The 5 Most Underrated Movies of All Time

A few weeks ago, I published my article The 5 Most Overrated Movies of All TimeI received a lot of bile and gall from the public, which was expected, but I also received some positive feed back, including a number of comments asking what my most “underrated” movies of all time would be. Naturally, I set out to give the people what they wanted. However I ran into some complications. The first was that I had already spoken up to defend several underrated movies during my time at Walking Taco, and I thought to include these in a listicle would be redundant and crowd other movies off the list. I thought about making this a top 10 list instead of a top 5, but didn’t think many people would take time to read a list that long. I finally decided I would leave them off, and if people wanted to read my take on them, they could read my original reviews of movies like Van Helsing, The Village, and Spiderman 3. Second, I found that it’s very hard to gather data on how much a movie is hated, because those who like it, even if they are few, tend to be the ones talking about it and rating it online, thus inflating the scores of unpopular movies. Therefore, while in the last article I was able to juxtapose my rating of a movie against society’s rating to gauge just how overrated the movie was, this time I had to settle for a list of movies I wish people would stop hating on, ranked from worst at #5, to best at #1. Third, as I worked on this article I came to realize that I had committed myself, through time investment, to writing about mainstream movies, leaving no time or space for certain unsung classics, such as Luther or Amazing Grace. I was forced to accept the fact that doing justice to these movies would require another article altogether, so what I ended up with was a list of movies that are not exactly great (some are close), but that people need to stop hating on.

 

And now, by popular demand: the most underrated movies that I haven’t already written about:

 

daredevil poster#5 Daredevil (2003 Dir. Mark Steven Johnson)

Am I the only person alive who doesn’t hate Ben Affleck? Not that I would stand in line for his autograph, but the man is a competent actor, and with the type of looks he has, it’s not surprising he gets some heroic roles. Why fuss about it? He’s been in some good movies, and this is one of them.

Daredevil is one of the earlier movies put out by Marvel Studios, and it had to make its way in the days before superhero movies were automatically popular. It also had to tell the story of a marginally popular superhero, all while competing with an X-Men sequel released the same year. Granted the result wasn’t exactly Iron Man, but it still captured the passion of one man’s struggle against crime and injustice, amid the bleak and compelling scenery of Hell’s Kitchen.

If you’re someone who loves the Batman movies (any of them really) for their dark and gritty “reality,” then you should love Daredevil. Matt Murdoch (Affleck) fights criminals surrounded by poverty and blight in a city where corruption is the rule, not the exception. The body count is high for a superhero movie, and innocent bystanders drop like flies. Even our hero is not above killing a bad guy on occasion. And if you like dark humor, you have to love the scene where Bullseye (Colin Ferrell) is on the airplane.

The thing I love about the Daredevil legend is that Daredevil is the only superhero who is defined by whatorgan he can’t do. His power comes from his handicap – the blindness that was inflicted on him as a child. This accident also enhanced his other senses, and allowed him to discover his sonar-like hearing. He then used his enhanced senses to excel in the martial arts. Which leads to the other great thing about the legend: it’s a superhero story that could actually happen. This is much more compelling than stories like Thor or Ghost Rider, where whatever the director thinks would be cool happens.

I will say that this film has by far the stupidest portrayal of the legal world that I have ever seen. This would be more of a problem if it was a lawyer movie. But it’s a superhero movie. And as such, it appeals to that part of us that wants swift and terrible justice, without bureaucracy. Early in the movie, after a painfully brainless trial scene, a scumbag walks into a bar to celebrate beating a rape charge. He’s clinking glasses with his buddies, shouting “To the justice system!” when he sees a stranger in spandex sitting on one of the rafters. He shouts “What do you want?” The stranger replies “Justice!” and then proceeds to inflict catastrophic injuries on everyone in the bar. It’s impossible not to punch the air during that scene. Daredevil isn’t one of my favorite movies, but it’s one I enjoy from time to time. One more cool thing about it: just as the comic was one of the first to be released in Braille, this is one of very few movies where the producers bothered to include a narration track on the DVD so that blind fans would know what was happening.

crystal skull poster#4 Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Chrystal Skull (2008, Dir. Stephen Spielberg)

Before you dismiss this one as a throwaway movie, lets take a short trip back in time. In 1989, audiences flooded into theaters to see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, as it joined Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and IJ and the Temple of Doom (1984) as the third installment in the Indy franchise. In the next year or two, it came out on video, and in either 1991 or 92 (I was in sixth grade) the McDonalds Corp. announced a deal: buy a certain kind of meal and get your choice of the Indy movies on video. McDonalds thought it would make people flock to their stores, and they were right. But the question on everyone’s mind was: which movie will be the most popular? Would the public prefer Raiders for its methodical, old-school approach to action scenes, its surprising ending or its fascinating power struggle between the heroic Indy, the civil yet ruthless Dr. Belloq, and Major Toht in his unfiltered malevolence? Or maybe they would go for Last Crusade for the touching, yet manly relationship between Indy and his dad, the delightful comedy of Marcus Brody and Sallah, and the thrilling tank scene? Nope! Everybody wanted to see an extra get his still-beating heart ripped out! McDonalds could not keep Temple of Doom on their shelves. I spent many a lunch hour listening to classmates talk about how they requested the movie, only to be given a voucher, which they took to another McDonalds, who was also out of the movie, whereupon they drove all over town, looking for the movie everybody wanted but couldn’t find. Some eventually settled for one of the other two, but some went to the next town over. So I know if you are any kind of Indy fan, despite the lazy writing, sub-par acting and really annoying female lead, you probably have a special place in your heart for Temple of Doom, as do I. With that in mind, I submit that, with all its problems, Chrystal Skull is better than Temple of Doom.

Some argue that Ford, at 63, was too old to make another action movie in 2007. Others say Indy, at 57, would be too old to fight in 1957. As far as Ford is concerned, Hollywood makeup and special effects pick up the slack just fine. For Indy’s part, he took at least one swig from the Holy Grail, so that out to buy him a decade or so. Anyway, nobody gets shot in the shoulder at point-blank range and then keeps fighting, even at 36, so why worry about it now? Some complain about Ford’s acting in Chrystal Skull. Frankly, Ford was never a gifted actor. If you need proof, check out the scene in Raiders where he talks to Belloq in the bar after he thinks he’s killed Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). He became a star because he had a tough-guy smirk that made both women and men fall in love with him (in different ways). Actually, one of Ford’s most comical failures came in K-19 the Widow Maker (2002), in which he tried desperately to break out of his American tough-guy image and establish himself as a real actor. It was pretty painful. In Chrystal Skull, he’s back to doing what he’s good at, punching out Nazis commies and smirking for the camera.

Then there’s Shia LaBeouf as Indy’s long-lost son, “Mutt.” LaBeouf was a largely untested actor at theindy and mutt time, and is probably the part of the movie people most love to hate. And I have to admit, he is one of the weakest links in this chain. Even so, he throws himself into a’50s greaser persona that lends a charm to the movie, and an entertaining element to his interaction with Indy, both before and after they know they’re related. Any problems with Mutt are smoothed over by the return of Karen Allen, looking as good as ever, as Marion. Watching the three of them argue may not be realistic, but it’s as amusing as any family sit-com out there, without distracting from the adventure. It’s certainly better than putting up with Willie and Short-Round in Temple of Doom.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of Crystal Skull was how well Cate Blanchett did as the villain, Irina Spalko. In the hands of a lesser director, this could have reeked of gimmickry, but Spielberg pulled it off nicely. There’s no apologetic exposition about why the leader of the bad guys is a woman. She just is, and it works. The movie departs from the Nazi’s rumored obsession with ancient powers to speculate about the Soviets’ obsession with weird science. Spalko, a former girlfriend of Stalin, is driven to uncover the secrets of the extra-terrestrials who planted the Crystal Skull on Earth. The scene in which she expounds on the Soviet dream of using alien technology to control American heads of state and “make your teachers teach the true version of history” is pretty chilling. Blanchett fits in with the boys just fine, keeping  team of elite Russian fighters in line, squeezing information out of captives, and sexually insulting Mutt while she fences him on a moving vehicle. And Spielberg makes it all seem natural.

While this film never could have been another Last Crusade, it gave us something we had despaired of ever having: one more Indy adventure. And one blazing fresh turf, as Indy is hacking his way through the ruins of Meso-america for the first time. It has everything we love about Indiana Jones: archaeological puzzles to crack, bull whip stunts, fist fights the good guy wins, booby traps popping out of ancient walls, and a hair-raising encounter with an army of flesh-eating ants. Don’t hate this movie. Thank it. And please ignore those who complain about “inaccuracies.” Nobody loved Raiders because it was a historical documentary.

noe vs. smith#3 The Matrix Reloaded/Revolutions (2003, Dir. Andy and Larry Wachowski)

You can’t win making a sequel to The Matrix (except financially, of course). It took the world by storm, becoming the instant favorite of millions on millions, and practically became its own genre. This was not simply because it was so good (which it was), but also because it was like nothing else anyone alive at the time had seen. With a limited budget for promotions, the film came out of nowhere and changed the way we thought about movies – and our lives. It also spawned some ridiculous philosophical movements. Most of those who saw it went away scratching their heads, asking “how do I know what I think I know?” Of course they also went away riding a massive adrenaline rush, feeling inspired by the story, and begging for a sequel. But what should the sequel(s) do? Part I revealed our day-in-day-out world to be an illusion created by computers and gave us a glimpse of the “real” world in which a remnant of humanity fights a war against sentient machines. Some said the sequels should more fully explore that world. Others said they should try for a double head trip, and reveal that this new world is also an illusion. No matter what directors Andy and Larry Wachowski did, they were going to alienate a lot of people. The Matrix sequels were doomed to be hated from the beginning. With that said, I submit that the Wachowskis still turned in the best Part II they could humanly have turned in, and a Part III that’s still not half bad.

Conceptually, The Matrix was a work of genius. It created a world where all the ridiculous stunts we see in Hollywood become totally plausible. Part II capitalized on that perfectly. As an action blowout, Part I wasn’t bad, but Part II takes things to an entirely new level. I’ve often thought of Part II as a “CD movie,” because I don’t usually watch it all the way through. Rather I’m more likely to skip around and watch all my favorite scenes, and watch a couple of them over and over, much like one would listen to a CD. From Neo’s first fight with the three upgrades to the highway explosion, the action never lets up. I love how we get a dazzling five-on-one fight between Neo and the Merovingian’s henchmen, and just when we think things are about to slow down, we join Morpheus, Trinity and the Keymaker, speeding through the streets with two more henchmen on their tail, and now the Agents are involved as well. This sequence has everything, too: gun fighting, knife fighting, sword fighting, and high-speed driving/wrecking/flipping. We get both high-jumping martial arts on the top of a semi-trailer and hand-to-hand inside the close quarters of a vehicle where seatbelts are used as weapons. And we get Morpheus taking out an SUV with a samurai sword. Beyond awesome.

matrixreloaded-reeves-chou

It doesn’t slack off in the head trip department, either. It tends to shift from the question of “what is real?” to the question of whether choice is an illusion. The Oracle and the Merovingian represent two schools of thought on the subject, the Oracle urging the heroes to understand their already-made choices, while the Merovingian insists causality is the only constant. Neo’s conversation with the Oracle will likely have you scratching your head. This is immediately followed by yet another awesome action sequence; Neo’s fight with a army of Agent Smiths. Ah, Smith; the great Hugo Weaving truly chews the scenery in this roll. Weaving as Smith is probably the best part of the trilogy …

Except maybe Ian Bliss as Smith in Revolutions. Smith catches Bane (Bliss) inside the Matrix and turns him into a clone of himself. Bane then reenters his body in the real world, but is “possessed” by the Smith program. Unfortunately, Weaving can’t portray him. But Bliss did his homework and turns in a performance worthy of Weaving as Bane confronts Neo and Trinity. He should have gotten an Oscar.

When this one was first out, the main complaint everyone seemed to have was “not enough fighting.” In fact, Part III has as much fighting as Part I, and almost as much as Part II. The main difference is that now the fighting is happening in the real world instead of the Matrix. Admittedly, this is less interesting. But it still represents a faithful continuation of the story. And if nothing else, Neo’s final battle with Smith is still awesome.

revolutions neo

Part III doesn’t have a terribly satisfying ending. The Matrix is never destroyed and the machine army is not defeated. In fact, our hero sacrifices himself to save the Matrix from Smith, thereby brokering a peace between the machines and the humans. There is even an acknowledgement that this new peace will last only “as long as it can.” I can understand why people don’t like this ending. But to be fair, you have to give it credit for taking a risk and doing something unexpected. Not only that, but you might remember certain lines from the previous movies: “If the war was over tomorrow, Zion is where the party would be.” And “If tomorrow the war could be over, isn’t that worth fighting for?” At the end of Part III, they have what they were fighting for. The war is over. The machines leave them in peace, at least for the foreseeable future. Ultimately, the Matrix trilogy delivered what it promised. If people were expecting more, that’s not its fault.

Reloaded:

Revolutions:

superman carries planet#2 Superman Returns (2006 Dir. Bryan Singer)

I’ve spent years trying to understand how so many people can hate this movie. After a lot of interviews, research and thought, I’ve concluded that it all boils down to good old fashioned ignorant prejudice. Prejudice first against Superman. Ever since Tim Burton gave us the mixed blessing of Batman in 1989, DC and Marvel alike have tried to out-do each other in dark and nasty superhero stories. Despite the fact that, as Simon R. astutely put it, Batman itself was loaded with cheese, the public has adopted the attitude that a realistic or “adult” movie always equals a bleak, nasty, cynical movie, and superhero movies have become increasingly sick ever since. It just isn’t cool anymore to cheer for a hero who believes in “truth justice and the American way,” and who won’t kill or lie.

Prejudice second against anything but the Christopher Reeve version of Superman. There are still some who love Superman, but they won’t tolerate the existence of anything new or different. I wasn’t around for the debuts of the beloved Superman the Movie and Superman II, which I think gives me a valuable perspective. A good illustration of society’s flawed thinking about Superman is found in a video by the Nostalgia Critic, in which he counts down the Top 11 Dumbest Superman Moments. At the beginning, he shows the posters for the five movies in existence at the time (Man of Steele wasn’t made yet) and comments “…I love the Superman movies … well, most of them … some of them … two of them.” And of course, Returns is the first one he crosses off the list, and the two left standing are Superman and Superman II. And yet, if you watch the list, only one of his least favorite moments – number 11 in fact – is from Returns. And that is simply the casting choice of Returns. The ten worst are all from the Reeve movies, including those first two. See what I mean? It’s just prejudice.

Having watched the first Superman movies, I can see why people like them, but don’t see why they should set the standard. Reeve played the role well enough, but I see no reason to elevate him to Bella Lugosi status. There have been several other good Supermen, and Brandon Routh is one of them. He most distinguishes himself in the way he shows the emotional vulnerability of the indestructible symbol of protection. There’s none of Reeve’s stomping around, whining to his mother about how he loves Lois here. Routh communicates everything with a look, a grimace, a sigh. And he isn’t letting it out – after all the world’s protector never could. But we see it peaking out all the same. One of the most memorable moments of Returns is when Clark and Lois both bend over to pick up Lois’ purse, and Clark’s glasses fall off. Lois is still gathering the contents of her purse, and Clark has glasses in hand. Without a word spoken, we see the epic struggle inside him; one that makes fighting Doomsday look easy. And we see the pain in his face when he puts the glasses back on.

I have to admit, Kate Bosworth doesn’t shine as much as Lois Lane, and she’s certainly not as memorableSuperman Returns Brandon Routh Kate Bosworth-500553 as Margot Kidder. But she never drops the ball, and turns in a solid performance, including generating some real chemistry with a child actor (Tristan Leabu as her son, Jason White), which is not easy. While Reeve might hold his own against Routh and Kidder beats Bosworth, Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor is erased by Kevin Spacey. Hackman did his best, but was never quite right for the part. Spacey can play almost any role (L.A. Confidential, The Usual Suspects, House of Cards …) and is one of very few Hollywood actors who actually avoids getting extra face time (e.g. in gossip magazines) and has accumulated his considerable fame and wealth through (get this) being a good actor. He could probably play Shaft convincingly if he really worked at it. Unsurprisingly, he knocks Lex Luthor out of the park.

It doesn’t hurt that Spacey gets to play one of the most interesting characters in the history of fiction. Anybody who loves Batman should love Superman, if only for Lex Luthor. He is, in many ways, Bruce Wayne’s dark twin; a mental marvel, and a proven genius. In better shape than most people physically, endlessly creative and endlessly driven. You wouldn’t think any ordinary man could stand up to Superman, yet Luthor does. Oh, he’s definitely a bad guy. There’s no more of a conscience in him than there is in the Joker. But he’s a bad guy of penetrating insight and almost inspiring vision. Where the Joker destroys, Lex is driven to create. He’s an easy guy to hate, just because of his certainty of his superiority to everyone, including Superman, yet there are moments where you have to wonder if he’s wrong.

Superman Returns is the first Superman movie that can be taken seriously. The Reeve movies have their charms but they all bear as much resemblance to a Three Stooges sketch as to an actual movie. Take for example the scene in Superman where Lex, a bubble-headed groupie, and a bumbling fatty actually steal nuclear missile codes from a platoon of trained military men by having the groupie lie in the road, pretending to be hurt and unconscious, with no blood or other makeup. This distracts the entire platoon long enough for the fatty to sneak aboard a truck and punch in a series of computer codes that he has written on his arm. But then the bad guys have to go back and do it again, because his arm wasn’t long enough. And it still works! Maybe our government’s best soldiers and computers were that dumb in 1978, but I doubt it.

Returns has much tighter story. Unlike some movies, where a superhero’s appearance just happens to coincide with an upswing in crime and disasters, everything here is tied together. How does Lex Luthor obtain power that threatens the world? He remembers where the Fortress of Solitude is from when he was there in Superman II. He’s able to find it, and find the crystals that built it, which came with Superman in the ship that brought him. He knows he can use these crystals to build a whole new world – on top of ours. Ergo, both the hero and the threat are Kryptonian in origin. In fact, the need for Superman’s first heroics upon his return is caused by Lex’s experiment with one of the crystals. This is one of the most awesome scenes in cinematic history. A Boeing 777 is coupled to a space shuttle as an experiment. A micro-burst sent out by the Kryptonian crystal messes up the shuttle’s computer system, which results in it trying to “blast off” while it’s still coupled to the plane, endangering the lives of everyone on both vehicles. Superman races to the rescue, passing two fighter jets as if they were standing still. I won’t spoil details for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but seeing Superman trying to pull the 777 out of free-fall is worth the price of the ticket by itself. The movie also gives us plenty of iconic images, like the ones you see here.

superman-returns-wing

Finally, this movie delivers a fantastic score, which makes excellent use of the beloved Superman theme, and delivers some other great pieces to boot, most notably the one playing as Luthor’s goons fire a Kryptonite crystal into the ocean. It’s a shame Routh didn’t get to do any more Superman movies. I hope he’s doing well, wherever he is, as a I’ve heard playing Superman tends to be the kiss of death for an actor’s career. I have to admit, a little bit of Superman goes a long way. But Superman Returns remains the best Superman movie ever made, and one of the best superhero movies, period.

 

 

And the most underrated movie of all time:

 

 

eragon poster#1 Eragon (2006 Dir. Stefan Fangmeier)

 I was stunned when I saw this film had an approval rating of just over 10% on rottentomatoes.com. I’m not sure why people hate this movie. Maybe fans of the book were angry about things that were changed. Not having read the book, I can’t say. Maybe it’s just because, like every fantasy epic in the last ten years, it had the misfortune to be compared to Lord of the Rings. That’s hardly fair, when you think about it. Maybe the youthful cast turned people against it, but I’d have to say they do pretty well, and the more seasoned cast members do a good job of picking up the slack when necessary. I do know that it took a lot of heat for being derivative of LOTR and Star Wars. Again, this is hardly fair, considering that both of those tales were derived from centuries of stories themselves, and some of the modern world’s most beloved stories (Highlander, Harry Potter, The Matrix) are essentially the same story as Star Wars.

And, yeah, Eragon is too. But if an archetype works, why mess with it? It’s enough to do a good job of retelling it, and Eragon does just that. Our story begins in a dark age of the fictional land of Alagaesia. People’s meager possessions are confiscated at will and young men are dragged off to fight, and usually die, in wars no one cares about. Destitution and misery reign. We learn that in a prior age, the peace was kept by the Jedi Dragon Riders, but they became arrogant and began to fight over power. An evil Dragon Rider named Galbatorix (John Malkovich) was able to trick them into fighting each other, and finally killed them all, becoming the last Dragon Rider and amassing all the power to himself. Galbatorix now rules Alagaesia with an iron fist. The only resistance left is the Varden, a group of freedom fighters hiding in the mountains.

Amid all this, in a seemingly insignificant corner of the galaxy Alagaeisa, we meet a humble farm boy being raised by his uncle. His name is Luke Skywalker Eragon (Ed Speelers, at age 17). We spend a few scenes getting to know him, his cousin (Chris Egan) and his Uncle (Alun Armstrong). Poor Alun Armstrong; he never seems to get a good role. He always plays a wormy guy we’re supposed to hate, and he always dies horribly (take Braveheart, for instance). But in this film, he actually gets to play a strong, honorable character. Garrow has sacrificed much to raise the boy his sister abandoned, and provides him with a caring father figure. At least until he dies horribly (sorry, Alun). Eragon finds a dragon egg while hunting, and, sensing the presence of its destined rider, the dragon hatches. Eragon raises her in secret for awhile and eventually, her magic causes her to change from half-grown to full-grown in a few minutes. Galbatorix, sensing the magic, dispatches the Ra’zac (some truly scary assassins), who find the farm, and join the long list of movie characters who have killed Alun Armstrong. Eragon is saved by Saphira (the dragon) flying away with him. However, she’s still not old enough to carry a load very long.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

They are joined in flight (as in running away; not as in flying) by Brom (Jeremy Irons), a former Dragon Rider, who commits to training Eragon to fulfill his destiny, and getting him to the Varden’s hideout. The chemistry between these three characters is superb. Speelers is a bit green to be carrying the lead in an epic, but that actually translates well to the character. As Speelers is learning his way around the set, Eragon is learning the ropes as a dragon rider. This makes his fluctuations between fear and recklessness perfectly plausible. And where Speelers’ acting lacks, Irons’ more than compensates. Irons could carry almost any movie (except Dungeons and Dragons). His stage presence is endless and his voice commands respect. This is, after all, the voice that made Scar one of the most memorable villains of all time. He has played many types of rolls, but what he does best is play Obi Wan Kenobi; the grizzled, has-been warrior who mentors the hero. The student-mentor bonding in this story is some of the best I’ve seen, as we see Eragon grow from a foolish boy to a hero, and Brom change from the grumbling vagrant that he is at the beginning, to the begrudging teacher of Eragon, to a father figure sacrificing his life for him. Saphira adds to, rather than distracts from, this dynamic. She seems to have some kind of inborn knowledge, but she’s still on a learning curve of her own. It would have been tempting to make her an unstoppable juggernaut of claws and teeth, but the filmmakers gave her significant limits. She’s too young to breath fire, and can’t fly very well with more than one on her back. Her CGI face conveys plenty of emotion, making her vulnerable and relatable. She and Eragon can hear each other’s thoughts, which puts their communication on a separate track from that of Eragon and Brom. The bond between Dragons and their Riders is strong, and the choice to make Saphira female (Rachel Weisz puts her heart into the voice) was a good one, as the relationship seems almost like a marriage (without being creepy). As Eragon works to master the light saber sword, Saphira tries to sustain her first flame. She growls at Brom when they first meet, but there is a very touching moment after he dies, in which Saphira, still unable to breath fire, works up enough heat to melt a pile of rocks around him, giving him a crystal casket, in which “time cannot ravage him.”

fire ball

The visuals aren’t perfect, but they’re there when it counts. There are moments throughout the film where you can see how a few more millions of dollars could have made the makeup a bit more seamless, the camera work a bit more fluid, or the battle sequences a bit more gripping. At the end of the day, it must be acknowledged that Eragon is not LOTR. But there is at least one event in which it absolutely leaves LOTR in the dust: spectacular flying sequences. I was on the edge of my seat when Eragon was learning to ride Saphira. Then at the end, the two are about to ride into battle against Galbatorix’ forces. Saphira, for the first time, spews a monstrous fire ball, and Eragon shouts “Into the sky, to win or die!” You can shout “derivative,” you can shout “cliché,” I shouted “F—k, yeah!” (inwardly) at that moment, and the aerial battle that follows is truly awesome. Afterward, when it looks like Saphira might not make it, it’s impossible not to feel something.

The book was actually the first in a tetrilogy, and this film leaves its end open for a sequel. Unfortunately, it’s been eight years now, and after the drubbing this film got from the fans, I don’t think one is coming. If you haven’t seen this movie, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

So those are my thoughts. I hope you enjoyed them. Before you start sending me hate mail, why not rent a few of these movies and give them a second chance? You might find you’ve been missing out on something.

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Trailer-Based Predictions for the 86th Oscars

It’s Oscar time once again, and what would that time be without a little speculation on who will take home the coveted little gold guys?

It seems like I say this every year, but once again, I’ve seen so few of the candidates, that I would be woefully ill-equipped to make a decision based on seeing the films in their entirety. So with that in mind, I take hold of the only format that affords me enough time to make an even minutely-informed opinion – the trailers. Below you will see my predictions for who will win, as well as my personal preferences of who should win. Let’s speculate together, shall we?

UPDATE: The actual winners have been added. Still haven’t gotten the 100% correct, but not bad this year! 22 out of 24 is my best score to date! Haven’t graded all the student predictions, but odds are, I held my title for another year. Until next year, everyone!

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12years

BEST PICTURE
Who Will Probably Win: 12 Years a Slave
Actual Winner: 12 Years a Slave

This is going to be a close category this year, with several strong contenders to take the trophy. But, in trying to weigh in the politics and historical tendencies of the Academy, it seems like 12 Years a Slave will hang onto the win. It’s already a close race, but the Academy tends to lean toward films it feels have significance, specifically if they’re connected to a weighty issue – and this film fits the bill. Not to mention the Academy does not favor Science Fiction films for Best Picture. (Still bitter at Annie Hall over Star Wars.) Don’t get me wrong, 12 Years a Slave is deserving on all levels, but in a close race, you have to look for the potential distinguishers. That said, I won’t be  surprised if Gravity pulls out the win.

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cuaron

Cuaron previously won the “Best Harry Potter Director” award at the nonexistent Fanboy Awards.

BEST DIRECTOR
Who Will Probably Win: Alfonso Cuaron - Gravity
Actual Winner: Alfonso Cuaron

It’s rare to see a Best Picture / Best Director split, but this year looks to be one of those years. (Unless Gravity pulls the rug out from under 12 Years a Slave.) I give a shout out to my hometown director, Alexander Payne, but even he has to acknowledge that this just isn’t his year. Cuaron has some seriously quality films under his belt, including Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Y Tu Mamâ Tambiên, and Children of Eden. But in this case, it comes down to the fact that Cuaron’s latest film just left people sitting in the theatre in awe saying “how the heck did they do that?” (Even at the shots in the trailer.) Way back when I first heard he was making a picture called Gravity with very few details being released, people were eagerly awaiting the end product. It looks like Cuaron should now eagerly be awaiting hearing his name called on Oscar night.

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The costumer deserves an Oscar just for managing to keep a shirt on McConaughey for the majority of the film.

The costumer deserves an Oscar just for managing to keep a shirt on McConaughey for the majority of the film.

BEST ACTOR
Who Will Probably Win: Matthew McConaughey - Dallas Buyer’s Club
Actual Winner: Matthew McConaughey

Alright, alright, alright. The man has already swept up most of the performance awards this season, and it doesn’t look like the Academy Awards will be any different. He followed the stock formula – notable physical transformation, edgy subject matter, and departure from your usual performance. Bale also pulled the physical transformation card, but he won his Oscar a few years back. I really enjoy Chiwetel Ejiofor’s work, but I don’t think it’s enough to take the trophy. Hopefully McConaughey has another loopy speech planned for us this time around.

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blanchett

Look to see this face if Adams pulls the upset.

BEST ACTRESS
Who Will Probably Win: Cate Blanchett - Blue Jasmine
Who I Want to Win: Amy Adams
Actual Winner: Cate Blanchett

Here’s the category I most want to be wrong about.  No offense to Cate Blanchett, I’m sure she gave an inspired performance in Woody Allen’s latest “my life’s a hot mess” movie, but Amy Adams is due.  The woman has been in more Oscar-nominated films and roles in the past few years than anyone else I can think of, but still doesn’t have an Oscar of her own.  Blanchett has one. In fact, so does every other nominee in this category.  So although the trends seem to be pointing toward Blanchett…. I really want to be wrong here and see Adams tearfully overwhelmed that finally after years of being the bridesmaid, she gets to be Oscar’s bride.

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Biggest debate over this in my film class - "Let-Oh" or "Lee-Toe"?

Biggest debate over this in my film class – “Let-Oh” or “Lee-Toe”?

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Who Will Probably Win: Jared Leto - Dallas Buyer’s Club
Actual Winner: Jared Leto

Talk about a role that gets the attention of the voting community.  When people have to second guess who it is that’s actually playing a role, you know you’ve got a winner. Leto said something in an interview to the effect that he knew he had to play this role, like it was calling to him.  My guess is it was simply repeating the word “Oscar” over and over.

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Lupita will win a double-Oscar in my book if she hauls June Squibb up onto the stage with her and gives her a hug.

Lupita will win a double-Oscar in my book if she hauls June Squibb up onto the stage with her and gives her a hug.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Who Will Probably Win: Lupita Nyong’o - 12 Years a Slave
Actual Winner: Lupita Nyong’o

Okay, this is another close category, with a lot of debate going between Nyong’o and Jennifer Lawrence.  They’ve relatively split the acting awards this season, but I want to believe that with J-La having won her award just last year, the Academy will be looking to spread their favor to more people. The sentimentalist in me would like to see June Squibb win simply to see a sweet little old lady being thankful to win an award in her 80s, but as lovable as Squibb’s performance was, Nyong’o's had the intensity of an Oscar winner.

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Insert numerous puns about freezing out the competition or how it melted the hearts of its audience... etc. etc. etc.

Insert numerous puns about freezing out the competition or how it melted the hearts of its audience… etc. etc. etc.

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
Who Will Probably Win: Frozen
Actual Winner: Frozen

Yep. Not much to say about why. Despicable Me 2 was great, better even than the first, Ernest & Celestine has a really unique animation style, and has had some buzz worthiness, The Wind Rises was banking on the “Miyazaki’s final film” aspect carrying it to the finish line, and The Croods was…. well, it was. But Disney unleashed the full fury of its musical-making, animation powerhouse, and without a serious Pixar film (i.e. not a sequel) to compete against, it stands to take home another well-earned statue.

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Soundtrack to this picture: "Free Falling" by Tom Petty (Admit it, you're singing it in your head and it's perfect.)

Soundtrack to this picture: “Free Falling” by Tom Petty (Admit it, you’re singing it in your head and it’s perfect.)

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY & VISUAL EFFECTS
Who Will Probably Win: Gravity
Actual Winner: Gravity

Looking to ease the pain of not winning Best Picture, Gravity is going to sweep up in a lot of other areas.  Not that it isn’t completely deserving in this regard. Those sweeping vistas of space, the use of contrast in the emptiness of space with a single astronaut drifting about, it’s a very deserving category to win in.  In terms of the other nominees, The Grandmaster brings back that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets The Matrix visual style that’s been done so many times before, Inside Llewyn Davis looks to fit in nicely with the Coen’s other films at being visually elegant, but not wow-worthy, Nebraska is unconventionally shot in black and white, but The Artist already did that for a more content-relevant reason, and Prisoners…. well, not having seen it I can only assume it does things no one has even thought of doing because otherwise it kind of showed up out of the blue in this category. Gravity should, and will float away with this category. And for Visual Effects – ditto. The others have been done before (in fact, most are sequels), this is spectacle based in realism, that leaves the audience questioning what’s real and what isn’t. And that’s the equation for Oscar gold.

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*hushed whisper* Leo!

*hushed whisper* Leo!

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN & BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Who Will Probably Win: The Great Gatsby
Actual Winner: The Great Gatsby

What can I say, I love the work that Baz Luhrmann and company do. It’s such a vibrant, hyper-realism look and feel to everything that no matter what the content, you can’t help but just soak in the ambiance.  I even found myself forgetting the film was based on a book because it all just seemed so outlandishly bold that it had to be original. Normally the way to pick the winner in Costume Design is to choose the period piece. The problem this go round is that they’re ALL period pieces. So in that case, the tie-breaker goes to the one with the boldest period, and a Baz Luhrmann 20s beats an authentic 70s any day.

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This is the cover artwork for McConaughey's first country album: "My Baby Even Took My Shirt, But I'm Alright, Alright, Alright"

This is the cover artwork for McConaughey’s first country album: “My Baby Even Took My Shirt, But I’m Alright, Alright, Alright”

BEST MAKEUP
Who Will Probably Win: Dallas Buyer’s Club
Actual Winner: Dallas Buyer’s Club
This category threw me last year, so I’m trying to learn from that trend.  Last year I figured an army of dwarves with prosthetics and wigs galore would topple the simplistic realism of Les Miserables, but I was oh so wrong. So this year, I opted to steer clear of the heavy latex applications of Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, and the blockbuster eye candy of The Lone Ranger, and stick with the more reality-based Dallas Buyer’s  Club. Not to mention, I’m going to guess a good portion of the Academy will side with me on having a sick feeling in their stomach for even thinking about voting for a Jackass movie to win an Oscar.  I still think in about 10 more years, when the television broadcast signal for Jackass reaches the nearest star system (thank-you, Contact), that’s going to be the cue for alien invaders to deem us conquer-worthy and wipe us off the face of the planet. On that day we’ll hopefully at least have the comfort of knowing we didn’t give those guys an Oscar for hitting society as a whole in the junk. Mark my words!

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This movie has got to be bad for NASA's recruitment efforts.

This movie has got to be bad for NASA’s recruitment efforts.

BEST SOUND MIXING & EDITING
Who Will Probably Win: Gravity
Actual Winner: Gravity

In space, no one can hear…. well anything, really. It’s a vacuum. But if Joss Whedon’s backing down from the choice of “silence in space” on his show Firefly when making the movie Serenity taught us anything, it’s that audiences don’t want authentic, they want immersive. Therefore the team on Gravity was faced with the task of creating it all, and in many cases, using sound to ground an otherwise intentionally-adrift bit of storytelling.

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I'm sure Muybridge didn't take into account a horse pausing to wave during the course of its stride. (A little film-nerd humor for my students.)

I’m not sure Muybridge took into account a horse pausing to wave during the course of its stride. (A little film-nerd humor for my students.)

BEST SHORT FILM (ANIMATED)
Who Will Probably Win: Get a Horse!
Actual Winner: Mr. Hublot

Disney looks to take back-to-back Oscars for the Short Film (Animated) category following Paperman‘s win last year. Get a Horse! is a throwback to Mickey Mouse cartoons of yore, and apparently fully embraces the benefits of 3D movie-watching. Add to that the fact that it was placed in front of the obvious front-runner for best feature-length animated film, and you’ve got a recipe for a lot people knowing the film.  Based on the trailers, Feral had a more interesting animation style, and Mr. Hublot had a very cool 3D-animated look to it, but I’m not sure they can take down the popularity of the Mouse House on this one.

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I was planning to record my own cover of this song to embed here, but I decided to be the only person on the planet who didn't.

I was planning to record my own cover of this song to embed here, but I decided to be the only person on the planet who didn’t.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Who Will Probably Win: “Let it Go” - Frozen
Actual Winner: “Let it Go”

Frankly I’ve been humming Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” for weeks now, and his site 24hoursofhappy.com is an awesome experiment in making the world’s’ first 24-hour music video.  But we all know how this is going to play out, so don’t act surprised.

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They should have just called this movie Castaway in in Space.

They should have just called this movie Castaway in in Space and had Bullock befriend a basketball named Spalding.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Who Will Probably Win: Steven Price – Gravity
Actual Winner: Steven Price - Gravity

I love movie scores.  A good score can carry a film way further emotionally than so many of the other elements. If you ever get a chance to watch a scene from a movie without the music behind it, you’ll see what I’m talking about. Now, I love John Williams, but it seems like the man is just automatically guaranteed a nomination, with little chance of securing the win. Desplat won last year with The Artist, so it’s too soon for him, Butler & Palett’s music for Her fit perfectly with the quirky nature of the film, but probably won’t garner enough support, and as much as I also love Newman’s work, I would be amazed to see him take it for Saving Mr. Banks. Steven Price is an Oscar newcomer, but his music editing history is pretty notable. He worked on editing music for films such as Batman Begins, The Lord of the Rings movies, and a personal favorite, Scott Pilgrim vs the World. Although I find the score a little repetitive to listen to on its own, it sets the mood perfectly for the film, and should bring Price a little Oscar love.

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CATEGORIES I DON’T HAVE A STRONG OPINION ON:

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BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY - Her
Actual Winner: Her

Spike Jonze is a great storyteller – make no bones about it. Whatever else the film is, whatever other categories it falls short on, this one might be where it ekes out a win.

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BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY - 12 Years a Slave
Actual Winner: 12 Years a Slave

It’s rare for a film to take Best Picture and not win in any other categories. I’m going to throw this one in their camp to help prop up a potential Best Picture win.

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BEST FOREIGN FILM - The Great Beauty
Actual Winner: The Great Beauty

Shot in the dark here. Had some of the better looking camera work in the trailer, and that super-artsy feel that gives a certain allure to foreign films.

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BEST DOCUMENTARY – 20 Feet from Stardom
Actual Winner: 20 Feet from Stardom

Frankly the only upbeat nominee in the bunch. I’m voting for it simply because it’s the only one that doesn’t make me hate the crappy state of the world. Could go to The Act of Killing, but, again, that one is depressing.

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BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT - The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
Actual Winner: The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life

Take one super-old lady, add an overtly-charming sense of optimism, mix in a little piano-playing, add the fact that she’s a Holocaust survivor, and multiply the fact that she recently passed away, and you can just lock my personal vote in for the win.  I could be wrong, but at this point, if there’s any justice in the universe, I won’t be.

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BEST SHORT FILM (LIVE ACTION) – Helium
Actual Winner: Helium

It’s a film about a sick kid in the hospital. Add some cool visual effects to the heartwarmingness, and I’m willing to say it might beat out the competition.

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BEST FILM EDITING - Captain Phillips
Actual Winner: Gravity

I really don’t have any idea on this one. All are valid options. But this might be one category that the Academy gives some love to a film not nominated anywhere else, and I still have a soft spot in my heart for Tom Hanks who was sadly not nominated.

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And that, as they say, is that! Let’s see how we do. Last two years I scored 19 out of 24 categories correct. Can I beat my previous scores? Can I beat my students’ scores? We’ll find out tonight!

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The 5 Most Overrated Movies of All Time

Since you’re on this site, you probably enjoy discussing movies. And like me, you’ve probably been frustrated by seeing a movie you couldn’t stand, only to find out everyone else loves it. Of course, since I’m taking down overrated movies here, you probably also love at least some of the movies in this article. So it’s important to remember that even a great movie is simply that — a movie. I don’t necessarily expect you to agree with me, as long as you consider my thoughts and enjoy the read, and perhaps leave a response. But if I can release a few people from their servitude to one of these movies, my work will not be in vain.

Without further ado, the most overrated movies of all time:

Glory poster#5 Glory (1989 Dir. Edward Zwick)

Okay, before I get a contract out on my life, I’m not saying Glory  is a bad  movie. I’m just saying it doesn’t deserve its five Oscar nominations, slough of other awards or the endless adulation it’s received. I know in our political and cultural climate, hardly anyone dares criticize such a movie, so for the first time ever, let’s take an honest look at Glory.

Colonel Robert Shaw (Matthew Broderick) is commissioned to lead the first Regiment of black soldiers in the U.S. Army. The sequences of training the regiment are far more Hollywood than history. For instance, there is a scene in which soldier Silas Trip (Denzel Washington) is caught deserting, and is to be flogged before the regiment. We are supposed to be shocked when Drill Sergant Mulcahy (John Finn) yanks Trip’s shirt down to reveal years’ worth of whip scares. Shaw actually starts crying when he sees this. Trip then stares unflinchingly at Shaw while he is flogged, as Shaw whimpers like a little girl.

This brings us to my indictment of Glory, and of those who praise it. It’s less about its quality than about the fact that people seem to think the film is making some kind of bold statement about the country’s history. But if a film wants to make a bold statement about history, it needs to get history right. Modern audiences are moved by the scene above. But Shaw would not have been. The thing people forget is that we are looking at the U.S. Army of the 1860s. White men in the army where routinely flogged for deserting, falling asleep on duty, or having an unkempt uniform. They were also accustomed to sleeping on the ground, eating maggoty bread and (get this) being shot. Shaw most likely had scars on his own back, and had certainly been grazed by a bullet at the Battle of Winchester.

The movie tries to deal with a lot of arguments and issues that would find no place in a military environment, especially if you want to tell a story of honor and glory. We hear a lot of infantile whining about military discipline, not only by new recruits, but by white officers we’re supposed to sympathize with. Then there’s the scene where Shaw informs the regiment that the Confederate Congress has issued a proclamation that any negro captured while fighting for the North will be executed. After he delivers the shocking news that if they go to war they might die, we’re supposed to be inspired when they are all still there the next day.

To be fair, Glory  certainly has some things going for it. It’s interesting and refreshing to see a full cast of black actors playing very different characters fighting together. Both black and white bring passion to their roles and there are some really powerful moments, especially the campfire the night before the climactic battle. Also, as race movies go, this one is a lot deeper than most. But for every great moment there’s another one that’s ruined by awkward acting or cheap cinematography, including, sadly, the crowning moment of an otherwise good climax.

The climax is the 54th’s doomed assault on Ft. Wagner on July 18, 1863. We see Shaw and Trip fatally shot at the foot of the fort’s walls. The remaining major characters, and a lot of extras, then storm the fort. The crescendo comes when Sgt. John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), Major Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes), Thomas Searl and Jupiter Sharts run up onto a ledge before they are killed by cannon fire. It’s all supposed to happen in a moment, because they died fighting. However, the camera focuses on them for well over a second, as they stand there awkwardly, posing for the camera. You can almost see Freeman thinking “Aw, yeah, I’m gonna get another great close up!” while you can see Elwes looking for Zwick, thinking “Do I tilt my gun up a little? Down a little?” And finally, even though we saw Washington shot through the chest at the bottom of the hill, we then see him running up behind everyone, craning his neck as if to say “I want to be in the picture, too!” Not only that, but the camera actually cuts away from this awkward pose to the cannons, and then back to the awkward pose for another second or so, before our heroes disappear in cannon smoke, making it truly laughable.

It makes a great still, but the moving version is pretty painful

It makes a great still, but the moving version is pretty painful

For better or worse, Glory  has had a huge impact on movies since. The black Union soldier has become to civil war movies what the explosion is to Michael Bay movies, even though, in reality, there were black men fighting for the South before there were black men fighting for the North (yeah, that’s right) and the role played by black Union soldiers in the war was actually very small. Glory  is a solid movie over all, and I own a copy that I enjoy watching from time to time. But come on. Five Oscars? Really?

Society’s rating (according to Rotten Tomatoes):

My rating:

 

Cars poster#4 Cars (2006 Dir. John Lasseter)

There isn’t much that can be said about this one, except that if it hadn’t been riding the coattails of Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, it wouldn’t have had nearly the success that it did. As Doug Walker put it, it seems more like a satire of a Pixar film than an actual Pixar film. Cars spawned an endless flood of toys, lunchboxes and kiddie toilet seats, as well as a handful of sequels, all to the tune of $10 billion in the first five years after it came out. And does anyone even remember what it was about? Don’t feel bad, I had to look it up myself.

The first reason this movie doesn’t work is the world it tries to create. Consider A Bug’s Life, which is similar in that it has an entirely non-human cast, in this case ants and other bugs. This works well, because bugs actually have their own existence, independent of humans, so it’s interesting to hear a story about what hopes, fears and conflicts bugs might have in their own world. Cars‘ world is populated with anthropomorphic machines, with no trace of human existence. But if there are no humans, where did all these machines come from? Did a submarine crawl out of the sea millions of years ago and magically grow wheels? Or was there some divine mechanic that took a side panel from the first daddy car and made the first mommy car, and told them to bump uglies and fill the earth? And if so, from whence did the babies come, mommy’s tail pipe? See the problem here?

Anthropomorphic vehicles have worked better in other movies, usually as a foil to a more serious plot, or as wisecracking sidekicks, such as the taxi in Roger Rabbit. It can be interesting to see a show where sentient vehicles interact with their owners, e.g. Nightrider, or interact with each other, talking about the jobs they do for  their owners. But machines exist only to serve a purpose. With no humans in Cars, the writers have to stretch their characters into emotional and organic roles that don’t make sense. For instance, near the beginning, Lightning McQueen is pursued by a police car. The police car’s motor back fires a few times. McQueen exclaims “he’s shooting at me! Why is he shooting at me?” A better question would be “how is he shooting at me?”

But let’s say we get past all this, and generously grant the film its ill-conceived premise, and just judge it by its own standards. It’s still not a a good movie. It’s not terrible, but it’s just a handful of overused cliches with nothing original. We start out with a self-absorbed, ambitious protagonist, McQueen, that we know is going to learn a lesson in the end. We then learn that he doesn’t have any friends. Through a misadventure, he finds himself a fish out of water in a small, forgotten town out of the interstate limelight. Some of the characters of this town are Rockwellian stereotypes, such as Doc, who is both the town judge and the town doctor. The rest are more recent stereotypes, like a hippie, a big city lawyer and a fairly racist Hispanic stereotype.

cars sugar

This movie is sugary enough to give a man diabetes.

We hear a lot of rhetoric about how small town poverty is better than big city wealth, which is always amusing coming from Hollywood producers. McQueen, who has learned the value of hard work during his trial, ultimately gets everything he wanted in the beginning anyway, but turns down millions of dollars to be “happy.” The story pushes the familiar idea that friendship and family are better than worldly success, but never believes in its own message enough to sell it. Significantly, none of the characters in this movie have any meaningful family connections. How could they, after all?

Even if Cars isn’t good, it is kind of cute, and I suppose that’s what sold so many products. If you like this movie, it doesn’t mean you’re an idiot. It just means you’re easily entertained.

Society’s rating:

My rating:

 

Avengers poster#3 The Avengers (2012 Dir. Joss Whedon)

The success of The Avengers is a powerful testament to the superiority of aggressive marketing over quality product. For some reason, American moviegoers made this film the highest-grossing film of 2012, probably the second most embarrassing choice by the American public in that year.

There is a video game series called Marvel Ultimate Alliance. The story of the game is an afterthought as an excuse to cram every single Marvel character in to the same game and have them go around beating up polygons. I’ve never found it that interesting, but it works okay as a game. The problem with Avengers is that it’s exactly the same thing, except we, the audience, don’t get to play.

Anytime you cram several superheroes into the same story you’re playing with fire. You’re mixing mythologies and there’s usually not enough time to develop all of them and create enough suspension of belief. For instance, why in the name of Odin can a hammer forged by the gods and imbued with the power of lightning and thunder not break (or even dent) Captain America’s shield? I don’t care if it was designed by Howard Stark. And even if we grant that the shield is indestructible, why is Cap’s arm not broken behind it? This might seem like a minor detail, but Avengers is full of questions like this, because the mythologies don’t gel. And because they don’t, we have to settle for a movie that is about like watching a video game. The B-movie “story” concerns a race of computer-generated aliens that invade New York City. Who are these guys? We don’t really know. Where do they come from? Who cares? What were the events that provoked their hostility with the Earth? If they can rip open a portal to NYC, what prevents them from attacking several points of Earth at once? And if they have such technology, why do they still need live mounts? None of these questions are ever bothered with, as these aliens are just cannon fodder for the heroes to show off their powers. The aliens are led by Loki, who has transitioned from being a poorly written prodigal son in Thor (first he hates Odin, then he loves Odin, then he throws himself down to the earth because Odin simply tells him “no”) to now being a flat-out cartoon villain, consumed with a drive to (what else?) take over the world.

Now, which one of these pictures is from Avengers ...

Now, which one of these pictures is from Avengers …

Marvel Studios also needs to learn that stone walls do not a prison make, nor rampant destruction an action sequence. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent rendering huge battle sequences for Avengers in which skyscrapers and aircraft carriers are laid waste, and the audience never breaks a sweat. In fact, the one action sequence in the movie that’s actually engaging is the one-on-one fight between Hawkeye and Black Widow, which involves no CGI, but only great choreography.

... and which one is from Man of Steel?

… and which one is from Man of Steel?

This summer, movie goers were treated to a similar movie, The Man of Steele, which was panned by critics and audiences alike. And not without reason. But the people who lapped up Avengers  never seemed to realize that Man of Steele  was the same movie (In fact, Google either one, and you’ll get lots of images from both). Avengers  throws constant superhuman fighting in your face with no rules of reality. Man of Steele  does the same thing. Avengers  spends most of its two hours blowing up trains and tearing skyscrapers to bits. Man of Steele  does the same thing. Avengers wastes precious little time on story or character development. Man of Steele  does the same thing. In fact, Man of Steele comes out the stronger, because

Is that gravel spray being raised by Clark or the Hulk? Who knows?

Is that gravel spray being raised by Clark or the Hulk? Who knows?

the director isn’t mediating between six stars and dividing up the face time. We at least get an interesting and moving expose of Clark’s relationship with his parents, and Michael Shannon is actually able to develop a compelling (if over-the-top) villain in General Zod. The only thing Avengers  brings to the table that Man of Steele  doesn’t is some great shots of Gwyneth Paltrow from behind and Scarlet Johansson from above. In fact, Amy Adams as Lois Lane spends most of her movie in a parka. But really, which of those two options is the mark of the superior film?

Society’s rating:

My rating:

 

Princess B poster#2 The Princess Bride (1987 Rob Reiner)

We now reach the hard-core portion of this list. Strong of heart, read on. I apologize if I shatter your childhood, but it’s high time that you knew 1) there is no Santa Clause, and 2) this movie sucks. The faithful reader may remember my review of The Grey, in which I commented that, at the end, I felt like an 18-year-old groupie who had been picked up by Director Joe Carnahan, only to find out in bed that Carnahan had this … “little problem.” My experience watching The Princess Bride was similar, except that I felt more like a chronically cheated-on wife, who has spent years going to counseling and forgiven her husband over and over and over again, because he has promised to take her on some romantic vacation to some exotic location, and then, when the time comes, he leaves her at the airport and goes off with his secretary.

From the start, we see a cheap movie. Cheap sets, cheap camera work, cheap actors. But it still shows signs of being a fun, campy fairy tale. After enduring the griping of a young, ailing Fred Savage about the story being read to him, we see the story of a girl named Buttercup (Robin Wright) falling in love with a farm boy named Wesley (Cary Elwes). Buttercup later hears that a ship carrying Wesley was taken by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who never takes prisoners, so she figures he’s dead. Five years later, she is betrothed to Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon). However, she is kidnapped by three brigands and taken on a ship. At one point, she tries to escape by jumping overboard, and hears a strange noise. And here we have a good example of the crystalline dialogue we get to hear over and over in this film. The leader, Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) shouts out “You hear that, highness? Those are the shrieking eels! They always grow louder when they’re about to feast on human flesh!” Did they have a five-year-old write this? Vizzini also spends much of this part of the movie repeatedly shouting “inconceivable!” It gets old real fast. He also shouts lines like “Move the thing! And that other thing!

I’ll admit this part does a good job of creating mystery and suspense, as they find themselves being followed by a stranger who gains on them no matter what they do. After they scale the Cliffs of Insanity, Vizzini cuts the rope at the top, leaving the stranger clinging to the cliff side. He instructs his swordsman, Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin), to dispatch him once he reaches the top, while he and Fezzik (Andre the Giant) escape with Buttercup.

The stranger ascends, and we get the single awesome scene of the movie. And awesome it is! I have PB fightpersonally studied under Ted Katzoff, the Fencing Maestro who choreographed this scene. The man is a swordplay genius (not to mention one of precious few non-European Maestros). He has worked on films such as Hook and Outrageous Fortune, and I would expect nothing less than what he delivers in this scene. The swordsmanship displayed by both combatants is truly remarkable, being both technically proficient and exciting to watch. Each man starts out fencing with his left hand, and just when we think one of them is going to lose, he switches to his right! We get flips, dives, stair fencing, the whole nine yards. The whole movie should be like this. Alas …

The stranger bests Inigo, but knocks him out rather than killing him. He then goes on to somehow defeat Andre the Giant in a wrestling match that still somehow manages to be boring. Finally, he bests Vizzini in what is called a “battle of wits,” but is really just a contest to see whose ears start bleeding last from listening to Wallace Shawn’s incessant, nasal rambling. Thankfully, Shawn dies. Buttercup is now the stranger’s prisoner, and in a following scene, she learns that he is the pirate who killed her love. Eventually she pushes him down a hill. The camp meter shoots up here, from merit-badge-camp-out to Mt. Everest-base-camp. As he rolls down the hill, he shouts out a catch phrase that Wesley used to say to Buttercup. This is supposed to immediately clue Buttercup in that the stranger is actually Wesley. Upon realizing this, she throws herself down the hill for … some reason, and we have this long, stupid scene of them rolling down a hill, at the bottom of which they kiss.

About this time, we join Humperdinck and his right hand man, Count Rugen (Christopher Guest), at the head of a search party, examining the footprints from Inigo’s fight with Wesley. Two things take shape in this scene. First, we see that Humperdinck is able to analyse the fencing technique of both fighters from their tracks, implying that he is a skilled fighter and tracker himself. Second we learn that Humperdinck hired the brigands to kidnap and kill Buttercup, in order to frame a neighboring kingdom for it, to generate public support for a war. Humperdinck is beginning to show himself as a stereotypical fairy tale villain. And that’s a good thing because, as we all know, when people go to a fairy tale movie, they’re going to see sword fights. Yes, there’s also that “true love” thing, but there’s no point in having a true love if there’s no danger to save her from. That’s why good movies of this genre, such as Errol Flynn movies or Zorro movies, are packed with sword fights, each one more spectacular than the last, leading up to the climactic battle between the hero and the villain, which should blow us all away. Yes, it’s a formula, but there’s a reason it’s a formula. And hey! Reiner has already got Maestro Katzoff right there on set, and he has two sympathetic swordsmen, Wesley and Inigo, still alive after their fight. What’s more, we’ve learned of Inigo’s vendetta against Count Rugen for killing his father, so we also have two villainous swordsmen, with henchmen at their command. Perfect!

Make no mistake, while there have been some clever moments, up to this point, this has been by no means a good movie. We’ve seen ham-fisted acting, painful one-liners, and gaping plot holes. There’s been no explanation of why Humperdinck wants to go to war, or who with. For that matter, why was he trying to catch the brigands if he hired them? I’ve been overlooking all of this because there has got to be some more of that swashbuckling action before too long. I mean, it’s not like Reiner would actually put his one good fight scene in the first 20 minutes of the movie! Would he?

The boneheaded moments are coming faster now. As they walk through the Fire Swamp, Wesley tells  Buttercup the story of how he was, in fact, captured by Roberts, but Roberts took him on as a valet. Three years later, Roberts decided to retire, and so appointed Wesley to plunder in his place.

Wait a minute! Did I miss something here? This is our hero in this fairy tale? And he’s spent the last two years as a pirate, killing people by his own admission? Was he under some kind of coercion? Was he using his position to undermine Humperdinck’s oppression of the masses? Was he at least using his ill-gotten gains to provide for the less fortunate? If any of these things are true, we’re never given any indication. We’re just left to assume that Wesley has been raping and pillaging his way around Florin for two years because … his old boss said to. Worse yet, at the end of the movie, Wesley actually suggests to Inigo that Inigo take over raping and pillaging from him!

At least our primal couple are walking through a dark and dangerous swamp from which none have returned. What thrilling dangers and battles lay ahead? Will Wesley have to fight dragons? Trolls? Orcs? Will the adversity finally force Buttercup to find her inner strength so she can be of help? The tension is palpable as they push their way through vines and trees. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Wesley is pounced upon by a … rat? A freaking RAT! Granted it’s an unusually big rat; one might even say a rodent of unusual size, but it’s a freaking rat! In addition, it doesn’t look real at all. So we spend three minutes watching Buttercup cower in a corner while Wesley rolls around with a stuffed animal.

But that’s okay, because the climax is going to be awesome.

Miracle Max. Amusing, but too little, too late.

Miracle Max. Amusing, but too little, too late.

To make a long story short, they get out of the swamp and Humperdinck captures Wesley and sends him to the torture chamber, leading Buttercup to believe he has been released. Humperdinck eventually kills Wesley by sucking his life away. On the day that Humperdinck and Buttercup are to be married, Fezzik and Inigo break into the torture chamber and steal Wesley’s body. They obtain a pill which brings him back to life, but with temporary paralysis. The three break into the castle. Inigo has to fight four guards, but it’s over in about three seconds. He then confronts Rugen, who flees. Inigo gives chase, but Rugen is able to trick him by throwing a dagger into his gut. He recovers, however. This fight isn’t terrible, but it’s nothing compared to the first one. Inigo basically backs Rugen into a corner and skewers him after some dialogue.

But that’s okay, because we’re almost to the big fight between Wesley and Humperdinck!

Buttercup enters the bridal chamber, sick with grief after the wedding, and is about to kill herself, when she hears Wesley’s voice! She turns to see him lying on the bed. They kiss and he tells her she’s not married, because she didn’t say “I do,” and didn’t do “it.”

“A technicality that will shortly be remedied.” Ooh, boy! Our contrived, two dimensional villain stands in the doorway, sword in hand. Chills run up my spine. This is it! “But first, to the death!” Sounds good to me. “No!” Wesley says. “To the pain!” Um, okay. That sounds fine, as long as you guys fight.

Well, not just yet. First we have to listen to a long explanation of what “to the pain” means. Finally (finally!), Wesley rises to his feet and the fight is on! He raises his sword. Humperdinck counters by … dropping his sword?? Then sitting down and letting Buttercup tie him up? No!

No, dammit, no! Don’t do this to me!

I forgave the whiny, prepubescent Fred Savage, the shrieking eel nonsense and Wallace Shawn’s inconceivably annoying rants. I forgave our “hero” spending years as a murderous pirate for no discernible reason.  I forgave the stupid and unscary “battle” with a stuffed animal in the Fire Swamp.  I forgave the torturously boring torture scene and the physiologically ridiculous fight between Inigo and Rugen, but I forgave those things because this movie promised a thrilling climax. A dazzling duel between hero and villain. I mean, they had a world-class fencing maestro right there on set. He had already done a great job with one fight scene — the one at the end should have been even better! Fencing on rafters! Falling chandeliers! Backflips! But the best Reiner could come up with was to have the villain wimp out and sit down and get tied up. Haven’t you ever seen a campy sword movie, Reiner? You couldn’t possibly have thought this movie was good enough to be different.

When I first saw this movie, I had a headache for the next day or so, thinking of the two hours I’d never get back. Even after I saw it, I really wanted to like it, but I’m just not that dumb.

Society’s rating:

My rating:

 

And now, the most overrated movie of all time:

 

 

Nightmare poster#1 Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993 Dir. Henry Selick)

This is it, the creme de la crap. How this mess of a movie achieved critical acclaim and won a loyal cult following of tens of millions, I will never understand. Everything about it is just plain warped, right up to the way it was marketed. It was sold to the public as a Christmas family film, and given mild-sounding PG rating. Then, as soon as the theatre doors were shut, a door that looked like a pumpkin swung open and families with young children were sucked into a world full of vampires, werewolves and ghouls in a celebration of the macabre. And I have to admit that this opening number is pretty cool — that is it would be if this were a horror movie. But it’s a Christmas movie, dammit. At least that’s what it said on the poster. Don’t get me wrong, the horror genre has its place, but this is not it. We have to wait until 20% of the movie has gone by to see the first glimmers of holiday cheer. And even once it arrives, there’s not much too it. I know we’ve all seen plenty of cheesy holiday specials with titles like So-and-so saves Christmas, and most of us were tired of them by age 10. But to those specials’ credit, they at least make an effort to capture the true feelings of Christmas that bring people together during the holidays; the joy of giving and forgiving. The only “Christmas” this movie has to offer is the most two-dimensional, cellophane-wrapped, commercialized version imaginable, and even that only shows up for about 5% of the movie.

This movie doesn’t have any good versus evil narrative, which wouldn’t be fatal if it had another narrative that went somewhere — but it doesn’t. It seems to try to tell a story of how a misguided hero’s plans go wrong, but it never gets off the ground. After a whiny solo about being tired of his job, Jack Skellington, the “pumpkin king” of Halloween, wanders into Christmas  Town, and is taken aback by the feelings of warmth and joy that replace the fear of Halloween. Having “grown so tired of the sound of screams,” he becomes convinced that getting involved in Christmas is the way to escape the rut he is in.

So, like any reasonable businessman fancying a career change, Jack seeks out the owner of this … franchise he’s discovered, and buys him a beer and says “I would like to learn more about what you do here, maybe even try working with you for awhile,” right? No of course not. He dispatches three of his minions, Lock, Shock and Barrel, to kidnap Santa, and announces that he is forcibly taking over Christmas. What the hell? It’s really hard to buy Jack as the well-meaning but misguided tragic hero, because if his intentions are truly non-malevolent, he has to be the biggest bone-head the world has ever seen. I mean, how could anyone not out of his skull ever think this was a good idea? When Lock, Shock and Barrel have accomplished their task, they haul in Santa, bound at the hands and feet and tied in a sack (a freaking sack!), and throw him at Jack’s feet. Jack simply tells Santa “You can consider this a vacation — a reward! I’ll be taking it from here.” He then allows Santa to be dragged away by the trio, absentmindedly dismissing them with the comment “See to it he’s comfortable!” Are you kidding me? these kids have shown themselves in previous scenes to be anything but responsible, careful or empathetic, and Jack can see they’re dragging Santa off into a world full of open sewers and torture devices. What does he think the three little psychopaths are going to do, put Santa up in a Hilton and serve him coffee and a croissant every four hours??

Sure enough, Santa soon finds himself stuffed down a pipe and tied to a torture rack in the lair of the

Merry Christmas, suckas!

Merry Christmas, suckas!

Boogieman, Oogie Boogie. Meanwhile, Jack carries on with his insane plan, placing gifts under trees that attack children all over the western world. He never seems to feel the least bit bad about it, his narcissism even prompting him to insist that humanity is “thanking us for doing such a good job,” when the national guard is firing at his sleigh. There’s nothing to root for in this movie. We’re supposed to identify with Jack as his “good intentions” blow up in his face, but he has more in common with a maniacal comic book villain than anything else, sicking killer toys on children a la the Joker, or being driven to remake the world in his image a la the Lizard. The female lead, Sally, at least has her head on straight (if only thanks to stitches), but she never accomplishes anything. We can’t root for Santa to save the day either, because we never see anything he does.

Fans of this movie will probably argue that it wasn’t made for the story, but rather for the animation and the music. To be sure, the stop-motion animation is done with tremendous care and skill, but the most that animation can do is make your movie look real. It can’t make your movie good. Without at least a decent story to carry the movie, no amount of technical skill will save it. And to be honest, as fluid as the animation looks, there’s nothing revolutionary about it. The same techniques have been used hundreds of times before. The music, frankly, is overrated. There are two numbers in the movie that I found impressive; the opening and Oogie’s song. The rest range from annoying to decent, but cliche.

Anyway, Jack finally gets it through his skull that this was a horrible idea, and races back to Halloween Town. We get the single scene in the movie where good faces off against evil, and he saves Santa and Sally from Oogie. Santa races off to magically save the day off camera, and finally causes snow to fall on Halloween Town, presumably for the first time ever. We then get the culmination of a romance that was assumed, rather than developed; a kiss between Jack and Sally, even though they only have about 1.5 lips between them. So did this story actually go anywhere? Is there going to be some cultural exchange or cooperation now between Christmas and Halloween Towns, which might vindicate all this foolishness? Or did Jack actually learn anything from this debacle? Probably not, because Jack wasn’t trying to do something good that went wrong. He was doing exactly what writer/producer Tim Burton did when he wrote this story, along with most of his other stories: taking something that everyone loves, something that was fine as it was, and putting his own twisted stamp on it, expecting us all to care. Look, I’m sorry Burton had an unhappy childhood. That’s no reason to subject all of us to it. The stuff in his movies should be shared with a psychologist, not with families who’ve come to see a warm holiday film. I bet Burton deliberately neglects to flush public toilets, too, because he’s convinced the next person to come along would love to dissect Tim Burton’s leavings to learn what kind of food Tim Burton eats. And that’s what this movie is: the poo from Burton’s narcissistic ass, spread across the silver screen for the world to marvel at and analyze!

Society’s rating:

My rating:

It’s fun to talk about why a movie is good or bad. But just as interesting is the question of what makes people love some bad movies. Some movies achieve acclaim by touching on subjects that make people afraid to criticize them. Glory exploits an inspiring part of history. No one wants to say anything negative about it, partly for fear of being considered racist or otherwise uncaring, and partly because they really want the film to be as meaningful as the event. Some films rely on shear marketing “firepower,” spending huge numbers of dollars. The world was smothered in merchandise related to Cars and The Nightmare Before Christmas both before and after their releases. Everyone talks about how much they love them, but few actually remember the movies themselves. Still other films manage to get a commitment from people early, so that they refuse to believe they have been cheated. The Princess Bride actually starts out pretty promisingly. That was why I endured the last two thirds of it and really tried to like it. It seems many people actually managed to make themselves like it. Marvel Studios actually spent four movies advertising Avengers. People were so excited, they were giving Avengers five-star ratings before they’d even seen it.

I hope you got a kick out of this article. Perhaps you have an overrated movie you’d like us at Walking Taco to take down a peg. (Already, I’m beginning to think of movies that probably should have been on this list.) If you do, post a comment and ask us to review it! Until then, good night.

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Mission: Impossible III

Mission Impossible 3Now that JJ Abrams is knee-deep in the production of Star Wars Episode VII, I thought it would be a nice time to step back and look at some of the films he has directed in order to get a better sense of what he might bring to the table with his take on George Lucas’ beloved franchise.  After cutting his teeth in a several episodes of Felicity and Alias, he brought his signature style of kinetic hyper-realism to the pilot episode of Lost, which is still one of the most harrowing two hours of television I can recall seeing.  With the third installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise on the verge of being lost forever in development hell, producer and star Tom Cruise called Abrams in to save the day and get the film back on track.  And what a track it turned out to be.

Abrams essentially approaches the movie from the standpoint of a 13-year-old boy who wants to see big-screen heroes pull off big-time action.  With rarely a dull moment in its two-hour runtime, the movie focuses on a now-retired Ethan Hunt (Cruise) who is eager to leave the life of a super-spy behind and focus on new pursuits.  Chief among his new responsibilities is his soon-to-be wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) who hasn’t the first clue that her hunky, ripped-to-shreds fiancee is not, in fact, a lowly transportation data analyst.  How the women in these movies are so utterly clueless is beyond me, and in many ways the rest of the film could basically pass for a True Lies sequel.  Or reboot.  Either one works.

Believe it or not, Hunt soon manages to find himself knee-deep in the throes of his former life after his former trainee Lindsey (Keri Russel, taking a cue from Samuel Jackson in Deep Blue Sea by unexpectedly recusing herself from most of the movie) is abducted by a really bad guy named Owen Davian who wants to do really bad things.  To the whole world.  For some reason.  But few people can pull off a barely unhinged psychopath better than Philip Seymour Hoffman, and his turn as the villain almost steals the show from Cruise and company.

Group Photo Time!What ensues is a breathless globetrotting adventure involving all the typical Mission: Impossible tropes we have all come to know and love: car chases, double-crosses, clever masks, insane stunts, nail-biting infiltrations, and wisecracking computer nerd sidekicks.  Abrams runs the gamut here, from the ol’ “loop the security camera footage” trick to having Tom Cruise himself jump off skyscrapers for kicks, all while keeping the action flowing at a brisk pace that walks a fine line between engaging and overpowering.  And that’s the memo that John Woo somehow missed when he made Mission: Impossible II.  People don’t show up to these movies for long, slow buildups and mano-a-mano slow-motion standoffs.  They just want a hero to accomplish amazing things in the face of (wait for it…) impossible odds.  Abrams knows this, and keeps the action building from one setpiece to the next while also crafting believable, if somewhat thin, relationships between all parties involved.  The final showdown between Hunt and Davian is a bit anticlimactic, but the movie as a whole is a thoroughly engaging action romp with just enough lens flares so as to not leave the audience blinded.

Rating:[rating:4/5]

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Escape Plan

escape planTwo action heavyweights compete to speak the most intelligibly attempt to escape the ultimate high-security prison in Escape Plan, another 1990s-like relic action picture popping up in 2013.  The film pairs Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger as co-leads, and unfortunately, the teaming feels less exciting than it should, partly because the stars have shared a frame before in both cheeseball Expendables movies, and also because the prison thriller fails to drive outside of its outdated B-movie parameters.  Somehow, though, the buddy-flick still passes as mindless nostalgic entertainment.

If you think you’re getting an updated version of these two icons in a more modern movie, think again.  Escape Plan is just about as silly as The Expendables entries or any of the action films the stars participated in during the 1980s.  Stallone plays a prison-escape expert, Ray Breslin, who takes a job essentially off the books, under the radar, and behind the veil.  He agrees to be planted in a secret prison facility that his regular outside team members (Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson and Amy Ryan) can not know about.  Ray is abducted in a van, drugged, and awakens in a glass cell. Once introduced to the serpent warden Hobbes (Jim Caviezel), Ray realizes he literally can’t escape this prison, as someone set him up to ‘be buried here.’  Ray doesn’t know why, and only with the help of a new trusted inmate, Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger), might Ray be able to find a way out for them both.

ArnoldEscapeThe premise of the film, while silly and always rather nonsensical, deserves better execution, as do Stallone and Schwarzenegger.  Director Mikael Håfström adds very little flavor or interest to liven up what turns out to be an occasionally violent straightforward drama.  The action comes in marginal doses and Håfström has no idea what do with these two men or how to film a scene in truly exciting fashion.  The script also needed to smarter as it fails to fully delve into the idea of high-tech prison know-how.  Stallone’s character attempts seemingly simple, logical methods of escape, but the film never allows the character to pull off an imaginative trick in order to advance his evasion.

At the very least, the film should have been rewritten to better accommodate Schwarzenegger and Stallone’s personalities.  Rarely even does the dialogue poke fun at the aging stars (outside of a few token cheesy one-liners), nor do the filmmakers ever take any of the scenes particularly seriously by ratcheting up the intensity levels.  Instead, Sly and Arnold carry the entire movie on their backs, and the hope is that their mere presence is enough to make Escape Plan enjoyable.

Escape Plan 10Luckily, Arnold and Sly are pros in this sort of game and they seem to be enjoying each other’s company  even when the actual ‘escape plan’ and intelligence of Stallone’s character rarely give the film any depth or believability.  The plan is never actually all that exciting in and of itself.  Instead the confrontations set up by the two lead characters keep us watching and holding out.  Stallone is far more watchable here than he has been in his recent efforts.  Schwarzenegger adds a refreshing air to the movie as he hams up nearly every scene he can.

The excitement builds quite a bit more toward the climax which gives us fans a taste of the blow-em-up action the stars typically warrant.  It’s not enough to earn action-classic status, and Escape Plan certainly never lives up to its potential, but there’s just enough from Stallone and Schwarzenegger to enjoy it purely as a mild guilty pleasure that manages to escape callow direction and a lacking script.  If you’re a fan of these two icons, then you should at least enjoy it.  If not, there is admittedly little to love here.

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Captain Phillips

captain-phillips-international-posterWhen four Somali pirates board an American distribution vessel at sea, Captain Rich Phillips (Tom Hanks) must outsmart the armed gunmen in order to keep his crew safe from harm.  While the pirates look to steer the ship back to Somalia for a hefty payday, Phillips attempts to keep the villains squarely under his thumb while his men hidden below deck conjure up a plan to eliminate the threat.

Paul Greengrass generates great suspense as he has done with his previous efforts in the Bourne series and United 93.  He slowly turns the screws and allows Hanks and his generous gifts as an actor to pull the audience into a terrifying hostage situation.  It all feels authentic and true to the moment. It’s a desperate situation for a group of union laborers treading dangerous waters and we identify with the struggle and Hanks’ character caught in the middle.

Hanks hasn’t had a movie this good in a while, and in fact, the movie pulls him out of his usual comfort range, and plants him firmly into an intense thriller environment.  His character displays strong leadership, intuition, and fear.  But Greengrass also allows the Somalis some human dimension as well and in many ways he illuminates their do-or-die attempt to claim the ship, because if they don’t, their ‘elders’ will likely kill them.

Based on a true story, the movie dismisses the usual impulses to turn into an outlandish action picture.  I’m sure there’s the occasional spottiness for theatrics, but I consistently felt a pulsing reality to the film’s events.  Captain Phillips is a very thrilling drama and comes highly recommended.

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Gravity

gravity-bullockposter-fullGravity is the thrilling adventure to beat this year, and by my forecast, I think the skies are clear for this thriller from Alfonso Cuaron.  Known for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Children of Men, Cuaron has spent the last few years piecing Gravity together, a film that features only two actors and a whole lot of outer space.

Sandra Bullock, in what will likely turn out to be the performance of the year and possibly her career, tackles the challenge of portraying astronaut Ryan Stone who attempts to make adjustments to a satellite alongside fellow spaceman, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney).   Soon enough a whirlwind storm of debris dices through their ship and sends Stone spinning wildly out of control into space.  Her only communication with NASA will soon dissipate once she floats too far out and her oxygen tank levels are already low.

This is about where the theatrical trailer for the movie leaves you hanging. The synopsis and trailer both left me wondering, what story could be left to tell?  Where can the movie possibly go after that point?

Cuaron is no dummy and he quickly turns Gravity into an eye-popping 3D adventure that not only fails to overstay its welcome at a quick 90 minutes, but gives us a taste of what space may actually be like.  How will Stone survive her impossible situation?  That is the question.  The movie takes us through her journey which essentially amounts to a one woman show that Bullock handles unflinchingly.

But let’s not forget Clooney who actually pours a great deal of humor into an extremely tense film and gives the weightlessness some grounding when it can really use it.  Make no mistake, this is Bullock’s ‘Cast Away’ and she nails it.  So does Cuaron who keeps the events, which had the potential to come off as repetitive, in check and moving at all times.  This is a theatrical experience if ever there was one, and the amount of time and effort that had to go into a visual movie like this is staggering.  It’s so technically precise from top to bottom.  The 3D is especially utilized well and enhances the film.

But at the core of this odyssey, and beyond all of the production values and whiz-bang “I’ve never quite seen this before” marveling, is a story of survival and a very strong actress that carries the entire movie.  Look for all this year’s award accolades to fall to Gravity, and watch Miss Bullock accept her second Oscar in a few months time.  Gravity is a movie to experience (in the theater, in 3D).

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Prisoners

prisoners-posterReligious symbolism clashes with the harsh brutalities of a world bent in two by purely evil forces in the drama Prisoners which seeks to frighten, disturb, and wring us out emotionally. The redeeming qualities, however, unleash some terrific acting performances and unsettling suspense throughout a 2 1/2 hour runtime that manages to fly.

Two missing six-year-old girls from two different suburban families (Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello) – (Terrence Howard, Viola Davis) are the center of an investigation led by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal).  There is only one clear suspect to Keller Dover (Jackman), and that is a mentally challenged, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), whom Keller believes abducted the girls in his RV.  Loki, however, can’t find any substantial evidence to support Jones as his man.

A spiraling investigation leads Loki and Keller to desperation in their own ways.  As each day passes, the girls are certainly closer to death if they aren’t already.

Directed with a great deal of feeling by Denis Villeneuve, Prisoners resists the route of typical revenge actioners and actually heads up the drama in very realistic, albeit overwrought, fashion.  The premise manages to carry the film for quite a while leading to a satisfying and physically draining conclusion that answers nearly every question the audience can throw at it.  While the film lends itself to being picked apart due to the nature of an unfolding mystery, the picture is held together so well by alarmingly good performances for thinly drawn characters that have little range on paper, yet bloom onscreen.

Jackman is the angry autocratic father.  Gyllenhaal is the determined investigator.  Bello is the weeping wife.  None of the characters have lives outside of their predicament.  Yet the acting is so very good that I failed to notice it much until further reflection.

This is obviously the kind of film gunning for awards attention, and for the most part it deserves it.  Jackman and Gyllenhaal especially deliver strong performances worthy of consideration.  The film as a whole could be a little tighter, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that I was glued to the screen the entire time, even when I wanted to look away.  Prisoners is a mostly fascinating drama that delivers a strong hit to the gut.

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