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Where does the time go, movie fans? All of a sudden we look around and find another year half gone. The customary post-Oscar slump seemed mighty ugly this year, but there were treasures among all the trash. As summertime peaks before heading into fall, moviegoing prospects are getting better and better. Believe it or not, Oscar buzz will start before long. But what films will take the spotlight this year?
It seems particularly appropriate to ask this on the eve of 2011’s major cinema event… the release of Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part 2. Name a better gateway between the year’s two halves if you can.
We the critics of the Fourth Wall – Brett Davinger, Julia Rhodes and myself – devote this week to the discussion of our favorite (and least favorite) films released in 2011 so far. After careful consideration, each of us has selected a “Top 3” and “Bottom 3” for the year’s first half. Unless otherwise indicated, we present our choices in no particular order. Read along and see how our love and hate stack up against your own.
DAN’S TOP 3:
#3- Rango (dir. Gore Verbinski)
Anybody familiar with the name “Gore Verbinski” probably knows him as the director of the first three Pirates Of The Caribbean movies. This fact tends to eclipse his association with his genuine breakout feature – the American remake of Hideo Nakata’s Ringu, an unforgettable exercise in the creeps from a 2002. The grotesque influence of this major horror effort has as much to do with Rango’s unique style as does the fizzy, rollicking fun of Pirates. Make no mistake – this animated film is not especially meant for children. Much of it is downright disturbing, in fact, but for the adventurously open-minded it is one of the strangest and most fiercely original projects to emerge in quite a while.
Rango (Johnny Depp) is a pet chameleon with a passion for play-acting and some high-minded existential questions on his mind. When chance lands him in a tiny desert town inhabited by rodents and other small critters, he poses as a legendary lawman to gain their trust and respect. However, when the forces of evil come knocking, he reluctantly faces the dilemma of walking tall or ending up dead. This is no mere fairy tale fable. With its constant allusions to spaghetti westerns and large-scale dramas like Polanski’s Chinatown, the script definitely has a mature audience in mind.
The citizens at stake are not exactly cute little animals either. The character design is unusually bizarre and frightening for talking lizards, rabbits, and owls. The (presumably inbred) clan of hillbilly gophers living in a nearby canyon are particularly horrifying. However, we must remember that these are downtrodden creatures – tortured by the sun, miserable under the thumb of tyranny, and beset by quasi-religious mania over the scarcity of water. Rango is bold and unapologetically edgy, and those are its greatest virtues. Had Verbinski tried to cut corners with the script, the design, or any other aspect of the presentation, he would have left us all scratching our heads, vaguely uneasy, and certainly not as excited about Rango as a lot of people are.
To indulge in a bit of premature buzzing, Rango may be the first strong award contender of the year. Considering the tepid animation roster so far, including Cars 2, Kung Fu Panda 2, Gnomeo and Juliet, and Rio, the savage journey called Rango is a clear leader in the Academy’s animated feature race. Unless the upcoming Winnie the Pooh movie takes some astounding turns, that sees us through most of the year. Tintin had better bring his “A” game, if he has one.
#2- Drive Angry (dir. Patrick Lussier)
Amid a great deal of forgettable nonsense, Nicolas Cage has stumbled on an unexpected stash of completely unforgettable nonsense. Drive Angry is an excellent B-picture of the sort that Cage clearly wants to make for the rest of his life, and probably should. He stars as John Milton, a man who has broken out of hell to avenge his family’s ruin at the hands of a Satanic cult. Standing in his way are are the bullets, blades, and busty babes the southern United States can muster. Meanwhile, hell’s top emissary is pursuing him in a series of jaw-dropping muscle cars. Interested yet? Then you never will be. Lighten up.
Cage works best in a film which takes itself none too seriously, which is the only attitude a film like this can adopt for any measure of success. Strip away all the gratuitous… well, everything… and you leave this film with… well, nothing.
Supported by the stunning Amber Heard (howl! snort!), the scene-stealing William Fichtner (ooh!), the diabolical Billy Burke (hiss!) and the appropriately grizzled Tom Atkins (HUZZAH!), Cage takes a bit of a backseat. Drive Angry seizes every opportunity to be campy, kooky, excessive, and perversely fun. The script is surprisingly witty, and the use of 3D in the theatrical release is one of those rare cases worthy of critical praise. It only received a little, but it is definitely an example of 3D used well and for the right reasons. Drive Angry is not bound for red carpet prestige – honestly, what could any respectable awards show possibly bestow on it? – but that was clearly never the point. For pure spectacle and entertainment, it delivers in bulk.
#1- Midnight In Paris (dir. Woody Allen)
As his popularity waxes and wanes, Woody Allen remains prolific. He still directs roughly one film a year, whether or not anyone goes to see it. Even as a longtime fan, since Mighty Aphrodite (1995) I have been very inconsistent about seeking his work out. To be fair, the originality and appeal of Allen’s work has also been inconsistent from then to now. Nonetheless, this year he proves he can still charm and delight. Midnight in Paris is just plain wonderful.
Like other leading men who have gradually replaced Woody Allen in his own films, Owen Wilson delivers his lines with more than a trace of that familiar neurotic persona, but elevates the part with his own signature brand of bemused charm. He plays a writer named Gil, who is engaged to Rachel McAdams but is completely in love with the city of Paris. All she wants to do is enjoy the most Americanized experience of Europe she can. All he wants to do is travel back in time to the 1920s, when the Left Bank was a cultural hub for the legendary writers, painters, and other artists of the time. With a little luck and a little magic, perhaps everybody will get what they want.
Though Allen chose not to give away any plot details in his trailer, word of mouth has hinted extensively that a whimsical twist will allow Gil to visit the time, place, and people he has most admired all his life. Allen’s most notable precedent for this kind of story is The Purple Rose Of Cairo, in which an adventure hero walks off a movie screen into the arms of his biggest fan. Enough said. Marion Cotillard, looking much healthier and happier since Public Enemies, co-stars as a mysterious beauty whose elegant looks and poetic outlook distill everything Gil loves about Paris into a single woman.
Woody Allen is perhaps most famous for spoofing intellectuals with varying degrees of affection and bitterness. His other favorite target for parody is the hopeless romantic, and those familiar with his work know him as something of both. Midnight In Paris is simultaneously a love letter to the antique charm of the Old World, and a gentle nudge in the ribs to anyone who sincerely believes they were born in the wrong generation. Ultimately, he seems to be saying, everyone believes that at some point. The trick is not allowing it weigh us down. As the lavish presentation of modern Paris proves, there is plenty for us here and now if we care to look for it.
DAN’S BOTTOM 3:
#3- Trolljegeren (The Troll Hunter) (dir. André Øvredal)
Actually a Norwegian feature made in 2010, The Troll Hunter has only recently made its way Stateside. This film waged a long, difficult, still uncertain battle with Hop for the third spot on this “least favorite” list. The tiebreaking decision lay in the fact that Hop promised to be awful, and mostly was. A movie about troll hunting, particularly with such arresting advertisements and graced with non-Hollywood provenance, should have been the B-horror event of this year and possibly the last few. It should have knocked Drive Angry out of the running for “instant cult film” of the season.
Most other nerds, critics, and enthusiasts are praising it as a clever idea, boldly and economically brought to life. However, I can only mourn it as a fantastic idea completely bungled. Three word review: BO-O-ORING! … but, how?
A student documentary crew teams up with a government-sponsored troll hunter, whose job is to manage the monsters like big game in isolated preserves where they can be kept from the panic-prone public. When a twist of nature interrupts the normal roaming patterns of the gigantic creatures, drastic measures must be taken. Even down to the plot details, this movie sounds brilliant. Many of you say it is, and I want to agree. I simply don’t get it, and evidence suggests that it is my problem, not yours. Nonetheless…
The dialogue and plot development are hopelessly clunky (not amusingly campy). The character work is practically nil, and action-wise the movie drops off after the first creature encounter. In between, the underlying bureaucratic satire is too thin and subtle to keep things entertaining, leading one to consider that if one has no money to create more CG trolls, one ought to have waited for more money. This could easily have been a nonstop, shoestring-budget, indie send-up of Jurassic Park. Instead it is a limp fantasy mockumentary, which the contemporary American horror market has already driven way out of fashion. Sorry, Norway.
#2- Season Of The Witch (dir. Dominic Sena)
If Drive Angry made you clap your hands with glee, Season Of The Witch stands a good chance of actually making you angry. This colossal misfire could have kicked off 2011 on a wonderfully sinister note. Instead, it seems to have been written by someone who has never seen a movie, but deems himself capable by virtue of having played lots of scary video games, but who fails to understand even what makes those entertaining. Just to be clear, Season Of The Witch is more than a little disappointing.
Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman play rogue knights – that is to say, disillusioned and AWOL from the Crusades – who reluctantly accept a quest to transport a suspected witch to a mystical monastery where she may be duly tried and burned. The conflict of ideas like faith, patriotism, and justice is in play here, and the intended message seems to be a very positive one, but the moral themes flip and flop one too many times to carry any weight or conviction.
As for the quest itself, all goes quite blandly. The dialogue categorically stinks, the characters do not matter, the scares are too scattered and vague, and the insistent seriousness of the final act makes it all seem really dumb. On the whole, Season Of The Witch would have been better off taking the predictable genre path outlined in the theatrical trailer. Instead, it tried to change things up on us in a graceless and unwelcome fashion. For a step by step manual of how to make this movie work, check out Christopher Smith’s Black Death with Sean Bean instead.
#1- Your Highness (dir. David Gordon Green)
Who could have imagined that Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes would be James Franco’s “prestige” picture of 2011?
There will not be a worse film than Your Highness this year. It simply cannot be. It is only a motion picture by the strictest dictionary definition of the phrase. I would rather watch Uwe Boll act out his own films with sock puppets while sitting on a toilet than watch Your Highness again. I would rather get a human centipede for Christmas. I would rather seek counseling for my lingering rage against this movie than see David Gordon Green make another dollar on it.
The worst kind of failed comedy is the one in which you know exactly where the joke goes and what it is supposed to be, and yet the punchline produces no response in you. Over and over again. I formed this theory while watching Old Dogs with Robin Williams and John Travolta. It deserves its reputation as one of the least funny comedies made recently, but next to Your Highness it might as well be A Day At The Races. A parody of sword and sorcery adventure ought to be a no-brainer, and nobody says it has to be clever. All it has to be is funny in some conceivable way. Even getting name-brand actors did not help.
Stoner jokes, masturbation jokes, anachronism jokes, and everything else Your Highness tries are worthy subjects for broad comedy. The sin is to cram them all together in such a way that they fail the most basic laugh test. Does everyone hate it with the same psychotic fervor as I? Presumably not, or David Gordon Green would have been deported to the Predator planet months ago, without due process. However, I cannot recall enjoying myself less in a theater. And I actually saw Cop Out.
Dishonorable Mention: Hop
BRETT’S TOP 3:
#3- Source Code (dir. Duncan Jones, 2011)
It’s difficult to choose a third best movie of the year. 2011 actually has been a relatively decent year for film. Superhero prequel X-Men: First Class (link to review), the animated Western Rango, and Woody Allen’s delightful and charming Midnight in Paris could all easily round out a list for vastly different reasons and vastly different audiences, but for my number 3 I’m choosing Duncan Jones’ sophomore effort Source Code.
Source Code stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a soldier Colter Stevens, who is trapped in an experiment known as the Source Code. After a terrorist attack takes out a train in Chicago, Stevens inhabits the body of a commuter eight minutes before the train explodes. His mission is to find the bomber, who might lay a greater attack against the city. Every time he fails, he keeps returning to the same place, eight minutes before the train is destroyed, as time in the real world progresses normally and the possibility of another attack becomes increasingly imminent. In some ways Groundhog Day with a ticking clock element, Source Code offers humor and creative sequences along with bringing up questions of fate and identity, and it is a lot more intense and suspenseful than the other movie this year that threatens the Windy City.
Duncan Jones, whose previous film was the incredible Moon, continues to prove himself as an impressive director of intelligent science-fiction, the type that forces us to ponder the meaning of humanity and our relationship to each other, ourselves, and technology.
#2- The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick, 2011)
Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is probably the best film so far this year. Does that mean it’s my favorite or the most entertaining? No. But it’s a transcendent and affecting film that, for its flaws and sequences that don’t entirely work (heaven), you can tell The Tree of Life a work of art.
Visually outstanding (if any movie deserved an IMAX presentation, it’s this one) and fantastically directed, this film is not for everyone. Unless your cinematic tastes are considered “pretentious,” you should probably stay away. The film starts with a quote from Job, and most of the first third seems to consist of characters asking God why He has forsaken them in voice over as we’re taken from the Big Bang to dinosaurs before re-entering 1950s America. However, to Malick’s credit, this look at the creation of the universe serves as a remarkable mental palate cleanser that prepares us for the rest of the film.
The Tree of Life feels like a personal meditation on childhood. Malick takes us through the lives of three young boys from birth until pre-adolescence as they are raised by everyday-people parents Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain). There’s no plot in a conventional sense, just brief snapshots of memories during one of the children’s (Jack, played as an adult by Sean Penn and as a child by Hunter McCracken) younger days. Some of these sequences last a few seconds, others a couple of minutes, but whether it be the death of a friend or a family dinner, no individual moment seems to be given more weight than any of the others, yet all seem honest and real.
Brad Pitt gives one of the best performances of his career as the father, simultaneously loving and abusive, compassionate and stern, ready to give life lessons and closed off, resentful of and accepting of his life. Chastain, in one of her first major roles stands out as the boys’ doting, God-fearing mother.
Will The Tree of Life have the overall impact and staying power of similarly situated metaphysical treatises on life and loss such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Andrey Tarkovskiy’s Solaris, and Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. It’s impossible to tell, but this is the type of film that needs to gestate for some time in order to fully appreciate or respect.
#1- Super (dir. James Gunn, 2010)
Practically the opposite of The Tree of Life, my favorite film of the year is the least seen superhero movie of the year. Not The Green Hornet, but Troma-vet and Slither writer/director James Gunn’s brilliant Super. Of the recent rash of everyman superhero films, Super stands above the crowd with its brutal pitch darkness, incredible and gory violence, and genuinely hilarity with some of the flat-out funniest moments I’ve seen in a movie in years.
Released in less than 40 theaters, Super features The Office’s Rainn Wilson as Frank D’Arbo, a fry cook whose former addict/wife (Liv Tyler) is lured away by drug dealer Jacques (Kevin Bacon, in his second “supervillain” role this year along with Sebastian Shaw in X-Men: First Class). At a loss, Frank takes to the street as red-clad vigilante The Crimson Bolt wielding his mighty wrench. Along the way he recruits Libby (the scene stealing Ellen Page), a superhero enthusiast and borderline psychopath, who develops her own persona as his girl wonder Boltie.
What differentiates Super from other films in its genre (or subgenre, if you’d prefer) is the way it utilizes and co-opts tropes by taking them in hysterical and unexpected directions. The Green Hornet attempted to do this (e.g. the hero getting grievously injured, incompetence, henchmen actually dying), but never seemed to fully commit to the concepts. Kick-Ass might have been a bit darker than Hornet, but, despite its outlandishness, still came across as somewhat conventional overall. Super takes what works in both those films to a new and better level.
But it’s unfair to compare Super to those films, because doing so makes it sound like a mere take off on those movies. It’s not. Super is its own entity and James Gunn crafted not just a great superhero movie, but a great comedy.
Yet there’s a surprising amount of humanity behind the film. Frank/The Crimson Bolt is a sad and something of a tragic figure, and his journey is not a happy or comfortable one to watch.
There are very few films that truly deserve cult fame, and even fewer that you can sense will obtain it. These movies need to walk a very thin line between having some mainstream acceptability (i.e. not some ridiculous avant-garde experiment) while being different enough from typical films that it surpasses genre classifications. It’s difficult to do and requires a combination of subtle moments, a sense of humor, unique and clever dialogue, great performances and characters, highly memorable instances, and those indefinable and indescribable things that that stick with you long after the final reel. Super is one of those movies.
BRETT’S BOTTOM 3:
I haven’t seen a lot of the “worst” movies of the year yet. I still haven’t sat through Atlas Shrugged, Part 1. (A movie I have a problem with, not because of Objectivism (which I feel has some interesting and positive concepts, but lacks feasibility as its based in a naïve idealism), but because of the terrible-looking acting, dialogue, and effects), Beastly, or any number of hideous kids movies. The Zookeeper hasn’t come out yet. And I just posted my review of Transformers: Dark of the Moon (otherwise it would easily be in my bottom 1). (In hindsight, maybe Green Lantern wasn’t that terrible, just tremendously mediocre.)
#3- The Adjustment Bureau (dir. George Nolfi, 2011)
Is The Adjustment Bureau really one of the three worst movies so far this year? No. But it’s not a good movie, and it fails on enough levels that I want to place it on my list.
Based on a Philip K. Dick short story, The Adjustment Bureau features Matt Damon as David Norris, an aspiring Congressman about to lose his first election. He meets the alluring Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt), who inspires him to make a notable concession speech that sets him up for the next election cycle. This meeting was arranged by The Adjustment Bureau, a mysterious organization that looks over humans and directs their fates because of Fate Books that show what’s supposed to happen and when. These books also alert The Adjustment Bureau’s “caseworkers” (also known as “angels” to us puny mortals) when someone goes off the Fate Track.
David is one of the humans who go off this Fate Track. See, he was never supposed to meet Elise again, but he does because one of the caseworkers nods off (why do they need to sleep? Aren’t they supernatural creatures who have to be on call 24/7? Are they recruited humans?), and the two potential lovers encounter each other on a bus.
At a new job, David catches the reality-altering Adjustment Bureau in the middle of adjusting his employer’s mind and learns the truth behind their organization, and also that he’s never allowed to see Elise again (has to do with some fork in the Fate Road from years prior) or tell anyone about its existence. Kept apart by “destiny,” three years later, David finds Elise again and tries to keep their love and themselves alive while protecting her and himself from the Adjustment Bureau.
Hollywood has long had problems with adapting Philip K. Dick’s works. This probably has to do with the recurring lack of a happy ending and the fact that most of his lead characters are ineffectual (though not necessarily incompetent) bureaucrats/middle management types, not action heroes or noble fighters for truth and justice. Of the three remarkable Dick adaptations (Blade Runner, Total Recall, and A Scanner Darkly), only Total Recall falls within the “action movie” genre, and that features an ambiguous ending, a unique style, and distinctive visuals from director Paul Verhoeven.
Comparatively, in The Adjustment Team, the Cold War-era short story that this movie emerged from, the Adjustment Team is trying to prevent World War 3 by easing super power relations. The protagonist (insignificant real estate salesman Ed Fletcher) finds out about them by happenstance, tells his disbelieving wife, and it ends with him understanding the best option is to keep quiet and pretend he had a brief nervous breakdown.
Like many of Dick’s works, The Adjustment Group is not about fighting the system, because the system cannot be beat. The scene that works the best in the film plays to this theme. As David watches Elise at her dance studio, the caseworkers Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie) and Richardson (John Slattery) further explain the situation. In this moment, we realize that despite their seemingly magical powers, these particular caseworkers are the useless bureaucrats that were the staples of Dick’s best pieces. The Adjustment Bureau is a bureaucracy, and, while their boss might be some vague approximation of God, it nevertheless primarily consists of lackeys doing grunt work. Mitchell and Richardson might be superior creatures to us, but there are plenty of people above them, such as Terence Stamp’s ominous Thompson, who has only slightly more clout. David, upon realizing their impotence, thumbs his nose at these entities, but does not actively rebel against them, coming to accept what an insignificant blip he too is in the universe. Then it becomes an action thriller with David running a lot.
Although The Adjustment Bureau is probably in the upper echelon of Dick films and contains good performances from the leads, it doesn’t succeed. The rules of the Bureau seem haphazard at best, the character drama that makes up the emotional core belies the more interesting metaphysical ideas, the aesthetics are uninspired, and the overall film is pretty bland. The 1950s/1960s outfits of the team might seem stylish and unique, but it adds nothing aside from keeping Slattery (Mad Men‘s Roger Sterling and 1960s Howard Stark in Iron Man 2) stuck in that era. The film also suffers by ending with a needless and trite voiceover by Mitchell telling the audience to fight for our independence and freedom or whatever.
The lesser profile sci-fi regular guy flick Limitless, which featured Bradley Cooper as a loser author who finds a drug that expands his mind exponentially, while far from perfect, was more entertaining. Needless to say, Duncan Jones’ Source Code blew both films away.
#2- Something Borrowed (dir. Luke Greenfield, 2011)
Admittedly, I am not in the demographic for this film. I cannot even state definitively whether this movie is any better or worse than the rest of its ilk. Anyway, Something Borrowed is a romcom (and like many romantic comedies, little com, lots of rom, fair amount of dram) inhabited by supremely unlikable characters. The “good guys” (Ethan (John Krasinski (essentially playing Jim from The Office, a character that easily translates to different mediums)), Rachel (Ginnifer Goodwin (who has the screen presence to become a romwhatever star, more so than Hudson)), and Dex (Colin Egglesfield (whose only job is to look pretty and smile)) are passive weaklings. The “bad guys” (the lush Darcy (Kate Hudson) and Ethan-crazy Claire (Ashley Williams)) might be annoying, but they are at least willing to be honest with other people and take control of their lives.
The film revolves around Rachel sleeping with Dex, Darcy’s fiancé and someone whom she has pined over for years. Although Rachel and Darcy are best friends, Rachael hates Darcy because Darcy has walked over her since she was a child. However, Rachel remains stuck with Darcy as she lacks the ability to take any proactive steps regarding anything in her life. All the “good guys” have the same complaint about Darcy, and the same inability to stand up to anyone in their respective lives. Meanwhile, Dex obliviously (or intentionally, he’s too stupid to accurately read) toys with Rachel’s emotions by regularly inviting her to a beach house where, after knowing her true feelings towards him, he “forces” her to watch him play around with Darcy and listen to them have sex. Fellow Rachel/Darcy best friend Ethan plays the “Ducky” role– could there be a second love triangle in the film? Well, Something Borrowed is not a groundbreaking take on interpersonal relationships.
As the lead in a female-driven romantic comedy, Rachel occupies the important role of the workaholic who never works, has an improbably lavish New York City apartment, can go out to drink every night, treks to the Hamptons every weekend, takes two intercontinental trips for pleasure over two days, and hates her job. However, she’s an attorney who practices…law I guess, we’re never told her actual job responsibilities. At least she’s not a magazine editor.
#1- Sucker Punch (dir. Zack Snyder, 2011)
Is Sucker Punch the worst movie this year? At the very least, it’s the most disappointing.
I was looking forward to Sucker Punch, liking Zack Snyder’s previous work (particularly Watchmen) and thinking that the trailers created a film that appeared interesting. I didn’t expect a shockingly, disappointingly redundant film where the only thing of any relevance was… well, did the movie have anything of actual relevance?
Since Fantasy Reality (I’ll call the three layers Fantasy Reality, Brothel Reality, and Real Reality- if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll understand the separation; if not, think a way less well thought out Inception) was the only thing that Snyder cared about in the film, I’ll start with that. They were visually impressive, but there’s a limit to how much that can carry a film. Personally, I got bored about halfway through the dragon sequence.
While I could respect the look of the different worlds, the repetitive gun battles were just repetitive, no matter how extended they were or what CGI background Snyder created. Unfortunately, Fantasy Reality missed an interesting opportunity to explore the lead’s (Baby Doll (Emily Browning)) psyche with each new sequence representing a different element of her life. World War 1 is intrinsically interesting and seriously underused fodder, but she probably has actual knowledge of World War 2 or people who were in WW2. Trying to kill a mother dragon protecting her baby easily syncs to her losing her mother at the beginning of the film. But these elements are not fully realized, if realized at all.
This goes towards characters/character development, yet none of the characters actually exists. Yes, their physical forms were present during the precious few minutes we spent in Real Reality, but, for the vast majority of the film, we only saw them through Baby Doll’s unreliable eyes via Brothel Reality and Fantasy Reality. Did the Real Reality characters have any actual identification with Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Amber (Jamie Chung), or Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens)? Don’t know. Did any of them die? Don’t know. If they did, Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino) probably would have acted a bit differently during the brief return to Real Reality at the end of the film.
During this portion, we do learn that Baby Doll helped one patient escape. Was it Sweet Pea? Who cares. Was it in response to the tragic loss of her sister Rocket (Jena Malone)? Who cares. Did she have a sister? Who cares. If it was Sweat Pea, it almost certainly wasn’t the party pooper we spent time with during the rest of the film. She very well could have been a violently disturbed girl set loose to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting society.
But do plot or characters matter? Sucker Punch was about ladies kicking ass in zany outfits in crazy environments. Female empowerment? Maybe. Using men’s sexual fixation against them (based on how much credence you give to the interrelationship between the three realities)? Possibly. But any point Sucker Punch tried to make lost its impact after repeating by same point and video game level four times in a row.
JULIA’S TOP 3
#3- Bridesmaids (dir. Paul Feig)
Thanks to Superbad and Knocked Up, Judd Apatow’s name packs some serious clout in Hollywood these days. So when the director, whose movies are typically dudebro-oriented, jumped into the fray of a lady-centric comedy, it guaranteed success in box offices. But success in the eyes of critics? Actually, yeah, definitely. I’ll freely admit I’m not always up for slapstick/gross humor, and the trailer indicated there might be both. The siren song of funny women, who so rarely get good play in front of the movie camera, swept me into the theater – and I’m so much better for it.
When downtrodden Annie (Wiig) learns of her best friend Lillian’s (Maya Rudolph) impending nuptials, she’s understandably of two minds: Annie will lose her longtime companion, but Lillian is obviously ecstatically happy. It’s only when Annie meets the other bridesmaids, including phenomenally gorgeous and seemingly perfect Helen (Rose Byrne), that things start to go seriously awry. While Annie (who’s a total mess) strives to take the reigns of arranging the details, Helen does everything better…and it’s truly awful to watch someone you’re jealous of do it all better than you can. Wiig, whose SNL personas are nothing short of obnoxious, carries the flick on her capable shoulders, allowing herself to be loved and hated simultaneously. Her ridiculous immaturity, palpable sadness and self-sabotage, make for a movie that isn’t exactly a straight-up comedy. But the best thing about it is the way Feig lets some of the funniest ladies in showbiz run with it on camera. Food in their teeth, horrible diarrhea (a scene that Apatow evidently insisted on adding – and probably not for the better), misbehavior of all kinds, jealousy, and a sweet romance make up a movie that will appeal to both genders and anyone who’s ever been involved in planning a wedding. In fact, Bridesmaids has now surpassed Sex and the City (phew) as the top R-rated female comedy in history. Next step: to stop categorizing movies as “female comedies” when the male-centered ones are just dubbed “comedies.”
#2- Rango (dir. Gore Verbinski)
Pixar undoubtedly holds the upper hand in animated movies right now (although Cars 2 left a lot to be desired). But Industrial Light and Magic hit it out of the park with this year’s Spaghetti Western spoof Rango. Not only is it gorgeous to watch, it is hilarious to boot. Verbinski, whose repertoire includes The Ring and Pirates of the Caribbean, furthers his excellent range with the tale of an abandoned chameleon who has to lead the occupants of a desert town to water.
With an adorably quirky main character, a sweetly rendered supporting cast, and downright beautiful animation, Rango is a movie I’d see again in a heartbeat. It played at the drive-in theater near me a few weeks ago (alongside last year’s cinematic masterpiece True Grit), and I’m really upset I missed it.
#1- Super 8 (dir. J.J. Abrams)
Super 8 is not universally beloved, mostly because it’s admittedly derivative. It is, basically, what producer Spielberg does best – slightly touchy-feely, family-friendly sci-fi with a mischievous twist. A group of small-town kids making a zombie movie witness a horrible (and awesome to behold) train crash, in the aftermath of which something extraterrestrial escapes. When the military invades the town, there are echoes of the scariest parts of E.T.: this creature isn’t the enemy – we are. Abrams, whose uber-successful Star Trek and “Lost” have made him a force to be reckoned with, ably directs a cast of very young actors. Joel Courtney, toward whom 12-year-old Julia Rhodes would’ve felt like, totally crushy, plays Joe Lamb opposite love interest Alice, played by an almost eerily mature Elle Fanning.
The movie has some plot holes, certainly: this thing, ahem, eats people, and that’s swept beneath the rug of sensitivity toward a poor, displaced alien. A subplot involving Alice’s father and Joe’s recently deceased mother turns out to be a letdown. But the true joy of the movie, for people like me (and people my age, I think) is that it’s a throwback to the movies on which we grew up, the ones we loved and can still quote word for word. It’s as fun to watch the potty-mouthed kids interact with one another as it is to let yourself be awed by an amazing train crash. In the end, the movie feels like a minor clash of titans (you can tell which details Abrams insisted upon and which Spielberg thrust upon the production)…but it’s still completely satisfying.
JULIA’S BOTTOM 3
#3- Red Riding Hood (dir. Catherine Hardwicke)
I am a Catherine Hardwicke fan. Thirteen verged on brilliance, and Lords of Dogtown is pretty incredible. Then Hardwicke made Twilight, and the world turned its back on her. Unfortunately for her, the studio did too, and fired her after the first film. Hardwicke, who according to all reports has an unconventional approach to casting and directing, scooped up wide-eyed beaty Amanda Seyfried and two scruffy twentysomethings (Shiloh Fernandez and Max Irons) for a twisted retelling of the classic fairy tale. But come on now. You were recently fired from the Twilight franchise and immediately make an overproduced movie about a seemingly normal teenage girl who has to contend with the supernatural and balance two hot boys who love her for no good reason? It just screams bitterness.
We know, from Mean Girls, that Amanda Seyfried has a personality. Unfortunately it’s never once on display in Red Riding Hood; she’s phoning it in. Irons, offspring of formidable British actor Jeremy, doesn’t seem to have his father’s abilities – though he’s not bad to look at. Fernandez may yet join the ranks of Hardwicke’s chosen men – the late Heath Ledger and perpetually smelly-looking Robert Pattinson – but he’ll need to get his acting chops in order first. The real disappointment, though, is Gary Oldman. He’s one of the best in the business, absolutely; so wtf is he doing in this? A friend posited that he might’ve signed a long-term contact with Warner, whose final installment of Harry Potter (in which Oldman starred) drops tomorrow. But enough about the acting: the writing, sets, and cinematography leave nothing to thrill about and everything to be disappointed in.
#2- Sucker Punch (dir. Zack Snyder)
I had to vigorously defend my disappointment with Sucker Punch both on the internet and in discussions with friends. People seem to think my grouchiness is a sign that I’m becoming hard and jaded and critical, or that I’m anti-sexy women. Nope, guys, neither of those are true. What I am, though, is thoroughly upset with the fact that the movie’s plot didn’t make sense, that it emphasized eye candy (formidable eye candy, to be sure) over substance, and that it had the potential to be so good and just plain didn’t hit the mark. Steampunk, dragons, lingerie, empowered women – I mean, come on, it could’ve been great. Unfortunately Snyder’s penchant for slow motion and fetishes overpowered everything else the movie could’ve been. Sure, you say, it was silly entertainment. I only wish I’d been entertained.
#1- The Rite (dir. Mikael Håfström)
No one particularly expected The Rite to be good. And it wasn’t. We’ve been fascinated by exorcism since that other film about God, demons, and Catholic priests hit theaters in 1973. Throw Anthony Hopkins, whose turn as Hannibal Lecter arguably made his career, into an atmospheric horror film about this time-honored (though hush-hush) rite, and I was in the theater seat. Unfortunately, the acting is not good (though Hopkins does sprinkle a little of Lecter’s banal evil into his part as a possessed priest), the cinematography is totally unremarkable, and the plot kind of, well, sucks. The final nail in the coffin was the movie’s PG-13 rating. Come on, here – we’re dealing with the devil. You think he’s going to curb his language for a preteen audience? No. Let’s try for some better horror in the future, okay? (Think along the lines of the satisfyingly spooky Insidious).