Thursday, December 30, 2010

Top Ten of 2010

It should go without saying this is my personal list, and more of a "favorites" than a "best of" selection. That said, let's go ahead and delve into my Top Ten of 2010.

I literally had The Town in this spot as I was typing this list, but something came over me at the last second to change it. That's how close those two movies were battling for a spot here, and I think the emotional core of The Fighter gave it the slight edge over Ben Affleck's solid heist film. The Fighter features fantastic performances from every member of the cast, with Christian Bale being the clear standout, well on his way to an Oscar nomination. On a personal level, it also helps that I saw the world premiere of this movie at Grauman's Chinese Theater, walked the red carpet, Wahlberg introduced the film to us, and Robert Duvall sat right behind us.

9. Buried
I remember reading someone write that Buried is more of an exercise than a film, but I respectfully disagree: this was one of the most entertaining movies of the year for me because it strips storytelling down to its rawest form. One man, buried alive in a coffin, and the camera never leaves the coffin for the entire run time. Ryan Reynolds gives the performance of his career, and director Rodrigo Cortes showed us that a concept as bold as this can be interesting if it's guided by the correct person. I wasn't so hot on the ending, but the rest of the movie made up for it.

8. Shutter Island
Martin Scorsese's most recent team-up with Leonardo DiCaprio was a return to classic filmmaking, influenced by classic film noir with a tinge of horror thrown in for good measure. A showcase of great performances across the board, Shutter Island is a movie in which the atmosphere could almost be considered a character, highlighting Scorsese's ability to know exactly what we need to see and when we need to see it.

7. How To Train Your Dragon
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the year for me was How To Train Your Dragon, a Dreamworks Animation film that I now consider to be one of my favorite animated movies of all time. The flying sequences are breathtaking, the story is a lot of fun, and the final battle sequence is one of the coolest (and most competently choreographed) action scenes of the year. Really spectacular stuff, and I hope Dreamworks can recapture some of the wonder of this movie in their upcoming sequels.

6. The Social Network
In my eyes, this is David Fincher's most watchable movie. It's a story built for my generation, a Shakespearean tale involving digital connectivity and the humanity of the people who strive to reshape it. Jesse Eisenberg gives a towering performance as Mark Zuckerberg, blisteringly spitting Aaron Sorkin's sharply-written dialogue and making us really feel for his character in the process. This very well could win Best Picture, but I've got a few more that I liked better.

5. True Grit
My review may not have fully revealed the amount of love I have for this movie. In the Coen's most recent foray into the western genre, the outstanding Jeff Bridges is outshined by relative newcomer Hailee Steinfeld. She delivered a wonderful performance as the 14-year-old Mattie Ross, out to bring her father's killer to justice. The movie is way funnier than I thought it'd be, due mostly to the well-written script and comically stilted delivery of many of the actors (including a surprisingly funny Matt Damon).

4. 127 Hours
Director Danny Boyle infuses his energetic style of filmmaking into the real-life story of Aron Ralston, a man forced to amputate his own arm in order to survive. Much in the way Ryan Reynolds defined Buried, James Franco completely dominates this movie and gives the best performance of his career. Like Boyle's previous Slumdog Millionaire, this movie deals with some heavy subject matter but is ultimately an uplifting celebration of life. This is a truly great movie.

3. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
This is the most fun I've had at the movies all year. The video game references, the fantastic casting, Edgar Wright's visual style, and the script based on Bryan Lee O'Malley's comic come together in a phenomenal way here, making this one of the most original movies I've ever seen. The action was great, the storyline was perfect, and I wouldn't change a single thing about it. Not a lot of people saw this movie, so please check it out if you avoided it in theaters. For more details about my amazing experience with this movie, click here.

2. Black Swan
An utterly intense experience, Black Swan is a haunting meditation on the perils of perfection. This list is populated with many actors giving what I consider to be their best performances, and Natalie Portman is no different. Her astounding work as Nina combined with Aronofsky's natural filmmaking style makes it all the more shocking as her sanity rapidly deteriorates in the movie. The last 30 minutes are completely spellbinding.

1. Inception
Anyone who knows me should have pegged this from the get-go. One of my favorite directors teaming with my favorite working actor and a staggeringly good supporting cast, all to make a completely original heist film that makes the audience think instead of just wowing us with visuals? Forget about it. DiCaprio was spectacular, Nolan's direction was spot-on, Wally Pfister's cinematography was brilliant, and the story exceeded my expectations in every way. A totally immersive experience, Inception stands apart from everything else on my personal favorites list.

Honorable Mentions: The Town, The King's Speech, Toy Story 3, Catfish, Exit Through the Gift Shop

That's it for this year. How does your list compare to mine? Anything you would have switched, added, or taken away? Let me know in the comments section.

The NJNM Podcast: Ep. 23 - Signs (Guests: Tim Turner and Jared Blanchard)

In this week's episode, Ben is joined by guests Tim Turner and Jared Blanchard to discuss M. Night Shyamalan's 2002 film, Signs. They also discuss a pretty fantastic documentary called Exit Through the Gift Shop, which they would recommend to everyone (but don't look it up before you see it).

Feel free to e-mail us at or call and leave us a voicemail at (904) 469-6566.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The NJNM Podcast: Ep. 22 - Supercop and Rumble in the Bronx (Guest: Joe Leininger from The Playing Field)

Merry Christmas to all! In this week's episode, Tyler and Ben are joined by Joe Leininger (from The Playing Field) to discuss two Jackie Chan martial arts films directed by Stanley Tong, Supercop and Rumble in the Bronx.

Don't forget to shoot us an e-mail with your questions, comments, and criticisms at or call and leave us a voicemail at (904) 469-6566. Thanks for listening, and we'll see you next week.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The A-Team

Joe Carnahan is a hit-or-miss director for me. His debut film, 1998's Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane, was enjoyable and his movie The Ticker from the BMW series "The Hire" (starring Clive Owen, Don Cheadle, Ray Liotta, and Dennis Haysbert) was one of the better efforts in that excellent collection of short films. Smokin' Aces was a bit of a wash for me, and I never saw Narc, but when I heard The A-Team was being adapted into a feature, I knew Carnahan's action-heavy style would be a good fit for the material. The final movie very much knows what it wants to be and has a damn good time being it. The A-Team is easily one of the most fun movies of the year.

The A-Team
Co-writer/Director: Joe Carnahan
Starring: Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Sharlto Copley

Many may debate this point, but I think Carnahan is one of the most competent directors working today. He knows his audience, knows his strengths, and plays perfectly to both of them in this movie. The formation of the team in the early minutes of the film brilliantly captures the tone: light-hearted, brash, sarcastic, and funny. Part of this comes from his handle on the material - he co-wrote the script - and part of it is from his very obvious passion for the characters. More than any other "team-based" movie this year (with the exception of Inception), The A-Team gives each character his due and provides a real sense of history and camaraderie between the leads. Most movies with characters that "specialize in the ridiculous" are at least going to register on my interest level, and this one resonates especially well because of the combination of how well the characters are treated and how well the action works in the context of the movie.

The story is a typical "framed for a crime they didn't commit" deal, complete with the easy-to-hate Black Forest task force and smarmy CIA specialist played by Patrick Wilson. There's also the "hot on their trail" agent, embodied here by Jessica Biel (in one of her most tolerable performances of the last five years). Liam Neeson commands attention as Hannibal Smith, the leader of our foursome of heroes. Bradley Cooper oozes charisma as "Faceman" Peck, Rampage Jackson is a perfect update of Mr. T's iconic B.A. Baracus, and District 9 alum Sharlto Copley does some fine work as the crazy man-child Murdock. The script is kind of goofy, with action sequences that absolutely defy physics and common sense (especially the bullet-ridden final 20 minutes), but the bond between these characters and their relationships are so honestly portrayed by all of these actors that it's easy to excuse most of the film's issues because we're having so much fun watching this all unfold.

Within the main four, there are some interesting dynamics taking place. B.A. and Murdock's constant trickery (and Murdock's breakfast bribes) give some much-needed humanity to these guys. Face and Hannibal have a Mark Wahlberg/Donald Sutherland vibe from The Italian Job, the student-teacher-partner thing that works well with two especially likeable actors like Neeson and Cooper in the roles.

Aside from the ludicrous parachuting tank stunt, a much less buzzed about stunt occurs during a break out from a moving vehicle about halfway through the movie. I won't give away what happens, but the reason I like it so much is because the movie operates on a level where insanely complex stunts like this are regular shenanigans to the A-Team; the level of difficulty of this stunt is never commented on by any member of the team - they're just THAT good.

The Blu-ray is solid, including a great behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of the film which really gives some insight into the approach of Carnahan and company. And while a gorgeous picture quality is something that should be assumed from Blu-rays these days - it's almost 2011, studios, get your act together - unfortunately it's not a given quite yet. This disc, however, definitely meets the visual standard, and allows us to see Carnahan's action through a crisp filter. There's also an extended edition of the movie (along with the theatrical version, of course), a montage mash-up set to the A-Team theme song, character chronicles, and more standard fare like a gag reel and deleted scenes. But perhaps the most interesting bonus feature is an interactive commentary called "The Devil's in the Details," which sees Carnahan commenting on the movie as it's happening (telling stories like the time when Rampage accidentally knocked out a stunt man) and occasionally offering graphics with various information about the movie: weapons used, what stage of "the plan" the characters are currently experiencing, and more.

Like I said, this is one of the most enjoyable action movies of the year. It's not the smartest thing you'll see, but it's a blast, and we definitely need these types of movies in our summer movie schedules. I hope this movie does well enough on DVD to earn a sequel, because the continuing adventures of this crew is definitely something I want to see more of. If the main cast returns - including Jessica Biel and the actor who appeared in a small cameo at the very end of the film - and Joe Carnahan is directing, a sequel to The A-Team would be pretty damn awesome. Until next time...

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The NJNM Podcast: Ep. 21 - Slap Shot

Tyler and Ben discuss George Roy Hill's 1977 sports classic, Slap Shot.

Don't forget to e-mail us at or call and leave a message at (904) 469-6566.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

In what could be the final movie in The Chronicles of Narnia series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader brings the same epic scale we've come to expect from the first two movies and provides a satisfying (possible) conclusion to the film series based on C.S. Lewis' classic novels.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Director: Michael Apted
Starring: Skander Keynes, Georgie Henley, Ben Barnes, Will Poulter

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was always my favorite book of the series, so it stands to reason I was more optimistic about this film than the ones that came before it. To be clear, I'm a fan of both previous movies - Prince Caspian more so than The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Director Andrew Adamson is replaced by former James Bond director Michael Apted (The World is Not Enough), and Apted doesn't skip a beat making this feel right at home in the Narnia series. The tone, visual style, and effects are a perfect fit with the rest of the movies, and though the story is incredibly derivative from every fantasy story ever told, I still think this is my favorite among the three movies.

This story follows the younger Pevensie siblings Edmund (Keynes) and Lucy (Henley) while they're stationed in England during WWII. Their older brother and sister have been shipped off to America, but the former King and Queen of Narnia must stay behind, living with their insufferable cousin Eustace (Poulter) until they can travel stateside safely. When all three of them are suddenly consumed by the waves of a strange painting hanging in their home, they surface in Narnia, where King Caspian (Barnes) is leading a ship called The Dawn Treader to find seven lost lords as an all-consuming darkness sweeps the land.

Apted does a fantastic job of translating this story to the big screen, and the addition of 3D fits pretty well in this world. Excusing some focus issues and slight blurriness at times, the 3D was well-executed and didn't distract from the story or feel like a cash grab. The visual effects were surprisingly impressive, from the opening painting scene featured in the trailers to the sweeping vistas of the magical land in which the story takes place. Make no mistake, this is no How To Train Your Dragon - but it's solid 3D in a movie climate that seems content with dumping crappy 3D on patrons and expecting congratulations for doing so. More impressive even than the visual effects was the way Apted framed the action, avoiding shaky camera work in favor of geographical awareness (a decision which almost always features the best possible outcome). An escape sequence on a seemingly deserted island was especially well choreographed.

Because the film centers around the youngest siblings, it features a great deal of "growing pain" scenes, in which Edmund and Lucy must overcome adversity and mature into adults, mirroring the same scheme used with Peter and Susan in Prince Caspian. For the most part, these moments are well-handled, though the premise of a darkness sweeping the land that tempts people is a bit heavy-handed. Speaking of this evil-incarnate, it serves multiple purposes in the film, from consuming human sacrifices to - in a move straight out of Ghostbusters - taking on the form of whatever fears it. It also appears as a green version of the Smoke Monster from LOST, which was almost as laughable as the concept of the smoke itself. Aside from that aspect being a little too on the nose, I didn't have many problems with the rest of the movie.

Will Poulter has an interesting arc as the annoying cousin, Eustace Scrubb. He spends the first half of the film begging the audience to murder him with their minds thanks to his brash personality and haughty sense of higher intelligence. But as the movie progresses and he undergoes a bit of a transformation (I won't ruin it in case you check it out), he actually becomes not only tolerable, but actually empathetic. His relationship with the brave mouse Reepicheep becomes a focal point of the movie and is one of the more entertaining elements on display.

Ben Barnes continues to stand out as Caspian, and I honestly believe he has that movie-star quality about him that could easily earn him some choice roles in the coming years. I expect great things from him, and expect this guy to quickly become a rising star in Hollywood. The other actors bring their same acting styles from the earlier films across here, which is to say that they are adequate but not breathtaking. Voice work from Liam Neeson and Simon Pegg was as good as you'd expect from actors of their stature, although Neeson's role is much more brief than previous installments in this franchise.

I haven't read the book on which this is based in probably 15 years, so I can't speak to the accuracy in that regard, but the film version basically presents us with an alternate telling of Homer's The Odyssey. By sea, the crew travels to various lands in search of these lost lords and is tested at every turn, from magic spells to cursed food and everything in between in a morality tale about having faith and overcoming temptation. Since The Odyssey is one of my favorite stories, that explains my enjoyment of this movie. The same themes are present to a degree; actions have consequences in Narnia, a lesson learned for when the characters return to the real world.

Issues of faith are tackled head on, with the film embracing its Christian undertones - let's face it, overtones - and though this movie borders on sanctimonious at times, I didn't think it ever crossed the line into being overly preachy. This series has proudly flown its flag from the beginning, so you know what you're getting yourself into here: if you can't handle a little positivity in your movies, stay home for this one.

The film plays an interesting game in its final minutes, effectively wrapping up the Pevensie storyline but leaving an opening for another sequel just in case this one makes bank at the box office. If I were to guess, I'd say this is the last we see of Narnia until the inevitable reboot in 10 years, and I'm OK with that. If you have kids, or you're a sucker for adventure tales, I'm sure you'll find something to enjoy with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Until next time...

True Grit (2010)

One of the biggest changes in the American film landscape over time has been the decline of the western. The genre once comprised a ludicrous percentage of the overall film output due to their cheap production costs and limited locations, and most of the films were shot on movie ranches in Southern California. And though the number of theatrical westerns has dramatically fallen since the 1980's, there has been a bit of a resurgence in the past few years. Movies like Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, James Mangold's remake of 3:10 to Yuma, and the modern day Coen Brothers western No Country For Old Men have been welcome additions to the genre, continuing a mini-revival sparked by Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood's 1992 Best Picture winner.

I've got some good news: the classic western is back. True Grit is one of the best films of 2010. Ostensibly a remake of the 1969 John Wayne film of the same name - one which earned The Duke his only Academy Award - the Coen Brothers want to make it clear that a remake was actually not their intention. In a recent interview, they said they had seen the original film in theaters when they were kids but haven't revisited it since then, and now only have a vague recollection of it. Their version is an adaptation of Charles Portis' novel, and remake or not, that detail is entirely inconsequential; this is easily one of my favorite movies of the year, one in which I got that feeling I'm lucky to get a few times a year when I know I'm watching something special. With this movie in theaters and Red Dead Redemption tearing up video game consoles, 2010 is a great year for westerns.

True Grit
Writers/Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper

It's strange seeing a pure, classic western out of the Coens so soon after their modern take on the genre won Best Picture only three years ago. It's undoubtedly "their" movie, with all of the brothers' trademark dark humor and gorgeous cinematography from collaborator Roger Deakins, but at times it felt as if this was a western from the mind of Quentin Tarantino. The dialogue was highly stylized and removed contractions from the equation almost entirely (providing some very funny moments thanks to the actors' delivery), with a rapid-fire barter scene between young Mattie Ross and a horse dealer standing out as a highlight. Like Inglourious Basterds, I was surprised how much of the movie was people sitting around talking, but also surprised at how intriguing the film was in spite of that. It shares one more thing with the work of QT: True Grit is punctuated by points of shocking violence, and because they're so sparse, it lends real meaning to those scenes, making them feel as if they truly matter.

The biggest surprise for me was the phenomenal performance by relative newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, appearing in her first major film and easily holding her own against some of the most intimidating actors in Hollywood. True, her character is extraordinarily well-written, but it takes a special kind of talent from a thirteen-year-old girl to pull off a convincing performance like this; I'm predicting big things from this girl in the future. And I'm not just saying this to be nice, either: if there were more than five nominees in the Best Actress category, I'd say she was a lock for a nomination. Heck, she still might be - although there's very little chance of a win, she still deserves all the praise she will surely receive for her work here. Regardless of professional accolades, she delivers one of my personal favorite performances of the entire year.

The rest of the cast, as I'm sure you've guessed, was outstanding as well. Jeff Bridges makes the iconic character of Rooster Cogburn his own, grumbling and slurring his way through the film. For the awards-obsessed out there, it's very possible Bridges could repeat as Best Actor, a feat not accomplished since Tom Hanks did it in '93 (Philadelphia) and '94 (Forrest Gump). For those who've seen the original True Grit and are wondering if the famous "fill your hands, you sons of bitches!" scene is represented here, the answer is yes; it's a testament to Bridges that he can separate himself so much from one of the most famous characters in western history while participating in many of the same story beats as the original film. Matt Damon was superb as La Boeuf, the proud Texas Ranger along for the ride, and his banter with both Steinfeld and Bridges was highly entertaining.

The villains were equally enjoyable. Josh Brolin, though he doesn't get much screen time, is effective as Tom Chaney, the man who killed Mattie's father. He's a man mentioned many times throughout the film but who doesn't appear until near the end, allowing the audience to build up our own vision of what this character might be like based on hearsay from other characters in the film (see: The Third Man). But Chaney turns out to be alternatively idiotic and terrifying. He's a moronic psychopath, and since you never know what they're going to do, there's no kind more dangerous. In a convenient bit of casting, the underrated Barry Pepper (seriously Hollywood, get this guy some more work) plays a man with the same last name - "Lucky" Ned Pepper, the leader of Brolin's gang of outlaws. He's not the biggest guy in real life or on screen, but he commands respect with his presence in this movie and you can tell the much larger Tom Chaney fears him; it's a small part, but an important one and one in which Pepper is easily able to excel.

The dusty landscapes and snow-covered settings were captured wonderfully by Roger Deakins, certainly inspired here by classic westerns in the look and tone of the cinematography. One shot in particular, of Rooster Cogburn framed in the entrance of a mine cart shaft, is a direct homage to John Ford's iconic shot in The Searchers. Deakins keeps his camera still unless it's absolutely necessary to move it. This is not a Scorsese picture in which the camera slowly rotates around a group as people converse; this is straightforward filmmaking, allowing the audience to savor the locales and expansive backdrops and have a perfect sense of geography at all times.

I don't think I've ever heard a score quite like this one. Carter Burwell composed the score, but nearly every song - and that's not an exaggeration - is a riff on the old hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." It's really weird to hear, since it comes up every few minutes in the movie in a different form - slower, faster, more piano, more strings - but it's all essentially the same song. It's not bad; in fact, I think it worked very well and absolutely added to the atmosphere of the movie. It just struck me as strange, since I can't think of another score offhand that is so heavily inspired by just one song.

I need to see this movie again to discuss it more thoroughly. I was so sucked in by the characters and wave after wave of awesome scenes (the opening hanging in the square, the courtroom questioning, the list goes on) that I found myself almost unable to watch the movie with a critical eye because I was enjoying it too freaking much. When you see as many movies as I do (and I presume if you're reading this, you might), you know how rare this reaction is.

It's hard to credit the Coens for much originality here, considering their script is based heavily on Portis' original novel. The thing about this movie, though, is that even though it isn't entirely original, their take on the source material makes it feel brand new. Ultimately, isn't that what matters? The visceral feeling of watching a movie? Isn't that why we watch movies in the first place? In the tradition of the 1969 film, the Coen Brothers have crafted a smart movie that breaks from conventions and presents a highly personalized look at the Old West and the notions of law and retribution in society. It's also way funnier than the serious trailers make it out to be - in fact, the humor was my favorite part of the entire film. Even with the Coens impressive resume, I'd rank this as one of my favorite films from the talented siblings. I'd highly recommend everyone check this one out over the holidays. Until next time...

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Warrior's Way

I'm guessing many of you have never even heard of The Warrior's Way. It's OK - I hadn't either. Shot back in 2007 and shelved until this past Friday, the samuari/western mash-up earned only three million dollars in its opening weekend, one of the worst wide-release showings of the year. But does that mean the movie is terrible? Actually, it kind of is - but it's also more entertaining than it has any right to be.

The Warrior's Way
Writer/Director: Sngmoo Lee
Starring: Jang Dong-gun, Geoffrey Rush, Kate Bosworth, Tony Cox, Danny Huston

Set in an indeterminate time period that's neither future nor ancient past, the plot follows an epic swordsman (Jang Dong-gun) on his quest to defeat every member of his rival clan. When it comes down to the last member - an infant girl - the swordsman can't bring himself to kill her, and (shocker!) decides to adopt her and go on the run from his own clan. He holes up in a dilapidated wild west town full of circus characters; the society inexplicably can't get their act together enough to finish the construction on the circus. The town is populated with all sorts of crazy characters: the height challenged leader of the group (Tony Cox), dressed to the nines but known as "8 Ball" because of the number eight scrawled on his bald head; the ex-gunfighter-turned-town-drunk (Geoffrey Rush); a ruthless band of outlaws with a leader (Danny Huston) who enjoys the company of adolescent females; and one of the aforementioned females (Kate Bosworth) who scarred his face and escaped his clutches, now - of course - out for revenge.

As totally contrived as that plot sounds, there's a colossal difference between a movie like this and one like Faster, a similar B-movie themed flick from earlier this year: style. For all of its attempt at recreating 70's revenge movie nostalgia and a sense of raw filmmaking, Faster took itself way too seriously, to the point of being detrimental. The Warrior's Way has no problem being derivative, but it also knows that in order to have a story that's so similar to things we've seen dozens (if not hundreds) of times on screen, they have to add something interesting to the equation. Even if that new addition is the something as simple as the look of the movie, shot almost entirely (if not 100%) in front of green screens down in New Zealand, at least it's contributing something to the greater movie landscape and doing it with some flair.

Like a trainwreck on fire, The Warrior's Way makes it hard to look away: all the dazzling colors and washed-out backgrounds are punctuated with CGI blood spatter as swords go slicing and bullets go blazing. There's a distinct B-movie vibe on full display here, and because the entire film is played tongue-in-cheek, it's hard not to appreciate the over the top attitude. The influence of Zack Snyder is felt not only in the green-screened look of the movie (ala 300), but also in handling the action; the movie cribs Snyder's style but does it adequately enough to make the fight scenes worth seeing. I won't list all of the movies this one copies - that would be an insanely long list - but in an effort to report on the tone of the movie, two came to mind. Clive Owen's Shoot 'Em Up shares the cartoonish atmosphere, and, to a lesser degree, the final act of John Woo's Hard Boiled comes to mind (the baby being the key part of that allusion). More than anything else, though, The Warrior's Way feels influenced by video games. The ability of the near-perfect hero to thrash hundreds of bad guys with little to no danger feels like the best sort of cheat code, one in which to enjoy the barrage of battles and not worry for a second about pesky things like health or mission goals.

It'd be a shame not to mention the performance of Geoffrey Rush, currently gaining awards momentum for his work in The King's Speech, but here channeling co-star Johnny Depp from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. This is Rush's chance to play the stumbling drunk, the wheezing teetering boozer always a second away from passing out, and he does it with gusto. Kate Bosworth also committed to her role, and while I initially found her harsh accent to be grating, I must admit she grew on me as the movie progressed. Danny Huston plays the villain with equal parts camp and sleaze.

It's not even worth it to bring up questions of logic in a movie like this. (If the people in this town are all so jovial and work so well together, why don't they just finish building their Ferris wheel so they can start the circus like they wanted?) This is a movie in which text pops up to alert us that our hero is "the greatest swordsman in the history of mankind...(ever)." It's totally aware of its place in the overall movie realm and embraces that as much as possible. The Warrior's Way is a fun watch - totally unrealistic, ludicrous in almost every way - but unquestionably a lot of fun. Until next time...

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The NJNM Podcast: Ep. 20 - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Pat makes his glorious return as he, Tyler, and Ben discuss Ang Lee's 2000 film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Don't forget to call and leave us a voicemail at (904) 469-6566 or e-mail us your thoughts at

Saturday, December 4, 2010

TRON: Legacy

In 2008, test footage for TRON: Legacy surprised audiences at San Diego Comic-Con and the enthusiastic reaction from fans helped greenlight the sequel to the 1982 original.* This footage prompted me to see TRON for the first time, and while I enjoyed the movie, more than anything it raised my anticipation for Legacy. This is one of those rare sequels that is totally justified due to drastic updates in filmmaking technology and a story that is served by exploring those technological possibilities.

TRON: Legacy
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, Michael Sheen

I'll come right out and say it: I was disappointed with the movie. There were aspects I really dug - I'll get to those in a minute - but taking Disney's overkill marketing approach out of the equation and looking directly at the trailer, I was half-expecting a transcendent experience. Unfortunately, what I ended up with is just a shell of a movie. The world of the Grid, strangely enough, is a good metaphor for the film itself: it's sleek, sexy, gorgeous to look at, and unlike anything we've seen before - but it's also cold, harsh, and unforgiving, a world made up solely of 1's and 0's incapable of convincing anyone that a heart beats inside its mechanical chest.

If you're looking for eye candy, you've hit the jackpot. Director Joseph Kosinski makes his feature debut here, and his past experience as an architect is on glorious full display here, highlighting the expanse of the Grid with a wondrous originality and dynamic visual flair never before seen in movies. It's easily the sexiest city I've ever seen, and with its dichotomy of dark glassy panes and bright LED light strips embedded everywhere, the movie serves as a shining beacon of what is possible with today's technology. All the staples of the original are updated with pizazz: the disc war sequence is exciting enough, but the light cycle race was the highlight of the film for me. Watching Hedlund speed through Kosinski's world really allowed us to bask in the glory of what the director and his production designers created.

Kosinski is capable of handling the action - as Zack Snyder will tell you, slickness and style will get you a long way in this industry - but when he has to settle down and actually tell a story, that's when the problems begin. Based on the stunning visuals we'd seen over the years, I'd (perhaps unfairly) hoped the quality of the story would meet or exceed the quality of those images. Due to a lackluster script, it doesn't quite play out like that. I can easily see two scenarios here: if Legacy fails to meet box office expectations and turns into a financial disaster, I can see Kosinski returning to the commercial world and never directing another feature. But if it does gangbusters over this holiday season, it's easy to imagine Disney latching onto him for future franchises. (They've already got him signed for a remake of The Black Hole.) Enough speculation - let's get back to the movie at hand.

Jeff Bridges reprises his dual roles as Kevin Flynn and Clu. Flynn, older and trapped in the Grid for years, has developed as one might expect for the character, but with one semi-distracting exception: his dialogue seems intent on reminding us that he was once The Dude.  Drew McWeeny at HitFix brilliantly summed up the elder Flynn in TRON: Legacy: "he's Obi-Wan Lebowski." His affability works with this character (if you watch the original, you'll essentially see a young hacker version of The Dude), but with lines like "it's biodigital jazz, man," and "you're messing with my zen thing, man," the writers are relying a bit too much on our outside knowledge of Jeff Bridges and not giving us enough Kevin Flynn. Those are direct quotes, too - no exaggeration, that's exactly how they were stated in the film. My audience openly laughed at lines like that on more than one occasion.

With Clu, Flynn's computer counterpart designed to help build a perfect system capable of shepherding the world into a new digital age, the filmmakers opted to take a motion-captured approach to the character, meaning that he appears as a younger version of Bridges in the final product. Unfortunately, this CG Bridges looks completely unconvincing (save for some brief moments) and took me out of the movie entirely. I can see why they'd need that version inside the world of the Grid, but in the film's opening minutes (set in the "real world") they choose to show that version of Bridges in a flashback sequence that absolutely does not fit into anything aiming for reality.

Early rumors warned of a terrible performance from Garrett Hedlund (an actor I've actually liked in a number of things), but I found no issue with his performance. He's the "tech geek badass" prototype here, able to infiltrate a Fortune 500 company, base jump, and ride a motorcycle with equal ease. He does a fine job at all of the above, and while the writing may force some questionable dialogue out of him every few minutes, for the most part he sells and it and totally worked for me as the action hero of this movie.

Olivia Wilde looked stunning, and brought a kind of wide-eyed naivety to her character that was endearing but ultimately didn't make a lot of sense. When the true nature of her character is revealed, some of her actions don't hold up under scrutiny - again, a writing issue, nothing having to do with her acting. For my money, she was one of the more enjoyable aspects of the film, questionable character or not; her willingness to commit to the role seemed a bit more genuine than Hedlund's performance, which seemed tired at times. Michael Sheen, aside from being almost unrecognizable covered in white makeup, seemed to have more fun than everyone else on set combined. He played the flamboyant character of Castor as a brash loudmouth who loves to be the center of attention. While grating as a character, Sheen gave a memorable performance and shows a willingness to go from British royalty films like The Queen to big budget blockbuster with no problems in between.

(Very minor spoiler in the next paragraph.)

Like most blockbusters these days, TRON: Legacy borrows heavily from other sources, but this one regularly strayed from paying homage into more dicey territory of quasi-theft that caused me to wince a few times. Cillian Murphy makes an uncredited surprise appearance in the beginning of the film as the son of Flynn's nemesis Dillinger, the villain from the first film. He now heads up the technical operations at ENCOM, the company made famous by Kevin Flynn years before. But his appearance is limited to about five minutes of screen time (if that), and then he's never seen or mentioned again. As if blatant set-up for sequels wasn't a big enough sin, writers Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis actually have Murphy utter a famous line from another franchise sequel in which he made a tiny appearance: The Dark Knight. "It's all part of the plan," the younger Dillinger says, with a hint of Heath Ledger in his voice. Immediately following this scene, there's an epic helicopter shot of Sam Flynn standing on top of a building at night that looked suspiciously similar to TDK even before Sam base-jumps from the roof.

Using The Wizard of Oz as inspiration, the movie stays in 2D for the "real world" aspects until switching into 3D as soon as we enter the Grid, just as Dorothy and Toto stayed black-and-white until they hit full color in Oz. (Incidentally, I think Avatar would have benefited by using this same approach.) Like the first TRON, there are plenty of Star Wars rip offs here (the gunner battles are near identical in all three films, actually) and also a visual callback to Terminator 2: Judgment Day, hearkening back to James Cameron's T-1000 innovation when programs are "derezzed" in the Grid. Even the notion of Castor and Zeus being the same person dates was notably featured in science fiction in Schwarzenegger's Total Recall.

Musical duo Daft Punk composed the score for the movie, sending shock waves through the online film world when it was announced. I won't pretend to know anything at all about Daft Punk, but from what I can gather, the original movie was a massive influence on them as artists; it's fitting, then, that they would provide the score for the sequel. Trouble is, the score sounded an awful lot like Hans Zimmer's already-iconic score for Inception, with the same frenzied strings and intermittent bursts of loud horns. That doesn't mean it wasn't a great score - it certainly was - but I don't think it reached the groundbreaking level many assumed it would reach when they heard DP were on board. Daft Punk even made a cameo in the film as the DJ's at The End of the Line Club.

Over at GeekTyrant, we recorded a video of our initial thoughts right after we left the theater. After I expressed disappointment with the storyline, Mazer wondered what I (we, anyone) would have done to change it. I didn't have an answer right then, but after a few hours to think it over, I've got a couple of ideas. For starters, I actually liked the look of the movie outside of the Grid, so I would have featured more of the "real world" in the film. Not in the way the movie was hinting, in which Clu would lead an army out into the world to cleanse it of its imperfections in an updated Nazi storytelling device that we've seen dozens of times before, but perhaps feature Bruce Boxleitner's returning Alan Bradley character more on the outside, helping Sam out or working behind the scenes to cause trouble for the corporate hackjobs who have taken over ENCOM since Kevin's disappearance. Sure, now that sequels are being planned and an animated series is in the works, I'm sure we'll find out all sorts of different ways to tell a story within this franchise. I just wish we would have seen a better one here to get it all started again.

TRON: Legacy is a mindless action movie, and I take issue with that because more than many other blockbusters, this one had the potential to offer us something to think about instead of just something to look at. Though the first film looks cheesy now, there was a definite sense of something deeper going on under the surface; concepts and ideas about the digital world were highlighted with CGI and wrapped in a new and exciting story. Here, the world has been retrofitted with better tech, but all of the heart from the original is gone. It devolves into the exact cliches longtime movie-watchers will see coming from light-years away ("he's building an army!" "Get to the portal!"), but it does a great job of making me want to ride a light cycle. And hey - any movie that features Journey's "Separate Ways" can't be all bad. Until next time...

(All images courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.)

*A similar tactic was used to convince Frank Miller that a movie version of Sin City would work, with Robert Rodriguez shooting the opening scene as a test and shopping the concept footage to Miller and the rest of the soon-to-be lead actors.