Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 Year-End Movie Review Round-Up

And so we come to the end of another year, the second for which there's been a Net-flixation and I've been, publicly, Half a Film Student. How did the year shape up? How did it compare to '09? Will I avoid referring to the horrible flood of snow that's made my city a big grey/white disaster?

Well, I went to the theaters a bit more, actually. Inception, all 3 "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" movies, several midnite flix... I was out at the movies a lot more in 2010. Still, the variety was lower, and I took a chance less often - in other words, I went in knowing whether the pic was horrible or not, and I didn't see anything painful in the theaters this year.

Of course, this means I was a happier reviewer, in general. That's just the way it goes.  I did miss some flicks, though: Black Swan is at the top of the list - though I can still catch it in theaters, I know that it may never happen. I get a little better about seeing movies, but still can't find the time to catch everything I want to; hardly a huge problem...

Still, there were unexpected catastrophes and such, and you can read about them below. Please enjoy my little 2010 Movie Round-Up, which is far less "wordy" than the '09 entry.

Best New Release (that I actually saw) - Inception. I knew this picture was great before I even saw it. Even avoiding spoilers, the rep was simply amazing, and I knew Nolan could live up to it. "Inception" didn't disappoint in any way.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

My Holiday Movie: "Jaws 4"

It made a perfect Christmas pick - not only is it something I'd otherwise avoid, but the film is set at Christmas-time, and holiday celebrations pepper the whole 90 mins. Yes, my holiday review choice is the infamous 1987 bomb, "Jaws 4: The Revenge."

If the shark were a hammerhead, would the title be "JTWS?"

At least director Joseph Sargent can say he made something memorable. "Jaws 4" opens on a nighttime town in the distance, shot from just over water. Dipping below the surface, we track through pylons and other "underwater stuff." Finally, the camera rests on the menacing teeth and eye of a fish.

The fish is actually frying on a pan and we're in the Christmas-time kitchen of the Brody home. Roy Scheider's Marty may not have returned for this film (death by heart attack), but his family is feeling jolly in their house on Amity Island. Ellen and Sean Brody, her youngest boy, run to take a phone call from Michael, the eldest son, and his own kids.

I have to say that the acting and the dialogue are the only things right in the first 12 minutes. Even some of the camerawork is rough, and the sound isn't handled well. Maybe that's the real tension in Jaws 4: waiting to see how it's going to go horribly wrong is the actual shark.

It's surprising, then, because acting and dialogue are usually the clearest weak spots in any bad film. Yet someone put together a pretty good cast for this sequel: Mario van Peebles (yay!) is Jake, a Bahamian friend of her surviving son. 80's fans will recognize Michael Brody (Lance Guest) as the guy from The Last Starfighter.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

What's to come: the flip-side of the end of the year

I have one planned review left for this year. I may write more, but I already wonder how a mere Half a Film Student can improve Net-flixation for 2011. I will also make a Year in Review/End of Year post, but I have to talk about the past a little before I reveal what's in store for the future. I hope the info isn't annoying.

Overall, I've averaged 1 post per week. Depending on what's going on, I can easily post twice (even 3-4 times) in one week, but August, September, and October still saw delays of 10 to 17 days. Injuries, crises, new jobs... These things happen, but I know I can do better.

Anyway, once per week was fair enough when every post was an in-depth review or a lengthy article - it's not simply a matter of effort, but of time for a little research and the like. But I wanted to use different formats, and I've introduced occasional news, youtube highlights, etc. With so many more options, it's far easier to weigh in quickly and often.

In fact, shorter reviews are going to become a regular thing again. I started "Movie Review Quickies" as 4-9 sentences on films that don't "need" deep reviews. Just a bigger version of the "Already in Theaters" page in newspapers + a trailer...

Saturday, December 18, 2010

My Week with Hulu Plus, and Why Netflix Still Wins

There's really nothing special about it, and I barely used it; sadly, that's pretty much the review. In brief: Hulu Plus' selection isn't impressive; you still watch ads; and it's not cheap enough. In this economy, you can find a better use for your $8/month.

A little bit ago, when I was bored out of my mind, I realized that Hulu Plus offers a one week trial. I posted about "Hulu Plus" before, and consider the whole idea (paid-free tv) a "little big deal." So I decided to kill an hour with the expanded options from the trial. I only had to fill out one online form to solve one boring night.

There was a lot of confusion and frustration at the start. Articles and announcements stated that whole seasons of many shows would be available, but that wasn't what I got. So I began by looking for a cure to boredom, and wound up doing research for this article. That too, is a review in itself: I went looking for fun, and it became an academic exercise because I wasn't overwhelmed by cool videos to watch.

For example, Hulu Plus doesn't offer you every season of "House" (not for streaming on Netflix, btw); I thought they would. The service just offers all the episodes shown during the current season. Well, what if I've heard this season is nothing worth tuning in for? If I'd been hoping to watch the first season and see how House got so popular, I would've been pretty disappointed.

So, right out of the gate, I found an issue that really made me stop at the question: "why should I pay Hulu $8 for something when I would already get most of what I want for free?" But there's more...

Saturday, December 11, 2010

"Jane, stop this crazy thing!" Movie Review Quickies, VI

At a better pace, Net-flixation is practically giving it all away at the end of the year! Take that, 2010! I have 7 quick movie reviews to help keep you warm in this first frigid week of December: Anaconda, Die Hard 2, The Goonies, Indecent Proposal, The Fifth Element, Man on the Moon, and Spiderman 2. Live it, love it, want it.

Modest, shallow, semi-ok-considering-it's-a-crappy-b-movie creature feature from 1997. Lopez is making a documentary in the Amazon, and a hunter hijacks the film crew. He's hunting a snake so large it shouldn't be able to move. That's actually the story...

Back then, Lopez still seemed like she wanted to be a real actress. I can't berate Jon Voight's performance much, but I'll say that he thinks he's giving himself more "latino-ness" by making his mouth look like a piranha. No, seriously.

The fx are decent, but sometimes bad. It doesn't look awful, and the story shows some actual effort. The results just aren't worth watching…

Die Hard 2
Pretty… Decent? It's Christmas, so John McClane is trying to rescue his wife, who is again caught up in a crime of super-villain proportions. The viewer gets something worse than part 1, though definitely better than parts 3 & 4.

If you limited your viewing to movies that you really "should" see, you could skip this. I'd recommend it for the big screen, as Bruce Willis is firmly in "decent summer action blockbuster" territory and it's still a lot of fun. The chases and fights are well-done. The airplanes-in-danger angle, naturally, might play even worse today than it did at the time. Also, there are odd attempts to stick to the "formula" of the original. They even bring out a cameo from Bruce's platonic soul-mate, Al Powell.

Please don't ever forget: aside from guns, jokes, and the lead's indestructible determination, the consistent theme of the "Die Hard" movies is watching "the people who are really in charge" fail to handle a crisis that a good-hearted, regular joe can tackle. That is, if a "regular joe" could survive jumping from a speeding snowmobile as it explodes.

However, no matter how many times he improbably cheats death, Willis (young Willis!) is great; it's sorta sad to say, but he's an easy character to watch. The film is very smart for acknowledging that John McClane would become famous after his televised heroism. Great line from a villain: John McClane. I read about you in People Magazine. You seemed a bit out of your league on Nightline, I thought.

As usual, John prioritizes better than "the brass" - they're not as hostile and incompetent as before, but we're supposed to trust McClane's judgment above all. His instincts about the crime and the criminals are spot on, and hours ahead of "every who's really in charge."

Problems that never plagued the first "DH," pop up though. The roles are colorful, but even the enemies aren't as engaging as before. That's a minor nitpick, and it's not an acting issue. Yet there isn't as much character material in general... Holly's still in danger, but the hero isn't dealing with wounded pride or a broken marriage. The absence only matters because nothing is brought in to replace it.

Also, the pictures' sensibilities are nastier now. While "Die Hard" featured lots of cursing, the language generally worked for the setting, characters, and humor; it's completely forgivable because it's usually so funny. Here, we get to see John Amos say, "We're here to j### off that c### s###er until he tries to take off." Um, #1 - eww; #2 - don't use "off" 2x in 1 sentence! Nor do those words help establish Amos' Major Grant well enough to make up for a clumsy, ugly line like that.

Also, though I know I'll have a blast describing the gay subtext between Sgt. Al Powell and John in the first film, what's featured here is just weird: lots of military guys who seem to have a sadistic relationship with each other. I think showing male onscreen nudity to match female onscreen nudity is fair, but we also get regular baddie William Sadler as Colonel Stuart. The evil Colonel is introduced with a full-body rear shot; he's watching tv, doing naked thai chi. They never do anything with all this darkly-sexual subtext - given all the guns, no one should want them to...

Not a minor nitpick: "DH2" is a far dumber effort than the original. The biggest problem with the bad guys' plan is that it depends on a super-blizzard. Without it, the planes aren't dependent on Dulles Airport; 2 hours of fuel is more than enough to reach other major airfields. Also, the planes could easily overcome the communication problems - like with the phone that we see Holly McClane repeatedly use to call her husband.

The end, where Bruce wisecracks, punches, and shouts his way to victory, boils down to lighting a flow of jet fuel to blow up "an evil plane" and create a landing path. It's a pretty sad statement that the Capitol's biggest airport couldn't think up such a simple fix…

The Goonies
A bunch of social misfits, senselessly called "Goonies" by their peers, get involved with gangsters and a local pirate legend.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Movie Review Quickies, Part V

This time around, I'm sticking to movies made in my lifetime. The NYC weather was sorta schizo for the last seven weeks, and Winter's coming. It makes sense to take comfort from movies I know pretty well... Along with some format changes (trailers are now at the end), I give you a little selection of short, long, and mid-sized reviews that cover Signs, Last Man Standing, Eraser, Single White Female, In & Out, Johnny Dangerously, and Starship Troopers.

In the end, I think audiences felt let down that Signs wasn't a gutsy and shocking creature feature; or maybe they hated a quiet alien invasion where the heroes only save their two kids. Somehow, Signs is a controversial movie; I guess everyone agrees that it looks good, but director M. Night Shyamalan's appeal was already losing momentum... It's true that the man famous for his "twists" featured a game-changing moment that many found laughable, but the film's actual quality is more... complicated than that.

Story: Aliens come to earth and everything goes dark and screwy, although most of the roles act like they're on Xanax. We follow the lives of a troubled Pennsylvania farming family as things get: odd, a little spooky, then weird, then scary, then scarier, then incredibly worrying, then scary, then really quietly weird for a while until it gets first scary, then terrifying, and so on; throughout, there are little pauses that are informative, endearing, dull, odd, and so on.

If you're willing to ignore some issues - my frequent dislike of Joaquin Phoenix, a "twist" that threatens to overwhelm the story - you'll be surprised at how well the movie can handle the build and release of tension. The invasion itself is nifty, and I like the way the characters find out about the aliens, who are really creepy. I jumped from at least one scare in this picture, so maybe I feel a need to be as kind as possible to MNS?

Unfortunately, a lot of the facts surrounding the aliens are really sketchy/dumb - there's a general rule that everything artistic works better when it's shown, not told. That goes triple here, so I guess that's no compliment to the writing or script. I have to point out that Joaquin is very stiff here; it's as if the pic is suggesting he has an official "problem." The pace truly is slow, but it envelops the narrative so well that it mostly works.

I can't blame the masses that despise and mock this odd take on a War of the Worlds scenario, in spite of its cool (but simple) score, and the general originality of its setting and progression. But I wonder at the reactions, and whether people really didn't notice the thing that I liked, even if it might seem corny: that the "twist" was in a defeated man who questions life, then suddenly gets answers at the time that he really needs them most. There's also the weird subtext that the ETs are after our kiddies, since they're mostly seen with/near kids. I couldn't suggest "Signs without a heavy warning, but it can/could be an entertaining movie.

Last Man Standing
A depressingly incomplete hyper-action extravaganza. The skilled Walter Hill directs his "1930 Prohibition Texas" version of Yojimbo. Bruce Willis is John Smith, a mysterious badass (go figure). It's "Bruce as Bruce" here, so he looks cool even though he seems annoyed or weary at anything, right up to tying his shoes.

As the film starts, John drives into a small town that only has: (a) two rival gangs and (b) one neutral bar/inn. His bad luck seems to be the result of being on the run, but he feels he can't just leave. Smith is also so damn good at what he does that he easily wows the locals, who look to use him to win their little mob war. Just like in Kurosawa's classic, one master-level warrior bumbles into a pair of villains in stalemate, then decides to wipe out both of them.