Wednesday, December 29, 2010

2010, A Year in Review - Part 1

As a whole, 2010 was a come down year from one of the finer years of cinema in my young lifetime. 2009 was a solid year with nearly ten A+ ratings, purely out of the movies that I managed to see, which I would only place that number at about twenty to twenty-five movies, and the same goes for this year. The difference this year, I've only seen five A+ movies. While some of that can change in the next few days as I plan on catching up on The King's Speech, Winter's Bone, and The Kids Are All Right, it's still not enough to redeem this lackluster year. Regardless, it's that time of year again, time to look back and see where we have come within a year and see how many resolutions were fulfilled, and to award those movies that even in a dry year, managed to bear fruit and be worth conversation. Like last year, this is going to be an epic, five part series, and this is only part one! So rather than round out the year with my usual awards, today is simply going to be looking back at 2010 and reminiscing about my own year in filmmaking, reminiscing about anything great or disturbing that occurred within the film industry this past year, and seeing how many of the stuff on my 2010 Most Anticipated list from back in January actually hit and stuck. But I wanna get things started talking about my own filmmaking experiences over the past year...

I started out last January shooting a film, Lost & Found. I got it shot, edited it, put titles to it, but never completed it. All the movie lacks is an A+ musical score, and I still have yet to get to that, but to be fair, I got distracted by Heaven's Touch, my student film that consumed my entire Spring semester this past year. Both Lost & Found and Heaven's Touch were disappointments for me, they just didn't quite live up to my vision, and it's frustrating to spend so much time making a film and not be satisfied with the end result. Though, I think I learned an invaluable lesson from these films, and in some ways they've helped me grow as a filmmaker. In this past year, I have completely changed my philosophy from wanting to be an auteur minded director to being a studio director who makes marketable films. I really don't see my own movies as art anymore, but as entertainment, and that's what I think I'm better at anyway. I mean, my first movie I directed (and completed) was Mr. Failure, and sure I have a few things that I would like to go back and change if I could, but as a whole it is way more enjoyable to go back and rewatch than any other film I've done so far, and the hand drawn animated film, Cooties, that took up my entire Fall semester of school this year, falls into the same category. I was very satisfied with Cooties, so satisfied in fact that it's the first film I've ever made that I wanna submit to film festivals, which is why I have yet to share it online. But that's enough about me. Aside from my own personal journeys as a filmmaker, the film industry as a whole went through some ups-and-downs this past year(depending on who you ask).

3-D became an even bigger staple after Avatar in 2009, leading to a renaissance at the box office through 3-D minded films like: Alice in Wonderland, How to Train Your Dragon, Toy Story 3, and many more 3-D features. For better or worse, 3-D is succeeding where the film industry wanted it to, and I'm afraid it's here to stay, at least for the time being. Any reader of this blog knows how much I despise 3-D, but there seems to be no stopping it when it's making so much money. Regardless, good things did come out of Hollywood this year. While MGM started out the year in the bankruptcy dumps, in just the past month or two it has rebounded and has been saved from extinction, allowing films like The Hobbit and James Bond 23 to get back on track towards someday reaching a cinema near you. As well, 2010 showed the Library of Congress adding 25 more films to its National Film Registry to forever preserve these 25 movies that have been deemed important artifacts of American culture. The list this year includes stuff from Airplane! to The Exorcist, to the big win, my favorite movie of all-time, The Empire Strikes Back. What a great way to end a year, knowing that Empire will be around for generations to come so that they can forever enthrall to the further adventures of Luke Skywalker. So those were to me the biggest stories of this past year in regards to the film industry, so now it's time to go back over my 2010 Most Anticipated list and see what lived up and what didn't...

Well, my number 10 sorta happened, we know Christopher Nolan is coming back to direct Batman 3 now known as The Dark Knight Rises, but other than a Summer of 2012 release for the film and the casting of Tom Hardy, nothing is known about the story or the characters that will be in it. Speaking of C-Nol, my number 2 most anticipated last January was Inception and I hate to say, while it was good, I was disappointed; same goes for my numbers 5 and 8, Iron Man 2 and Shutter Island. My number 9, the Smallville-Absolute Justice 2-hour movie, hit and was a rousing success, and the same can be said for my numbers 7 and 1, TRON: Legacy and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows-Part I. My number 4, the final season of LOST, had some good moments, but ultimately found itself as the weakest season of 'em all, but the rousing series finale made up for any missteps. Then, my number 3, to finish my film Lost & Found and submit it to the Sidewalk Film Festival, well that one sure didn't happen, and my number 6, 127 Hours, I have still yet to see cause studios just don't think us guys out here in Birmingham, AL, wanna see an awesome movie.

So looking back, 2010 was a year where the anticipated disappointed, and the sleepers pleasantly surprised. I mean, a year ago last year I put little stock into both True Grit and The Social Network, and both delivered, so anything can obviously happen within 12 months. While not my best year as a filmmaker, nor the best year as a filmgoer or enthusiast, there is still enough to award, and that's what we will be doing over the course of the next week or so. So stay tuned to the Unicellular Review for Part 2 of "A Year in Review"...

I give 2010 in Film a C+!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Moive Review: "True Grit"

True Grit crackles and pops across the sweeping vistas of the Wild West, a time where the frontier actually existed, where young girls could pursue their father's killer in the name of revenge, and a time where a U.S. Marshall could be judge, jury, and executioner without any real appeal. The Coen Brothers have crafted a Western adventure that is everything a great Western should be, and something that many Westerns have lacked. They take us back to a simpler time, where men roamed the wilderness, where it was either good or bad, scoundrel or coward, and it is this simplicity that makes True Grit the superb cinematic achievement that it is.

Fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross's father was murdered by the coward Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Mattie (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) recruits U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to hunt Chaney down and bring him to justice, but here's the catch, Mattie must accompany Cogburn across the wilderness to exact her revenge upon Chaney. Along the way there are electrifying gunfights, beautiful landscapes, and a self-promoting Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who often teams up with Mattie and Rooster. The hunt is on.

Writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen make a sentimental film to a time long lost, without feeling at all sentimental, but being a work in memory of the time. Throughout the entire film, the Coens keep it pure and simple, and simplicity is the thing that makes this movie excel. There are no complex narrative structures or crazy frills and whistles, the movie does not innovate in these areas, but just does so well with what already exists. The cinematography from Roger Deakins is simply marvelous. Never is there an unecessary camera movement or handheld camera work to add some grit, but rather the cinematograpy is always precise and captures the essence of simplicity. Helping aid the simplicity, the score from Carter Burwell, adapted from four old 1800s hymns, is never obtrusive, always played purely, effectively, and reminiscent of what an 1800s church service might have felt like with just a couple twenty people and an organ to sing to.

The Coen Brothers' script sizzles with their trademark comedic flare, and it is through the humor that comes simply from the characters being themselves that creates a camaraderie between Mattie, Cogburn, and LaBeouf. Everyone is not as they seem in this movie. Mattie, contrary to her appearance, is a tough girl who will trek the wilderness to hunt down a killer, but she is also a compassionate person who sees things in others that no one else sees. Mattie sees beyond Cogburn's gruff exterior, and becomes his spunky sidekick, knowing that he is a man of heart who will carry her across the plains to save her life. Not only that, Mattie comes to believe in LaBeouf more than he does in himself, that he is a greater Ranger than both he and Cogburn give him credit for. But what makes their camaradarie work are the performances of the actors. Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon deliver as one would expect, but the scene stealer is always thirteen-year-old Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie. Steinfeld is a firecracker whose emotions are pure, innocent, and straight-to-the-point. Nothing in her performance ever seems overthought, but just natural, and the tears of her seeing a horse put down or her fear when she falls into a pit of rattlesnakes, is true to human nature.

Never have I been more enthralled by a Wild West adventure than I was by the Coens' True Grit. Their simplistic view of a simpler time takes one back as a viewer to those times of their simplistic childhood, where we idolized heroes, and despised the villains. We were Mattie, and for a few hours, the Coens allow us to remember what it was like to be her.

I give True Grit an A+!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Movie Review: "Black Swan"

Few movies can make you question your own sanity, and Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is such a movie. The movie is a loose adaptation of the ballet Swan Lake. The film follows the story of ballerina Nina Seyers (played by Natalie Portman), her own tale mirroring that of the White Swan in the ballet that she is performing in. But in the film, the Black Swan lurks in the wings in the form of a rival ballerina at the company (played by Mila Kunis), everything that Nina is not, and could she be trying to steal Nina's role from her?

Black Swan paints a picture of an obsessive art form. A strive for perfection and emotional release, and if you can no longer perform, you are washed up and no good. Black Swan fires on all cylinders and technically works. The direction of Aronofsky is engrossing, drawing you into Nina's claustrophobic world of paranoia, the performances from the actors are daring and immaculate, and the cinematography is stunning, in particular the beautifully photographed dream sequence that opens the film and is the highlight of this psychological thriller. Where the movie slips for me, is its racy material, where in the middle of the film it seems to lose itself in this odd perverted journey that is close to soft core porn. While it works to fit into the story, was it necessary to go as far as they do? I think no. These moments seem more a detriment to me, and hindered my enjoyment, seeming as if they were pure grabs to try and make some bank.

This is a film that is so well made, it is a shame to see it dip into such waters that lose it much credibility in my book.

I give Black Swan an F!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Movie Review: "Buried"

Paul Conroy awakes in a coffin buried under ground with only a cellphone and a Zippo lighter to aid him in his escape in the movie Buried. It's a movie all about the premise, all about the situation, all about the coffin, cause it takes place entirely in that one location. The movie is a checklist of all the things that could take this nightmarish situation and make it worse. A snake gets in the coffin, in one of the more thrilling sequences of the movie. Check! A fire starts in the coffin. Check! Dirt starts flooding in through a hole in the coffin. Check! The movie is a thrill ride that delivers in all of the desired areas. Ryan Reynolds is incredible, showing the range of just about every kind of emotion you'd feel in this situation. Fear. Anxiety. Sorrow. Frustration. Reynolds makes this a one-man show worth watching by just channeling the primal emotions of man, but the emotions can't fully cover up the moments where he is simply lying there in the coffin with nothing to do, and some stronger character development could have helped in that territory; of course, that is for writer Chris Sparling to figure out, and not Reynolds. So it's a fun and intense thrill ride, often at times channeling the work of Hitchcock, largely in part due to the marvelous title sequence and the fantastic musical score by Victor Reyes. But really, it's a face value entertainment only, not much going on beneath the surface save for the commentary on America's policy of dealing with terrorists. So what? This is a movie that is intense and nerve wracking, like it should be.

I give Buried a B+!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Movie Review: "Tron: Legacy"

There is a moment in Tron: Legacy where Jeff Bridges' Kevin Flynn shows up at a cyber nightclub to save his son, Sam. At his arrival, the lights dim, and with a single touch, he derezzes the evil programs detaining Sam. Kevin Flynn is the creator of the cybernetic universe in Tron: Legacy, and the movie never wants us to forget his deistic importance to the Grid. While, Tron: Legacy could be seen as a father-son story, it is more a movie about the spiritual; the Grid possibly standing in for the spiritual battlefield between God and Satan.

Tron: Legacy starts in 1989. The CEO of tech. company ENCOM, Kevin Flynn, disappears, leaving his son, Sam to grow up embittered and resentful over the next 25 years or so. We catch up with an adult Sam, irresponsible, and with a chip on his shoulder due to his Dad's disappearance. He's spoiled and rich due to the money from is Daddy's estate, but when a page comes from his Dad's office that hasn't been inhabited for over 20 years, Sam goes investigating. One thing comes to another, Sam messes around with a computer, and he is shot inside it, into the Grid! Here Sam soon learns that the only way to live in this world is to fight in gladiatorial combat with computer programs, and it is here that Sam finds his father after 20 years, but getting his father back to the portal to the real world is the adventure.

Like all great adventure stories, in Tron: Legacy you have the hero in Sam Flynn, the villain in the computer program Clu (also played by Jeff Bridges, de-aged by CGI), and you have the mentor in Kevin Flynn himself, the creator. Like The Wizard of Oz or Star Wars before it, it follows a formula. A hero ventures from his Ordinary World into one of the Extraordinary that is both frightening and fantastical at the same time, but what makes these by-the-book adventure stories stand on their own are the messages hidden beneath the material, and that is the true earmark of a fantastic adventure story, and why they are so important to the fabric of storytelling. Tron: Legacy easily joins those ranks, laying everything out in the open with an ease that is comforting, letting the story transpire rather than trying to shove continuous action down our throats, and this is where it manages to be so much more than any other CGI-laden spectacle you'll see this year.

Yes, the CGI is breathtaking, the action perfectly paced throughout the course of the story, but Tron: Legacy manages to stay with the viewer not through these things, but through its battles of the spirit. Kevin Flynn is the Grid, he created it, with his touch he can change or manipulate almost anything he wants, but there is an opposing force that wants to impede Flynn's every move. Flynn long ago created the program Clu, to help him build a perfect society, but like the Fallen Angels, Clu had different ideas of perfection than those of Flynn, and he went rogue, trapping Flynn in the Wasteland of the Grid for over 20 years! Then, Sam comes down to the Grid, the Creator's Son, and he is the only one who can help liberate the Grid from Clu's iron grasp. It is an allegorical spiritual battle. Whether you are religious or not, the story can simply be seen as the battle between Good and Evil within us all. Clu was once part of Kevin Flynn, so in essence he is Flynn's manifestation of the Evil within him, and he must overcome it to save the Grid. It is in these points where the movie is most poignant, and it is what makes the movie not just visually stimulating, but stimulating to your mind as well.

Regardless to all of this, Tron: Legacy is just also a lot of fun. The action is relentless and heart-pounding, probably owing something to the thumping bass of the soundtrack, produced in techno glory by the group Daft Punk, whose computerized music lends an extra edge to this cybernetic adventure. Jeff Bridges is a powerhouse as both Kevin Flynn and Clu. He exudes a larger than life presence throughout the movie, and he is at times fatherly, menacing, and graceful. Garrett Hedlund is a believable movie hero in the stock tradition of 20-somethings who have a chip on his shoulder to only have that chip brushed off by the end, but it is the supporting cast that steals the show. There is an electrifying performance from actor Michael Sheen as a computer program known as Castor, played almost like a warped circus ring leader, who is as slippery a customer as can come in terms of his motives. Though the character of Flynn's loyal sidekick, Quorra is the best of the entire movie. Olivia Wilde plays Quorra as a hardhitting program with a fascination for human life and culture, leading to some funny moments due to her quirky personality. But first and foremost, Quorra is a feministic heroine who seems to show no interest in Sam other than sisterly affection, and it is a relief to see a female character not be used as the love interest and be used to kick some butt. To put it simply, she is a character who yearns for the deeper understandings of things greater than her, a Joan of Arc of the Grid.

I feel like I've gone on-and-on about how fantastic this movie was, because there really isn't a false note to it. Director Joseph Kosinski has crafted an adventure yarn that is woven with spiritual allegories, allowing one to be entertained, moved, and also stimulated. Tron: Legacy is simply movie magic, a sequel way beyond its predecessor, and adventure up there with some of the best of the genre.

I give Tron: Legacy an A+!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Movie Review: "The Chronicles of Narnia-The Voyage of the Dawn Treader"

The new Chronicles of Narnia adventure, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, trades the epic exterior of its two predecessors for an insular seafaring yarn that is always entertaining, but lacking in sheer fantastical scope.

The Chronicles of Narnia-The Voyage of the Dawn Treader follows the youngest of the Pevensie siblings, Edmund and Lucy, as they are whisked back to Narnia alongside their annoying cousin Eustace, who would rather not believe that such a fantastical place exists. The Pevensies team up once again with former Prince, now King, Caspian to sail across the Narnia Seas to return the Seven Swords of these Narnian Lords to Aslan's Table far beyond the edges of Narnia's map, and the adventure ensues to stop this evil mist from bringing darkness to all of Narnia.

While Dawn Treader is never light on laughs, action, or heart, the movie never takes enough of a break from the action to expand the world in which the story takes place in. Director Michael Apted shoots everything as if it was a gritty, real world drama, forsaking the lyrical look and feel of the first two installments. We are never given a chance to see the sheer grandeur of this fantastical world that is Narnia, a world that should feel more lively than our own, but alas the real world sequences have more of a genuine scope than those in Narnia. Regardless, Apted manages to make Dawn Treader a more insular experience than its previous installments.

There is more character exploration in this Narnia adventure than in either of the first two. The stories chronicling Lucy's development into accepting herself as who she is, and not being jealous of her older sister's beauty, alongside the arc of Eustace (played hilariously by Will Poulter) being greedy, transforming into a dragon, and then learning how to not be a brat while flying around spouting fire, are the two finest aspects of this movie. While the mysterious mist overtaking the Seas of Narnia is not as threatening a villain as a human opponent may have been, C.S. Lewis utilized the mist in the book as an allegory to the sin and temptations of man, and it is in these scenes of temptation where the mist is a menacing antagonist to our heroes. Whether it's Caspian's doubts in his leadership, Edmund's desire to be strong and powerful, or Lucy's yearning to be beautiful and desirable to the opposite sex, Michael Apted serves the characters well.

While Dawn Treader has some moments where it stumbles, it has more than enough moments that make it a worthwhile voyage. Reepicheep the mouse is still a comedic highlight to this series of films, and Aslan's presence always warms the heart whenever he appears. What really makes this a movie worth watching, is the way that the philosophical ideas and spiritual allegories presented are woven into the adventure, that it is impossible to not be moved in some way.

I give The Chronicles of Narnia-The Voyage of the Dawn Treader a C+!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Dangers of Hype

It's a common practice to see a movie trailer and say, "Hey I wanna see that," problem is, we no longer say that simple phrase, but rather, "That movie is going to be amazing!" We make up our minds about the movie in question from the trailer, and it is getting even worse, with many (mostly fanboys) heaping huge amounts of praise on a movie before they even start filming, just purely based on the talent involved. This is where we begin to see the dangers of overhyping in today's filmatic society.

I'll admit, I've been a victim to overhyping movies, but what's gotten me thinking about this is just how I've seen over the past year, fanboys, or even critics, say that a certain movie in question is going to be the greatest movie ever, without having seen a single frame of footage, and that rubs me the wrong way. Movies like Avatar, Tron: Legacy, or even artsy fare like Terrence Malick's upcoming The Tree of Life, have inspired many to already review the movie in their heads, and I can't say I haven't done that before. That's why I was disappointed this past Summer with Inception, I was expecting so much more from all of the hype than it actually delivered. Sometimes there is no way that any movie could ever live up to such expectations, and it's there that the "Dangers of Hype" are.

We need to, as moviegoers, get back to saying, "I wanna see that," rather than saying, "That movie is going to be amazing!" To be honest, I'd rather enjoy a movie than be disappointed, and if what it takes to ensure that the movie doesn't fail to meet my own ideas of perfection is to accept the possibility that it may not be the best movie ever, then I've succeeded as a moviegoer. Regardless, if it looks or sounds interesting, I'll see it, but I wont review it till after, not before.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Biases of the Academy

I love trying to predict the Oscars and then eventually watching the ceremony to see who wins, but as big of a fan I am of the film industry's most storied awards ceremony, there are certain biases that tend to arise that the folks at the Academy have yet to ever truly rectify. If a movie is a member of the fantasy/science fiction genre, or its animated, or if it even stars character actors, the movie and the work behind it tends to get overlooked by the Academy. While these movies may get nominated, a win is nigh impossible, and this is where I'd like to see the Academy evolve.

There is a certain snobbery that the Academy tends to take to product that is different than the normal fare of live action real world drama or comedy. By their standards, it is much easier to award a movie about a military unit that disarms bombs than it is to award a one of a kind moviegoing experience that creates a whole new world and culture; and the excuse of these snobs is that The Hurt Locker is more narratively original than Avatar? Puh-lease! Saying Avatar is simply Dances With Wolves in space is an ignorant excuse to not give it any artistic credit. When you get right down to it, every story is reminiscent of some other story if you really wanna break it down, and it is because nearly every story derives from mythical or biblical allegories. As for ignoring the performances in said movies? It takes way more imagination from an actor to kill with the Avada Kedavra curse and make it believable than it does for a dude playing a serial killer in a gritty cop drama. Which takes me to my next point, why is the Academy so down on animation as well?

Only two animated films have ever been nominated for Best Picture, and while animation has its own category in Best Animated Feature, no animation director or voice actor has ever been nominated for Best Director or Actor. What is this snobbery the Academy has against animation directing and vocal performance? To be honest, it takes even five times more imagination than an actor in a fantasy movie to pull off a convincing voice performance. Think about it, usually all they have is the director's cues, and their bodies can't be seen to aid them in what they're thinking, so all of the emotion of their performance must come through their voice and not be too over-the-top or too subtle. It takes a lot of imaginative work from both the actors and directors. While the Academy could rectify things with a Best Director for an Animated Feature or Best Voice Performance for an Animated Feature, you can't tell me that it wouldn't be forward thinking of them to nominate someone like Hayao Miyazaki in Best Director alongside Spielberg, or Tom Hanks for his performance as Woody in Toy Story? But if there is one bias that the Academy has that makes even less sense than their biases to animation or the fantastical, it's being so good at your job that you get overlooked.

Let's be honest, most people we consider A-list "movie stars" aren't always the best actors, they're just the best looking, but they are the ones that are awarded year after year at the Oscars and not the character actors of the industry, the talent that is always consistent in the performance category. You know why Brad Pitt gets nominated, or Natalie Portman, is cause they're public movie stars who don't always deliver the goods, so when they do a performance that turns a few heads they get nominated, it doesn't matter if the work was groundbreaking or not, the Academy wants to award their "Movie Stars". Though, isn't it odd that Gary Oldman has never even been nominated for an Oscar? Or the same goes for Alan Rickman? Two actors that are always consistent, no matter what movie their in, or what sort of role they're playing, they knock it out of the park, and they are the kind of actors that are so good at their job that they are always overlooked, and here's why...

If Brad Pitt gives a good performance in the same year as Oldman, then the Academy will see the "movie star" and not the "actor". I'm not saying that Brad Pitt isn't a real actor who doesn't do good work, what I'm saying is that the Academy is never taken by surprise if the likes of Oldman or Rickman deliver a powerhouse performance, because it is expected of them, even if it's better work than the "movie star" simply cause the stigma of the "movie star" deters opinion. As it is, I don't see anything changing anytime soon, but I can vent, can' t I?