Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Muppets (2011)

This is the most feel-good movie of the year. Any audience member can come out of this film with a smile on their face. The Muppets just make people happy.

Walter is a man born a Muppet growing up in Smalltown. His older brother is a human named Gary (Jason Segel). As kids, the two brothers quickly become fans of The Muppet Show and Walter has someone he can look up to. He starts to idolize the Muppets. For his ten-year anniversary with girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams), Gary agrees to take Walter along on their trip to California to see the Muppet Studios. On the tour, Walter overhears oilman Tex Richman's (Chris Cooper) plan to destroy the studio and drill for the oil underneath. Distressed, Gary and Walter set out to find the Muppets and tell them Richman's plan. After meeting Kermit, finding the rest of the original Muppets gets easier. Now, they must put together a massive show, with no real funding, to try and raise the money to save the theater from Richman's evil grasp. It's a tall order considering no celebrities will help and the Muppets themselves are no longer thought of as famous. But, come on, it's the Muppets. Of course everything will work out, right?

This was just a fun movie. I can't stress that enough. Any fan of the Muppets or comedies in general should love this film. Not only were the main stories and characters good, but there were so many smaller details that just cracked me up. The main one being whenever Tex Richman wanted to laugh, he'd just say "Maniacal laugh" over and over again. Throw in celebrities from Jack Black to Neil Patrick Harris to Judd Hirsch, and you have the makings of, well, The Muppet Show. Rarely does a flick make me want more, but I could have watched another hour of this and not be upset. Do yourself a favor and watch this. Grade: A-

Monday, January 30, 2012

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011)

Let me start by saying I have not seen either of the first two documentaries in the Paradise Lost series. Luckily, a good portion of this film is focused on the past history of the West Memphis 3.

In 1994, teenagers Damien Echols, James Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were convicted of killing three younger boys in a wooded area of Arkansas. Echols was sentenced to death and the other two were given life sentences. In the first Paradise Lost, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky notice some inconsistencies with the evidence presented at the trial. That movie helps get the attention of the national media and celebrities and the conspiracy theories start up. This film picks up 15 years after the conviction. The focus shifts to how views have changed about their guilt/innocence. John Mark Byers, the father of one of the victims, makes the strongest case. In the first two films, he strongly believed the WM3 should be punished for their "devilish" ways. But now, he feels they are completely innocent and the focus should shift to Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of another victim. The court proceedings keep going at a snails pace for the WM3 when, all of the sudden, they're able to walk out of prison using a unique plea deal. Maybe Paradise Lost 4 will focus on their lives after prison.

This was a very informative film and I was definitely glad I randomly caught it on HBO one night. While the filmmakers agenda is clear, Berlinger and Sinofsky made sure they covered every angle possible. From Echols to Byers to Hobbs to the Dixie Chicks, every opinion matters and every side of the story needs to be told. The movie, for the most part, took its time with the bevy of information it had to give to the audience. But the ending was rushed together, and understandably so. Filming had basically ended when the WM3 were suddenly released in August 2011, so the release had to be pushed back. It's absolutely not the best documentary I've seen this year, but I did find it informative and enjoyable. Grade: B

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Artist (2011)

Ladies and gentlemen, this is your front-runner for the Academy Awards. And while it's not my personal favorite film of the year, The Artist deserves all the accolades it's getting. Sure it's a niche movie, but one that still leaves you wanting more.

In 1927, silent film star George Valentin (Jean Durjadin) is riding high following the premiere of his latest flick. He showboats on stage and in front of the cameras for all to see. Outside the theater, he literally bumps into Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). They laugh about it, but the paparazzi snaps a photo that hurls them both on the front page. Soon after, they run into each other again as Miller auditions for a role in Valentin's latest film. With George's help, Peppy soon starts getting bigger roles. But within two years, the movie studio starts shifting toward talkies. George shrugs the idea off, but realizes its staying power when the studio halts production on all silent movies. Undeterred, George sets out to fund his own silent movie. But the film is set to release against Miller's latest talkie, one a date that coincides with the 1929 stock market crash. When the film fails, George is bankrupt. The downward spiral begins right as Miller shoots to super-stardom.

I don't throw this word around often, but The Artist is delightful. It was a very well-made and enjoyable film. The way director Michel Hazanavicius managed to keep the tone and style of the movie upbeat while dealing with a variety of serious topics. A lot of it was the fact that this was a mostly silent film. That being said, my favorite scene was one specifically focused on sound. George has a nightmare where everything makes noise except him. It's brilliantly done. Anyway, this film will probably win Best Picture and most definitely win Best Director. Maybe not my choices, but I won't be upset like I was last year. Watch this movie. Grade: A

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

I love a good spy movie, and who doesn't love slow-moving pieces driven mostly by dialogue. Okay, I may be alone on the second one. Anyway, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy managed to walk that line as closely has possible without falling off, only swaying from side to side.

Circa 1973, a British Intelligence agent is shot and wounded during a botched mission in Hungary. As a result, the head of the agency (aka The Circus) and his right-hand man George Smiley (Gary Oldman) are forced into retirement. It wasn't long though before Smiley is brought out of retirement to look into an allegation by agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) about a high-ranking mole. Smiley soon starts interviews with all the higher ups in the Circus. But each one of them seems to be more suspect than the last. In the meantime, Tarr's story about how he's come to believe in the mole's existence gets deeper and deeper. Smiley keeps getting answers, but not all of them are ones he wants to hear. These men are some of best colleagues he's ever worked with, how could one of them turn on the agency?

While Gary Oldman was great in this movie, I was really hoping for slightly more. As I mentioned before, this was a very slow moving film. And I didn't have a problem with that. My problem was how the plot kept jumping back and forth, almost intentionally confusing the viewer. I understand it's a whodunnit, but there has to be a focused plot line that can be followed. Plus, as in any good spy movie, I expected some twists and turns. TTSS didn't really have any. It walked the straight line of mediocrity without moving at all. It's a good film, nothing more, nothing less. Grade: B-

Monday, January 23, 2012

Source Code (2011)

Man, 2011 was a year of crazy movie disappointments. Starting with The Green Hornet and all the way up to J. Edgar. Lots of films have not lived up to their trailers. Well, you can throw Source Code right up there with the rest. An interesting premise that became unnecessarily complex.

Army pilot Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up on a commuter train traveling toward Chicago. He is completely unaware of his surroundings because he last remembers being on a mission in Afghanistan. His travel partner Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan) seems to recognize him. Stevens goes to the bathroom where he appears as Sean Fentress. As he tries to figure everything out, everyone on board the train is killed by a bomb. This causes Stevens to wake up in a metal pod. Through a screen, Air Force Captain Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) explains to Stevens that he's in the "Source Code." The device allows Stevens to go back in time and try to stop the bomb from going off. Problem being, he has only eight minutes to do so every time he's sent back. Stevens goes back and forth in time to rule out the passengers as suspects and to find the explosive. During each passing trip in time, Stevens grows increasingly attracted to Christina and becomes hellbent on saving her from the impending disaster. But that's a task Capt. Goodwin says cannot be done.

This whole movie just felt so rushed. The filmmakers should have at least tried to give the characters some sort of backstory. For what it's worth, Jake Gyllenhaal and Vera Farmiga tried their best with what little they were given. I've never been a fan of Michelle Monaghan so you can just guess what I thought of her. The real odd part for me was Jeffrey Wright. He's the best actor in the movie, but manages to appear apathetic throughout. His terrible "scientist guy" voice just made me cringe. I will end on a positive thought. The action sequences, while rushed, were kind of cool. Other than that, you're wasting your time. Grade: C-

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Moneyball (2011)

Before I could determine my level of appreciation for this movie, I really had to think about it. There were two messages that could be taken away from Moneyball. Depending on which message I thought was more prevalent helped shape my critique.

Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) has recently been named the general manager of the lowly Oakland Athletics. After a 2001 postseason loss, and the departure of his most valued players, Beane needs to figure out a way to win on a shoestring budget. During a visit in Cleveland, Beane meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). He is a young economics graduate with out-of-the-ordinary ideas on how to judge players' worth. Beane eventfully convinces Brand to spurn the Indians and come work for the A's. Right then, the two start going against traditional baseball scouts and using sabermetrics to figure out which players could help Oakland win in its current system. The largest point of contention was first base. The coach wanted budding star Carlos Pena, but Beane wanted former catcher Scott Hatteberg, who is coming off major surgery. It's obvious who prevails. After a poor start to the season, the A's win a record 20 straight games on their way to a postseason berth.

With Bennett Miller directing, Aaron Sorkin writing and Brad Pitt in the lead, it's hard not to go wrong with this film. However, as I stated earlier, Moneyball could've gone two ways. 1) Traditional baseball wins out and sabermetrics is just as unsure as scouts, or 2) Sabermetrics combined with aging values can make for a winning team. The latter was what I took from this film, and I'm glad I did. As a baseball fan, I don't totally agree with sabermetrics, but I understand its value. There's a place for it in the annals of Major League Baseball, but it won't always determined the best team. While Beane's A's didn't win the World Series that year, the film notes that the 2004 Boston Red Sox used Beane's methods and took home the title. It changed baseball, there's no doubt about that, but it also helped solidify what baseball is in its purest form: a game that any team can win at any time. Grade: A-

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Guard (2011)

Let me start out by saying I loved In Bruges. A terrifically dark film and one of my favorite comedies of the past five years. It also starred Brendan Gleeson and was directed by Martin McDonagh, whose brother John Michael directed The Guard. The similarities don't just end there.

Gerry Boyle (Gleeson) is an unorthodox small-town Irish police officer. He wants to be Dirty Harry and loves hookers. One day, Boyle and his new partner come across a dead man in a rural home. A few days later, his department is treated to a visit from FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle). He explains to Boyle and the other cops that the FBI is tracking a drug shipment to a nearby port. Turns out, the dead man Boyle found was involved in the trafficking. Soon after that, Boyle's brash, young partner goes missing and his wife is constantly at Boyle's side trying to find out why. Now, this unlikely duo must partner up to try and find these dangerous criminals who weren't thought to be in the country for some time.

This movie was made for dark humor aficionados. I'm not going to say it's as good as In Bruges, but it's definitely funny. Brendan Gleeson has a quick wit about him and his chemistry with Don Cheadle makes this a very enjoyable film. Thrown in Mark Strong, who is good in everything, as one of the drug traffickers and that makes it all the better. The Guard did get a few points knocked off for the ending. It's not that it didn't make sense or that it wasn't satisfying, it was just poorly put together. The whole sequence felt more rushed than it should have. That said, I'd still recommend this to anyone who loves a good dark comedy. Grade: B

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Hangover Part II (2011)

One its own, this would have been a passable comedy. It had equal parts raunch and wit, and could have easily kept audiences happy. But the fact that it's nearly identical to the original makes The Hangover Part II seem exceptionally lazy.

Two years after their experience in Las Vegas, Stu, Phil, Alan and Doug head to Thailand to celebrate Stu's impending nuptials. Almost immediately, the group decides to avoid their Vegas debacle and have a calm bachelor bonfire on the beach the night before the wedding. Cut to the next morning, and it's deja vu for the guys. Phil wakes up still a little smashed, Alan is sporting a new buzzcut, and Stu somehow got a face tattoo mirroring Mike Tyson's. Oh, and there's a monkey. Chaos ensues when the guys realize Stu's fiance's brother is missing in Bangkok. Now, the gang must first figure out what steps they took the night before in order to retrace them. Their misadventures take them to a Buddhist temple, a transsexual strip club and a health clinic. They also had run ins with Russian mobsters and a dangerous crime lord. Twists and turns along the way, of course.

Where to begin. I'll start with the similarities between the two Hangover movies. They're all there. Instead of Doug going missing, it's Stu's fiance's brother. Instead of a tiger, it's a monkey. Instead of the seedy underbelly of Las Vegas, it's the seedy underbelly of the world. Throw in Chow and the supporting cast from the first flick, and there you have it. I'm not sure where the blame lies with getting this movie green lit, but I'm just going to spread it around to all parties involved. Save for some Zach Galifianakis one-liners, this really isn't worth it. Grade: C-

Friday, January 13, 2012

Drive (2011)

Drive is the best movie of 2011. Hands down. This totally stylized and uber-violent film decides to use actions and emotions to lead the audience through the plot. A very gutsy move for a supposed action movie. It pays off.

The unnamed Driver (Ryan Gosling) is a stuntman by day and a rented getaway driver by night. He works his second job anonymously, never for the same client twice and allows them only five minutes of his time. One day, he meets his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan). They seem to hit it off, but Irene's husband, Standard, soon returns from prison and his past life quickly catches up with him. The Driver decides to help Standard pay off his debt by driving for him on a robbery. But the heist goes bad, and now the Driver must figure out who is trying to kill him. And for what. It all circles back to a Jewish mobster the Driver had met once at his garage. Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), while covering his tracks, is ultimately the one the Driver is avoiding. But it's not an easy task. The Driver must find out information about Rose, while also trying to avoid him at the same time. All of this while attempting to keep Irene and her son out of harms way. Good luck.

I was just in awe when I watched this movie. The trailer really doesn't do it justice. While there are some car chases in the film, there really is very little driving. The title has two meanings. Gosling was fantastic in a subtle, yet brooding way. But Albert Brooks kicked it up a notch and gave an outstanding performance. Who would have guessed he'd play the badass mobster while Ron Perlman, aka Hellboy, plays the stereotypical neurotic Jew character. Director Nicolas Winding Refn also does a terrific job of keeping your attention throughout. The directing style is very influenced by the likes of Tarantino and Kubrick, while also referencing Taxi Driver and Bullitt. I cannot say enough good things about this movie. But be warned, while there isn't a whole lot of violence, the violence it has is pretty gruesome. Grade: A+

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Descendants (2011)

Director Alexander Payne has always had a talent for combining comedy and drama in such films as Election, Sideways and About Schmidt. But Payne managed to outdo himself with The Descendants, which I consider to be his masterpiece.

Matt King (George Clooney) is a lawyer living in Honolulu with his family. He is also the sole person in charge of a family trust that controls thousands of acres of land on Kaua'i. Matt's always been a career man, putting his family on the backburner. His family moves to the forefront after Matt's wife is knocked into a coma following a boating accident. Now in charge of precocious 10-year-old Scottie and rebellious 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley). Matt has never really connected with his daughters, but must force adult conversations onto Alex, who had a blowout with her mother shortly before being shipped to boarding school. Alex eventually tells Matt the reason for the fight was that her mother was having an affair. Already dealing with his wife's injuries, Matt must now face a question he may never get answered. On top of all that, the rest of Matt's extended family is trying to pull him in different directions on the land deal. There are decisions abound for a career decision-maker. Only now he doesn't know what to do.

George Clooney does a terrific job as a man torn between several possible outcomes. He excels in the scenes that need to delicately tiptoe between comedy and drama. Just as great was Shailene Woodley as the teenager thrust into the maternal role. Woodley deserves every accolade she gets for this movie because she managed to hold her own on-screen opposite Clooney. Every other actor added great performances that left me with the feeling that every single character had a reason to be there. I could just keep going about how great this movie was. From the way Alexander Payne keeps the story flowing at an enticing pace, to how the plot manages to balance several storylines without forgetting its core message. Watch this film because it may very well win Best Picture this year. Grade: A+

The Devil's Double (2011)

Look at that badass poster. Shame the movie didn't live up to it. With all due respect to Dominic Cooper, who valiantly played dual roles in this, The Devil's Double just fell short, plain and simple.

Latif Yahia (Cooper) is an Iraqi soldier who is called off the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq War to become the new body double for Uday Hussein (also Cooper). It's not a role Latif is eager to play but reluctantly takes the job after some persuasion (i.e. torture). Latif undergoes various tests and procedures to make sure he resembles Uday as closely as possible. Once complete, Latif can now witness firsthand the life of a madman. Uday Hussein is a sex-crazed psychopath that will stop at nothing to get what he wants, even if that means leaving his desires dead on the side of the road. And Latif had better help in this manner because there's really no telling how Uday could react. As for official business, Latif does all of that. Uday is too powerful (i.e. lazy) to be seen in public giving official orders or commands. Eventually, one particular order is too much for Latif and his relationship with Uday unravels quickly.

Dominic Cooper really does do a good job playing both parts. It could have easily come off as stunt-casting, but managed to veer away from that pretty soon after the movie began. Unfortunately, the film itself just undid itself. The plot was too quick to really get connected to some of the characters and the graphics were a little choppy at parts. Plus, while you can tell it takes part around the Gulf War, the movie's timeline appears skewed a bit even though it's actually going in chronological order. I really wanted to like this, but it's just too flat. Grade: C

Monday, January 2, 2012

Warrior (2011)

Cliches and predictability be damned, Warrior still manages to pack one hell of an emotional punch. This film is buoyed by great performances from all three of its leads.

Soldier Tommy Riordan (Tom Hardy) returns home from the Iraq War and finds his former drunk of a father Paddy (Nick Nolte). Tommy hates his father, but has no place else to stay. Tommy still blames Paddy for his mother's death. While working out at a local gym, Tommy steps into an MMA ring to make some extra cash and subsequently knocks out the gym's star fighter. Once that happens, he instantly becomes a YouTube sensation. Meanwhile, Paddy's other son Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) is a high school teacher and former UFC fighter. Brendan is struggling financially and starts fighting on the side to earn some extra money. And Tommy hates Brendan, too. Both of those paths eventually lead to a unique NCAA-type MMA tournament called Sparta. Tommy needs his father to train him, while Brendan is forced to give up his teaching job in order to compete. The odds are completely stacked against the brothers, both in and outside the ring.

If you've seen the trailer for this movie, you've basically seen the whole thing. But as I mentioned earlier, the performances from Hardy, Edgerton and Nolte elevated Warrior to another level. Hard to explain, but it's true. Each one of them threw something else on the table to make a very common plotline feel fresher. I also really enjoyed seeing "All-American boy" Kurt Angle in a non-speaking role as a Russian fighter named Koba. This is one film that really needs to be seen in order for you to fully understand where I'm coming from. Tough to say whether this makes my Best of 2011 list, but it will be close. Grade: A-

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Good Hair (2009)

My interest in this movie wasn't so much about the history and culture behind the hair of African-Americans, but more so with Chris Rock. The topic of the movie, while somewhat appealing, is a little dull. But Rock's humor and direction helped this move along at an amusing rate.

According to Chris Rock, the idea for the documentary came about after his young daughter asked him, "How come I don't have good hair?" After that, Rock heads to find out what black people go through to style their hair, and more importantly, why they do it. Rock tackles the topics of identity, conformity, attitude and wealth when styling hair. His journey takes him to Atlanta, North Carolina and even India. The latter of which is where most of the world's human hair gets imported from. Rock interviewed several celebrities, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, Ice-T and Nia Long to see when they first started getting their hair styled and how they did it. But the core focus of Rock's documentary is the Bronner Bros. annual hair show in Atlanta. This event features a spectacular display of hair cutting that really needs to be seen to be believed.

Chris Rock is lucky he's a very funny man because without his often hysterical voiceovers, this documentary wouldn't be half the movie it is. That being said, the film chose to highlight certain scenes that perplexed me. They'd spend a lot more time than necessary discussing a certain topic. I thought they should've been out demonstrating what had been talked about, but that wasn't done often. The best parts of the movie involved either Dr. Maya Angelou being questioned about her hair or Rock's trip to India. While good and worthy of a recommendation, this documentary was far from great. Grade: B-