171-173: ParaNorman, Cosmopolis, Skyfall

171: ParaNorman

With ParaNorman, animation company Laika has made themselves a force to be reckoned with. After the flawed, but charming Corpse Bride and the downright awesome Coraline they have shown that they can tackle grown-up while simultaneously entertaining young and old alike. ParaNorman fits perfectly within that description. This story about a young boy who can see the dead wandering around is a touching story about being different and embracing that ways that make us unique and interesting. It goes to places where you never thought it could go. It plays with your expectations and several times gives the audience something to think about. All the while we are treated to beautiful animation, perfect pacing and hilarious comedy. The pacing comes to the for when we are treated to quiet character moments followed by raucous action fun and never do the transitions feel jarring. The comedy is everywhere. From tiny moments between Norman and the ghosts to the zombie invasion in the village that suddenly takes a turn for the unexpected. I loved ParaNorman from start to finish. In fact, I felt this would be a special movie when I watched the first trailer. Highly recommended and a certain contender for my top ten for 2012.

172: Cosmopolis

David Cronenberg is more and more removing himself from the type of movies we have come to know him for. No more body horror for him, but something that resembles psychological horror. Earlier this year I watched A Dangerous Method, which was not a movie I could get behind (for whatever reason). Now it is Cosmopolis, a movie that I want to like so bad, but am having a hard time doing so. Cosmopolis, based on a novel by Don DeLillo, is about a young man who wants nothing more than a haircut. The problem is that his regular barber shop is on the other side of Manhattan and the streets are about to be overrun by protesters who want nothing more than to lynch our hero. This is because he is a very wealthy and successful investment banker and that makes him a prime target for them. On top of all that he sees his empire crumble in front of his eyes during the day. It is a strange journey on which he almost never leaves his limo and meets several people he has conversations with.

I stress this last bit, because most of Cosmopolis consists of conversations of the highest sort. Like A Dangerous Method, you really have to keep your attention with the film or else you will lose chunks of relevant (and sometimes not so relevant) dialogue. I like these kinds of movies where dialogue plays a big part, but it usually takes me a couple of viewings to grasp the whole picture. Can I recommend Cosmopolis? That’s a difficult question. It all depends on your willingness to have your ears do more of the work than your eyes. For the most past I like the direction Cronenberg has been going in the last few years (A History of Violence and Eastern Promises are brilliant movies), but I also wish he would once in a while go back to the more outlandish subjects he tackled in movies like The Fly and eXistenZ. Who doesn’t love some freakish body horror every so often?

173: Skyfall

James Bond has never been a slam dunk for me. I can appreciate the action sequences and the strange situations Bond finds himself in on a regular basis. But there always is a nagging resistance in the back of my mind that prevents me from loving these movies the way a lot of other people do. This new incarnation has been up and down for me. I liked Casino Royale, but that was more due to the bold turn the series took. I was stunned that I was incredibly bored by Quantum of Solace. Now we have the third Daniel Craig James Bond movie, titled Skyfall, and it falls somewhere in between these two earlier installments. I liked Skyfall, I truly did, but I constantly got the feeling that we have seen it all before. How many times have we seen a list of secret agents get into the wrong hands? How many times have we seen people hacking into computers to get their way? How many times have we seen the bad guy be captured (willing or not) to hedge some nefarious scheme? It has all been done before. Maybe this is because Bond has been around for fifty years by now and the stories run a little thin after all that time. As a spy thriller there is a lot to like about Skyfall. It is fast paced, funny at times, and full of drama that doesn’t actually involve Bond. As an entry in the Bond continuum I must this is one of the better entries, but as a movie in the free world among other movies I don’t count this as a great movie.

Advertisements

169-170: Tropic Thunder, Lawless

169: Tropic Thunder

Anyone who loves Vietnam war movies (or movies in general) owes it to themselves to watch Tropic Thunder, Ben Stiller’s hilarious spoof. Nothing is safe when Stiller gets his hands on it, it seems. Platoon, Apocalypse Now, the entire movie industry, everything gets its fair share of Stiller’s wrath. Because that’s primarily what Tropic Thunder is about: Stiller venting some cropped up frustration. His frustration with agents (Matthew McConaughey), producers (hilariously despicable Tom Cruise), directors (ever funny Steve Coogan) and most definitely the stars. He doesn’t shield himself from his own wrath. His character is a stupid action star, who decided he wanted an Oscar and played a retarded man in a misguided movie called Simple Jack, for which he is admonished by multiple Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus (an obvious jab at Russell Crowe), who himself decided to turn himself into a black man to get ready for his next role. I have watched Tropic Thunder several times now and it doesn’t cease to entertain me. There is so much to love here. So many great lines to quote (“I’m a lead farmer, motherfucker!”). I also recommend everybody to watch the brilliant making of documentary Rain of Madness, a parody of Hearts of Darkness, the fabulous documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now. Tropic Thunder is one of those rare comedies that work on many levels: it is incredibly funny, painfully insightful and even surprisingly dramatic at times. I urge everybody to see it.

170: Lawless

John Hillcoat’s The Road, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, was one of my favorite movies from 2009. It showed me that this director was capable of creating a world that is terrifyingly real and menacing. Next he would go on to direct an extraordinary project: a short film based on the video game Red Dead Redemption, coincidentally one of the best video game experiences I have ever had. It is therefore not surprising that I was very anxious to see what Hillcoat would do next. It turned out it would be Lawless, a movie about the infamous Bondurant brothers (Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Jason Clarke), a notorious gang of bootleggers who ran their operation in the mountains of Franklin County, Virginia during the Prohibition. That is, until Deputy Charles Rakes (Guy Pearce) turned up to clean the area. Supposedly Lawless is based on a true story about these three brothers who used the Prohibition to carve out a niche for themselves. This sounds noble, but in reality they were of course ruthless criminals when push came to shove. So were the law enforcement officials, who didn’t hesitate to crack some skulls to get their point across. Hillcoat doesn’t shy away from the violence these people have to perpetrate and endure and Lawless is because of that not stuff for viewers with a weak stomach. It is all framed beautifully and undeniably the work of a visionary director. There are, however, some holes in the story, but those didn’t really bother me that much. What compelled me were the excellent performances by just about the entire cast. This is by no means Hillcoat’s best movie (I have not yet seen The Proposition), but it is also not the worst movie of the year.

> IMDb

168: Argo

Mark Twain once said: “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Words that Hollywood has lived by since the invention of cinema. You always have to be aware of the dramatization of actual events when it comes to their depictions in the movies (or whatever other form of entertainment). It turns out director Ben Affleck has taken this sensibility to heart with his new movie Argo, which is based on the actual events surrounding a hostage situation that took place in 1980 Iran 1980 involving American citizens with a few twists and turns added to the story for extra impact.

Argo tells the story of an incredibly daring mission to get a number of Americans out of Iran by pretending to produce a science fiction movie. Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA operative who comes up with the actual plan, which is just slightly more feasible than the original CIA plan, which involved bicycles. Tony enlists the help from visual effects genius John Chambers (John Goodman) and washed-up producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to create a believable fake movie production. Mendez goes to Iran with all of his movie stuff to make contact with the six Americans and make sure they get out safe. How he does that I am not going to tell you, of course.

There is a fine line between exploitation or adding and using content to ‘complete’ a story. Screenwriter Chris Terrio found a balance between the truth and fiction that feels seemless. A lot of what happens in Argo is true and it feels like it. At the end of the movie there is a montage composed of photos from the actual events compared to stills from the movie. The attention to detail is astonishing and is sure to nab some Oscar nominations next year. When it comes to the happenings in Iran the movie is dead serious. There is no joking around here when it comes to the actual kidnapping of the Americans and the escape of the six others. The fact that Argo has been called a comedy is therefore ludicrous to me. That doesn’t mean Argo isn’t funny, on the contrary.

But the funny stuff happens primarily on American soil, at home. The scenes with Goodman and Arkin are nothing short of hilarious. These guys know the business they are portraying by heart and aren’t afraid to take a piss at it. Great stuff from two great actors. Argo is actually the perfect movie to display the power of cinema. The mission in the movie centered around the production of a movie, a fake one, which shows that cinema has the power to create fantasies even when it isn’t actually a movie. The mere thought of a movie can make people dream (as we see in one of the final scenes).

The other way Argo displays the power of cinema is the fact that if you are not up to speed on what actually happened during this mission (like I was) you are most like to not notice the seams where fact and fiction are sewn together. Even when the stakes become very high and the movie veers a little bit too much into Hollywood territory, you still think that this could be the truth, because the rest was so truthful (which it sometimes wasn’t). I believe Argo is one of the best movies to display this power in several ways and it is a damn fine thriller on top of all that.

> IMDb

167: Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope

I’m a geek, a nerd, a fanboy, or whatever you want to call it. I am not ashamed of it, nor should I be. Some people like other things and I like Star Wars. However, I have never been to the San Diego Comic-Con. I have been to Star Wars Celebration VI, so that cancels out some of that shame. The annual San Diego Comic-Con functions as a sort of sanctuary for people like me: people who like things other ‘normal’ people might frown upon. Morgan Spurlock’s documentary Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope provides a glimpse into the world of Comic-Con, a world that is totally incomprehensible for many.

A word of warning: this is in no way a historical record of the San Diego Comic-Con. Some history is provided at the beginning and a comment may be included here and there about the old days, but that’s all you’re going to learn about the Con itself. This is a love letter to the people attending the convention and not the convention itself.

In Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope we follow several people who attended San Diego Comic-Con in 2010. There is the veteran salesman from Mile High Comics who laments the change in focus from comics to entertainment in general at the convention. Then there is the costume builder who wants to show off her newest creations based on video game Mass Effect. Two aspiring comic artists travel to San Diego to try their luck at landing a job with a comics publisher. And finally a young couple of which the male half has a surprise for his girlfriend. We see how these people go about their days at the convention in search of whatever they are looking for.

Spurlock paints a loving picture of Comic-Con. He obviously likes the convention and he wants other to do so as well. He enlists a great number of people (famous and non-famous) to provide context in front of a white screen. They tell you the convention is a great experience for everybody there and that you can actually be yourself (or dress up as somebody else) without feeling you have to check yourself at every moment. Having been to Star Wars Celebration I can certainly sympathize with that sentiment. It is a wonderful experience to not have to check yourself at the door and finally geek out for three or four days. Of course, in a perfect world these would not have to be necessary, but we’re not entirely there yet.

There is one small complaint I have for Spurlock (who actually doesn’t appear at all). There is not enough of the documentary. At nearly ninety minutes I feel some of the people we follow don’t get enough room to tell their story. For example, the story about the comics seller who has to contend with a change in climate at the convention is a very interesting one. The convention has been focusing a lot more on movie and television promotion and less and less on what the convention was built on: comics. Sales have been declining and with the emergence of digital comics it would be interesting to see how that story played out. Maybe something someone can take on as a subject for a future documentary?

On a whole I really enjoyed Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, although I don’t really understand the title. There is not all that much Star Wars in the movie to begin with and the title feels more like pandering than something inspired. Don’t let that deter you from watching this fine documentary, though. Maybe someday I will have the opportunity to attend a San Diego Comic-Con, until then Phoenix Comic-Con will do.

> IMDb

166: Wreck-It Ralph

When I saw the trailer for Wreck-It Ralph earlier this year I was instantly intrigued. As a gamer I don’t think about what happens when I turn off my Xbox, just as I hadn’t thought about the lives of my toys before watching Toy Story. In a way Wreck-It Ralph could be called Game Story. It turns out the games we play (and played) at the arcade were actually inhabited by the very game characters we control. One of them is Wreck-It Ralph, the arch nemesis of Fix-It Felix. Ralph is a Donkey Kong-like character who climbs on top of buildings to destroy it and to be thrown off at the end of the game. After years of being the bad guy (or as they say in bad guy therapy: “You may be a bad guy, but that doesn’t mean you are a bad guy.”) Ralph decides he has had enough.

One of the things I was curious about was the amount of references the makers of Wreck-It Ralph would put into their movie. It turns out there are quite a lot at the beginning of the movie. It is a virtual who’s-who of characters and as a gamer I am sure to go back and see which are represented. A really great trick in the animation is the way the 8-bit characters are animated. Their jerky motions are really great (though it is strange that Felix and Ralph move normally, hmmm). While there is a lot to see at the start the references start to fade in favor of something else: story and character. Wreck-It Ralph is a great movie that tells kids that everybody is meant to do what they are good at. If that means you are to be the bad guy, you should do it with all your heart. It is good to aspire to be better at what you do, but know what you are good at.

Well, with that said, this is in no way a preachy movie. The message is there, but never in the foreground. What is in the foreground is a finely animated adventure movie full of comedy, fast-paced action and insightful character drama. For instance, Ralph is helped along the way by a cute girly avatar called Vanellope, voiced by Sarah Silverman. She wants to be a racer so bad, but because she has a glitch in her programming she isn’t allowed to do so. She has to overcome her handicap to become what she dreams of. Ralph and Vanellope strike up a friendship that will help them realize what’s out there for them. The same goes for Fix-It Felix (perfectly voiced by 30 Rock‘s Jack McBrayer). He has always been this good guy character, but he never realized what that meant to Ralph. Everybody gains a level of understanding about each other. Something a lot of people could learn something from.

> IMDb

162-165: Magic Mike, Haywire, Iron Fists, Nemo

162: Magic Mike

During the production of Haywire director Steven Soderbergh struck up a conversation with one of his stars Channing Tatum. It turned out Tatum had quite a history. When he was a young guy he used to earn his living stripping on stage in front of hundreds of screaming women. This intrigued Soderbergh and he decided to turn Tatum’s story into a movie, something Tatum was all too happy to be a part of. Tatum chose to play himself in the movie. Mike (Tatum) is a young stripper who is very good at his job, but he really wants more out of his life. He likes to design furniture, for instance. One day he meets Adam (Alex Pettyfer) and makes it his mission to induct him into the wild life of stripping. The boy turns out to be something of a talent. All the while Mike is working with his boss Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) to open a new bar in Miami, where supposedly the real money can be made. There are some entanglements with Adam’s sister and of course everything goes sour in the end. Well, let’s just say this is not a movie one watched for the story. It is like Top Gun for women. It is fairly safe to say they watch Magic Mike for the performances of the men, not the intricacies of the plot. I am not entirely the best person to judge the performances, but I can recognize that there is a high level of competence on display there. It helps that Tatum has some experience in the matter. Magic Mike is enjoyable if male stripping is your thing.

163: Haywire

Steven Soderbergh knows how to direct people with limited acting prowess. Look at Out of Sight, one of my favorite movies ever, and you will see Jennifer Lopez acting her heart out like never before or again. The same goes for Gina Carano in Haywire, Soderbergh’s first foray into the pure action movie genre. Carano used to be a professional fighter, but when Soderbergh saw her do her thing he wanted her in this movie. A wise choice, because what he needed in this movie was somebody who knows how to fight and make it look believable and Carano is not somebody you want to get into an argument with. She may be beautiful, but she will rip you to shreds if need be. She takes on Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender and several others and every time you will be on the edge of your seat. Soderbergh frames everything in a very matter-of-fact way which lends a frantic reality to the movie. In addition to the action the movie is also surprisingly slow and introspective. That surprised me and reminded me of Soderbergh’s excellent thriller The Limey. There is a beautiful restraint to Haywire. The story may be fairly forgettable, but the action sequences and characters will be remembered for a long time.

164: The Man with the Iron Fists

Sometimes a person’s obsession should stay behind closed doors. A shining example of this is RZA’s obsession with kung fu movies and his directorial debut The Man with the Iron Fists. RZA (or Robert Fitzgerald Diggs) worked with Quentin Tarantino on the Kill Bill movies because of his seemingly limitless knowledge of kung fu movies and the sound effects used in these movies. It is this connection with Tarantino that undoubtedly made The Man with the Iron Fists a possibility, because I can’t think of a single other reason why this movie would have been made. Who would give a first-time director a big pile of money to direct his own debut screenplay and star in it himself? Nobody, unless you have people like Tarantino and Eli Roth (Hostel) backing you. This would of course not have been a problem if the movie in question had been good, which it is not. The Man with the Iron Fists is a jumbled ultra-violent mess with a lot of squandered potential. There are some great ideas here, which, in the right hands, would have made for a great tribute to a movie genre a lot of people love. The truth is, however, that a lot of the movies in the kung fu genre aren’t any good and The Man with the Iron Fists belongs to that group.

165: Finding Nemo 3D

Finding Nemo is my favorite Pixar movie. It has been for years. Toy Story 3 came close to dethroning Finding Nemo, but little details kept that movie from taking the top spot. After all these years Nemo is still a flawless movie. It flows perfectly from beginning to end and never veers from its path. It presents some of the best characters created for an animated movie (Bruce in particular). I still crack up at the same jokes as years ago, I still choke up at the same moments and I have seen Finding Nemo probably dozens of times since its release. Now that I have aged a little with the movie other things come into play. Since then I have become a dad twice and now I view it more through the eyes of Marlin, not Nemo. I recognize his reluctance to let his precious kid go, because that’s how I sometimes feel and then my oldest goes off and amazes me with everything he is capable of. It is hard to realize that Finding Nemo will be ten years old next year. It is as stunning as ever with its vibrant colors and beautiful compositions. Now, in 3D, I got to experience it again on the big screen with my kid who had only seen it on the small screen. He loved it… twice. The 3D didn’t really add that much to the movie. It was very subtle and never as eye-popping as it could have been. I think that sometimes the creators of these 3D editions could go a little further, but I guess they are being conservative after all the backlash in recent years.

Magic Mike @ IMDb
Haywire @ IMDb
The Man with the Iron Fists @ IMDb
Finding Nemo @ IMDb

161: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

I love sushi. I have eaten lots of it during the years. I have eaten sushi in Tokyo and I have visited the Tsukiji Fish Market where just about every piece of sushi in that area comes from. If I had my way the secret of sushi would stay with me and me alone so I can enjoy it again and again for the rest of my life. Well, let’s not get carried away here. I was a little bit afraid of watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi, because it was surely going to tell me the sushi I have been eating over the years has been totally inferior and I have more work to do in finding the perfect sushi. As it turns out even Jiro doesn’t make the perfect sushi, if we are to believe him.

In Jiro Dreams of Sushi we get a rare look behind the scenes of one of the most (if not the most) prestigious sushi restaurants in the world. It seats only about ten people, the price tag is usually $300 a plate and you have to reserve a spot months in advance. Oh, did I mention it can be found in a subway station. Yeah, try that in New York. Jiro has been making his (almost) perfect sushi for seventy years now and isn’t thinking about retiring. He has his oldest son next to him (the other one got his own restaurant in Roppongi Hills) and a small army of devoted apprentices in the back to prepare everything for him according to the most precise measurements and quality demands.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a beautiful documentary about art. Not the kind of art we are used to referring. This is food art at its finest. Like the way the chef at the former El Bulli used to create pieces of art from food. Jiro does the same thing, albeit in a much less showy fashion. As is to be expected from a Japanese chef he doesn’t create garish dishes with tons of junk added to the sushi like so many people do here in the U.S. He makes nigiri, and nigiri only. A bit of perfectly cooked rice, a small dollop of wasabi, a slice of incredibly fresh fish and a lick of soy sauce. It’s mouthwateringly brilliant in its simplicity.

There is nothing in Jiro Dreams of Sushi that jumps out at you. As it should be. It is a documentary about an unassuming chef who lives to perfect his art. The movie reflects this in mesmerizing fashion. I was hooked for the entire runtime. Of course it helps that I love sushi and that I have been to some of the places shown in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, but that’s not all of it. This is a very well made documentary across the board. It is moving, it is funny, it is informative, it makes you want to go to Tokyo to book a table at Jiro’s restaurant to experience his sushi first-hand. The only negative element Jiro Dreams of Sushi has left me with is the perception that all the sushi I will eat for the rest of my life will probably never measure up to Jiro’s sushi.

> IMDb