209-210: Dark Knight Returns, Lethal Weapon

batman-the-dark-knight-returns

209: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1

With Batman: Under the Red Hood and Batman: Year One DC and Warner Bros have proven that they are able to translate their most famous property into great animated features. Their latest entry in the animated Batman series is an adaptation of Frank Miller’s legendary graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns. And once again they have done the caped crusader proud, because The Dark Knight Returns is fantastic. In fact, this is the first of two parts based on this material (the next one will be released in 2013). In part one we deal mostly with the resurgence of Bruce Wayne as Batman, the rise of the Mutants and the birth of a new Robin. Frank Miller wrote a compelling story about getting older and despite the odds going above and beyond duty to clean the city up and Bob Goodman (not a new name to the DC Universe) took that story and distilled a wonderful screenplay out of it. It is a more condensed version and it moves like gangbusters. It is compelling from start to finish and it will leave you wanting for more when you’re done. I for one can’t wait for the next part to be released.

lethal-weapon

210: Lethal Weapon

Lethal Weapon is a true modern classic. Along with Die Hard it represents some of the best genre filmmaking from the ’80s and I absolutely adore it. I return regularly to the adventures of Riggs and Murtaugh to see how a buddy cop movie should be made. Danny Glover and Mel Gibson work exceptionally well together in a thriller that never really stops to take a breather. Lethal Weapon works so well because we care about these characters. Martin Riggs is a suicidal cop who has to deal with the death of his wife and he is not doing a very good job. He is constantly on the verge of doing something to himself and his reluctant partner Roger Murtaugh doesn’t really need the hassle of babysitting Riggs. It’s the moments that Riggs has to deal with his problems that make the movie. Especially the scene when Riggs is sitting on the couch with his gun and the right moment Bugs Bunny is heard in the background saying “Merry Christmas!” is a perfect piece of acting and directing. And later there is the confrontation between Riggs and Murtaugh after Riggs jumps off a building that truly cements our sympathy for these characters. That scene will leave you breathless. With our sympathy firmly in place the rest of the outrageous story can unfold and we are there every step of the way with these guys. That’s what makes this one of the best buddy cop movies out there, if not one of the best movies ever made. It certainly is very high on my list of favorite movies ever.

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.

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

126: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

What if you had to eat sardines for the rest of your life? You would start to invent some machine to change your fate, right? And Flint Lockwood happens to be an inventor who has been thinking up stuff his whole life. Shoes with laces that don’t come undone, the remoteless television, ratbirds and now the Flint Lockwood Diatonic Super Mutating Dynamic Food Replicator or FLDSMDFR, for short. This contraption is capable of creating anything that is considered food. From hamburger to steaks, from ice cream to spaghetti with meatballs. Exactly the thing a sardine-ridden island needs, right?

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is as quirky as the premise make it seem. This is an animated movie without boundaries and I love it. Cloudy is like nothing I had seen before. At first it was a little unsettling. The characters are very cartoony, the colors are so bright it almost hurts your eyes and the story is so out there you really need to rewire your brain to make sense of it. Once you have done that you can let the wacky nature of Cloudy wash over you. Phil Lord and Chris Miller based their screenplay on a children’s book of the same name by Judi Barrett, but did not adopt its visual style. They went with a very different look, a look I actually prefer over the book.

I have now seen Cloudy numerous times, because my kids love it so much. While other movies have the tendency to become annoying after twenty or so viewings, Cloudy doesn’t seem to do that. With every viewing (mostly from the corner of my eye while doing other stuff) I discover new jokes, visual details, and other brilliant bits that escaped me on all those earlier viewings. It is a virtual smörgåsbord of hidden references and snappy dialogue. It is not often that a movie can stay surprising for such a long time.

While being incredibly funny Cloudy is also a great morality tale for the youngsters (and old folk) out there. It teaches them to respect and admire that which you have over what you desire. Flint is so occupied with creating this brilliant new future for his community that he starts to neglect his relationship with his father, whose business almost goes belly up due to Flint’s inventions. And it teaches kids that being yourself is always better than presenting yourself as something you are not, as Anna Faris’ Sam finds out. There is a beautiful layer of wise truths to be found underneath all that happens in Cloudy. I heartily recommend Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs to anyone who hasn’t seen it and to anyone who has seen it I say, go revisit it. You will not be disappointed.

> IMDb

121: Brave

Pixar has been a part of the Disney Corporation since 2006. Before that they worked under the understanding that they could do whatever it wanted, Disney would show their movies to the world and they’d split the profits somehow. It was a beautiful alliance that brought us gems like Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. If you would ask John Lasseter, Pixar’s mastermind, if their independence has changed since Disney’s takeover he would probably tell you that it is still intact. But Pixar’s latest effort, Brave, tells a different story.

Brave is a Disney movie with every fiber of its being. We have a plucky princess, Merida, who wants nothing more than to break the mold. She is expected to take on a husband and lead a life of relative servitude, while she just wants to ride in the woods on the back of her trusty steed shooting arrows at targets. This of course upsets her mother and the tensions rise. Merida runs away and seeks advice from a mysterious witch who provides her with a spell that will perhaps change Merida’s mother’s mind a bit. Well, it changes quite a bit more than that and a race against time is a fact. Merida needs to find a way to get her mother back and in the meantime erase a black page in Scotland’s history.

Don’t get me wrong, Brave is a fun movie to watch. It is a stunning display of the level of proficiency the people at Pixar possess. The detail in the rendering of the Scottish Highlands is astonishing. You can almost feel the moss on the rocks. I did not see it in 3D, but it was digital projection and it was glorious. Two thumbs up right there. The rest, not so much. The character animation is decent, but incredibly cartoony. It felt like Brave could have used a little less slapstick to offset the strange magical occurrences later in the movie. That’s where Merida’s little brothers come in. They are triplets, but they serve no larger purpose than to be comic relief with a little involvement at a late stage in the movie. There are solely there to create more merchandise for the Disney Stores to sell. A lot in Brave feels like padding for a script that was actually just about an hour long.

Brave reminded me a lot of other Disney properties. There is a great tradition of Disney princesses trying to change their fate (a word used a lot in Brave to hammer the point home) to create a better life for themselves. Ariel, Jasmine, Mulan, Pocahontas, all of them strong female role models. There is nothing wrong with that, and if Brave had been a strict Disney production, like Tangled, I would have probably settled for that. but Lasseter’s Pixar has set the bar so ridiculously high for themselves that a production like Brave just falls short. Like Cars 2 before it, Brave is just subp-ix-ar (sorry, pun intended).

What is the cause of this gradual decline in Pixar’s quality? I think it is age. When Lasseter and his people took the idea of Toy Story and made it into the phenomenon it became, nobody knew when the sky would be the limit. Lasseter gathered a brilliant group of directors around him (Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird, Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich) and threw a challenge in their lap: “Create worlds we have never seen before, even though we have no idea whether we can make it happen”. We know what came of that and we are forever grateful for that. It made other studios step up their game, which made the world look at animation differently.

Now the men and women who made Pixar what it is are starting to fan out to other challenges and they seem to be taking a piece of the magic with them and that breaks my heart. For fifteen years we have been eagerly expecting every new release Pixar was preparing and now that seems to not be the case anymore, at least for me. As much as I liked Monsters Inc., I am not really looking forward to Monsters University. Even a fourth Toy Story doesn’t really appeal to me after the way they finished Toy Story 3. I am very worried that Disney’s influence is becoming a little too dominant within the hallowed halls of Pixar. Does that mean you shouldn’t go watch Brave? No, enjoy it for what it is and hope Pixar gets their act together in the future.

> IMDb

069: Despicable Me

In my memory Despicable Me was a minor entry in the ever expanding world of animated movies. It struck me as a movie full of low-brow comedy and lesser animation. Well, sometimes your memory can play tricks on you, because Despicable Me is an excellent movie and watching it again brought back everything I liked about it.

I think I got messed up in the head because of the time it was released. It came hot on the heels of brilliant movies like Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon, and the animation looked a lot like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs with its bright colors and exaggerated character models and surroundings. I guess my brain just couldn’t handle any more great animation at that moment.

In Despicable Me everything revolves around Gru, a mastermind in villainy, although his practices have stooped to the level of pestering children and not, say, stealing the Egyptian pyramids and replacing them with inflatable ones. That questionable honor goes to Vector, the next great super-villain in town. Gru can’t stand this, obviously, and he devices a diabolical plan to… steal the Moon. For this he needs a shrink ray that happens to be in the possession of Vector. Gru needs to find a way to enter Vector not-so-secret lair and steal the shrink ray. Three orphaned girls selling cookies seem to be the perfect ruse, but then something strange happens: Gru starts to have paternal feelings for the girls. Feelings that could bring the whole operation to a shrieking halt.

There you have it, the basic plot for Despicable Me. There was even more that I didn’t even mention. There are the hoards of ‘evil’ minions who stomp around Gru’s lab. They are actually quite violent toward each other and absolutely hilarious in the process. And then there is Gru’s mother (Julie Andrews), who instilled an enormous feeling of inadequacy in Gru, something he could never be able to overcome. And there is the orphanage run by an evil woman (Kristen Wiig). As you see, there is a lot going on in Despicable Me, but directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud manage to direct a logical path through all the mayhem and create a lot of heartwarming moments along the way. Center stage is reserved for Steve Carell, who as Gru goes out of his way to create one of his funniest characters ever. His voice is unmistakably Carell, but the faux Eastern Europe accent makes Gru into a caricature of himself, just as a super villain ought to be. But he also creates enough tender sides to Gru to make us root for him and his transformation into a loving father for his ‘daughters’. Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Julie Andrews, Will Arnett and Kristen Wiig take on supporting roles.

All the vibrant colors and breathtaking action sequences are a sight to behold, but those would be for nought if there wouldn’t be a heart in the story. Luckily Despicable Me has that in spades. Take for instance the scene where Gru reluctantly reads a bedtime story to the girls. This scene is handled with such tenderness. It is not used for cheap laughs, but to build Gru into a multi-dimensional character instead of the two-dimensional villain he chooses to be at the beginning of the movie. I am so glad I decided to revisit Despicable Me. If only because my kids are now in love with the minions.

> IMDb