Friday, December 21, 2012

Cinenerd’s Top 20 of 2012

2012 was a great year for film.

Article first published as Cinenerd's Top 20 Films of 2012 on Blogcritics.

The world may not have ended today (at least as of this writing), but that’s no reason we can’t celebrate the close of 2012 with another “Best of” list, right? In looking back over the year, it’s been a particularly good one for movies.

I know that most lists consist of Top Tens but when I started making my list, the most expected happened. My favorites of the year began to bleed in and they mix rather well. With a final list of 20 films, I decided that instead of ranking them all, why not just list them alphabetically, with links to the full reviews of course, and let you be the judge of this rather outstanding year.

1. 21 Jump Street
2. Argo
3. Marvel's The Avengers
4. The Cabin in the Woods
5. The Dark Knight Rises
6. Django Unchained
7. Frankenweenie (2012)
8. Hitchcock
9. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
10. Lincoln
11. Looper
12. Moonrise Kingdom
13. ParaNorman
14. The Raid
15. Safety Not Guaranteed
16. Seven Psychopaths
17. Silver Linings Playbook
18. Skyfall
19. Ted
20. Wreck-It Ralph

What really makes a “Best Picture” anyway? This year there was no clear winner. Some are far better than others, yes, and out of even this list there were only six I revisited in theaters. Just to be clear, there were some amazing Honorable Mentions as well: Prometheus, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi, Rise of the Guardians, The Sessions, For a Good Time, Call…, Sleepwalk with Me, Smashed, and even Men in Black III or Jack Reacher could make up a whole other list. Having not seen Zero Dark Thirty, I couldn't really place it on this list, maybe next year.

So there you have it moviegoers, another year, another list. Have a safe and happy holidays, I’ll see you in 2013!

Movie Review: “This Is 40”

If This Is 40, I'll take it!

**** out of 5
134 minutes
Rated R for sexual content, crude humor, pervasive language and some drug material
Universal Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: This Is 40 on Blogcritics.

There may be a formula to Judd Apatow’s films, but when something’s not broke, why fix it? While some people didn’t think Funny People lived up to its title, he’s reverted to what worked with The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up in This Is 40.

Calling the film a “semi-sequel” to Knocked Up, there aren’t nearly as many returning characters as you might hope. But those who do come knocking are more than game, and he’s also included some of his new cohorts to come along for the ride this time.

Debbie (Leslie Mann) and Pete (Paul Rudd) are a little older, but none the wiser than last time. Opening with the world’s worst birthday present, we find out that it’s Debbie’s 40th birthday. Pete thought it would be nice to spice things up by taking a Viagra but Debbie, of course, is just insulted. Their marriage is as rocky as ever with their two daughters, Sadie and Charlotte (Maude and Iris Apatow), going through their own growing pains. Sadie is dealing with teen angst while Charlotte just wants her sister to play with her. Meanwhile, Pete has left Sony to start his own record label so that he can focus on artists he’s actually passionate about, but Debbie just wants him to sign “a hot 15-year-old” so that they can catch up on their mortgage.

Debbie and Pete are also dealing with their own parental issues as Pete has been feeding his father Larry (Albert Brooks) money to support his test tube triplets and Debbie’s father Oliver is aloof and has a new family after he abandoned her and her mother when she was eight. Debbie also spends time with a personal trainer, Jason (Jason Segel returning), and trying to keep her clothing store afloat even though one of her two employees, Desi (Megan Fox) and Jody (Charlyne Yi), seem to have them $12,000 in the red. Subplots also involve both Debbie and Pete separately threatening Sadie’s schoolmate Joseph (Super 8’s Ryan Lee) and his mother (Melissa McCarthy). And things go from bad to worse when Debbie learns that she’s following in the footsteps of the previous film’s title.

While Knocked Up reveled in arrested development and drug jokes, This is 40 deals more heavily with trying to put the past behind you and acknowledge what’s right in front of you now. Apatow’s heavy doses of truth behind his jokes still ring as true as ever (such as farting in bed) and there still seems to be much-needed improv on set. With the performers he’s gathered together, he couldn’t ask for a crew more prepped. While Albert Brooks was robbed earlier this year for Best Supporting Actor, his chances for a repeat are nigh. The only two problems really, may be that it’s advertising seems to be only aimed at the Knocked Up crowd. Yet, Seth Rogen’s character of Ben is only mentioned once which is only made funnier seeing how Katherine Heigl’s Alison is not, at all, only seen briefly in a family photo hanging in the hallway.

The second issue is that it aims for the big laughs as always, but they seem few and in between with the film moving at a more dramatic pace which seems to throw the tone off. But the biggest surprise may be that Apatow has so far been the only director to effectively use Megan Fox and not make us hate her. She really does have some comedic timing buried beneath that schoolboy-drooling inducing physique. And another nice surprise is how dramatically effective Maude has become as an actress (even if only being in her dad’s movies). So while not everything works for This Is 40, maybe it’s supposed to be that way. After all, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s how it’s supposed to be when we all turn 40.

Photos courtesy Universal Pictures

Movie Review: “Jack Reacher”

Lee Child's Jack Reacher series is a welcome addition to the action fold.

**** ½ out of 5
130 minutes
Rated PG-13 for violence, language and some drug material
Paramount Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Jack Reacher on Blogcritics.

Say what you want about Tom Cruise’s personal beliefs, when it comes to his films the man never fails. He also sure knows how to hand-pick the director’s he works with also. His Mission: Impossible series alone has now featured four different directors and they’ve also managed to get better with each one; nothing short of a miracle in Hollywood at any point in time. Cruise may stand a mere 5’ 7” but make no mistake; the man is an action star through and through. And while fans of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels may have been up in arms over Cruise’s casting, writer/director Christopher McQuarrie has managed to give him another starring vehicle that will undoubtedly get even more miles out of it than Mission: Impossible with the adaptation of One Shot, retitled to Jack Reacher.

In Pittsburgh, a sniper opens fire taking down five seemingly innocent people. Detective Emerson (David Oyelowo) is called on the scene finding a single bullet shell and a quarter in the parking meter with a fingerprint belonging to James Barr (Joseph Sikora). Barr winds up in a coma after getting jumped in the prison van but not before he writes “Get Jack Reacher” on his confession statement. D.A. Rodin (Richard Jenkins) and Emerson think the case is open and shut and thinks that his daughter, Helen (Rosamund Pike) taking Barr’s defense will ruin her career. Out of the blue, Jack Reacher (Cruise) is on the scene fresh off the bus. Everyone keeps calling Barr Reacher’s friend, but Reacher is only there to try to take Barr down. That is, before he runs across a slut with a heart of gold (Alexia Fast), the world’s most inept thugs, a man known only as The Zec (Werner Herzog), John McClane Jr. err… Charlie (Jai Courtney), and a more than helpful gun range owner (Robert Duvall).

McQuarrie may only be directing his second feature, but from what I can remember about The Way of the Gun, he’s more than making up for it. McQuarrie is an Academy Award-winning screenwriter (The Usual Suspects) and it’s on full display throughout most of the runtime. Having never read the original novel I can’t say how well it’s been adapted. But on its own terms, the film is a complete knock out. Full of hilarious banter, Cruise gets to play the cocky side of his ego while bringing his Ethan Hunt sensibilities to the action scenes. Pike may be the films weakest link in the acting department, but she does a fair enough job and grew on me as the film progressed.

The film starts a tad on the serious side, but once we get past the intense opening, things lighten up but still maintains intensity. We also get treated to one of the best car chases seen in years (featuring absolutely no music mind you) and some surprisingly hilarious slapstick involving Charlie’s henchmen. McQuarrie also squeezes in a hilarious joke about why you shouldn’t play with guns. With a run time of a whopping 130 minutes I feared the film would be far too long, but McQuarrie keeps things moving along and I never once cared how much time was left. What that really says is that Jack Reacher, as a film and series, is a welcome addition to the fold.

Photos courtesy Paramount Pictures

Friday, December 14, 2012

Kino Lorber Holiday Gift Guide 2012

Tons of last minute gift goodies for the cinefile in your life.

Article first published as Kino Lorber Holiday Gift Guide 2012 on Blogcritics.

While most people may be seeing their holiday shopping winding down, there are rumors that this weekend, December 15, will be the year’s biggest day of the season. If you have film lovers in your midst, they should be the easiest people to shop for. But most of you probably have no idea what they already own or may like. If that film lover on your gift list happens to have any kind of leanings toward the eccentric or even the classic then Kino Lorber is here to help.

There are 12 fantastic gift ideas available for your last minute shopping ranging from the macabre to the hilarious with everything in between. So in case you needed some brilliant ideas to spread some cheer to the film lover in your life, you may want to consider these titles which are either already available or listed for pre-order on either Blu-ray, DVD or both (all prices listed are retail).

Available Now

The David O. Selznick Collection features five masterworks taken from Selznick’s personal collection, authorized by the Selznick estate and preserved by the George Eastman House Motion Picture Department. The titles featured are A Farewell to Arms (1932), Nothing Sacred (1937), A Star is Born (1937), Bird of Paradise (1932), and Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936). This set is available on both Blu-ray ($99.95) and DVD ($79.95). The Pablo Larrain: Director’s Set includes a double feature from the acclaimed Chilean director. Tony Manero is about a middle-aged thug obsessed with the disco king played by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever who splits his time between disco dancing and wreaking mayhem. Post Mortem brings the tale of a morgue clerk's obsession with a burlesque dancer playing out against the violence of Chile's 1973 military coup. The double feature is on DVD for $44.95.

The Blue Angel is considered the crowning achievement of Weimar Cinema and comes from director Josef von Sternberg. Here we find a college professor (Emil Jannings) falling out of respectability after becoming obsessed with a cabaret singer (Marlene Dietrich). Featuring a newly-restored HD print from archival 35mm elements and restored by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, The Blue Angel is $29.95 on Blu-ray. Baron Blood is part of the “Mario Bava Collection” and has been mastered in HD from the original negative to help the gothic terror shine better than ever. Aside from the nicks, scratches, and dirt, this is probably as good as the film will ever look without a full restoration which seems unlikely. Bonus material includes an audio commentary from Tim Lucas (author of Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark) and also features Italian Title Sequences, Italian and English Theatrical Trailers, three radio spots, and trailers for additional Bava films. Baron Blood is a nice return to the Italian giallos of yesteryear and is available on Blu-ray ($29.95) and DVD ($24.95).

The Ultimate Buster Keaton Collection more than lives up to its name with a whopping 14-disc Blu-ray set including all of Kino’s previous Keaton releases. If you can afford to part with the $299.95 retail price you get treated to an as-yet-unreleased title with College which isn’t seeing release until 2013. The other titles included are: The Saphead, The Short Films Collection, Our Hospitality, Sherlock Jr. & Three Aces, The Navigator, Seven Chances, Go West & Battling Butler, The General, Steamboat Bill, Jr., and Lost Keaton: Sixteen Comedy Shorts. If you like your humor a little darker, Oscar-nominated director Giorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, Best Foreign Language Film 2011) returns with an even stranger tale of a mysterious group calling themselves the Alps. This group of people help mourners move passed their loss by impersonating the recently deceased. Everything is going according to plan until one of them (Aggeliki Papoulia) starts to take things too far. The laughs may be pitch black but they can be yours for the cost of $29.95.

Two Fritz Lang releases give us a broad spectrum of the director’s work with Die Nibelungen: Special Edition and Fritz Lang: The Early Works. Die Nibelungen is available on both Blu-ray ($39.95) and DVD ($34.95) and brings us Lang’s monumental two-part saga. The epic retelling of Nordic legend is populated by dragons, magical trolls, and heroic figures and has been remastered in HD from another restoration by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung. Special features include a 68-minute documentary on the making of the film, the original score by Gottfried Huppertz, and German intertitles with optional English subtitles. The Early Works is a 3-DVD collection consisting of virtually unseen in the U.S. films including Harakiri, The Wandering Shadow, and Four Around the Woman. All are remastered from 35mm elements also preserved by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, in association with numerous international archives, and is available for $39.95.

Coming Soon!

Fred & Vinnie comes from the mind of Steve Skrovan (Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond). Fred (Fred Stoller) is thrilled when his buddy Vinnie DeAngelo (Angelo Tsarouchas) comes to live with him, until he proves to be the world’s most maddening roommate. Sounding like an update on the tried-and-true Odd Couple scenario, the DVD will be available on December 18 for $26.95. Bonus features include Vinnie’s phone messages, a Park City TV interview, Angelo’s audition tape, deleted scenes and a trailer. If you’re looking for documentaries, Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet streets the same day for $26.95. At the age of 19, Jason Becker was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease and was told he would never make music again. Twenty-two years later, without the ability to move or speak, Jason is still alive and making music with only his eyes.

These two may not be available in time for the big day, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth checking out. We all get gift cards, right? On December 24, The Well-Digger’s Daughter comes to Blu-ray ($34.95) and DVD ($29.95). This remake of the 1940 Marcel Pagnol classic tells the story of well-digger Pascal a widower living amongst six daughters in the Provence countryside. When the eldest becomes impregnated by a young pilot who then returns to the frontlines, Pascal is left to deal with the consequences. Putin’s Kiss brings us another documentary about teen Masha, the rising star of Nashi, a youth movement in Russia pledging unwavering loyalty to Putin. When Masha’s journalist friend is violently attacked, she realizes that she must make an even bigger stand. The DVD is $29.95 and includes the theatrical trailer and a still gallery.

As I said, there’s certainly something for anyone, so long as they have a deep appreciation for the eclectic or the classics of days gone by. So if there’s someone left on your list or you want to pick something up for yourself, make sure to consider any of these fabulous gift ideas all available from Kino Lorber.

Cover art courtesy Kino Lorber

Movie Review: “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”

From small beginnings come the grandest adventures. No matter how you choose to view it, you'll love it.

**** ½ out of 5
169 minutes
Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on Blogcritics.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know that there’s a new movie out called The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The prequel to Peter Jackson’s Academy Award-winning Lord of the Rings trilogy is finally upon us. The word critic-proof is aptly applied when it comes to a film like this, but alas, with Jackson’s films, even critics understand how fantastic they are. The bigger question is, with so many different release platforms – 2D, 3D, IMAX 3D, HFR (High Frame Rate) 3D, not to mention all the different sound systems including Jackson’s preferred new Dolby ATMOS – how does one choose to see it? Is there one version to rule them all?

The first installment of Jackson’s three-part Hobbit adaptation stretches out the first 100 pages of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel to 166 minutes. With the book having been originally published in 1937, you would hope you wouldn’t run into spoilers, but since I am reading it for the first time, I figured there would be a few. An opening prologue shows us the attack of the dragon Smaug upon the Lonely Mountain ruled by Thror (Jeffrey Thomas). It’s the discovery of the “heart of the mountain” that drives Smaug’s attack and all the dwarves are forced to leave after the Orcs kill Thror’s son Thrain (Michael Mizrahi) in battle.

Next, we pick up right before Fellowship of the Ring began. Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) is readying his place in case of visitors for his big birthday celebration, hiding anything of value out of sight. Frodo (Elijah Wood) is understandably confused. Bilbo is also hard at work on writing down his own adventures to paper which flashbacks to 60 years earlier when Bilbo is called up by Gandalf (Ian McKellan) to share in an adventure with him. The adventure includes 13 dwarves--Balin (Ken Stott), Dwalin (Graham McTavish), Bifur (William Kircher), Bofur (James Nesbitt), Bombur (Stephen Hunter), Fili (Dean O’Gorman), Kili (Aidan Turner), Oin (John Callen), Gloin (Peter Hambleton), Nori (Jed Brophy), Dori (Mark Hadlow), Ori (Adam Brown), all lead by Thorin (Richard Armitage) son of Thrain. Bilbo is called upon to fulfill the burglar duties as they set out to rid the Lonely Mountains of Smaug and take back their rightful home.

The film as a whole is fantastic of course. Jackson (along with co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro) rearranges, combines and alters the book's events to provide a far more cinematic experience, as he did with the Lord of the Rings. Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) the Brown Wizard even shows up. Everyone in the cast is at the top of their game as one would expect in a film of this caliber. And of course, the special effects are even better than when Fellowship was released nine years ago. The Lord of the Rings films may have never won any technical awards (insert guffaws here), but there’s no doubt The Hobbit should clean up nicely.

Just about the only thing left to really discuss now is how to go about deciding your viewing experience. Having seen The Hobbit in 48fps HFR (unfortunately not in an ATMOS equipped theater), I think you’re pretty much free to pick your own poison. If you want it to feel more at home with the original series then you may just want to stick with 2D. However, if you want the film to stand up to how Jackson has made it, then you may want to seek out a theater near you that can play HFR. The film itself is as amazing as you’d expect, but what does the higher frame rate really bring to the table?

Having the ability to use TruMotion (to reduce motion blur) at home, I can tell you that it’s far better than anything produced on a home television. However, there are many times the frame rate seems totally unnecessary and makes things feel as if you’ve accidentally turned your PS3 on 1.5 speed. Ironically, HFR is supposed to reduce judder and smooth out the picture to make it easier on the eyes and provide far more clarity than the industry standard 24fps. Instead it creates the exact opposite with a jittery effect. If it’s not an action scene or sweeping vista, it seems like the film is visually sped up.

When The Hobbit opens up to wide shots full of landscapes, including the entire second unit work, it’s far easier to handle the HFR. But when people are just standing around talking or walking from one room to the next, they almost look like their skipping about. It also comes into full effect whenever there are moments of slow motion, filling the screen with far more detail than you’ve ever seen. Perhaps therein lies the biggest problem is that the higher frame rate is producing too much detail to take in at once. A film of this scale already has so much to take in that the HFR just turns it into a visual overdose. So finally, regardless of how one finally decides to indulge, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey may not be the year’s single best film, but it still stands as one of the best.

Photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures