Friday, August 19, 2011


No less than the film of the year, the decade, and the century so far, Terrence Malick’s staggering work of art The Tree of Life is just that – a true and pure work of cinematic art, open to interpretation from any angle, from any perspective.  No two readings of the film are right or wrong, correct or incorrect; this is a deeply personal movie that will either immediately connect with the viewer or totally alienate them.  It’s a film that dares to explore where we come from as a species, and where we’re headed as a planet.  It goes without saying that the performances, production values, and screenplay are all top of the line, and in many cases, above and beyond what’s normally considered perfect.  Emmanuel Lubezeki’s haunting cinematography may be the finest ever captured by a moving-pictures camera; there is a distinct and unique quality to each and every image in this film, and when it’s released on Blu Ray, its beauty will be next to impossible to stop admiring.  The sprawling nature of the narrative is both intimate and epic, a feat that is tough to pull off.  But Malick does so effortlessly, creating a dreamlike state almost immediately with the constantly darting camerawork, layered narration, and swelling orchestral score.  His camera always seems to be on the prowl, observing life as it unfolds, ready to capture both innocence and cruelty with a clear eye.  With his customarily uncanny sense of voice-over, visual imagery, sound design, and music, Malick takes the viewer on a tour de force journey through the creation of our universe (big-bang and dinosaurs included...), and then settles into a deceptively simple story of small town American life in 1950’s Texas, thru the prism of the “traditional American family.”  It’s a juxtaposition that may seem strange at first, but upon further reflection and repeated viewings (three times has hardly been enough…), has come to symbolize one of the boldest narrative decisions this side of Kubrick’s epic jump-cut in 2001: A Space Odyssey, quite possibly the only other film that the Tree of Life bears any overall resemblance too.  Malick wants you to consider the idea that we’re all just tiny pieces of a much grander puzzle, and that the intricacies of our life will undoubtedly remain a mystery no matter how hard we try and figure the out.  And while this is an extremely spiritual film, at no time does it ever feel like Malick was preaching to his audience, trying to shove religion down their throat. The Tree of Life represents a magnum opus for a legendary filmmaker who has only made masterpieces, a special gift from one the true Gods of Cinema.  It’s a film to be treasured, studied, and revisited countless times. 

There was no reason to ever expect Rise of the Planet of the Apes to have turned out as well as it did.  It’s certainly the biggest surprise of the year so far. Stylish direction and a thoughtful script combined with some truly astonishing visual effects made for an extremely satisfying summer movie. But it's even better than that -- this film resonates, and the ending is NOTE-PERFECT. I really loved this film. Director Rupert Wyatt is now on my pay-attention-too list. Andy Serkis did an Oscar-worthy job with his portrayal of Caesar; it’s one of the few times I’ve ever been emotionally connected to a completely digital character. The dude made me cry multiple times. Yes, I am a major sucker for animals, and movies that depict violence or cruelty towards animals always get to me, but Serkis made Caesar into a fully realized character, and his work should not go unnoticed. James Franco is more of a supporting actor in the film and he’s adequate; Frieda Pinto, however, it completely wasted as his scientist-girlfriend in the films one glaring weak spot. But at the end of the day, it's Caesar's story that matters most, and the film is all the better for focusing the narrative thrust on Caesar’s quest for independence. I couldn't help but feel happy when Caesar started wrecking everything in sight along the Golden Gate Bridge.  I can’t wait to see where this franchise is headed next…

Hands-down, Bridesmaids is the funniest movie of the year.  Kristen Wiig is now a major star and a creative force to be reckoned with.  Great script, solid direction, killer performances, with so many memorable scenes and moments.  It’s gonna be awesome to watch this a bunch more times on Blu Ray as I’m sure some of the jokes were missed due to the constant stream of laughs.  It’s a comedy with real heart and a screenplay that is equal parts wild and raunchy and believable and honest.

It could have been terrible.  It could have been another Wild, Wild, West.  But it wasn’t.  Not even close.  Cowboys & Aliens is that rare tonal mash-up that totally delivers on his intriguing genre-blending premise – in this case, what if menacing space aliens descended on cowboys and Indians in the old West?  Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford are perfectly cast, the nods to the “man-with-no-name” movies are great, Olivia Wilde is easy on the eyes, you can’t go wrong with Sam Rockwell in a supporting role, Adam Beach got some work(!), and because of John Favreau’s deft directorial hand, the film succeeds as both gritty Western and slick-goopy sci-fi.  I really dug the designs of the aliens (the extra arms were creepy) and the crisp and sunny widescreen lensing from Matthew Libatique was very refreshing in an era of nighttime dominated, CGI-assisted shooting.  Great special effects work which melded the real and imaginary in fairly seamless fashion, with the standout sequence being the raid on the alien ship towards the end.  It’s a shame that the film didn’t do better business as it was a lot of fun.  I enjoyed it more than either of the Iron Man flicks (definitely more than Iron Man 2) because it demonstrated a distinct personality.

Captain America totally delivered the goods. I'm tempted to say that besides Spiderman 2 it's the best Marvel movie thus far. It might be better...I gotta see it again to know for sure…but after one viewing I know for certain that it’s exactly the Captain America movie that I wanted to see get made. Joe Johnston had something to prove with this flick and he nailed it. Chris Evans was a great choice. I adored the blending of WWII and science-fiction elements.  I was on board with all of the decisions that Johnston made, and rather than being cheesy, he nailed the tone in just the right way.  It also helped to have a solid script that while adhering to the demand of the “origin story,” still found the time to be exciting, funny, and charming.  Hugo Weaving was terrific as Red Skull; I snickered at his Werner Herzogian accent.  It felt like The Rocketeer with a serious budget, and that made me smile.  Big time.
JJ Abrams’ Super 8 is a great evocation of late 70's/early 80's Beard output with nods to countless genre staples (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Explorers, Poltergeist, The Goonies, The Monster Squad. Gremlins, and E.T. all spring to mind). Terrific cinematography from Larry Fong, great production design, an exhilarating score, and engaging performances from all the kids all added up to a wonderful summer movie. It's not perfect (some of the creature effects work was a bit shabby) but it's immediately engrossing and by the end completely satisfying.  Elle Fanning was the real standout from an acting perspective; her scene at the train station is one of the most memorable scenes of the year so far.  And that train derailment – holy shit – what a phenomenal use of surround sound and special & practical effects. And despite so many influences on this suburban monster movie, Super 8 somehow feels all its own. One other thing – there’s an astonishing amount of lens flares. Oh, and Kyle Chandler is now a movie star, which is great.

Darker, meaner, funnier and more transgressive than the original, The Hangover: Part 2 had me in stitches.  Straight up – it’s a better movie than the first one and that’s saying a lot as the first installment set the bar pretty high for movies featuring bachelor party hi-jinks.  But in this raucous and at times risky sequel, Todd Philips upped the social-anxiety ante (an exotic, hostile location), made the stakes higher (people are shot; fingers are removed; characters, um, die…), and kept the film rolling along with a better plot that felt more organic than the events of the first film and which took the narrative in some unexpected directions.  So many people complained that the filmmakers copied the same template as the first and just retraced their steps, adding new jokes along the way.  Stop and think about that for a second – do you know how hard this probably was?  It’s hard enough to make something work like gangbusters the first time around, let alone two trips to the well, and have it coming out as funny as it did.  The entire cast is back (along with some cleverly placed cameos) and nobody’s lost a step; the chemistry between Helms, Cooper, and Galifinakis is undeniably potent.  And don’t get me started on Ken Jeong’s Mr. Chow character – he OWNED every scene he appeared in.  I’d gladly welcome a Part Three.
Fast Five was totally ludicrous in every which-way but so much fun that you can’t complain too much.  It's a true “check-your-brain-at-the-door” entertainment in the spirit of the old Bruckheimer/Bay summer flicks, and to be honest, during the summertime, this is exactly the sort of movie that we should be seeing.  It's nothing genre transcending – it's just a solid actioner, and for a fifth entry in a decade spanning franchise, it’s more than exciting.  It's basically wall-to-wall action with a serious humdinger of a finale with the dragging of that bank vault throughout the streets of Rio. 
Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris was very enjoyable, very clever, and very entertaining. Owen Wilson hasn't been this good in years, and the lovely ladies (McAdams, Cotillard, Seydoux) on display didn't hurt one bit. It's fanciful, the plotting is rather ingenious, it's beautifully shot by camera-god Dariusz Khondji, and it makes you want to walk around in the rain on the streets of France.  What more do you need?  The less you know about this cute little gem the better as there are plenty of surprises for the attentive viewer.
I honestly don't know how any other action filmmaker is gonna top Michael Bay with what he pulled off during the Siege of Chicago in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. TOTAL, WHOLESALE, CITY-WIDE DESTRUCTION. You can basically cancel any big summer action movie that’s in development because we’ve now seen it all.  Bay makes everyone else look like a bunch of chumps when it comes to staging epic scenes of action and chaos, but when it comes to actually telling an engaging story and keeping on point, he’s definitely getting worse. What surprised me most about the film was that I didn't necessarily love it the way I've loved most of Bay's other output.  His attempts at comedy are terrible and woefully out of touch.  Each and every performance he gets from his actors is increasingly lifeless and wooden.  And his need to stretch every movie out to two and a half hours is a little absurd considering there’s about 100 minutes of actual beef and sizzle.  Had Dark of the Moon started with the moon landing, skipped the next hour, and then cued up the Chicago sequence, it’d be a masterwork.  But there is NO DENYING that last hour or so of total Bayhem...if you get off (like I do) on this sort of stuff, you’ll be a pig-in-shit.  The stunts and explosions are genuinely insane and the general action-movie-craziness of the entire endeavor is almost too much to take in. It's almost as if Bay was commenting on the entire genre all at once during the invasion of Chicago set-piece.  It was a fun movie but the least of the series overall.  And as it stands, it’s the only Bay film I only saw once in the theater.
Crazy, Stupid, Love is one of those rare romantic comedies that got better as it went along.  Chemistry is everything in these types of films, and thankfully, chemistry was all over this sucker.  A terrific, top-of-their-game cast (Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Julianne Moore, Marisa Tomei, Kevin Bacon) elevates some of the predictability in Dan Fogelman’s script, though there’s one major, third-act twist that is positively awesome in its reveal and boldness.  Carrell hasn’t been this good in many-a-film, and Gosling and Stone have serious heat as an on-screen couple.  I didn’t like the “speech-at-the-school-function” bit at the end, but it wasn’t enough to ruin it for me.  A solid piece of summertime fluff with shades of the equally entertaining Love Actually all throughout
Despite the fact that there wasn't enough Colin Farrell, Horrible Bosses made solid on its darker-than-dark premise and delivered some big laughs. I would have liked it had it been even darker, but there are still lots to enjoy due to a mostly deranged screenplay and sharp, spirited direction from Seth Gordon.   The general mean-spiritedness of the entire thing was refreshing; it’s sort of like a cousin to Office Space, though nowhere near as iconic.  One other thing -- major Jennifer Anniston POWER in this movie.  She’s super sexy and super funny and she looked like she was having a blast.  And Charlie Day OWNS – hope he gets more big-screen work.
30: Minutes or Less is certainly a minor effort but damn did I laugh often and hard. Aziz Ansari is consistently hysterical, and once again, Danny McBride proves that any movie that features him is an automatic success. It's nothing incredibly but I enjoyed the morally questionable elements to the screenplay, and I also enjoyed all of the action-movie references; hearing the Beverly Hills Cop theme during the car chase was awesomely nostalgic. The ending is very questionable on many levels.  The film won't suffer from waiting to see it on Blu, but if you like all the people in the film and you're a movie junkie like me, definitely see it in the theater. For an $8 matinee it's a perfect time. It's nothing great or mind-blowing -- it's just a rude and crude little throwaway flick with some good violence at the end.
Friends with Benefits is a solid rom-com that benefits immensely from great on-screen chemistry between its two appealing leads, Mila Kunis (awesome) and Justin Timberlake (surprisingly good in his first leading role).  Similar in theme to this year’s earlier No Strings Attached, the film pivots on the notion that two friends can have a sexual relationship without allowing their feelings to get in the way.  Anyone who’s seen any movie in their lives knows that this will inevitably become impossible, and that it’s just a matter of time before the two people we want to see get together get together.  So…as with each and every one of these types of movies…it’s all about the ride/journey in getting there. How funny are the scenes that take our characters to the end?  How sexy are the situations?  How believable are they?  In the case of co-writer/director Will Gluck’s latest effort, the answers are pretty funny, very sexy, and mostly believable.  I also liked how the film earned its R-rating without ever becoming puerile or overly raunchy.  This isn’t an award winner – it’s just a well done genre entry and doesn’t overstay its welcome and features two, good looking people having fun with each other.  What’s not to enjoy about that?
Each X-Men movie feels like the one before it, and despite this being a prequel, I didn’t get much more out of this entry than I did out of the others.  Yes, it’s much better than X-3 and Wolverine, but it’s not as good as X-2; I’d say it’s on par with the first X-Men film.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with First Class  --  the Mad Men/Kennedy era-setting was cool, Fassbender was awesome, director Matthew Vaughan’s commendably downbeat mood was different, and the action scenes had some decent flash and pop, but the film never truly knocked me out, and at this point, I wouldn’t be disappointed if I didn’t see another X-Men film again.  It feels like the same ideas are tossed around in each and every film, and the obvious metaphors for the mutants are starting to get a bit ham-fisted and obvious.
Kenneth Branagh's beefy and cheesy superhero flick Thor is basically Masters of the Universe with a much bigger budget.  I don’t remember much from this film other than some tripped-out disco-floor finale with Thor fighting his brother with their massive weapons.  And Dutch angles – I remember the film employing a shit-ton of Dutch angles.  Hemsworth was very good as Thor and will likely have great chemistry with the rest of the Avengers.

Films That I Missed That I Plan To See on Blu Ray:  Pirates 4, Green Lantern, Bad Teacher, The Change-Up, The Devil’s Double (hasn’t opened in my area), Another Earth, Beginners, Attack the Block, A Better Life, Project Nim, The Double Hour, Everything Must Go.


Joel said...

Comments later on all I saw from this, but I just want to note...

DO.NOT.SEE."GREEN LANTERN." ON. BLU-RAY. Trust me on this. The movie looks garish and hideous already (in context, I mean), but higher resolution would actually be a detriment. The movie already sucks on every level (it's in my bottom ten of the year, along with "Pirates 4," actually), so I'd say skip it if you don't want to be bored to tears by 100 odd minutes of puerile, Direct-to-DVD nonsense with some of the worst special effects of the year. But if you HAVE to see it, check out on regular DVD. I beg of you.

Actionman said...

Hmmm...maybe I'll just get it On Demand or rent a DVD...