The Hunger Games (Review)

The film version of the popular book series is better than it could have been, delivering  a powerful film with strong talents across the board.

Score: * * * *

Rated: PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images–all involving teens.

The popular young adult novel pie grows larger with The Hunger Games series, Suzanne Collins’ vision of a dark dystopia where children must fight to the death for sport. I can’t remember exactly how many copies the series has sold, but it’s a lot, and Collins recently became the best-selling Kindle author of all time. Of course, no popular book series can go long without a film adaptation. This time, studio Lionsgate is handling the adaptation, and it’s their most ambitious and expensive project yet. Luckily, the studio has assembled the right combination of actors, director, and crew to craft a very solid adaptation of the series.

The story follows the futuristic region of Panem, rising from the ashes of a fallen North America and consisting of twelve poor, underdeveloped districts with a rich Capitol at the center. At one point, the districts rose up in rebellion against the Capitol and lost. As retaliation, the Capitol holds a yearly competition called the Hunger Games, in which a boy and a girl from each district are chosen to participate in a battle to the death in the wilderness. The event is televised across the region and serves as entertainment for the Capitol. In District 12, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) silently defies the Capitol by hunting for food in the wilderness with her best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth). When the time comes for the tributes to be selected for the Games, Katniss is appalled when her timid younger sister Primrose is chosen and takes her place by volunteering as a tribute. A boy whom Katniss only ever met once in passing, Peeta Mellark, is also chosen, and they are whisked away to the Capitol to train in the Games.

Katniss is given the assistance of former District 12 champion Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), who will train her and Peeta before the Games. Surviving the elements is a bit part of the Games, and since the contestants must enter the arena empty-handed, they must rely on what they can find in the arena, and what is delivered to them by Sponsors, which are won by making a positive impression in the weeks before the Games. It is in her costume designer Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) that Katniss makes her only true friend in the lush Capitol, and his care for Katniss gives her the strength to push forward toward the Games.

Part of what secured Gary Ross his position as director, and the main thing that makes the story work, is the character focus. These are not action films in the purest sense of the word. Yes, there is action and violence, but the character moments are what define the saga. Much time is spent on conveying the fear of some of the tributes at being chosen. The relationship between Peeta and Katniss is well-written, and even better acted. Josh Hutcherson gives Peeta a nice emotional depth that instantly sold me, and Jennifer Lawrence as the fiercely independent Katniss knocked it out of the park. The rest of the performances are also great–Stanley Tucci shines as the greasy, grinning TV host Caesar Flickerman, Woody Harrelson’s role as Games champion Haymitch Abernathy is pretty much perfect, and Donald Sutherland plays President Snow as though the part was created specifically for him.

Ross has chosen an interesting style for his film: the earlier bits that take place in and around the districts are filmed in a sort of naturalistic, documentary-esque style. The districts themselves evoke an eerie concentration camp feel. When the setting moves to the wealthy Capitol, the camera pulls back a bit and gets a little more smooth in its movements. Finally, for the actual fight scenes themselves, Ross employs the standard action movie shaky camera that gives the fights and extremely desperate, erratic feel. It works, even though the camera sometimes gets too shaky and the scenes too confusing.  Of course, Ross had to keep the movie at a PG-13 rating, no small feat considering the subject matter. The shaky camera ensures that there is rarely more than a flash of a blade and a spurt of blood amongst a tangle of blurred bodies.

It does certainly feel like a film made for fans of the book, or, at the very least, someone who is rather familiar with the basic plot. Several things in the film occur with no explanation, and someone who has not read the book will have to make assumptions as to their meaning. The sequence of plot threads are not incoherent, but they occur somewhat episodically. Having read the books, I was able to connect the dots in my head. It’s certainly not a hack job but some bits may have to be explained to a newcomer.

And what of the love story? The Hunger Games has been referred to as the “anti-Twilight” for its refusal to dabble in petty flings and melodramatic brooding over boys. There is something of a love story here–Peeta confesses his love for Katniss over live television, creating a love triangle with them and Gale and providing a hook to their roles in the Games. In the book, things rarely got more complicated than Katniss avoiding genuine feelings on the account that eventually she may have to kill Peeta. In the film, the romance angle is laid on a little more thickly, but save for a kiss that seemed a bit forced, the rest of it feels fairly real. Best of all, the entire romance angle is completely secondary to the Games and the oppression of the Capitol. This is a dystopian drama first, and a love story second.

There is one thing I particularly liked about the film in relation to the book. The novel is written in a first person perspective, and therefore relies heavily on internal monologue to drive the story and explain things to the reader. Gary Ross cleverly finds ways to circumvent the lack of internal monologue in the film by having secondary characters, such as the commentators for the Games, describe things that Katniss would have done through her inner voice in the book. It worked quite well.

As with any adaptation, there are things that didn’t work out as well as I would have hoped. In the grander scheme of things, these were fairly inconsequential and minor things, but their inclusion would have further benefited the characters with little additional effort. Some of these, I am sure, have to do with that PG-13 rating, but some pieces of the adaptation did not grab me like they did in the book. And of course, the movie does not quite succeed at mimicking the raw psychological tension of the the novel’s breathless second half (that led me to race through it in under a day). Again, minor things, considering how well-adapted everything else was.

That’s not to say that the film isn’t exciting: the final showdown of the Games was very tense, and many of the confrontations are appropriately thrilling when they arrive. But it’s not about the action: the triumph of this film is to make a dark, upsetting dystopian tale that doesn’t try to play fair or sugar coat its themes to be more appealing to a younger audience. Ross’s vision of the cruelty of the rich Capitol and the brutality of the games hits home effectively. He sells the character moments magnificently as well–the way he handles the death of one specific character (fans will know who I’m talking about) was perfect. Most people who have not read the book will not notice the small detractions I did. Either way, it’s a very well-done movie with an exceptionally well-realized world and a dark, emotional core.

21 Jump Street (Review)

21 Jump Street successfully shows that even the most ridiculous ideas can be turned into something completely fun. 

Score: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Rated: R for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, drug material, teen drinking and some violence

It’s a common ridicule of Hollywood that the film industry is so out of ideas, or so cautious to try new ones, that studio executives will reach as far as they can into the proverbial barrel to get licenses–licenses that are sometimes so old that people may barely remember them. Sometimes, there is a total reinvention of the franchise, which is usually met with an incredibly venomous response from the original’s fanbase. Films such as the moderately enjoyable Starsky & Hutch comedy reimagining and the crude, dreadful Dukes of Hazzard are two examples. Since those two films are generally fairly disliked, a comedic spin on an 80’s Johnny Depp drama seems like the worst of ideas. Surprisingly, however, it seems that having a strong team both in front of and behind the camera can work wonders for even the most insane concepts.

The film opens in high school, 2005–nerdy, bleached-hair, braces-equipped Schmidt (Jonah Hill) can’t even ask a girl to the prom without choking and stuttering, while idiotic, burly jock Jenko (Channing Tatum) watches with glee. Fast forward to them enrolling in police academy together by coincidence. Realizing that Schmidt is good at the written exams but severely out of shape, while Jenko is physically fit but a miserable failure at the exams, they decide to become friends and help each other out. Upon graduating successfully, however, their dreams of being badass cops for life are dashed when they are assigned duty at the park on bicycles. When their first accidental bust goes completely awry due to their own misguided machismo and poor common sense, they are reassigned to an old revived protocol called “21 Jump Street”, in which they must pose as high school students to infiltrate a drug ring.

Upon arriving at the church that serves as the secret headquarters for the organization, they are immediately met, and berated, by the foulmouthed “Captain Sassy” Dickson (Ice Cube), who gives them their assignments. Of course, upon arriving at school, they forget who is supposed to have which identity, culminating in Jenko getting put into AP Chemistry and Schmidt attending Drama. Both of them are remarkably out of their element, and Jenko is appalled to find that everyone that he used to bully when he was in high school is now what is considered “cool”.

21 Jump Street has a little something for everyone, really–it’s a high school comedy that dabbles fairly generously in physical & screwball comedy, action comedy, and vulgarity. Best of all, it’s also a satisfying slice of meta-comedy, poking fun not only at the common expectation for things to explode during action movie chases (during one of the film’s standout scenes), but the fact that the the 80s television show is even being remade at all, with the police captain saying in reference to the revival of the undercover program, “They’re out of ideas; they’re just recycling the same shit over and over and hoping we don’t notice.” It was an extremely amusing little bit of referential humor to how Hollywood is strongly against fresh concepts. It also plays around a lot with audience expectations, although the way in which it does this is simply too much fun to give away. Suffice it to say, it is this kind of humor that makes the movie so much fun and rewarding to watch.

It helps that the film, though being set in high school, doesn’t ever really feel particularly mean-spirited. Yes, it’s extremely vulgar, but the movie never feels like it’s going out if its way just to push buttons and cross lines. The only openly gay character is not a flamboyant stereotype, and the smart students are portrayed as clever hackers rather than nerdy punching bags. Although it is a hard R with plenty of swearing and nasty humor (including ample references to a certain male reproductive organ), the bulk of the film’s comedy is built around silly dialogue and an overall goofy vibe.

That goofy vibe is owed almost entirely to Tatum and Hill, who have some of the best chemistry I’ve seen probably since The Other Guys with Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg. Much as Wahlberg did in that film, Tatum proves that he’s really great at comedy. His timing here, particularly when squaring off with Hill, is impeccable, moving the film along at a breezy pace with just enough time to laugh and catch one’s breath before the next line gets fired off. This is a buddy comedy through and through, and one of the best ones to come along in quite a while, to boot. There’s a genuine sense of brotherly love between the two, and neither truly inhabits a particular static stereotype, making for fluid character dynamics that feel natural. They are assisted by a strong supporting cast that includes Rob Riggle, Chris Parnell, and Ellie Kemper as some of the high school’s very unusual teachers.

Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who most recently directed the flashy and funny animated film Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, display once again an eye for comedy and a talent for flashy, creative direction. When describing the different stages of the drug, there’s a cutaway of a super eye-popping, neon-colored intertitle displaying the stage. It was a fun little flourish that made the movie a little more exciting visually.  One of the best scenes in the movie, which put me in tears of laughter, makes creative use of editing, sound, and costuming to give us a perspective on what the pair are experiencing while on the drug. Again, Lord and Miller skillfully navigate many different styles of comedy, sneaking in subtle or unexpected jokes whenever they can, extending scenes beyond what one would have expected, and even finding time for a handful of great cameos that I won’t dare spoil here.

In short, it’s an enormously creative two hours of fun. It blasts apart all expectations of being terrible and delivers a clever, self-aware reinvention of the classic series while also not hesitating to poke fun at not only the tendency of Hollywood to continuously remake movies and shows (and, by association, its own existence), but also the action genre’s own ridiculous tropes. The team of talented writers and producers (which included Jonah Hill), as well as the Lord/Miller creative team, make a distinctly strange, yet undeniably energetic and hilarious comedy with enough enthusiastic affection to give it a heart as well.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (Review)

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is what many would classify as “bad”, but it’s so shamelessly, intentionally ridiculous that it ends up being extremely entertaining in the process: bad on purpose, and a blast as a result.

Score: * * * * (out of 5)

Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some disturbing images, and language.

I love bad movies. Not just movies that are no good, but abysmal, trashy, terrible films that probably should not see the light of day. It is this type of movie from which I derive a strange pleasure, if only because being able to point and laugh, shake my head in shock, or rip apart in a review can be so much fun. Sometimes, however, the filmmakers are in on the joke. If they could, they could sit right next to me and laugh along with me. That’s when the bad movie truly becomes something special, and that’s exactly what the directors of the Crank films, Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (known professionally as Neveldine/Taylor), have done.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is not really a sequel, and not really a reboot. It’s more of just another chapter in the saga of the character, although it completely ignores the original film. In this one, Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) has retreated to Europe as a recluse in an attempt to keep the demon Ghost Rider living inside him from breaking out. He must call on the Rider again to assist a woman named Nadya (Violante Placido), whose son is sought after by the Devil (Ciaran Hinds), who seeks a new host body. Blaze is aided by Moreau (Idris Elba), a gunslinging, wine-chugging priest.

So, honestly, this movie is kind of bad. The plot is thin, the characters shallow, and the dialogue is some of the corniest I’ve heard in a theatrical action flick in a long time. But it’s all on purpose. Neveldine/Taylor know they’re delivering some utterly ridiculous nonsense, and they do so with a palpable sense of glee. It’s not a slapstick comedy, but it knows how to have fun, with ludicrous one-liners, crazy action, and cutaway gags involving fiery urination. The mentality that seems to drive these two filmmakers is that if they have an idea that sounds fun, they throw it into the movie because why the hell not. In this case, it works enormously well to the film’s benefit.

At the center of it all is Nicolas Cage, completely unhinged in an utterly demented performance that calls back to his most insane roles from his early years of acting. For those (like myself) that are fans of Cage, we love him mainly for what is known as “the Nic Cage freakout”, a special segment in the movie when Cage completely loses his shit, screaming, laughing, or generally just acting in a manner that would attract unfavorable attention.  It’s extremely easy to imagine that the directors let Cage do whatever he wanted with the performance, with the condition that he not act normal at all except for the maybe minute and a half of combined dramatic moments Cage has in the entire film. As Johnny Blaze, Cage has little ticks and weird touches to his performance. His line delivery is nothing short of sublime, placing weird emphasis on certain words and giving whole lines in ways that you wouldn’t imagine a normal performance having. It’s difficult to describe, but suffice it to say that this is the weirdest and most entertaining performance Cage has given in many years. As the Rider, Cage is a revelation; he moves oddly, occasionally stands in place while moving his head slowly back and forth, and strikes weird poses after defeating an enemy. Seeing this for the first time was a little jarring, but once I started going along with it it turned into a bizarrely delightful spectacle.

As campy as the move is, however, it’s far from being poorly made. Neveldine/Taylor have a very unique style of filmmaking that involves rapid editing, unique and creative camera angles, and completely frenetic cinematography. It turns out this style really works for a trashy, absurd superhero movie. Nearly everything that doesn’t involve a piece of dialogue in this movie is focused on one thing: delivering complete and utter sensory overload. The rapid-fire parade of wild cinematography is almost too much to handle, but it never ceases to be entertaining, in the same way that the pair’s Crank movies were such stupid fun. The action sequences are particular are really great; Ghost Rider possesses vehicles and lays waste to expendable bad guys with his fiery chain, and the car chase finale was legitimately awesome and very memorable.

The CGI on display here is pretty great. The character of Ghost Rider has been redesigned for the better, nixing the clean white skull and spotless leather jacket in favor of a charred skull and melting clothing. This re-imagining of the character is genuinely creepy and extremely menacing, a far cry from the likeable protagonist that the first movie turned Ghost Rider into. This character is a demon without a conscience that eats souls, and this film makes him into the terror that he should be. He even throws out a couple of truly, hilariously horrible one-liners that completely sold him as a campy, hellish antihero.

The 3D barely needs mentioning at all; there were some parts where it looked really neat but for the most part was not very noticeable. Some wide angle shots looked neat for the depth of the image, but these were not terribly common and you won’t be missing much by seeing the movie in 2D. On the other hand, the 3D was not offensively bad or headache-inducing, so seeing it in the format still works if it’s your only option.

The movie is already doing poorly in theaters, which is very sad. Movies like these are a lot of fun and are passed off as being simply “bad” with no entertainment value at all. That said, this movie will be a special treat for those looking for a trashy, noisy action flick. It’s loud, violent, and extremely funny. Cage fans, you hero has returned.

Most Anticipated Films of 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Release: June 22 Look at that title and try to deny that this movie is going to kick ass–it’s like the two best things ever in the same movie. The book the film is based on (written by Seth Grahame-Smith, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) is a strange breed, mashing authentic biographical and historical content of Lincoln with an action/horror vampire adventure and a subtle streak of dark humor as it portrayed Lincoln’s thirst for vengeance after vampires murder his mother. It wasn’t perfect, but it was fun. Take that unique formula, add Tim Burton as producer, and get Timur Bekmambetov (the director of the excellent action flick Wanted) at the helm, and you have what should turn out to be a terrific action/horror/historical mashup.

The Amazing Spider-Man

Release: July 3 When negotiations between Sam Raimi (the director of the first three Spider-Man films) and studio Columbia Pictures fell apart, the latter opted for a straight reboot of the series, with new names across the board. Marc Webb ((500) Days of Summer) brings a fresh coat of darkness to the high schooler Peter Parker, now played by Andrew Garfield (best known as Eduardo from The Social Network). With the darker tone comes a controversial reinvention of the Spider-Man costume and an emphasis on practical effects over CGI, which should be neat. A solid cast is also rounded out with Emma Stone as Gwen Stacey and Rhys Ifans as Dr. Kurt Connors aka The Lizard, but I’m still just mostly excited that Webb intends to make this a more serious film instead of the derailing campiness that Raimi’s trilogy turned into.

The Avengers

Release: May 4

Marvel is essentially putting everything into The Avengers over the course of the last few years, they have been releasing movies as a means of introducing different members of the super team to finally unite them in this film. The scale of the film looks to be tremendous; and since each of the characters’ previous film has introduced their respective origin story, there is no need to bother with origins in this one, allowing director Joss Whedon to go straight for the main story. That Whedon is director is reason enough to be excited–he’s one of the most well-respected directors in the “nerd community”–but the movie itself just looks plain awesome, between intense action, good verbal sparring between members of the team, and Tom Hiddleston finally being able to be truly villainous as Loki.

The Dark Knight Rises

Release: July 20 Christopher Nolan said he would not return for a third Batman film unless he felt he could top The Dark Knight. While few actually were worried that he would opt out of directing the third and final film, his involvement still speaks volumes about his confidence in the production. The final part of Nolan’s Batman story looks significantly darker than ever before, with Gotham City falling apart and suggestions that both Bruce Wayne and Commissioner Gordon are dying. Once again, we have great villains in Tom Hardy as Bane and (hopefully) Anne Hathaway as Catwoman. Few franchises have been able to put such a fantastic spin on a popular character from page to screen, and while The Dark Knight Rises has a huge expectation to meet, I’m confident that it is going to be epic.

Django Unchained

Release: December 25 Quentin Tarantino seems to be able to effortlessly put out excellent movies. Let him write & direct his movie and give him a good ensemble cast, and he’ll more than likely strike gold. His newest looks like it’ll be in a similar vein as Inglourious Basterds (which is a good thing, considering it’s my favorite of his films): a former slave-turned-bounty hunter returns to Mississippi to save his wife from a plantation owner. As always Tarantino brings an impressive cast with him: Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Sacha Baron Cohen, Christoph Waltz, Kurt Russell, and several more. Unfortunately, we have to wait until Christmas Day to see Tarantino’s next labor of love.

Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax

Release: March 2 Despicable Me completely blew me away, deftly sidestepping the problems I was sure it would fall straight into. It was a stupidly adorable and just a lot of fun.  The newest animated film (from the same producers as Despicable Me), based on a Dr. Seuss story, looks just as charming. It might have something to do with the joyful, colorful trailer, or the fact that Danny DeVito is providing the voice of the small, strange Lorax. If the whole movie has me smiling as much as I was through the trailer, this should be great.

The Expendables 2

Release: August 17 There’s really no reason for me to explain this. Expendables 2 adds more actors such as Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, and larger roles for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis. If the sequel has the same type of shamelessly absurd action, it should be as outrageously “mantastic” as the original.

Haywire

Release: January 20 Little is known about Haywire beyond its “government agent gets her employer turned against her” storyline, but the small handful of early reviews are very positive. The first five minutes of the film were recently released on Hulu, and director Steven Soderbergh certainly seems to know what he’s doing. A director of enormous versatility (including the wildly different Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven, Che, The Girlfriend Experience, and Contagion), Soderbergh handles the action here magnificently, pulling the camera back for wider shots that actually last longer than .05 seconds so everyone can see the action, which, of the preview is any indication, is going to be very brutal. This should be a very satisfying bone-crunching thriller (with a huge cast) when it releases this month.

Lincoln

Release: Unknown

Almost nothing is known about Lincoln besides Steven Spielberg as director, Daniel Day-Lewis as the President, and one picture from the set (all copies of which are unfortunately under copyright so I can’t post them here). But, hey: Daniel Day-Lewis and Steven Spielberg.

Prometheus

Release: June 8 It’s an Alien prequel. It’s still a prequel but no longer has the Alien title. It’s not an Alien movie but it kind of is. It’s definitely a different movie but has DNA from the Alien series. Ridley Scott can’t seem to decide exactly what he wants his movie to be, and the trailer for Prometheus absolutely seems to suggest that there is a lot more Alien here than Scott has been telling us–even the trailer has the same style of title card and some fans claim to hear sound bites from the original film in this trailer. All of that said, it’s certainly not a bad thing. Alien is one of the most ruthlessly tense science fiction horror films, and if Scott can return to that style, his fans are in for a terrifying ride. Check out the dread-inducing trailer:

The Secret World of Arrietty

Release: February 12 Japan does The Borrowers. That’s essentially what The Secret World of Arrietty is, save for one twist: Studio Ghibli is doing it. Yes, that Studio Ghibli, the company responsible for My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Anime films from Studio Ghibli are celebrations of life,and even in their dark moments, are utterly joyous affairs. Totoro is one my my absolute favorite movies of all time. The Secret World of Arrietty appears to continue that spirit that the studio has championed over the decades. The Borrowers is certainly not a new property, and it’s been adapted a few times, but seeing Studio Ghibli’s rendition of the story done with their unparalleled talent can’t be anything less than excellent.

Skyfall

Release: November 9 I am a very vocal fan of the new direction Bond is going in. It’s darker, more grounded in reality, and considerably closer in tone, style, and content to Ian Fleming’s original Bond novels. They all but drop the campiness of the Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan films (Casino Royale, the reboot, had to cut down from an R rating) and have more realistic villains. Skyfall should continue the tradition of the reboots, delivering grittier and rougher action, though still on a large scale. Reportedly, a huge action sequence on a train had to be moved from India to Istanbul after permissions could not be easily obtained. Also, it’s going to have Q so everyone can stop complaining now.

Retrospect: Miscellaneous Awards of 2011

Movies deserve recognition for so much more than just being “good” or “bad”. Other times, movies that did not quite make it onto a Top 10 list had something worth noting anyway. I spent a while coming up with some more award categories, and then started narrowing down my three favorites in each category before choosing my favorite.

Best Performance: Rooney Mara–The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

If Rooney Mara does not get recognition at the Oscars for her performance, I will personally send her a letter. Mara’s performance as asocial researcher Lisbeth Salander is so perfect. Look down a bit. Even Ryan Gosling, one of my main man-crushes, is not as good as Rooney Mara here. Mara  completely sells the cold, asocial personality of one of the best characters to grace the page in decades. She’s enthralling to watch, adding  little touches to her character, shrinking away from a man’s touch or altering intensity of eye contact based on conversation dominance. The way she slowly grows closer to Blomkvist is nothing short of beautiful, and the final moments of the film advance their dynamic in remarkable, somewhat heartbreaking ways. As good as David Fincher’s direction and Steve Zallian’s scripting is, Rooney Mara’s performance is the main reason to see this movie.

Runners-Up: Ryan Gosling–Drive, Michael Fassbender–X-Men: First Class

Best Soundtrack: Cliff Martinez–Drive

As good as the Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross-composed soundtrack for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is, it just barely falls behind the Cliff Martinez composition for Drive. Martinez uses retro electronica pieces bubbling just beneath the surface of Drive so that it is never intrusive, yet seamlessly integrated with the rest of the movie. The music is simultaneously intense and ethereal, adding a great sense of atmosphere to the proceedings. Best of all, Martinez went the extra mile and compiled a small handful of extra licensed songs to sprinkle throughout the rest of the movie at just the right moments, such as the attached “A Real Hero” by College.

Runners-Up: Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross–The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, John Williams–The Adventures of Tintin

Best Superhero Movie: X-Men: First Class

There were quite a few good superhero movies to come out this year, but none of them had anywhere near the excitement, style, or emotional weight as Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class. Styled as a reboot for the failing franchise, the movie reinvigorates the characters and gives the whole series a fresh burst of energy. It also shows us the origins of Professor Charles Xavier and Magneto. The friendship between the two men is what drives the movie and is anchored by the very strong performances from James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. The movie also has a very cool, 60’s-era James Bond vibe in its elaborate sets and stylish direction. With a fresh start, the X-Men franchise has great places to go.

Runners-Up: Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger

Best Sequel: Fast Five

While I liked Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol a bit more than the fifth Fast and Furious flick, the latter was a significant and marked improvement over 2009’s lackluster Fast & Furious. It all but abandons the street racing angle from the previous four films and evolves into a straight heist movie. In doing this, it ejects most of the juvenile feel of the previous films and lets its true colors as a straight action flick show. Best of all, the movie is quite aware of how stupid and packed with testosterone it is. The centerpiece is a huge 1.CGI-free final chase where the team tows a vault through the streets of Rio, smashing through cars and a building as they do so. It’s shamelessly “manly” and completely ridiculous. I didn’t love the movie the first time I saw it, but the second time was a lot more enjoyable, and the movie stands out as the absolute best of the series.

Runners-Up: Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

Least Improved Sequel: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Yeah, I didn’t like this movie. There is very little about A Game of Shadows that elevates it above the original, or even makes it an entertaining ride save for the last half hour. The most egregious sin is to almost completely ruin the character of Professor James Moriarty, the “Napoleon of Crime”, who seems smart enough to match Holmes, but not nearly as menacing as Jared Harris is trying to make the character (through no fault of Harris). Finding out Moriarty’s master plan was probably one of the most disappointing things I’ve seen in a movie this year. A Game of Shadows delivers some unsavory plot elements as well as more of everything the first movie had, while fixing nothing and remaining significantly less entertaining than it could have been.

Runners-Up: The Hangover: Part II, Cars 2

Best Action Sequence: The Burj Khalifa–Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol

I’ve been singing the praises of this scene since I got out of the theater. There’s just so much going on here: it begins with Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) climbing up the side of the world’s tallest building using adhesive gloves that of course start to malfunction. The way in which he gets back down drew several audible gasps from the auditorium in my first viewing of the movie. During all of this is a tense exchange of information as the other members of Ethan’s crew pose as villains in order to get an upper hand on the nuclear launch code information. This all concludes in a massive chase on foot and then moving to vehicles. For about 45 minutes, it does not let up, and had me on the edge of my seat.

Runners-Up: Vault Heist–Fast Five, Moroccan Chase–The Adventures of Tintin

Most Pleasant Surprise: Insidious

Some early buzz dismissed James Wan’s newest ultra-low-budget horror movie. I too was mildly unsettled by the poster of a staring child, but I didn’t make any significant effort to catch it in theaters. Once I did see it on DVD, however, I found that some sly aesthetic tricks, a lack of actual violence and gore, and excellent use of sound effects combined for the most crap-your-pants-scary horror movie I’ve seen in years. James Wan will creatively insert things into the background, to where the quieter parts of the movie turn into an “I Spy” of who can scream and spot the bloody claw-print or ghostly face first.  The soundtrack does its work as well; clever usage of Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” makes the skin crawl, while the rest of the soundtrack is essentially an army of screeching, wailing violins.  While the movie does occasionally resort to jump scares and a finale that was a little to heavy on the special effects, the rest is a glorious slow burn of horror that kept me from sound sleep for quite a while.

Runners-Up: Super 8, Friends With Benefits

 

Biggest Disappointment: Unknown

Unknown was supposed to be awesome. It appeared to be an action flick in the vein of Taken with a healthy dose of paranoia and mystery. It certainly had enough mystery, with Liam Neeson’s character surviving a car accident and realizing that no one, including the women he knew as his wife, recognizing him and another man possessing his identity. There was even some decent action and a pretty cool car chase (though not as well-filmed as Taken). However, the plot twist, the explanation for everything, was one of the worst plot twists I have ever seen in a movie. It wasted the entire movie for me. It was that bad. I was so ready for a huge twist, but the payoff for my time was weak and lazy. Movies with so much mystery rely heavily on the plot twist to make everything worth it, but Unknown completely failed to deliver.

Runners-Up: Immortals, Green Lantern

Best Obscure Movie You Didn’t Watch: The Perfect Host

The Perfect Host was a lot of fun for me: a man commits a robbery and escapes to the suburbs, where he forces a homeowner to shelter him until the heat blows over. Unfortunately for him, the man he chooses to take hostage is a schizophrenic psychopath who hosts dinner parties for his imaginary guests. The movie transitions smoothly between a thriller and a black comedy, and the interplay between the two men, with the advantage consistently changing, is engaging to watch. While the plot takes a strange turn in the third act, it ends up working for the characters. It’s not a perfect film by any means, but it is a unique and entertaining indie film.

Runners-Up: The Guard, Rubber

Best Worst Movie of 2011: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1

Let’s get one thing straight: the Twilight  film franchise is, in my opinion, completely awful. Avid fans of the book openly disown the cinematic adaptations, and even fans of the movies themselves call this newest installment one of the worst films of the series. That said, this movie is hilarious.  Overwrought and bizarre, Breaking Dawn Part 1 is the culmination of everything wrong with the saga. the Bella/Edward romance is, as always, kind of creepy (made more so here by a furniture-smashing sex scene), and Jacob is even more annoyingly enamored with Bella. Director Bill Condon tries to infuse his film with a colorful sheen, creating humorously excessive wedding and honeymoon scenes. These drew happy sighs from several members of the audience as I was checking my watch. After that, however, things quickly get very funny. Like New MoonBreaking Dawn Part 1 makes some very strange plot decisions–telepathic wolves, a demon fetus, and, best of all, a creepy “imprinting” scene in which Jacob decides he’s in love with Bella’s child–that make the movie a bit of a dark joy to sit through. It’s a terrible, terrible movie (even some fans of the series reject it), but it had me in stitches with its aggressively serious lunacy. I was asked why I didn’t put this on my “Worst of 2011″ list. The reason for this is that I needed to give it special recognition; not for quality filmmaking, but for gluing a derisive smirk on my face for a good two hours.

Retrospect: 10 Worst Films of 2011

While 2011 was a year of some really great movies, there were also a great many very poor ones, and several awful ones. I kind of have a soft spot for bad movies, and I generally watch them in the hope that I can find something bad enough that I can laugh at, or at the very last rant about it to let off some steam. Some of these fell into both categories, but all of them were extremely bad movies. As with the year’s best, there were several 0f the alleged worst that I either did not get a chance to see, or refused to give my money to, including Jack & Jill (Adam Sandler plays himself and his sister), Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star (a small-town dork becomes a porn star), Shark Night (a PG-13 summer-vacation-shark-attack movie), Dream House (a horror film that everyone involved refuses to advocate), and The Smurfs. Unfortunately, there were still plenty bad ones I did see, and here are the 10 that made me the angriest.

10. Battle: Los Angeles

A great, moody trailer gave way to a soulless, headache-inducing, and rather stupid action movie. Battle: LA might have a couple of moments of interesting action, but the rest of the movie is not at all interesting. The aliens, like always, want to take our resources, leading to the military getting their asses handed to them by the dozen until a small crew of six dudes manages to outsmart them. It’s so formulaic one could attempt to outline the entire movie before seeing it and have a pretty damn good chance of guessing everything correctly. The abrupt ending makes the entire movie basically pointless.

9. I Am Number Four

Twilight romance meets CW-style high school drama. With aliens that have powers. Doesn’t that sound awesome? If you answered “yes”, we are no longer friends.

 8. Atlas Shrugged, Part 1

This excruciatingly boring adaptation of Ayn Rand’s novel about making yourself rich and everyone else can go to hell is only the first of a trilogy, a revelation that makes the movie even more difficult to suffer through. Atlas Shrugged Part 1 is a bunch of sharply-dressed people sitting in nice-looking offices and clubs talking about corporate-sounding things. It’s not the least bit interesting, and while some of the actors do an all right job of acting, they can’t hold together a movie that I was getting distracted from after ten minutes.

7. Red Riding Hood

To be fair, I was entertained through some bits of Red Riding Hood, if only because this is one of the stupidest movies to be released all year. Trying to put a dark, sexual vibe on the tale of Red Riding Hood is weird, out-of-place, forced, and a little creepy. I know that that stuff was kind of in the original, pre-children’s version, but in this case it just doesn’t work. Luckily, the script is so ridiculous that I was chuckling most of the way through, and it has its own version of Twilight‘s Edward, who is somehow even dumber here. However, there is Gary Oldman, who not only chews the scenery, but absolutely feasts on it as an outrageous werewolf-hunter villain that genuinely inspired hysterics in me as I watched him. Actually, he’s a reason to see this. The movie is terrible but totally worth the 20 minutes when Oldman shows up.

6. Season of the Witch

Poor Nicolas Cage. He’s gone from doing great movies such as Leaving Las Vegas to this terrible piece. I’d refer to Season of the Witch as a poor man’s Seventh Seal, but that would be an insult and a disservice to The Seventh Seal. Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman are clearly ready to cash their paychecks and move on, leading a cast that appears to be equally checked out. The sets are cheap and fake-looking, and the dialogue is infuriating. The highlight of it all is dead monks that get reanimated by a demon and start running on the ceiling, necessitating that their heads be cut off to be put down for good. Never again.

5. Colombiana

What a stupid movie. From the writer of the excellent revenge action flick Taken, Colombiana has absolutely nothing of what made that movie so good. The action is extremely poor, for starters. You can barely see what’s going on due to the poor camera work and it is not the least bit exciting, even bordering on stupidity (in one fight, she uses a toothbrush as a weapon and then kills someone by stabbing them with the barrel of a gun). Worse, it makes astounding leaps of logic, allowing Cataleya  (Zoe Saldana) to carry out tasks with such insanely crackerjack timing that all logic flies straight out the window. And that’s probably the worst part: on top of all that absurdity, we’re also expected to buy into a very dark, serious revenge story. It’s a combination that completely falls apart and is not entertaining in the slightest.

4. Dylan Dog: Dead of Night

This adaptation of an Italian comic book is just plain bad. It shoots wildly for the genres of action, horror, and comedy, and misses all spectacularly. It’s never exciting for a second, the horror is little more than lazy over-usage of tired tropes, and the comedy is extremely irritating. The movie thinks it’s awesome and hilarious, but it was by far one of the most unpleasant experiences of the year.

3. Fading of the Cries

This little indie horror fantasy crapfest does not get a pass merely for being an independent film. The script is all over the place and literally explains nothing, the action is boring and ugly, and the acting is perhaps the worst I have seen all year, even from the two or three known actors that are in the film. I’ve already written about this movie at length over at another site, which should convey how I feel about this movie.  Suffice it to say, it is a lazy, awful movie and should be completely avoided.

2. Zookeeper

Zookeeper contains exactly eight seconds of comedy, which, unironically, is exactly how long it takes before Kevin James wears out his welcome. Production company Happy Madison, which was responsible for last year’s worst movie Grown Ups, delivers another completely idiotic stinker, this time with talking animals voiced by celebrities like Cher, Jon Favreau, Don Rickles, and Judd Apatow. The worst of these are Sylvester Stallone as a lion (which just irritates me because I love Stallone and this almost killed him for me), Nick Nolte as a gorilla who wants only to eat at TGI Friday’s (stick with me, it gets worse), and Adam Sandler as a monkey. Imagine Adam Sandler’s voice. Now imagine Adam Sandler screaming in a high-pitched, gravelly voice and that’s what his character sounds like. Adam Sandler is dead to me now. And I haven’t even seen Jack & Jill.

1. The Change-Up

The Change-Up is a miserably unfunny, extremely foul film that wastes everyone involved in it. I love everyone in the movie: Ryan Reynolds, Jason Bateman, Olivia Wilde. The problem is, they are guided by a horrible, excessively raunchy, and completely inconsequential script. None of the characters really come out of this body-swap having become better people (which is the point of the body-swap in the first place), and one could argue that they are rendered even more unpleasant as a result. In addition, the movie is so completely, graphically disgusting–the opening scene is Jason Bateman getting a jet of baby feces right in the mouth, and a pregnant woman wants to have sex even though she’s in labor–it’s more repulsive than anything else.  Bateman and Reynolds completely fail at trying to act like each other. Finally, the editing and directing are abominable. The same jokes are actually funnier in the trailer. Raunchy humor is not always bad, but when it tries this hard to push my buttons, it turns into a spectacular failure.


Retrospect: Top 10 Films of 2011

It’s been a pretty good year for movies. In assembling this list, there were a handful of films that would definitely make it on, a couple that I spent several days trying to decide which deserved #1, and several more that I really liked but had to omit. I should also mention that there were several movies that I intended to see this year but I could not get to, either through a lack of time or an inability to find a showing near me. Some of the ones I wanted to see, but could not, were: Shame (a drama about sexual addiction), The Artist (a silent film that has been getting awards left and right), Melancholia (Lars von Trier’s latest about a second planet appearing), Moneyball (a stats-based baseball movie), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (an espionage thriller from the director of one of favorite vampire movies, the Swedish Let the Right One In), and Take Shelter (a psychological drama). They are all films I plan on hunting down eventually, whether at the local art cinema that doesn’t update its stupid calendar DAMN YOU KRESS THEATER, or on DVD. But of the movies I have seen this year, here are my favorites:

10. Horrible Bosses

I’m a massive fan of workplace comedies, and Seth Gordon puts a terrific spin on the genre: three men who hate their jobs and employers so much they conspire and attempt to actually murder their bosses. Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston, and Colin Farrell make a vile trio as the bosses, and Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, and Jason Sudeikis have a rare chemistry. The dialogue, which is sometimes shocking, sometimes filthy, and oftentimes both, is largely improvised, which adds an extra crackle and spontaneity to the film.  Best of all, it’s extremely evident that everyone involved in the film was having an absolute blast doing so.

9. Hanna

If you’d told me last year that the director of Pride & Prejudice was going to direct an awesome, visually stunning action flick that would be on my Top 10 list, I would have never talked to you again. But Joe Wright has definitely done it, delivering an action flick that is so visually inventive and exciting, so badass, that I can’t believe that he hasn’t done something like this sooner. It has the feel of a dark fairy tale, but without the gimmick. The cinematography is endlessly creative. Hanna kicks a ton of ass. The soundtrack by the Chemical Brothers is rivaled only by the Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross composition for Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Wright is a creative director and I’m excited to see what he can pull out next.

8. Rango

Rango deserves accolades simply for completely turning me around on my opinion of it. Upon the first trailers, I immediately rejected the movie based on the strange trailers that gave away almost nothing about the film. Then, one little Super Bowl trailer changed my mind completely, showing me that the bizarre randomness was exactly what the movie was about. And what a bizarre movie it was, too: a gecko facing an existential crisis, alarmingly grotesque character designs and more references to other films than can be easily counted in one viewing. Also, it was funny. The humor is largely dialogue-based and will fly straight over the heads of many young children, but for everyone else, there is some extremely sharp humor here. That vein of utter weirdness helps too.

7.  Winnie the Pooh

Winnie the Pooh was my childhood. I love this cast of characters. After tragically missing the movie in theaters, I eagerly anticipated the release on disc, and when I was finally able to see it, I had a huge smile on my face for the entire running time. Nostalgia poured over me and I found myself filled with countless happy emotions, almost to the point of tears. They don’t make them like this anymore: free of bathroom humor and pop culture references, and returning to hand-drawn animation (that looks utterly magnificent on Blu-Ray). The movie is only an hour long, but for an hour I was a little kid again.

6. The Muppets

Appearing at face value to be just another nostalgia trip, The Muppets proves itself to be considerably more than that. Written by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller (Get Him to the Greek), who themselves are unapologetic fans of the franchise, this film is bursting with an air of genuine love of the Muppets. It’s aged with its fans too, seemingly: while the series has always had somewhat sophisticated humor, it seems just a bit more intelligent here (fart shoes notwithstanding). It’s honestly probably the funniest movie of the year, particularly for the self-referential goofiness that the franchise is so well-known for, and plenty of gleeful silliness.

5. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

David Fincher’s adaptation of the Swedish novel is brimming with raw, icy dread.  Even though he delivered a fantastic film in The Social Network, he is now back in Seven territory and reminds us all why he is one of the main heavyweights of the thriller genre. When the movie isn’t making your mouth go dry from nervousness, it’s drawing you in with an incredibly dense mystery that is at the same time being rendered completely coherent by Steve Zaillian’s intelligent yet still easy to follow script. The driving force is Rooney Mara as asocial hacker genius Lisbeth Salander, in a performance that is impossible to look away from.

4. Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol

If there is one thing you need to know about the newest Mission: Impossible movie, it is this: it is awesome. Not just “hey, that was a pretty neat little scene” awesome but “OH MY GOD THAT JUST HAPPENED” awesome.  Director Brad Bird, in his first live-action film, has made something more entertaining than many alleged “veterans” of the industry. It’s hilarious, stylish, and thrilling, and the centerpiece setpiece in and outside the Burj Khalifa , the tallest building in the world, is the most heart-stopping action sequence I’ve seen in years.  In terms of straight thrills and entertainment, Ghost Protocol  takes the prize.

3. Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen’s best film since Annie Hall is a complete delight. Also worth noting: I loved a romance movie. While it might not be as conventionally romantic as many mainstream romance films, the movie’s main vein is still that of falling in love, and much of the film’s strength lies in how well it romanticizes its setting and characters: it took two minutes of a rainy opening montage of Paris for me to be instantly sold on wanting to go there. I won’t spoil what makes the movie such a delight, but know that Allen’s sharp dialogue is in full force here. Midnight in Paris is an escape that had me smiling all the way through.

2. Hugo

Listen carefully now: Hugo might very well be the best movie Martin Scorsese has made. It’s a love letter to cinema and a whirlwind of emotion and childlike wonder. The clock-filled train station where most of the film takes place is bursting with character, and a stellar cast of characters both major and minor work together seamlessly. It’s not a terribly accessible movie, being about the dawn of cinema and featuring some fairly heavy thematic material, but that doesn’t mean that it kids won’t be attracted to the extremely flashy visual style. Quite simply, it is a beautiful film in every way, and a slight lull in the middle of the very long film does little to dampen that beauty. I spent a very long time trying to decide if Hugo  was my favorite film of the year, and even though it barely did not slide into that spot, it is still a remarkable, beautiful, and emotional piece of cinema. Make every effort to see this one; it’s the most emotionally rewarding movie I have seen in years, more so even than this year’s #1 choice, and it simply must be seen.

1. Drive

Hugo is Martin Scorsese’s best movie. And Drive is better than Hugo (though just by a teensy bit). What does that say? Nicolas Winding Refn’s third theatrical film is a masterpiece indeed, and while it just barely edges out Hugo as the best film of the year (indeed, possibly the closest race in recent memory), there’s no denying that Drive is tense, beautifully shot, artistic, and completely, awesomely badass in its occasional hits of startling violence. Refn reportedly removed most of the dialogue originally written for Ryan Gosling’s main character Driver (he has no name, giving the movie a distinct Western flavor), and the result is a character that only speaks when necessary, only adding to the mystique. Gosling’s performance as Driver is stunning. He injects bits of quiet and calculating confidence and is undeniably the coolest character to hit the screen all year. Refn’s direction, combined with Cliff Martinez’s retro soundtrack, create a film that is both pleasing and jarring to the senses. It’s also by turns extremely tense and surprisingly tender. It was the best film I saw this year and one of my favorites in recent memory.

Honorable Mention: I Saw the Devil

I Saw the Devil was technically a 2010 release, so I chose to not include it on this list. However, I cannot in good conscience deny it a round of applause. While I Saw the Devil was not officially released this year, it stands tall as not only one of the best films I’ve watched all year, but my absolute favorite revenge film and one of my favorite foreign films. Its main protagonist is a man who is goes to such lengths to catch his fiancee’s killer that he is unafraid to commit acts of stunning brutality on anyone in his way. Constantly cold and confident, he rushes after his prey with a startling and terrifying fury. The final moments deliver a blindsiding torrent of emotion, starkly contrasting against the utterly merciless, remarkably violent drive of the rest of the film. It’s not easy to watch, but it is undeniably intense and powerful–a true masterpiece of revenge cinema.

Gutenfilm Presents: A Christmas Beeracle: The Star Wars Holiday Special

This is it: the final film of A Christmas Beeracle. It’s all been leading up to this, The Star Wars Holiday Special, a film so famously, utterly terrible that everyone involved in the production has disowned it and George Lucas has attempted to purchase every copy of the program so that it will never be seen again. He has failed, and now I am watching it. I can’t think of a better (worse) way to end the year than to watch a movie that people actually pretend doesn’t even exist.

The Star Wars Holiday Special is the tiniest shred of a plotline composed of a handful of horrible Star Wars-themed sketches. After an all-too-brief prologue involving Han Solo and Chewbacca escaping from Imperials that establishes that the Star Wars version of Christmas is called Life Day, we are introduced to Chewie’s stupid family, two of which are named Itchy and Lumpy. The first scene in the movie is an excruciating sequence where one of the Wookies (I can’t remember which one and I don’t care) watches a little holographic circus, after which we learn the Empire suspects Rebel activity on the Wookie homeworld and promptly invades.

The rest of the movie is this meager story supplemented by smaller little musical numbers or other vignettes that have absolutely no bearing on the rest of the story, although the Imperials are apparently completely enthralled by the programming and frequently stall their ransacking of Chewie’s home to watch them. One of the funniest things about this special is that when a segment ends, the scene cuts to everyone gathered around the screen. Everything else is disconnected, inconsequential, and utterly lazy.

Yes, this is literally the image quality of this film.

There is an alarming excess of musical sequences in the special, including a rock song with the vocalist singing into what appears to be a massive glowing pink phallus. Another one, which is definitely a little creepy, features large-breasted Wookie females and a goddess character that tells Itchy (through a virtual reality machine) that she is his fantasy, or something. This movie is really weird. There’s also an instructional video starring a malfunctioning cyborg, a man who drinks via a hole in the top of his head, and, at the very end, a bunch of hooded figures marching through space toward a star where Princess Leia sings a song set to the tune of the Star Wars theme. This final scene might be the worst in the film, because Leia’s song barely fits with tune of the theme, and it’s almost tragic to see such a classic song get butchered. And if that is not bad enough, the song is followed by a montage of random Star Wars stock footage and no fewer than fifty-six toy commercials.

If there’s one thing that the Star Wars Holiday Special does right, it’s warn you right off the bat that there are two Wookies named Itchy and Lumpy. If you watch this, it is your own fault. By the time you get deep enough into the movie to hate all living things, you have no one to blame but yourself. Even so, it is far and away one of the worst things I’ve ever watched. It’s the only movie in Christmas Beeracle that has been able to reach to absurd lows of Nutcracker: The Untold Story. It’s not only “Nutcracker bad”, but almost worse, perhaps even taking that film’s place as a frame of comparison for horrible movies. As a result of this utterly colossal pile of wretched garbage, Wookies are dead to me.  I. Hate. Wookies. It’s almost so bad as to completely ruin Star Wars for me, and I will never view the films the same way again.

I had sort of planned on the movie being that bad, however, and it serves as a fitting end to this feature. I’m almost glad that I’m ending with a movie that was a horrible as the kickoff film, nicely bookending a month of utter cinematic torture. While looking for bad Christmas movies, I came to the realization of just how many bad Christmas movies there actually are, and found myself heavily narrowing down my list and omitting many of the ones I had initially planned for. I’d be lying through my teeth if I said I wasn’t glad it was over.

Presented without comment.

Gutenfilm Presents: A Christmas Beeracle: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

“Thank God, this movie is only 80 minutes long.” That was my initial response upon loading up Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. As it turned out, however, the penultimate entry in this feature turned out to be 80 minutes too long, and yet 80 minutes of pure trashy goodness at the same time.

The main plot thread running through Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is that on Mars, the children Girmar and Bomar (which means Girl Martian and Boy Martian, respectively) have no idea what fun is, having no freedom of thought as a result of all of their knowledge being fed directly into their brains through machines. Momar (Mom Martian) and Kimar (King Martian) are concerned that their children spend all of their time watching Earth television, particularly the programs with Santa Claus. The Martian leaders consult an 800 year old wizard sage that tells them who Santa is, and the Martians decide to go to Earth to kidnap Santa Claus to bring Christmas to Mars. Unable to find the actual Santa after witnessing multiple “Charity Santas” (you know, the Salvation Army ones), the Martians also take a pair of children to help them. The plot of this movie is so stupid I’m actually having trouble thinking of ways to make fun of it.

One of the Martians, the evil Voldar, dislikes this idea of fun for Martian children and years for the days when Mars was a planet of war. He and his cronies consistently try to kill Santa and the children, but Santa is magic and always manages to stop him. Then everyone goes home, the end.

"Drugs? Ho ho, I don't do drugs! Why, do you have some?"

One of the weirdest things about the movie is the plot progression. Santa truly does not seem to care that he is getting kidnapped, laughing his way through the movie. Even a brief monologue about how everything on Mars is automated is followed by more chuckling. I’d even go so far as to estimate that 70% of Santa’s dialogue in the movie is either a jolly chuckle or a “ho ho ho”. It’s true to the character, at least. Most of the Martians seem to be nice, and after the kidnapping Santa and the kids they make sure the trio is comfortable and really care about them. So there’s really no “conquering” in the movie. I’m guessing that Santa Claus Gets Taken To Mars and Does Some Shit and Then Goes Home was too long of a title.

There is a popular rumor about Santa Claus Conquers the Martians that the entire cast was high during the production. It’s probably not true, but if one were to disregard common sense it could be possible. Most of the actors either overact, overreact, or simply have bizarre behavior that might suggest the presence of some drug. A couple of the actors literally laugh between every piece of dialogue. Segments of the script seem to be the product of drug abuse as well, what with talks of “nuclear curtains” and “Q-Rays” and other Martian technology that is obviously supposed to appear advanced and complicated.

This is the part where Google actually did not have any more color stills for the movie.

I had trouble trying to figure out if this was supposed to be a bad movie. It’s truly horrible, but in such a way that everyone seems to be in on the joke, attempting to make a movie that is so bad it can only incite laughter. In that respect, they have succeeded; it’s so abysmal in every aspect of its production, it’s just hilarious. From the idiotic script, to the cardboard sets, to the public-domain sound effects and bargain-basement special effects, this film is the definition of “no budget”. The best part, undoubtedly, is a fight between two Martians that has a shaking camera, point-of-view camera angles, and abysmal choreography.  The sequence where the Martians display the technology that allows them to freeze people was also hilarious in how utterly ridiculous it was. The film later tries to be sweet, but by that point everything is so stupid that it’s a hard pill to swallow.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is a weird sort of fun: it’s completely awful, yet utterly hilarious. From top to bottom, it deserves the title of one of the worst films ever made. However, it is rarely so horrible that it is unbearable. If you’re the type that gets a savage thrill from these kinds of movies, as I am, you might find something entertaining here, even though you’ll hate every second of it. It’s another of those “So bad it’s good” cult flicks, and I almost have to recommend it merely on those terms.

"Martians? What's wrong with that?"

The Adventures of Tintin (Review)

Tintin’s American theatrical debut is a visually stunning and extremely thrilling adventure.

Score: * * * * (out of 5)

Rated: PG for adventure action violence, some drunkenness and brief smoking.

Intrepid young reporter Tintin, star of an early 1900s Belgian comic book series by a man known as Herge, has had minimal exposure in the United States beyond the translated comic books and a brief cartoon television show. My own knowledge of the series is limited to the very small handful of the comics I’ve been able to find and read. I was fairly young when I first read a Tintin comic, but I liked it. It was fun, fairly exciting, and filled with some terrific characters.  Steven Spielberg agreed, and now, partnering with Peter Jackson, he has worked to finally bring the reporter to the masses with a big screen adventure. And what an adventure it is.

Based on the Tintin installment The Secret of the Unicorn, this debut follows Tintin (Jamie Bell) as, true to form, he gets thrown headfirst into danger immediately after purchasing an ancient model ship, when he is greeted by a sharply dressed man who introduces himself only as Sakharine (Daniel Craig), who asks politely to purchase the ship from Tintin. Tintin’s refusal does not go over well, and Tintin is eventually kidnapped and taken onto a boat, where he learns Sakharine’s true intentions: to recover the contents of the model ship, one of three scrolls that reveal the location of an old sunken ship. After Tintin’s small white dog, Snowy (who is awesome, by the way), rescues Tintin from his bonds, Tintin runs into Captain Archibald Haddock (Andy Serkis), from whom the ship has been taken. Escaping from the ship, Tintin and Haddock find themselves racing Sakharine to find all of the clues and uncover the secret of an old rivalry between the Sakharine and Haddock bloodlines.

As you could guess, the voice cast here is pretty great. Jamie Bell seems to be a perfect fit for Tintin. Andy Serkis, who has essentially become a chameleon of thespians (having done Gollum from Lord of the Rings, and Casear from Rise of the Planet of the Apes) is also hard to distinguish yet completely perfect as Haddock. It was a treat to see Simon Pegg and Nick Frost reunited as two bumbling, idiotic, identical-looking police officers named Thomson & Thompson. They’re one of the best comedic duos working today and they play off each other with delightful precision as always. Daniel Craig was the most easily identifiable as the villain, and he positively oozes menace as Sahkarine. This is, I believe, his first villain role in a major film, and he does it so well that I am very excited to see what other evil characters he gets to play in the future. Everyone in the cast clicked together excellently, without falling into the trap of other celebrity-voiced movies in which the star’s persona takes precedence over the actual character (I’m looking at you, Kung Fu Panda).

For a family film, The Adventures of Tintin is one hell of an exciting action flick. Nearly every action scene ends up escalating to levels of utter insanity, with massive setpieces filled with implausible and completely crazy elements stacking on top of each other.  To give away some of the more ridiculous pieces would  be to spoil the fun in how far they go, but suffice it to say that the complete disregard for plausibility in favor of outrageous, epic mayhem and wanton destruction is worth the price of admission alone. A massive pirate ship battle that puts everything in Disney’s franchise to shame, a totally bananas chase through a Moroccan port town, and a final battle that completely abandons all reason are only the tip of the iceberg.

Steven Spielberg has stated in interviews that he enjoyed using the motion capture/computer animation format because of the way it allows him to do things he would not normally be able to do in real life. Indeed, he lets his imagination run wild here, not only with those action sequences, but also with some very creative camera movements, through buildings and transitioning creatively through scenes that would be either completely impossible or far too expensive or complex for an actual camera.

The film has a very interesting style, framing cartoonish characters against a more realistic background. Tintin and Thomson & Thompson have very round heads and softer angles, in contrast to the harshly angular dimensions of Sakharine. These characters, ripped straight from the comic (and directly referenced in an amusing nod to the original animations) inhabit a world that is as detailed and realistic as the technology will allow and makes for a rather pleasing aesthetic. Speaking of the animation, this is possibly the most impressive looking motion-capture animated film I’ve yet seem. It deftly avoids the uncanny valley (a plague that makes animated characters look distinctly unrealistic) and the horrible dead eyes that so many other computer animated films cannot get right. It’s bursting with life and color. The most impressive aspect is undoubtedly Snowy. Tintin’s canine sidekick is a triumph in animation, appearing so real in his animations that it’s sometimes easy to forget you’re not watching the real thing.

The movie is not perfect, however. After a very entertaining first half, the movie bogs down a bit with the mystery, and the mystery is significantly less interesting than the characters surrounding it. This might have something to do with the action, which is so fast-paced that the movie pretty much screeches to a halt when the action sequences end. I cared less about what the characters were chasing, and more about why they were doing it, which is little more than a thirst for adventure. The revelation about Sakharine wanting to amend the death of his ancestor was a great turning point, at least. I can only hope that with the sequel, which is already in the works as The Adventures of Tintin: Prisoners of the Sun, will have a more interesting story. As it stands, Spielberg almost backed himself into a corner, creating action scenes that are so intense that the story falters in comparison. Hopefully Jackson, Spielberg, and screenwriter Anthony Horowitz will be able to deliver a better balance with the sequel, without skimping on the action.

Despite that, the story was decent enough to be engaging, and the action and colorful characters carried it the rest of the way. It slows down every now and then, but always picks right back up with some more large-scale action. Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson have assembled a film that by turns a pseudo-history lesson, treasure hunting adventure, engaging mystery, and breakneck action picture. It stumbles occasionally, but not enough to dampen the experience. This is a gorgeously animated, very exciting film and a great time at the movies.

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