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2008 At The Movies

January 7th, 2009 No comments

Another year, another movie wrap-up. Here’s the list of all 2008 releases I tramped down to the multimegaplex to watch. As always, films are listed in terms of domestic box-office because I’m lazy and therefore cribbing from the yearly summary at Box Office Mojo.

  • The Dark Knight
  • Iron Man
  • Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
  • WALL-E
  • Quantum of Solace
  • The Incredible Hulk
  • Get Smart
  • Tropic Thunder
  • Cloverfield
  • Hellboy II: The Golden Army
  • Forgetting Sarah Marshall
  • Baby Mama
  • Burn After Reading
  • Speed Racer
  • Star Wars: The Clone Wars

That’s fifteen, two down from last year. And only five of the top 10, also down two. Maybe I should’ve seen Hancock and Madagascar 2? Eh, maybe not.

Going into 2008, a lot of folks–including myself–were seeing the potential for another 1982, a banner year for filmic geekdom. Certainly, there were a great many prominent genre efforts, despite Star Trek and Harry Potter being pushed back into 2009 for reasons known only to movie marketers.

I suspect that for many geeks and geeks-in-training, it was every bit as big as ’82. Theater clean-up crews are still wiping up the spooge deposited at screenings of The Dark Knight, the bestest movie EVER. Similarly, Iron Man had folks falling over each other on the way to the microphone to proclaim its sublime charms.

For me, 2008 was a little bet “meh.”

First, let’s get The Dark Knight out of the way. It’s telling that I not only didn’t run out and buy the DVD on its day of release (which you can damn well bet I did for Speed Racer), but I didn’t even put it on my Christmas list. Ultimately, I did receive a copy as a holiday gift, and I do intend to give it another whirl.

My relative lack of enthusiasm for The Dark Knight is for much the same reason as my muted reaction to the regenerated James Bond series: it just didn’t give me what I wanted from the franchise. Like Quantum of Solace, I respect the level of talent involved, as well as the need to curb the excesses of the past, but at the end of the day I guess I’m just not ready for a complete reinvention. For me, Dark Knight was only a superhero movie in that someone wore a cape; it was closer in feel to a modern crime drama or even a Silence of the Lambs-style thriller. And I’m sorry, but Heath Ledger is my fourth favorite Joker.

Iron Man was another one that had both fanboys and regular critics touching themselves, but again I struggled to see what the fuss was about. I did actually ask for this one at Christmas, and watched it a second time over the holiday break. And don’t get me wrong, it’s an enjoyable film. Robert Downey Jr. is having fun, and it shows. On a second viewing, I still found it to suffer from a relative paucity of Iron Man; there are long stretches in which not much happens, and even the final fight is fairly brief. I actually found The Incredible Hulk a bit more satisfying as a superhero film.

The “meh” continued with Indiana Jones and Hellboy II. I enjoyed them, but neither knocked my socks off. I do think that public reaction to Indiana Jones was a bit harsh in that everyone seemed to be anticipating another Raiders of the Lost Ark rather than another Last Crusade. And all the indignation about “nuking the fridge” seemed more about trying to invent a new “jump the shark” meme than a legitimate criticism of a series that has always reveled in unbelievable moments. Back in the day, my dad complained mightily about Indiana Jones getting pulled under that truck in Raiders, and I recall similar audience reactions to Indy using a rubber raft to escape a crashing plane in Temple of Doom. The real problem with Crystal Skull was that damned crystal skull.

Another Lucasfilm release was Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which amounted to little more than a cash-grab culled from the weekly animated series. One thing that has become clear is that for as much bitching as we old-school fans do about the prequels, for today’s kids this is Star Wars, and they love it.

The other entry in the computer-animated space robot sweepstakes was WALL-E, which was a sheer delight, start to finish. I don’t go to enough movies to confidently claim that any of them is the “best of” a given year, but WALL-E was the best that I saw.

Long-time readers will of course know that I absolutely loved Speed Racer. And hey, there are at least two of us: Richard Corliss over at Time magazine put it on his top 10 list. It reminded me of another film I adored, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, not only because of its entirely green-screened sets and hyper-unreality, but because in both cases audiences just didn’t seem to care. A lot of folks who were perfectly okay with the likes of Transformers suddenly demanded complex plots and realistic characters from their popcorn flicks. Whatever. I think that blogger Chris Sims summed it up best when he chalked up its poor reception to people who actively hated joy.

Cloverfield was another movie made expressly for me. Despite my ongoing hassle with Hasbro over my duplicate Cloverfield monster, I really liked this modern take on the venerable giant monster movie subgenre.

I saw a few good comedies this year. Forgetting Sarah Marshall had a lot of good moments–especially the climactic Dracula puppet musical–but I could’ve done without having to see Jason Segal’s junk. Tropic Thunder was ridiculous fun, with Robert Downey Jr. once again the big draw, though no moment was funnier than one featuring Ben Stiller and his would-be adopted “son”. Despite my well-documented love of Tina Fey, I felt that Baby Mama went a bit flat, and wasn’t nearly as good as Mean Girls. Get Smart managed not to tread upon my affection for the original TV series, and I felt that both Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway acquitted themselves in the roles created by Don Adams and Barbara Feldon. Finally there was Burn After Reading, which alternated between hilarious and too weird for words.

Can’t say that there’s a lot I’m looking forward to in 2009, aside from the aforementioned Star Trek and Harry Potter (and it must be said that this is my least favorite story in the Potter series). Land of the Lost is on my radar, though the inclusion of Will Ferrell makes me wonder what they’re going for; at least it appears to include old-school Sleestak. Terminator: Salvation has my interest, if only because it’ll finally pay off the future war we’ve been promised since the original film. And the new Wolverine flick looks promising; while I don’t have the Wolverine love that most comics fans do, I’ll admit that Hugh Jackman was a lot of fun in the previous X-Men films. Oh, and Watchmen, assuming it actually comes out.

2007 At The Movies

January 7th, 2008 No comments

Time for my annual wrap-up of my previous year at the multiplex. Here’s the list of all 2007 releases I watched, two of which I saw on home video, and one (Juno) I just caught yesterday. Films are listed in terms of domestic box-office because I’m cribbing this from the yearly summary at Box Office Mojo.

  • Spider-Man 3
  • Transformers
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
  • 300
  • Ratatouille
  • The Simpsons Movie
  • Knocked Up
  • Enchanted
  • Ocean’s Thirteen
  • Beowulf
  • Juno
  • The Mist
  • Grindhouse
  • Hot Fuzz
  • Waitress
  • Dragon Wars

Wow, seventeen. That’s actually up five from last year. I saw seven of the top 10 films, two more than in 2006.

I found myself less annoyed by the moviegoing experience in 2007 than I had in previous years. In large part, that’s because the local theaters switched over to spiffy, new digital projection systems. I can’t and won’t debate the merits of these newfangled contrapulations; all I know is that everything I saw was both framed properly and in focus, so that in itself represents a huge over the previous film screening technology: lazy teenagers.

However, it bugs me that my dad is twenty minutes away from a huge, gorgeous Imax screen, even though he lives in Northwest Indiana, yet the nearest one to my house is over two hours away in Indianapolis. (300 in Imax was absotively frickin’ breathtaking.) I could take limited solace in the knowledge that digital projection now allows fancy schmancy 3-D movies like Beowulf to play the sticks, but still, going to the movies doesn’t feel like an event.

As for the flicks themselves, I don’t know that my increased attendance was any sign of their quality. More likely, it’s just because they released a bunch of films in the genres I enjoy.

I didn’t find the curse of the three-quels as egregious as many did. The third Pirates and Spider-Man were largely entertaining, though both certainly rattled on a good half hour too long.

Harry Potter delivered the goods when it came to adapting my favorite book in the series, but the popcorn flick I had the best time at was, of all things, Transformers. I attribute this to low expectations, as well as a lack of concern over whether it would stay true to a cartoon that was pretty shitty to begin with. Transformers was fun, silly and knew when to take its bow.

Of the animated fare, The Simpsons was agreeably humorous, while Ratatouille wound up being my one of my least favorite Pixar flicks. Not that it was anything less than good, but that I simply expect bigger things from them.

2007 was the year that I gave up on zombie films. I skipped 28 Weeks Later and I Am Legend. The “Planet Terror” section of Grindhouse was passable, but aside from Rose McGowan and her machine-gun leg, there wasn’t anything there that hadn’t been done–and done better–in at least half-a-dozen ghoulish apocalypse flicks over the past few years. At least it was better than the second half of Grindhouse, which sported not one, but two interminable women-in-a-bar scenes that, as my coworker aptly put it, sounded like four Quentin Tarentinos talking to each other. If the two films comprising Grindhouse had been 60-70 minutes apiece, the end result would’ve been much more fun than the flabby, self-indulgent mess it became.

On the comedy front, I thought Knocked Up was decent but overrated. Juno had a lot of great, quotable dialogue, but it did strike me as odd that everyone–not just Juno herself–talked like a precocious fortysomething. I thoroughly enjoyed the British buddy cop spoof Hot Fuzz, and fell in love with Amy Adams’ performance in Enchanted. Why the latter made only half as much as the ghastly horror that is Alvin and the Chipmunks is beyond my comprehension.

The year to come holds a great deal of potential. Some are already comparing it to 1982, the watershed for sci-fi/fantasy that brought us E.T., Star Trek II, Blade Runner, Tron and The Road Warrior. Certainly, there are some promising projects coming up: Cloverfield, Speed Racer, Iron Man, The Dark Knight (despite my misgivings about the Joker), Hellboy II, Star Trek, and of course, Indiana Jones.

See you at the movies!

2004 At The Movies

January 3rd, 2005 No comments

Last week, my friend Dave Lartigue sent me a list of the flicks he’d seen last year. Now, if you know Dave (and if you don’t, it’s your loss), you know that he does not, in general, like movies. So, it was perhaps no surprise that he’d only watched 11 films.

Inspired by his action, I compiled my own list, and found that I–someone who professes to love movies and who personally owns a ridiculous number of DVDs–had seen a mere 17 2004 releases. (Films which were initially released prior to 2004 aren’t represented on this list.) Here they are, in the order that they were issued:

  • The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (viewed on DVD)
  • Dawn of the Dead
  • 13 Going on 30 (viewed on DVD)
  • Hellboy
  • Mean Girls
  • Shrek 2
  • Dodgeball
  • Fahrenheit 9/11
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  • Spider-Man 2
  • Anchorman
  • Alien vs. Predator
  • Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
  • Ray
  • Team America: World Police
  • The Incredibles
  • Ocean’s Twelve

There was a time when I would have to defend myself for having gone to movies that  I strongly suspected would not be very good. In some cases, I did so with hope that the critics would be "wrong." (For example, I firmly believe that Starship Troopers was grossly misunderstood.) In other cases, it was simply to stay informed of what passed for sci-fi/fantasy at the multiplex. (Could I really discuss my loathing for Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes without having suffered it first hand?)

Apparently, the mocking of my peers has had some effect, as has the general deterioration of the filmgoing experience. Shoddy framing, poor focus and talkative audience members have all dimmed my enthusiasm for shelling out eight bucks to sit in a darkened room, especially now that I have a decent surround sound system at home. Hence, my list is much smaller than it has been in years past.

With the obvious exception of Alien vs. Predator, I seem to have broken the habit of knowingly subjecting myself to lousy flicks. Since I was choosier than usual this year, there’s really nothing on this list that I can truly say disappointed me. (I knew what I was getting with Shrek 2, 13 Going on 30 and Ocean’s Twelve. All of them had their charms, at least.)

Sky Captain, predictably, was my favorite film of the year. It’s as if someone drilled into my head, sucked out the contents, and loaded them into a projector. I got to see it again on the big screen a couple of weeks ago, at the Virginia in downtown Champaign. It’s a big, old movie house that had gone into disrepair until being rescued by the local park district, and it’s the sort of theatre in which Sky Captain would have played if it really had been released in 1938. I absolutely love every moment of this flick. It captures all of the awe and wonder I can still occasionally feel in front of the silver screen, with a pulp sensibility that I adore. I fail to understand the hatred that it’s encountered amongst some members of the geek community.

As for the others, Spider-Man 2 finally unseated the first two Christopher Reeve Superman adventures as the best superhero film ever, and the third Harry Potter was the first in that series that I could truly consider really good, as opposed to competent. Hellboy wasn’t quite as good as it could’ve been, but it laid a firm foundation for what I hope to be a superior sequel.

I enjoyed The Incredibles, though it’ll take a second viewing before I can properly assign it a place within the Pixar hierarchy. (I suspect that it will fall somewhere in the middle.) I’d already been exposed to a lot of deconstructionist superhero stories, so some of the humor wasn’t as fresh as it probably was for the mainstream audience. That said, it did show a refreshing amount of depth, including some interesting points about conformity vs. superiority. Does treating everyone as "special" do society a disservice? Buddy/Syndrome was a surprisingly complex and evil character: his gadgets could have allowed him to become a  legitimate superhero, yet he went on a murderous spree with the goal of pretending to be heroic. Elastigirl, rather than Mr. Incredible, was in my view the real star of the film, though that may be a Holly Hunter thing. Her cool in the face of danger (and sliding doors) was fun to watch!

A few decent comedies came out last year. Mean Girls was definitely a Tina Fey thing for me, but it had a good message and plenty of laughs. However, Dodgeball and especially Anchorman were outrageously stupid and thoroughly enjoyable. Anchorman‘s street
rumble between rival news teams is the most delirious, hilarious scene I’ve witnessed in a long time. (Steve Carell wielding a trident is an image that will stick with me!)

I’m not sure how to feel about Fahrenheit and Team America. I laughed a lot at the latter, but in hindsight feel that I may have missed the point. I initially viewed it as a parody of conservative wish-fulfillment, especially in way that Hollywood liberals were portrayed as quite literally conspiring to undermine America. However, later interviews with the filmmakers suggest that I may have misinterpreted their intentions. (Whether the film they made was the film they thought they made may still be up for debate.) Fahrenheit was effective, yet I wish that Moore could be a bit less of a self-promoter and a bit more honest with his work. Knowing that his enemies would pick apart every single word, he should’ve avoided the manipulative and misleading elements of his case. There’s plenty of real evidence of White House corruption without making any up.

So, that’s 2004. 2005 is looking promising. I hope to see at least 18 films this year!