Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Top Movies of 2010

This wasn't a year to wow you. 2010 may have been somewhat of an off year for movies, but there are several quality films that hit theaters this year which are worth noting. A couple things struck me as I was putting together this list. First, how actresses stepped up huge this year. Whether in lead or supporting roles, it was a year dominated by the performances of the fairer sex. And second, 2010 was a year of raw emotion, almost visceral, brought to screen. You might argue that one or two of my choices didn't have elaborate plots, but each delivered on an emotional level.

I tried to see everything I could but a few films slipped through the cracks, including Exit Through the Gift Shop, The Art of the Steal, and Mother. Although I'm only including one animated film on the list it was a good year for the genre, including Despicable Me, Megamind, and How to Train Your Dragon. And I've got to take a minute to acknowledge the films I cut from the list at the last minute, which include 127 Hours, Shutter Island, Rabbit Hole, and Clint Eastwood's Hereafter.

Enough with what didn't make the list, let's countdown what did make it, starting with:

500 Days of Summer (without the laughs)

A married couple (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams) see their relationship come to an inevitable and painful end in this stark drama from writer/director Derek Cianfrance. Blue Valentine captures the couple's torturous final days while interlacing them with their happy beginnings. Here is a relationship that should have ended happily enough after a couple of months drags this pair of mismatched lovers down for years. Unflinching, it's not a movie you're going to want to watch often (if ever again), but like many of the movies you'll find on the list, it's full of regret, pain, and characters that have become trapped and lost in their own lives. Currently in limited release.

Somewhere, Over the Rainbow

Writer/director Sofia Coppola‘s latest project is a deeply personal tale of a young girl (Elle Fanning) and her relationship with her celebrity father (Stephen Dorff) who has become lost in a world controlled by agents, appointments, and empty relationships. Somewhere's slow pacing and old school European cinema feel may put off some, and it requires a fair bit of patience, but at its heart, this tale of a father reconnecting with his daughter (and through her, slowly, the rest of the world) rings true far more than most Hollywood fare. Somewhere also showcases surprising depth by both Dorff and the young miss Fanning. Currently in limited release.

The Wild West

I'll admit to having mixed feelings when I first heard the Coen brothers had decided to remake one of John Wayne's most famous films. I need not have worried. Though similar to the classic western, this version of True Grit is every bit its own story. Young Hailee Steinfeld carries the film as the headstrong girl seeking revenge for the loss of her father (and holds her own onscreen with both Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon). Beautiful, touching, and at times very funny, the Coens have delivered their own spin to the traditional western. Currently in theaters.

We all Complete

Adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel of the same name, three childhood friends (Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley) grow up in an orphanage and eventually grow apart. Sound familiar? Here's the difference - all three of them are clones, bred as organ donors once they've reached adulthood. Never Let Me Go takes a well-worn sci-fi concept and turns it around into a poignant tale of young love, tragedy, and the hopelessness and brutal truth of death. Filled with subtle touches, this haunting narrative takes on a controversial subject with aplomb. Available on DVD February 1st.

The Reluctant King

Perhaps the safest choice on my list, The King’s Speech retells the story of Prince Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth) and his struggle with a stammer that almost ended his reign as King of England before it ever began. Firth gives one of the year's best performances as a man with a near crippling condition for someone in the pubic eye, struggling with a position he never wanted. Helena Bonham Carter has a nice turn as the woman behind the throne who finds her husband an unorthodox speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush) with just the right touch. Well-crafted, well-acted, and wonderfully performed, it's one of the year's best. Currently in theaters.

Saying Goodbye to Childish Things

Pixar delivers yet another moving tale. The Toy Story franchise comes to an end, the only way it can - with the toys dealing with the fact that their owner has grown up and is moving on without them. Toy Story 3 opens with a terrific action sequence and closes on such a tender moment about the end of childhood, I defy you not to cry. For that, and everything in between, it earns a spot on the list. A perfect end to Pixar's trademark series. Currently available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Writer and the Prime Minister

In The Ghost Writer, Ewan McGregor stars as a writer chosen to ghost write the autobiography of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) after the previous writer dies under mysterious circumstances. This thriller from director Roman Polanski has everything, including plenty of paranoia and surprises, a slow-building mystery with a very satisfying conclusion, and a terrific supporting performance by Olivia Williams as the woman behind the man (with a few secrets of her own). Now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Facebook Movie

I may have not fallen as deeply in love with director David Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin's collaborative take on Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and the creation of Facebook as some, but it's a really good film. Even though the film is centered around an unlikable and in some ways broken main character, we can't help but be fascinated by this tale about a nerd who wants little more than to be cool (and the forgiveness of his college girlfriend). Smart, funny, and ultimately (like the portrayal of Zuckerberg himself), tragic and sad, The Social Network delivers on all levels. If there was any remaining doubt, Eisenberg proves he's to be taken seriously as an actor, and The Social Network reminds everyone that Facebook and social media are here to stay. Available on Blu-ray and DVD January 11th.

Dance for Me

Darren Aronofsky's companion piece to The Wrestler is yet another look into the world of single-minded obsession and madness, and a damn fine one at that. Natalie Portman gives the performance of her career as a sheltered but talented ballet dancer on the cusp of stardom whose world begins to fall apart just as she realizes her dreams. Part drama, part suspense, and part horror, Black Swan, is constantly shifting our perception and making us question what is really happening. The film builds to a stunning onstage climax during the performance of Swan Lake that is impossible to forget. Currently in theaters.

Food, Family, and Business

It's impossible to talk about I Am Love without first discussing the performance of Tilda Swinton who learned to speak near-flawless Italian with a Russian accent for the role as Emma Recchi. Once again the themes of loss, the search for love, and obsession find themselves on the list as Swinton stars as a Russian woman who has married into the wealthy Recchi family. Although well-loved and provided for she still feels more kinship with the housekeeper than most of her in-laws. Her role as hostess and loyal wife is fractured by her daughter's new romance and her own feelings to the best friend (Edoardo Gabbriellini) of her son (Flavio Parenti), a chef who rekindles a passion in her she thought long dead. Although Swinton is terrific throughout it's the film's final half-hour that earns her, and the film, its high spot on the list. It's inconceivable to me to imagine another actress playing those gut-wrenching scenes (completely devoid of the movie's thrilling musical score which punctuates most of the film). Like all great films, I Am Love knows how to use silence to its greatest advantage. Now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Final Frontier

I remember first seeing a trailer for Hubble 3D while watching Avatar for the first time. I promised myself then and there that whatever I had to do, I was going to see this movie in IMAX 3D. Taking footage from the final mission to repair the Hubble telescope and blending it with scenes from Earth and images from Hubble itself, this documentary is mesmerizing to behold. Still not available on DVD, it's a shame so many missed the opportunity to view the film as it was meant to be seen, in near overwhelming IMAX 3D. Had the film been a full-length feature, rather than only 45 minutes, it would have earned the top spot on the list, but we still have one film to discuss...

The Best Movie of 2010

Loss, obsession, tragic love, and some of the year's most mesmerizing special effects come together in 2010's best film. Christopher Nolan blends the best aspects of his previous movies together for his masterpiece. Nolan examines the world of dreams, of haunting memories, personal loss, and how far one will go to get home. Inception is both a bigger than life sci-fi flick and a very personal tale of loss and grief. Leonardo DiCaprio is terrific in the main role as the man hired to implant the seed of an idea into a businessman's (Cillian Murphy) dreams, and Marion Cotillard (as the woman who haunts his own dreams) is amazing in a role that could have been nothing more than a plot device. Loss is explored, both in terms of the characters becoming further removed from reality as well as the deeply personal loss of love. Each dream world, one built upon the next, creates a byzantine journey for the team, and audience, to traverse, but it's the human journey DiCaprio's character is unwilling to take that keeps him lost in a limbo of his own making. Inception is the year's most complete film, built by a master storyteller in Nolan, and filled with strong performances from top to bottom, and as perfect a final shot as I've seen captured on film this year. Currently available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Happy Birthday Booster Gold (and my Dad)

I never realized my father shared his birthday with a 25th Century screw-up turned 21st Century super-hero. Happy Birthdays all around!

The Other Woman trailer

On the heels of the news that Natalie Portman is pregnant comes this trailer about a mother's (Portman) rocky relationship with her husband (Scott Cohen) and stepson (Charlie Tahan) following the death of her own child. Lisa Kudrow, Lauren Ambrose, and Debra Monk also star. Look for The Other Woman opens in theaters on February 4th.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Red State trailer

Those of who have been waiting years for Kevin Smith to do something different may finally be getting their wish. Check out the trailer for Red State starring Melissa Leo, John Goodman, Michael Angarano, Stephen Root, Kevin Pollak, Kaylee DeFer, and Michael Parks. The film will premiere at Sundance in January.

Apparently, Stetsons are cool

Sooner or later I'll get around to talking about the new Doctor Who Christmas special, but for now you can make do with this short tease for the upcoming first-half of Series Six.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Zoe Saldana and Elmo

Zoe Saldana stops by Sesame Street to talk with Elmo about transportation.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The King's Speech

In the age of the Internet and high speed wireless devices comes a tale about radio. When you've got you're entire music library on a MP3 player, and can get your news from any number of 24-hour cable news channels, it's easy to forget how vital a communication device radio was, and how a single speech could change the tide of history.

The King's Speech begins and ends with speeches by Prince Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth) who would go on to rule the British Empire as King George VI. The differences between the speech he gives at at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley as the King's son and the famous speech he gave as King to the British people, uniting them as they marched to war, is what the film is all about.

Written by David Seidler and directed by Tom Hooper, The King's Speech gives us a rousing performance by an actor at the height of his game, and a traditional story masterfully retold.

Haunted throughout his life by a stammer and inalienably to speak at public functions causes Albert's wife to search out a unorthodox speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush). A friendship develops between the Duke and Lionel (Rush) who insists on treating him as he would any other patient.

Albert is forced to take the throne when his brother (Guy Pearce) abdicates in favor of the love of a woman the British government cannot support. Thrown into the burning spotlight the new king, now branded King George VI, finds all his worst nightmares made real. With the help of Lionel, the King works to control his stammer and ready himself the biggest moment of his life: a live radio address to the British people to prepare them as they enter World War II.

As great as Firth is (and he's outstanding, just give the man the Oscar), I want to take a moment to note Helena Bonham Carter, in her small but vital role as the woman behind the throne. It's such a joy to see her in a role outside the realms of Tim Burton and Harry Potter.

Is the film a little reminiscent of similiar tales (such as My Fair Lady)? Perhaps, but the execution and level of filmmaking save it from becoming a flaccid and dreadful sugar-coated history lesson (remember Secretariat?).

If anyone is hurt by structure of the film it's Rush, who gets the short end of the stick here by playing the eccentric whose oddball practices and techniques are the keys to his success. Don't get me wrong, he gives a great performance (and he need to in order to make the character more than just the film's central plot device). Considering the level of his performance, and the strength of the script overall it's actually a small complaint, but I would have liked to have seen Lionel fleshed-out a little more. There's a great scene where his wife discovers her husband has been treating the new king which suggests ample material to help flesh-out his character a little more.

Even with a few small complaints, it's hard to argue that this isn't one of the year's besf films. Those looking for a traditional holiday movie couldn't do much better than The King's Speech. Beautifully shot and framed, and with strong performances all around (especially from it's star), this is the kind of rousing cinematic tale that millions can, and should, both appreciate and enjoy.

I Love You Phillip Morris

It's odd that I Love You Phillip Morris is based on the true experiences of con man Steven Jay Russell because if the film has one major flaw it's how cartoonish and unbelievable some of the events appear on-screen.

As the film opens we are introduced to Steve (Jim Carrey), a respected police officer, with a loving wife (Leslie Mann), and a dark secret - he's gay. A car crash causes Steve to reexamine his life, come out of the closet and live his life how he's always wanted - the most stereotypical gay man ever caught on film.

An unforeseen problem arises when his new expensive lifestyle causes Steve to look for alternate sources of income by becoming a professional con man. This new career will eventually land him behind bars.

While in prison Steve meets the naive and trusting Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). They begin a doomed love affair, both in and out of prison, centered around Steve's inability to stop lying and Phillip's blind acceptance of those lies.

As a love story the film works quite well. Although a bit unconventional, and pushed over-the-top for comic effect, the relationship between Steve and Phillip feels real and we'd like to see these two crazy kids make it. But their journey isn't be an easy one.

The script by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra (adapted from I Love You Phillip Morris: A True Story of Life, Love, and Prison Breaks by Steve McVicker) is very funny and allows Carrey plenty of zany moments to shine. Some are more believable than others, but almost all will earn a chuckle.

The film's second-half deals mainly with Steve's various attempts to win Phillip back after his lies come crashing down and land them both back in prison. There is also a dark turn late in the film, foreshadowed by the movie's opening, that feels a bit out of place (even after the explantion we're given later).

The film's message seems to be we are who we are, and even great love doesn't change that fact. Steve is a con man. He lies to win Phillip's heart, to keep it, and continues to lie to try and win it back. Love can transform our lives, and give us new appreciation for life and others, but it doesn't fundamentally change how we interact with the world. That's a little cynical for a comedic love story, but I Love You Phillip Morris is anything but conventional. I brighter man than I once remarked that all love stories are tragedies. I think the makers of this film would agree.

I Love You Phillip Morris is a good film with some truly great comedic twists. It's a little uneven for my tastes, but it's certainly memorable, and it provides the kind of vehicle in which Jim Carrey thrives. And it's certainly better than the annual glut of braindead romcoms January and February will bring.

Gulliver's Travels

I'm not sure, but I'm willing to bet the central idea for putting Jack Black in a remake of Gulliver's Travels was for the express purpose of having him fight a giant robot in the town square as the miniature masses looked on. As ideas go, this one is less than inspired (but, then again, so is the rest of this hapless film).

How you take the talents of Jack Black, Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Amanda Peet, and Billy Connolly and create something as thoroughly inane and painfully unfunny as Gulliver's Travels is a mystery. This might be the dumbest movie I saw this year.

Black stars as slacker mailroom worker Lemuel Gulliver. To impress news editor Darcy Silverman (Peet), for whom he's had a secret crush for years, Gulliver plagiarizes various travel articles earning him a spot to write for the paper. (I can't imagine how such a well designed plan might blow up in his face.) His first assignment takes him to the Bermuda Triangle. (Cue ominous music.) After sailing into a storm Gulliver finds himself in the land of Lilliput, a kingdom filled with people less than 6-inches tall.

Gulliver's large size initially makes him a threat to the Lilliputians, who throw him in jail, but our large friend soon earns their favor by proving he can protect the tiny people from the armies of the neighboring country of Blefuscu (also filled with teeny tiny folk). While boasting of his own accomplishment (he starred in every Hollywood blockbuster ever made, and is also the President of the United States), he befriends a local commoner (Segel) and helps him woo Princess Mary (Blunt) away from her betrothed - the insipid General Edward (Chris O'Dowd).


There are so many things wrong with Gulliver's Travels it's hard to know where to begin. Perhaps the most troubling is Gulliver himself. Gulliver is a jerk, and not even a talented one. His moment of epiphany doesn't excuse any of the behavior we've witnessed over the course of the film, but since the movie needs to end on a high note our hero not only saves the day but gets everything he "deserves."

The chance that Peet's character would fall for him given his various lies (one of which could have cost her job, another could have cost her life) and his sexy odd stalker-like romancin' (the ladies so love that), and jump into his arms is only slightly more ridiculous than the Lilliputians being able to recreate various buildings, video games, and movie sets, all of which they have never seen, in near perfect detail.


Throw in several groan worthy scenes (one of which is directly lifted from Strange Brew) including Black dressed up as a child's doll, O'Dowd moping around like a 6-inch baby, and some truly cringe-worthy wooing by Segel, and you're left with a collection of head-scratching moments that lead to only further bury the film under an increasingly large pile of dung.

Everyone involved should be wary of reprisals from the ghost of Jonathan Swift. This unnecessary and tragic telling of the author's tale is one of the worst films of the year. As for the 3D, added long after filming was completed, it fails to add even a single memorable effect or moment to the proceedings. It turns out the only thing big about Gulliver's Travels is the disappointment it will leave everyone who pays to see it.


Slow-paced, and deeply personal, writer/director Sofia Coppola's latest project isn't for everyone, but it suits me fine. This semi-autobiographical, intimate look at a young daughter's relationship to her celebrity father opens with fifteen minutes (of the films 96 minute running time) without any dialogue. American audiences may well struggle with the very old school European style of storytelling, but if you have the patience Somewhere has much to share.

Stephen Dorff stars as Hollywood star Johnny Marco. Johnny's life consists mainly of making movies, attending press conferences, living out of a hotel (the Chateau Marmont, where much of the film was shot), paying strippers (Kristina and Karissa Shannon) to perform in his home, hosting parties, sleeping with a variety of sexy strangers, and spending time with his pre-teen daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning). Every detail of Johnny's professional life is planned by an unseen voice over the phone (Amanda Anka) telling him when and where he's needed, and his personal life consists mostly of waiting for his next set of instructions.

When his ex-wife (Lala Sloatman) announces she needs some time for herself, Johnny finds himself with his daughter for an extended period of time. One of the film's nice twists is the realization that this isn't a story about a kid spending a fun weekend with the wacky parent. It turns out Johnny, and not the mother (who has disappeared without a word to her daughter), is actually the stable one.

I'm not sure what it says about Francis Ford Coppola that Sofia chose Dorff for the role modeled after his father, but, as is usually the case with her unusual (but usually spot-on) casting choices, it turns out to be just right. In a role that mainly requires Dorff to inhabit a character not far removed from himself, he shines. Through a pair of scenes we learn Johnny went into acting because he could, without any former training, and he's still a bit unsure of himself and his craft and how to handle himself at a press conference.

Elle Fanning is fantastic as a young girl entering her awkward stage and dealing with the abandonment of her mother and the unusual, but very loving, relationship with her father. There are several great scenes of the two together, some of them simple, some of the humorous, some of them sad, but all of them moving.

Somewhere is stripped down visually, shot in a documentary style. It's almost as if we're peaking back into memories of the filmmaker as a child, and, of course, in some ways we are. Although it's very different in scope from the the lush Marie Antoinette (read that review), Sophia Coppola paints a beautiful look at a father's relationship with his daughter.

Coppola never wastes words when images can tell the story. And for a movie that takes place in Los Angeles and Italy we're denied the usual Hollywood trappings that come with such locales. What we see of Hollywood is mostly highways and streets (without the montages of various landmarks), and the sequence in Italy gives us only the lush hotel suite and the award ceremony that Johnny and Cleo attend.

You know you're watching a good film when the small moments feel true. Somewhere is full of such moments. Chloe's palpable disdain at having to share her father's attention with one of his many lady friends over breakfast is as perfect an acting moment I've seen captured on-screen this year. And, like so much of the movie, it's communicated completely visually. And the shot of them together on the couch after their whirlwind journey to Italy tells you everything you need to know about each character and their relationship.

Those who have grown up with divorced parents will also be able to relate to the tone as well as the odd mix of comfort and slight awkwardness of a child spending time with the parent they don't live with. As with all aspects of the film, this is never explicitly stated, but easily seen and understood.

Although we get little of Hollywood, Copolla does give us a couple cameos of note. Michelle Monaghan shows up for a photo shoot as an actress who has worked with Johnny in the past, and Johnny runs into Benicio Del Toro in the hotel elevator. There is a also a short sequence where Johnny spends time getting made over in an effects warehouse for a new role which is about as far from the glitz of celebrity as you can get. With the exception of the suite in Italy, which is meant to be a special treat, it's amazing how normal and un-Hollywood Coppola has managed to make a film centered around a celebrity.

Coppola also makes good use of music and sound to help sell the story. The soundtrack includes "Love Like a Sunset Part I" & "Part II" by Phoenix (who helped inspire the film and provides the score) as well as an eclectic mix from the Foo Fighters, The Police, Gwen Stefani, and KISS. The film's score was designed to be minimalist and fit with the natural sounds of Los Angeles and the film's loudest character - the revving engine of Johnny's Ferrari.

Many may dismiss Somewhere for it's simple tale, slow pacing, and return to themes Coppola has already touched on before in Lost in Translation. Yes, Dorff's character is as lost as Bill Murray, but Johnny's journey to understanding what it means to be good man and a good father is distinctly different. The set-up may be similar, but Johnny's reasons for wanting to distance himself from the controlled and empty life which he leads is far different from an aging star coming to grips with the conditions of his marriage and career while overseas.

The more I watch and think about Somewhere, the more I enjoy and appreciate it as a film. It's one of a handful of this year's crop that I've gone back to more than once, and like a good wine it improves with age. The deftness which Sofia Coppola weaves this tale, relying far more on imagery and emotion rather than dialogue, makes Somewhere one of the year's best films, and definitely worth a look.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Superman hates Bat-Santa

Whatever you do, don't ask him why. Trust me, you don't want to know.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Sword

At more than 600 pages, and weighing-in over seven pounds, the Complete Deluxe Hardcover (complete a slipcase cover and all 24 issues and covers from the series) isn't for the casual fan. But that doesn't mean it's not a must-read.

The Luna Brother's tale of Dara Brighton and her quest for vengeance against the immortal beings who murdered her family over a mystical sword is a great read. This hardcover oversized edition captures all the gore, pain, and triumph of the series in the way only these oversized editions (similar to DC's Absolute Editions) can.

The only complaint I can make her is that the collection wasn't split into two volumes (such as DC's Absolute Crisis on Infinite Earths). The size of this edition is a little daunting (it's actually larger than Absolute Batman - The Long Halloween, Absolute Dark Knight, or Absolute Watchmen) and limiting due to it's size. That said, you are getting every single issue in one volume which, in itself, is pretty cool.

With a quality far surpassing that of Image Comics much maligned trade paperbacks, this hardcover edition is a must for fans of the series. It comes with with a hefty price tag, but if you grab it online (as I did) you should be able to save yourself $30-$40.

[Image, $99.99]

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

True Grit

More than four decades ago John Wayne won an Academy Award for his performance in True Grit as the drunken U.S. Marshall hired by a young woman to track down the man responsible for killing her father. It would be the first, and only, time the actor would take home an Oscar.

Deciding to remake the film, the Coen brothers went back to the original novel by Charles Portis to give us their reinterpretation of the story. The result is the brothers most mainstream film to date: a traditional western filled with strong performances and splashes of the filmmakers' trademark wit.

The film begins and ends with the narration (provided by Elizabeth Marvel, who plays the character in later scenes) of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who at the age of 14 travels to collect the body of her recently deceased father and hire a bounty hunter to track down his murderer (Josh Brolin).

The young Miss Steinfeld is impressive. This version of True Grit really is Mattie's tale, presented entirely from her perspective. The film's smartest character, Mattie Ross is not to be reckoned with. This is something many characters come to realize when they make the mistake of underestimating the young woman only to draw her ire including Coburn, LaBoeuf, and, in one of the film's most humorous scenes, local businessman Col. Stonehill (Dakin Matthews).

Jeff Bridges takes the John Wayne role and makes it his own. This version of 'Rooster' Cogburn is a drunk, ruthless as he is lazy, and at times even incompetent, but he has a sense of honor and can be counted on when it matters most. And Matt Damon is perfect as the self-important Texas Ranger who, though talented, is every bit the fool Mattie and Cogburn take him for.

What surprised me most about the Coen's take on the film is how humorous this version of True Grit feels. No, it's not a comedy, but the film includes several sly moments which had me chuckling. The choice to include the language of the book and the style of speaking of this time period is also a good one. The dialogue is first rate and there was only once when I felt it was used for a cheap laugh rather than help frame the tale.

I also have to praise cinematographer Roger Deakins for the look of the film. Although much of True Grit takes place in a rather barren wilderness, the film is beautiful to look at and includes several memorable shots from the train's arrival in Fort Smith to Cogburn's race across the open plain after Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper).

Those familiar with the Coen's work can expect a little oddity now and again including a bizarre scene involving a dentist (Ed Corbin) on horseback clad in bear skins. Although the film has several such moments the humor isn't off-putting, as is the case with some of their earlier work. I don't know whether or not we needed a remake of True Grit, but the version the Coen brothers deliver is one of the year's best films.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Supergirl #59

I've found I usually prefer the character of Supergirl outside of her own comic as a guest-star in something like Batgirl, or part of a the Justice League of America. Most of this issue reinforces that opinion, but there are strides to making the character more accessible in her own title.

Part Two of the Dollmaker storyline is largely forgettable as our heroine rescues Cat Grant from a bad Toyman wannabe. Kara's inner monologue is pretty good. It may not be as good as that of Stephanie Brown, but it's a start.

The issue also ends on a high note with the Kent family gathering together for the holidays and writer Sterling Gates giving Supergirl a much-needed moment of happiness.

Also included here is another appearance of Superwoman (hopefully the last we'll see for a long time) and a humorous frame of Supergirl knocking out the inexplicable Composite Bat-Santa (which isn't explained or referred to in the rest of the issue) as part of her nightly patrol. Hit-and-Miss.

[DC $2.99]

Monday, December 20, 2010

Green Lantern #60

You'd think a comic showcasing two of my favorite DC heroes would be the kind of thing I'd enjoy. You'd be wrong.

Writer Geoff Johns continues the Brightest Day story arc by having Parallax find a new host in Barry Allen. What follows is a rather boring battle between the Flash and Green Lantern as he tries to convince Parallax to leave his best friend.

The only point of any interest here is the final reveal of the man tracking down the entities for his own ends, Krona - the Oan scientist responsible for the creation of the Multiverse and the Antimatter Universe.

I'm not sure whether anything can save the supremely disappointing Brightest Day, but the involvement of Krona is at least something new that I don't hate about the the event. However, even Krona's involement doesn't make this badly thought-out issue any easier to swallow. Pass.

[DC $2.99]

Friday, December 17, 2010

Tron: Legacy

I should have have loved Tron: Legacy. The original remains one of my favorite films of my childhood. It's unique look and style (which has never even been attempted to be recaptured over years) was the type of eye candy and simple yet heartfelt and far-reaching message of a near future digital frontier blew my seven year-old mind.

Although Legacy has a distinctly different visual style, it still creates a beautiful world you want to get lost in for a couple of hours. The new version also throws in lightcylces, a modern take on the effects, and plenty of action. It also lifts story elements from several movies than I enjoy (which come off much better than its original ideas) some of which feel like courteous nods and homages and some of which feel like not-so-subtle rip-offs. So what went wrong?

For its faults the original Tron spent quite a bit of time thinking out the digital world in which Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) became trapped. There were rules, some of which he could bend as a user, and a distinct message for the film about freedom of information and the free access and flow of data. And, not completely unimportant, it was fun!

The sequel's vision is murkier. The storyline here revolves around a Nazi-like duplicate of Flynn named Clu (a rubbery-faced CGI Jeff Bridges) and special spontaneously generated programs who hold the answer to all of humanity's woes. This script also includes bars and digital winos (who knew programs couldn't hold their liquor?), organic food (grown in a digital world?), and very little of the character known as Tron. Sadly, the writing is reminiscent of the same kind of muddy thinking that gave us midichlorians and aliens with crystal skeletons.

After receiving a page from his friend years after Flynn's disappearance, Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) visits Flynn's son Sam (Garrett Hedlund). Although he feigns disinterest, Sam returns to the Flynn arcade and uncovers his father's secret workshop. Playing around on daddy's computer the young hacker accidently activates the wrong program and soon finds himself inside the digital world his father designed.

Rescued by his father's friend Quorra (Olivia Wilde) from the gladiatorial games run by Flynn's doppelganger Clu, Sam is finally reunited with his father. Together the three set out to stop Clu's plan to take his army of brainwashed programs into the real world in an attempt to sterilize the imperfections out of our world as he's done in this one.

The film makes some subtle, yet important, changes to the original Tron. These are done in part to explain the differences of how the two films look and partially to build-up Flynn's God-like stature. This isn't the same grid on which Flynn defeated the Master Control Program. This is a new grid created by Flynn. This is an important distinction because it elevates Flynn from a 'User' to his new role as the "Creator."

One of my biggest complaints is how Tron: Legacy deals with the concepts of what it means to be human and what it means to be a program. The script can never decide how human Sam and Flynn are once inside the digital world. Flynn has obviously aged over time, and Sam actually bleeds when he's first thrown into the games. Unlike the first film where the characters simply imbibe water-like energy for substance, here the characters actually sit down for dinner with food and drink. Where did the food come from, and do they really need to eat it? Are they still human, or only digital representations?

The same inconstancy can be found in the various programs Sam crosses paths with over his time in the digital world. The programs shown here are much more human than those in the first film. Whether these programs were created by Flynn or came with him from the old grid is never made clear. If they were created elsewhere they should not feel so human, yet f they were created by Flynn inside the grid there would be some justification for their more human behavior but not for their extremely odd characteristics and design. It's a paradox.

Also troubling is the inconstancy of Flynn's powers within the system. As the creator he is responsible for creating the world and its various aspects including old novels, a chandelier, a retro-style lightcycle and various other trinkets, but can't conjure up a gun to simply shoot Clu? Or make some bombs the type Clu uses with such effectiveness. Or, as the grid's God-like being, simply think Clu out of existence? The problem is the film never firmly defines the limitations of Flynn's control which seems to vary wildly depending on what's called for in a specific scene. At times he's little more than a washed-up guru, but at others he steps up to kick some serious ass.

Sam's character also has similar flaws. When introduced he's a free spirited hacker with plenty of skill. Although he struggles in his early matches on the grid, he soon finds his feet only to fade immediately into the background once reunited with his father. When the two are on-screen together Sam becomes little more than his father's sidekick.

Even though the look of the film is impressive the 3D is not. I viewed the 3D IMAX version on what very may be the smallest IMAX screen ever created. The world does pull you in but the 3D sequences (only select scenes from the film get the 3D treatment) are largely forgettable and completely unnecessary. There's simply no reason to pay a higher price to see Tron: Legacy in IMAX 3D.

Tron: Legacy isn't an awful film, but compared to the original it comes off like a dimwitted stepchild. Despite its flair this new version feels confused, unsure about itself and its message, and over-reliant on the film's impressive look to hide the script's many, many flaws. Is it worth a look? Maybe. But a better question is does the sequel ever justify its existence. Sadly, the answer is no.

End of Line.

The Fighter

Far more about family than boxing, The Fighter stars Mark Wahlberg as Mickey Ward, a middling junior welterweight professional boxer from Lowell, Massachusetts, who grew up with several sisters and an older half-brother, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), a once talented boxer who wasted his career away on crack and tomfoolery.

Everyone is well-cast and the performances, especially that of Bale, are top notch. The film includes clips of the real Mickey and Dicky during the closing credits and Bale is spot-on in his portrayal. The biggest surprise for me, however, was Amy Adams putting out a strong performance far outside her comfort zone by playing against type.

The script has been kicked around Hollywood for the better part of the decade with several names attached to direct (Martin Scorsese, Darren Aronofsky) and star (Brad Pitt, Matt Damon). Eventually David O. Russell was given the chance to direct Wahlberg and Bale. Maybe they should have waited a little longer.

The Fighter isn't a bad film by any stretch, but it feels wasteful. The first-half of the film sets up Mickey's relationship to his family, Dickey's drug addiction, and gives you the feel of Lowell, Massachusetts. All of this works well. This section of the movie provides several great scenes and opportunities for each of the stars to shine. It also means the director has spent more than half the film's running time doing little more than setting up the plot.

By the time we actually get to the real crux of the film we're more than 50 minutes in. Had the film been three hours long this wouldn't be an issue, but with a running time less than two hours everything else has to be rushed into the film's final hour. By the time we get to the story of Dickey helping his brother (the only piece of the film being marketed) there's barely any time left at all. The second-half feels rushed with multiple montages and very little of the character driven drama found in the movie's earlier scenes.

For a sports movie The Fighter is far from special. The fight sequences are unimaginative and little more than montages. I had hoped a filmmaker like Russell would find a way to make the fights more visual interesting than any average fight flick. Not only does he not give us anything new, each of the fights is truncated into little more than a footnote. Even Mickey's final fight is raced through before any real suspense can be built. There's even one montage which feels eerily reminiscent of Rocky III.

One of the best decisions was to shoot the film in Lowell, Massachusetts, giving The Fighter a realistic look and feel. Because so much of the movie is spent in Lowell the town becomes another character in the story. The sequences with Mickey and his dysfunctional family play well, in part, by the added weight of this small struggling town pushing down on them.

You'll recognize Melissa Leo, cast as Mickey's mother and manager, but his sisters (who seem to take more to Dicky's insane side of the family), who aren't as well known, as a group perfectly capture the loyalty, insanity, and intrusive behavior of the family that stunts Mickey's sense of self-preservation - at least until he meets Charlene (Adams).

Even though the final half of the film is far less impressive than the first, The Fighter is still definitely worth seeing. Russell does put his spin on the story (at least early on), as expected. I would have liked a little more cohesive tale (and far less montage), but much like the film's main character The Fighter is more of a survivor than a winner.

Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky is a weird dude. Talented, but weird. The latest from the director who has given us The Fountain, Pi, and Reqiuem for a Dream is a journey into madness. Black Swan, his companion piece to The Wrestler, examines the the insular world of ballet through the tormented mind of a rising star.

Nina (Natalie Portman), a sheltered but talented ballet dancer, is on the cusp of stardom after being chosen by a demanding director (Vincent Cassel) for the lead role in his new interpretation of Swan Lake. The pressure of the role added to the smothering affection of an over-attentive mother (Barbara Hershey), and the arrival of a talented new dancer (Mila Kunis) begin to fracture Nina's world as she starts to have experiences that cannot be rationally explained. These include, but are not limited to, hallucinations of strange bird-like creatures, seeing herself on the street, a growing paranoia, and an odd rash on her back as well as fingers which bleed without cause. No one else notices what is happening to her.

Although Lily (Kunis) isn't as talented a dancer as Nina, her passion and the ability to give herself to the music represent a real threat to Nina's chance at stardom. Much of the story plays on Nina's inexperience outside the world of ballet, her insecurities over Lily's vivaciousness, and a growing temptation and danger from both inside and out. It isn't a rivalry in the strictest sense, as the pair create a timid friendship. Nina sees a little of herself in Lily, and, to her surprise, finds the some of her wild friend within herself.

Given that the story centers around the idea of a doppleganger, and that it is even explicitly stated how similar the two look, the pairing of Kunis and Portman (who would never be confused for one another) is rather odd. Aronofsky is able to use various CGI tricks to heighten the similarities (with genuinely creepy results). Both actresses do their roles proud, but I'm just not sure they come off as opposite sides of the same coin.

Portman is well cast as the driven and repressed ballet dancer who is an outcast even before the arrival of Lily. She exemplifies the White Swan, the tragic pure figure. The term the film uses is "frigid." To many, the role of a porcelain princess on the edge of shattering might feel stifling, but Portman and Aronofsky never let Nina become prisoner to her limitations. Kunis works well in contrast. It's Nina's journey in discovering the Black Swan inside herself--the lusty, earthier spirit--that is the heart of her journey.

To my untrained eye, the ballet sequences are well shot, and both have the right body type for dancers. Portman and Kunis trained for several months, which pays off with the help of stunt doubles and clever use of lighting and camera angles which are used to help mask any imperfections in their dancing.

The film includes several elements which may put off some, but are used to heighten the film's dramatic elements. Although the structure of the film falls firmly into the dramatic category, "Black Swan" uses aspects of both thrillers and horror movies including mirrored reflections which don't match reality and a bizarrely stunning onstage transformation that is one of the year's best scenes.

Black Swan plays everything close to the vest. The entire story is presented from the view of the film's most unstable character and so the audience can never be quite sure what is real and what is Nina's wild imagination (until the end where the director lets you peek a little too long under the curtain showing us far more than we needed, or wanted, to see).

It may not be everyone's cup of tea but, like it or not, Black Swan is a film that makes you think and cannot be easily dismissed. It may not have the grandeur of The Fountain, but Aronofsky has succeeding in creating a compelling, and at time frightening, look into the mind of a young ballerina which you're not likely to forget any time soon.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

First trailer for Fast 5

The fifth film in the Fast and Furious franchise reunites the characters of all the films (Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Sung Kang, Gal Gadot, ) for one last adventure as the crew tries to pull off one last job and stay ahead of the cop Dwayne "Stop Calling Me The Rock" Johnson on their trail. Fast Five races into theaters next April.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole

Based on the fantasy series by Kathryn Lasky, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole is something of a mess. To be fair, it's a beautifully rendered mess, but a mess nonetheless.

The film follows the adventure of Soren (Jim Sturgess), a young owl abducted with his brother (Ryan Kwanten) by owls known as "Pure Ones" led by the evil Metalbeak (Joel Edgerton) and his mate Nyra (Helen Mirren). How exactly these other owls are pure, or what makes them pure, is just one of the scripts many unanswered questions.

Soren escapes, and with his new friends Gylfie (Emily Barclay), Twilight (Anthony LaPaglia) and Digger (David Wenham), travels to find the legendary Guardians to help stop the "Pure Ones" from kidnapping young owls in order to bolster their army and take over the world.

Fans of the novels might do better with this version than I did. What we get here seems to be a Reader's Digest condensed version missing several key plot points and character motivations. The film also makes no attempt to mark the passage of time. How long is Soren held captive? How long does it take for him to reach the Guardians? How long does he stay with them? The film either doesn't know or doesn't think having this information would be helpful to viewers.

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole is available in both DVD and Blu-ray. Fans of the books may be more forgiving but I'd recommend giving this a pass. No amount of short featurettes, or even the Blu-ray's "Maximum Kid Mode," can save this film from itself. If you're in the market for an animated feature, I'd heartily recommend Despicable Me (also hitting stores today) instead.

Monday, December 13, 2010

First official Thor trailer

Well, we no longer have to make due with that bootleg Comic Con trailer. Marvel has finally released an official trailer for next summer's Thor starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Jaimie Alexander, Tom Hiddleston, and Anthony Hopkins.

Yogi Bear’s alternative Assassination of Jesse James ending

I had the opportunity to see Yogi Bear over the weekend and passed. Now, had the film included this alternative ending made by professional animators in the style of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford I may have gone. Take a look.

Yogi Bear: "Booboo Kills Yogi" ending

Comic Rack

New week, new comics

Friday, December 10, 2010

Red Robin #18

Red Robin's "Hit List" has taken him to Russia in an attempt to crack a super-villain communication grid. Along the way he runs into an old friend, meets yet another attractive woman, and worries over his relationship with Tam Fox.

A "super-villain communication grid" isn't exactly a sexy target, and since I'm not that familiar with Red Star or his time with the Teen Titans the use of the character doesn't do much for me personally. However, the character of Promise does show, well... um, some promise.

That this is the first real push of the "Hit List" storyarc doesn't do much to get me excited about an idea I was only lukewarm on to begin with. I'm also less than thrilled that Birds of Prey baddie Calculator looks like he's being woven into the yet another bat-title. Unless he's bringing his bitchin' 70's costume with him I'm just not interested.

Even with these quibbles, the issue is still a good read. As long as the character of Tim Drake continues to be written so well I'm willing to forgive quite a bit. Worth a look.

[DC $2.99]

The Tourist

I haven't seen Jérôme Salle's Anthony Zimmer, the original French film on which this American version is loosely based. What I can tell is The Tourist is the kind of enjoyable summer flick you don't usually find in the midst of family holiday flicks and more dramatic Oscar fare.

Johnny Depp stars as American tourist Frank Tupelo who just happens to be in the wrong place at the right time when the lovely Elise (Angelina Jolie) sits down next to him on the way to Venice.

Unfortunately for the math teacher, this mysterious woman isn't so much caught up by his charms as she is using him as a stand-in for the man she loves. On instructions from the mysterious Alexander Pearce, Elise chooses a man on the train the same height and build of her former lover in order to throw suspicion away from the thief who is evading both police (Paul Bettany, Timothy Dalton, Alessio BoniGiovanni Guidelli) and the mobster (Steven Berkoff) from who he's stolen millions.

The Tourist has a few things going for it. For one it's got two strong stars who work well together surrounded by a charming supporting cast, especially Dalton in his small role. It's so refreshing to see Depp play a role that requires him to be awkward, unsure, and out of his depth. Jolie is well-cast as the beautiful but aloof woman whose real emotions even she isn't quite sure of. Here's a woman Frank would immediately fall for, and here's the kind of guy Elise could fall for without even realizing it. A little cliché? Perhaps, but its played out well enough.

It also doesn't hurt that the movie takes these two beautiful people and plops them down in one of the world's most romantic cities - Venice. Aside from being a great backdrop, writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck maximizes the use of the city's winding walkways and waterways to accentuate the film's chase sequences through tunnels, canals, and even over rooftops.

That's not to say the film doesn't have it's share of problems. The byzantine script keeps the characters, and the audience, on their toes, but it does take a least one twist too many. There are two big reveals in the film's final act. The first pushes the story in a slightly new direction just as the story begins to get stale. It works well-enough, but the second, last-minute, turn of events (the one you'll see coming but hope isn't going to play out) is much harder to swallow. That it doesn't completely ruin the film is a credit to its stars, but in retrospect it does unnecessarily create several plot issues.

The Tourist is a fun time which in slightly better hands could have been even more. Even if it stumbles a bit, not unlike Depp's character, it does have quite a bit of charm, grace, and at times is very entertaining.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

First Look - A Dangerous Method

Here's your first look at Keira Knightley and Viggo Mortensen in David Cronenberg's upcoming historical biopic A Dangerous Method. The story was adapted by Academy Award-winning writer Christopher Hampton from his 2002 stage play.