Sunday, January 30, 2011

Film Geekdom Awards, 2010

Best villain: Lotso, Toy Story 3
Best soundtrack: Tron: Legacy
Best meal: Ree Dolly cooks a squirrel in Winter’s Bone
Best fight (man vs. man): Father Cortez vs. Booth's henchmen, Machete
Best fight (man vs. nature): Piranha 3D

Most underrated movie: Splice
Most gut-wrenching scene: Ruth makes her final “donation” in Never Let Me Go
Most shocking violence against women: The Killer Inside Me
Best oriental western: The Good, the Bad, the Weird
Best music video: “African Child,” Get Him to the Greek

Most likeable character: Olive Penderghast, Easy A
Least likeable character: Roger Greenberg, Greenberg
Most heartbreaking scene: The members of Battle Company react to the news of Sgt. Rougle’s death in Restrepo

Best documentary: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
Best shoot-out: The Fenway Park robbery in The Town
Best M. Night Shyamalan movie: Devil
Worst M. Night Shyamalan movie: The Last Airbender

Most deserving of a wider audience: The Extra Man
Preston Sturges Award (for rapid-fire dialogue): The Social Network
Cutest line: “John, your little friend is here.” – Mimi Smith, telling her teenaged nephew, John Lennon, that his friend Paul McCartney is here to see him, in Nowhere Boy

Cutest minions: Gru's minions, Despicable Me
Tyler Durden Award (for splicing adult content into a family film): Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I
Best male performance: Christian Bale, The Fighter

Best female performance: Angela Wesselman-Pierce, Catfish
Best sex: George Clooney and Violante Placido, The American
Best ending: Inception
Worst ending: The Last Exorcism

Worst parenting: Mother Gothel, Tangled
Best debut performance: Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
Best last line: “Which would be worse, to live as a monster or to die as a good man?” – Teddy Daniels, Shutter Island

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


This is one of the more striking images from True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen’s acclaimed adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel. Set in post-Civil War Arkansas, the movie stars Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl who hires a bounty hunter after Dick Cheney shoots her father in the face. Oops, I mean after Tom Chaney shoots her father in the back. I spent a lot of time imitating Chaney’s accent after I saw this movie, which features spectacular performances by Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and less prominent actors like Domhnall Gleeson and Ed Corbin (pictured above). This morning, Mo’Nique announced the film had been nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress. To read a full list of nominees for the 83rd Academy Awards, click here.

Friday, January 21, 2011

House of 1000 Remakes: "A Nightmare on Elm Street"

This is the first in what I hope will be a series of reviews focusing on horror remakes. When I first came up with the idea, I decided to look up which B-movie classics, ‘80s exploitation pictures and foreign-language shockers were about to be repackaged and released to a theater near you. The sheer number of titles was staggering: The Blob, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Children of the Corn, Faces of Death, Hellraiser, The People Under the Stairs, Poltergeist, Suspiria

I could go on. So what gives? Why is Hollywood so intent on selling us not-so-new nightmares?

I blame Jaws. Steven Spielberg’s 1975 horror blockbuster (along with George Lucas’s Star Wars, released two years later) helped bring exploitation pictures into the mainstream. Movies that had once been shot in a week for $30,000 by the King of the B’s, filmmaker Roger Corman, were now being given extensive production schedules and multi-million dollar budgets. Today, we basically live in the world Spielberg created: a world of mega-budgeted exploitation pictures. Just take a look at next summer’s slate of releases: Thor, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, X-Men: First Class, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Cowboys & Aliens

Horror remakes are simply a byproduct of that world: gritty, often modestly budgeted exploitation movies are being slickly repackaged. You can argue whether or not Planet Spielberg is a good thing. What's undeniable is that Hollywood's addiction to horror remakes has produced some exceptionally lousy fright flicks. (Not all of them are terrible; I’ll get to the good ones in future posts.) The studios have flooded the market with remakes and sequels to remakes that, in the words of one particularly perceptive blogger, look like “Gossip Girl meets Freddy.”

Which brings us to 2010’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, a big-budget reimagining of Wes Craven’s 1984 slasher hit. The first film spawned half a dozen sequels and gave us one of the genre’s most iconic villains: the undead child killer Freddy Krueger. The new movie lacks the imaginative dream sequences of the original. It’s the worst of the Craven remakes, falling way behind The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes.

Made for $1.8 million, Craven’s original Nightmare showed a surprising amount of ingenuity and still has the power to shock. Music video director Samuel Bayer’s remake has a budget of $35 million. But what, exactly, does Bayer have to show for it? His movie copies the cool effect in the original film where we see Freddy stretching a bedroom wall. Craven used an 8-ft piece of spandex to achieve that effect; Bayer uses computer-graphic effects, and I’ll be damned if I can tell the difference.

The new, unimproved Freddy (played by Jackie Earle Haley) isn't any fun to watch; he’s been robbed of his nightmarish playfulness. Gone are the impossibly elongated arms; the tongue-kiss through the telephone; the frightening scene where Freddy disguises himself as a high school hall monitor. Even the murder scenes aren’t up to snuff – though, to be fair, Craven is peerless in this respect. It’s difficult to compete with that terrifying scene in the original where Amanda Wyss is slashed open, dragged up a wall and across the ceiling by an unseen force, or the classic scene where Johnny Depp gets sucked into his bed and a volcano of blood erupts.

There’s no replacing Robert Englund, but Haley – aided by some very effective burn-victim makeup effects – commands the screen. Too bad the movie he’s in makes no sense. The heroine (played by Rooney Mara) doesn’t even acknowledge the fact that one of her closest friends has just been brutally murdered. Her mom (Connie Britton) suggests the teens are safe because the adults ran Freddy out of town. Uhm…

Then there's the CW aesthetic I mentioned earlier. The opening of the original was like some fucked-up documentary about Freddy Krueger, with the killer putting on his “work gloves” in a grungy-looking boiler room. There’s no scene like that in Bayer’s film, which is afraid to get its feet wet or its hair mussed. Nancy’s believable physical transformation in Craven’s film, as she tries to stay awake and avoid being murdered in her dreams, is similarly MIA. We wouldn’t want Mara looking anything less than movie-star beautiful, now would we? What’s missing from this remake – and many others like it – is the original’s gnarly, grindhouse spirit.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The year in film, 2010

On December 18, 2009, the self-proclaimed King of the World kicked off the new era of 3D. If the year that followed the release of James Cameron’s Avatar proved anything, it’s that special-effects aren't everything. (This is especially true of movies that were filmed in 2D and became “3D” after the fact, like Hollywood’s lame remake of Clash of the Titans.) 2010 showed us that the best special-effect remains a good story. Here are my picks for the best films of the year:

Top 10

1. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World Not just the best comic-book and video-game movie of 2010, but also the best movie, period. It’s the story of Toronto slacker Scott Pilgrim (a perfectly cast Michael Cera), who must do battle with The League of Evil Exes to win the hand of his dream girl, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Directed by Edgar Wright (Spaced, Shaun of the Dead), Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was the year’s most exuberant marriage of style and content. Scott’s larger-than-life feelings for Ramona are reflected in wildly choreographed fight scenes that have their own gameplay logic, self-aware texts that comment on the action, and a supercharged soundtrack (featuring Beck and Broken Social Scene). The dialogue is snappy (“Your BF is about to get F-ed in the B!”), and the supporting performances (by Kieran Culkin, Jason Schwartzman, Anna Kendrick and Ellen Wong) are uniformly wonderful. Scott Pilgrim is that rare comedy about falling in love that’s as addictive as love itself.

2. The Secret in Their Eyes Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Juan José Campanella’s stunning detective thriller (made in 2009 but released to U.S. theaters in 2010) is right up there with the genre’s best offerings – including Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low, Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder and David Fincher’s Zodiac. My nominee for the year’s most mind-blowing shot: an extended chase scene in a soccer stadium, which appears to have been filmed in a single continuous take.

3. 127 Hours With a remarkably fluid camera, director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) captures the nightmarish real-life ordeal of Aron Ralston (a breakthrough performance by James Franco), a brash mountain climber who got his arm stuck in a canyon while hiking in eastern Utah in May 2003. The amazing thing about 127 Hours is how Boyle, working with grim material and in extremely limited physical space, has delivered such a cinematic and life-affirming movie.

4. Carlos There are two cuts of this movie: the 5 ½ hour version that ran on French television, and the one that I saw, which clocks in at about three hours. From what I’ve seen, I can tell you that Carlos (as in Carlos the Jackal) is a brilliant, decades-spanning biopic about one of the 20th century’s most notorious bomb-throwers – the best movie of its kind since Steven Spielberg’s Munich.

5. The King's Speech Ever since I saw Wayne’s World at the age of twelve – specifically the scene where a tearful Mike Myers splashes water on his face as the words “Oscar clip” flash on the screen – I’ve been suspicious of movies that seem designed for a single purpose: to win awards. As those kinds of movies go, The King’s Speech is pretty terrific. It’s Oscar-worthy in multiple categories: script, production design, directing and acting – especially acting. As the stammering Duke of York and his unconventional speech therapist, Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush create the year’s most memorable screen friendship.

6. Mother and Child The title evokes the great 1972 pop song by Paul Simon, which is appropriate for this deeply affecting baby-mama drama directed by Rodrigo García. Featuring a large ensemble cast of familiar faces (including Naomi Watts and Samuel L. Jackson, who share a few steamy sex scenes), Mother and Child reveals the connectedness of life – not in an obvious way like Babel, but in a way that feels profoundly true. As a middle-aged mother yearning for reconciliation, Annette Bening delivers the year’s most piercing female performance.

7. The Kids Are All Right Another amazing portrayal by the unstoppable Ms. Bening, this time as one of two suburban moms (Julianne Moore plays the other one) raising a pair of average American teenagers in Lisa Cholodenko’s entertaining comedy-drama. The film is about the complications that arise when the teens (Josh Hutcherson and Mia Wasikowska, from Tim Burton’s terrible Alice in Wonderland) seek out the sperm donor who is, for all intents and purpose, their father (Mark Ruffalo). The story unfolds in unpredictable ways, and it ends on a perfect note – just before the credits roll and “The Youth” by MGMT takes over the soundtrack, a song that turns this unpretentious little movie into a revolutionary generational statement.

8. Never Let Me Go You know what’s even cooler than director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin teaming up to make The Social Network? Director Mark Romanek and screenwriter Alex Garland teaming up to make Never Let Me Go, that’s what. This was the year’s headiest, most disturbing piece of sci-fi, starring three phenomenally talented young actors (Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield) as friends and lovers who discover they’ve been raised for a sinister purpose.

9. Toy Story 3 I haven’t cried at a Pixar movie since Monsters, Inc. When Andy said goodbye to his toys and bequeathed them to the adorable Bonnie at the end of Toy Story 3, my tear ducts certainly got a workout. That scene had more to say about growing up than all of Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are put together. TS3 should win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and Michael Arndt’s sweetly funny script should at least be nominated.

10. The Ghost Writer While its storyline is up-to-date – it’s about a former British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan, standing in for Tony Blair) and the nameless writer (Ewan McGregor) he meets as rumors of war crimes charges swirl around them – this political thriller feels like a throwback to an earlier era. Specifically the New Hollywood Era, when masterful filmmakers with uncompromising visions briefly ruled the world. Working at the the peak of his powers, director Roman Polanski gets career-best performances out of Brosnan and McGregor. The last shot is a cruel joke – as despairing, in its own way, as the final few minutes of Chinatown.

“Now, you gotta promise to take good care of these guys. They mean a lot to me. – Andy, Toy Story 3

Alternate top 10

These movies are in the same league as my top 10: Todd Solondz’s fearless sequel to Happiness, Life During Wartime; David O. Russell’s The Fighter, with a searing portrayal of a crack addict by Christian Bale; David Fincher’s marvelously acted and scripted Facebook movie, The Social Network; Jacques Audiard’s gangster epic, A Prophet (Un prophète); Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, a bleak film noir set in the impoverished Ozarks; Catherine Breillat’s gorgeous fairy tale, Bluebeard; Martin Scorsese’s twisty psychodrama, Shutter Island; Matt Reeves’ superb remake of Let the Right One In, Let Me In; and two HBO movies that deserve recognition: Mick Jackson’s Temple Grandin, about a talented autistic woman (Claire Danes) who creates a “squeeze machine” to keep herself calm; and Barry Levinson’s You Don’t Know Jack, in which Dr. Death (an extraordinary Al Pacino) creates another type of machine, this one more lethal and, as the film persuasively argues, just as humane.

“Move this fucking rock!” – Aron Ralston, 127 Hours

Epic fail

Okay, not really. I’m a fan of all of the movies listed in this section; I just think they’ve been improperly labeled as masterpieces. Of the bunch, the one that comes the closest to earning that label is Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, which is kind of like an empty-headed version of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s about a junkie who dies in Tokyo during a drug deal gone bad; the rest of the film is shown from the perspective of his hovering spirit. Technically speaking, Enter the Void is the year’s most dazzling achievement. The entire movie is shot like the beginning of Brian De Palma’s Snake Eyes, with an impossibly mobile, subjective camera. Unfortunately, the characters and dialogue are about as stupid and vacuous as an episode of Jersey Shore. Still, Enter the Void – with its glowing orifices, neon-drenched cityscapes, and trippy astro-visions – can't be easily dismissed.

I might be inclined to cut Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan some slack if everyone would stop gushing over it, but since you all won't STFU, I must say this is his least satisfying film by far. The plot is thinner than Mila Kunis: a ballerina (Natalie Portman, good but not nearly as great as you've heard) goes batshit when she’s cast as the lead in a prestigious production of Swan Lake. The action is limited to a handful of characters, and Aronofsky fails to make any of them sympathetic. Having said that, there are a few exquisite moments of body horror. David Cronenberg would be proud.

I was blindsided by the reaction to Chistopher Nolan’s Inception. (Apparently, audiences are willing to sit through more exposition than I think is reasonably necessary.) What I like most about it: the obvious influence that Star Wars had on the last 45 minutes of Nolan’s science-fiction epic. Here’s a filmmaker who watched George Lucas’s space opera as a kid and, enthralled by its extensive use of cross-cutting, grew up to top it with a remarkably sustained and intricately linked series of action scenes. There’s also a lot to like about True Grit, especially Hailee Steinfeld’s delivery of Joel and Ethan Coen's whip-smart dialogue. But the brothers set a very high standard, and this surprisingly conventional Western doesn’t quite live up to it. I prefer Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski, No Country

“We are Sex Bob-Omb. We are here to make money and sell out and stuff. One-two-three-four!” – Kim Pine, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Fun on a bun!

Since escapist fare often gets overlooked in best-of-the-year lists, I thought I’d recap the movies that gave me a Smurfin’ good time in 2010. Sam Taylor-Wood’s Nowhere Boy is a captivating period piece that shows how a 15-year-old John Lennon (Aaron Johnson) formed The Quarrymen in Liverpool; it makes for a nice double-bill with Iain Softley's Backbeat, which covers the early days of The Beatles in Hamburg. This was a breakout year for Johnson, who also starred in Matthew Vaughn’s gleefully offensive superhero comedy, Kick-Ass – though, I must admit, sometimes this movie's look-how-funny-violence-is attitude makes me feel a little queasy. Vaughn should be forced to take sensitivity training – or watch Michael Haneke’s Funny Games on a loop. In the nostalgia-trip category: Steve Pink’s Hot Tub Time Machine, which partied like it was 1986. In the fun-for-all-ages category: Universal’s Despicable Me and Disney’s Tangled. In the teen-romcom category: Miguel Arteta’s irresistible charmer, Youth in Revolt, starring Michael Cera and Michael Cera's evil twin; and Will Gluck’s Easy A, which earned a solid B+.

“As if every thought that tumbles through your head was so clever it would be a crime for it not to be shared.” – Erica Albright, The Social Network

Bottom 10

1. The A-Team
2. Skyline
3. Jonah Hex
4. Grown Ups
5. The Last Airbender
6. George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead
7. A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)
8. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
9. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
10. Tron: Legacy