Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Year at the Movies - Part 1

When I get around to seeing more of this year's likely Oscar contenders and big-budget hits, I might compile the obligatory "Best of" list. The simple fact is that there are a lot of movies I haven't seen yet and even more that I made a conscious choice to skip until they were out on DVD.

Occasionally someone will make fun of movie critics because "it's not that hard to sit there and watch movies all day" but they forget that there are a LOT of movies released each week. It is time consuming, particularly when one doesn't have the option to pick and choose the bad ones. I recall getting zero sympathy from my non-Film classmates in college when I complained about having to endure yet another "classic" my professor insisted was educational. Watching movies seems fun until you realize you have to do it three nights a week and are at the mercy of someone else's tastes.

So for these reasons I embark on my Year in Review with the acknowledgement that it is imperfect. I can't see everything and I didn't want to see everything, so if I overlooked your favorite movie, don't throw a fit.

I've decided to write the year up thusly. Movie tickets ain't cheap these days, and in a cost saving move, there were several films I decided to wait for the DVD rather than brave the theatres. Films are listed in order of their theatrical release, with the ones I saw on DVD listed in red text. After each review, I'll render a verdict as to if it was worth either the cost of full admission, or if I had been wise in waiting for DVD. Let's see how good my screening process was.


Valkyrie (*** out of four stars) - I'm cheating a bit because this actually came out last December, but I didn't see it until January. Overall I liked it. Bryan Singer's direction was tense, the supporting cast was excellent, and Tom Cruise did a good job. The non-accent didn't bother me, and any film that has you coming out of it mad with frustration at how close someone came to killing Hitler has to be a good one. Verdict: Worth the $12

The Unborn (**1/2) - Without the final twist, this might have had a shot at a solid three stars. The problem is that the ending comes with a reveal that seems to mean that everything that came before it made no sense. I rather liked the hook of the girl being haunted by her unborn twin, and it's rare to see Jewish mysticism used in horror films, so that was an interesting novelty. The cast is pretty solid, particularly Gary Oldman and Idris Elba. Star Odette Yustman is like Megan Fox's good twin - she's less skanky looking and a fair bit better at acting. Verdict: Wish I'd Waited for DVD.

My Bloody Valentine 3-D (**) - I've already covered my biggest issue with the film in this post. Nothing else in the film is exemplary enough to make up for that - save for seeing the 3-D visuals on the big screen. The fact that can't be duplicated as well on DVD is the ONLY reason my verdict is: Worth the $12.

Taken (***1/2) - This was a nice surprise, and the casting of Liam Neeson is the smartest decision the filmmakers of this story of an assassin racing to save his daughter from a human trafficking ring could have made. If you just read the script without knowing who was attached, you might be tempted to dismiss it as a potential direct-to-DVD project for Jean Claude Van Damme. There were at least three or four instances where my jaw was on the floor in disbelief at the turn the movie had just taken (for instance, Neeson coldly shooting his friend's wife.) Best of all, throughout the film it felt like the kind of movie that would have had the guts for Neeson to fail in his rescue attempt, a decision that makes either a happy or an unhappy ending much more powerful. Verdict: Should have seen it in theatres.


Push (**) - My displeasure might be colored by the fact that this script followed me around like a homeless puppy, as I had to read it for several different bosses over the years. Bored me to death, and it was pretty much miscast across the board. Verdict: Money well saved.

Friday the 13th (*) - about 22 minutes into this, I asked myself, "What am I doing here? Why did I think this would be any different from the other films?" Aside from a marginally more talented cast, I was right. Verdict: Wish I'd waited for DVD.

Fanboys (**1/2) - I'm kind of burned out on the whole mocking of Star Trek and Star Wars fans. It was novel when Kevin Smith did it, but the joke's been told and retold a lot. This film isn't immune to that, and the whole cancer subplot is rather badly executed. The main cast is decent, though, and the film is largely redeemed by the cameos - particularly Danny McBride's - and the visual appeal of Kristin Bell in a Slave Leia outfit. Still, I didn't miss anything by waiting a few months for the DVD. Verdict: Money well saved.


Watchmen (***) - I probably need to see this again to put it in it's proper context. It's not without a few pacing problems, but I think there are some really stunning visuals and great shot compositions. On top of that, Jackie Earle Haley's Rorschach steals the movie and Malin Ackerman is appealing when she's not called upon to act. The downside: Matthew Goode does everything he can to sink the movie with his valim-inspired performance as Adrian Veidt. Overall I think there's more good than bad here. Verdict: Worth the $12.

The Last House on the Left (***) - I'm still conflicted about this one, as my original review indicates. I'm sort of glad that I got to experience this in the comfort of my own home and not in a theatre full of ignorant moviegoers heckling and yelling at the screen. Verdict: Glad I waited for DVD.

I Love You, Man (***1/2) - The best Judd Apatow movie that Apatow never touched. This bromance comedy clearly has the DNA of Apatow's better movies beyond featuring his regular players Paul Rudd and Jason Segal. Rudd plays a man who's never had a male best friends and finds one for the first time in Segal. Three-dimensional characterization is a major asset to a premise that could have easily been tired and hackneyed. Best of all, the script keeps the Rudd/Segal dynamic as its main focus and avoids the Apatow tendency to let the secondary characters gobble up too much screentime. Apatow's supporting players are usually reliable for laughs and good characterization, but the reason his films always feel about 15 minutes too long is because the director isn't merciless enough to cut funny bits in service of keeping the script focused. I Love You, Man uses some supporting characters to great effect - particularly Jon Favreau, Jamie Pressley and Lou Ferrigno (!) - but director John Hamburg (who shares a writing credit with Larry Levin) keeps things moving in one of the best comedies of the year. Verdict: Worth the $12

Monsters vs. Aliens (***) - A fun romp. Kids will be entertained and even if Dreamworks Animation will never hold a candle to Pixar's in terms of story, I enjoyed it. Verdict: Worth the $12.


Adventureland (***) - A decent indie comedy, and one that convinced me that Kristen Stewart actually could act when she isn't bored stiff by the script (see: Twilight). Jesse Eisenberg comes off as a bit of a poor man's Michael Cera at times, but still manages to have fun in the role. Bill Hader and Ryan Reynolds also get in a few good moments. Still, it's probably a better viewing experience at home rather than in the theatre. Verdict: Wish I'd waited for DVD.

Observe and Report (1/2 star) - I know this film has it's defenders. I am not one of them. The kindest thing I can say is that I respect Seth Rogan for trying something different. Halfway through I considered turning off the DVD. 45 minutes later, I wished I had. Verdict: Money well saved, time badly wasted.

17 Again (***) - You won't find much original in this story that can basically be called Big-in-reverse. I also can't find much that I hated, either. The cast has a ball with their roles and the story's well-paced and structured. Maybe I'd have felt differently had I paid full price for it, but it's totally watchable as a Netflix pick. Verdict: We'll go with "Money well Saved."


Wolverine (no stars) - In any other year, this would have been my pick for Worst Film of the Year. Alas, I underestimated certain other filmmakers. So bad it makes X-Men 3 look like X2. Anyone involved in any creative decisions on this film should have their filmmaking licenses revoked. Verdict: Glad I waited for DVD.

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (***) - This is little more than a Scrooge rip-off with a womanizer (Matthew McConaughey) learning the error of his ways just in time to win back his childhood sweetheart (Jennifer Garner). Part of me thinks the concept is clever and another part wants to say that the lead's transformation isn't believable. It kept me entertained, so I'll be kind to it. Verdict: Glad I waited for DVD.

Star Trek (***1/2) - My favorite film of the year. J.J. Abrams and his team found a way to give Kirk and company an origin story that leaves their futures wide open without disrespecting everything that came before it. They pulled off the very difficult task of entertaining Trekkies and people who never watched Star Trek. If the opening sequence doesn't tug on your heart strings, you have no heart, and that's just the first of the surprises here. The visual effects are fantastic, but they're always in service to the story and the casting is pitch-perfect, from the bridge crew on down to Bruce Greenwood's Captain Pike and Eric Bana's Nero. Verdict: So good I paid to see it twice.

Up (***1/2) - Remember what I said about Trek's opening tugging on the heart? Up sees that and raises it a few. A while back I singled out the early montage as a masterful example of non-verbal exposition, and I think that bears repeating. This is just a really beautiful movie, and my only issue with it might be that I felt the villain was one of Pixar's weaker ones. On the other hand, without him, we'd never have the talking dogs so that's almost a fair trade. Verdict: Worth the $12.

Come back tomorrow for the rest of the year!


  1. "Taken" was great.

    Liked what you had to say about "Friday the 13th," - about 22 minutes into this, I asked myself, "What am I doing here?"" Dude, what were you doing there?

    "Observe and Report" lost ALL CREDIBILITY with a gratitious scene at the end where a fat flasher runs arround a packed mall with his privates dangling about. Totally gross. Very uncalled for, unforgivable, piss-poor creative choice. Doomed the movie.

    Was suprised you like "Ghosts of Girlfriend's Past" so much. I was very unimpressed by it. A rom-com headlined by the romantic pairing of Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner SHOULD have been much better than it was. I thought "Ghosts of Girlfriend's Past" was an attempt at capturing some of that "13 Going On 30" magic. Unfortunately it didn't. To me this rom-com was missfire. Mabye it would have been better if Matthew McConaughey had take off his short more during the flick. Yeah, that's the ticket to success, have Matthew McConaughey take off his shirt some more. Joke ==|:-)

    - E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

  2. so who would you have cast in PUSH? I felt letdown by the movie overall, but that seemed to be due to the story more than anything. For the budget, the actors seemed about right.

  3. E.C. - Yeah I was surprised by my reaction to GIRLFRIENDS too. I dunno. Maybe I just have the same weakness for Jennifer Garner that Ebert has for Angelina Jolie, or I just enjoyed Michael Douglas that much.

    As for why I saw Friday the 13th... well, I tend to read a lot of horror scripts, so more than just about any genre, it's most useful for me to watch the majority of new and recent releases so I can see what's been done, why it worked, and most importantly, so that my write-ups of all the ripoffs of the latest horror trend can be put in their proper context.

    The reason I make more of an effort for horror rather than, say, romantic comedy is the simple reason that horror is generally actor-proof. If a Sandra Bullock or a Katherine Heigel rom-com does well, the conventional wisdom seems to be it's because the people like the actresses. If it does poorly, the blame usually falls on the premise, which four times out of five was so bad that any reader worth their salt probably would have panned it anyway.

    Attatt - The miscasting in PUSH is largely with Camilla Belle and Chris Evans. Their characters were VERY late 20s-early 30s in the drafts I read and came across a bit more maturely and even a little world weary. Evans' part was the sort of thing I could see a young Harrison Ford play. Even though Evans was 27 when they shot it, he still had that preppy, frat-boy vibe that annoys the hell out of me.

    And yet, I can't come up with a name that would fit because there aren't many male stars out there that give off that "men's men" vibe anymore. Look at every action film out there this year: few of those stars are in their early 30s, and fewer still who don't look like they just stepped out of an Abercrombie ad. Despite the fact he's a little old, I think Nathan Fillion would have nailed the part, but the studio would be worried if he could "open" the movie.

    Belle is at least five years too young for her part. Period. And there had to be a dozen known actresses in the right price range who could have played that part. Maybe they all passed, or maybe Evans was cast first and he read so young that they decided to cast even younger for her part.

    Let me put it this way, when I heard Belle had signed onto the project, my first thought was that they must have aged-up Dakota Fanning's character because she made no sense for the role as written.