Saturday, January 31, 2009

Taken (***1/2)

Taken.  93 mins.  PG-13.  Directed by Pierre Morel.  Written by Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen.  Starring Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Xander Berkley, and Famke Janssen.

Taking a cue from the similarly-themed Man on Fire, and expanding on the premise, Taken is a lean, mean entertainment machine and revenge thriller.  The dumb and the fun come in equal doses here, and the whole thing is anchored by Liam Neeson's bad-ass lead performance as an ex-CIA operative pursuing (and executing) the European captors of his teenage daughter.  Neeson's character is like an older Jason Bourne without all the baggage of amnesia, and when he takes action, it's a joy to watch.  The preview (and poster) give you a good sense of what's to come by featuring the intense phone call between Neeson and his daughter as she's being kidnapped ("they're going to take you now").  The script was co-written by famed French action director Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita and The Fifth Element), and with the movie running a scant 93 minutes, there's not a lot of time spent on character and intricate plot details.  This is a tough, taut movie that needs to move fast otherwise the ridiculous nature of the whole thing would come crashing down around it.  Though I think the movie would have been more effective (and surprising) had Neeson not been warning his daughter to be careful in Paris and constantly worried that something would happen to her, that's a minor quibble.  I much prefer seeing Neeson play the ultimate bad-ass: knowing everything, telling every character (and the audience) exactly what's going to happen, never getting hurt, and always making bad guys pay in various inventive and excruciating ways.  He's Jack Bauer with a bigger budget.


Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (***)

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans.  93 mins.   R.  Directed by Patrick Tatopoulis.  Written by Danny McBride & Dirk Blackman.  Starring Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy, and Rhona Mitra.

Rise of the Lycans, the third installment in the surprisingly still going Underworld franchise, is about as unnecessary as movie offerings get.  Audiences need a third Underworld movie like they need a hole in the head.  That being said, it's a solid genre effort and succeeds despite its direct-to-dvd sensibilities, and, in part, because of them.  With Kate Beckinsale having flew the coop, and Sony looking to make a quick buck in January, the filmmakers are free to pretty much do whatever they please with the vampire vs. werewolves storyline.  With that freedom comes limited resources, however, and this both helps and hurts the movie.  The special effects are horrible, looking like they were patched together for about five dollars.  The blue-grayish tint to the cinematography helps hide some of the visual defects, but the movie still looks cheap.  The design of the werewolves also stumbles - those things are just plain ugly.  On the plus side, the low budget means you can't afford stars, so we're treated to lead roles for two very talented, and deserving, British actors: Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen.  Nighy should be familiar to audiences as Davy Jones in the Pirates series, and he also had a memorable supporting part in Love Actually.  Sheen was Tony Blair in The Queen and also plays David Frost in the Oscar-nominated Frost/Nixon.  These two elevate the material, and when Rise of the Lycans lets the drama play out, sans special effects, it works.  Nobody will confuse Rise of the Lycans for Shakespeare, but if you're looking for a quick creature feature fix, you could do a lot worse.  And though it doesn't mean much, if you're already a fan, this is the best Underworld movie yet.


Thursday, January 29, 2009

Inkheart (*)

Inkheart.  105 mins.  PG.  Directed by Iain Softley.  Written by David Lindsay-Abaire.  Starring Brendan Fraser, Paul Bettany, Eliza Benett, Andy Serkis, Jim Broadbent, and Helen Mirren.

Not every popular children's book can be made into a successful movie.  For every hit like Harry Potter or Twilight, there's a trail of misses: Spiderwick Chronicles, Eragon, The Seeker, etc.  Inkheart, despite an impressively pedigreed cast, definitely falls into the latter category.  It is an absolute failure on almost every level.  Story-wise it's ridiculous: Fraser plays a "silvertongue" named Mo, who can make characters from books come to life when he reads from them.  The only problem is that someone from the real world around him is pulled into the book in exchange each time.  This concept may have played well on the page, but it just seems silly here.  It doesn't help that the movie plays fast and loose with the so-called rules of the world depicted.  Fraser can also be blamed for turning in such an aimless, corny performance--his third in a row after Mummy 3 and Journey to the Center of Crap in 3D.  Even if the oh-so-high concept was somewhat believable, the filmmakers aren't up to the task of pulling it off.  There's no sense of magic or wonder to any of the proceedings here.  Everything is shot dirty and dreary, and when we see book characters (like the flying monkeys or the Peter Pan croc with the clock) come to life, it's like something out of a bad high school theater production.  The cast of talented British actors is wasted - Paul Bettany, Jim Broadbent, and Helen Mirren are all slumming, and wait, didn't Mirren just win an Oscar two years ago?  Revoked!  Even Jennifer Connelly shows up in a random, brief cameo, further cementing this movie as an inexplicable hotspot for good actors looking to cash in on the outside chance that Inkheart will be one of those fantasy kids flicks that actually connects with the audience.  Whoops - better luck next time.  Inkheart is nothing but a stain on movie screens, one that will hopefully wash out once we extricate ourselves from the movie doldrums of January.


Monday, January 26, 2009

Defiance (***)

Defiance.  136 mins.  R.  Directed by Edward Zwick.  Written by Clayton Frohman & Edward Zwick.  Starring Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, and Alexa Davalos.

Defiance is the latest in a new trend of movies where Nazis are put on the defensive (Valkyrie) and Jews get to get kick some butt (Munich), and it stars Daniel Craig, who after this and Munich, must be the go-to guy to play a bad-ass Jew.  Edward Zwick directed the film (having previously directed Glory, Courage Under Fire, and Blood Diamond), and again shows his flair for livening up important historical movies with a healthy dose of action and an eye for entertainment.  As interesting and worthy a story as Defiance tells though (about three Jewish brothers who flee Nazi occupation in Russia, and head to the woods where they set up camp and defend themselves and others), sometimes Zwick can go a little overboard and deflate the sense of realism he's built up by including scenes that could only happen in the movies.  Case in point: a gorgeously-lit, post-coital scene in a tent where Craig and his gal pal cuddle.  Sample dialogue: "You saved my life," she says literally.  "No, you saved mine," Craig says figuratively.  Gag.  The scenes in the woods bear a little too much resemblance to those in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, but Zwick and his collaborators do a nice job with the winter landscapes.  You truly get a sense of the isolation, cold, and despair gripping all of these people.  The movie ends with a bang, or several of them, and on a positive note.  That's rare for a World War II movie involving so many Jewish characters, and further compliments an already remarkable true story. 


Red Envelope Round-Up: January 23-25, 2009

Forever Young (1992) (***).  J.J. Abrams wrote this high concept romantic drama, with Mel Gibson starring as a test pilot in 1939 who freezes himself after his beloved goes into a coma and wakes 50 years later.  Gibson is charming, if a tad stiff (ha! - get it, he's frozen!), and a young Elijah Wood is good as the kid who discovers him and takes him in.  The movie is well-paced and builds to an exciting, if utterly preposterous (Gibson ages 50 years in about 50 minutes), ending.

La Femme Nikita (1992) (**1/2).  As a fan of Luc Besson's other films (mostly just The Professional and The Fifth Element), I was excited to catch up with the one that first shot him to fame.  Anne Parillaud stars as a junkie turned government spy, and while the movie works as an idiosynchratic drama, I was a tad underwhelmed by the action elements - just a bunch of unimaginatively staged shoot-outs.  Nice cameo by Jean Reno at the end though.

Reservation Road (2007) (**).  What is it with these "R. Road" movies?  Between this and Revolutionary Road, one could easily fall into a fit of depression and want to kill themselves.  This movie starts with a fatal hit-and-run accident, and the repercussions of that accident permeate the screen for the next 90 minutes.  The cast for Reservation is solid: Joaquin Phoenix (before he decided to "act no more forever"), Mark Ruffalo, and Jennifer Connelly, but their performances are erratic and over-the-top, and nobody comes out looking good.  Director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) has made a movie that pulls you in (not unlike Match Point) and is easily watchable, but it falls way short at the end and the script is riddled with far-too-convenient coincidences and out-of-left-field character actions.


Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Wrestler (***1/2)

I saw this one a second time over the weekend (having first seen it at the Chicago Film Fest in October), and though it held up quite nicely, I don't think I'll feel the need to see it again.  Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei's Oscar nominations are well-deserved.  Rourke is probably going to win - he gives a towering performance and is the main reason to see the movie.  The script is pretty by-the-numbers, but Darren Aronofsky, in a change of pace for him, directs in an unobtrusive, low-key manner, keeping the focus (rightly so) on the actors.  The Wrestler is one of the better movies of 2008 (thanks to Rourke), and definitely one worth catching before the Oscar telecast on February 22nd.  Its ***1/2 star rating stands.


Saturday, January 24, 2009

Rotten Tomatoes: More on The Dark Knight's Snub

In the wake of Thursday's Oscar nominations and the unfortunate inclusion of The Reader in the Best Picture race, I decided to take a look at Rotten Tomatoes, the go-to compendium for every critical review in the country.  It's a website that counts all the good reviews (fresh tomatoes) and bad reviews (rotten tomatoes) for a film and then gives it a freshness percentage.  Anything over 60% is deemed fresh.  For more, see

Not that critics' reviews are everything, but the freshness percentage does give you an overarching sense of a film's quality.  Looking to this year's crop of Best Picture nominees, and other films left out, leads to some shocking results:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: 72%
Frost/Nixon: 91%
Milk: 93%
Slumdog Millionaire - 95%
The Reader: 60% - barely fresh!

And what about the snubs:

The Dark Knight: 94%
Wall-E: 96%
Revolutionary Road: 68%
Gran Torino: 77%
The Wrestler: 98%
Doubt: 77%

And just to add insult to injury, all of these films were better reviewed than The Reader:

Man on Wire: 100%
Iron Man: 93%
The Visitor: 92%
Hellboy 2: The Golden Army: 88%
Kung Fu Panda: 88%
Forgetting Sarah Marshall: 85%
Bolt: 85%
Ghost Town: 83%
Tropic Thunder: 83% 
Vicky Christina Barcelona: 82%
In Bruges: 81%
Burn After Reading: 79%
Cloverfield: 77%
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist: 72%

What does all of this mean?  Well, for one thing, The Reader has no business being nominated as one of the best pictures of the year.  It just goes to show you: highbrow literary source material + the Holocaust + Kate Winslet naked = Best Picture.  Way to play into all the nomination stereotypes, Academy.  


Thursday, January 22, 2009

Paul Blart: Mall Cop (*)

Paul Blart: Mall Cop.  88 mins.  PG.  Directed by Steve Carr.  Written by Kevin James & Nick Bakay.  Starring Kevin James, Jayma Hays, Keir O'Donnell, Bobby Cannavale, and Shirley Knight.

America must be on drugs.  How else to explain why a movie like Paul Blart: Mall Cop can make some $39 million over the course of the long MLK holiday weekend?  Paul Blart is Kevin James' attempt at leading man status, and though he's got a lot of potential and is very likeable on screen, this movie (despite his hand in writing it) is not a worthy use of his talent.  Given the right material, he could easily be the next John Candy.  Paul Blart: Mall Cop finds two things extremely funny: mall cops and segways.  The "laughs" in the movie break down as follows: 50% segway jokes, 25% fat guy jokes, and 25% physical gags where James falls down or runs into things.  The movie is split rather unevenly into two parts: the first part is a dopey sitcom pilot about a mall cop, the second is a ham-fisted spin on Die Hard, where terrorists take over the mall on Black Friday, and it's up to Blart to stop them.  The script doesn't really lend itself to either of the following ideas, but there are only two ways this movie could have worked: (1) approach the concept like Hot Fuzz, and shoot it just like a Michael Bay or Tony Scott movie - poking fun at how ridiculous it is to have an action movie about a mall cop; or (2) go all the way and do a faithful, Spaceballs-type parody of Die Hard set in a mall.  This is just another in a long line of film comedies that start out with a title and work from there (hello, Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo!).  All that being said, if you love segways and think they're the funniest thing on the planet, by all means, get yourself to the theater pronto.  You're going to love this movie.  And I'm going to deny ever knowing you. 


An Open Letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Dear Academy,

The Reader? Seriously? F**k you.

The Dark Knight

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Red Envelope Round-Up: January 16-18, 2009

Some Kind of Wonderful (1987) (***).  This movie wraps you up in a comfy nostalgic blanket, and takes you on a pleasant trip back to the '80s.  The plot is standard stuff for a high school flick: tomboy is secretly in love with her best friend who's in love with the most popular girl in school.  It's a John Hughes production, so you know the teens are well-sketched, realistic characters, and is there anybody who captures the family/sibling dynamic better than Hughes in his heyday?  Doubtful.  Elias Koteas, as a hyper, detention-bound bully, is a standout, and Lea Thompson is crush-worthy as the popular girl who's more than meets the eye.  The ending is way too rushed though, making the ultimate hook-up between Eric Stoltz and Mary Stuart Masterson's characters feel forced.


Sunday, January 18, 2009

Now & Then: Waterworld (1995)

Waterworld.  136 mins./177 mins. (unrated).  Directed by Kevin Reynolds.  Written by Peter Rader and David Twohy.  Starring Kevin Costner, Dennis Hopper, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Michael Jeter, and Tina Majorino.

For many out there, Waterworld is a joke, viewed in the same light as other expensive film flops like Howard the Duck or Battlefield Earth.  It's got a really bad reputation - an undeserved one.  There is a lot in Waterworld to admire.  The production design and sheer amount of money spent on making a believable world with nothing but water is pure spectacle and a marvel to watch.  The idea is cool - sort of a Mad Max on water.  And Kevin Costner's character is an admirable anti-hero, who at one point throws a girl who can't swim off his boat.  But for every element that Waterworld gets right, there's just as much that it gets wrong.  Dennis Hopper is woefully over-the-top and unimposing as the main villain.  The action set pieces are awesome, but there's really only two of them and they are spaced far apart.  The movie is way too long and drags in the middle.  And though the movie's story has a lot of great potential, the actual execution is less impressive.  I remember liking this one a lot when I was younger, and seeing it again, the cool stuff is still pretty cool, but the flaws are much more noticeable.  As an action movie, Waterworld is above average and much better than its reputation suggests.  I would avoid the extended version though (adding 40 more unnecessary minutes) and just stick with the theatrical version.

Then: ***1/2
Now: ***


Saturday, January 17, 2009

My Bloody Valentine 3-D (**1/2)

My Bloody Valentine 3-D.  87 mins.  R.  Directed by Patrick Lussier.  Written by Todd Farmer and Zane Smith.  Starring Jensen Ackles, Jaime King, Kerr Smith, and Betsy Rue.  

For all its bells and whistles, the 3-D remake of the 1981 splatterfest My Bloody Valentine is nothing more than a novelty item.  Years from now--heck, even months from now when the movie hits DVD, people will look at this as just another forgettable, badly acted horror film.   I'm a fan of the new 3-D craze hitting movie theaters lately, but more so with the technology than with the movies themselves.  Just like last summer's Journey to the Center of the Earth, the new My Bloody Valentine plays more like a theme park ride than an actual movie.  As a ride - it's a lot of fun.  There are plenty of bloody pickaxes hurled at the audience and several good gore gags involving eyeballs, eyesockets, and other body appendages, plus a healthy dose of sex and nudity.  That R-rating is definitely earned.  As a movie - it's just plain stupid: oddly paced, with amateurish direction, abruptly dropped subplots, and acting straight out of a CW show that's been cancelled after a single episode.  Kerr Smith, as the local sherriff and philandering husband to Jaime King, is particularly awful.  Watching My Bloody Valentine, with its one gruesome kill after another, one senses that the movie's sole purpose is to show pickaxes entering as many different body parts as possible.  The axe handle through the mouth and subsequent ripping off of the victim's jaw (as the jaw flies toward the audience) is a personal favorite.  The last stretch of the film keeps you guessing, if not exactly on the edge of your seat, though I could have done without the Fight Clubish ending.  This is the kind of movie best seen in a theater on a Friday night with a sold-out crowd.  In that environment, the 3-D aspect bumps the movie up to a *** star rating.  Take away the 3-D theatrical experience, and you're left with **1/2 stars.


Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Unborn (**)

The Unborn. 88 mins. PG-13. Written and directed by David Goyer. Starring Odette Yustman, Meagan Good, Cam Gigandet, and Gary Oldman.

The Unborn is just another disappointing example of how a clever trailer can take all the money shots from a movie, edit them together in rapid fire fashion, and dupe the viewer into thinking they're in for something cool. The PG-13 rating should have been a warning sign. Despite its impressive pedigree (writer-director Goyer co-wrote Batman Begins) and polished production, The Unborn is nothing more than utterly mediocre. The scares crib from every recent horror film that's come before: ghosts in mirrors; slow, behind-the-back tracking shots backed by ominous music; freaky kids that shriek out of nowhere; CGI fetuses with eyes; and Gary Oldman as a rabbi exorcist. Okay, maybe we haven't seen that last one before. Though there are a handful of boo! scares, nothing in the movie is really all that unsettling or creepy. Goyer reaches for depth by including a Holocaust backstory to the proceedings, but it feels a tad exploitative and out of place in a movie like this. Cloverfield's Odette Yustman plays the lead, but as beautiful as she may be, she's awfully forgettable when handed such a cardboard role as this. The Unborn is unintentionally funny in some places, and though it runs a scant 88 minutes, it feels a lot longer. The poster promises an "IT" that wants to be born "NOW," but you won't find that same urgency in the movie. Hurry up evil devil spirit, and get born already!


Saturday, January 10, 2009

Red Envelope Round-Up: January 9-11, 2009

Sukiyaki Western Django (2008) (**1/2).  This is director Takeshi Miike's (Audition) take on the spaghetti western genre, and though it has buckets of blood and a hammy cameo from Quentin Tarentino, the story (about feuding clans and a couple caught in the middle a la Romeo and Juliet) never really amounts to much and none of the actors make an impression.  The big sell here is the comic violence, and though it's somewhat amusing in spurts, it quickly grows numbingly repetitive by the end.  

Never Back Down  (2008) (**).  A movie aimed at ninth graders and seemingly directed by one.  Never Back Down is a limp non-remake of The Karate Kid, only this time jacked-up high schoolers beat the crap out of each other using the far more brutal Mixed Martial Arts.  The acting is amateurish, the drama (loaded with all kinds of daddy issues) is laughable, and Oscar nominee Djimon Hounsou is wasted in the Mr. Miyagi role.  The fights, the lone reason this movie even exists, lose all sense of choreography thanks to the frantic, Red Bull-addicted editing.


Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Now & Then: The Truman Show (1998)

The Truman Show. Directed by Peter Weir. Written by Andrew Niccol. Starring Jim Carrey, Laura Linney, Natasha McElhone, and Ed Harris.

Having not seen it in at least eight years , I decided to re-watch The Truman Show again so I wouldn't be tempted to buy it on Blu-Ray (I already own it on DVD). And though I loved it when it first came out, and saw it about three times in the theater, I'd forgotten just how excellent this movie is. Jim Carrey is fantastic and the script by Andrew Niccol is one of the best, finely-crafted screenplays committed to film in the past 20 years. Peter Weir's direction is graceful and the use of Philip Glass music is inspired and a perfect fit for the events unfolding on screen. The Truman Show was nominated for three Oscars (original screenplay, supporting actor (Ed Harris), and director), and it didn't win any. EW has recently been polling readers as to which Oscars they would revoke in retrospect. In 1998, the films nominated for Best Picture were Shakespeare in Love, Saving Private Ryan, Elizabeth, The Thin Red Line, and Life is Beautiful. Shakespeare ultimately won, and though many (myself included) thought it was a regrettable choice and that Saving Private Ryan should have won, I think The Truman Show was unfairly neglected. Not only should it have been nominated, but it really should have won Best Picture that year. It definitely holds up.

Then: ****1/2
Now: *****


Sunday, January 04, 2009

Revolutionary Road (***)

Revolutionary Road. 119 mins. R. Directed by Sam Mendes. Written by Justin Haythe. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Michael Shannon, and Kathy Bates.

Revolutionary Road, for all the acting fireworks on display, is about as depressing and thematically redundant a movie as you're likely to see all year. That's not to say the movie is bad. It looks great - Sam Mendes and his crew do a fine job of capturing the 50s and the cinematography is pristine and gorgeous. Going about 180 degrees away from Titanic, both Leo and Kate give career highlight performances and really sink their teeth into the meaty dialogue. Revolutionary Road is very heavy, in-your-face drama and much of the film feels like it was adapted from some caustic stage play a la Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Leo and Kate play Frank and April Wheeler, thirty year-olds who married young, had kids, and moved out to the suburbs apparently way too early. Frank hates his job but has made the most of his limited aspirations and need to conform. April pretty much hates her life, her husband, her kids, her surroundings, and somehow gets it into her head that they could be much happier if they just packed up and moved to Paris. That the Wheelers never make it to Paris is no big surprise, but I wasn't quite prepared for just how dark things would get. Like I said, the movie's disturbing. But what keeps it from really hitting home harder is the script's unsubtle approach to its themes. April isn't given much of a reason as to why she thinks that she is destined for greater things. She's such a depressing character that I doubt she'd be happy anywhere, even if she got out of the suburbs. Sam Mendes tackled these same themes before in 1999's American Beauty and at least that film had some humor to balance things out. Not so here. Much has been made of Michael Shannon's performance as a mentally unstable houseguest who only speaks the truth, but I thought the character was an easy plot device that seemed like someone right out of Grey's Anatomy. Yes, we know - marriage sucks. The suburbs suck. If you didn't get that in the first ten minutes, then the six (I counted) different endings, which all make the same thematic point, really hammer you over the head with it. Despite its pedigree and potential for greatness, Revolutionary Road ends up just being pretty good.


Saturday, January 03, 2009

Hammer's Top 10 and Bottom 5 of 2008

It all comes down to this. A whole year at the movies - hundreds of dollars spent on 104 tickets at the theater (the digital projection at the Muvico in Rosemont is a personal fave), many more movies watched at home on DVD, and still more that I completely missed. This was an odd year - the Oscar pedigree films generally came up short (Benjamin Button, Australia), while Hollywood nailed the art of the summer blockbuster (see numbers 1 and 2 of the best, below). The Spirit aside, comic book films enjoyed great success this year (Iron Man, Incredible Hulk, Hellboy 2). There were a few pleasant surprises (Death Race), some collosal disappointments (I'm still smarting from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), a trio of really smart comedies (Hamlet 2, Role Models, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), and one unfairly maligned box office bomb (Speed Racer). But enough already, let's get on with the show. Here are my picks for the very best of 2008:

TOP 10

10. Cloverfield. And they say critics don't remember anything past December. Cloverfield was released in the wasteland of January, yet having recently re-watched it on DVD, I was again impressed with what a brisk, inventive thrill ride that producer J.J. Abrams and company managed to deliver. A seamless blend of special effects and handheld cinematography help to reinvigorate the monster movie. There was a ton of pre-release hype, and for once, the movie lived up to all of it. Stick around for the end credits - composer Michael Giacchino's theme plays over them, and it's the best piece of movie music produced all year. Even better - buy the twelve-minute track (titled "Roar!") on iTunes for only 99 cents.

9. The Visitor. I missed seeing The Visitor in theaters, and had to catch it on DVD. Even on a small screen, for which this type of film is better suited, I appreciated the subtle nuance and graceful humanity that writer-director Tom McCarthy was able to capture. The Visitor is a small film with a giant heart, and it features a well-deserved lead performance from veteran character actor Richard Jenkins. Hidden gems like this show you that sometimes all you need is a great script with real characters interacting in a believable way to hook an audience and connect with them.

8. Frost/Nixon. Peter Morgan's adaptation of his own stage play, as directed by Ron Howard, is one of the great head-to-head matches that's graced screens in recent years. The movie plays more like a sporting event than a historical drama, with the two opponents trading questions and answers rather than punches. Michael Sheen as Frost and Frank Langella as Nixon are pitch-perfect in this surprisingly thrilling and fast-paced film.

7. Burn After Reading. The Coen Brothers threw everyone off their game by following up last year's Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men with this deceptively slight straight-up comedy. Though the first half hour is a little slow, the movie really picks up steam as it rolls along and the last five minutes had me laughing with glee. This is the funniest thing the Coens have done since The Big Lebowski, which is reason enough to rejoice.

6. Milk. Even if Proposition 8 hadn't passed, the story of Harvey Milk, America's first openly gay elected public official would still resonate with viewers. That being said, Milk is as timely as movies get and it's one that might actually do some good in the world. Sean Penn is excellent as Milk, giving a humane, likeable, and charismatic performance. Together with Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, and James Franco, this movie boasts the best ensemble cast of the year.

5. In Bruges. Action comedies about likeable hitmen are about a dime a dozen, so it takes a special kind of film to make an impression. Thanks to a smart, funny script by writer-director Martin McDonagh, and memorable performances from it's three leads: Colin Farrell (at his best), Brendan Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes, In Bruges manages to do just that and then some. If there were any justice in the world, this would have blossemed into the word-of-mouth hit that no. 3 has become.

4. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. Some movies hit you in the sweet spot, and you fall in love with them, blind to any imperfections and just happy to be in such company. That's how I felt watching Nick and Norah. Michael Cera and Kat Dennings charmed the heck out of me, and watching their quirky love story unfold over the course of one evening is something I can see myself doing for years to come. This is the new Say Anything for its generation.

3. Slumdog Millionaire. Charles Dickens meets Bollywood by way of Danny Boyle in this surefire crowd pleaser and inevitable Best Picture winner. Though a happy ending is all but ensured with this one, Boyle gives the proceedings an edge and a slight air of unpredictability. Well-acted and smartly scripted, this is a hugely rewarding film, and the choreographed dance over the end credits sends the audience out of the theater on a true moviegoing high.

2. Wall-E. Can Pixar continue to keep topping itself? I thought the one-two punch of Finding Nemo and The Incredibles would be impossible to beat, but amazingly, they've outdone themselves yet again with this magical and engrossing movie. To label it just another animated movie does it a grave disservice. This is art on a whole other level - realistically drawn and full of heart. Ben Burtt's sound design (capturing all the robot noises) is just amazing. Large stretches of the film have no dialogue whatsoever and are utterly captivating. Wall-E is a near-perfect film that will stand the test of time.

1. The Dark Knight. What more can one say about the most critically and commercially successful movie of the year? An epic crime saga disguised as a comic book flick, The Dark Knight is a modern masterpiece. It is the Godfather II of summer blockbusters. Much has been written of Heath Ledger's performance as The Joker, and much more will continue to be written after he wins the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. It is a towering, iconic screen performance. From James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer's eerie, unconventional score to Christopher Nolan's confident direction to the awesome ensemble acting to the thoughtful, often disturbing script, the whole production shines. This is true Best Picture material, and no amount of prejudice towards its source material should detract from that.


And on the other end of the quality spectrum, we have these duds. The five films below may not technically be the worst of the year. Obviously, junk like Meet the Spartans and The Hottie and the Nottie are worse, but who expected anything out of them? If you go to see those, you're just asking to be tortured. So, let's pick on some bigger targets, shall we? Here are five films that I actively hated this year:

1. The Happening. Remember when M. Night was the toast of the town? The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, even years later, are still awesome. He's been on the decline for a while now, but his reputation is officially ruined with this one. Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel give career-worst performances under his direction. M. Night has no idea how to craft a quick and nimble thriller. Laughably ludicrous.

2. Mamma Mia! Here's a novel idea: a movie musical starring people who can't sing or dance. The movie's supporters will argue it's just pure fun. But there's a fine line between exhuberant and obnoxious, and Mamma Mia (darn that stupid exclamation point) steps over. Way over.

3. Seven Pounds. If only I had heeded the advice learned in Yes Man - say yes to everything. Did I want to leave the theater during this movie? Yes. Did I? No. Did I waste 124 minutes of my life watching Will Smith give away seven parts of his body with the help of a jellyfish? Yes.

4. Fool's Gold. An embarrasing star vehicle that wants to be Romancing the Stone but has no clue how to replicate the succesful genre mixing of action, romance, and comedy. Fails to work on any level. Kate Hudson, your stardom is hereby revoked.

5. How to Lose Friends & Alienate People. Simon Pegg is one of the funniest people working in movies today. How this one managed to neuter him and render him completely unfunny is just shameful. 100% laugh-free and a chore to sit through.


Thursday, January 01, 2009

New 5-Star Rating Scale

From now on, and effective immediately, movies will be rated using a five-star scale instead of four. The change has been simmering for a while. Though I've always used a four-star scale (since I was 10), I find myself increasingly hampered by having to classify films in the 2 to 3.5 star range when the scale is only four. Perhaps the change has to do with all the movies I've had to rate on Netflix (which uses the five-star scale) or perhaps not. I think this is ultimately going to lead to a more effective rating system. It may be pretty self-explanatory, but here's how the new scale breaks down:

***** = A new classic; a masterpiece; brilliant

****1/2 = A personal favorite; I loved it

**** = Awesome; see it now

***1/2 = Great; worth the money; check it out at your leisure

*** = Decent; have some reservations about it, but good overall

**1/2 = Ho Hum, but there's some cool stuff in there

** = Ho Hum; a waste of time and money

*1/2 = I didn't like it, but a lot of other people did

* = Bad; avoid at all costs

1/2 = Wretched; an abomination

No stars = I walked out


Back in Action!

Hey all!  Welcome back to Hammervision at the Movies at  We've come home to the place where it all started after a year away at Typepad.  Look for the first post here this weekend - it'll be a good one: My Top 10 and Bottom 5 for 2008.  See you back here on Sunday and throughout 2009!