to compare most any performance to it would be unfair, even for Firth. Still, Firth is an amazing presence on the screen, accurately and charismatically portraying one of the more famous nobles of the 20'th century with distinction. Rush is equally charming as the speech therapist Logue, whose treatment of the king involved some peculiar methods but mostly emphasized humor, patience and sympathy. Rush is disarmingly funny, but it would be wrong to simply call him a comedian and leave it at that. Logue is instead a strong character in his own right, driven by a need to help others that is admirable, especially in his charging expensive rates for his more affluent clients to cover care for those who can't afford his treatment. Rush is simply amazing, on par with Firth and better than any role I've ever seen him perform. Helena Bonham Carter is a surprise, as the woman who usually plays dark ladies in Tim Burton films proves she still can perform at a high level as the future Queen Elizabeth I. Carter plays both a loving wife and mother and a traditional monarch, and the blend makes for one of her best ever characters. Guy Pearce plays George's brother and predecessor, King Edward VIII, who so obviously doesn't want anything to do with the throne it almost makes you wince. Pearce has taken a step back from high-profile roles in recent years, but this minor role here is a good fit, and he manages to encompass in Edward everything that George has not, including confidence and excessive charm. The only real disappointment in the cast is Timothy Spall, whose attempt at a Winston Churchill impression works to some degree in the voice but looks like a scowling bulldog. For such a well-known historical figure, it would have been nice to get a more suitable actor for the role, as my eyebrows instinctively scrunched up every time he appeared on screen. Smaller roles my Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi, Eve Best and Jennifer Ehle successfully round out a talented cast that do a good job of looking like they fit the times.

Tattoos are just more efficient for note-taking
The sets and camera work is fantastic, with several amazing camera shots of scenes throughout England. Hooper definitely has an eye towards detail, deftly changing angles to best suit the mood he wants to evoke from the audience. The best use of this is when we see through George's eyes, especially in large crowds when he's expected to speak, and we can understand his hesitation and fear to do so. There's also a very old-timey feel to the film quality that makes it feel like a classic period piece while being wholly realistic in its implementation.

Will Firth (or any of the others) get top awards for their performances?
In the end, it was really down to whether to place this highly-renowned film atop my year's Top 10 List. There was little worry going in to see it  that it would rank highly among this year's releases, and reason enough to think it may come out number one. But the idea of the "buddy comedy" comes to mind as I write these words. In your standard buddy film, two characters or completely differing backgrounds coming together for a common cause, and while their differences make for some funny moments for the audience, they eventually come together as friends by the story's conclusion. That fits The King's Speech to a tee... but it also describes about half of Jackie Chan's American films. That I'm comparing Rush Hour to this great film may seem like a slight, I assure you it's not. I simply mean that the story is somewhat formulaic in it's telling, and while it's based on a true story and has outstanding acting, it still drops it slightly in my book. Besides, for a film with such amazing performances, stellar dialogue and beautiful camerawork, landing at #2 for the year isn't a bad deal in the slightest.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Twenty-Eight Years: Worth the Wait

When Tron was released in theaters waaaay back in 1982, it was right on the forefront of what was then a technical revolution. Though you may not think so to look on it now, the film was far more advanced in the special effects department than anything that had come before, and paved the way for generations of big budget special effects blockbusters. Because of Tron's financial success at its release, I'm hesitant to call it a cult classic, but it's obviously difficult to deny the effect this film had on both people and filmmakers, whether or not you could agree on the film's quality.

It's Tron! Oh, wait, it's just Alan
And so all these years later, we finally have a Tron sequel. Tron: Legacy takes place in the modern world, one in which your standard .jpg file is larger than that of the 1982 Grid, the digital universe Kevin Flynn had gotten trapped in so many years ago. In 1989, Flynn (Jeff Bridges reprising his role) disappeared off the face of the planet, leaving behind his tech company, ENCOM, and his young son Sam. Fast-forward to the present day, and Sam (Garrett Hedlund) is still the largest shareholder of ENCOM, but doesn't have much interaction with the company. When his father's friend Alan (Bruce Boxleitner, also reprising his earlier role) arrives with a clue that might lead Sam to find his long-lost father, it sets him on a journey to the very place dear old dad told him stories about in his youth: the Grid.

Looks like somebody's got a battle disc with Sam's name on it
Frankly, any trailer you've seen or commercial you've witnessed advertising this film doesn't do justice to the special effects present here. Granted, I saw Tron: Legacy in a digital 3D Imax theater, and I couldn't really recommend you see this film for the first time in any other capacity, but since the effects are the meat and potatoes of the film-going experience in movies like this, it's a relief to not be let down in this capacity. Like those of Avatar or Resident Evil: Afterlight, the effects do an amazing job of drawing the viewer into the film's atmosphere. Almost everything is impeccably rendered, from the light cycle battles to the flight path of hurled identity discs to the lights of the Grid's great city. The 3D aspects of the film are not necessarily needed, but do add a bit of depth to the effects that are obviously already light-years ahead of the film's predecessor.

Hey, digital boots off the couch!
Like the original film, the sequel has a bevy of acting talent that make their mark on the digital plane. At this point it's obvious Jeff Bridges can do any damned movie he wants, even (and perhaps especially) a Tron sequel. Playing two roles, as the Grid's creator Kevin Flynn and antagonist Clu, Bridges has the opportunity to literally be all over the place, and being not one but two driving forces behind the story is no small task. Bridges does a great job in both roles, matching the patience and paternal instincts of Flynn with the rash arrogance of Clu. Hedlund is surprising good as Flynn the younger, and while the "spurned son looking for his father" role is a bit trite, he makes it work well, and makes a fairly convincing hero. Olivia Wilde is no doubt attractive, but I've yet to see her play a character with much in the way of depth. True, she gets kudos for her role on the TV show House, but that's unfortunately not a show I've been watching and I don't know how good she really is. She seems to be experiencing a career surge right now, but hopefully the roles she gets in the future will be stronger than the mainly useless Quorra, who manages to be both an important plot device and incredibly inconsequential all at the same time. I want to believe Wilde is talented, but I've yet to see her in a role that proves it. Boxleitner appears in no more than a few scenes as Alan, and even fewer as the film's namesake, but that's fine as he's stepping aside to let a younger hero step up. And Michael Sheen is quite entertaining as a flamboyant program who owns a nightclub in the city, which I know sounds weird but you don't think about it when you're watching the movie. Sheen, who has made a name for himself by portraying real-life personalities such as Tony Blair, David Frost and Brian Clough, is positively cheeky in this nice change of pace from his more serious fare.

The digital young Jeff Bridges is scarier than the new, older Jeff Bridges
If there's one complaint to be had with Tron: Legacy, it sadly has to do with the film's main antagonist. Clu is a digitally-represented model of the younger Kevin Flynn. While, when we're seeing Clu on the Grid, he USUALLY looks fine, once in a while - and especially in an early flashback scene when the same style is used to depict a young Flynn - the model looks no more advanced or realistic than those used in the CGI animated film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within... which was back in 2001. When talking about CGI characters, people may make mention of "uncanny valley", which is a robotics term referring to artificial humans. The more realistic and "human-like" you make a synthetic, the more direct a revulsion that creation ellicits from a human audience. It's a problem with most human CGI characters in film, and only children's films seem to not be affected like this, since most human characters in that genre have exaggerrated features to make them more animated. Regardless, being creeped out by the film's antagonist is certainly not a disaster, simply my biggest problem with the film. Some people had problems with the plot and story at parts, but Tron never claimed to be Shakespeare. This was a problem the original film had as well, a weak story overshadowed by state-of-the-art special effects and good acting. I'll let the minor quibbles be handled elsewhere and enjoy the film for what it is.

What, do all digital women just lounge around until needed?
And enjoy it I did! Despite the fact that the original Tron was not a very good film and to outshine it would have not taken an enormous effort, Tron: Legacy took today's technology and told Tron the way people could have only dreamed of doing so almost thirty years ago. The directorial debut of Joseph Kosinski has been a success, if not exactly a perfect opening. Sure the story is silly and hackneyed, I'll fully admit to that. However, the visual spectacle is the main reason you're going to see this film, and the good acting is simply icing the cake. It's got problems, but this sleek, sexy world is unlike anything you've ever seen and even its eventual release on DVD will be impressive if you've got a blu-ray and a sufficiently high-tech entertainment rig. It's my new #10 film for the year, and while it's appearance in the Top 10 will certainly be short-lived, I reiterate my statement that you should absolutely see it in the biggest, loudest movie theater showing it while you can.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A New Year Doth Beckon... But 2010's Films Ain't Done Yet

2010 is coming to a close. In less than two weeks we'll be smack dab in 2011, with a whole new release list of films to watch. January isn't known for it's great film releases; In fact, it would probably be safe to say that Hollywood tends to save its weaker films for this time, since they figure they won't have an impact come next award season. Then again, there's always something to watch, even if the ones I'm truly interested in (The Mechanic, maybe something else) are far outnumbered by ones I'll only see if I have to (Green Hornet, Season of the Witch, The Company Men). At worst, I can always go revisit 2010 for any films I missed (odds of seeing Blue Valentine when it releases on December 31'st are slim) but I'm truly excited to enter the new year with the same goal: to see and review these films for you my readers. So since I'm running out of time in 2010, I decided to quick review a couple of films I didn't see in the theaters this year but kind of wish I had: the comedy The Other Guys and the indie drama Winter's Bone.

 For me, this was an easy choice. I missed the theatrical run of The Other Guys because, while I WANTED to see the film, there kept springing up films that I wanted to see MORE. Some were good, some were bad, but either way this comedy directed by Adam McKay (The man who brought you Anchorman) ran under my radar without comment. Despite being told on multiple occasions that it was a good film, I simply never got around to it. Despite this, I still remembered several jokes from the trailer while watching it, and I STILL enjoyed every moment.

You smell that? Someone had the bean burrito...
The Other Guys stars Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg as New York City police detectives Gamble and Holtz. After the city's two most decorated and reckless cops (Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson) are killed in the line of duty in tragic and hilariously stupid fashion, Holtz decides that he wants to be the new top cop in town, dragging his partner Gamble, a transfer from police accounting, along for the ride.

Holtz and Gamble don't exac... OOH, spider solitaire!
The film would be for naught if they didn't have the right cast delivering the funny. Ferrell is a blend of conservative nerd with a spot of renegade as Gamble, a man who got into police accounting because it was a safe way to serve his country while somehow being quite successful with the ladies, especially his ultra-hot wife (Eva Mendes). Wahlberg plays Holtz as a cop trying to earn his redemption from an incident earlier in his career that had him accidentally shoot Yankees star Derek Jeter. Holtz learned a number of odd things growing up (ballet, for instance) for the expressed purpose of teasing and bullying the kids who actually studied those things. He's also fierce in his attempts to prove himself, to the point where he goes into almost pointless rages because he doesn't have a suitable outlet for his frustration. Steve Coogan plays one of the film's antagonists, a corporate big-wig whose Ponzi scheme is the focal point of the story, and is being hunted by the film's other antagonist, a security contractor played by Ray Stevenson. Michael Keaton makes a random appearance as Gamble and Holtz's police Captain, who does work on the side at Bed Bath and Beyond. All these actors have great lines and never miss a beat, and the film's humor is much better for having them than it would be otherwise.

Here Coogan attempts to deflect bullets with his teeth, with hilarious consequences
 The great thing about The Other Guys is that you can pretty much take it out and watch it anytime you want. Whether you want to be in a good mood or already are, this film never drops the ball and delivers an entertaining experience with its viewing. Of course, if you could do with less of Marky Mark, Anchorman is probably still the penultimate film for Ferrell and director McKay, and with even better dialogue and a better supporting cast. But The Other Guys gives a rare opportunity to see Wahlberg in a comedic role, and he does so well with it you wish he would do more. Then again, when The Fighter is as good as it is, you can understand why he might stick with more dramatic roles. Either way, The Other Guys is one film you should see if you want to laugh.

From The Other Guys to the other film, Winter's Bone was a film whose existence I had knowledge of before I decided to watch it, but mainly as an icon on my local Redbox machine. I think I remotely remember the film's theatrical release in June only because of the mention of co-star Garret Dillahunt, who I loved on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Then actress Jennifer Lawrence goes and gets a nomination for best actress at this year's Golden Globes, and suddenly Winter's Bone goes from an indie hit and critics' darling to a must-see film with upset potential at the upcoming award shows. I had to see what all the praise was about..

Just realized her film is stuck in a dual review
Winter's Bone stars Lawrence as Ree Dolly, seventeen years old and already thrust into a large amount of responsibility with a sick and mentally disabled mother and two younger siblings to care for in their impoverished Missouri Ozarks shack. Her father, a long-time cooker of crystal meth, had been arrested by the local law but now has disappeared, and had put the house up for his bail. Soon, Ree must find her father and bring him back so that her family will not lose what little home they have left.

Remember, pull this trigger when you see Gianni pop around...
To get to the point, all the praise for Jennifer Lawrence is completely justified. An amazing actress, Lawrence shows amazing range for someone young. Ree practically runs the film by herself, between caring for her two siblings and fearlessly facing her extended family, who may or may not know what happened to her father. In all this Lawrence is truly a fearless performer, mastering the screen and we are unable to take our eyes off her as she undertakes this potentially dangerous journey. When she's not running the show, co-star John Hawkes is equally as compelling as Ree's uncle Teardrop, a drug addict who takes up the reigns at times on the hunt for his brother. He's amazing in the role, and if it wasn't for Lawrence he would probably be the one everybody remembers from this film. It's certainly a huge leap from the last role most people remember him from, that of the Other Lennon in the final season of Lost. I was hoping for more screen time for Dillahunt, as he does a good job but ultimately has a small role as the local sheriff that gets slightly bigger towards the end of the film. And characters played by Lauren Sweetser, Dale Dickey, and Shelley Waggoner do a great job as neighbors with their own motivations to help or hinder the search for Ree's father. Director Debra Granik did a great job putting this cast together, and the Cambridge, MA native also did a good job recruiting locally for talent, as the regular folks who appear in the film are all solid performers. Nobody slacked off in making this film, and that's half the reason that it's as good as it is.

Just in case this film wasn't dark enough, here's a graveyard scene
The film follows themes of family ties, both close and distant. Almost every major character, and many of the minor characters, are related in some way to Ree and her family, which makes their unwillingness to help her more tragic. Other themes include self-sufficiency, the power and speed of gossip, and rural poverty, all of which are well-covered over the course of the film, and the dark themes are enhanced by what seems like an endless overcast, the skies constantly gray and dark. Throughout her journey, Ree is confronted with obstacle after obstacle, each more impassable than the last. Yet it's her strength and determination that lets her overcome these problems en route to her final goal.

An audition for Secretariat fortunately didn't work out
I really liked Winter's Bone, though I wish I could say I loved it. I didn't have any problem with the film, per se. I loved Jennifer Lawrence in the lead and could rarely take my eyes from the screen for the entire film's 100-minute run. I just felt that the film didn't live up to it's Sundance-winning pedigree, and especially that the film left a lot out that might have enhanced the story at parts. Still, it does paint a harrowing picture of everyday life in the Ozarks region, when there's often little chance of opportunity to change your fortunes, when you often are forced not by people but by circumstances to do things you never thought you'd do before. That alone would be enough to recommend this film, but the strong performances put the cap on top, and I definitely recommend this title to anyone with a pulse. It's certainly more important to see this film than the overrated Social Network, and the fact that more people have seen the latter is a terrible shame.

So what's next for The Latest Issue? We'll be busy wrapping up 2010 soon, with The King's Speech, Tron Legacy, True Grit, Somewhere and The Tempest getting reviewed or making their debuts soon, and of course my Worst Films of 2010 compilation. Can't wait to share all those with you soon!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Like a Three Hour Tour

Back in early October, I happened upon a trio of trailers for films coming out later in 2010 that looked so good, I was chomping at the bit for the chance to see them. Hereafter, by Clint Eastwood and starring Matt Damon, was the first I saw but failed to impress, so overwrought with predictability and cheese. The Fighter, which I just reviewed on Wednesday, was much better and will probably be remembered as one of the best films this year. And so we come upon The Tourist. Headlined by hot-topic celeb actors Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (director of the fantastic German film The Lives of Others), The Tourist SHOULD have been an excellent film. How could you put this much talent in one film, along with co-star Paul Bettany, and not come away with something worth seeing? Answers may surprise you.

"So... come here often?"
In the film, Johnny Depp plays Frank Tupelo, a math teacher from the United States who's in Europe on vacation. While riding a train to Venice, Frank meets the mysterious Elise, played by Angelina Jolie. Elise is trying to throw the police off her trail by making them think that Frank is her husband, Alexander Pearce, who has been on the run from Scotland Yard for not paying millions in taxes on the money he stole from a gangster. The unwitting Frank is not only sought after by the police after meeting Elise, but also by the gangster and his thugs, who arrive in Venice to get the money that was stolen from them and take Elise and the man they think is her husband out of the picture for good.

"And THIS is the hotel we've bought for Maddox..."
The film is actually a remake, though one would have to be quite versed in foreign film (or have Wikipedia access on the fly) to realize that. The film was remade from the little-known 2005 French film Anthony Zimmer, meaning The Tourist is in the same boat as films Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Let Me In as a film that only recently had been released overseas before Hollywood went out and made their own versions. Of course, Girl and Let Me In were international hits, even if they were never promoted properly here. Anthony Zimmer was a bomb in France and never released in the States, so why they would remake this film is a mystery, unless someone liked the plot SO much that making the film was a foregone conclusion. The film does do some things well, especially in the cinematography department. Shots of Venice are absolutely exquisite. If you've never been to the place, you might not understand just how beautiful the city is, but the clarity of the film's shots stands out as one of the film's best aspects, and I found myself going back in time to wandering the ancient city's streets.

Bettany secretly teaches Depp how to be good in mediocre films
While the acting in the film should have been much better, I can't agree with so many reviewers who say that Jolie and Depp had NO chemistry here. It's simply not the kind of romantic entanglement you're used to in this type of film, and I actually thought the two of them did a fairly good job. Jolie was able to extend her "mysterious stranger" muscles as the beguiling Elise, and was much better than her ill-fated stint as an action hero in this year's Salt. Her role (and matching wardrobe) drew images in my head of other classic divas of yesteryear, such as Audrey Hepburn or Ingrid Bergman, and her charm draws the audience into paying attention to her every action. And Depp plays his usual blend of nervous oddball with a small bit of charm at the right moments. The problem with them stems not from their skills or chemistry, but rather that they have overly simplistic interactions. Frank can't take his eyes off of Elise, says something silly; She rebuffs him, often to the laughter of the audience; he can't get enough of it. It's funny at first until you realize that it's this pretty much over and over, with few scenes in between of the other major characters or Frank by himself just to break the monotony. At least they're better than their co-stars, and as sad as it is to say I think Paul Bettany has perhaps lost the ability to be in a decent flick. He's got the talent to be a star, but the best film he's been in recently was when he lent his voice to Tony Stark's digital butler Jarvis in Iron Man. Here his character is no better a law enforcement agent than Gunther Toody, and his obsession and reasons for doing anything to catch Pearce is never explained in any depth. Steven Berkoff as English gangster Reginald Shaw is flat and lifeless. The few instances he's given to be a more lively character go to waste, and Shaw's role in the story is mostly boring and uninspired. Other characters played by Timothy Dalton and Rufus Sewell are in the film so infrequently as to seem almost accidental, and are equally not worth mentioning. In all, there's simply not a lot to do in The Tourist if you're not it's biggest stars, and that gets old fast.

My, what a plunging neckline you have!
For an action/spy film, The Tourist has precious little of either. While the film does maintain excellent outdoor shots of Venice, some of the night or inside scenes look as if they were done on a set, most notably a mid-film shootout in the city's famous canal system. The scene is so unimpressive and overlong that you'd expect the film's other action sequences to be better, but you'd be wrong. The best is one of Depp running from gunmen across Venetian rooftops, and that was only because it took place in broad daylight and looked the most authentic, and even that's hampered by its lack of ingenuity. Elise does nothing badass that you can point at as proper for this genre. In fact, she's practically powerless over anyone who's not Frank. And speaking of Frank, his strength seems to be in running away, which he has to do on multiple occasions.So all the power in this film belongs to side characters who we care nothing about. Amazing work.

He's waiting to see how bad next year's Priest will be
It's a shame that a film that had such potential came crashing down to Earth out of the gate. The film has it's moments, but those amount to about twenty minutes of the film as opposed to 83 minutes in which the viewer  wishes it would stop. When you do the math, it's obvious this film shouldn't have been made without some serious alterations to the story. The worst thing I can say about this film is that for every reason you SHOULD like this film, there are plenty of examples of films you could see instead. Johnny Depp? Re-watching Pirates, Edward Scissorhands or Benny and Joon would help cure that craving. Von Donnersmarck? See The Lives of Others if you haven't already. Hell, if you have, see it again! Paul Bettany? Master and Commander and A Beautiful Mind have wonderful performances by him. Angelina Jolie? Take your pick: Wanted, Girl Interrupted, even Changeling are all superior titles in comparison. Even the lovely view of Venice can been seen in the vastly-superior spy film Casino Royale, even if not as well. So don't go out of your way to see The Tourist. It can be funny, and has it's moments, but not nearly enough to justify the purchase price when the market is filled with much better fare for your perusal.