Thursday, August 23, 2012

Fantasy Casting - The Justice League Part 2: Villainous Intents

     Of course, as soon as I get the first JLA Fantasy Casting post up featuring the heroes, I think of two casting options that I like better than my original choices.  No offense to Kaley Cuoco, but I was never all that satisfied with my choice to cast her as Wonder Woman.  I feel much more confident with Olivia Wilde (House) playing the Amazing Amazon.  She looks more like her and she's a little more seasoned as a dramatic actresss.  Matt Damon (who I had cast as Green Arrow) is certainly a seasoned actor, and I like to imagine actors in roles that I think they can pull off, but that would stretch them in a brand new direction.  However, these leaps of faith must go out the window when someone occurs to you who was born to play the role.  Such is the case here, as Steve Zahn (Treme) might never find another part he is more perfect for.
     Now that our heroic revisions are out of the way, it is time to move on to this post's main topic, casting possible Justice League villain choices.  With the heroes, we had a pretty good idea exactly who some of the characters would be, and a reasonable sized pool from which to select the other possible inclusions.  Not so with the villains:  there are literally dozens of options to choose from, and the likelihood is that only five to eight (or less) characters will be utilized per film.  So, I'll just take a fairly wide selection of some of the most likely choices, or interesting ones, or those that I just had a great casting choice for.  I promise not to say as much about MOST of these characters as I did the heroes.  I apologize that those of you who were too cool to read comics growing up will not recognize all of these characters.  I regret if being so cool when you were younger has made you feel excluded today...a little bit.

General JLA Rogues Gallery
     1.  Despero - Despero was the very first foe that the League faced as a team.  He is an alien telepath who has grown in power and mania as the years rolled on.  He feels a particular rivalry and a certain feeling of kinship with fellow telepath The Martian Manhunter.  Despero is a giant hulking tank of a being that would definitely best be represented by motion capture animation.  Despero is a giant boiling mass of determination and madness that must come across as both unimaginably intelligent and inhumanly savage simultaneously.  Sounds like an excellent opportunity for the great Andy Serkis to upstage himself again.

     2. T.O. Morrow and The Red Tornado - T.O. Morrow is perhaps the most respected (and feared) of all the DCU (DC Comics Universe) "mad scientist" villains.  Able to glimpse visions of the future that helped him to perfect technologies that were light years ahead of what anyone else was working with.  It even allowed him to create the sentient artificial intelligence known as The Red Tornado, who eventually broke free of his control, later joining the Justice League, an Android Trying To Be A Real Boy years before Star Trek:TNG.  I think that Phillip Seymour Hoffman would be unbelievable as Morrow, and Michael C. Hall (Dexter) would be almost perfect as Tornado.

      3. The Key - The Key is a man who became fascinated with opening all the world's doors, literal and figurative, most especially the doors to perception.  He gained the power of perception, but the sheer amount of input that his brain processes at a time has driven him quite mad.  Much more potentially dangerous than he sounds.  Walton Goggins (Justified) could not only play the insight and madness stew brilliantly, he even looks a lot like The Key.

     4.  Dr. Destiny - This tortured maniac obtained a magical stone that allowed him to enter the dimension of the Dreaming, transport others there, and sculpt reality within his immediate surroundings inside the Dreaming.  Waking mortals are not meant to interact with the Dreaming, and the whole thing has driven him mad and steadily compounded his insanity.  It's rare that a role comes along that seems so precisely suited to highlight actor Crispin Glover's many peculiar eccentricities.

    5. The Queen Bee - It seems that the JLA has always had SOME foe calling herself The Queen Bee, but my favorite version by far is the Grant Morrison era Queen.  She flew around in an extra dimensional hive/ship with an army of drones, searching for worlds to colonize.  Very creepy.  Actress Summer Glau (Dollhouse, Terminator: Sarah Conner Chronicles) could easily turn this into a breakout Hollywood role.

     6. Prof. Ivo & Amazo - One of the few scientists T.O. Morrow deems worthy of teaming up with from time to time Professor Ivo was a brilliant cyberneticist and crazed seeker of immortality who ended up turning himself into a hideous monster.  His greatest creation was Amazo, a combat android that could replicate the powers, abilities, and weaponry of the entire Justice League.  I'm interested in what Ewan McGregor might pull off as Ivo, and Armee Hammer would be a good choice for Amazo.

     7. Prometheus - After watching his outlaw parents gunned down by the police as a small child, this sociopath devoted his young life to bringing down the forces of injustice.  A brilliant, if twisted, tactician, armed to the teeth, this Bizarro Batman of sorts has taken on the whole League singlehandedly...and almost won.  I think I saw enough in actor Alex Schaffer's debut performance in Win Win to gladly pick him here, hopefully in the second or third film in the franchise to let him age JUST a bit.

     8. Darkseid & Granny Goodness - Evil New God Darkseid is the lord of the planet Apokalypse and only The Joker rivals him as the DCU's prime personification of evil.  Near omnipotent and invulnerable, he is far more powerful than any individual Leaguer.  Darkseid has hordes of lackeys and underlings, so you have to figure at least one would be along for the movie.  Granny Goodness is one of the highest ranking and most respected members of his organization, and I have a great casting choice for her.  Darkseid is another character that would work best in mo-cap animation (although not the horrible CGI from when he appeared on Smallville) and I think Dennis Haysbert (24) would be a great choice to portray him thusly.  And as for dear old Granny?  Jackie Weaver.

     Then there is The Injustice League.  The membership is almost always different, and made up primarily of individual JLA member's foes who have banded together so as to take down the League as a whole.  Some possibilities include.

Batman Foes
     We'll start with Batman because his foes are both the most plentiful and the most interesting, with the most consistantly and extensively developed personalities.  Just sayin...
  1. Scarecrow - Well, Ciaran Hinds already portrayed the master of fear in a uniquely captivating way, but if they break with that continuity in this film, well, they probably wouldn't use the Scarecrow.  Too soon.
  2. Mr. Freeze - I know that those of you who know these characters mostly through film and television just groaned a little.  But the character can be quite heartbreaking and, well, chilling.  Freeze deserves some redemption, and Christolph Waltz's version would surely blow Ah-nold's (poorly cast) version of years ago, out of the proverbial water.
  3. Poison Ivy - Along those lines...Poison Ivy is an ecoterrorist, who has given up on humanity, quite frankly thinking that most of them should go for the sake of the rest of the planet.  She has experimented on her own physiology to the point  that she is now more plant than human, utterly toxic on cotact to people.  Jessica Chastain has the look, and the seeming range to play anything.  This would be a great chance for her to show us yet another entirely different side of what she is capable.
  4. Clayface  - An aged, washed up horror film actor becomes his greatest role and eventually
becomes a true monster, body, mind, and soul.  John Lithgow (in motion capture) would serve both the old time melodrama and the terrifying mania of the role well.

Superman Foes
  1. Lex Luthor - The most frequent leader of the Injustice League by a mile, Luthor is the quintessential DC mastermind.  I didn't expect to get to make a choice here, but evidently Man of Steel is going to be the first Superman film ever to not use the character.  That's fine with me, because now I get to make the suggestion that they cast Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad, Drive) in the role.
  2. Brainiac - Brainiac, the sentient computer that used to rule the planet Colu, is actually featured in the early Man of Steel promotionals, but I can't find a credit in the cast list.  Certainly it's not all CGI, with a computer generated voice...maybe it is, we'll have to see.
  3. Toyman - So, I might not have even included the mad toy maker if not for the acting range that Jonah Hill has been demonstrating in the last year, but he would be SO great in this role.

Wonder Woman
  1. Circe - Enemy of the Amazons for centuries, this Greek sorceress of yore will do literally anything to attain her goals.  Angelina Jolie would be ideal.
  2. Cheetah - Feminist archaeologist turned bloodthirsty cat goddess.  Swedish actress Noomi Rapace (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Prometheus) would rip this to shreds with six inch claws.
  3.  Dr. Psycho - Yes, a powerful, psychotic, telepathic dwarf is sort of the perfect vehicle for Peter Dinklage's (Game of Thrones) big film breakthrough.

  1. Grodd - This hyper intelligent gorilla has battled almost every major DC hero at one point and time but his primary foe has always been the Flash.  Arrogant and savage, I think that a motion capture Grodd performed by Mickey Rourke could be brilliant.
  2. Zoom - Flash's evil mirror image used to be a psychologist, but after completely losing his mind, he became obsessed with being Flash's perfect foil in an effort to teach him to be a better hero.  John Leguizamo would be great as this manic madman.
  3. Sinestro - Even if they don't go with Hal Jordan for the League's GL, they could still use Mark Strong as Sinestro.  He was easily the best thing about the new Green Lantern film.
  4. Deathstroke - The immortal ultimate mercenary for hire has been at odds with any number of heroes, but lately his attentions seem particularly attuned to Green Arrow.  I think John Hawkes would be perfect.
  5. Solomon Grundy - This gigantic, elemental/mysticl undead swamp monster has been bouncing around the DCU since the 1940's.  Ron Perlman with motion capture.

     And that's it.  Thanks for indulging my inner geek.  I promise not to go QUITE there for a while.

Related articles:  Fantasy Casting: The Justice League, Part 2 - Heroic ChoicesThe Dark Knight TranscendsMerchandisers Assemble (Avengers review), Beauty Wins Ground (Win Win Review)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Fantasy Casting - The Justice League,Part One: Heroic Choices

     OK, so after the Avengers made all the money in the world this spring the Justice League Movie was finally, totally green lit.  Which of course, begs the question:  Who might wind up playing who?  Nothing official has been released yet (although Ben Affleck is slated to direct, which sounds very promising), so we have a perfect window of opportunity to play...Fantasy Casting....
     It's important to remember that, while the Avengers have been around for a while, and have legions of fans, the League's members are even more iconic, both more archetypal and more intricately individual.  Of course, they have an advantage in that they have been explored and developed far longer.  Some version of most of these characters has existed since the late 30's/early 40's.   Batman had a quarter century of experience saving the world before Stan Lee had managed to settle on exactly what kind of radioactive bug he wanted to go with.
     The League has had a lot of members from the 1960's to the present, but the classic seven that most League fans would expect to see front and center in the first film are:

1. Superman - Yeah, Batman is my favorite, but you still have to put Superman first, because he WAS first, Modern Superhero Mach 1, from which all who follow are variations on the theme to at least a tiny extent.  He is also the moral center of the League, who is wise but also naive, able to believe in ideals of absolute good and evil, without a lot of moral murkiness.  He is the embodiment of hope. 
     It is very difficult to choose an actor for a role like that, but fortunately I don't have to do so.  With Man of Steel opening next year, a new franchise is just getting started.  So unless Man of Steel flops terribly, which I'm NOT expecting, count on Henry Cavill to play this role.  Let's hope he's up to it.

2. Batman - The Yang to Superman's Yin, The Batman dwells in moral murkiness.  He lives in shades of grey.  He is the prototype for the dark avenger superhero, angst ridden and troubled with a painful past he is trying to resolve, but never willEvery character that fits this model from Daredevil to Spawn owes a little something to the Caped Crusader.  He is the League's greatest thinker and tactician, the one who solves the unsolvable.  He is also the one that, despite having no powers, everyone fears just a little.
     Christian Bale has emphatically stated that he has no intention of ever playing Batman again, so that's out.  Besides, you sort of want Bruce, Clark, and Diana to all be young together when the League is born.  This leaves us with two options.  The first is to still feed out of Nolan's Dark Knight saga by using Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a Batman II, and I'm sure he'd be really good in the role, but I kind of want my JLA with a Bruce Wayne.  The other option is to go with a new actor cast as a young Bruce Wayne, just starting out.  He would have to work out a lot, and he's a little young, but I can so see Ezra Miller capturing the character of Bruce Wayne in his early twenties like no one ever has before.  He can be scary as hell as a scrawny teen (We Need To Talk About Kevin), so if he beefed up a bit....

3. Wonder Woman - Rounding out the big three, princess Diana of Themyscira is the original female superhero, half royal diplomat and emissary of peace, half fierce Amazon warrior.  Her outlook is like Superman's (but more so), as she dedicates as much of her time advocating for peace and human rights as she does fighting crime.  Of course, with no secret identity to maintain, she DOES have more time on her hands.  Her outlook is also like Batman's (but more so).  Of the three she will be the fastest to simply reach out and snap the neck of a dire threat, if no other solution seems possible.  She was trained to fight in wars.  She embodies both the tender, nurturing and fierce, protective aspects of femininity.  In the League, she often serves as the mediator between Supes and Bats, helping them to find a middle ground.  Her excellent military mind also makes her one of the League's best field commanders. 
     This one was hard to cast.  First you need an actress who can handle all of the diverse and almost contradictory elements of Diana's character discussed above.  Next, she can't be much older than 25 (as an immortal Amazon, Wonder Woman grew to young adulthood and stopped aging.  After all, her mother is the same Hippolyta who ruled the Amazons in the myths of antiquity, thousands of years ago).  Then she has to be gorgeous, statuesque and somewhat busty.  When I set out to do this fantasy casting, I set one rule for myself:  I couldn't use anyone who has already been used in another super hero franchise.  I am allowed one cheat on this rule, and I almost used it twice here.  My first idea was Ana Paquin (who was Rogue in the original X-men trilogy) but I finally decided she was too short and I'd never really seen anything to convince me that "warrior" was part of her repertoire.  I then briefly considered Hayden  Panettiere (of Heroes fame), but she too is pretty short.  I found myself wishing fervently that Angelina Jolie was just one decade younger.
    I finally settled upon The Big Bang Theory star Kaley Cuoco.  She's only 27.  She's demonstrated on the aforementioned show that she can play a character much more patient and nurturing than our society has been conditioned to expect a girl as pretty as her to be.  Before Bang, she was on the last season or two of Charmed playing a fierce warrior witch, much more prone to physical combat than any of the Halliwell sisters.  It would be a challenging role for her, possibly a game changer for her career, but I can't think of anyone else who embodies all the essential components quite the way that she does.

4. Martian Manhunter - Most people would probably list J'onn J'onnz, the Manhunter from Mars, sixth or seventh on this, but to me he has always been the most essential element of the League other than the trinity.  He is the most consistent member of the team, having been an essential part of almost every line up that the League has ever operated with, often as the leader.  John is perhaps the most tragic of them all.  Bruce lost his parents, John lost his wife, his daughter, and his whole world.  Now he devotes himself solely to the protection of his new home, a world that has always feared and mistrusted him more than any of his companions.  Rather than judge humanity for their fear and ignorance, he has always been patient, nurturing, and humble.  This humility is perhaps the most impressive element of his character, considering that he is probably the JLA's most powerful member.  He may not be QUITE as fast, strong, or invulnerable as Superman, but he is close.  Add to this the fact that he is one of the DC Universe (or DCU)'s most powerful telepaths who can also shape shift, and become invisible or intangible.  Being much older than most of his team mates (at least in human years), J'onn is the League's ultimate mentor and is very protective of the only family he has left.  He has often led the team, and is one of their best field commanders, easily using individual member's skills in tandem bringing about a whole that is truly greater than that old sum.
     In the various animated incarnations of recent years, J'onn has usually been portrayed as a black man in his human guise to help increase the team's diversity.  Why not? He's actually green, so one human ethnicity seems as reasonable as another.  I think that Malcolm Clarke Duncan (The Green Mile) might make an excellent choice for this character, who is often a rather large and hulking physical presence, belying a gentle nature.

5. The Flash - There have been two generations of Flash's in the JLA.  The first was police scientist Barry Allen, who was always sort of the Middle America everyman of the team.  He wasn't an alien, a member of a royal family, a reckless test pilot, or an obsessive creature of the night.  He was someone whose barbecue you could imagine attending.  He was always the easiest persona to relate to, and the most down to earth of super heroes.
     When Barry died saving the universe during the Crisis On Infinite Earths series in the mid eighties, his mantle, and eventually his place on the team were filled by his nephew Wally West, formerly Kid Flash.  Wally was a bit of a cad and a showoff in his early days as The Flash, but he has since grown out of that and become in many ways a lot like his uncle.  He also represents the up and coming generation of heroes as the first Teen Titan to actually take the place of their mentor.
     If the film goes with a Barry Allen flash, I think James Franco would be nearly perfect in the role.  He can pull of the scientist aspect and I would totally go to his barbecue without even being too self conscious.  This version of the Flash is the way that I think the film should go.  However, if...
     ...the film makers decide to go with Wally, and make him the youngest member of the team, I think that Jeremy Irvine might be a good choice.  A lot of the reason that the first half of War Horse was so much better than the second was because so much more of it was him.

6.  Green Lantern - There have actually been four different Green Lanterns in the League (five if you count Kilowog during the years when he had lost his ring), and they've all been very different people.  The classic,  Hal Jordan, is a bit of a daredevil and at times a downright loose cannon.  If we use Hal, we are pretty much saddled with Ryan Reynolds, who only seems to be able to reach his full potential as an actor when Buried alive.  I think we can do better.
     John Stewart is probably my favorite of the Earth's Green Lanterns.  Where Hal was a dashing stunt pilot, John is an architect.  He is at his best when creating something out of only the ideas rolling around in his brain, whether it be a skyscraper or a ring construct.  He is a little more introverted and holds himself to impossible standards at times.  He is more of a thinker than Hal, whenever possible concocting a plan before jumping into battle.  THIS is the GL I want in my JLA film, and I feel pretty confident that Anthony Mackie (Hurt Locker) would make an inspired casting choice.  He could really play John as both smart and strong, but still haunted by self doubt.

7. Aquaman - Oh, Arthur.  Aquaman in the early days was always the lamest member of the team.  He never felt completely at home either in Atlantis or the surface world, but always maintained this nondescript, slightly sunny disposition.  We would definitely need to find a way to spice that up a bit if we chose to go with this version of the Sea King.  I think I would rather utilize the license these films always have to play with continuity a bit, and present Arthur at a slightly later point in his life:  the gruffer, scruffier, yet infinitely more regal version we saw during the classic JLA's rebirth in the early 2000's. 
     If we go with the greener, more innocently naive version, I think Channing Tatum could pull it off nicely (and he'd look great in those green tights).  I would prefer, however, the more mature (and grumpy) version and I would absolutely love to see this interpretation brought to us by the (highly impressive) acting talents of Mr. Ryan Gosling.

Other Classic (mostly) JLA member who could factor into either this film or sequels:

  1. Hawkman - The only member of the JSA from the 1940's who carried his own legacy in the Justice League, rather than passing his mantle on to the next generation.  The re-incarnation of a hawk god worshipping prince from ancient Egypt, he embodies all the grace, beauty, ferocity, and strength of his feathered namesake.  He has also developed into quite the crotchety old man over the decades no matter how many times his youth has been restored, making him the League's resident curmudgeon.
     Hawkman is huge and buff and he often has a really bad attitude.  Is it wrong that my choice for this role was chosen partly for how he would look in that chest harness?  Not really, because there are many better reasons just as valid.  I pick Joe Manganiello (True Blood, Magic Mike) whose acting will surely be impressive the second time I watch the film...

  2. Hawkgirl - Two heroines have joined the League using the name Hawkgirl.  The first was Shiera Saunders, who had been following Carter Hall (or Prince Khufu, or Hawkman) through an endless series of reincarnations for centuries.  Just as fierce in battle, she was truly his better half in their personal interaction, possessing far more compassion, patience, and reserve.  Where he found aggravation, she found bemusement.  I think Mila Kunis could play this dichotomy brilliantly, but I can't decide if I'd rather have this Hawkgirl, or her niece who took over the role after she died.
      Kendra Saunders absorbed just a bit of Shiera's soul when she tried to kill herself around the same time that Shayera died.  Kendra survived, but...changed.  She has identity issues and a lot of angst to work out.  She's also much younger.  I'm thinking Saorse Ronan.  I would love to see her kick butt Hanna style again.

3. Green Arrow - Oliver Queen has always been the great bleeding heart of the JLA, always crusading against some social injustice or other.  He also serves as the team's moral compass of last resort, always on the watch for signs that the absolute power at play in the League is beginning to fulfill the proverbial job.
     Some versions of the League's history (time having been rewritten more than once in the DCU)have depicted Ollie as being a little older than most of his team mates and I think that I would like to play things that way and cast Matt Damon.  I've never seen him play scruffy and bombastic, and his efforts off screen as an activist indicate that he should be able to relate well to the role of Green Arrow.

4. Black Canary - If Wonder Woman is the (mostly) chaste Madonna of womanhood, then I suppose that Black Canary is the whore.  Part super hero, part super spy, part femme fatale, and part martial arts prodigy, if there is a female equivalent to the Batman in this pantheon, it is Dinah Lance.  With or without the sonic cry, she is without a doubt the second most prominent heroine in the DCU (next would probably be Barbara Gordon - Oracle - the original Batgirl, but that lady belongs to a later roster entirely). 
      I know its a LITTLE of a type cast to be suggesting Rooney Mara for this role so soon.  Dinah and Lisbeth, however, are very different characters.  Lisbeth could ONLY be herself and was socially awkward to say the least.  Dinah can be anyone and slide through social gatherings and small talk with ease no matter who she is being at the time.  No other actress even occurred to me.

5. Atom - If there is one member of the JLA who would be the best chess opponent for Bruce Wayne, it is Professor Ray Palmer.  Whereas Batman is a detective and a tactician in his approach to investigation, the Atom is all scientist, devising tests for theories and occasionally making logical-intuitive leaps that make normal genius' brains hurt.  But there is also a sense of adventure to the Atom, driven no doubt by a scientist's naturally overwhelming sense of curiosity.
     Again, I almost used my cheat, because I really wanted Michael Shannon for this, had settled on him, then found out he is already Zod in Man of Steel.  The NEXT idea I came up with was Zachary Quinto, but I think playing Syler on Heroes has to count as having already played a super villain.  My newest idea is Paul Dano (Ruby Sparks, Being Flynn) and for now, he's gonna be my pick.

6. Zatanna - The League's expert on all things magical, Zatanna Zatara has spent her whole life facing down the kind of threats that most easily render Superman and Batman helpless.  More sorceress than super hero, her participation with the JLA has grown more sporadic as she has grown up, but almost every incarnation of the team has had to turn to her for assistance at some point.  The most unique element of her character may be that a part of her truly loves the stage.  She is a consummate show woman, hiding the secrets of the universe in plain sight.
     I played with lots of actresses as possibilities here, but nothing really stuck until I remembered that when she first joined the team, Zatanna was barely a legal adult, definitely the youngest of the original team's core.  I doubt she'll be in the first film, so in two or three years, Chloe Grace Moretz will be the perfect age to play Zatanna.  I think she might also be the perfect actress for the role.

7. Plastic Man - Plas was not actually a member of the original team, but even before the death of the Elongated Man, Plas had pretty much taken his place in the pantheon.  People think of him largely as comic relief, and he certainly can be.  Plas's heart and mind, however, are much darker and more complex than they seem at first.  He probably IS a little crazy, and uses humor as a way to deflect his feelings.  I laugh lest I dare to weep.
     Oh my gosh, I love this pick.  I see Plas done largely as motion capture animation, constantly warping and stretching and shifting in ways that simple CGI overlay isn't going to render well enough.  Now picture the (further) stretched and warped features of Jack McBrayer, who plays Kenneth on 30 Rock.  Funny and a little disturbing, isn't it.  That's the best kind of Plastic Man.

So, for the heroes, we have:
Superman - Henry Cavill
Batman - Ezra Miller (or Joseph Gordon-Levitt)
Wonder Woman - Kaley Cuoco
Martian Manhunter - Malcolm Clarke Duncan
Flash - James Franco (or Jeremy Irvine)
Green Lantern - Anthony Mackie
Aquaman - Ryan Gosling (or Channing Tatum)
Hawkman - Joe Manganiello
Hawkgirl - Saorse Ronan (Mila Kunis)
Green Arrow - Matt Damon
Black Canary - Rooney Mara
Atom - Paul Dano
Zatanna - Chloe Grace Moretz
Plastic Man - Jack McBrayer

Got a better idea?  PLEASE share it in the comments.  Next will be the villains, and I still have my previous super hero franchise involvement cheat in play. 

Related posts:  Merchandisers Assemble (Avengers review), The Dark Knight Transcends, We Need To Interrupt Miss Bala (We Need To Talk About Kevin review),

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

21 Chronicled Footnotes

     Our victims today include an Israeli family dramedy, a sci-fi flick about teen boys who get mysterious powers from an alien goop, and a surprising comedic adaptation of an 80's television drama that I watched willingly.  Down is up.  Let's hop to it....

21 Jump Street - If any two actors in Hollywood should be happy about the year they have been having, their names would have to be Channing Tatum and Oscar nominee Jonah Hill.  Hill showed real range in Moneyball and got an Oscar nod for it.  Tatum performed well in Haywire and has received mostly positive reviews for Magic Mike.  Yet here they are in a film adaptation of a classic television program, the garbage pail of all film genres.  Nothing is more impressive than taking something that should NOT work and pulling it off.  And I'm impressed.
     Talk about exceeding expectations.  I would have expected to HATE this film, but it was really funny.  21 Jump Street the show was so contrived, something that could only have flown in the 80's, but fortunately screen writers Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill, and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, knew that.  They have crafted a slick, self aware, self parodying homage that I'm not sure I've ever seen the like of before.  I'm sure we'll see plenty of movies try to recreate this formula with other TV shows in the next few years, but this is the birth of a whole new subgenre.
     And both of the main actors are great.  Their timing is right on point, their characters are extreme yet believable and they have better camaraderie than the actors in most serious cop buddy movies.  The best part is, its a comedy that is actually funny.  I laughed.  Out loud.  More than once.  Available on DVD.  4 out of 5*

Footnote - This film was the nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars this past year that represented Israel.  Footnote is a very Israeli story, with both of the main characters being Talmudic scholars (those who study the second most Holy Book of Judaism, the Talmud).  They are rivals in their field, employed at the same university, who also just happen to be father and son.  All of these points of contention come to a head after some confusion over which of them is to receive a coveted award.
    Writer/director Joseph Cedars (formerly of New York city) has been in the foreign language race at the Oscars once before, with his film Beaufort, and his film making style is quite distinct and interesting. He finds very creative ways of getting exposition and narration out of the way so that his actors can get on with the real drama and wit of their interactions.  No small bit of wit involved either, by the way.
     Both of the lead actors are very impressive, though I am not really familiar with either of their respective bodies of work.  Shlomo Bar-Aba's Eliezer is the epitome of a crotchety old man while still having more than enough personality ticks and peculiarities to make him a unique creature.  Lior Ashkenazi's Uriel is a far more gregarious soul, but no less eccentric than his father.  Also of note is Micah Lewensohn, as Grossman, Eliezer's much more successful life long rival.
     This film's look at familial relationships should be highly familiar to anyone who is close with a parent or child that they also have difficulty getting along with, or who has seen such relationships within their family.  Available on DVD.  4 1/2 of 5*

Chronicle - This film was highly derivative of a million other stories about young friends who gain powers (or power or money or fame or whatever) and one of them lets it go to their head.  It is called Chronicle because one of this particular trio of friends documents everything on video, so a lot of the movie is footage he has created, very reminiscent of dozens of films that utilize heavy amounts of "found footage" type camera work and scripting.  The actors and director are largely untested and it shows...a lot.  The special effects should probably just be called effects.  If you've seen the promo where they use telekinesis on the teddy bear and laughed out loud, you've already gotten the best bit of the film, the one that got it an extra half star.  I just don't have it in me to go on like this today, I think you get the point.  Available on DVD.  1 1/2 of 5*

Related Posts:  Best of 2011 - The Genres, Best of 2011 Best (and Worst) Picture,

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Best of 2011 Conclusion - The Genres

     And so we come to the final week of the Best of 2011 series wherein we cover Animated Feature, Documentary Feature, and Foreign Language Film. At the moment, I have seen 145 films that went into consideration for this year's Froggy Awards.  Unfortunately, there are still ten films on my 2011 viewing list that I have yet to see.  Even less fortunate, most of them would have factored into today's awards. 
     Still unseen as of this date:  Brighton Rock
                                                  A Cat in Paris (which is Animated)
                                                  Flowers of War (Foreign Language)
                                                  Gun Hill Road
                                                  Monsieur Lazhar (Foreign Language)
                                                  Oranges and Sunshine
                                                  Paradise Lost 3:  Purgatory (Documentary)
                                                  Undefeated (Documentary)
                                                  Volcano (Foreign Language)
     Having cited those possibly worthy omissions, I feel pretty confident that I've seen almost all of this year's best films.  If you have missed any of the previous posts in this series, you can check them out now: Prelude, The Techs, The Performances Part One, The Performances Part 2, Writers and Directors, Best (and Worst) Picture, and Best Picture (concluded).  If you've seen a ton of movies this year, I'm sure I'll incite fervent agreement or disdain.  If not, these posts provide an excellent opportunity to discover some of this year's lesser known gems (only three of my top ten were Best Picture nominees at the Oscars this year).  As always, film titles that appear as links will take you directly to my review of said film. So, let's wrap 2011 up (it's only mid-August of 2012, after all)...

Best Animated Film
     I would love to have more than five films on this list.  Unfortunately, this was a REALLY weak year for animation.  Most of the other animated films (that I bothered watching, sorry Cars 2) were mediocre at best.  I wish I had seen A Cat In Paris, but alas, it still has no DVD release date that I'm aware of, and I don't think it even played an Atlanta venue in theatrical release, so I'll have to give myself a break on that one.
  5.  Chico and Rita - This was a really fun little romp through vintage Cuba's Golden Age of Jazz.  It is also the only film on this list that is definitely made for adults.  There is sex, nudity, swearing, and violence, although none of it is TOO explicit.  The music is wonderful, the story is heartfelt, and the characters are vibrant.  The animation is hand drawn 2D and it too, is beautiful.
  4. The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr.Morris Lessmore - Yes, I had to dip into the shorts just to get five.  This particular short, however, won an Oscar back in February, and quite deservedly so.  It is an enchanting little children's fable, beautifully rendered in hand drawn (or painted?) impressionist 2D.  It's a magical little film, appropriate for even the youngest children.
  3. The Adventures of Tin Tin: The Secret of the Unicorn  - This (his first animated) film is Steven Spielberg's redemption for Part Four of the Indiana Jones saga.  It is everything Crystal Skull should have been and is one film that should be lots of fun for the WHOLE family (except maybe 13-year-olds, they are really cynical).  It was excluded from the Animated Feature nominees this year, probably because of the animated branch's aversion to regarding Motion Capture as true animation.  The animation IS both beautiful and a little creepy, but Belle and Sirkus's characterizations sort of ease this feeling pretty quickly.
  2. Arthur Christmas - This little holiday treat didn't get enough credit during the Awards Season this year.  It was lots of fun, perfectly kid appropriate without being condescending.  In a year populated mostly with sequels to franchises showing diminishing returns in quality, it told a clever, highly original story involving some iconic character ideas.  It had fantastic stop motion animation.  It had a FANTASTIC voice over cast including James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Imelda Staunton, Laura Linney, Eva Longoria, Joan Cusack, Jane Horrocks (someone PLEASE give her a follow up role on the scale of Little Voice, PLEASE), and Andy Serkis.   And then there's Byrony the wrapping elf (Ashley Jensen), one of the best written and performed animated characters of the year.
  1. Rango - Yeah, I know I'm really going with the grain here, but rightfully so.  Great script.  Great lead voice over performance by Johnny Depp.  Striking animation.  Funny. Surprising. Cute without being cutesy.  My favorite narrators since the evil mice in Babe.  Another FANTASTIC collection of voice talent:  Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Harry Dean Stanton, Timothy Oliphant, and Ray Winstone.  Gore Verbinski ably directing.  In a weak Pixar year, what's NOT to like?
  Tin Toadstool:  Rio
     In a year of truly insipid, childish animated films, this stood out to me as worst in show but, like I said, I never saw Cars 2.

Best Documentary Feature
     2010 was the YEAR of the documentary and the Academy gave us the most impressive list of nominees maybe ever.  2011 seemed a bit lackluster in this genre by comparison, and the Academy just REALLY got it wrong.  I haven't seen Purgatory or Undefeated yet, but of the three nominees that I have seen, only one can hold a candle to any of the previous slate.  But I'm bitching, there WERE some real quality documentaries this year that I thoroughly enjoyed watching. 
  10. The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
     While not Morgan Spurlock's most penetrating (or self mutilating) investigation of all time, this film is still an interesting experiment from a film maker who is always pushing himself to experiment.  It left me wondering how much its use of sponsorship in a film meant to investigate marketing in America muddied its results, but maybe that sort of reinforces the point.  Spurlock is witty and engaging as ever.
   9. Hell and Back Again
      This was sort of like the reality show version of The Hurt Locker, but much better than that sounds now that I reread it.  Still...young, attractive, injured GI, anxious to return to the field of battle because he doesn't know anything else.  Despite the fact that he has a family back here.  The film stays pretty objective, and its subject comes off as both admirable in his courage and perhaps a bit hasty in his decisions, especially considering his injuries. 
  8. Cave of Forgotten Dreams
     Easily my favorite of the two Herzog documentaries I saw this year (the other being Into the Abyss), it seemed to suit his narration much better.  This movie lagged a bit in some of the interviews with the scientists, who mostly do not seem too groomed for public speaking, but the actual exploration of the caves will take your breath away.  It's like literally travelling thousands of years into the past.
  7. Senna
     I had two really great surprises on this documentary list, films that I did not expect to love, but did despite myself.  Senna was the first.  I have no great interest in Formula 1 racing, but the character of Senna the man was captivating.  What really got me, though, was the footage of his races from inside the car.  These sequences were filled with more real tension than I got out of any suspense thriller I saw this year.  They really grabbed hold of you and took you along for the ride.
  6. Sons of Perdition
      This documentary followed the lives of several escapees from a polygamist cult and illustrated a lot of the less savory elements of human nature in the process.  The film really made you root for its subjects but was not afraid to cast them in the most realistic light possible.  As a result, it left you with more hope and disappointment, in equal measure, than almost anything else I watched in 2011.
  5. Nostalgia For The Light
     This film was about astronomy, families searching for the remains of their loved ones, the nation of Chile, and the nature of the universe.  It sounds like a big jumbled stew of a film, and it is...brilliantly.  I have never seen a documentary deal so much in abstraction (well, OK, maybe Exit Through the Gift Shop), but somehow it all makes a cohesive whole by the time it is done.  A unique and interesting viewing experience.
  4. Buck
     My other great unexpected joy of this year's documentary crop was Buck.  Whereas Senna scooped you up and dragged you along for the ride, Buck lulled you into a state of trust, and then you willingly followed.  Watching this master trainer at work is mesmerizing, almost hypnotic, and his love for the animals is palpable and endearing.  It's hard not to love Buck.
  3. We Were Here
     This was an absolutely heart wrenching film that perfectly captured a unique time in US history, or at least U.S. history in the last fifty years.  A significant subset of the population experienced a true plague, and the U.S. government did...nothing...for much longer than seems possible in retrospect.  We Were Here is the story of the people who lived in the most ravaged city, San Francisco.  Parts of this film made my chest literally ache to watch it. 
  2. Project Nim
     Just as heart wrenching, in its way, was this film.  But it was also joyous and wondrous in parts.  This of course, made it all the more difficult to watch things go wrong.  I don't know if I've ever seen a movie really demonstrated the range of emotions among intelligent animals, not with real footage.  This one did.  It also made me think long and hard about the meaning of the word "humanity", and the nature of communication, and why it is so vital to everything in my life.  It is a crime this film did not get a nomination.
  1. Pina
     I have already expounded the virtues of this film in many other categories.  It sort of transcends the documentary category, like Exit Through the Gift Shop, but in its own unique way.  If you appreciate interpretive dance at all, please do yourself a favor and watch it.  Oh, and it makes brilliant use of 3D.

Foreign Language Film
     I feel pretty well prepared to do this category.  I do wish I'd seen Academy Award nominee Monsieur Lazhar, but, you can't have alone would be a nightmare.  I almost posted a top twenty, but after I made the list, I felt much more enthusiastic with just the top fifteen.  These films were all really good to absolutely great, so unless subtitles killed your family and you can't even look at them, you might want to check these films out.
  15. City of Life and Death
     This primarily Mandarin language film from Chinese writer/director Chuan Lu, is almost Altmanesque with its myriad and diverse cast of characters moving in and out and around each other's lives during the 1937 Japanese invasion of Nanjing.  It is not a subtle film, nor is it one that looks away from brutality.  It is one of the strongest war themed films of the year.
  14.  13 Assassins
     I am not a huge fan of balls out martial arts features in general, but this Japanese language film from director Takashi Miike was something special.  Despite a bit of less than inspired humor (and some that was actually kind of cute) it kept me entertained throughout, achieved a bit of characterization here and there and had the most amazing, hour long, brilliantly choreographed, 100 man fight sequence that I have ever witnessed for its finale..  Seriously,almost the whole second half of the film!
  13. Chico and Rita
     The only animated film on this list was a great (for adults) love story told through music and across continents.  It is a great, old fashioned story of doomed lovers, and yet it is a wholly original movie which might just make you fall in love with a Cuba of days long gone.
  12. La Havre
     Ok, I haven't published my review of this one yet, and I don't want to use my best lines, but it is a very innocent story, if not a simple one.  Pushes the edges of the fine line between charm and cheese very skillfully, in much the same way that The Artist did.  Review forthcoming.
  11. 3
     German director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run and the upcoming English Language feature Cloud Atlas) is good with tension, and the tension kept what could have been too contrived of a romance on point.  Strong ensemble cast, and it IS kinda hot it places.  Not the first story of a three-way romance, but one of the better ones.
  10. Miss Bala
     I really enjoyed this, my first exposure to the work of Mexican film maker Gerardo Naranjo.  Definitely one of my favorite action flicks of the year.  The acting was mostly excellent, the camera work was striking and interesting,and the plot moved along at a great pace.  Totally believable and frightening for being so.
   9. Footnote review of this one is still pending, but it's witty, very well written and performed.  Very wry Hebrew language dramedy nominated by the Academy.
  8.  Poetry
     South Korean actress Jeong-hie Yun is brilliant in this character study of a woman who finds out that she is going to lose her mind, and her desperate search to both use it in ways she never has while she's still got it, and to settle her responsibilities before it is gone.  Takes one through quite an emotional spectrum.
  7. Nostalgia For The Light
     Almost like an anthology of short documentaries that share a vague geography except that somehow it all comes together...sort of.  My first exposure to the work of Chilean documentary film maker Patricio Guzman, but I must say that he takes a very creative approach to non fiction storytelling, and has a very interesting voice.
  6. Certified Copy
     Acclaimed international director Abbas Kiasrostami's mostly French language, slightly surreal drama starring the great Juliette Binoche and William Shimell is a simple movie, mostly told in conversation between two people, but it not without surprises.  It is no surprise that Ms. Binoche is fantastic and Mr. Shimell is quite impressive himself and the two keep the film moving....and moving.
  5. Bullhead
      As impressive a debut as this is for writer/director Michael R. Roskam, what really blew me away about this film was the star making performance by Matthias Schoenaerts.  I think all men, if they are really honest with themselves, have felt insecure about their masculinity at some point in their lives.  Jacky, Bullhead's central character, has built his whole identity around fighting that feeling.
  4. The Housemaid
      So soapy, and campy, and over the top, but wonderfully so.  This Korean melodrama from director Sang Soo-Im has a flawless ensemble cast, mostly female, who aren't afraid to just GO FOR IT, and I think they got it.  Also, a movie with many intricate flourishes, particularly the recurring background use of flame images.  This one took me by surprise.
  3. The Skin I Live In
      Internationally beloved Spanish director Pedro Almodovar is at his best when telling stories that seem to exist somewhere just to the left of reality.  This little psycho-horror-drama is his zaniest film in some time, and has a top notch cast, including Antonio Banderas, who Almodovar originally discovered.  Speaking of Mr. Banderas, it is one of his best roles ever.
  2.  A Separation
     I have already written a lot about this film in this series, and its all true.  Writer/director Asghar Farhadi is well poised to become the next breakout internationally recognized auteur.  On my absolute top tier of movies this year.
  1. Pina
     Although much of Pina is told in a wordless and universal dialect, those who shared in the choreographer's work speak of her in German, French, English, Spanish, Croatian, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and Korean.  Almost like the artists of the WHOLE world had gathered to pay her tribute.  Very touching.  Very moving film.

And that...was 2011.  Thank you to everyone who has come along for this series.  You have helped to make it my most popular ever.  Please continue to read The Movie Frog.  Besides regular reviews, I WILL finally be launching the Classic Cinema Series next weekend, and will be updating my predictions for this coming awards season in September, and I will continue to come up with other ideas to keep this swamp hopping.
                                                                              Until next we meet,

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Dark Knight Transcends

     You know, Christopher Nolan swears that he had not set out to make a trilogy when he made Batman Begins, but after watching The Dark Knight Rises it is very difficult to imagine that the three scripts were not written together as one story arc.  This film ties together all the loose threads from the entire series in such a seamless, well thought out way, that it certainly SEEMS like they had to know where they were going when they started out.  Oh well, I guess it is just a testament to the film making genius at work here that fashioned such a perfect ending.
     And it IS a perfect ending.  Everyone's story line:  Commissioner Gordon, Alfred, Lucious Fox, The League of Shadows, Harvey Dent, the new characters, Batman, and (most surprisingly) Bruce Wayne all come full circle in a way that was wholly satisfying to both the film snob in me and the comic book geek who collected thousands of Batman starring issues throughout the 80's and 90's.  I saw Bane break the Batman's back. I had The Dark Knight series. I've read all the comics that these movies were roughly based on, and I've never seen stories adapted in a way that so successfully retained all the flavor of the source material, but still told a story entirely unique unto itself.
     Of course, it doesn't hurt to have one of the finest ensemble casts ever assembled:  Oscar winners Christian Bale, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, and Marion Cotillard; Oscar nominees Anne Hathawaye, Liam Neeson, and Gary Oldman, plus rising young stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy.
     Poor Tom Hardy.  Everyone wants to compare his Bane to Heath Ledger's Joker, and it is true that Bane is not nearly as compelling of a villain as the world's craziest clown, but it's like this:  When Bat-fans ask each other who their favorite Bat-Villian is, the Joker never counts as an answer, because it would always be everyone's answer.  He is the most fascinating comic book bad guy ever.  I think Hardy does an excellent job of making Bane more interesting than he has ever really been before.  Besides, if Tom Hardy can dive so deeply into a character like Bane that I no longer find him the least bit attractive on screen, then he is one hell of an actor.
     Of the returning supporting cast, Gary Oldman is certainly given the most to do, and his Commissioner Gordon remains the live action version that is closest to the man I knew from the comics.  Caine is somewhat sidelined as Alfred, but still has a few really good scenes that do expand our understanding of the character a bit.  Freeman is given very little to do as Fox, but is as charming a screen presence as ever.  Cameos by Neeson and Murphy are delightful and help to complete the sense of continuity throughout the three films.
     I can't say a whole lot about Cotillard or Gordon-Levitt without entering spoiler country, but they are both commendable in their roles.
     Best of the newbies definitely goes to Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, who is almost like a second moral center for the film from a different perspective.  It is not easy to take on one of the most famous and beloved anti-heroes of all time and make it decidedly your own, but she did.  Rumor has it that Nolan would be willing to produce (though not direct) a Catwoman movie starring Hathaway, and I'm all for it.  Between this film and Les Mis., this talented young actress may just be having her best year yet.
     In the end, though, it is good that no villain dominated the story the way that the Joker did last time around, because this film is first and foremost about Bale's Batman and Bruce Wayne.  Again, I don't want to give too much away, but we get the most intricate view of the man's psyche ever put to large or small screen:  his motivation, determination, frustration, and humanity,  Beyond the gadgets and the money, these are the things that truly define the Bruce Wayne/Batman persona, and  Bale gives us the best interpretation of them that we've ever seen.
     Of course, in a Nolan movie, it is not just about the script and the acting, but the total package presented.  The most notable presences in the crew are Oscar winners Wally Pfister on cinematography and Hans Zimmer on score, both of whom are frequent Nolan collaborators.  The entire production is first rate though, and should find widespread accolades in the craft categories this year, even if the film's subject matter leaves it ignored by the Academy for above the line consideration.
      All in all, The Dark Knight Rises transcends everything we've ever seen in a super hero movie, even in The Dark Knight.  However, this is largely true of every genre that Nolan chooses to tackle.  Memento, The Prestige, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Inception....with every film he makes this director redefines the intelligent blockbuster, the thinking man's genre movie.  The Academy may be slow to recognize his genius, but he has expanded what films like this can be in a way we haven't seen since the Spielberg films of the 70's and early 80's.  Here at The Movie Frog, we only hope that he continues far into the 21rst century.  The Dark Knight Rises is easily my favorite film released so far in 2012.  Now in theatres.  5 of 5*

Monday, August 6, 2012

Best of 2011 - Best Picture (concluded)

     So sorry that I was unable to cover these all in one fell swoop, but I wanted to give you a taste before the weekend was over.  What can I say?  Anyway, here are my top 30 films of the year.  Be prepared, there are only four of this year's Best Picture nominees in there, although they are all pretty high on the list.  Only one, however, is in the top five.  The top nineteen films here I gave five out of five stars to.  The top fourteen took no thought to award five stars to.  Enjoy...I certainly did.

  30. Higher Ground
     Vera Farmiga is brilliant both behind and in front of the camera, in this exploration of emerging feminism in the late twentieth century and spirituality in a timeless sense.  Might well have been hailed as the directorial debut of the year, if not for...

29. Margin Call
     Writer/director J.C. Chandor assembled a cast list that reads like this debut was an Altman flick.  He also told perhaps the most compelling and insightful story yet of the recent economic crash.

28. Nostalgia For The Light
     This Chilean documentary is unlike any movie I've ever seen.  It's various subjects are so disconnected, but come to seem completely everything.  An absolutely excellent film.

27. Crazy, Stupid, Love
     This was a great romcom with a fantastic cast (Carrell, Moore, Gosling, and Stone for starters) and a really smart script that didn't necessarily go where you expected it to.

26. Red State
     This was Kevin Smith's best movie since Dogma.  An absurdist indictment of dogmatism, homophobia, and all the vices of human nature that a red state.  Michael Parks and John Goodman are amazing.

25. Certified Copy
    Kiarostami's excellent French language film (although a good bit is in English as well) starring an exquisite Juliet Binoche is one of the best films I have seen in some time that exists mostly as conversation between two characters.  Surprises and twists abound in a film that turns out to be about things you never expected.

24. Buck
     I never thought I would fall so in love with a documentary about a famous horse trainer, but I did.  If you have ever had to learn to really COMMUNICATE with an animal before, with respect, then you will too.  Buck himself is just a really impressive man.

23. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
     I kind of wish that there had been more time between the original cinematic version of the Millennium trilogy and the English language version, so it could have seemed more "new" again to those of us who saw the Swedish film.  Still, Fincher is as meticulously amazing as always and Rooney Mara gives a career launching performance as Lisbeth.

22. Hanna
     I absolutely thought Joe Wright made one of the best action films I have seen in some time here, and Ronan is an absolute knockout in the title role.  Blanchette is the perfect foil for her.

21. Bullhead
     One of my favorite male lead performances of the year.  Rewards repeat viewings.  Brutally thoughtful?  Thoughtfully brutal?

20. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
     I thought this concept was too tired to be relaunched in a worthwhile way, but boy was I wrong.  If the lead human characters had been half as compelling as the apes this might have made my top ten, 

19. We Were Here
     Maybe this documentary of the real AIDS plague in 1980's San Francisco was a little more personal to me because I've lost several friends to the disease, but this film was incredibly emotionally intense.

18. The Housemaid
     Yes, this Korean film was a campy melodrama, but it was a superb campy melodrama with a fantastic ensemble cast. 

17. The Skin I Live In
     Of course, very few can do brilliantly campy as well as Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, and this was his zaniest effort in a while.  The director's reunion with Antonio Banderas, the director's own discovery, is everything I hoped it would be, and Banderas's best performance in quite some time.

16. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
     A quiet, thinking man's thriller featuring an outstanding ensemble cast led capably by Gary Oldman, with a very well constructed story.  Mysteries in mysteries.

15. Rango
     Even though his performance was only in voice over, this film did more to remind me of everything I love about Depp than any film in quite some time.  The rest of the film was quite clever and funny too, especially the owl narrators.

14. Project Nim
     This film and Buck could almost be companion pieces.  But while Buck shows everything that can go right when humans learn to communicate with animals, this film shows everything that can go wrong when we try to teach them to communicate with us.  I said that Buck would touch anyone who loved animals.  This documentary will both touch and horrify anyone with any humanity whatsoever.

13. A Separation
     This film both tells an engaging story that helps you connect fully with all the main characters as people and gives you an insightful look into Iranian culture from an insider's prospective.  Engages both your heart and mind.  The cast is phenomenal.

12. The Descendants
      If there was one family trying to pull out of a tailspin that was more compelling than the one in A Separation, it was the one in The Descendants.  This movie is so evenly balanced between heartbreak and humor.  Clooney shows greater depth than ever before, and the rest of the cast shines as well.  The footage of Hawaii is also breathtaking.

  11. Tyrannosaur
     It took me completely by surprise.  One of the best, simplest examinations of the most primitive instincts of mankind.  Near perfect lead performances.

10. Hugo
     I'm sure this film, in all it's gorgeously creative 3-D splendor, is a real treat for kids.  However, when you take the whole tribute to Malle and add it into the mix, it becomes a textually complex delicacy for film geeks who never quite grew up.

   9. Pina
     This documentary was such a gorgeous work of art on so many levels.  The dances, choreographed by Pina, were magnificent.  The interviews with the artists that she touched were like little tribute poems, each complete within themselves, and each a part of a greater whole.  The film itself, which takes these elements and mixes them into a 3-D stew, is like nothing I've ever seen before.

   8.  Weekend
     Weekend is not the film that you show your homophobic friends to try and make them okay with gay people.  It is brutally unflinching, but touching, and above all, real.  Writer/director/star Tom Cullen has concocted a simple little love story that feels more like the things I have been through in my life than any such movie I have ever seen.  Both Cullen and Chris New create characters that I feel like I know.  The film never preaches in any way, but so vividly paints the picture of a million little things in life that are just a little different for homosexuals.  If you are gay, and you want your open minded, well meaning straight friends who just don't get it sometimes to understand your life a little better, show them Weekend.  That is the movie that Weekend is.

   7.  Take Shelter
      There were many films this year that ended abruptly in a way that was cheap and gimmicky and detracted from the film's overall quality.  It was what kept films like Martha Marcy Mae Marlene and Meek's Cutoff from making this year's best list.  Take Shelter ends perfectly, and the storyline progresses almost perfectly throughout.  This is my first exposure to director Jeff Nichols, but I am now quite anxious to see the rest of his films.  The most amazing thing about this movie, however, is the lead performance by Michael Shannon.  His depiction of a man unsure if he is having prophetic visions or losing his mind is my favorite lead male performance of the year, and he had some very stiff competition in that arena.  Jessica Chastain also delivers commendable supporting work.

  6. The Artist
     Okay, so it won Best Picture at the Oscars this year and if you are the sort of person who reads "Best of" lists you've probably seen it already.  And if you did, you don't need me to tell you what was great about it.  It's not a subtle movie.  Dujardin and Bejo are electric presences on the screen.  Uggy the dog is the cutest thing caught on film in a long time.  It's easily accessible without being shallow.  It makes you laugh and cry and cheer and want to dance.  It is perfectly rewatchable and re-rewatchable.  It is quite possibly the greatest expression of joy caught on film in some time. 

  5. Melancholia
     Does everyone know about what happened with Melancholia at Cannes last year?  How director Lars von Trier made comments that indicated some sort of admiration for the Nazis.  Maybe it was meant to be ironic. Who knows? Lars von Trier is freaking crazy.  You only have to watch his films to know that.  However, the same thing could be said of Edgar Allen Poe and his writings.  Sometimes crazy and brilliant go hand in hand and Melancholia could be the man's masterpiece but his snafu at Cannes blocked its awards hopes for the rest of the year.  It also torpedoed the awards hopes of Kirsten Dunst, who gives a career best performance, my favorite female lead of the year.  I had to rewatch the first fifteen minutes like a dozen times over before I could move on to the rest of the film.  It was so beautiful, and...melancholy.  Maybe my favorite cinematic representation of the Apocalypse ever.

   4. We Need To Talk About Kevin
     If A Separation and The Descendants are brilliant portrayals of families in tailspin, We Need To Talk About Kevin is director Lynne Ramsey's master portrait of a family after the fatal crash.  Tilda Swinton is an amazingly talented actress and this may be her best role ever, but she is almost overshadowed by Ezra Miller who gives my favorite male supporting turn of the year.  She is the epitome of a woman whose opportunities for happiness have all been shattered.  He is perhaps the most twisted young man ever caught on film.  The look of the entire production is so vivid and unique, almost like a dream, but far too lush.  Every time things look up, just a bit, reality slaps our heroine in the face.  Sometimes literally.  This film is very hard to watch at times, but is ultimately highly rewarding.

  3. Drive
     Art house indie artistic sensibilities meet B-movie action flick for some of the most stylized and brutal violence ever put to screen.  Director Nicholas Winding Refn definitely has a unique vision for the cinema.  Star Ryan Gosling says more with fewer words than in any other performance this year.  Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks (cast ingeniously against type), Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston, and Oscar Isaac round out a stellar supporting cast.  Almost everything about this film is perfectly executed, right down to the costuming department's choice of scorpion jacket.

   2.  Shame
     Watching this film is one of the most painful cinematic experiences imaginable in this beautifully aching way.  Fassbender and Mulligan as Brandon and Sissy are two of the most irredeemably flawed but completely sympathetic characters ever put on the screen.  Brandon is a sex addict, and spends all his days either searching for satisfaction or hiding the efforts of his search from the rest of the world.  Sissy, a horridly depressed young woman has holes in her own soul that she doesn't seem to be able to fill.  They are all each other has in this world, and are totally unable to be there for one another.  And it's truly a shame.  Beautifully written, photographed, directed (by Steve McQueen, who also wrote it) and acted.  Breathtaking, touching, and horrifying.

   1. The Tree of Life
     It's so difficult to talk about this movie without sounding like some appallingly smug new age self help guru, but I'll do my best.  The Tree of Life is not for everybody.  It is very long, it unfolds unapologetically at its own pace, and follows very little linear plot line.  If you think that you have the patience and attention span for it, though, it is really, truly a masterpiece.  I've never seen a story that is told like this in a way that is brazenly archetypal yet completely slice of life.  It is the story of a mundane, Everyman kind of 1950's nuclear family and it is a story that encompasses the birth of the universe and the shores of eternity.  Terrence Malick is one of the most unique storytellers working in any medium.  The cast is spectacular, even though they are given very little dialogue or action.  Much of the story is told simply in symbolic images.  Whatever else time judges this film to be, it will always be remembered as the film that introduced Jessica Chastain to the world, and she is astounding.

     And that, is that.  Except, of course, that we still have one more chapter to this book.  Join me next weekend for the genre awards.  I'll see you then...

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Best of 2011 - Best (and Worst) Picture

     And this is it.  We have finally come down to the top (and bottom) prizes in the Froggy Awards.  Of course, we will still have the Post-Script edition next weekend covering the genres:  Animated Feature, Foreign Language Film, and Documentary Feature as well as a few other bits and pieces.  If you've missed any of the other posts in the series:  Techs, Performances Part 1, Performances Part 2, or Writers and Directors you can check them out by clicking on the appropriate links.  As always, any film titles that appear as a link will take you to my review of that movie.
     In my hurry to get the writers and directors post up last Saturday, I again left off a couple of Tin Toadstool Awards.  For worst original screenplay and for Worst Director we will go with Madonna for W./E.

The Tin Toadstool For Worst Picture
     I feel like my Best Picture list to follow is a much more qualified opinion as I have tried to see as many of the year's best movies as possible.  Many of the year's worst films I have avoided on purpose as I can't watch everything.  However, these are the twenty worst movies that some friend (or the AMPAS) forced me to watch this year.
  20.  I Am Number Four
     Some fairly juvenile performances and dialogue kept this fairly good concept from quite being a good movie.
  19. The Beaver
     This wasn't a horrible movie, and I almost feel bad including it on this list but with the talent involved, it could have been a LOT better.
  18. Rio
     Again, not terrible, but fairly insipid.  Rio had very little in it that would appeal to anyone over the age of 10, but maybe that was the point.
  17. Immortals
     This film has about as much to do with Greek mythology as early Disney has to do with Grimm's fairy tales but it functions okay as somewhat twisted soft gay porn.
  16. Green Lantern
      I grew up reading D.C. comics and Green Lantern was one of the characters whose adventures I always followed, so nobody wanted this thing to be good more than I did.  If wishes were fishes we'd all have a feast.  This was a famine.
  15. Dream House
     Plot holes and a poorly realized script kept this flick, which actually had a much more potentially impressive cast than most horror movies, from really realizing any of said potential.
  14. Transformers;  Dark of the Moon
     The visual effects were impressive but would have overshadowed the story and performances had there been enough substance in them to overshadow.
  13. The Eagle
     Let's just say that Channing Tatum is having a much better year in 2012.  Utterly forgettable.
  12. Texas Killing Fields
     Jessica Chastain is the only reason that I watched this film at all.  It was the worst of her six appearances last year by a light year (maybe two).
  11. Killer Elite
     Every predictable choice you could have made in this film was made.  It also bears the curse of having perhaps the greatest under utilization of talent of the year in its use of Robert DeNiro.
  10. The Strange Case of Angelica
     I really don't understand Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira's movies, but he is a national treasure of his homeland and I don't want to insult the Portuguese people, but....
   9. Insidious
     Oh, let's see.  What did I find unoriginal about Insidious?  Was it the kid drawing pictures of the bad man that no one took seriously?  Was it the much less interesting version of Tangina from Poltergeist?  Maybe it was her assistants who were basically the Frog Brothers from Lost Boys dressed as Mormons.  Let's go with:  D. All of the above.
   8. There Be Dragons
      Perhaps director Roland Joffe should have just been content with The Killing Fields and quit while he was way ahead.
   7. The Hangover Part 2
     I quickly lose interest in comedy sequels that fall into the trap of using all the same gags over and over again in slightly different ways.  After a hangover, one always promises oneself that they will never do it again.  We always live to regret not keeping that promise.  Loved the original.
   6. Red Riding Hood
     I love Amanda Seyfried; I just wish she would get some projects in film that allow her to shine half as much as much as she did on the HBO series Big Love.  I'm still waiting.
   5. Sleeping Beauty
     More like a sleeping aid.
   4. To Die Like A Man
     Can you imagine how lame Rodger Waters (Hairspray, Pink Flamingos, Pecker) films would be if they didn't know how to laugh at themselves.  After watching this movie, I have a pretty vivid idea.
   3. 13
     This was the least suspenseful suspense flick I've seen in some time.  Imagine Russian Roulette as an hour and a half long spectator sport played by an unevenly capable group of actors and you have some idea.  I kept wanting the main guys to lose so the film would end (plus that would have been an unexpected twist, something the film could have greatly benefited from).
   2. Season of the Witch
     Leaving Las Vegas was great, but range does not seem to be one of Nicolas Cage's most valuable assets as an actor and when he's in a big period role like this it always comes across like Costner as Robin Hood.  Mr. Cage, please read more of scripts than the synopses before agreeing to projects.  Please!  Some of these lemons could not get made without your name attached!
   1. W./E.
      Oh, Madge....Edited like a slow onset of DT's and faaaar too much on every level.  I said all of the other clever mean things I could think of in my original review.

The Froggies For Best Picture of the Year
     Yes, I'm doing fifty.  I actually had this many films this year that I wholeheartedly recommend seeing.  I'll be as brief as possible.
  50.  Young Adult
     This film is a really harsh, dark, and bitter pill even for this Movie Frog, but it is still much more clever and witty than most comedies I saw this year.  Theron is just as good as you expect her to be by now.
  49. Captain America:  The First Avenger
     In a year replete with super hero movies, this was easily the best of the bunch.  It was fun, and touching, and Chris Evans actually did a more than respectable job of bringing humanity to a character that had never inspired that much interest in even this old comic geek.
  48. The Help
     The fantastic ensemble cast here elevates this film into something really special.
 47. Another Earth
     This was one of the most creative concepts for a science fiction movie that I've seen in quite a while.
  46. Bridesmaids
     Another fantastic female ensemble, complemented here by an excellent screenplay.
  45. 50/50
     This dramedy is darkly comic and touchingly poignant.  Gordon-Levitt gives an impressive star turn.
  44. In The Land of Blood and Honey
     Angelina Jolie proves her potential as a director in this largely captivating, at times shocking historical drama.
  43. Footnote
     I have just very recently watched this Israeli Best Foreign Film nominee and my opinion may shift a little one way or the other with a little more time to reflect on it, but I can say that it is original, funny, and very well acted.
  42. Moneyball
     This film was very well acted and much more interesting than I ever expected a film about finance, statistics, and baseball (sort of in that order) to ever be.  Jonah Hill showed new depth and range.
  41. Cave of Forgotten Dreams
     Werner Herzog's documentary about perhaps the oldest surviving human art is mostly fascinating and at times truly mesmerizing.
  40. The Adventures of Tin Tin: The Secret of the Unicorn
      Visually both stunning and unsettling, this motion capture animated film from The Spielberg reminded us that he was indeed the man that made Raiders of the Lost Ark.
  39. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
      A little difficult for the uninitiated to follow, this was still a spectacular finish to a deservedly beloved franchise.
  38. Poetry
      A very unique little drama, with a heartbreaking central performance.
  37. Senna
     Biographical documentary about the famous Formula One driver plays at times like a great suspense flick with a captivating central player.
  36. Pariah
     The rare sort of gritty coming of age tale that is both realistic and hopeful.
  35. Midnight in Paris
     The best Woody Allen film in some time, this film was as thoughtful, witty, and clever as we all know Mr. Allen to be capable of being.
  34. Arthur Christmas
     Yes, it was really cute and family Christmasy, but in this totally original, funny, and entertaining way.  I totally bought in. 
  33. Sons of Perdition
     Completely engaging documentary about children trying to flee a culture that seems utterly alien to how most of us were raised.
  32. Miss Bala
     One of the best action thrillers of the year with a pair of great performances.
  31. A Better Life
     Poignant immigration drama that netted Demian Bechir much deserved awards attention.
I hate to do this, but time is be continued tomorrow...