Sunday, July 31, 2011

10 Best Things of July 2011

This month kinda sucked hard. Government fights, one of my favorite stores is closing, a tragic singer dies. Yeah...

1. CM Punk's Reign of Terror

From his controversial speech to his epic win at Money in the Bank to his Comic-Con visit, CM Punk ruled the internet and the world of pro wrestling.

2. The Tree of Life

A highly debatable movie that will either blow your mind or your gasket.

3. Strikeforce: Fedor vs. Henderson

A sad state of affairs for Fedor but he had a great fight, along with the excellent Miesha Tate-Marloes Coenen battle and the exciting undercard.

4. The Cinema Snob's Midnight Screenings

I have been a big fan of Brad Jones's internet shows but his most recent idea has been great. He and several of his friends reviewed all of the midnight showings of the new summer releases. This month's reviews of The Zookeeper and The Smurfs produced blunt, hilarious results.

5. The Making of an Angry Video Game Nerd Episode

James Rolfe finally does a behind the scenes look at the production of his popular web series.

6. American Ninja Movie Marathon

Obscurus Lupa went patriotic with her reviews of all of the American Ninja films, with or without the charisma of Michael Dudikoff.

7. Sean Bean Death Reel

Shortly after the infruiating Emmy snubs, Harry Hanrahan created another great mashup video that combines two great things this year, Sean Bean's acting and the infamous Dead Island theme, into one gloriously depressing yet still kinda funny collection of death scenes.

8. Two Best Friends Play, "Man vs. Wild"

The guys at TheSw1tcher ended their season of their popular Machinima series with a hilarious take on a cash-in game.

9. Thundercats Reboot premieres

Coming in at the last minute. Surprisingly great re-imagining that blows the original away thanks to LOTR influences and superior animation.

10. Rifftrax turns 5

So does this compilation video prove that corn is grass? Congrads to Mike, Kevin, and Bill for the many great years.

My Tops of 2011 - July

THE TREE OF LIFE was certainly a great film experience. A film that will either blow your mind or give you a migraine.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER doesn't stand up exactly with the other pre-Avengers films but its action, humor, and heart were entertaining.

GNOMEO AND JULIET was another dumb Hollywood 3D animated film with a bipolar story that rips off better films and a horrible selection of Elton John songs.

PASSION PLAY is pure abject failure. Stands very high on the pretentious scale with some of worst performances this year. After much consideration, I rather watch forgettable soldiers shoot at stuff with bad camerawork than sit through this again.

HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN was visceral excitement for a full hour but the thrills got exhausting and the third act falls apart. Cool 80's credits song though.

COWBOYS AND ALIENS had well-acted cowboys and menacing aliens but it's first draft script had too many plot holes and shallow characterization.

Best Films of 2011

1. Bridesmaids

2. Rango

3. The Tree of Life

4. Source Code

5. Super 8

6. X-Men: First Class

7. The Green Hornet

8. Paul

9. Thor

Worst Films of 2011

1. Passion Play

2. Battle: Los Angeles

3. Atlas Shrugged

4. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

5. Scream 4

6. Gnomeo and Juliet

Friday, July 29, 2011

Cowboys and Aliens - Review

Very similar to the planning and schedule of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, the American public can now be treated to COWBOYS AND ALIENS. I've specially noted this film since, like CAPTAIN AMERICA, it represents finality; COWBOYS AND ALIENS was slotted to be the last predicted boffo box-office draw that this "glorious" summer movie season has featured before entering the dumping grounds of August. Unless, of course, humanity seeks entertainment through blue creatures from Belgium.

Sadly, also like CAPTAIN AMERICA, COWBOYS AND ALIENS doesn't completely live up to the standards placed upon its shoulders. A big genre director, a plethora of great actors, and a can't miss comic book property, largely to its publisher's deliberate and disreputable marketing strategies, should have combined together to form an amusing and action-packed film. Instead, its major limitations in the script department hold back the reins.

Daniel Craig plays the head of the cowboys, a man with no name or even memory. After awaking in the desert with an open stomach wound and a mysterious collar around his wrist, he brutally kills some bounty-hunting thugs before walking into the nearest town. Trouble comes to him after injuring a baron's loose cannon son and learning that he is Jake Lonergan, a dangerous outlaw wanted by the authorities. Before he can receive a trip to Santa Fe or the wrath of the baron (Harrison Ford), flying alien drones enter the town and sweep off with most of the townsfolk. Differences are put aside as the humans follow after the "demons" to rescue their loved ones and defeat the foreign invaders.

What makes the story interesting to behold, despite it coming from five separate screenwriters, is its seemingly deliberate attempt to retain the old-fashioned principles and morals of the 1950's science fiction B-movies. Spoilers are in effect: Former social classifications such as race are implemented into the film's proceedings and played seriously. The outsiders and the in-betweeners, such as the two characters who are in a way mixed breed, are forced to continue wandering through life or sacrifice themselves for the lives of others respectively. Once the dust has cleared, everyone is placed back into their own civilizations and social classes. This scripted element could have been very infuriating for the sensibilities of today's audiences but it strangely feels right. It couples with the overall film's technique of looking and feeling like something released as a movie serial or a second-billed feature at a drive-in. However, giving a big budget to something designed to be weightless leaves a lot of money and talent wasted.

Except for Craig and Ford, the rest of the cast are given flimsy, two-dimensional roles. Even when they try to make it worth the effort, such as Sam Rockwell as the defeated and depressed bartender named Doc, the mismanaged screenplay punishes them for no real reason. Very often, a character would finally receive some additional characterization only for the next scene has them being killed off. While the likables become expendable, we are supposed to cheer on the undesirables such as Noah Ringer's blank-slated kid, whose sole acting talent is puffed up cheeks. Outside the characters, the story has some gaping plot holes and sheer acts of coincidences. Again, going for and achieving a 50's style is applaudable but it can't solve the glaring problems, especially how everyone keeps forgetting that guns hardly work against the aliens compared to explosives.

Behind the camera, Jon Favreau works wonders with most of the actors and his returning cinematographer Matthew Libatique. Except for an odd scene where the color scheme is heavily saturated for no reason, the framing is often striking and worthy of being second-unit work for a John Ford film. Except this isn't a film by John Ford, more likely to be one from Bert I. Gordon. Still, the entertaining battle scenes and acting performances do at least make the popcorn go down smoothly.


Sunday, July 24, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger - Review

We finally have reached Act Five of Marvel's colossal pre-AVENGERS build up, so of course they left the best for last. For you see, the absolute best thing about CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER is just the final two minutes of its 124 minute running time. Marvel and Paramount chose to have the last post-credits stinger be the very first teaser trailer of THE AVENGERS. Much rejoicing all around for this decision, except for the fact that you have to sit through this movie to experience it.

CAPTAIN AMERICA isn't a complete failure, nor a mangled tapestry of film. The major problem is that it is just a B-movie. Not a B-movie that goes beyond its limitations with pure imagination or cheesy entertainment, similar to the director's previous work THE ROCKETEER. It is simply just a by-the-numbers superhero film. Nazis die, people are saved, heroic sacrifices, et cetera, et cetera.

After a brief prologue inside a frozen airship, we are whisked back to a fantastical version of World War II. A nefariously evil Nazi officer nicknamed "The Red Skull", played by Hugo Weaving, is searching all over Europe for a magical device that once belong to Odin himself. Once obtaining it, he sets out on his own evil plan with his personal army to make powerful laser guns or bombs or something. Honestly, despite Weaving's best efforts, this villainous plotline is beyond dull with its "take over the world" banality and exposition-laden scenes. Meanwhile, back in the great land that is America, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wants to serve his proud country but his immense courage and inner strength are negated by his brittle physical frame. Sympathetic to his plight, a scientist selects him for a secret military project to create super-soldiers. Fortunately and unfortunately, he is the sole person to be given the treatment and then must decide how to use his new powers for the greater good, for America.

The pro-USA element is not a mark against the film. In fact, the best sequence is when the newly-christened Captain America goes on propaganda campaigns to sell war bonds and act in a movie serial all his own. Even when the film turns into "Band of Brothers" with a good dose of science fiction, it still has some mild enjoyment. However, nothing new and absolutely exciting comes from the script except for a few sly jokes. THOR was able to create a whole new universe and show the Marvel world in a more light-hearted but still tragic light. This movie is unable to flesh out characters, especially Captain's new motley crew of soldiers, or make a truly climatic final battle between good and evil. Instead, you have a lifeless and predictable story before the creators pull the rug under your feet to remind you that all of the cliffhangers will be solved next year.

It's sad that a lot of good talent was wasted just for this film to be only satisfactory to watch. The cast do their best with the material and several, most notably Chris Evans and breakthrough star Hayley Atwell, are able to bring warmth and true delight to the often boring landscape. Director Joe Johnston goes through the motions except for some interestingly dark and surreal sequences, such a visual tour of an interrogation room or the grand finale. However, despite the effective ending, I couldn't help noticing that it would have worked better as the beginning of THE AVENGERS, designating Captain America as the audience's surrogate. The fact that the only striking elements of this film is AVENGERS-related tells you how much care and consideration this film was given.


Friday, July 1, 2011

The Tree of Life - Review

I have not drank the Flavor Aid and joined up on the Malick cult. I've seen only one Terrence Malick feature before, his 2005 release THE NEW WORLD. Though I respect the realistic look and direction at the history of Jamestown, I couldn't help noticing the giant sign in the background of all of the shots with the word "Pretentious" printed in bold letters. For you see, one of biggest problems of film production I loathe considerably is the immense desire of fantastical yet fanatical people to create a "spotfest" movie. The term refers to a work where every frame, every scene, every sequence, every cut must be breathtaking and symbolic to the point of exhaustion and derision. This pompous elitist expression is not suited for Malick, it is Malick.

So why is it that I thoroughly enjoyed THE TREE OF LIFE, his newest polarizing film? Malick has seemingly made it easy to master the escape quotient of the viewer-film relationship, causing myself to float out of my local art cinema on to the hot mean streets without any thought of what I should do next in my life. But once the euphoria evaporated and my adrenaline crashed, I was left with a major headache and no one to cure it with some ideal film chat. THE TREE OF LIFE is a near-masterpiece, a visual explosion to the cerebral cortex but you will notice that some of your brain matter is rotting from its gross excessiveness.

The film is all about memory, how it controls us, haunts us, unable to die due to it being shared by people, places, Earth and the universe. In an explicit non-linear storyline, we largely embark with the camera as hovering gazes into the lives of a 1950's family in Waco, Texas. The focus stays often on the creation and aging of a boy named Jack, who's later adult life is played by Sean Penn. Each frame, each cut in a spectacular montage of his early childhood years brings beautiful optimism until the slowly rising dread of real life warps his feelings and view. The abuses and failed dreams of his father (Brad Pitt) destroy his social well-being and his mother (Jessica Chastain) is mentally unable to heal his anger and puberty problems with her whimsy free spirit nature. All of this is tied with the birth of the planet Earth, the prehistoric era of dinosaurs, and our current metropolitan existence for a meaning of life you the viewer must figure out for yourself.

Even if you think the answer is that this film is complete hogwash, I can perfectly understand. The extended pre-human Earth scenes are largely pointless unless the viewer needs additional Cliff notes to what Malick is trying to say. The finale is also very tedious with its multiple false endings and it strictly being yet another Malick patented rhythmic dance of emotions but with no real purpose for the viewer to care. Most importantly, as stated above, the adoption of it intentionally being a "spotfest" movie will drain your energy and attention profusely unless you are willing to go again after hopefully getting some rest first.

Still, the majesty of capturing such uniqueness in this compliation of wonders is too hard to write off cynically. Malick and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki are willing to greatly experiment with composition, such as the multiple uses of low angles, and make even a nice little pat on a baby's back look like child endangerment. The slew of editors on this project, like Jack's toy block of a kangaroo, love to jump, jump, jump, jump through history while ever-expanding the characterization of all of its characters. Both Pitt and Chastain do excellent work, able to handle a vast range of psychological responses and emotional energies. The music is intoxicating and the whispering, weak narration is believable as the expressive pains and thoughts of a struggling human being.

THE TREE OF LIFE is more of an event than simply being a movie. I suggest, not urge, that you go see it for yourselves in theaters before it arrives on video. You can still have your popcorn or soda with you to appease the experience. After all this really is the blockbuster of art films this year. Just let yourself go, whether in joy or anger or neutral, and let the world of cinema enrapture you.