Archive for December, 2006
Everyone and his dog has a list of "The Best Films of [Whatever Year]." Sometimes, though, as good as a film can be, it's just not interesting. So, this year, I've put together a list of ten films that held my interest even after I'd left the theater. They are, in alphabetical order…
The danielcraigisnotbond website got a lot more attention in the news than it deserved – and Daniel Craig's Bond turned out to be one of the best [tied, in my book, with Sir Sean]. Casino Royale was a feast for action lovers and introduced a rookie Bond who was figuring it out as he went along. The script was smart; Craig was magnificent; the Bond girls were [gasp!] actual characters [played by actual actors]; the action was amazing, and the overall result was one of the best films of the year – in any genre.
The classic children's book works because it unflinchingly deals with life and death, and doesn't shy away from the hard questions – or the value of love and sacrifice. This film adaptation is as straightforward and courageous as the book. The use of live actors and animals [helped slightly by CG], along with a tone that perfectly emulates that of the book, and some dazzling performances, makes this an instant classic.
Scorsese's best film in a decade. A remake of an Asian film [Infernal Affairs], The Departed is a twisted crime thriller wherein the cops and the mob each have a highly placed informant in the other camp. The plot is labyrinthine, the cast [Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Leonard DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Vera Farmiga] is uniformly at the top of their respective games; the direction is as close to perfect as one can get. The Departed rocks from start to finish.
Top tens are always so objective – they're colored by one's liking or disliking of specific genres; whether there's substance to the choices; even whether there's diversity. For the season of 2005/6, these are the shows that kept me coming back for more…
…in alphabetical order:
This year's "day" was the best since the show's debut season. Smart, twisted, adrenaline-pumping fun and crazy cool performances from Gregory Itzin and Jean smart helped to elevate the show – not that easy to do when the premiere killed two much-loved characters and almost killed another. Plus, the return of Commando chloe! What's not to love?
In this remarkably delicately balanced series, creator Ronald D. Moore and his creative team examine war, faith, ethics/morals, and more – and they do it within the constraints of a weekly one-hour drama. Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer before it, BSG gets no respect from the masses because its title, but it works on every possible level – and to such an extent that one can only feel sorry for those whose memories of the over-the-top eighties' series prevent them from even checking it out.
David Milch's poetically vulgar, brutal western is filled with historical accuracy, informed whimsy, and a cast that amazes time and again. Any series that can give Ian MacShane and Robin Weigart the opportunity to do their stuff… that's worth watching! When that same series attracts actors like Molly Parker, Timothy Olyphant, Brad Dourif, and Alice Krige, you've definitely got something special.
Based on the books by Jeff Lindsay, this series revolves around a serial killer who only targets other serial killers. Michael C. Hall [Six Feet Under] is amazing as the self-proclaimed monster who works as a blood spatter expert for the Miami police, while secretly finding and eliminating those of his ilk who had the misfortune of not having a very smart cop for an adoptive father. The series is smart, funny, weird, creepy and – most importantly – entertaining.
The most ethnically diverse cast on TV because they were the best actors for the roles. That's unique, in and of itself. The interweaving of medical emergencies and the complex relationships of a large group of fully realized characters makes this a series that contains boundless possibilities for both drama and humor – and switches back and forth [frequently in the space of a sentence]. Quite possibly the most purely entertaining hour on TV – and creator Shonda Rimes didn't even have to dumb it down for a common-denominator audience [don't you love shows that assume their audience is intelligent?].
A number of random individuals around the world wake to discover that they have superpowers. Then we learn that there is someone killing them. This basic comic book superhero conceit is made appealing by the way the various characters react [some love being different; other just want to be normal – whatever that is], and a prophecy of nuclear destruction for New York City. By keeping the characters real, the show's writers make it possible to enjoy their increasingly unreal adventures.
Even with the lull that was the first six episodes of season three, Lost still more thought-provoking and enthralling than the vast majority of TV dramas. Now that we're learning more about The Others, it's beginning to look like some of the fan theories out there are, at least potentially, somewhat on target. Between developing its characters in unusual ways, turning the most unexpected things in to cliffhangers, and generally playing the viewers' minds as well as the characters', the show's creative team has created a unique world.
My Name Is Earl
This philosophical trailer trash sitcom assumes that there is an audience that is familiar with concepts like karma – and then plays directly to them. The redemption of Earl Hickey is funny not because he's a redneck, but because of his enthusiasm – every time he tries to make up for one of his bad deeds, he goes so over the top that one can't help but laugh. Jaime Pressly adds a kick as his ex-wife, Joy, and the friendship between Earl and Joy's current husband is refreshingly different.
This Americanization of a wildly popular telenovela is smart, funny, melodramatic and emotionally satisfying. Betty, of course, is the less-than-pretty assistant to the new editor for Mode Magazine – the bible of the fashion conscious. Despite the number of people determined to oust said editor – and the complexities of her personal life – Betty always moves forward. Played by the rather gorgeous America Ferrara, the dowdy Betty is this year's breakout character.
The contemporary Nancy Drew continued to be smart, funny and vulnerable while solving the mysteries of the school bus killer and the campus rapist. The series remains remarkable for having a father who is neither dim nor ignorant, and the shadings given to characters who initially seemed like complete jerks [Logan and Weevil] is refreshing.
Sherlock Holmes in a hospital, this is a star vehicle for Hugh Laurie as the curmudgeonly Dr. Gregory House – who became a doctor mostly because they are seen as being right, but turns out to be quite the diagnostic genius. As the series progresses, and the supporting cast gets more to do, the show is rounding into an excellent drama – but even when Laurie's House was the main [or rather, only real] attraction, it stood well above the crowd.
I would have thought that I'd tire of a sitcom where the female sportswriter seems unable to express herself without using baseball analogies – but such turns out to not be the case. This series about a woman who is "one of the boys" [plays poker, eats junk food, watches the game, etc.], but still has a feminine side [even if she's not always sure of how to access it], turned out to be one of the biggest surprises of the year.
Over the days before the Christmas holiday, rumors and ‘news items’ about a possible third Stargate series began to appear on various Stargate related sites. Both Gateworld and Stargate:SG-1 Solutions were posting news stories based on information garnered from anonymous ‘production sources’.
From Gateworld came the announcements that there is to be a third Stargate series added to the franchise and that MGM has officially put an end to plans for a season 11 of Stargate: SG-1. However when contacted about these two things for official comfirmation, MGM could not confirm either a new series in the works or cancellation of plans for a season 11 of Stargate: SG-1.
One of the season's most hyped films is the musical, Dreamgirls – a thinly veiled recounting of the story of The Supremes. The hype would have you believe that it will be a star-making vehicle for Beyonce
When a film has its heart so firmly in the right place, it's a shame to have to say that it's not wonderful. Unfortunately, despite all the best intentions, We Are Marshall is a clunky, overbearing film that seems to wallow in its sadness…
The tragedy that struck Marshall University and the town of Huntington, West Virginia is one of the worst sports-related tragedies ever. The school's entire football squad, all but one of its coaches, and a number parents and boosters died in a plane crash minutes before they were to land at home. The date was November 14, 1973, and the result was not merely a gutted sports program, but an entire town laid emotional waste.
Despite efforts by the school's board of directors to scrap the football program, the student body refused to let it happen, but the school's program took two decades to reach its former level of glory. We Are Marshall looks at the time between the crash and the second game of the following season.
The opening minutes of We Are Marshall follow the team and coaches as they prepare to fly home after a big game. We get a feel for the team's camaraderie, and watch as one assistant coach takes over a recruiting trip so the scout can get home in time for his daughter's piano recital. In the chartered plane, we hear the pilot announce that they'll be landing soon, and to take your seats. Then, suddenly, the screen goes black.
It's a sobering prologue to the story of a town and school that are destined to fight through some of the hardest times imaginable. It's also the best part of the film.
This is the film that Charlie's Angels director, McG, chose to establish himself as something more than just an action director. The opening scenes suggest that he can pull it off, too. Then things go awry.
To begin with, various of the scenes of the townspeople in shock – and grieving – tend to go on for enough beats too many that it gives one the sense that the film is wallowing in the town's grief. For another, the music – by the usually reliable Christophe Beck – doesn't so much support and enhance the film as demand the audience feel this way here, and that way there. Frankly, these two elements took me out of the story enough times that I found it difficult to buy into its positives.
The way the student body demands to keep the football program alive is one of the few genuinely touching moments in the film. Another comes when the father [Ian McShane] of the quarterback appeals to his late son's fianc
Potpourri: Jet Li’s Fearless – Unrated Edition; The Wicker Man – 2-DVD Collector’s Edition; American Pie Presents The Naked MileDecember 21, 2006
Jet Li's last wushu movie, Fearless, is about the philosophy behind the martial arts – and yet it features some of his most interesting fight sequences; The Wicker Man has survived the indignity of a hideous remake, courtesy of a splendid two-disc collector's set, and American Pie Presents The Naked Mile takes baby steps back toward the heart of the original film…
Jet Li's Fearless
Jet Li's Fearless is only the latest of dozens of Asian films based on the life of Huang Yuanjia who, in 1910 restored China's national esteem. In the film, Huang has grown to be a glory-seeking, hard partying martial arts champion who is so taken with his fame that he is easily manipulated by would-be student and disciples – to the point of near-bankruptcy.
When he kills a rival martial arts master over a perceived injustice, – and after the master's son has slain his wife and daughter – he learns that the "injustice" was a lie, and drinks himself into a stupor before fleeing to an outer province. There, he is taken in by a blind farm woman and comes to learn what is really important in life – and comes to understand his late parents.
During the same period of time, China has become subservient to a coalition of foreign powers, including the Americans, the Germans, and the Japanese. Since his return, Huang has become a champion, again, but this time, one who is humble and eschews the party life. He comes to the attention of representatives of these when he defeats an American called Hercules O'Brien, and they challenge him to a series of four matches, all on the same day. He faces a boxer, a lancer, a fencer and a Japanese martial artist.
Huang's story is used as a vehicle to expound [without a trace of preachiness] Li's philosophy – the philosophy behind his martial arts skills: the more accomplished a fighter one becomes, the more he should become a peacemaker. That may be a bit of a simplification, but it is at the heart of Li's beliefs and makes the film something more than just another wushu movie.
Li shows that he's developed as an actor and his supporting cast is mostly excellent. Ronny Wu's direction is as crisp as it needs to be, and Yuen Wo Ping's choreography is extremely good. The only real problem is that Fearless covers ground that has been told many times, already. It's Li's passion that keeps the film from becoming maudlin, or too-over-the top – Li's passion that makes it worth watching more than once.
Features include: an extensive deleted scene, A Fearless Journey – a featurette in which Li, Wu and Yuen are interviewed about the film, and The Original Theatrical Release.
Jet Li's Fearless – Unrated – Grade: B
Features – Grade: C
Final Grade: B-
The Wicker Man – 2 Disc Set Collector's Edition
The original 1973 release of The Wicker Man became a cult phenomenon – even though it had been hacked to ribbons by its studio. The release with which we are familiar [88 min.] was still powerful enough – and intriguing enough – to get overwhelmingly positive reviews, but the original, 102 min. release hadn't been seen since then. Thanks to the discovery of a print in America, it was possible to put together a 98 min. version that captures the feel of the original release to a great extent.
The film is about a Christian police sergeant [Edward Woodward] who is called to a remote Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a local girl. The locals insistence they've never heard of the girl – causing Sergeant Howie to begin an investigation that soon leads him to believe that the girl has been sacrificed to pagan gods to gain their favor for the year's harvest.
The cast featured a number of odd characters, and led by Christopher Lee [Lord Summerside] and Britt Ekland, Diane Cilento and Ingrid Pitt, given quietly intense performances that draw us into the web that comes to surround Howie. The script [by Anthony Schaffer] is smart, sly and an example of how to create horror though the examination of human foibles.
Robin Hardy's direction is best described as deliberate – there were music videos to influence his style, so he slowly builds a creepiness that begins to insinuate itself into the subconscious of the viewer. The result is a film that Cinefantasique called "The Citizen Kane of horror films." The Wicker Man remains as creepily effective today, as ever.
Features include: the 1973 release; an outstanding audio commentary [by Hardy, Lee and Woodward, and moderator Mark Kermode] for the restored version; The Wicker Man Enigma – interviews with Woodward, Lee, Pitt, Hardy, producer Peter Snell, writer Anthony Schaffer, and other members of the crew; the theatrical trailer; a TV spot; radio spots, and Talent bios.
The Wicker Man [88 min.] – Grade: B-
The Wicker Man [98 min.] – Grade: A
Final Grade: B+
American Pie Presents The Naked Mile
The latest effort to cash in on the American Pie brand turns out to have a good deal more heart than the previous release in the series [Band Camp]. The story revolves around Eric [John White], the black sheep of the Stifler family – who is a high school senior and a virgin. The film opens with an homage to the original American Pie – with a tragic twist…
When he and his girlfriend, Tracy [Jessy Schram] are interrupted as they finally decide to go for it, Eric is humiliated again. In a moment of generosity, Tracy gives him a weekend guilt-free free pass – to do whatever he wants – while he and two friends visit his cousin Dwight [Steve Talley] at college. Of course, one of the college's traditions is "The Naked Mile" – hordes of students run a mile in the nude to blow off steam after exams. The run is followed by a blowout party.
Naturally, The Naked Mile is full of gross-out gags [like the opening], but there is finally a core of sweetness – that actually feels real – on which to hang the gags. The film is still nowhere near as good as the theatrical trilogy, though it has a number of great moments – some involving Mr. Levenstein, better known as Jim's Dad [Eugene Levy]; others involving an evil fraternity of little people, and one involving a heart-to-heart talk between Eric and Dwight.
Perhaps the most interesting moments come in the commentary, when writer Erik Lindsay points out that most of the events in the film were actually happened to him and his friends in college. Another interesting thing is that a movie that features hundreds of college kids running naked across campus actually panders less than its predecessor [which is not the same as saying it doesn't pander, but… it's a real distinction].
Frankly, I was amazed at how many times I laughed out loud. American Pie Pres
ents The Naked Mile is no animal House, nor is it even another American Pie, but it is more than marginally entertaining. Enough so that I have to give it a marginal recommendation.
Features: the aforementioned commentary [by director Joe Nussbaum, White, Talley, Lindsay, Ross Thomas and Jake Siegel]; Yoga Guide For Getting Girls [tips from Ms Schram for guys contemplating the yoga mat as a place to find women]; The Bare Essentials [preparing to run The Naked Mile]; Little People, Big Stunts [behind the football sequences]; Outtakes [nothing as funny as what's in the movie]; Deleted and Extended Scenes, and Life on The Naked Mile [behind the scenes featurette].
American Pie Presents The Naked Mile – Grade: C+
Features – Grade: B
Final Grade: B-
Yo, Rocky, where's Adrian? It's been 16 years since the last Rocky movie and a lot has changed since then, then again maybe not. George Bush was in office, and still is. James Bond was hot at the box office and still is (kind of), Madonna was topping the charts at least once or twice a year and still is, Whitney married Bobby (ok, they recently got divorced) and Sylvester Stallone was too old to play Rocky in the supposed final installment.
Sixteen years later he's back, but for some reason it felt like time had turned back. While he looked too old in Rocky V, he some how looks just right for the, supposed, final installment. This time out Rocky's opponent is himself – his ego.
In Rocky V, Rocky fell from grace – he lost all his money and was no longer allowed to fight for fear of permanent brain damage. Sixteen years later he lost his wife Adrian and his son, a little weasel who is struggling to get out of the shadow of his famous father. Rocky's not exactly happy at this point in his life, but he's content to run his neighborhood restaurant and tell stories of his past and lost glory.
He's still a hero in his Philadelphia neighborhood and still has fans who remember his amazing accomplishments. It's not an exciting life for someone like Rocky, but it's respectable. He slowly starts to come out of his self imposed funk when he helps Marie (Geraldine Hughes) a neighborhood woman and her son get back on their feet.
Right before the screening a friend and fellow critic and I got into a friendly argument over the CGI used in the film Happy Feet. He thought it looked great, frankly I thought it sucked and have seen better CGI work on some next gen games like Gears of War, Metal Gear Solid 4, etc. He refused to buy the argument that games can be just as good as film CGI.
The reason for this little aside is, in Rocky a key moment in the film involves CGI. ESPN promotes the idea that Rocky Balboa is the greatest fighter of all time and would have no problem knocking out the current US Champion, Mason 'The Line' Dixon (played by real life boxer, Antonio Tarver). They do this by using one of the cheesiest computer animations ever put to screen. Of course all of the chatter gets Rocky thinking, "Hmmm
Stuck on a last minute gift for your lover of graphic novels, manga and anime