January 28, 2010

Guys Movie Night: The Book Of Eli

A fatally flawed Western set in a post-apocalyptic hellscape. Denzel Washington is Eli, the avenging angel/Christian pilgrim, pulled into a battle of faith versus greed when he crosses paths with small town despot "Carnegie" (Gary Oldman).
The premise, sadly similar to The Road Warrior, holds a sliver of promise: it's been 30 years since "the war" destroyed civilization. The survivors blamed The Bible for the war, and sought to destroy every copy on Earth. As a result, the populace born since the war is mostly illiterate, and the knowledge of Christianity has been forgotten. Eli carries a leather-bound King James Bible in his rucksack, reads it every night, and has faith in it. Carnegie, on the other hand, sees its power to control the desperate hearts and minds of the godless survivors across the desert wasteland of America.
The idea of a society where God has been forgotten, a hardscrabble subsistence culture where survival comes before humanity, could have been exploited to make a dramatic, powerful film. Instead, the Hughes Brothers (From Hell, Menace II Society) miss those opportunities, thanks to poor style choices and cliche'd plot elements.
One of the main thematic elements is the burning power of the sun. The war, 30 years earlier, "punched a hole in the sky", blinding many survivors with "the flash", and forcing the rest to wear sunglasses at all times to avoid being blinded. This ties in nicely with the idea that the godless survivors are "blind" to the knowledge of The Lord, but it creates a crippling dramatic challenge. The entire cast wears sunglasses all the time, forcing Academy Award winner Denzel Washington, wearing oversized opaque lenses, to do all his acting without his most emotive organs? Mila Kunis (Solara), whose talent surprised and impressed me in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, only gets two scenes without her Top Gun aviator shades. At least most of Gary Oldman's scenes take place indoors, but he dons ridiculous Truman Capote Wayfarers for the gun battles on Main Street.
Denzel's Eli is a man of few words. Even once he is forced to allow Solara to tag along on his journey, he speaks hardly at all about the world before the war, about the word of the Lord, or about his faith. What's the point in having a Christian alone in the wilderness if he refuses to spread The Word?
The most tedious element has to be Carnegie's henchmen. Once again, Oldman is playing the clever villain who is forced to order around his moronic henchmen. I love Gary Oldman, but he's played this exact part much better in The Professional and The Fifth Element.
The ending includes a clever plot twist, several geographic impossibilities, a physiologically unlikely scenario, and Malcolm McDowell with long white hair and a stringy mustache. I am not going to bother to explain how this movie goes downhill sideways in the last 10 minutes, because I beg you to avoid this movie anyway.
My favorite part of the movie was the score. The original music is credited to newcomers Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross, and Claudia Sarne. The score was a mix of droning atonal doom, reminiscent of The Shining, and quasi-Nine Inch Nails instrumentals, but on the whole they offered a evocative counterpoint to the barren landscapes of deserts, craters, and sepia-toned hopelessness.
I saw this with Marc, Jack, Jeff, and José- Jack talked me down from a C+ grade ("that's just below average!") to a D+ grade. Someone suggested that I was grading on a curve, but if that were true, it would have flunked completely as the worst movie I saw in a theater in the last year. (Regal Fenway 13, screen 2)

January 27, 2010

All-Time Ticket Sales Leaders

Box office grosses are a poor metric of a movie's success, even when comparing current box office results to movies released a year or two ago. When comparing a current film against all-time blockbusters, the comparison is meaningless.

This issue has come to a head with the success of Avatar. By any measure, it's a successful and wildly popular movie, but it's pointless to gauge Avatar's popularity based on box office gross, when the average price paid for a ticket is so much higher than any movie in history. Even box office leaders from 2009 or 2008 did not include huge numbers of IMAX and 3D sales.

The only fair metric to judge a movie's popularity in a historical context is plain 'ol tickets sold. Box Office Mojo has a nice interactive table ranking all-time domestic box office, by dollars, and by tickets sold. By that measure, Avatar, at 76 million tickets sold, is at #26 all-time. Be sure to read the Chart Notes at right- 15 of the 25 movies ahead of Avatar on the list have benefited from multiple theatrical releases- a common practice for blockbusters pre-1980, also Disney movies, and movies by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

January 18, 2010

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

A truly adorable and yet surprisingly sober family movie. Mr. Fox, a middle-aged father and husband, suffers a mid-life crisis. Instead of buying a convertible or having an affair, he returns to his youthful daredevil ways. Mr. Fox begins poaching poultry and piercing the pride of the local farmers. The three evil farmers swear vengeance against Mr. Fox. Forced from their homes, Mr. Fox, his family, and their wild subterranean neighbors are backed into a corner (literally) and must fight back.

Writer/director Wes Anderson, who drives me crazy with his fetishistic obsession with props and costumes, daddy issues, and overall twee-ness, has found a forum where these weaknesses are turned into strengths, or at least neutralized: animation.

His live-action movies, including The Royal Tenembaums and The Life Aquatic, are now much less insufferable, because now I will pretend I am watching stop-motion animated puppets, instead of Bill Murray and Owen Wilson and their stilted dialog.

Emily, Henry, and I saw TFMF on the Monday after MLK Day with a theater-ful of parents, babies, and young children, at the Arlington Capitol Theater's "Baby Friendly Movie" 1 p.m. matinee. I was pleasantly surprised that the young children were completely riveted by, and mostly silent during, the movie. Some babies cried occasionally, but not to the point where I could not follow the film. I was expecting to be entirely distracted. Instead, I had a great time.

January 7, 2010

It's Complicated

A tribute to the beauty of older women, and a surprisingly thoughtful meditation on marriage, wrapped up in a glossy romantic comedy. Meryl Streep is lovely and silly as a empty-nester who is seduced into an ill-advised love affair with her ex-husband, Alec Baldwin. Baldwin charms Streep... and every woman in the audience too, but his charm is almost predatory in its insistence.
Streep and Baldwin were married for 18 years, divorced, and have barely spoken for the past 10 years. Most divorced couples in movies do nothing but bicker and insult each other. The novelty of this movie's premise is that it skips that part of their lives and picks up the thread long after that chapter is over.
Here's how they looked when their characters got married in the early 1980s
 They reunite by chance, spontaneously share a drunken evening together, which leads to a drunken "hookup" (that's what the young folks are calling it these days.) Streep is seduced by Baldwin's charm and desire, but, as with many divorces, there is also the element of "unfinished business" between them. They fall back together easily --they were married in the first place for a reason-- but is this reunion an honest reappraisal of their relationship, or is it more complicated? I really appreciated the thoughtfulness with which the movie addresses the lingering feelings of a divorced couple.
I was expecting It's Complicated to be too long- 120 minutes is an epic length for a romantic comedy - but it's not as "too long" as it could have been. It's the shortest movie yet from writer/director Nancy Meyers:
Besides a slightly soggy third act, I am also fed up with the sheer wealth of families in Nancy Meyers movies- It's Complicated takes place in the exclusive domain of millionaires. Baldwin is a lawyer who drives a $100,000 Porsche 911. Streep owns her own bakery / restaurant (picture Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa as the inspiration), lives in a plush homestead on what appears to be a plantation. She immodestly complains about her modest kitchen (which is already bigger than some apartments I've lived in) and has grand plans to build a whole new wing on her house. Perhaps the intent is to create a aspirational fantasy world, but in today's wintry economic climate, this upper-upper-class world left me cold.
I had a great time watching this movie with my friend Adam...and nearly every woman we know! They all laughed at nearly everything Alec Baldwin said. What a charmer! Also, John Krasinski was very good as their daughter's fiance- hardly a "Jim" moment in the whole movie. (AMC Church St, Harvard Square Screen #1, with Amy, Adam, Mandy, Pickles, Karen, Penny, Julie, Mary Beth, and many more!)

Stub Hubby Reviews: Also Directed By Nancy Meyers

January 1, 2010

Top 25: 2000-2009

Here's my Top 25 movies of the last decade. This list includes the movies that were the most entertaining, the movies I like to watch over and over, the movies with the biggest emotional whallop. Most of the decade retrospective lists I've read in magazines, newspapers, and online this winter have given little respect to comedies and action movies. Critics are too desperate for respect to admit there's value in quality "popcorn" entertainment. Yours truly, however, won't fool anyone by putting some obvious Oscar-winning "respected" movies on this list!
  • Chicken Run
  • Gladiator
  • High Fidelity
  • O Brother, Where Art Thou?
  • Wonder Boys
  • Shrek • I think we have all forgotten how irreverent and funny the first Shrek movie was before it's power was diluted by sequels and a flood of merchandising.
  • The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001, 02, 03) Yes, I counted them as one big movie.
  • A Mighty Wind
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse Of The Black Pearl
  • Finding Nemo
  • Master & Commander: Far Side of the World
  • Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  • Shaun of the Dead
  • The Incredibles
  • The Forty-Year-Old Virgin
  • Children Of Men
  • The Departed
  • The Prestige
  • The Bourne Ultimatum
  • Hot Fuzz
  • Ratatouille
  • There Will Be Blood
  • The Dark Knight
  • WALL•E