Tuesday, July 31, 2007

"The Bourne Ultimatum" -- * * * *

Probably the best piece of pure entertainment to be released this summer, Paul Greengrass’s “The Bourne Ultimatum” opens by seemingly dropping us off in a movie already in progress. Immediately following the Universal Pictures logo, tense, familiar music blares, a quick subtitle informs us we’re in “Moscow, Russia” and our hero, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is already fleeing someone, and we have no idea who. BAM! We’re already immersed in the movie, without even realizing it, and all before the title even sprawls across the screen.

A seemingly never-ending adrenaline rush, and a remarkably intelligent and witty one at that, “Ultimatum” is by far the best film of the espionage thriller trilogy it concludes, as well as the best action movie of 2007. The “Bourne” films have turned out to be the rare film series that get incrementally better, and it’s just a genuine pleasure to watch a sequel that isn’t in any way a cash-in, but an enhancement and enrichment of what came before it.

Before you lump me in with the obsessive fans of this series and dismiss it as not your type of thing, be aware, I liked the first two “Bourne” films but didn’t quite get where all the love was coming from. “Ultimatum” is leaps and bounds ahead of both films, and fully deserves whatever box office riches may be headed its way this weekend. One also has to tip one’s hat to any movie that celebrates an action hero who’s at his most heroic when he exercises restraint.

The film’s success can mostly be laid at the feet of Paul Greengrass, one of the most brilliant filmmakers working today (who I was lucky enough to interview last April), who garnered a much-deserved Oscar nomination last year for “United 93.” Greengrass brought his craft and style to the last film in the series, “The Bourne Supremacy,” and paired with a better script this time around, he mines even deeper riches. There’s sharp dialogue all around, but it’s doubtful that the dialogue will be what people remember most about “Ultimatum.”

The film is jam-packed with thrilling, brilliantly staged action/car-chase/fight scenes, the best of which is an extended fight sequence between Bourne and one of the fellows chasing him that climaxes in a bathroom stall. Greengrass awesomely stages this sequence without any music, leaving us hearing nothing but the increasingly loud, jarring sound effects.

The main baddie this time around, a government agent deadset on killing Bourne, is played by David Straithairn (an Oscar nominee last year for his embodiment of Edward R. Murrow in “Good Night, and Good Luck.”), and he’s just as welcome an addition here as Joan Allen was in the last film. The wonderful Allen is back as Bourne-sympathizing agent Pamela Landy, and the back-and-forth between her and Straithairn is worth the price of admission, and I think, worthy of their own movie. However, these two are only the highlights of the extraordinary cast assembled here, including Scott Glenn, Paddy Considine (last seen in “Hot Fuzz”) and Albert Finney.

Julia Stiles is also back in her biggest role yet, for those who dig her sort of thing (I find her consistently bland), and one musn’t forget Damon, the star of this show. Bourne has in all three films been sort of the steely, silent, troubled killing machine, but this time around, Damon has more material to chew on, and pulls off scenes that are trickier to play than one might think. For a film that’s admittedly more about the excitement factor than the emotional resonance, Damon lends the proceedings significantly more credence than a lesser actor might.

While it’s never a safe bet that a movie will be the “last” in its series if it makes a lot of money, Damon has gone on the record that this will be his last Bourne film, and if that holds, it does end the series on a perfect note and everyone involved can be proud of themselves (including Moby, whose “Extreme Ways” closes the film, just as it did the first two). And while it may seem an insignificant detail, “The Bourne Ultimatum” deserves praise of some sort for running a very bearable and appropriate one hour and 45 minutes, all the more refreshing in a summer of bloated, self-indulgent blockbusters.

Giving my liking (as opposed to loving) of the first two "Bourne" films, nobody was more surprised than me to find how much I loved this movie. Spy thrillers are generally “not my type of thing,” but then again, they generally don’t get made with this quality of filmmaking, writing, acting and pulse-pounding excitement. As the first three-quel this year to actually deliver, “The Bourne Ultimatum” is the one movie this summer that gave me a genuine “rush” and a palpable giddiness that I thought was all but impossible to have after a nine-hour work day.

"The Simpsons Movie" -- * * * 1/2

Gloriously offensive and irreverently good-natured, the best thing I can say about “The Simpsons Movie” is that it manages to not be a disappointment. Considering that “The Simpsons” is probably the piece of pop culture that had more of an impact on my life than any other, that’s high praise. The movie isn’t really a mindblower, nor is it a brilliant exploitation of transformation to a new medium a la “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut”—the descriptions of it as an extended episode are apt—but it’s consistently hilarious, as well as a perfect encapsulation of all the elements that have made “The Simpsons” the defining show of the 20th century.

Lots of people—myself included—have proclaimed that they would have been a bit more excited for the movie’s release had it come out, say, ten years ago, but I think releasing it now has forced Groening and company to actually make a better movie than they would have ten years ago. Ten years ago, “The Simpsons” was in top form, proclaimed by many to be the best show on television. It would have been easy for the crew to churn out a cheap 80-minute cash-in with little-to-no effort resulting in a massive blockbuster. Now, despite still maintaining writing better than damn near anything else on TV, “The Simpsons’” status has dwindled.

Even its biggest fans must oblige that its quality has dipped since its heyday. As a result of this, the whole behind-the-scenes crew has recognized that they needed to step up their game to satisfy fans longing for the good ole days, and—having seen it with an audience three times now—I can state pretty definitively, they delivered.

Opening with Ralph Wiggum singing along with the 20th Century Fox fanfare, followed by our beloved Homer telling all of us what giant suckers we are for “paying to see what we can watch at home for free,” the movie has us from hello, so to speak. That Ralph later delivers what may be the best line in the movie, at once both a cheap laugh and a brilliant dissertation of the far right’s views on the “influence” of homosexuality, is just one of many examples here of Groening giving fans what they want.

I won’t delve into the specifics of the plot—what would be the point? All I’ll say is *gasp* Homer does something stupid, Marge questions the stablility of their marriage, Lisa develops a crush on a boy, and Bart gets in big trouble. There, I said it.

“The Simpsons Movie” brandishes a PG-13 rating, but it isn’t much more extreme than an average episode—the only really risqué inclusions are a “goddamn,” a few flips of the bird, and a full-frontal yellow “doodle.” The scene featuring the latter is the one that seems to have everyone talking, but what tells me the movie will have strong word-of-mouth is that it’s only one of many moments I hear when people discuss what they find to be the funniest part. I’m personally torn between the bomb-defusing robot and the big celebrity cameo in the the Grand Canyon II commercial (“Since the U.S. Government seems to have lost all credibility, they’re borrowing some of mine…”), but hey, that’s just me.

The film also harkens back to the “Simpsons” of days past, where emotions/sentiment used to play an integral role, and to my surprise, they completely work. In Marge’s big “videotape” scene, Julie Kavner completely broke my heart. This is probably the last movie this year I expected to cry in, but it happened nonetheless. Each character gets their emotional beats, and it never feels like a diversion away from the show/family we’ve grown to love.

“The Simpsons Movie” has already opened to $72 million dollars in its first three days, and I couldn’t be happier. The only concern I have is that this massive box office take seems to ensure the show another half-dozen or so seasons on the air (they’re coming up on number nineteen). I still love it whenever I catch an episode, but I think Groening and company should do the classy thing and stop after number twenty. But again, that’s just me.

Back to the movie itself, I think it’s funny enough to appeal even to those who’ve never seen an episode of “The Simpsons,” but honestly, who really cares about them? This is a movie made for those of us who’ve seen every episode at least a handful of times, and have waited with bated breath for this movie since talks of it began nearly a decade ago. I can’t speak for everyone, but as someone who still treasures his copy of “Bart Simpson’s Guide to Life,” I must say, it was worth the wait.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

He shaved the faces of gentlemen who never thereafter were heard of again... but who the fuck came up with this poster?


I don't know. I consider John Doyle’s 2005's revival of Stephen Sondheim’s "Sweeney Todd" starring Michael Cerveris and Patti Lupone to be the greatest piece of art I've ever had the pleasure to experience. Yes, greater than any movie I’ve seen. You read right.

Sondheim’s "Sweeney Todd" is just great all around, in any incarnation, though that was the best. I was equally excited and nervous for Tim Burton's version and well, after seeing this poster, it would appear I was right to be nervous. It's pretty, but it's all wrong for what "Sweeney" is supposed to be.

"Sweeney Todd" is heartbreaking, immensely sad AND darkly funny. The poster layout and the tagline ("Never Forget. Never Forgive.") would make it appear that Burton has abandoned the first two and is going to be reveling completely in the camp and gore of it, which would completely gut "Sweeney" of its impact.

Yes, it’s all visually stunning—we expect nothing less from Burton—and would be effective for another movie, but I was hoping Burton would look past the macabre elements of the story and realize the haunting beauty lurking throughout it.

But then again, it's just a poster-- and on top of that, I've just been alerted that it's supposedly a poster made exclusively for Comic-Con so this might not be what we see in theaters. I'll hold out for a trailer before I pass judgment completely, but my heart just sank a little bit. Based on web reaction so far, I seem to be in the extreme minority on this-- what're your thoughts?

"No Reservations" -- * * 1/2

As unremarkable as it might be, “No Reservations” certainly isn’t deserving of the bitter hatred it’s garnered from some too-cool-for-school publications (*cough* Time Out New York *cough*). Sure, it’s rote, predictable, melodramatic and more pleasant than actually good, but it’s still more entertaining than it really has a right to be. In other words, I was never really laughing out loud or thoroughly charmed, but I went with its cute, pleasant vibes and never felt particularly irritated or manipulated. I know, glowing recommendation, right?

For those not in the romantic-comedy know, “No Reservations” is a remake of the German charmer (yes, such a thing exists) “Mostly Martha.” The movie’s central figure is Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones, or as she’s known in my house, CZJ), a bitchy head chef at a five-star restaurant on Bleecker Street in New York. The film follows what happens when she’s forced to deal with a new chef at her restaurant (Aaron Eckhart), and to take care of her niece (Abigail Breslin) after her sister dies in a car crash. Needless to say, she falls in love with Eckhart and taking care of her niece turns her into a better, nicer person, yada, yada, yada.

I really don’t know who thought of pairing CZJ and Eckhart, two Hollywood figures known for their exuding of coldness and eliticism, in a romantic comedy together, but it plays about as well as it sounds. What’s next, Natasha Richardson and Denis Leary? (Hey, I tried, you think of a better one.)

I’ve always been a fan of Eckhart but I had trouble buying him as a sweet, doormat romantic lead who functions purely to make the leading lady happy. He does a fine enough job, but an actor as good as him shouldn’t be playing someone this one-dimensional. Hopefully he’ll have more to chew on as Harvey Dent in “The Dark Knight.”

Zeta-Jones isn’t bad per se, she just can’t really shake her public persona (i.e.: a shrew, cold, rich bitch). She fares much better in scenes where she’s a temperamental cunt than ones where she’s asked to be warm and loving. Amazingly enough, the best performance in “NR” comes from no other than Little Miss Sunshine herself, Breslin.

“No Reservations” is surprisingly well-directed, and that’s due to Academy Award nominated director Scott Hicks (“Shine”) slumming here. He keeps things moving along at a fast enough clip, frames some interesting shots, and everything looks great, but no direction can overcome some of the lines of dialogue we’re given here. If you liked the tagline on the poster (“Life isn’t always made to order”) than you’ll LOVE the movie, since there’s food metaphors galore. The most shudder-inducing ones I can recall were “The best recipes are the ones you make yourself” and “I wish there was a cookbook for life.” A seasoned pro like Bob Balaban deserves accolades for not cringing through every take of the former. Still, to be fair, I have to point out that for the most part, the screenplay avoids eye-rollers like these and even produced a few smiles (if not laughs) from yours truly.

I know it’s a cliché comment to make about a movie about food, but if “No Reservations” does anything, it will make you hungry. I hadn’t had dinner yet at the time of the screening on Monday and matter of the stomach certainly weren’t helped. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that though the movie is credited with an original score by Philip Glass, I could have sworn the music was identical to Mark Isham’s “Life as House” score.

Either way, I’m not complaining; it’s a cute, happy, pleasant score. And unless you’re a hater, that’s exactly what “No Reservations” is: a cute, happy, pleasant enough movie. And hey, what are matinees for?

"Once" and forever...

Tuesday night, I attended a concert at the Blender Theatre by The Swell Season, also known as Glen Hansand and Marketa Irglova, also known as the Guy and Girl from “Once.” For those of you who haven’t yet seen “Once,” well…. I just feel sorry for you. For those who have, I’m delighted to report that the pair’s music is just as beautiful, haunting and memorable when it’s performed completely out of context as it is in the film.

The two (now confessed to be a real-life couple) exude an insane amount of chemistry, even with Irglova barely uttering a spoken word all night. Hansard, on the other hand, rarely stopped talking and couldn’t have been more charming while sharing stories about how he and Marta have begun to dress alike, about how he’s still deciding whether or not he likes the recognizability the film has brought him, and even while just asking the house manager to turn off the overwhelmingly loud air conditioning. The man seemed incredibly gracious and commented some variation of “thank you so much for being here” and “this is fantastic” after seemingly every song.

He also shared the quirky inspirations for some of the songs, ranging from a girl he knew who worked as a Ghostbuster to Wu’s pigs from “Deadwood.” As I expected, the crowd was mostly hipster couples, and they were as entertained as I was by a set that included not just their entire album, but also covers of Van Morrison, The Pixies and an impromptu rendition of “America, Fuck Yeah!”

They still have a few tour dates left throughout the country, so I’d recommend getting tickets immediately if they’re still available.

A second huff of "Hairspray"

So, as promised, I revisited “Hairspray” on Friday night, at a surprisingly not-packed 10 p.m. showing at the world famous (and deservedly so) Ziegfeld Theatre. To be fair, a half-full crowd at the Ziegfeld is still about 600 people, and it was as enthusiastic a crowd as I could have hoped for; I have a feeling the lack of a sell out was in large part due to ‘Deathly Hallows’ being released at midnight, but that’s just me. On a second viewing, my general feelings on the film remained the same but I may have been a tad too harsh in one or two spots, and not harsh enough in one.

Yes, I still hated Travolta. Still felt the delivery of his lines and singing was awful and all wrong for Edna. Sorry. And I know it’s not his fault, but I still can’t get over how freakish and non-human he looks in those prosthetics. Just having him camp it up at a drag queen would have been better and more human than what’s done with him here, where he looks like a Muppet who’s had experiments done on it against its will.

I was also perhaps a little too easy on Amanda Bynes when I said only her awful singing was deserving of criticism. She gives almost no sense of character or fun to Penny and the little impression she gives off is one of mild irritation. Granted, I’ve never liked her in anything, but this did nothing to change my mind.

On the other hand, I was probably a bit unfair to Mr. Adam Shankman when I said everything good here should be credited completely to the creators of the stage show. While I still have his doubts about his directing ability for non-musicals, he clearly has a love for the material here and does a tremendous job with most of the musical numbers. It’s a credit to him that the film exudes the same sense of fun (if not necessarily the energy) as the stage show, and he handles most of the transitions from one medium to another with wit and aplomb.

While I'd be lying if I said I wasn't more excited for Julie Taymor’s musical “Across the Universe,” I just wanted people who thought I was too harsh initially to know that I did have a lot more fun with “Hairspray” a second time around. Who knows, maybe after a full night of sleep and a shower, I was more receptive to its charms than while tired and cranky after a long day of work.

Monday, July 16, 2007

"I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry" -- ZERO STARS

I don’t really know how to go about writing a review for the new Adam Sandler-Kevin James comedy “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry” (for those who don't know, the movie's about two straight firefighters who must pose as a gay couple to get the domestic partner benefits) so instead, I thought I’d offer up a list of moments that made me cringe:

--When Kevin James suggests to Adam Sandler they get married, and Sandler responds “You mean like faggots?” and my audience erupted in laughter.

--Rob Schneider marrying the pair in yellow-face as the couple’s Asian rabbi, complete with prosthetic slanty-eyes

--Anything involving the mockery of James’ 10-year-old gay son, most notably when Sandler opens a porno magazine in front of him and the kid shrieks a high-pitched womanly squeal and runs away

--All of James’ son’s shirts being covered in sequins… because he’s gay, get it??!

--In an attempt to “gay up” their garbage to fool the investigator poking around their neighborhood, they buy a copy of “Brokeback Mountain,” a tub of Crisco and a baby doll (whuh? I don’t even understand that homophobic stereotype)

--When inspired to scream “Hell yeah!” after looking at a woman’s ass, but then spotted by Jessica Biel, Sandler covers by saying “They got KY Jelly for less than a dollar! Hell yeah!”

--The decades-old jokes about James’ son wanting to audition for the school musical and preferring to play with his sister’s Easy Bake Oven rather than his G.I. Joes

--At an AIDS benefit the pair are invited to, almost every gay character is dressed either in drag or like the Village People, while “Dancing Queen” blares in the background

--Any close-ups of Sandler’s face, revealing it to be the shlumpiest in Hollywood

--Ving Rhames, after revealing he’s gay, attempts to lead a group sing along of “I’m Every Woman” in the showers (because that’s what gays do, RIGHT?!)

--After “rescuing” a morbidly obese man from a burning building by throwing him down the stairs, the fat man lets out a long, loud fart.

--Sandler making fun of James’ dead wife by pretending to be her ghost, a joke that was much funnier and less offensive when performed by Doris Roberts in the Sandler-produced “Grandma’s Boy”

--Director Dennis Dugan shooting a potential gay kiss as a horror movie moment, in slow motion—but thankfully Dan Aykroyd bursts in just in time to break it up, so the audience is spared having to witness the grotesque sight of two men kissing

--My audience’s disgust and “Ewwwwwwwww”s at anything gay onscreen… I wish I could say it was mostly pre-teen and teenage boys, but there were a lot of grown men there doing the same thing.

--The phrase “the great Mayor Giuliani” uttered un-ironically.

--Sandler staples David Spade and Nick Swardson popping up to do their most flamboyant impression of queers they can muster

--The audience invited to laugh at James’ gay son, who bakes for Sandler and offers “You have to try my brownies, they’re FABulous!”

--When one of the firefighters drops the soap in the shower and no one will pick it up because they think Sandler or James might rape them

--Sandler suggesting James should throw his gay son in the garbage

But more offensive than all the anti-gay content in the movie is the horribly and blatantly tacked-on, insincere speech at the movie’s climax where Dan Aykroyd proclaims that you shouldn’t judge anyone based on their sexuality, and that the person they are is what should matter, not if they’re gay or straight. Sandler chimes in and sincerely says something to the effect of “And don’t say ‘faggot.’ I used to say it, and it’s bad. It’s like ‘kike’ for a jew” (after his character has said the word ‘faggot’ about a half-dozen times in the movie for laughs).

I don’t usually consider myself easily offended, and am all for humor that pushes the boundaries of taste, but I am honestly disgusted that GLAAD has stamped this movie with their approval and even say so on their website. Is this organization so easy to be bought off by Universal Pictures? They must be, because that’s clearly what happened here. I can’t imagine the notoriously easy-to-get up-in-arms organization sitting and watching this piece of shit and genuinely thinking it’s a film about acceptance or that it could possibly be good for the gay community.

Even “Soul Man,” the gloriously offensive piece-of-crap starring C. Thomas Howell as a white guy attempting to pass in blackface to gain entry into an African-American university, didn’t dare to pack its running time with black people running around robbing white people while break-dancing and eating fried chicken and watermelon.

Despite his decision to feature at least one homophobic stereotype (i.e.: a creepy, gross gay character who comes on to him) in every single one of his films, I generally like Sandler’s movies, and I’ve certainly taken some flak for it. Sure they’re infantile, stupid and puerile, but generally they have a good heart, offer a few laughs here and there and are by and large, sweet.

But this, on top of its “offensive” content, suffers from increasingly stale, unfunny jokes that feel as if they were written ten years ago (and what do you know, that’s when the first draft of the script was written). Even as a movie without any of the baggage it carries, it would be a strong contender for the worst movie of 2007, though it would probably lose out to “Norbit.”

Films like “Borat,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and especially “Talladega Nights” are hilarious, subversive movies that make gay jokes that subtly (or not-so-subtly) mock homophobia more than anything, and I thought there was a chance “Chuck & Larry” would be in a similar vein. Gays can take a joke and be laughed at as much as anyone else. But what isn’t tolerable is a movie that has the potential to incite more hatred, and a movie that’s only intent is to target every teenage boy and Middle American’s gay panic.

It’s no coincidence that “Chuck & Larry” is opening on the same weekend as “Hairspray.” The studio must have figured that all of the gay community will be too busy fawning all over the latest movie musical that they’ll barely notice the latest piece of hate disguised as entertainment heading into multiplexes.

This is a monstrous film targeted to capitalize on America’s surging homophobia and it’s disconcerting that there’s a sizable enough audience for it that major, notable actors felt it could be profitable/beneficial for them. This applies to anyone involved in this dreck, but more than anyone, Adam Sandler (who’s never been known for being the most gay-friendly comedian/actor anyway) should be truly ashamed of himself.

"Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" -- * * *

Except for the first, I have not read the “Harry Potter” books. Apparently, gives me zero credibility when it comes to evaluating the movies, at least evidenced by the woman next to me’s “tsk” when I commented I was only familiar with the film versions.

So, purely as films, I tend to enjoy them; in turn, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” is the third best of the films (behind Alfonso Cuaron’s brilliant “Prisoner of Azkaban” and Mike Newell’s supremely entertaining “Goblet of Fire” but ahead of Chris Columbus’ dull-and-childish first two) and one of the only two so far that carves out its own identity as a film and doesn’t just feel like another film in a series/assembly line. This is especially impressive since every Potter aficionado I know has told me that “Order” is the worst of the books and most exposition-filled.

A big part of why the film is so entertaining is David Yates’s direction and Imelda Staunton’s fascinating (and very funny) performance as the cheerfully despicable new professor of the dark arts, Dolores Umbridge. A lot of great British actors are underused here (I always seem to want more of Alan Rickman’s Snape), but it is nice to see that the gang is all here. Yates keeps “Order” the shortest of all the “Potter” movies, and this audience member was especially grateful. None of the films except Cuaron’s “Prisoner” has really taken the series up a notch into greatness, but it’s a fairly consistent and enjoyable series, and “Order” follows in that line.

If you can, at all costs, see the movie on the IMAX; the big battle in the last 20 minutes in 3-D is breathtaking.

Monday, July 09, 2007

The Best of 2007.5

Greetings all…summer has been much busier (in a good way) than I expected, so I haven’t updated here as often as I’d like. But, and you may find this difficult to believe given my infrequent postings, but I’m determined to post reviews of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” and Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine” sometime over the course of the coming week.

If you’re wondering, no , I haven’t seen “Harry Potter” yet, I’m going tomorrow night to the IMAX at midnight. So, yes, those three reviews are on the horizon. I’ve also recently read the script for Universal’s big Oscar hopeful “Charlie Wilson’s War,” directed by Mike Nichols, written by Aaron Sorkin, and starring Tom Hanks, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julia Roberts, and I hope to post some sort of haphazard reaction to that in the coming days as well.

All this will be difficult given that I’m going to a handful of screenings, Patti Lupone in “Gypsy” tonight, another play on Thursday, conducting an interview (if all things come through as they should), as well as working three days this week, but I’m determined to make up for lost time on here.

In the meantime, I’ve realized we’ve just gotten past the half-year point of 2007, and thought I’d toss out my views on the best of what the year has had to offer so far movie-wise. Director/screenplay categories will be reserved for the end of the year, but for now, I give you a top 10, and the acting categories.

Top 10 of 2007.5

1. “Zodiac”

It’s been forgotten by most, but David Fincher’s brilliant, haunting masterpiece still lingers in my mind four months later. You can look back on my review in the archives to see the specifics, but it’s certainly the only ‘A+’ film of the year for me so far, and is about as close to perfect as filmmaking gets.

2. “Once”

This simple, beautiful Irish romance/musical probably doesn’t benefit from grandiose praise (like the universal 4-star reviews its been receiving)—it’s a small, unassuming film that could get overshadowed by hype—but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t deserve it. This is one of the best music films ever made as well as a remarkably sweet, bittersweet love story that has the tenacity to not go exactly where you assume it will. That the budget was only $150,000 is only further proof that you don’t need gobs of money to make a great movie, and in fact, it often has the opposite effect (*cough* “Evan Almighty” *cough*).

3. “Ratatouille”

While it might not be my far-and-away favorite, “Ratatouille” is at least on par with the best Pixar films so far, and cements Brad Bird as one of the best filmmakers working today, not simply one of the best animated filmmakers. Superb across-the-board voicework (Patton Oswalt, Janeane Garafalo, Peter O’Toole, Brad Garrett, Ian Holm) as well as an exceedingly clever script make this one of the few must see movies so far this year. Guaranteed to have you leaving the theater significantly happier than you were two hours previous.

4. “Hot Fuzz”

Not just one of the funniest films of the 2007, but one that boasts probably the smartest screenplay of the year (by director Edgar Wright and star Simon Pegg), so packed with clever jokes that you discover even funnier jokes in spots you didn’t even realize there were jokes before on repeat viewings. My personal favorite: casting Edward Woodward (the original “Wicker Man”) as yet another man who dies in the fiery belly of an unconventional architectural structure.

5. “Black Snake Moan”

Marketed as a joke of a film about Sam Jackson chaining up horny Christina Ricci, Craig Brewer’s remarkably unique follow-up to “Hustle & Flow” was in fact an incredibly sincere, emotional film that, if it was actually seen by people, would have found a sizable appreciative audience. Featuring Jackson’s best performance in about a half-decade, “Black Snake” was one of the few films this year to actually move me and only makes me more excited for whatever Brewer does next.

6. “Sicko”

Despite his continuing to manipulate his audiences, include irritating faux-naïve narration, and turn off Republican audience members with Bush-bashing that feels out of place in a film meant to unite audiences on a non-political issue, Michael Moore has set his sights on his most pressing issue to date (universal healthcare) and in turn, made what may be the most important film of the year, and certainly his best film yet. Significantly more focused than “Fahrenheit 9/11” and significantly less infuriating/manipulative than “Bowling for Columbine,” “Sicko” mostly relies on first-hand accounts from people fucked over by the United States health care system and begs the question “why are we the only country in the western world that still considers health care a business rather than a service?” What’s amazing is that Moore manages to present it in a way that’s entertaining, devastating, and largely without the inconsistency and insincerity of his last few films. However, and this is coming from a hardcore liberal: at this point, including clips of Bush saying stupid things just seems childish and irrelevant in a film about healthcare.

7. “Reign Over Me”

Mike Binder has some issues as a filmmaker and perhaps is a bit too prone to manipulation, but for this most part, his latest work really got to me, and I was pretty blown away by Sandler’s performance here. A few friends of mine despise “Reign” and feel Binder’s use of 9/11 was insincere and borderline offensive, but I don’t see that. I think it’s an extremely touching manifestation of the way a lot of New Yorkers (and really anyone going through grief) feel. It’s not a perfect film but it hits much more than it misses and features strong performances all around.

8. “Knocked Up”

Though too long by about 20 minutes (and this is coming from someone who’s seen it five times), still hands down the funniest movie of the year so far, and just a continuation of Judd Apatow’s streak of greatness.

9. “Year of the Dog”

Mike White’s directorial debut probably wasn’t given a fair shake by most people, but it’s an incredibly interesting character study of a somewhat sweet, possibly unstable woman (Molly Shannon) who falls to pieces when her beloved dog dies. Equipped with a brilliant supporting cast (Peter Sarsagaard, Regina King, John C. Reilly, Laura Dern) and an extremely effective/bittersweet/ambiguous ending, it leaves you with plenty to think about.

10. “The Host”

This sweet, sad, scary, hilarious Anti-American horror/comedy import from South about a mysterious blood-thirsty creature was an indie I swore would break out, but instead subsequently died. Still, I think it will/can find a following on DVD and is absolutely worth seeking out.

My favorite performances of 2007.5


Chris Cooper, “Breach”
Richard Gere, “The Hoax”
Glen Hansard, “Once”
Samuel L. Jackson, “Black Snake Moan”
Adam Sandler, “Reign Over Me”


Julie Christie, “Away From Her”
Marion Cotillard, “La Vie En Rose”
Angelina Jolie, “A Mighty Heart”
Ashley Judd, “Bug"
Keri Russell, “Waitress”
Molly Shannon, “Year of the Dog”


Thomas Haden Church, “Spider-Man 3”
Jeff Daniels, “The Lookout”
Robert Downey, Jr., “Zodiac”
Peter O’Toole, “Ratatouille”
Mark Ruffalo, “Zodiac”
Kurt Russell, “Grindhouse”


Laura Dern, “Year of the Dog”
Leslie Mann, “Knocked Up”
Meg Ryan, “In the Land of Women”
Sharon Stone, “Alpha Dog”
Sigourney Weaver, “The TV Set”

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

"Transformers" -- *

I don't want to succumb to hyperbole, but I think "Transformers" may be the stupidest movie I've ever seen. Wait, let me back up.

I've been long spoiled by screenings, but I decided if there was ever a movie to see with an excited, paying crowd, it was Michael Bay's "Transformers." So I bought my tickets (weeks in advance, mind you) for the 8 p.m. showing on Monday, 7/2. Believe it or not, I was actually excited about this movie. No, I didn't play with the toys as a child, but I saw the trailer and thought it looked like completely brainless fun. The special effects looked great, the action awesome, and it just looked like a movie I'd have a blast with. Well, "fun" would probably be the last word I'd use to describe my experience watching this movie. I hated "Transformers." Fucking hated it.

I never quite thought I would call a movie based on a Hasbro line of toys "too silly," but really, this thing doesn't take itself seriously for a second, to the extent where there's never any sense of danger, fun, wonder. Bay basically just cracks jokes throughout the entirety of the movie, to the point where you can accurately label it a comedy.

I don't know how better to sum up the movie for you then to tell you, at the 1hr-45min mark, I actually took out my phone during the movie and sent my friend a text message. I do not do this. I'm the biggest movie etiquette snob in the world. But I was in such disbelief in what I had just witnessed, I couldn't control myself. The text message: "A robot just pissed on John Turturro..." Yes, midway through "Transformers," a robot pisses on John Turturro.

I had difficult explaining to my friends why I hated this movie so much. Anytime I'd decry its absurdity/silliness, they'd exclaim, "Of course it is! It's a transformers movie!" But I don't want realism. If this movie was simply cars/robots transforming and fighting for the whole movie, I probably would've had a pretty good time with it. The problem is, it's incredibly inept filmmaking (aside from the special effects, which may be the best I've ever seen).

But regardless, now I'm going to do something else I don't usually do: quote another critic instead of writing a complete review myself. Vern's review on AintItCool.com so well articulates my thoughts on the film, and puts into words feelings I couldn't quite do myself. So I recommend you head over and read his review (http://www.aintitcool.com/node/33228), but if you don't have the time, I'll throw some excerpts at you-- criticisms I particularly agreed with.

Seriously, this movie is shit. Some of you will enjoy it (I've already spoken to a half dozen people who did), but I beg of you, if you must see it, buy a ticket for a worthier movie in your multiplex (I suggest "1408" or "Ratatouille") and just sneak into Bay's latest opus. Anyway, here's Vern:

"It's fitting that the movie begins in "QATAR - THE MIDDLE EAST." (Need to establish location and tell the audience you think they're idiots at the same time? Try subtitles!)"

[Ed. note: I chortled at this as well. Reminiscent of the subtitle in "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift" reading "Tokyo, Japan." As opposed to what, Tokyo, Germany?]

"Ever since I heard Michael Bay was hired for this job I thought it was tailor made for him. The dude is obsessed with sports cars and has never felt a human emotion, how could you do better than hiring him to make a huge expensive movie where the main characters are cars? It's like God made up The Transformers just to get some use out of Michael Bay."

"The movie's main problem is the same one as BAD BOYS 2: constant, embarrassingly unfunny jokes. Is it too difficult to take anything seriously anymore? Everything's gotta be wacky: Shia has a little dog with a cast and he feeds it painkillers. He rides a pink girls' bike and crashes in front of the girl he likes. A robot pulls his pants down so he's in his boxers. Anthony Anderson eats a bunch of donuts. Bernie Mac's mom flips him the bird. A fat guy dances. When robots attack later, there are lots of half-assed "jokes" about little kids saying "cool!" or comparing it to ARMAGEDDON or thinking a robot is the tooth fairy.

The "jokes" are more rapid-fire than a DTV Leslie Nielsen movie, and with an equal or lesser success rate. Even in that opening robot attack they don't have the discipline to take it seriously for 60 fuckin seconds, they have to have the guy from TURISTAS who looks like Johnny Knoxville on the phone arguing with a cartoonish Indian operator (ooh, topical) while Tyrese keeps yelling something about his left ass cheek."

"For a movie produced by Spielberg it's surprisingly low on awe. People are supposed to be surprised to see robots, but they always turn it into jokes. There's not one second in the movie where you believe people are really reacting to seeing robots. In JURASSIC PARK or in WAR OF THE WORLDS or many other Spielberg movies, you believed these people really were having their minds blown by what was standing right in front of them. In TRANSFORMERS they say things like "It's a robot. You know, like a super advanced robot. It's probably Japanese," and you're supposed to laugh."

"So you got this hour of waiting for it to get to the god damn robots, and then when it happens you realize you don't like them that much more than the people. Admittedly, they are the one thing that makes this more watchable than the other Michael Bay movies. From the ones I've seen I think this is his worst movie, but it's bad in a more fascinating way, like a $200 million version of that tv show "Power Rangers.""

"[There] is one of the great "did I really just see that?" moments when one of the robots says something along the lines of "Yo yo yo wussssUUUUUUPPPP Autobots REPRESENT!" and I don't think he was eating robotic chicken or watermelon but I swear to you on my mother's grave that he started breakdancing. And I'm sure black stereotype robot was in other parts of the movie but the next time I was sure it was the same character was at the end when Optimus Prime was casually holding his broken-in-half corpse like it was the pieces of a plate he dropped."

"And all the robots are here on earth to find a pair of glasses, which are in Shia's bedroom in a backpack, so it should probaly have taken 30 seconds of screen time to get to them instead of 90 minutes. There is a part that I almost think I might've dreamed but I remember it so vividly, where there is a cartoon BOING! sound and then there's a long shot of one of the robots proudly pissing all over John Turturro. This guy has toiled away in independent film for decades, done so much great work and in order to get a pay check he has to get R. Kellyed by a fucking cartoon robot."

"And then all the sudden Shia's car/robot/pet gets shocked and dragged away on cables and the score turns into violins like it's SCHINDLER'S LIST. It is an understatement to say that this heartwrenching music is not earned. It's like if Jennifer Love Hewitt's character in GARFIELD found out she had cancer and we were expected to get choked up."

"We have already seen enough reviews to know that some people can enjoy this. I talked to a guy who loved it, said it was the best movie he's seen this year, that it knew what it was and was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek and what do you expect, it's The Transformers, it's a summer blockbuster movie, it's awesome. I'm glad he enjoyed it, but none of those arguments hold water with me, and I can't help but be sad that this is what we are willing to accept as entertainment. BATMAN AND ROBIN knew what it was and was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek and what did we expect. And if just because it's Transformers it's allowed to be inept, moronic garbage, then why are we going to see a movie based on Transformers in the first place? I know DADDY DAY CAMP is gonna be awful but I don't expect these same people running out saying that was awesome because what do you expect, it's DADDY DAY CAMP."

"Everyone expects this movie to be a huge runaway hit, a moneymaking juggernaut. It happened with ARMAGEDDON and INDEPENDENCE DAY and I lived through election 2004, so certainly I can see that happening. But man oh man do I not get it. Women, especially, I have respect for, and I cannot understand them getting any sort of enjoyment out of these goofy cartoon junkpiles wrestling each other and saying things like "One shall stand and one shall fall!" If this is accepted as good entertainment then we're another step closer to the world of IDIOCRACY and the hit movie ASS.

If America loves this movie, I want a fuckin recount."

Well said, Vern. For the record, in the span of 24 hours, I saw this shit TWICE. For two reasons: (1) On Monday night, I was in a pissy mood, and Tuesday morning I thought maybe it was my mood that kept me from enjoying the film that my audience gave a standing ovation to (though to be fair, this was an audience who gasped and said "Oh, DAYUM" in unison at a shot of an expensive engine), and (2) I got incredibly drunk late Monday night and proceeded to forget why I hated the movie so much and wanted to refresh my memory. So more refreshed and in a much better mood, I saw "Transformers" again Tuesday afternoon. It truly is shit.

I've said it once, and I'll say it again: Michael Bay has still only made one good movie, and that is "The Rock."