The 9 Worst 2010 Blockbusters I've Seen

I had to insert the caveat "I've Seen", since I recognize that there are plenty of awful movies I didn't bother to watch. I'm sure that Charlie St. Cloud or Devil would have found a cushy spot on this list, but I don't waste my time on run of the mill bad movies. There's a special place in my heart for so-bad-it's-good movies, but such accidental masterpieces rarely get wide releases. I didn't bother trying to extend the list to ten, since these 9 are far worse than anything I could tack on the end.

9) Robin Hood

This was the year's second most disappointing film. Pairing a talented director like Ridley Scott with stalwart actor Russel Crowe should result in a reasonably good film. Unfortunately, the screenplay was riddled with stilted dialogue, and bizarre creative license. I don't have an issue with movies emphasizing the political elements of classic tales, but the least they could have done was get the politics right.

8) The Expendables

I don't usually expect much from generic action movies. However, this wasn't supposed to be a generic action movie. After career redeeming roles from Jean Claude Van Damme (JCVD), and Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler), it seemed that the idea behind The Expendables was to bring together a slew of washed up action stars to make a credible film. At least that's how it was billed. In the end, it was nothing special. In fact, I can barely recall the plot outline. No wonder Van Damme turned down a part. Unlike the stars of the expendables, it turns out that he actually does have a smattering of dignity.

7) Hot Tub Time Machine

I've got a pretty low bar for mainstream comedies. They aim for the lowest common denominator, and are usually not far off. At least they usually provide a few cheap laughs. Not so with Hot Tub Time Machine. It was so thoroughly unamusing that I had to re-watch Office Space afterwards to make sure I was still capable of laughing.

6) Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

I don't expect much of Oliver Stone anymore, but I had to see this since I'm interested in how complex public policy issues are distilled into film. I'll give him some credit: he didn't stoop to Michael Moore levels. Given that the cast included Carey Mullingan and Josh Brolin, and Michael Douglas, I expected this to compare favourably with the average Stone flick. In fact, it might well be his worst film. The mediocre screenplay might have been salvaged to a degree were it not for his decision to cast Shea LaBeouf in the lead role. I might have been able to take the contrived narrative, and pointless plot twists a bit more seriously if the lead role was filled by someone who could...what's that word? Act.

5) The Sorceror's Apprentice

There is nothing as annoying as a movie that tries to beat you over the head with an emotional mallet. This is exactly what The Sorceror's Apprentice does. It is a classic loser gets the girl movie, filled with precisely timed feel good music and handy little life lessons. It was probably the most annoying movie I actually sat through, but I'm holding it to a slightly lower standard, since it is a kids movie.

4) Predators

I walked out of this after the third time Topher Grace yelled out "Guys! What's happening?" That pretty much summed up how I felt about the movie at that point, so it felt like an appropriate segue. To my surprise, it turns out that the mind bogglingly bad plot got even worse after I walked out. Topher Grace evil mastermind? Really? REALLY?

3) Alice in Wonderland

This was easily the year's biggest disappointment. Had you told me at the start of the year that two of the worst films would be collaborations between Ridley Scott and Russel Crowe, and Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, I wouldn't have believed it. Like Robin Hood, Alice was a revisionist version of the tale, that successfully purged the story of everything interesting. Moreover, the sexual overtones of the film were disturbing on multiple levels. If Burton wanted to make a version of Alice for grown ups, he should have just gone ahead and done it. This wasn't subversive. It was just tasteless.

2) Splice

Trans-gendered bi-sexual incestuous inter-species sex. While there were only two scenes of this description in the movie, it was more than enough to ruin the already mediocre film.

1) Hereafter

In Hereafter, Clint Eastwood tries to do two things. First, he attempts to show how death affects three different people in different ways. Second, he strains to find a way to put these three people (from different countries) into a room. A great director would have stuck to the first. Doing both severed its ties with reality--let alone plausibility--and allowed it to become a full blown fairy tale for adults. It is two hours and nine minutes of non-stop coincidences. The only consolation was occasional unintentional humour that made the whole experience slightly less excruciating.


The Tourist: Brilliant Satire Confuses Critics

★ ★ ★ 1/2

I usually make a halfhearted effort to hide my disdain for the average movie critic. After a string of excellent movies were widely panned, my patience has worn thin. The Tourist is the last straw. The critical consensus is that it has little to offer but attractive stars and a simplistic plot. They couldn't be more wrong. Ostensibly an ordinary spy film, it was in fact a biting satire of the genre.

The first thing you'll notice about the movie is that the male lead isn't exactly James Bond. Rather, Depp plays an insecure Midwestern math teacher. By contrast, Angelina Jolie stars as a worldly woman of mystery, pursued by Scotland Yard. Depp's character is just the sucker who she's dragging around, one step ahead of her pursuers. Reading this description probably makes you think that this is a parody of a Bond film. It is. This eluded the critics.

What The Tourist lacks in explosions and crass humour, it makes up with a deceptively complex plot, and a pair of clever lead roles. The sheer lack of chemistry between Depp and Jolie (which the critics failed to realize was intentional) lead to plenty of ackward humour, and clever banter. Jolie is suave, and manipulative. Depp's character is, well, a math teacher. In the hands of any other actor, the role would have been unremarkable. His halting demeanor and overrationalizing under fire had me in tears the whole way through. Maybe it's because I've seen Fear and Loathing dozens of times, but every one of Depp's bizarre mannerisms had me in stitches. I kept hearing him ask in my head "is this not a reasonable place to park?" It wasn't Johnny Depp playing a Midwestern school teacher. It was Johnny Depp playing Raoul Duke portraying a Midwestern school teacher. In short, it is the funniest movie of the year.


Hereafter (2010)

★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Clint Eastwood has proven beyond all doubt that Gran Turino was a fluke. As per usual, Eastwood provided a dreary, plot driven movie with delusions of grandeur. The movie was based on a series of Paul Haggis type coincidences. It's characters were like wooden pegs that Eastwood could easily fit into an elaborate series of coincidences. There were three separate plots, and not one of them was interesting. The only virtue of the entire movie was the tsunami scene, which--other than being overly manicured--presented an interesting point of view perspective of a beach front being wiped out. This couldn't make up for the next two hours of the film. It was simplistic and poorly written. The only reason I gave it one star is that I don't know how to create a half star with html.

Hereafter is basically a cross between The Sixth Sense and Crash. If this sounds like a good thing to you, you'll probably like it.


The Social Network (2010)

★ ★ ★ ★

I've always been skeptical of major box office successes, especially when they're about "true stories." Had The Social Network not been a David Fincher movie--scratch that--had David Fincher not cast Andrew Garfield, I wouldn't have made time to see it. I'm glad I did. Rather than a simple Zuckerberg biopic, Fincher and Sorkin presented the evolution of Facebook within the broader context of technological evolution. This was quite refreshing. Most historical fiction gets bogged down by a focus on the personalities involved, rather than exploring the interconnection of events. Chance exchanges of ideas, and randomness play a greater part in the entrepreneurial process than most people imagine. The great man theory of history rarely bears out in real life.

The Social Network brilliantly demonstrated how the Facebook emerged, evolved, and shaped--and was shaped by--society. The movie was "about" Mark Zuckerberg to an extent, but what really made it interesting is that it demonstrated how the Internet has obscured the boundaries of intellectual property, and how a simple idea can take hold of our collective consciousness. As the technology evolved, so did the language--and vice versa. Facebook went from being an idea tossed around by a bunch of college kids to a verb within weeks. No one really owns the idea any more than they own the verb. Yet, it has transformed into a network of 500 million users. The lawsuits are presented in a non-linear fashion. Arguments and evidence from each are presented out of turn, yet in a manner that shapes the case to the audience. Who said what? Who owns what? What evidence is real, and what is a smear job from a college paper? These things are ephemeral; subservient to the entity that a series of conscious decisions, coincidences, and mistakes have created.

The actual production value was much higher than I'd anticipated. Trent Reznor (who's music I don't actually listen to) put together an amazing score. An eclectic mix of industrial, techno, and metal drove the pace of the film. Jeff Cronenweth's cinematography beautifully transitioned from one scene to the next. The pace ebbed, and flowed, but it always felt consistent. He relied heavily on still shots to slow down the pace at the beginning, and gradually introduced more camera movement to speed things up. Tracking shots through party scenes, panning around a party bus--these are the type of things that created the kinetic atmosphere. At first nothing is moving. Once Facebook is created, nothing stops moving.

This is probably the only decent role Jesse Eisenberg will ever play. I find him intensely annoying, yet he fit this part just perfectly. Even Forrest Whittaker had one good role. More importantly, this was Andrew Garfield's first major mainstream role. He's done mostly arthouse work so far, and is about to become one of this generation's biggest stars. I suppose that will be solidified when he takes on the role of Spiderman. Also in his first major role was Justin Timberlake, who put in an admirable performance.

I've always maintained that it is exceedingly difficult to make a great film with over $50 million dollars. In order to make a production of that scale profitable, it has to appeal to the lowest common denominator. The genius of this film is that Fincher and Sorkin took an idea that has wide appeal and put just enough arthouse in it to keep demanding viewers interested, while not alienating casual movie goers. This is David Fincher's masterpiece.


Let Me In (2010)

★ ★ ★ ☆

For those of us who've seen Let the Right One In, the American remake had a tough act to follow. I'll spare the suspense: Let Me In was not as good as the original. While it did some things better, it did many things worse. Despite the inconsistency, it is definetly worth the watch. Even if you've seen the original, it still manages to hold your attention. Much of this can be attributed to a number of iconic scenes, but credit is definetly due to the technical crew members for putting together one of the most technically sound movies you'll see this year. If you take a keen interest in cinematography and sound editing, you won't want to miss this. It is a tour de force on both fronts. Some phenomenal supporting roles certainly helped. However, at least one major casting mistake, and uneven dialogue marred the production value. It was good, when it could easily have been great.

The biggest issue with the film was the role of Abby. On a superficial level, Chloe Moretz did not fit the part at all. Abby ought to have been an icy, ephemeral character (as in the original). Instead, she is blonde, has a regular skin tone, and seems altogether normal. She's even less vampire like than a Twilight character. Her action sequences were also oddly clunky. Not all of the roles deficiencies can be blamed on a casting error. Her dialogue was weak--disproportionately to the relatively well written screenplay. I'm not quite sure what Matt Reeves was thinking. I suppose it can be tough to script such a feral character, but either way it was lackluster.

Owen was also a role that left something to be desired when compared to the original. Though he wasn't exactly a missfit in the role, Kodi Smit-McPhee couldn't quite live up to the original. The original role (Oskar) was among the best portrayals of a victim of bullying. The victim of bullying can also be among the most frightening avengers when given the chance. Alienation, and powerlessness can turn the most innocent child into a merciless transgressor. Owen was a reasonable facimile of this, but not on the level of Oskar.

While the lead roles were unsatisfying, a pair of supporting actors put in excellent roles. Richard Jenkins and Elias Koteas are two of the best character actors around. While their roles didn't require much extension, they brought a level of gravitas to the film that was lacking from the leads.

Matt Reeves deserves credit for having made the film interesting, even for those who've seen the original. Dialogue is obviously not his strong suit, but he was able to play on the expectations of those who've seen the original. He often let the audience hang in the balance, even though they knew what to expect. I suspect the long lead up to the iconic pool scene was devised specifically with those who've seen the original in mind. It's tough to build suspence for people who know what's coming. He also managed to open the film in an interesting way, and introduce some interesting Americanizations. The Ronald Reagan speech leitmotif was interesting, though not quite exploited to full effect.

The real stars of Let Me In were not the actors, or the director. The photography and sound units stole the show. Greig Fraser did a masterful job of matching the medium to the motif. The camera lens had the feel of a window onto the cold winter mise en scene. Long cuts at times made it feel as though the camera were frozen into place. The camera constantly blurred in and out of focus, like a window frosting over, and defrosting. I've yet to see a cinematographer so effectively capture frigidity through the use of lenses. Unbearable heat has been captured many a time, but this was actually quite novel. The sound crew was able to create a stark contrast through periods of quite, and ratcheting music. The Reagan leitmotifs were especially well done, cutting into the silence with prophetic ruminations about good and evil. I can't think of a better usage of sampling in film off the top of my head.

Though imperfect, Let Me In is a must see, especially if you've seen one too many of the lame vampire movies that have been flooding theatres. Part edge of your seat thriller, part social commentary, it is among the most exciting wide releases of the year.


The Other Guys (2010)

★ ★ 1/2

Full disclosure: I am not a big Will Ferrell fan. Night at the Roxbury was one of the funniest movies of the 90s, but I find that he tries to hard to fit his persona into every role he plays--like a less funny Adam Sandler. While there were glipses of this in The Other Guys, it actually worked out pretty well for once. Though it wasn't the kind of uproarious comedy it was billed as, it had its moments.

While I'm inserting caveats, I should also ad that I'm not big on Mark Wahlberg. Not that he's a bad actor. He just doesn't tend to pick great roles. Like Ferrell, he actually fit this role well. Wahlberg as a wannabe action hero and Ferrell as an accountant with a seedy past somehow seems appropriate.

On the face of it, the movie is as simple as it gets. A couple of desk jockies trying to bust the bad guys. However, there were some fairly obvious anti-corporate themes lurking in the foreground. After all, bankers ripping off a police pension fund isn't exactly politically neutral. In an odd twist, the movie attempted to explain the financial crisis (incorrectly) by flashing a bunch of graphs and factoids on the screen during the credits. I've never seen a movie get MORE political during the credits. Definitely a movie that's quite in line with the zeitgeist.


The Joneses (2009)

★ ☆ ☆ ☆

The Joneses is a movie about product placement taken to the extreme. It aspires to subtle social commentary, but falls far short. Instead, it is a series of banal scenes, punctuated by blunt attacks on materialism. David Duchovny and Demi Moore have proven that washed up mainstream actors will take any role they can get, and their past fame will always find them an audience. They are every bit as disingenuous as the characters they portray. Gary Cole (better known as Lumberg) is still trading off of his Office Space fame, but with the exact opposite effect of Ron Livingston. I used to laugh any time I've seen him in a minor role, but he's completely exhausted my interest.

This movie could have only been made by a third rate European director, and only at this time in history. How else could we end up with a movie that so thorougly lacks any insight into modern American culture. I can only hope that Derrick Borte's debut is also his finale. From the looks of it, it just might be.


The Kids Are All Right (2010)

★ ★ 1/2

The Kids are All Right is, well, I'm sure you can finish the pun. While the three leads were compelling, the story left much to be desired. The parallels between gay and straight marriage were interesting, but not fully persuasive. The internal dynamics seemed reasonably accurate, though they could have delved further into the family's external relationships. When they did touch on them, it felt a touch disingenuous. Though better than the average family drama, it failed to live up to the hype.

Maybe it's better to think of it as two separate movies. One is a character study of a same sex couple. The other, a tale of a sperm donor and his prodige. The first part was done fairly well. Julianne Moore and Annette Bening were both excellent. The second part, somewhat less so. Mark Ruffalo is an excellent actor, and was well suited to the role. Mia Wasikowska put in a respectable performance, Josh Hutcherson less so. As vignettes, they would have worked out very well. Combined, and added to some rather silly auxilliary plotlines, much of their force was lost. I hoped for a realistic portrait of a same sex headed couple in contemporary America. Instead, Lisa Cholodenko seems to have been primarily concerned with challenging stereotypes held by people who would never think to watch the movie. It felt self congratulatory, rather than honest.


Greenberg (2010)

★ ★ 1/2

It seems that every famous, though unaccomplished actor eventually tries to prove he can act. Ben Stiller became the latest to do so, playing the title role in Greenberg. Greenberg is a hodgepodge of modern neuroses; the stereotypical product of the 80s culture. He's self involved, compulsive, nearly oblivious to his surroundings. Does Stiller pull this role off? I'd say so. There weren't any flashes of brilliance, nor obvious blunders. He was mundane; almost completely uninteresting. Given that this was the point of the role, I'd consider it a success.

Jennifer Jason Leigh's first attempt at screenwriting was respectable. She'd obviously seen Sideways a few times, and taken copious notes. Greenberg seems like a mildly anesthetized version of Giomatti's Sideways character, and the story line is eerily similar. The only obvious difference seems to be that Greenberg was once popular enough to have become a full blown narcissist. It wasn't completely unoriginal. There were some interesting jabs at awkward social conventions, and some amusing, uncomfortable barely-intergenerational-intergenerational-dialogue.

The most surprising part of the movie is Rhys Ifans' performance. Given that his career is based on providing comic relief in dramadies, I was quite surprised to find out that he's capable of being utterly morose. Newcomer Greta Gerwig was adequate as Greenberg's sophomoric love interest. Jennifer Jason Leigh's tiny role as Greenberg's ex-girlfriend was a highlight. I've seen few better advertisements for never, ever associating with an ex.

Noah Baumbach's lugubrious film is bound to turn off less patient viewers. Admittedly, it didn't hold my undivided attention. There wasn't enough depth to justify the amount of navel gazing. I'm happy to see that Ben Stiller and Rhys Ifans can pull off serious roles, but I doubt I'll get around to watching Greenberg again.


Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)

★ ☆ ☆ ☆

I watched twenty three minutes and fourteen seconds of The Hot Tub Time Machine. I only got that far because I started reading reviews about ten minutes in, in a vain attempt to figure out how 63% of film critics actually gave it a positive rating. This is one of the least funny comedies I've ever seen. I can't think of a more ironic turn for John Cusack than making an awful movie about reliving the glory days in order to revive his career. Actually, it does get more ironic. This pitiful attempt may have actually succeeded.


Ondine (2010)

★ ★ ★ ★

Ondine is Neil Jordan's latest attempt at fusing mythology with reality. It is also his most successful attempt. Ondine is the best motion picture of the year thus far, rivaled only by Nicolas Refn's Valhalla Rising*. While the latter created a nightmarish world from which we hope to awaken, awakening from the dreamlike Ondine is bittersweet. Alternately elegiac and hopeful, Ondine is a prose poem; a pastiche of Irish culture. There is nothing more difficult than creating a film that leaves the audience feeling hopeful, without a trace of cynicism. Ondine is one of the rare movies that does just that.

Ondine is set in a fishing village on the coast of Ireland. A local fisherman, Syracuse (Farrell) finds an unconscious woman caught in his fishing net (Bachleda). When revived, she has seemingly lost her memory. She is frightened of being seen by anyone else, so she stays at Syracuse's dead mother's home. Syracuse has lived there alone since his divorce. He is a recovering alcoholic, known to most as Circus for his drunken antics. His gravely ill daughter Annie (Barry) lives with his alcoholic ex-wife, and her boyfriend. On one of their afternoons together, Syracuse tells Annie a fictionalized version of his recent experience. Annie believes the woman to be a selkie, a mythical sea creature that resembles a human female. A series of strange occurences lead Syracuse to believe she may be right. Throughout the film, the audience is left wondering whether hapless Syracuse has stumbled onto a genuine miracle, or whether he's just lucky for a change. As the precariousness of the situation becomes evident, the question becomes all the more important. Having experienced the powerlessness of alcoholism, Syracuse wonders whether he has once again found himself in a situation beyond his grasp.

More so than any movie that comes to mind, Ondine examines the nature of mythology. Myths typically originate from a set of half truths, and are imparted to children at a young age. Purveyors of myths generally hope that these myths will impart wisdom to younger generations, helping them to avoid the errors of their forebears. But what if this isn't the case at all? Perhaps myths merely warn us of eventualities. Worse still, perhaps ingrained myths can become an impediment. Maybe straying from the path occasionally is a good idea. Maybe trusting a stranger every now and then enriches one's life. Believing that you've been granted seven years of happiness is a blessing, and a curse. The complacency caused by this mental allotment can be the cause of its abridgment. Then again, if the myth is true, then there is little to do but enjoy the moment.

Colin Farrell is among the most talented actors in Hollywood today. It is great to see that he is still willing to take on smaller roles. Actors like Farrell lend credibility to smaller productions, and have been instrumental in the current film renaissance we are experiencing. Farrell is equally at home playing the action hero, as he is a downtrodden fisherman. He's occasionally morose, sometimes clownish, but his ascetic demeanor is resilient. Alicja Bachleda makes the perfect foil. She always seems vulnerable, maintaining a near childlike wonder. She cowers from the world like a feral child (no pun intended), fickle, yet often exuberant. Ironically, the edifying force in the movie is Alison Barry. Annie is at once the most impressionable, and wisest of the characters. Always interpreter of the strange events, she seems to be the only character who understands their true significance. Her quick wit is downright shocking for a child of her age.

As we've learned from Seinfeld, the word breathtaking is often used carelessly. In the case of Ondine, it is almost an understatement. The rolling hills of the Irish coast provide a majestic backdrop, singularly appropriate for the film. Transitions between scenes are flowing, almost non-existent. Pastoral Celtic music melds one scene to the next, creating a dreamlike quality rarely seen in film.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with arthouse films, Ondine failed to secure a wide release. Unless you have the good fortune of stumbling upon it at an independent theater, I highly recommend picking up the DVD. It is the best 2010 movie I've seen thus far, and I'd be surprised if it didn't end the year that way.

*Written before viewing Never Let Me Go


The Book of Eli (2010)

★ ★ 1/2

The Book of Eli is one of the most uneven movies I've seen. The Hughes Brothers, in conjunction with veteran cinematographer Don Burgess, took a mediocre screenplay, and turned it into a visual masterpiece. The film is set in a post-apocalyptic America. The clouds loom heavily over the barren countryside like a divine presence. Their eerily shifting tones suggest a reckoning to come. And that reckoning will come, courtesy of a man carrying the world's last bible. Hey, I had to take at least one jab at the plot. There will be more to come.

I hardly feel the plot is worth mentioning. Its premise is problematic, leading to an absurd finally. Everything in between was passable, at times pleasingly minimalist. Not bad for screenwriter Gary Whitta's first try. The dialogue was never laughable (an accomplishment, given the premise), though several of Oldman's lines may have been so in the hands of a lesser actor. Denzel was solid as always, playing a better action hero than I'd have imagined. Mila Kunis proved that she can play a serious role (which makes me all the more excited for Black Swan).

Despite massive budgets, few Hollywood directors seem to give much though to cinematography. You could be forgiven for thinking that they don't give a minute of thought to when they should (and shouldn't) cut, or what type of lens filter they should use. These are the little things that make good movies great (or mediocre ones palatable). These are things that Don Burgess clearly gave much thought to. The film was shot through a sepia filter, darkening the already bleak atmosphere. Long, steady shots accentuate the sterility of the nightmarish wasteland. At one point, the camera circles Eli during a barroom brawl, highlighting the sheer improbability of Eli's eventual triumph. Filmed with a fixed camera, the scene would have been nowhere near as interesting.

If you're interested in cinematography, The Book of Eli is a must see. It certainly deserves an Oscar nod in that category. Otherwise, I wouldn't be too concerned about missing it.


Dinner For Schmucks (2010)

★ ★ 1/2

Dinner for Schmucks
is the type of movie I usually despise. A hackneyed American version of a foreign arthouse film is about the last thing I'm likely to enjoy. I went in with that expectation, and I was pleasantly surprised. While the plot was as cliched as I'd imagined, they threw so much at the audience, that some was bound to stick. Putting Steve Carell, Jemaine Clement, and Zach Galifianakis together is likely to lead to some laughs. Add Ron Livingston, and laughs are assured.

The irony of Dinner for Schmucks is that while it was marketed as a Steve Carell movie, Carell wasn't the driving force behind the comedy. He delivered a lot of laughs, but had his fair share of misfires. The real star was Jemaine Clement. If you look close enough, you may recognize Jemaine (Kieran) from Flight of the Conchords. His character is an 'artist', specializing in grotesque portraits of himself. In short, it's the type of 'art' that an impartial observer would laugh at, but regularly appears at modern art galleries. It's a not so subtle jab at modern 'art', and Jemaine absolutely nails it.

On top of Clement's character, we also get entertaining performances from Hollywood's two leading pseudo-cameo artists: Ron Livingston, and Zach Galifianakis. Livingston (otherwise known as Peter from Office Space) doesn't have to do much to make me laugh. In fact, I burst out laughing any time I see him. Played by anyone else, his role would not have been funny--and wouldn't have intended to be. He's Peter from Office Space. He doesn't need to do anything to be funny. Galifianakis plays a 'mind controlling' IRS agent, who is Barry's (Carell) nemesis. Galifianakis makes Carell's role work. Most of the time.

I haven't mentioned Paul Rudd yet, and frankly, there isn't much reason to. He's the cliched leading man in a comedy, and we'll leave it at that. Dinner for Schmucks doesn't stand on it's own as a movie. It's more like skit comedy superimposed on a boring movie, and that's just fine with me.


Youth in Revolt (2009)

★ ★ ★ ☆

The downside of subversive movies is that they are often mistaken for crass appeals to drug addled teenagers. Such is the case with Youth in Revolt. Needless to say, I didn't see it during it's theatrical run. After re-watching Juno a few days ago, I figured I'd give it a shot. I'm glad I did. Youth in Revolt is entertaining, and insightful. It examines contemporary culture through the lens of an imaginative young man, who's grounding in art house culture has ill prepared him for his place in the lower depths of the post-internet world.

Few films have honestly dealt with the realities of modern teenage life as Youth in Revolt has. We now live in a world where many parents are little more than peons, totally disconnected from the realities of the information society. Like the first generation of universally literate children, teenagers today have greater access to the world than most parents. This asymmetry makes the parent/child relationship awkward, and often counterproductive. This is Nick Twisp's reality.

Nick (Michael Cera) lives with his mother (Jean Smart), and her latest boyfriend (Zach Galifianakis). After the boyfriend is caught for selling a defective car, the family is forced to flee to a trailer park. There, Nick meets Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday). Sheeni is an escapist, stuck in a trailer park with her zealous parents. She too is enthralled with art house culture, and dreams of travelling to France. Though she claims to have a boyfriend, they do become romantically involved. Through a series of unfortunate occurrences, Nick needs to leave the trailer park. Sheeni promises that if he can find a way to come back, she will date him. In order to make this happen, Nick invents an alter ego, whom he turns to for advice on how to con his way back into her life. He is a projection of what Nick believes Sheeni wants in a man. Micheal Cera with a mustache, a cigarette, and a bad attitude. Needless to say, things get out of hand.

During his quest to re-unite with Sheeni, Nick realizes that the adults who have ruled his life thus far are not so clever. Even the police have nowhere near as much control over his life as he'd thought. While he breaks the law on more than one occasion, the irony is that he is still less base than all of the adults in the movie. The police are corrupt; his mother is a tramp; Sheeni's parents are authoritarians. In short, his 'revolt' isn't entirely unjustifiable. Forces external (and unreasonable) are shaping his life, and he merely seeks to manipulate them to fulfill his normal teenage goals. Like John Hughes movies, it seeks to show that ungrateful teenagers actually are sometimes justified in their anger. A shady police officer is the bad guy, while his mother and father (Steve Buscemi) are Blase. The only moral guidance he has in life is from film, music, his peers, and his instincts.

Despite its moral complexity, Youth in Revolt is extremely accessible, and funny. Unlike most teen movies, it is very self aware. Yes, there are clicheed moments. However, they're balanced out by self mocking irony. It is a Michael Cera movie, after all. Miguel Arteta has proven that he's quite capable of fusing crude sexual humor, and teen angst. It's harder than it sounds.

Like Juno before it, Youth in Revolt is a serious attempt to examine traditional morality from the standpoint of a young person in today's world (in all of its vulgarity). While it didn't cut quite as deep as Juno, it is one of the most thoughtful teenage films of the last two decades (granted, the bar is low). Though its theatrical run has long passed, I strongly recommend picking up the DVD. You'll watch it more than once.

Salt (2010)

★ ★ ☆ ☆

Salt is an average action movie posing as a thoughtful psychological thriller. It seems like a strange cross between Jason Bourne and M. Night Shyamalan. Only explosions outnumber the plot twists. I'll grant that it was somewhat entertaining, but you've got to really suspend disbelief to allow for some of the physics defying stunts, not to mention the implausible plot line. Like I said, average action movie.

What is unique about Salt is the pacing. The plot twists are so frenetic that it seemed much longer than an hour and forty minutes. Coming from Kurt Wimmer, author of Sphere and Equilibrium, this isn't surprising. He's made a career out of throwing curveballs. Unfortunately for him, throwing the same pitch every game causes the hitter to adjust. And adjust, the audience does. Throwing in a plot twist every five minutes is distracting, not clever.

Director Philip Noyce did a reasonable job, given the script. Though the action sequences were unrealistic, they weren't lacking in suspense. My one criticism would be that sometimes it seems like snippets were filmed in fast forward. I think this was to disguise some of the lesser realistic stunts. There is at least one time where we see Angelina fly across the screen, and it's hard to tell what exactly happened to the man left laying on the ground. Now that I think about it, that was probably wise.

I haven't seen any of Angelina Jolie's previous action roles, so I really didn't know what to expect from her performance. Frankly, it wasn't bad. Some of her stunts were distractingly unrealistic, but she can't be blamed for playing the role that was written for her. I was surprised by how good her Russian pronunciation was (assuming that it was actually her voice). I'm usually annoyed when English actors pretend to be Russians, but she didn't seem anywhere near as contrived as other actors do. The rest of the cast (minus Liev Schreiber) was passable, including a solid performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor. As for Schreiber, well, he was as wooden as always.

I can't say that I'm disappointed with Salt. I expected an average movie, and that's what I got. Then again, anything is a pleasant surprise after The Sorcerer's Apprentice. For a summer movie, I'd say it's worth a watch. That is, unless you haven't seen Inception a second time yet.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010)

★ ☆ ☆ ☆

There isn't much to say about The Sorcerer's Apprentice. It was awful. I don't know why Nick Cage gets messed up with junk like this. I can see Alfred Molina doing this for the money, but Nick Cage? Surely he could have found a better use of his time. Director John Turteltaub usually delivers above average action comedies. This is easily the worst thing I've seen from him. I'm not sure if I blame screenwriting pair Konner and Rosenthal more for their amateurish script (par for their course), or the casting director for finding the most annoying person on earth to play the lead. Seriously, am I the only person who wants to slap Jay Baruchel right now? The only thing that bothered me anywhere near as much as him was the generic teenage feel-good music that would burst out of nowhere, for no good reason every 8 minutes. I sat through this purely in hopes that there would be a few laughably bad scenes. It didn't even deliver that. There was no redeeming value to this movie.


Inception (2010)

★ ★ ★ 1/2

Christopher Nolan is a genius. Because of this, I hold him to a higher standard than the average director. Though Inception was intriguing, it was all but doomed from the beginning. Since I heard the initial concept, I have maintained that it would be nearly impossible to pull off. Though the architecture of the film was surprisingly coherent, the film was marred by weak dialogue, and unrealistic character relationships. This is one of the most beautiful failures ever to meet the big screen. But for curious flaws, it might have been great. Nevertheless, it is a failure.

I wanted to be captivated by Inception--I really did. I have loved every Nolan feature, and was hoping he would keep his streak alive. The first time I saw Inception, I was enmeshed in the architecture of the film (yes, I'm using Nolan's vocabulary). The logic of the film was reasonable. There were no Matix-esque inconsistencies to ruin the film. Still, I didn't feel any connection to the film. The lack of major logical inconsistencies was trumped by a failure to connect on any emotional level.

Through the multiple interviews I have read, I've gleaned that Nolan views this primarily as a classical heist film. On that metric, it is better than average. As a film about the the life of the mind, it fares poorly. Several commentators have pointed out the similarities with L'Annee Derniere En Marianbad, and Solyaris, not to mention his own Memento. All were far superior. Other films about dreams, such as Waking Life and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind were also much better.

The weakest link of Inception was the relationships amongst the characters. Ariadne (Ellen Page) seemed to exist for little other than to explain the logic of the film to the audience. Her conversations with Cobb (DiCaprio) about his relationship with his wife were often redundant, bordering on annoying. I'm also confused as to why she was given an obviously French name when it is clear that she isn't French. I'd have forgiven Nolan for working with the assumption that she's an American foreign exchange student.

Weaker still was the relationship between Cobb and Saito (Ken Wantanabe). They start out as enemies, though develop a curiously emotional relationship. There didn't appear to be anything in their relationship that would suggest a flourishing bromance. I could have seen the relationship between Cobb and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) evolving to this degree, but there would have been a basis for this--they're partners.

As far as DiCaprio performances go, this was certainly at the low end. Though the role was similar to his own in Shutter Island, he seemed unable to muster up the same level of emotion. Even the conversations with his dead wife (Marion Cotillard) fell flat. This is a shame, since Cottillard was strong, as always. She is arguably the most talented actrice around, and deserves a best supporting nod. Cillian Murphy put in a strong performance, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt demonstrated that he's capable of filling a major role. I'm left wondering if Levitt's role wasn't an audition for Nolan's Dark Knight sequel. Tom Hardy's role was fairly limited, but he was solid as expected. From what I hear, he's also in the running for a spot in Nolan's next Batman film. I can't think of a better Riddler. Watch Bronson, and you'll see what I mean.

For all of it's faults, the film was a model of technical perfection. The cinematography was excellent, and the film editing was masterful. Hans Zimmer's score was masterful, and was supplemented by the best leitmotif I've ever encountered. Edith Piaf's Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien was used as a cue to wake Arthur during extractions. This worked on many levels, especially given that Cotillard played Piaf in her Oscar winning role (La Vie En Rose).

The reality is that the film was hampered by it's subject matter. When you stray into the realm of dreams, you risk cutting off any connection to reality. This is why the 'train scene', for instance (you know what I mean if you've seen the film) didn't do anything for me. There was at least one way that this could have been pulled off, but Nolan would have had to rethink much of the DiCaprio/Cotillard plotline.

Most of the flaws in Inception are a result of making a complicated subject accessible to a mass audience that is accustomed to simplistic plotlines. This is why it is nearly impossible to make a great film with more than $100 million dollars. Superhero movies have proven to be the lone exception to this rule. With that in mind, I'm glad that Nolan is returning to comic books for his next two features. It's what he does best, and he does it better than anyone else. The third part of the Dark Knight series can't come soon enough.


Following (1998)

★ ★ 1/2

Christopher Nolan's Following may not be in the same league as his subsequent films, but it was an impressive debut. Especially with a $6000 budget. It is exactly as it sounds. A movie about a man who follows people. He isn't a spy, or a stalker. He just enjoys observing people. Though the premise is simple, it is immediately clear that the plot is far from it. The timeline is non-linear, and the relationships among the central characters are always in flux. Think of it as a beta version of Memento.

The plot is too clever by a half, and the action sequences are devoid of realism, but it still manages to draw in the audience. Frankly, the cinematography was far better than the average movie. The lead actors, Jeremy Theobald and Alex Haw, were surprisingly good for a pair of unknowns. Haw has since to play a role, and Theobald only brieflly re-emerged as "Younger Gotham Water Board Technician" in Batman Begins. Lucy Russell (The Blonde) has made a career of being an adjective. Her roles have included "Female Restaurant Guest" in Batman Begins, as well as "Classy Shopper 3" in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Rather a shame that none of them has ever landed a major role.

Though the film isn't terribly important on it's own, it gives us an interesting glimpse into the psyche of Christopher Nolan--or perhaps his MO. It is the only one of his films that didn't really delve into notions of truth and justice. There were hints at those themes, but they never quite developped into anything coherent. He opted instead to focus on the boundaries between curiosity, obsession, and perversion. I can't help but wonder wonder how many random people walking in the park have ended up inspiring his films. I'm not sure if this is an examination of the theme of obsession, or an elucidation of his own. Either way, it was a worthy debut.


Sugar (2008)

★ ★ ★ ★

Sugar follows Miguel (Algenis Perez Soto), a young pitcher from the Dominican Republic as he attempts to work his way up to the Major Leagues. Unlike nearly every sports film I've seen, its primary focus is on the characters, rather than the game. Baseball is merely the backdrop. Far more interesting than the outcome of any single game is the struggle of Dominican players trying to turn pro. They live in strictly controlled dormatories, earning virtually no money. Unlike their American counterparts, there are no scholarships; no frat parties. Either they make it big, or they're back to the slums. The writer director team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have portrayed the struggles of latino immigrants in a way that is both candid, and hopeful. Unless you count wrestling as a sport, this is easily the best sports movie I've ever seen.

**Spoilers Below**

Like The Wrestler, Sugar can hardly even be considered a sports movie. Games come and go without us knowing, or caring who won. When Miguel joins Kansas City's minor league affiliate, he has a rough, and at times comical transition into American life. His English is so bad that even ordering breakfast is a struggle. The Higgins', his adoptive American family (Ann Whitney, Richard Bull) are fanatical about their baseball, and have taken in several latino ball players on behalf of their local squad. Miguel can barely communicate with them, though he constantly feels pressure to perform well for them. He is alone, save his Domincan friend Jorge (Rayniel Rufino) in rural Iowa, hardly a place where you can get by on Spanish. He takes an interest in Anne (Ellary Porterfield), the Higgins' grand daughter, who attempts to recruit him into her all white church group. Awkwardness ensues.

American baseball proves to be different from how young Dominicans picture it. There is no quick route to success, and Dominicans do not rule the game. Miguel has a promising start to the season, but is sidelined by a minor foot injury. Jorge is cut from the team, and decides to move to New York. When Miguel returns to the team, he is unable to return to his previous form. Encouragement from his teammates, particularly Johnson (Andre Holland) keep him going for a while, but a combination of frustration and a single experiment with painkillers put him on the chopping block. Instead of accepting a relief position, he fled to New York to find his friend Jorge. Dreams rarely die with a bang; they usually end with a thud, and a shrug of the shoulders.

Miguel's savings quickly evaporate in New York, so he begins to work under the table at a diner where Jorge used to work. The two are eventually re-united, and play together in a men's league filled with former Dominican farm team players. The film ends with a tribute to these men. Dominican boys who came to America chasing the dream of major league baseball, only to default into a pursuit of the American Dream--or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Likely service workers, and likely in the country illegally, they find happiness acting out their childhood dreams on a modest field in the Bronx. It is the quintessential American story--a story that hearkens back to the days when the poem at the base of Lady Liberty was more than just an inscription.


Predators (2010)

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Predators is unwatchable. I walked out around 20 minutes in. The third time Topher Grace yelled out "what is going on" seemed like an appropriate cue for my departure. It seemed like they were trying to balance humour with suspense, while achieving neither. How 65% of critics on Rotten Tomatoes were able to come up with positive ratings for this is absolutely baffling.

The only good thing that can be said about the movie is Adrian Brody's performance. From what I saw, he was solid as usual. Given that he's starred in the two worst movies I've seen this year, I'm starting to think that he's turning into Kevin Costner. Fine actor, terrible judgment.

Don' bother wasting your time with this one. It doesn't even qualify as so-bad-it's-good. It's just bad. It's too bad they didn't bring back Carl Weathers for some comic relief. The movie was a joke anyways, so they might as well have made it funny.


Jonah Hex (2010)

★ ★ ★ 1/2

There are few things are likely to make me question my sanity as the only critic other than Armand White to find fault with a film. It's ever weirder being the only other critic to positively review a movie. I went into Jonah Hex expecting a laughable failure. There are few things more enjoyable than a movie that's so-bad-it's-good, and that's what I expected. Only 7% of top critics at Rotten Tomatoes rated it positively, so my expectations seemed justified. I was extremely confused coming out of the movie. I hadn't read any full reviews, but I couldn't understand what critics hated about it. Frankly, I loved it. As with any great action film, it only took about 5 minutes to figure out I was in for something special. Once again, the critical consensus is dead wrong: Jonah Hex is the best action movie so far this year.

Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) is a Confederate soldier turned bounty hunter. Having been on both ends of heinous acts, he has been outcast from polite society, emerging only to do the dirty work of post-bellum law enforcement. He is very much in the mold of a Leone anti-hero. He roves from town to town, mercilessly dispatching anyone who does him wrong. He has an undefined relationship with Lilah (Megan Fox), a prostitute in one of the many towns he floats through on occasion. On one of his infrequent visits to Lilah, he learns that an old enemy (John Malkovich) who he'd thought to be dead had resurfaced, and is plotting to destroy the post-bellum peace. Hex, with his curious ability to confer with the dead, is the only person who can stop him.

There seem to have been two principle criticisms of the film. First, some claimed that it 'had no plot'. Second, many of the elements to the plot (or lack thereof?) seemed to be loosely stitched together. There is some superficial basis to these claims. To the extent they're true, they are virtues rather than vices.

The critics were oblivious to the subtleties that undergirded the film. The film drew heavily from a handful of genres: steampunk, superhero, western, and a splash of poetic realism. The steampunk genre requires observers to suspend belief about history and technology. Some, like Roger Ebert were not willing to do so. The superhero genre requires further suspension of disbelief, both in terms of physics, and the relative importance of the character. One shouldn't be flummoxed by a superhero bringing someone back from the dead, or being called into the oval office. These are the type of things that happen in superhero movies. It's like complaining that James Bond gets the girl, or that Garfield eats lasagna.

Ultimately, Jonah Hex is a character study. Characters who have been so abused by history, that they are almost unrecognizable. From the obvious deformity of Jonah's face, to the deadness of Lilah's eyes, it is clear that their humanity has nearly been extinguished by circumstances. Their ambiguous relationships reminds one more of two frostbite victims huddling together than a pair of lovers. Brolin and Fox were almost mechanical in their roles, and that is exactly as it ought to have been. Any moral progress Hex makes is almost accidental; a side effect of his drive for revenge. He is constantly walking the line between catharsis and damnation.

Jimmy Hayward has shown that he is not simply one of the best animators on the planet, but also a very capable director. It's ironic that the third installment of the Toy Story franchise (he was animator for the first two) came out on the same day, with the opposite critical reaction. Hayward deserves credit for taking a risk, and creating a film that didn't aim for the lowest common denominator. This is a film for cinephiles. It contains a plethora of subtle references to legendary genre films, while eschewing the excesses of the Tarantinos of the world. I only wish it had a long enough theatrical run for me to see it again.


In the Loop (2009

★ ★ ★ ★

Politicians are among the favorite targets of American comedians. For some reason, this hasn't resulted in more than a handful of respectable Hollywood political satires. Thank God for the Brits. Anyone who's ever been involved in politics has surely heard of Yes, Minister! It is a cult series among politicos; the gold standard for political satire. No political satire had rivaled it, until Armando Iannucci's In The Loop. While it may not have eclipsed Yes, Minister!, it is easily the best political satire since.

Unlike the high level bureaucratic shenanigans of Yes, Minister!, In the Loop follows a British staffer who works for Minister of International Development Simon Foster (Tom Hollander). Foster unintentionally takes a controversial position on the possible invasion of Iraq, leading to an international scandal. Toby (Chris Addison) convinces his boss to take him along on a trip to D.C., where the minister hopes to repair the damage he's done. A series of further slip ups by Simon and his staff worsen the situation. A high level US politician latches onto Foster's seemingly pro-war comments, and uses them to demonstrate British support for the invasion. The hapless Minister is enlisted by an anti-war Secretary of State, who hopes to use him to turn things around. This alliance is brokered by Toby, who happens to have went to grad school with the Secretary of State's assistant. Joined by a high ranking general (James Gandalfini), this triumvirate takes on the ultimate force in DC: Zeitgeist.

While ostensibly about high level diplomacy, the significance of the film lies in its focus on the role of staffers in the political process. I suspect that Jesse Armstrong and Simon Blackwell spent a good deal of time hanging around staffers while writing the screenplay. While high level bureaucrats and political advisers try to control the agenda, the ultimate responsibility lies with an army of neophytes. No matter how much he yells and screams, the party's director of communications (Peter Capaldi) doesn't seem to have any control over the situation. While the situation is extreme, it isn't implausible. Politics accords a shocking level of power to very young people. Though none of the politicos I know has ever been involved in a scandal, it isn't too hard to imagine how a minor lapse of judgement can spiral out of control.

If you're at all interested in politics, In the Loop is a must see. It is a candid depiction of the lives of political staffers, rendered similarly to The Office. It is uncomfortable, disconcerting, and more importantly, it is absolutely hilarious.


Leaves of Grass (2009)

★ ★ 1/2

In Leaves of Grass, Ed Norton plays a pair of twins, a highly renowned professor, and an Oklahoman drug dealer. Sounds like a cheasy mid-90s buddy comedy. Rather than a facile comedy of errors leaning heavily upon the physical similarities of the characters, it aimed for smart black comedy. Unfortunately it was pedantic more often than insightful. It didn't live up to the cast, let alone the subject matter.

Bill Kincaid (Norton) is a philosophy professor at Brown who is summoned back to his home town in Oklahoma by the death of his brother. When he arrives, he learns that it was a lie to get him back to help his brother out of a fix. Brady (also Norton) is a small time drug dealer who owes money to a Jewish money lender (Dreyfuss). Bill quickly realizes he has no choice but to help Brady. He is also faced with the unseemly prospect of visiting his mother, whom he had avoided for more than a decade. While there, Bill meets a young English teacher (Janet, played by Russell). Bill is a hyper rationalistic philosopher. He knows he should leave, but he can't seem to go.

The film's title was taken from Walt Whitman's famous volume of poems, which played the role of social lubricant between Bill and Janet. They discussed aethetics, careers, familial obligations--it wasn't overbearing, but it was never as interesting as the subject matter would suggest. While this subplot seemed fairly genuine, I can't say the same about the main narrative thrust. The drug dealing plot was sometimes funny, but often absurd, relying on implausible coincidences.

While Norton and Russell put in solid roles, the rest of the cast was uneven. Dreyfuss' first shaking money grubbing character just wasn't that funny. Tim Nelson wrote in way too many Jewish stereotypes and cliches into this part. None of his henchmen were interesting either. Susan Sarandon seemed surprisingly realistic as the irresponsible new age mother, but her role was limited. Familial obligation was one of the central themes of the movie, and Sarandon's performance was edifying.

If you're interested in philosophy and poetry, you may enjoy Leaves of Grass. There are major structural problems with the movie, but there are a few thoughtful scenes that make it worth a watch.

Prince of Persia (2010)

★ ★ ★ ☆

Prince of Persia is a straighforward morality tale, as you would expect from a Disney film. It's special effects fail to wow, and the action sequences are not over the top. This is unusual for a movie produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. Frankly, I don't see these as deficiencies. Rather than attempting to dazzle us with gigantic monsters like Clash of the Titans did, it delivered something I didn't expect: simplicity. Aside from some light tears in the fabric of space and time, the plot was pretty straightforward. A heroic prince framed for murder flees the city with a foreign princess. While unoriginal, it was very entertaining. I enjoy morally complex films as much as anyone, but sometimes a dose of plain old good vs. evil is refreshing.

I admit that I was quite skeptical going into this. There really isn't any reason to expect much from a movie based on a video game. It also scored a paltry 39% on Rotten Tomatoes. It took a mixed review from Joe Morgenstern to convince me to see this one. Within 10 minutes, I knew I made the right decision. Though I haven't played the video game that this was based on, it did have the feel I assume the game does (from what I remember of the original Nintendo game). Prince Dastan (Gyllenhaal) constantly finds himself in vexing situations. He takes stock of his surroundings, and methodically makes improbable escapes. It resembled Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes in this respect, save that the situations take place in real time.

Jake Gyllenhall continues to prove that he's more than a washed up teen actor. This is his second respectable role in the last two years (after Brothers). Gemma Arteton was well cast as the impetuous princess, and Ben Kingsley was solid as always. Alfred Molina delivered plenty of laughs as a seedy, tax evading entrepreneur. His generally informed (though hypocritical) social commentary alone was worth the price of admission.

Big budget action movies are generally made to appeal to the lowest common denominator. The goal is adequacy in every technical aspect. A few suspenseful moments, and a couple of laughs are enough to satisfy the expectations of the audience. Sadly, it's rare to even find this in a contemporary action movie. Prince of Persia is an exception. Contrary to the critical consensus, it is worth a watch.


Me and Orson Welles (2009)

★ ★ ★ ☆

The thought of an Orson Welles biopic is naturally one that has intrigued me. Welles was a cinematic genius, and an eccentric--perhaps a madman. He demanded nothing less than brilliance from each and every member of his cast, and would lash out arbitrarily at anyone who fell slightly short. As a Welles aficionado, I was thrilled when I heard that Richard Linklater would be directing a film about the man. Though I was concerned with some of the casting decisions, the finished product was quite satisfying. Not only was it entertaining--it was actually quite insightful. Though many of the details were likely fictional, Linklater did a fine job of exploring the mind of Orson Welles.

The film betrayed a deep admiration for Welles' work. Adapted from a Robert Kaplow novel of the same name, it made constant references to Welles' corpus. Even in the most casual conversations, the characters would quote or paraphrase scenes from his major works. Many of these references were used to create dramatic irony for those familiar with Welles' work. Though I've not read the book, it was likely no easy task for screenwriter Holly Gent Palmo to bring such a literary flair to the big screen.

The biggest concern I had going into the film was the casting. More specifically, I was vexed by the notion of casting Zac Efron in the lead role. He isn't exactly Oscar caliber talent. The irony is that this is precisely why he fit the role. Efron was cast as an amateur actor. A more skilled lead would have seemed disingenuous in the role. It's rare that I'll praise an actor for his mediocrity, but this role demanded mediocrity. Claire Danes was respectable as Efron's love interest, and James Tupper played a convincing Joseph Cotton.

At the risk of sounding unoriginal, I will laud Christian McKay copiously for his portrayal of Welles. McKay was cast by Linklater after the director had seen him play Welles in an off Broadway production. McKay was born for the role. Aside from his resemblance to Welles (from a profile view), his emulation of Welles' mannerisms seemed completely natural. It's no easy task to seem natural when playing an eccentric like Welles. He even managed to capture his haughty speaking style. Maybe he didn't capture Welles the man. He certainly did capture Welles public persona. This is what made the film interesting. McKay constantly left the audience wondering whether the persona and the man are one and the same. On a fittingly Wellesian note, perhaps we can never truly know the man.


Splice (2010)

★ ☆ ☆ ☆

**Spoiler Alert**

Ordinarily, I do my best to avoid spoilers. However, I think it would be a disservice in this case. Simply put, Splice is the most disgusting movie I have ever seen. It is the only movie that has ever made me feel physically ill. Inter-species sex? Really? I can't imagine why anyone would want to see that. I guess it wouldn't be so bad if there were redeeming qualities in the movie. There weren't. Sadly, the critics loved it. It was widely considered an intelligent exploration of the moral dimension of genetic engineering, and a parable for the difficulties of parenting. What rubbish. It had all the moral complexity that you would expect from a dinner table political discussion.

Splice is about a genetic experiment, which leads to the creation of a human/animal hybrid. The experiment began as an attempt to create a new medicinal compound, quickly spun out of control. In short, it is a diatribe against genetic engineering. While I'm sympathetic to this position, I was disapointed by the simplistic approach director Vincenzo Natali took to the issue. He aimed for a purely visceral reaction, which is exactly what he got. However, I'm not sure it actually caused anyone to think any deeper about the issue.

For a movie that has been praised for it's treatment of complex moral issues, the dialogue was surprisingly amateurish. The rushed conversations were filled with talking points, and flippant reversals. It felt like a made for tv movie, with slightly better special effects. While Adrian Brody wasn't terrible, Sarah Polley put in a performance unworthy of a b-movie. Instead of the suspense that it aimed to create, the film elicited little more than unintentional giggles, and a good deal of disgust from the audience. Guillermo del Toro should be embarrassed to have lent his name to such an amateurish production.

It seems that the entire purpose of Splice was to 'push the envelope.' Given that critics seem to mistake edginess for thoughtfulness, this was probably a good marketing ploy. Ironically, I wouldn't be surprised if this tactic was self defeating. After all, this project received $2.5 million from TeleFilm Canada, a Canadian Government funded cultural agency. Given the number of people who left the theatre in disgust, I wouldn't be surprised if there were calls to review Canadian film subsidies. Though I'm against most forms of censorship, it's hard to blame people for not wanting to fund films that they find incredibly offensive. If there is a market for inter-species sex scenes, film companies should be able to raise the money themselves. Somehow, I doubt that this market exists.


Robin Hood (2010)

★ 1/2

If someone had told me last year that the two most disappointing movies of 2010 would be Tim Burton/Johnny Depp, and Ridley Scott/Russell Crowe collaborations, I might not have believed them. Sadly, this is how it turned out. Robin Hood was muddled, boring, and historically revisionist. I'm a huge fan of the surge of reinventions that have been turned out in the last few years, but Robin Hood crossed a line. It is fine to make up historical events, but it's another thing to re-write one of the most important events in human history. Worst still, unlike Gladiator, the historical fabrications actually detracted from the legend. This is Ridley Scott's fourth botched history lesson. He should stick to fiction.

Even if we ignore the numerous offenses against history, there is not much of interest in Robin Hood. It strayed too far from the original legend. The central point of the Robin Hood legend--reclaiming tax dollars from the rapacious Sheriff of Notingham--was hardly even an afterthought. The plot was too ambitious. Fabricating a connection between Robin Hood and the Magna Carta neither made the plot more interesting, nor did it make it more politically relevant. In fact, it undermined what ought to have been an extremely timely political message. Several commentator argued that Ridley Scott turned Robin Hood into an icon of the Tea Party. That is exactly the opposite of what he did. Rather, he took a tax crusader, and turned him into an crusader for representative government. The two are by no means incommensurate, but they are different issues altogether.

Perhaps the most dissatisfying part of the film is that it simultaneously attempted to de-mythologize Robin Hood, while leaving in several mythological aspects. The most notable of which would be the legend surrounding his lineage. The number of coincidences involved in this subplot could be forgiven in mythology, but not in a gritty realistic reinvention (which is what Scott presumably was trying to create.) This is especially true, given that the entire subplot was invented to make Scott's Quixotic point.

Aesthetically, the movie turned out about average. There was an early siege scene that was done quite well, though there were a fair share of scenes that were poorly done. Most notably, there were several musical scenes, most of which seemed like irritating fillers. There were also several scenes with extremely choppy cinematography that was hardly worthy of a made for TV movie. There wasn't really anything wrong with the acting. It was an average role for Russell Crowe--in other words, the role was better than average. Cate Blanchette was about as depressing as Scott intended her to be, so mission accomplished for her.

If you're just looking for an action flick where plenty of heads role, you may enjoy this. Otherwise, save your money. It was 140 minutes of my life I wish I had back. You can blame screenwriter Brian Helgeland if you like, but Ridley Scott set the creative direction. Besides, who in their right mind would hire the screenwriter who wrote The Postman?