Tuesday, December 28, 2010

TOP 10 OF 2010

With just a few days left in the year, it is time for every blog and
site in the world to do their "Best of 2010" lists for whatever they talk about it. This one is no different. This top 10 list covers all genres, theatrical releases or straight to disc. I pondered over the list for a while and even though there are still plenty of movies that were released this year that I haven't seen yet, I feel this is a pretty good look at my favorite movies of the year.

So for my final entry of the year, I leave you with the Top 10 Of 2010

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (Director: Edgar Wright)
I wanted to hate this movie so bad when I saw the previews. I know nothing of the graphic novels, I just know that the trailer looked like stupid hipster garbage to me that wanted to be quirky and ironic. After finally giving it a chance I was entertained throughout. The cast is great together, and everything I thought I would hate about it really worked. Its far from perfect or a favorite of mine but I can't deny that I had fun with it, and that is more than I can say for most other movies I saw this year.

Kick-Ass (Director: Matthew Vaughn)
When this one was released the trailers looked okay, nothing special and just another superhero type movie. Similarly to Scott Pilgrim I had no idea about a graphic novel and I feel it certainly aided me in enjoying in the movie with no preconceived notions. Nicholas Cage is great in this role and I think its the only type of role he can succeed in anymore. Chloe Moretz is probably the best performance in the whole thing as Hit-Girl. Another entertaining take on superheroes that got the word of mouth moving early in the year.

Frozen (Director: Adam Green)
A suspense thriller/horror film about three people trapped on a ski lift over a weekend. This doesn't sound like anything that could possibly fill an entire feature film with any success, right? Well it does. Adam Green known mostly for his director credit of the gory horror/comedy Hatchet takes his film making in a much more serious direction. Most of us had to wait months to see this on disc as only a select handful of theaters and festivals showed it in the early winter months. If you want something to keep you on the edge of your seat check it out.

Inception (Director: Christopher Nolan)
A very cool premise and some great visuals aid this one into being a lot of fun to watch. It does have a longer running time however it is paced very well and is full of solid performances. It is certainly entertaining and the technical side of things make it stand out.

Machete (Director: Robert Rodriguez)
More than 3 years after Machete's faux trailer debut in Grindhouse, we finally get the real deal. Danny Trejo was born for this role and Rodriguez made sure to keep our appetite for over the top violence and sexy women satisfied. Its just what you expected.

Hatchet 2 (Director: Adam Green)
Adam Green is the only director to show up twice on this list and for two very different movies. While Frozen was a tense thriller, Hatchet 2 is the follow up to 2007's over the top slasher romp in the swamp (that was bad, I know). Victor Crowley is defending his swamp from anyone that steps foot. The blood and gore is upped here to insane levels and there are some of the most ridiculous things you'll ever see in a slasher film. Hopefully you got to see it in theaters before the film got pulled from theaters after less than a week. At least they were showing it unrated for those few days.

Piranha 3D (Director: Alex Aja)
The French director who has shown his talents in far more serious fare gives us (another) remake on the Roger Corman classic which was directed by cult director Joe Dante. Aja knew exactly what kind of movie he was making here. Having no intentions of making this heavier or more artsy than it ever needed (or wanted) to be he over loaded our senses with boobs, blood, guts and laughs. This was a horror film that had you hootin' and hollerin' at the screen. The 3D was totally unnecessary but for a one time viewing with it, it was fun. Cannot wait to watch this one again with a few (or 12) beers. One word of advice, watch out for that first jump scare... its a doozy.

True Grit (Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen)
This adaptation of the 1968 novel by Charles Portis is a revenge tale in pure western form. Little 14 year old Mattie is out for revenge on Tom Chaney who murdered her father. She enlists the aid of a drunk U.S. Marshal and a Texas Ranger to get the job done. The Coen brothers give us what is possibly there most straightforward film of a single genre to date. And I couldn't be happier that it is a western. They get the look and feel just about right, and just make an overall fine film. Jeff Bridges is just great, as he usually is and he always works well with the Coens. Matt Damon is a very convincing Ranger, and is a strong character. But the whole movie is stolen by Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie. Her acting is flawless and refined for such a young newcomer. She owned the role. This is a fine film to end the year on and I'm glad to see how well it has done at the box office in its opening week.

Toy Story 3 (Director: Lee Unkrich)
The final chapter in the trilogy came to us this summer. The teasers dating back about a year had me excited to see it, and though I missed it in theaters, I was incredibly anxious to view it once the Blu Ray came out. Director Lee Unkrich has been with Pixar since 1994, he has had a hand in every Toy Story movie from editor, to co-director to fully directing this one. And this was one that was made for those of us that were kids back in 1995. As an elementary shcooler in 1995 I loved the first Toy Story, of course I love it now for so many more reasons. This 3rd entry into the series was something for us. Yes, children will love to see it, but watching it... watching it was something for us. It brought us back on the same adventure we had 15 years ago and brought it right up to a place we can relate to with recent events in our lives. It was a movie that would make you laugh one minute and then totally rip your heart out. The last 20 minutes of the movie had me in tears... ugly tears.... really ugly tears. I'm not ashamed to say it. I love this movie and it reduced me to a sad shell of a man for quite a while after watching.

And finally, the top movie of the year....

1. Black Swan (Director: Darren Aronofsky)
Who doesn't remember the feelings they had when they heard this new movie was going to feature a lesbian scene between Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis? You can read it now and you're probably thinking about how cool that sounds. Well it was cool, but the movie itself is why it is number 1. From Aronofsky's direction with his use of close ups, hand held cameras, mirrors, imagery, POV shots to Clint Mansell's masterful reworking of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake ballet, to Natalie Portman's Oscar worthy performance this movie is phenomenal. Aronofsky could pull a great performance from a dead sheep if he really needed to, and proves it here. Every actor, lead or supporting is flawless. I could go on and on about this one, but just go see it. Support independent cinema and see it. Dare I say it was... perfect?

Thanks to those of you that read, look out for more in 2011... I'm gonna get crazy!

... maybe.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Today It's Me... Tomorrow It's You! (1968)

By 1968 the spaghetti western had fully hit it's stride in the world's movie market. They were wildly popular with audiences who loved the gritty, violent take the Italians had on the American wild west.

Today It's Me, Tomorrow It's You is a basic revenge tale, in a western setting. Bill Kiowa (Brett Halsey) is a free man after spending five years in jail for a crime he didn't commit, and he's hell bent on revenge. After dreaming day and night on the day he'd get his hands on his old friend James Elfego (Tatsuya Nakadai) and practicing with a wooden replica of his trusted revolver Kiowa assembles a group of five of the best gunslingers the west has to offer to hunt Elfego's gang down, offering each of them $10,000 to do the job.

The film is straight forward from the beginning. We quickly learn who is the protagonist, though the reason we want to cheer him on is delayed until later. His team is a very likable group though, each with their own personality. Kiowa has a very Django-esque quiet calm to him, while Bud Spencer's character O'Bannion offers the brute force with a bit of comic relief. Add in a gambling man who hates to lose, a sheriff who is bored with what life is offering him of late and a ladies man who loves money more than women and there is a great contrast that makes for an interesting gang.

Today It's Me moves along at a steady pace, never getting ahead of itself, but never leaving you tapping your foot for something to happen. The writing was handled in part by Italian horror maestro Dario Argento is great. Simple, but great. There is a never a "face palm" moment from the writing and the direction by Tonino Cervi is very good. The score, which any level of spaghetti western fan can tell you can really add to the film, isn't memorable. It is serviceable but suffers from a couple of moments where it, along with the shot it is accompanying takes a turn towards being hokey. Luckily it never quite makes it there and doesn't detract from the film.

There are some problems with this entry in to the genre. The story never fully explores almost anything it could. How deep did the friendship of Kiowa and Elfego go? This could have played a part in the viewer being more emotionally invested in the all too brief finale, which was overshadowed by the set up "hunting" scene. Also, exactly what race is Elfego? He's played by Tatsuya Nakadai who is a Japanese actor famous for his decades of work with directors Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi, but his name seems to be Spanish and similar to El Fuego which means The Fire. Though no one is ever set on fire. Also he uses a sword in a fight (which actually happens to be a machete) in a very samurai-ish manner. This is a minor nitpick from me, but it would be nice to know, we just have to assume that he is a half breed Japanese-Mexican.

When it's all said and done, Today It's Me... Tomorrow It's You! also known as Today We Kill...Tomorrow We Die! falls short of its true potential. Possibly due to fear that it would seem contrived or maybe it was simply due to it's (obvious) budgetary restraints. It is however a very entertaining western that is steady standing on its on two feet. All five members of Kiowa's gang are great, and Nakadai is exceptional in the screen time he receives. Tonino Cervi seemed to draw a bit too much of a Hollywood influence for his own good at times but its never more than a passing thought. The obvious influence from the samurai films that helped start the spaghetti western cycle in the mid-60s adds a stylish touch. And I can't write this review without giving a round of applause to Bud Spencer for using a belly bump as an attack in a fight scene, I'll support that tactic until the day I die.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Dust Devil (1992)

Richard Stanley is a director with endless talents that you probably have never heard of. Along with Dust Devil his only other feature film is Hardware, a great sci-fi horror film from 1990. He has also made a handful of documentaries and short films along with some music videos. With a movie in production, another in pre-production and a third announced it will be nice to see him return and hopefully bring his talents to a wider audience.

Dust Devil takes place in Namibia and South Africa and is the story of a shape shifting demon who preys on humans that have lost everything but life itself, the weak and unloved. The film has intertwining plots, all dealing with the Dust Devil. Wendy (Chelsea Field) has just separated from her husband is is driving aimlessly through the deserts when she picks up a strange hitchhiker who brings with him equally strange events. A local police officer (Zakes Mokae) is hunting the murderer after a local shaman shows him the truth about the demon. And eventually Wendy's husband gets into the picture as well after he decides he wants her back. All of the plots come together in a showdown with the demon.

The plot in Dust Devil isn't anything exceptional or even the movie's strongest point. The film truly excels in Richard Stanley's direction. He is able to create such thick and foreboding atmosphere that you almost feel the heat coming off of the desert sand, you start to feel sick to your stomach with the violence on screen. He is simply fantastic with creating atmosphere. The writing, also handled by Stanley is competent and the acting while a bit shaky at times holds together just fine.

The thing with Dust Devil is that it quickly became a studio disaster. The Weinstein Brothers chopped it up, cutting the movie down to 87 minutes from its original 2 hour cut, which took out most of the supernatural elements and almost the entire role of the protagonist. That cut was released to European markets, after which the producers and Stanley agreed on a 95 minute cut which was to be released in the UK until the film's British backers went under. It then went into movie studio hell for years and had all sorts of problems with who owned the rights and who gets what cut of the money. Eventually Stanley got the original negatives and was able to edit together Dust Devil: The Final Cut for the DVD release along with a work print version that is an extra 8 minutes. The original 120 minute cut is seemingly gone forever, but what we are left with today is a fine example of gruesome supernatural horror from a very overlooked director.


Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Wolfman (2010)

In 1941 Universal Pictures brought us one of the first (Werewolf of London) feature length film on werewolves, The Wolfman. George Waggoner directed the classic and is in part responsible for the love of the creature so often used in popular culture.

Nearly 70 years after the original Universal gives us the remake of its landmark film. And early on in the pre-production stages it looked promising, even a fanboys wet dream. We saw news sites reporting that director John Landis (An American Werewolf in London) and makeup wizard Rick Baker (Just look up his list of works and be blown away) who is most noted for his lead work done on the Landis directed An American Werewolf in London on top of the Academy Award winning cast lead by Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins. It was going to be this centuries first perfect werewolf movie, something we got (arguably) a handful of times in the 20th century. Then the reality of the movie started coming down.

By the time the movie came out the movie was delayed almost a full year, John Landis was a distant memory and Rick Baker was removed from the role of head makeup and fx artist. Joe Johnston, who is responsible for the direction of such films as Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, The Rocketeer, and Jurassic Park III (ugh) took over the role of director and Rick Baker wasn't given control like he should have been. Anyone that has seen Rick Baker's work on An American Werewolf In London has seen the single greatest special effects/makeup work ever put to film. I'm not talking best werewolf makeup, or best horror movie effects, I'm saying the single best makeup and effects ever put to celluloid. The transformation scene in that is as good as it will ever get. I dare you to say something else is better. On to the movie itself.

Joe Johnston's THE WOLFMAN starts out with a bit of a homage to the original (something that has appeared in every Universal Wolfman film) the "wolfman poem" as I've come to know it as- Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright. After the little nod at history, we get the basic story. Laurence Talbot (Del Toro) comes home to find his brother dead and his father (Hopkins) and brother's mourning lover Gwen (Emily Blunt) at his childhood estate awaiting his arrival. His brother's body is being held in a meat locker type building until his funeral, it is ripped to shreds, something a man certainly could not have done. Not twenty minutes into the movie and we start to see the modern influence on the film. Not a bad thing to this point.

As the film progresses and the story deepens there is more positive, some new and some hearkening back to its source material, the gypsies are present, though in a less important role than they should have been. Its as if they were put it because they needed to be to stay faithful. I understand the choice to put them in, but I would have preferred they not be there if this was the only way they were going to be involved. Its as if they were nothing more than peddlers and beggars to a point, instead of the group that new of the curse and how to cure it. It seemed everybody in the area knew of how to kill a werewolf, even if it were only a myth.

To keep things rolling, Laurence and Gwen begin to get close, he rekindles a small bit of a relationship with his father that we learn was lost when he was sent to a mental hospital shortly after the apparent suicide of his mother and he is dealing with having been stricken with the curse after an early encounter with a beast. The film then spirals down from there As Laurence tries to fight off the curse and remain normal but has no luck, just like those that preceded him, and must give way to the beast.

The Wolfman thrives in that it was certainly entertaining. As an original work, or even a first film adaptation of a piece of literature it wouldn't receive a fraction of the criticism it does. The action is good, the effects never pull you out of the moment and the story is solid. Where it fails is that it isn't an original work, we were teased with perfect options for the cast and crew and our expectations became nothing short of high.

The direction isn't bad, I don't want to give Joe Johnston a bad rap, his films have been a part of my life since childhood and he isn't bad at what he does. It just so happens that he isn't great at what he does either. We get some very nice scenes, followed by incredibly corny scenes. The cinematography is the same way, showing an incredibly gloomy and eery England/Wales followed by a flat shot inside of a mental hospital. The acting doesn't even have that luxury. The performances are, in a word, lazy. When you see the names Anthony Hopkins, Benicio Del Toro, Emily Blunt and even Hugo Weaving you expect good acting, if not great. What we get is flat, uninspired and frankly plain out going through the motions from these names. Luckily for the film when you have a cast of this caliber even underwhelming performances such as these get the job done. The special effects also get the job done. Instead of letting Rick Baker go with his arsenal of beautiful practice effects, the studio elected to go for the cheaper CGI. Now the CGI, outside of a few instances of sub par work, looks fine. CGI certainly has its place in film but not when practical work can be done, especially with little hassle.

Getting the job done should not have been the goal for Universal with this one. They could have easily opened up the door to a new wave of fans for their classic work and classic film in general. What better way to get someone interested in your older films than to remake it properly? Unfortunately after seeing the decision making process from the studio it seems that getting the job done was the main goal behind the project. Take out an accomplished director, a special effects artist who has made the single greatest werewolf transformation scene in history loses his ability to do just that again and in turn take an award winning cast and make them lazy due to your insecurity in your film and financing (lets face it, it all comes down to $$$) and what do you get? A film that isn't bad, but not good, let alone as good as it should be. And I'd rather watch a truly awful movie than be let down as much as I am with this one. At least I held off on spending those dollars that Universal so arrogantly saved on the production.

It isn't the worst score you'll see me hand out, but know that I don't get this disappointed in movies very easily. I need to watch Waggoner direct Lon Chaney Jr asap to get this taste out of my mouth. The score I'm handing it is focusing on the positives the movie has as a piece of entertainment. I have so much more to say on the story, the creature design, etc... but I feel that I've written enough to convey my opinion. Just understand this really could have been a masterpiece of modern horror and Universal robbed us of that.

I had a slew of posters to choose from, many had good artwork, especially for modern day horror. I feel that the one I picked expresses how good the movie could have been, and why it fell so short all at once.