Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Ep. 67: The Last Episode Ever?

Once again, the Front Row Center Podcast goes live tonight at 9PM (Eastern)!  Click here to visit our show page!

Tonight, we'll be tackling the many sordid issues surrounding James Cameron's Avatar.  We'll be offering up our own thoughts on the film, as well as discussing some of the ulterior readings of the film (of which there are definitely a few). 

Also tonight, we'll talk for a few minutes about Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, the Golden Globe nominees, this year's National Film Registry selections, and more.

Finally, we'll take some time to discuss the future of the show.  We may soon be switching to a new format, and whether that means leaving TalkShoe or staying on in another form remains to be seen. 

So if you'd like to discuss Avatar or Sherlock Holmes, or if you know anything about the technical side of podcasting, we'd love to hear your thoughts!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Joe's Decade in Review: Genre Cinema All-Out Attack!

Like many others, this decade in cinema has been one of joyous highs and and dreadful lows.   While traditional fare continued on pretty much as it always had, the big-budget spectacle became a beast like no other.  Many of this decade's high-rollers were inexplicably critic-proof; no amount of negative press kept films like Transformers 2 from raking in all the money in the known universe.  Sure, some critical darlings have raked in the big bucks, but more than ever the gulf between the critic and the audience is distressingly wide. 

For better or worse, we soldier on into a new decade of cinematic surprises.  There will be inevitable excesses, as filmmakers like Matthew Vaughn, Quentin Tarantino and Rian Johnson will continue to deconstruct popular genres and blur the line between the sublime and the ridiculous.  There will be bigger and better explosions as the summer blockbuster train rolls on, so long as there's material to adapt and dollars to spend.  And there will be files; terabytes and terabytes of files.  Digital media will continue to change the way we watch movies, though it'll be a slow transition.

I could play Nostradamus from here to Doomsday, so for brevity's sake I'll leave you with these, a pair of lists.  First, my favorite movie from each year; not exactly a top ten.  I made an entire Top 100 list, and the ordering there is quite different (To see my full list, coming soon, visit my other blog here).  Then, five that I just absolutely hated.  Enjoy.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)  -  Joel and Ethan Coen have a knack for making the antiquated and mundane seem fresh and exciting, and their ode to The Odyssey (never read it, my ass) is among their most entertaining.  George Clooney is brilliant, as is the faded color palette and folksy soundtrack.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)  -  Wes Anderson's spent the past eight years trying to recreate the visual poetry of his third film, and for good reason; it's still his best.  The ensemble cast plays beautifully off one another, and the visual design is just a fantastic.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) - The whole thing is great, but if I had to pick one, it'd be The Two Towers.  There's a palpable sense of despair that the other two simply don't have, and even though Aragorn going over a cliff is the single most idiotic turn of the whole trilogy, Jackson makes up for it by having the battle at Helms Deep be one of the greatest things ever put to film.

Big Fish (2003)  -  Tim Burton's fanbase will tear me to shreds, but I don't care.  This is his best movie.  It's an ode to nostalgia, but an even bigger ode to storytelling, to embellishing the truth for the sake of entertainment.  It's probably the best film Terry Gilliam never made.

Shaun of the Dead (2004)  -  For a debut feature, Edgar Wright's zombie film is remarkably nimble in storytelling, and at the same time densely intricate in its construction.   That it's a sly comment on cultural complacency is really what sets it head and shoulders above every zombie film since (even Romero's).

Serenity (2005)  -  Almost five years on, the fanboyish fervor has worn off and I've been able to watch Serenity with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.  Yup, it's still the best space opera since The Empire Strikes Back, and every bit as inventive, goofy, and thrilling as you remember.

Stranger than Fiction (2006)  -  Another film about the intricacies of storytelling, this one more obsessed with the telling than what's being told.  Will Ferrell's performance is equal parts pathetic and charming, and it's the best he's ever been. This is one I'm sure won't wind up on many Best-Of lists, largely because most see it as a poor-man's Adaptation.

Ratatouille (2007)  -  Outside of Toy Story, which lives on it's own little pedestal, this is my pick for Pixar's best film.  In typical fashion, Brad Bird pushes his animators to the limit, telling a story that's as rich in plot as it is in beautifully rendered scenery.  Much like Remy's food, this is one to savor one little bit at a time.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2008)  -  Here's another film about obsession over the mundane.  What starts as an examination of competitive video gaming slowly becomes nothing less than the best sports movie of the decade.  Think I'm crazy?  Watch it and see if you aren't cheering for Steve Weibe to kick Billy Mitchell's ass at Donkey Kong.

The Brothers Bloom (2009)  - Most of you never saw this, because it only played in a couple hundred theaters, so when it hits DVD (if it hasn't already), go find it.  Nine times out of ten, I hate caper movies, but Rian Johnson's goes so far out of his way to make this the Ulysses of caper films that it won me over in spite of myself.

And because I can't leave it at just ten: Unbreakable, Snatch, Road to Perdition, Oldboy, The Incredibles, Grizzly Man, Pan's Labyrinth, No Country For Old Men, Iron Man, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Now, five things I hated this decade...

...You know what?  Throw a rock at a horror film or sex comedy and I probably hated it.  Also: remake fever, Star Trek, Will Ferrell (Stranger than Fiction notwithstanding), vampires, Hancock, "____ Movie"s, any Part III that wasn't Star Wars, postmodern fantasy and My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Good riddance.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Trent's Decade in Review: A Retrospective Spectacular!

Well, in a few days, for some of us (those not going from 2001 thru 2010, but instead from 2000 to 2009), the decade will end. I, for one am happy to see it go. Compared to the first decade and a half of my life, this last one sucked. I am really hoping for a better next ten years.

The last ten years in entertainment have been ones with vast changes of both good and bad potential. We've seen the oversaturation of reality TV, 24 hour news, and internet serials. We've seen a proliferation of remakes, video game adaptations, and comic book movies. The last ten years started off with a boom of independent film, which has all but died in the last two years with the economic downturn.

Herein are 50 of my favorite films from the past decade, with the first 25 being my absolute favorites. Other than that, there is no order to these movies in terms of how much I liked them. I feel that would be unfair.

1. Almost Famous (2000) - This is the only movie on this list that I consider one of my five all-time favorite films. It never gets boring, because it's all about character nuances. You actually feel as if you're hanging out with rock stars.

2. Spirited Away (2001) - This is, in my opinion, the best anime film created. It's a beautiful, odd story, and unlike quite a few anime, not too short.

3. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) - It's probably Wes Anderson's best movie. It's got so many characters, yet we end up knowing each one so well, and yet they still surprise us. Gotta love the quirkiness.

4. Lord of The Rings (2001-2003) - Probably the most astounding piece of film-making at LEAST since Star Wars, but in my opinion, this is better film-making.

5. Adaptation. (2002) - Charlie Kaufman's best script and Spike Jonze's best film.

6. The Eye. (2002) - This movie (the Chinese original), fits so much into this thriller that I was amazed. It's moving, haunting, frightening, and yes, a bit of romance is there as well. Seperates itself from all the other Asian horror films.

7. Master & Commander: The Far Side of The World (2003) - A seafaring movie that's full of historical accuracy and yet manages to have it's exciting parts. It's not about battles, but about life on a ship, and I like that about it. It's got great acting, music, and cinematography to boot.

8. Capturing The Friedmans (2003) - The most disturbing and provacative documentary I've ever seen. Just to see that back in the 80s, how they handled child sexual abuse cases was frightening. Moreso is the fact that even with this documentary, we don't know if the people involved were innocent or guilty of the abuse.

9. The Incredibles (2004) - My favorite Pixar movie of the past ten years. I know most prefer Nemo, Ratatouille or Wall-E, but this gets my vote because it just entertained me more. I connected better. Still, they're all great (except Cars).

10. Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind (2004) - Heartbreaking, funny, and a mindscrew at the same time. Everyone owes it to themselves to see this. Just don't expect to understand everything the first time through.

11. Serenity (2005) - Science fiction for the most part was not as good this decade, but this is one of the best ever made. Those that like this owe it to themselves to see TV series Firefly as well. It's very much a space western.

12. Batman Begins (2005) - I like this better than The Dark Knight. Sure, it's not as philosophical or epic, but it's more fun, and has a villain not seen in a Batman movie before. Also, less annoying hype and anti-hype.

13. Apocalypto (2006) - Also known as Mel Gibson's OTHER movie. Sorry guys, this is better than Passion of The Christ. Not much dialogue, but man what a chase. If only the Mayans had as many fans as Jesus this would have done better.

14. Casino Royale (2006) - This is probably the best Bond film made since The Spy Who Loved Me back in 1977. Daniel Craig is a great Bond, and the story was updated nicely for modern audiences.

15. The Departed (2006) - Martin Scorsese outdoes himself. This is the best mob movie ever made in my view. It also proves the phrase, "there's always a bigger fish"... or rat in this case.

16. Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) - This Clint Eastwood directed film is better than it's counterpart Flags of Our Fathers by a long shot. It's from the Japanese point of view, and has more humanity, action, and even humor. One of Eastwood's best.

17. Pan's Labyrinth (2006) - Guillermo Del Toro is one of the best dark fantasy directors out there, and this is his best. It's in spanish, but it's such a sad, depressing movie, and yet so beautiful.

18. Hot Fuzz (2007) - Most would probably put Shaun of The Dead instead, but this one's humor has stayed funny longer for me. It may not have as much social commentary, but it's easily at least as funny as Shaun, plus you get Timothy Dalton.

19. The Orphanage (2007) - Another movie all in Spanish, but this time it's a thriller. It's got some of the most haunting scenes in it, yet still it's sad. Think of a better version of The Others, and you get this.

20. Ratatouille (2007) - Pixar's other best movie of the decade. More for adults than kids this time.

21. Let The Right One In (2008) - A Swedish vampire movie that's both brutal and sweet.

22. Speed Racer (2008) - A lot of people hate it, but a lot love it too. I love it. It's just what a live action cartoon should be, and my god, the visuals!

23. Avatar (2009) - The move forward is special effects we've been waiting for, and it legitimizes 3D.

24. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) - Another Wes Anderson film for the list. It's his first real kid friendly movie, though not just for kids. It's zany enough for kids, but is for everyone. Mr. Fox is fantastic.

25. Zombieland (2009) - It's like Little Miss Sunshine with zombies. Sound awesome? It is.

and the runners up....

26. O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000)
27. High Fidelity (2000)
28. Moulin Rouge! (2001)
29. Devil's Backbone (2001)
30. Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001)
31. Donnie Darko (2001)
32. Minority Report (2002)
33. 28 Days Later (2002)
34. Signs (2002)
35. Lost In Translation (2003)
36. Mystic River (2003)
37. Pirates of The Caribbean: Curse of The Black Pearl (2003)
38. Kill Bill (2003/2004)
39. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
40. Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
41. The Squid and The Whale (2005)
42. Thank You For Smoking (2005)
43. Tideland (2005)
44. Children of Men (2006)
45. Clerks II (2006)
46. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
47. Darjeeling Limited (2007)
48. Grindhouse (2007)
49. The Dark Knight (2008)
50. Gran Torino (2008)

I will not do a worst of list, because while this decade did have some clunkers, I try not to see movies I know will be horrible.

Rock on 2010! Ow!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Coming Soon: The Decade in Movies

The 2000s are coming to a close, and you know what that means...  Retrospectives aplenty!

Because we just have to keep up with the Joneses, each of us here at Front Row Center will be offering up our own thoughts about the past decade in movies.  The best of the best, the worst of the worst, all the stuff in the middle, and what it all means.

Some of us might do it in the form of a list, some might ramble in a number of paragraphs, others might even compose some free verse (unlikely, but then again stranger things have happened).

So have a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, pleasant Festivus, or whatever holiday you celebrate, and come back soon and often.  Keep a weather eye on our humble little page.  Great things are afoot...

Monday, December 21, 2009

Review: Avatar

I don't need to tell you that James Cameron's latest film is a great movie, that it's already become a cultural touchstone akin to nearly every one of his other films.  It's a bygone conclusion that Avatar is a fantastic piece of cinema, but simply leaving it at that is meaningless.  At this point, the movie being anything less than stellar would be viewed as a failure on at least some level.  Thankfully, the reality is that Avatar is every bit the amazing movie-going experience that the months of hype have suggested. And then some.

The story is deceptively simple.  Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a paraplegic marine whose been contracted to the alien planet of Pandora.  There, he's tasked with operating an avatar, an alien body engineered to be controlled by Jake's brain.  His mission is to infiltrate the native population, a race of animalistic, ten foot-tall humanoids called the Na'vi. There, his mission is to convince them to leave their home so that the human colonizers can mine the precious rock underneath.  Of course, over time Sully takes a shine to the Na'vi, particularly the chief's daughter, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).

If this story sounds familiar, that's because it is.  Avatar is an amalgam of half a dozen other stories, and spins them all together into something wholly unique.  There are shades of Apocalypse Now, Dances with Wolves, The Matrix, and even the Pocahontas/John Smith story in Cameron's tale, and it's a testament to his talents as a storyteller that everything is integrated so seamlessly.  

Calling Avatar derivative is no great leap, but criticizing the film for it is to completely ignore the concept of the Monomyth, Joseph Campbell's term for the story that mankind has been retelling ever since the first cave painting. Every story is derivative of some earlier tale in some way, shape or form, and it's the storyteller's duty to pass such stories down through the ages.  I'm not simply saying "The Monomyth exists, therefore Avatar must be good."  What I'm saying is that the way Cameron distills other tales here, along with some of his own ideas, is inspired, and just because the premise evokes other stories is no basis for criticism.

If I have any criticisms at all it's that, believe it or not, the film feels a bit too short.  So much time is given to Sully's exploration of Pandora and the Na'vi culture, that when it comes time for the action to really get going, things become a little rushed.  There's still a good payoff at the end, but the climactic battle between the humans and the Na'vi feels about 10 minutes too short.  There can't possibly be material cut out of the film.  At 162 minutes, it's not like Cameron was worried about the film being too long.  What's there is fine; it's great even.  I guess I just wanted to see more...

Technically, however, Avatar is a film like no other.  CG technology has come a long way since Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films, and even further since the days of Tron.  The world that James Cameron creates is almost tangible in its construction.  The forests, the creatures, even the clouds, all of it comes to life through Cameron's lens, and the 3D technology really makes this world pop.  It took ten years and countless millions of dollars of development, but all that time and money definitely paid off.  Sure, there are moments where the visual effects feel a bit cartoonish, but none of it ever looks phony.  The depth of the jungles on Pandora is staggering, and the nighttime scenes are really where the 3D shines.

There really isn't a sour note to be found in this film.  The story, such as it is, sweeps you up in its eco-grandiosity (can I say that?)  Worthington and Saldana have a lot of chemistry together, and some truly great character moments shine through all the special effects.  Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang also turn in equally strong performances as Sully's science advisor and commanding officer (respectively).  The human element is solid in this film, but the focus is clearly on the Na'vi, and Cameron manages to cull some really unique performances through all the CG and motion-capture.

Only time will tell if Avatar is destined to become a classic, or if it will sag and age the way Titanic has begun to (go watch it again if you don't believe me).  For now, though, the film stands as one of the greatest technical achievements in a year littered with outstanding science fiction.  Whether time will favor Moon, District 9, or Avatar, what's clear is that James Cameron is one of Hollywood's last remaining sure things.

****1/2 (4.5 stars out of 5)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Review: Princess and The Frog

All my hopes for hand-drawn 2-D animation hinges on this movie. How do I feel after seeing it? I kinda still have my fingers crossed. It's no secret that I loathe the new 3-D craze. Does every animated movie have to be shown in 3-d? According to movie studios, that's a big whoppin' "YES!". Personally, I think those studio bigwigs should be put out to pasture. However, at least Disney allowed a new 2-D hand-drawn animated film to come along with The Princess and The Frog.

The story is about Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), a waitress who longs to own a restaurant, as was her dead father's dream. She works two jobs to save up the money to buy a place, never having the time to do anything else. At the same time, Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), is looking for a rich wife, as his parents have cut him off, and he refuses to work. When a Shadow Man (Keith David) hears this, he tricks the prince and his manservant into a deal. Little did they know that it included making the prince a frog and the manservant turning into the prince so that the Shadow Man could get rich off the prince's wishes. Well, Tiana ends up kissing the frog and turning into one herself, so the two frogs go on a wild journey through the bayous to look for an old-lady witch doctor to help them, meeting a few friends and randomly bursting out into song along the way. In Disney fashion, the movie includes a wishing star, an evil magic man, catchy songs, and a happy ending.

So what's wrong with that picture? Well, for one, the songs may be catchy, but they are not memorable. It's one of the same problems that I thought Enchanted had a few years ago. I do not remember the tune to one song in this movie, even though I saw it yesterday. I remember I liked most of them, but I don't remember the words or tunes anymore.

Also, the movie didn't feel Disney enough. As I watched the movie, I felt that it had more in common with the animated version of Anastasia that came out in the late nineties from 20th Century Fox than with Disney. Now, Anastasia was a animated movie TRYING to be a Disney movie. This is a Disney movie trying to be a Disney movie. The Disney of today is not the Disney of fifteen years ago. Today it's all about little girls and tweens. Those are Disney's primary audience outside of Pixar. Fifteen years ago, Disney was for the whole family. This movie is a microcosm of Disney's entire problem. The movie is so girly that I doubt boys will go for it. All the men in the story have large character flaws, whereas all the girls are good. It's almost sexist really. Well, I suppose that at least the princess didn't have to be rescued by the prince... Well, not entirely. Anyways, if Disney wants to make money, they need to go back to being for the whole family.... both genders. Disney Animation needs to look at Pixar for inspiration.

Now I do not mean to say that this is a bad movie. No, in fact I found it to be a good movie. It was entertaining, funny, and whimsical. It was great to see hand-drawn animation again. The story was also an interesting spin on a classic story, as Disney is famous for. The movie may not be another Cinderella, Aladdin, Lion King, or even a Dumbo, but it's not down there with Tarzan, Home On The Range, or Treasure Planet. In other words, it's not a classic nor a masterpiece, but it is a solid, entertaining, warm animated film.

The movie has also been nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Animated Film. I feel that it has a good chance of winning, though I hope that Fantastic Mr. Fox or Up gets it.

I'd put this one on the same par as Peter Pan, Hercules, Alice In Wonderland, and Sword In The Stone. It's not for everyone, but it's another Disney animated film in a long line of them. Therefore, it's automatically remembered and loved by many.

*** 1/2 out of ***** (3 1/2 out of 5)

Review: Invictus

Everyone who listens to our podcast, knows me, or even reads here (so nobody), knows that I am a HUGE Clint Eastwood fan. I've seen most of what he's directed, and about half of what he's been in. That may not seem fan worthy, but please go look up how many movies the guy has directed or been in. It ain't a small number. With that in mind, let's take a look at his newest attempt at Oscar-bait, Invictus.

The film is about how Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) , the newly elected and released from prison President of South Africa, attempts to bring his country together. After a few months of his country not improving the way he wanted it to, he decides that it's a lack of pride for the most part. He wants the official rugby team of the country to go for the World Cup. Now, this team has been doing terrible, but Mandela has faith in Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), the team's Captain. He hopes that the world will see a new South Africa, and that the World Cup would bring the two different races of his country together.

People have been waiting for nearly two decades for Morgan Freeman to play Nelson Mandela, based purely on looks. I can now safely say that he does a bang-up job. He was nearly perfect in the role. Even Matt Damon was good, which I was weary about. After the eye-rolling performance that Leonardo DiCaprio did of a South African in Blood Diamond, I was relieved to see a better performance of an American doing the accent and, indeed, the whole role.

The movie did have a few negatives for me. By the end of the movie, it seemed to turn into a generic sports film a bit. I know it IS a sports movie, but one would expect more from Eastwood. His direction of the sport is confusing and without focus. (I hated writing that.) Also, at times the message seemed a bit on-the-nose. There's somewhat a bit of a melodrama vibe in this sport/politic biopic. Perhaps it was intended, but it kind of rubbed me the wrong way when the South African children's chorus started up whenever we were supposed to feel elated. It's fine in other types of movies, but I didn't feel it was really needed here.

Overall the movie was very good, but not one of Eastwood's best. Both of the movies he directed last year were better, in my opinion, mainly in regards to directoral style and story. The acting is better here, however. The movie has been nominated for three Golden Globes (Actor, Supporting Actor, and Director). I hope it wins at least one, preferably the first two.

*** 1/2 out of *****. (3 1/2 out of 5)

Review: Everybody's Fine

I realize that this review is a few weeks late, but so be it. I've been busy. I actually saw this movie almost two weeks ago now. The movie is about Frank Goode (Robert De Niro), and his attempt to go see all four of his children, since they all canceled on their promise to come visit him after his wife died. Now, the kids were all closer to their mother, as Frank was always one of those fathers that you just didn't tell negative news to. You could never live up to his expectations. Well, Frank goes by train to see his kids, against his doctor's orders due to his heart condition. His first visit is the son he was always worried about, who is an artist, but he's not at home. Whilst visiting the other kids (Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale), he notices that things are not as fine with his kids as he was led to believe, and that especially goes for the son that wasn't home. The other kids are hiding what is going on with him from Frank.

Now from that bad plot synopsis, the movie may sound shmaltzy, dull, and overdone. I'm sure quite a few people will say it is, actually. I, on the other hand, see this movie as a melodrama. We're supposed to get so worked up by the end of the movie that the tears start flowing. (It actually almost happened to me!) A lot of people don't like soundtracks and very obvious plot points pushing their emotion buttons. I, on the other hand, don't care, because that's what melodramas are supposed to do, and that's how they do it. It's how they've ALWAYS done it. Of course, it didn't help that the trailers made people think this was some sort of comedy...

De Niro may have been a bit miscast here, but you need a big star to get anything greenlit these days. I was fine with the choice, but I guess Alan Arkin could have done just as well. I don't think we needed the medium-grade stars we got for the grown-up kids either. It made them feel underused; especially Sam Rockwell, who's such a versatile actor, and always so underused.

I wish this movie had done better. It was a good melodrama, yet the highest it got box office-wise was #10. People would rather see Old Dogs I guess. I'm also gonna blame the fact that this is based on a well-liked Italian movie that came out a full nineteen years ago. If it had been sooner, perhaps it would have done better. Who knows.

The film has been nominated for one Golden Globe. (Best Song, I Want To Come Home) I would say find this on DVD or Blu when it comes out. It's worth seeing at least once.

*** 1/2 out of ***** (3 1/2 out of 5)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Tonight! - Front Row Center Podcast, Ep. 65

Front Row Center is going live once again tonight, at 9PM (Eastern).  Click here to visit our show page.

This week's podcast promises to be an interesting one for a couple of reasons.

A) We have oh-so many things to discuss that we didn't get to cover last time.  These include the ginormous box-office take of The Twilight Saga: New Moon,  Actually, that might've been it.

B) We've only got one movie to discuss this week.  Old Dogs.  That should be fun...

C) We've got other fun news tidbits to discuss this week, including the release of the Iron Man 2 teaser poster (hey, I didn't say it was big news), as well as the nominees for this year's Independent Spirit Awards.

In other words, we're probably just going to wing it tonight.  Those always make for the best episodes, I say!