Thursday, July 29, 2010

My half-plus year 8 best list

More than once I've complained about what a lousy year it's been for movies. I kept thinking this was probably the weakest film year I've experienced since I really started keeping track in the early 1990s.

Then I looked over my list. Yes, this year has been a disappointment. There were "blockbusters" that underwhelmed like Knight and Day, critical hits like Greenberg, which I found intolerably alienating, and a whole mess of E-ticket releases that I never even bothered to see, like Prince of Persia and The Sorcerer's Apprentice (bad year for Jerry Bruckheimer). 

Nevertheless, as I began to list every film that got at least an A-, I was pleased to recall that there has been a goodly amount of great stuff this year. That's thanks partly to my affinity for animation, and partly to the fact that I deliberately waited to compile the list so that it would have a little extra "kick." 

Those of you who get the reference I just made know I have to start my list with ...

1. Inception - I've seen this movie three times already, including one viewing in IMAX. I will probably see it at least twice more in theaters. I don't believe that I'll ever be able to take it all in - and that's the highest compliment I can give it. As is the case with all truly great movies, this one is a knockout that feels like I'm seeing it for the first time - even if it's for the third time.

2. Shutter Island: This got fairly respectable reviews when it was released - and I think that considerably underrates it. Yes, it's partly because I'm a fiend for Scorsese. It shows him having delirious fun with multiple styles, and DiCaprio gives one of his very best performances. Like Inception, it not only holds up on repeat viewings, but actually seems better with each new one.

3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: When I first saw this engrossing thriller, it reminded me of David Fincher's Zodiac, which I also saw as a movie made with a modern touch, but with one foot stuck firmly in the gritty look of a 1970s thriller like The Parallax View. So I was delighted when I learned that Fincher is prepping the American remake, which stands a chance of being as good as the original. Whoever plays Lisbeth will have a hell of a task trying to emulate Noomi Rapace's electric performance. The follow-up, The Girl Who Played with Fire, while solid, is not nearly as compelling. but I still can't wait to see The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.

4. Toy Story 3: The last 30 minutes or so of this film wound up my emotions more than any film this year.

5. Waking Sleeping Beauty: A marvelous documentary that recaps how Disney animation rose from a moribund state to become a powerhouse once again.

6. How to Train Your Dragon: How did DreamWorks make the best movie in its roster? By taking a page from the Disney/Pixar playbook and putting the Lilo & Stitch directors at the helm.

7. Despicable Me: How did Universal suddenly come up with an animated hit? By being the flat-out funniest film of the year.

8. Crazy Heart: This story of a down on his luck and washed up singer follows a fairly predictable path, but it resonates thanks to the performances by Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Colin Farrell, who didn't get as much mention as he should have.

Not bad, not bad at all. I sure hope it wasn't all just a dream.

Uh-oh ...

Thursday, July 22, 2010

REVIEW: Despicable Me

Despicable Me must go down as the worst-titled film of the year - because no movie in 2010 has made me laugh more than this one.

Not even Toy Story 3, you might wonder? No, not even Toy Story 3. Mind you, Toy Story 3 is a much richer and cleverer work. But only Despicable Me has given my diaphragm such a workout.

Even before the movie came out, I had a sneaking feeling it was a canny little number. The first trailer (the one with the deflatable pyramid) wasn't all that funny - but it was just bizarre enough to make me wonder what the heck it was.

Then, Universal  hit on their masterstroke - they started emphasizing the little yellow minions in their ads - "Those guys are really funny," I thought. "There must be something to this movie."

And indeed there was. Although it works best as a comedy, it's not just a laugh machine. Despicable Me has a surprisingly strong emotional core that sort of sneaked up on me. As I laughed  throughout, I found myself caring quite a lot about the characters, which was surprising considering how broadly they're drawn.

The pro-antagonist Gru (Steve Carell) and the con-antogonist Vector (Jason Segel) are both hapless wanna-be villains who think they're like Lex Luthor but are really more like Wile E. Coyote - clever, to be sure, but not as masterful as they think they are. And to make matters even worse, both of them have parental problems - Vector has daddy issues and Gru can never seem to please his mother, caustically voiced by Julie Andrews in a wonderful bit of casting against type.

Between all of them are three orphans whom Gru ends up "adopting" so he can use them to get at Vector. Predictably but endearingly, Gru finds himself falling for them - and so did I.

In fact, I liked the girls so much that I wish they were better defined. Their personalities, compared to most of the other characters, are a bit sketchy. The oldest, Margo (Miranda Cosgrove, AKA iCarly) is the kinda brainy one, Edith (Dana Gaier) is the loopy middle kid and little Agnes (Elsie Fisher) is the hyper, adorable one with a yen for unicorns. They're lots of fun, but had their characters been fleshed out a little more, the movie might not have faded from my mind as much as it did.

Still, the abundance of laughs, especially from the hysterical minions, compensate. They steal scenes in the first, second and third dimensions.  (Along with Avatar and How to Train Your Dragon, this film is one of the few that actually benefits from 3D). The more "human" they try to act, the funnier they are.  Not bad for a bunch of little guys who look like Comtrex capsules.


Friday, July 16, 2010


Inception feels like many other movies I've seen before. And in so doing, feels like nothing I've ever seen before.

It's a little bit Matrix. A little bit Shutter Island. A little bit 2001. A little bit Vertigo. A little bit On Her Majesty's Secret Service. A little bit Royal Wedding. A little bit Salvador Dali. And more than a little bit M.C. Escher. And it's a lot Christopher Nolan. If he's not the best director we've got, he's certainly the one with the most vibrant imagination.

I'm not even going to attempt to describe the plot. To do so would be sheer folly. And it's not really necessary anyway. The plot isn't truly what makes the movie run. More than anything else, Inception is a remarkable sensory experience.

There will be some who will throw up their hands and exclaim "I don't get it." This is not a movie for people whose minds easily wander. This is not a movie for people who like their entertainment to be as disposable as their popcorn bags, It's not for people who need to be spoon-fed explanations, and it's certainly not for people who can't stand endings that don't tie everything up in a bow.

For others, however, who can open their minds and widen their eyes, Inception is the dream that keeps on dazzling. It has one of the most amazing senses of push-pull I've ever experienced at the movies. It confounds and it correlates. It delights and it dismays. It disorients and delineates. It stupefies and it stabilizes. It contracts and compacts. But whatever it does, it always amazes.

It may seem insane or irresponsible to crank out a review at 3:30 in the morning just after seeing it. But there was no other way. I had to get my immediate thoughts out in what  you're reading. I had to do my best to capture the rush of those two and a half hours while it was still racing through my mind.

To say it's the best movie of the year really can't do it justice. Inception demonstrates more potently than any film in recent memory the wonderful power that only motion pictures can wield. It's the most movie movie of the year. When you see it in a theater - and if you love movies you must - you will see, and feel, what I mean.


Friday, July 09, 2010

The sound of darning your socks and a split personality is the same!

Having just returned from Psycho, I thought I would share another fun personal connection it has - with the Beatles.

Now, Psycho came out a full two years before the Beatles released their first record. But it had a marked effect on at least one of their best-known songs.

Here is the title sequence of Psycho, with probably the most influential film score of all time - and criminally, composer Bernard Herrmann wasn't even nominated for an Oscar - nor were any of his other scores. But take a listen.

Now take a gander at this - this is the Beatles' Eleanor Rigby, from 1966 - but it's the strings only, as arranged by George Martin.

Draw your own conclusions.

The day I met Janet Leigh/Marion Crane/Marie Samuels

I have a very personal connection to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, which I will see this weekend at the Hot Times Cool Films series at the Victoria Theatre. I greatly identify with part of the movie.

No, no, no, not THAT part of it. But I am very lucky to be able to say I had the great honor of meeting Janet Leigh, who shocked the world by **SPOILER ALERT** dying before Psycho was even half over.

What follows is the column I wrote for the Middletown Journal, shortly after she passed away in 2004.

I was especially saddened to hear of Janet Leigh’s death Sunday, not only because she was a great actress, but because she was a great person, too.

Believe me, I know. I had the great pleasure of meeting her in 1995, when she came to the Neon Movies in Dayton to introduce screenings of three of her most famous films, “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Touch of Evil” and, of course, “Psycho.”

Many actresses would bristle if their most famous line was “AAAAAAAHHHHH!” But not Janet. She knew full well that shower scene was her ticket to immortality, and she wore it like a badge of honor.

Janet held Alfred Hitchcock in such high regard that even though most people who worked with the Master of Suspense called him “Hitch,” she insisted on referring to him as “Mister Hitchcock.” She delighted in telling people that decades after she spent a week filming that scene, she would only take baths.

And it was her most famous film that inspired an act of generosity I will never forget.

The theater manager had wanted to book a 35-millimeter print of “Psycho,” but Universal’s distribution people were only willing to give the theater a 16-millimeter print that wouldn’t even fill up the movie screen.

The manager didn’t want to use Janet as any kind of “trump card,” but he felt he owed her an explanation as to why she’d be introducing a 16-millimeter print of her best-known movie.

“Is that right?” Janet said upon learning of the dilemma. “Let me see if I can’t talk to someone about that.”

That she did. Boy, did she ever.

She contacted Lew Wasserman, one of the old super executives of Hollywood who was a god at Universal. If Wasserman asked for something, you delivered.

So Universal delivered to us the master print of “Psycho” — the one used to strike other prints, the one the president gets if he wants to see it. So not only did we get our 35-millimeter print, we got to see “Psycho” in the best possible way, with no scratches and with Janet Leigh gracing us with her presence.

I exchanged a few pleasantries with Janet, posed for a photo with her and asked her to sign a copy of a Hitchcock book I had. She spelled my name wrong — “Erik” — but a guy can’t and didn’t complain in the face of the immense favor she did us. Just being in the same room with someone who worked with Hitchcock, Orson Welles, James Stewart and Judy Garland, among many others, was reward enough.

Thank you, Janet. Hope you’re enjoying a warm bath up there.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

How a movie buff spends the 4th of July

Over the long holiday weekend I watched a quartet of movies, some of which were very appropriate Independence Day viewing, and one of which was more than a little ironic Independence Day viewing,.

American Madness: I finally caught up with this early Frank Capra picture, the only one I hadn't seen from a DVD box set containing many of the director's gems. It stars Walter Huston as a scrupulously honest bank president who is overwhelmed when the bank is robbed and customers jam the lobby trying to withdraw their money. It's a very underrated little gem, which packs quite a lot of power into 76 lean minutes. One can see prototypes of Capra themes, including some very strong foreshadowing of It's a Wonderful Life. GRADE: A

Sidenote: The DVD box set contains an outstanding feature-length documentary called Frank Capra's American Dream, with interviews ranging from Martin Scorsese to Robert Altman to Oliver Stone. And it's hosted and narrated by the director whose work most strongly resembles Capra, Ron Howard. Well worth seeking out.

The Music Man: The movie musical started to fall out of fashion in the 60s, but this particular entry is one of the best of a decade that presented one bloated epic after another. It feels a little long at times, but Robert Preston's Energizer-bunny performance as Harold Hill more than makes up for any lulls. He's an absolute wonder; it's a crime he wasn't Oscar nominated. Meredith Wilson's songs must cram in more syllables per minute than any other legendary Broadway show. Ye gods! Fun movie geek trivia - the cinematographer was Robert Burks, who shot many of Hitchcock's best-known works, including Vertigo and To Catch a Thief. In fact, the movie he shot immediately after this one was The Birds. How's THAT for a segue? GRADE: A 

Only Angels Have Wings: Slightly lesser Howard Hawks, which is to say it's really quite good if not quite excellent. The story, which details the trials of a ragtag group of pilots who fly dangerous missions, veers too often from its best asset: the romance between Cary Grant and Jean Arthur, who was adorable in every movie she made. Even so, it benefits from outstanding aerial photography and a great ensemble. It's a bracine reminder none of us will ever be as fortunate as Grant, who gets to romance both Arthur and Rita Hayworth. Great problem to have. GRADE: B+

Reds: File under Fourth of July viewing, Ironic. Warren Beatty's 1981 epic about John Reed and Louise Bryant being swept up in the Russian Revolution, is ambitious to a fault. While the actor/co-writer/director's passion is undeniable, he bites off more than he can chew, trying to David Lean, Elia Kazan and Woody Allen all at once. The sprawling epic loses focus and momentum too often, but it has individual moments that are very powerful, and his tactic of interviewing real-life witnesses, and interspersing them throughout the film. was a masterstroke. As I have said before, I would much rather watch a film that tries too hard, than one that does not try hard enough. GRADE: B+

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Sorry, kid, I heard it sucks. Pick something else?

Well, the arrow seems to be pointing in the right direction, at least.

Pop quiz, hot-shots: You hear a movie your kid really wants to see is bad. What do you do?

No, that isn't meant to be a belated tribute to Dennis Hopper. It's a real question in light of the collective retching that has greeted M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender, based on the much-loved Nickelodeon cartoon.

You don't have to have kids to know that parenting involves a lot of sacrificing - and for many moms and dads, that means putting up with  kids movies in which the adult appeal is, shall we say, limited.

With Airbender, however, the situation is a little different than usual. This isn't something like Marmaduke or the Alvin and the Chipmunks movies, which usually don't resonate with anybody who got past middle school. For one thing, I've heard a number of adults talk about how much they enjoy the show. For another, Shyamalan has a fan base that is mostly adult.

Unfortunately, that fan base has been steadily dwindling since The Village, and the reviews of The Last Airbender indicate the spiral continues to swirl downward. Consider:

The Last Airbender keeps throwing things at you, but its final effect is, in every way, flat. - Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly.
The story is a much more serious problem, a run-on, overstuffed narrative that feels like a very long prologue for a climax that never comes. - Liam Lacy, The (Toronto) Globe and Mail
If ever a film was born under a bad sign, "The Last Airbender" is it. As the blues lyric goes, if it didn't have bad luck, it wouldn't have any kind of luck at all. - Kenneth Turan, The Los Angeles Times. 
And those are some of the KINDER notices. Also consider:
This colossal folly, the fiasco of the summer of 2010 — gives us all a ringside seat at the sight of Mr. “I See Dead People’s” career gurgling down the drain. - (the other) Roger Moore, the Orlando Sentinel
The Last Airbender is dreadful, an incomprehensible fantasy-action epic that makes the 2007 film “The Golden Compass,’’ a similarly botched adaptation of a beloved property from another medium, look like a four-star classic. - Ty Burr, the Boston Globe.
The Last Airbender is an agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented. - Roger Ebert
Now, I can guess what some of you are thinking. Kids don't care what a bunch of grumpy old men critics think. Many adults don't either, alas. Still, there is a dilemma here.  With this property, and with reviews this bad, you can't chalk this up to a "kid-view vs. adult-view" dispute.

So what do you tell a child who has been chomping at the bit to see this? I expect many parents to take the kids, let them make up their own minds and hope for the best. A colleague of mine saw the movie with her family and reported that the film, while not great, was not nearly as bad as the critics have said.

But there are two sides to every story. At this time of writing, its Yahoo users grade (Read: Average Joes)  is C+. That's not too good for graders who tend to be generous. They give Knight and Day a B+, for Pete's sake.  And A.O. Scott of the New York Times wrote: 
"An astute industry analyst of my acquaintance, who is 9 and an admirer of the Nickelodeon animated series on which the movie is based, offered a two-word diagnosis of its commercial prospects on the way out of the theater: 'They’re screwed.'"

But right now, the only person who could persuade me to see the movie is an utterly charming niece of mine. Were it my own kid, though, I would gently but firmly suggest, "Why don't we see Toy Story 3 again, OK?" 

The summer in a nutshell

Here is the clearest sign so far that this summer has sucked: 

A movie theater near me has 20 screens. It is playing 8 movies. The lineup?

The A-Team: I've heard it's more like the D-Team.

Grown-Ups: I've heard even Sandler fans don't like this one.

Iron Man 2: Decent, but no more than that. 

The Karate Kid: Maybe if I'm really bored. I can think of better ways to spend two and a half hours.

Knight and Day: I already jousted with this stinker.

The Last Airbender: One can only hope so, based on the stench emanating from the reviews.

Toy Story 3: YAY!

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse: I am of the wrong age and gender to be persuaded. Saga my ass.

20 screens. 8 movies. 2 worth seeing. Any questions?