Friday, December 30, 2011

Five Movies You Should Have Rented Instead of "Just Go With It"

                Yesterday, Redbox released their 2011 movie awards winners.  Basically, they honored all the movies that were rented the most.  Needless to say, they suck like a Dyson vacuum.  I bet I could go on forever about the whole lot (Kevin James, really!?!?), but one “award” in particular is extraordinarily disturbing.  The disastrously pathetic Sandler/Aniston “comedy” Just Go with It was the most rented movie of 2011 at Redbox kiosks.  It is at this point I await the pending Apocalypse and present the following list of 5 funny movies you should have rented.
Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
5. The King’s Speech
                I know what you are thinking: But, A.F. Critic, what is funny about the future King of England overcoming a speech impediment to rally his country?  Well, curious reader, the funniest part was easily the fact that it won Best Picture this past year over The Social Network, Black Swan, Inception, Toy Story 3, (list continued in another post).  Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are absolutely fantastic as the King & his speech therapist respectively and their chemistry is impeccable but everything else is anywhere from average to lackluster.  But it’s the Best Picture Oscar winner regardless plus anything is better than watching Sandler chase Brooklyn Decker in Hawaii or wherever the film is set.
Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures
4. Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World
                Michael Cera is his typical self in this mega-hyped and tragically under-seen hilarious ode to geek-dom.  Edgar Wright’s ridiculous attention to detail is the true highlight with the video game sound effects and the numerical symmetry with the exes.  Each of the fights is unique and most of them are fun to watch.  One or two the fights are a little off and the final 10-15 minutes don’t exactly fit correctly in the scheme of things.  But Scott Pilgrim reading the phone book is eons more entertaining than Sandler doing whatever the heck it is with Aniston.
Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures
3. Get Him to the Greek
                Another under-seen flick, this pseudo-sequel to the wonderful “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” follows Aldous Snow (Brand) as he is drug halfway around the world by record label underling Aaron (Hill).  Along the way, they learn the true meanings of life and love, not to mention having the craziest party with P. Diddy accompanied by Dexy’s Midnight Runners.  The light-hearted moments can get a little too much at times, but not nearly as false as just about every tender or warm moment in every Adam Sandler movie in existence.
Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures
2. Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stopped Worrying and Love the Bomb
                It is at this point that I take a 90 degree turn to before most of us were born.  Let’s face it, comedy today is truly lacking any bite.  Most movies recently have been overhyped and unfunny *cough* “Bridesmaids” *cough* so let’s go back to the Cold War.
                Royal Air Force Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake (Sellers) has just learned of the plot by Brig. Gen. Ripper (Hayden) to start nuclear war with the Soviet Union.  President Merkin Muffley (Sellers) & Gen. Turgidson (Scott) led the American team of suits determined to stop the attack.  As the end grows nigh, Dr. Strangelove (Sellers, again), a former scientist for Nazi Germany, creates the dream scenario that appeals to all the men in the room.  What the audience is given is a 95 minute dark romp written & directed by Stanley Kubrick.  The laughs don’t start right away, but your patience is greatly rewarded, especially once the dear Dr. arrives.  “Dr. Strangelove” probably would have a similar budget to the average Sandler movie if made today, but the return on investment is much greater with the former.  Sandler tried smart comedy before but you could have cared less so the garbage will continue until further notice.
Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers
1. Blazing Saddles
                Back when a white guy could get away with racial humor, Mel Brooks created the town of Rock Ridge.  Then, Brooks created Hedy Lamarr (Hedley!), a stooge for the railroad industry trying to destroy the town for an easier route for trains.  How does he intend to do it: By appointing the son of freed slaves who works on the railroad as Mayor, invoking fear amongst the townspeople, causing them to flee and the town to be abandoned & destroyed.  The plan is flawless, right?  Right?
                Brooks creates a wondrous comedy that bucks, reinforces & ridicules stereotypes all at the same time.  The laugh rate after the opening credits is high but only gets higher as the movie goes on, climaxing in one of the most ludicrous & hilarious third acts that you will ever see. 

Equal parts offensive, hilarious & riveting, Blazing Saddles is the kind of movie Sandler would only dream of making.  Taking chances has never been his style, which is true for most actors out there actually.  But Sandler, after the failure of Punch Drunk Love & Funny People, seems to fully understand the wants & desires of his core audience.  For the foreseeable future, Sandler will continue down this path of below the bottom of the barrel humor that the Heartland (and a few of my dearest friends) will fall for hook, line & sinker everytime.  May God have mercy on us all.

*I do not own any of the photos above.  They are used for entertainment purposes only.*

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Poster courtesy of Sony/Columbia Pictures (via  All rights reserved.  I do not own this image.  For entertainment purposes only.

                When a movie based on a book or a foreign language movie (or both) comes out, you usually end up with a dilemma.  Do you go to Netflix and try to find it before you go out to see the new one or do you go in cold?  Last night, I went in cold.  It turned into the second best decision I made all year.
                Millennium Magazine’s Mikael Blomkvist (Craig) just lost a high profile libel case against billionaire businessman Hans-Erik Wennerström, whom Blomkvist accused of various illegal financial accounts & activities.  Soon afterwards, he is contacted by another billionaire, Henrik Vander (Plummer), to write a family memoir, and possibly solving a 40-year family mystery, in exchange for cash and significant evidence against Wennerstrӧm.  Meanwhile, Lisbeth Salander (Mara) is working ultra-undercover for a security company also investigating .Wennerstrӧm.  Because of severe troubled childhood, she is constantly looked over by her legal guardian and an overbearing social worker.  Eventually, Vander brings the two of them together to investigate the family.
                Based on the first of a posthumous trilogy by Swedish magazine writer Steig Larsson, “Dragon Tattoo” is mainly a mystery novel expertly adapted to the screen by Oscar winner Steven Zaillian and director extraordinaire David Fincher.  Zaillian & Fincher wisely and brilliantly use every frame of every second of the movie to squeeze in as much detail as possible in the 155 minute film.  They also have enough faith that the audience to allow the movie to slowly unfold before accelerating to a comfortable pace in the third act and epilogue.  That’s right, an epilogue in a modern American motion picture.
                Craig, Plummer and the ever present Stellen Skarsgård are all wonderful in the film but the star, revelation, eye-opener, whatever you want to call it is Rooney Mara as “The Girl”.  From the second she walks in, she takes over the screen unlike any actress I’ve seen in quite a while.  And best of all, “The Girl” and Mara’s performance, just like the story, evolve over the full running time.  Mara will devastate you in the epilogue.
                Now two warnings: The movie is rated R for a reason.  There are some graphic images and sequences throughout.  What did you expect from the guy who brought you “Se7en”?  Also, I consider this the ultimate anti-date movie.  Only bring someone to this if there is no existing or no further romantic prospects or if you are bound to each other by legal documentation.  This movie is dark & dreary & a little demented, so just fair warning.
                When all is said and done, “Dragon Tattoo” is a wonderful cinematic experience on top of being just a nearly perfectly executed motion picture.  Fincher proves once again that he can & will shoot anything and shoot it best.  Anyone who loves characters and acting will absolutely fall for Rooney Mara and her Lisbeth Salander.  In conclusion, I have one request: Let’s see Tom Hooper direct a movie like this.

***** (out of 5 stars)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Misson: Impossible Ghost Protocol

                There are few “four-quels” out there in the film industry.  There are fewer which I can say I saw on four different formats (VHS, drive-in movie theater, regular movie theater, IMAX).  But I doubt there are any others where the fourth in the series is the best of the bunch.
                Ethan Hunt (Cruise), shortly after being "released" from a Serbian prison, is given the task of stopping a madman from starting nuclear war between the USA and Russia.  On his team, the only IMF members remaining: the sexy, potential love interest (Paula Patton), the jokester utility man (Simon Pegg), and the agent-turned-desk occupier (Jeremy Renner).  Together, they must stop the destruction of mankind.  As cliché as the plot sounds, there are numerous twists that pop out of nowhere.  Pegg may be the best comedic sidekick in the movies today.  Patton is entirely capable of being the required tough yet feminine agent.  It is Renner, however, who is given the short straw.  His character is never really fully fleshed out as something other than the IMF secretary pushed into the limelight.
                But the real stars of the show are first-time live-action director Brad Bird and his visuals.  Bird showed the world seven years ago with “The Incredibles” that he can direct action with the best of them.  But he is nearly as talented with humans as he is with Apple computers.  The second act features one of the most delicate but tense & exciting action centerpieces in any movie I’ve ever seen.  The interception of codes in Dubai also features one of the most breathtaking action scenes ever created.  You will know it when you see it.
                However, there are times where you can tell this is Bird’s first live-action rodeo.  The most obvious spots are the quick cut, up close action shots.  Especially on the IMAX screen, the audience will have an extremely difficult time figuring out who is who on at least two occasions.  Also, the screenplay has a plot that could be 20-30 years old.  Nuclear war?  With Russia?  C’mon man!
                Finally, a warning.  First, let me say I love the Cinemark @ Pittsburgh Mills.  Wonderful place to watch a movie.  The IMAX theater there stinks.  It is way, way too loud in there.  I swear the floor shook at least 10 times and my wife’s ears are still ringing.  Also, it is too small.  Even if you sit in the back row, you still need to move your head from side to side in order to see the entire screen.  If IMAX is your choice, go to the more comfortable Waterfront instead.
                All that said, Ghost Protocol is an absolute blast.  Bird and Cruise are able to combine their talents to create this kinetic but very intelligent action flick.  This is the breath of fresh air that the U.S. box office needs.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

DVD Review: X-Men First Class

****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
                How can something be so flawless yet not be perfect?  Ponder that for a moment.
                Ever since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man hit it big in 2002, multiplexes have been flooded with any comic book character studios can get their hands on.  And now, nine & a half years later, some studios have decided that now is the time to restart the flimsy franchises after the success of the fantastic Christopher Nolan “Dark Knight” series, to be concluded next summer.  Also, next summer will be re-boots of Superman & Spiderman.  This past summer, the world got the Matthew Vaughn’s take on the X-Men.
                As a major fan of the two Bryan Singer films, I was worried.  Worried Vaughn would be less the talented Singer and closer to the hack Brett Ratner, who in 2006 created the abomination named “X-Men: The Last Stand”.  The opening scenes of “First Class” are similar to those of Singer’s original: Magneto’s origin.  The worry meter was through the roof.  Was this going to be Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho” all over again?  Luckily, an hour in, the worry meter had completely disappeared.
                X-Men: First Class is that rare big budget, blockbuster that actually tries to be something more than dumb eye candy.  Watching the story unfold and listening to the dialogue showed me that care was taken and time was used wisely in writing the screenplay.  But, most impressively, the visual effects are not wasted as loud and overblown spectacle like most similar movies.  My favorite moment is the sacrifice made by one of the characters about 2/3 of the way in the movie.  In the hands of most directors, the character would have been killed in extravagant fashion.  But Vaughn makes the decision to end this character’s life in a fashion that allows the audience to feel emotional.  Also, each era in which the movie takes place, the look resembles movies from that time.
                With all this love I am spreading for this movie, why not five stars?  Well, to put it simply, there is nothing in the movie that is spectacular.  The chemistry between McAvoy & Fassbender as the future Prof. X & Magneto is effective but only adequate.  None of the performances, from Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw to Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique to January Jones’ Emma Frost, ever reach great status.  Some love visual effects spectacles will be disappointed for the first hour.
                In the end, though, when the harshest thing you can say about a movie is there is nothing outstanding about it, you know something went right.  Matthew Vaughn, with this & Kick Ass on his resume, has proven that he has more talent in his right pinky finger than Michael Bay & Zack Snyder.  Can’t wait to see what he does next.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

In Defense of...Moulin Rouge (2001)

                The Nostalgia Critic made me do it.  If you don’t know who that is, firstly, shame on you.  Second, he is just your everyday, run-of-the-mill, single, borderline thirty Chicagoan (Chicagoite?).  Oh, and he produces videos every week vehemently criticizing, justly I may add, movies or television from our childhood, mostly from the 80’s & 90’s.  Well, last week, it happened.  He, along some collaborators to his site (, went after something that I truly enjoy.
                Released in the summer of 2001, Baz Luhrmann directed & co-wrote the third in his “Love Trilogy”, after Strictly Ballroom and Romeo & Juliet.  The story is fairly simple: At the turn of the 20th century, a young writer, Christian (McGregor), is looking to hit it big in Paris, only to have an opportunity fall through the ceiling in the form of a Bohemian troupe looking for a place to set up shop as well.  At a party at the Moulin Rouge, the young writer meets Satine (Kidman), a courtesan who desires to be an actress.  The owner, Zidler (Broadbent), has his eyes sent on making a boatload of money and Satine famous by convincing The Duke (Roxburgh) to invest in the place.  After many misunderstanding and hijinks, The Duke will invest in Christian’s story with Satine in the lead if he gets her and final story approval, with only Christian standing in his way.
                I will be the first to admit that the story is a little thin and flimsy.  Okay, those words aren’t strong enough.  Satine & Christian basically act like teenagers throughout.  Any little disagreement and they break apart.  There is more sneaking around between these two than in any Friends episode.  Villains in early Adam Sandler “comedies” aren’t as dumb as The Duke.  You’d swear he were the great-great grandfather of Sheldon Cooper he is so oblivious to the relationships of others.  And I won’t even start with the soap opera-esque finale.
                So why defend such bland and unmotivated storytelling?  Simple, I won’t.  Moulin Rouge is totally about the spectacle on the screen.  And I can prove it.  Watch the opening and closing shots.  Along the edge of the screen you see the silhouette of a conductor & his orchestra.  This shows the audience that the film is being show as if it were supposed to be a stage musical, where spectacle is a major component.  So, one (and I may be the only one) can say that the look of the movie is on equal footing with the story and not reduced to the background like most movies.
The glorious camerawork and sharp music video really adds to the pace, energy and enthusiasm of the musical numbers.  The use of mostly borrowed lyrics could have been a distraction but it somehow works.  As the movie goes on, the musical numbers become more elaborate & expertly produced leading up to the wondrous, yet clichéd & already spoiled ending.
So, I will easily concede that the story is juvenile & paint-by-numbers.  But to completely disregard the look and the impact on the film world this movie had is foolish.  It stands by its tagline: Truth (in that the story is quite lame). Beauty (Nearly every musical number is fantastic). Freedom (We can agree to disagree). Love (It truly is the greatest, whether lost or found).

Monday, December 5, 2011

Five Movies I Love More Now Than I Did When I Was Young

5.       Toy Story
I hear people all the time say, “Those cartoons are stupid and for kids only.”  On the surface, that may be true but Pixar, in the years and movies since, has proven that animation is not strictly child’s play.
I saw the first in theatres when I was 10 in the winter of 1995.  I have always entertained (and who hasn’t) the thought of your toys coming to life.  I watched as Woody’s jealousy got the best of him.  Then, with the realization of the need of a friend, Buzz and Woody are (spoiler alert!) able to escape the clutches of Sid and return into the warming arms (fine, cooled van) of Andy.
                Sounds simple that I enjoyed these movies years ago, so why do I love them now?  I had the privilege of seeing the 3-D re-release with Toy Story 2 in October 2009.  Two wonderful things I noticed this time around.  First, the brilliant Oscar-nominated screenplay.  The story, as cookie-cutter as it is, is nearly flawless.  Plus, there are more than a few jokes that only older viewers will get, such as the true meaning of “laser envy” and the brand name on the tool box in Sid’s room.
Second, of course, the awe & wonder brought about by the computer animation.  In some alternative universe, Pixar failed.  May God help those folks.

4.       E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial
We all dream of this: An alien is stranded on Earth, hunted by savage scientists for experimentation.  He - or if you listen to Spielberg, it – escapes and arrives in your open arms, where the two of you bond.  Your friendship is going perfectly; until of course the bond the two of you have becomes evident as the two of you really are bonded after the alien (spoiler alert) uses its finger as Neosporin® and the two of you contract a deadly virus, which (mega spoiler alert) almost kills you and kills him (fine, it).
Steven Spielberg’s pseudo-autobiographical tale (he can deny it all he wants) about the loneliness of childhood was for a long time the highest grossing movie of all time.  And it was not hard to see why.  As I grew older, I began to care more & more about these people.  You can just smell the Elliot’s desire to be loved and E.T.’s desire to love.  And the more I learned about the production – such as the fact that the farewell scene was the last scene filmed since the whole thing was filmed in order – the more magical it becomes.
3.       The Neverending Story
A movie funded by libraries (or so it seems), the American-debut of Wolfgang Petersen is a wondrous fantasy about a boy who loves to read.  Luckily, we mostly see the fantasy sequences surrounding a young warrior named Atreyu and his quest to save the Childlike Empress from the Nothing armed with nothing but a platinum selling album.  Based on a German novel of the same title, Die endlichte Geschichte proved once and for all that if you want American kids to read, don’t make a movie from a book that is barely available in a language they don’t understand to begin with, English.
Why exactly do I love this movie more?  Simply, the greater appreciation of the effects.  Watching the Rockbiter now still gives me chills. 
I don’t know, it’s late and I thought of the inclusion of this movie would be easy.  But I haven’t watched this in a few years and it could take pages to explain the story & why I love it.  Trust me, it’s great.
2.       Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
Based on the first Roald Dahl novel about the aforementioned children’s palace, Willy Wonka tells the fascinating true, rags-to-riches-to-cavities story (only one of those adjectives is true) of a humble boy who (spoiler alert) inherits a chocolate factory after winning a contest.  But unlike the book, there are chorus lines of Oompa Loompas, a major upgrade.
As I got older, some of the obvious plot holes arrived.  First, why do Charlie & Grandpa Joe drink the Fizzy Lifting Drinks?  Charlie Bucket, closet hippie or future rebel without a cause?  Second, speaking of Grandpa Joe, where did he get that chocolate bar?  Until he did that show-stopping number, he didn’t walk for 20 years.  Liar, liar pants on fire!  Finally, who green-lighted the song by Charlie’s mother?  Seriously, who?  Next time, try not to skip the song on the DVD.
So why do I love it more despite the above?  Two words: Gene. Wilder.  Next time you watch this, start with act three.  For those who can’t figure out where to start, go to the opening of the factory gates scene.  The somersault he performs is just the beginning.  Watch his face every chance you get.  One of the great comedic performances ever.
1.       Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Released in the summer before I turned three, this was a staple in my house from the time my family could get it from the local video store (remember those?).  When I re-watched this movie for the first time in my 20’s, it amazed me that my parents allowed me to watch this.
On the surface, it looks and sounds like just another live action/animated flick from the Disney Corporation.  But, like America Beauty, look closer.  WFRR, apart with being a Christian station in Walton, Indiana, is a artful labor of love by Robert Zemeckis , the Spielberg protégé whose previous film, Back to the Future, took the world by storm.
Say what you want about the paint-by-numbers plot that is not why I love this movie.  My adoration is based purely on the look.  Although he doesn’t really show it now with all that motion capture nonsense, Zemeckis constantly shows he knows his way around with the camera.  But what really is impressive is the use of the animation in the real world of 1930’s L.A.  It is my belief that the CGI-infested world we occupy today would not be possible if Zemickis didn’t put as much care & precision as he places on the screen.  Most impressively, there actually is a point in the movie where the animation becomes fully integrated with the real world, and I’m not even talking about the beautiful transition at the end of the short.  Where does it happen?  And I didn’t even talk about Bob Hoskins.