It’s been more than a year since I published my last Blu-ray column over at Premium Hollywood, but I’ve decided to revive it here on the Bullz-Eye Blog for the simple reason that I kind of miss doing it. Sure, I used to quietly complain to myself every week about having to actually write the damn thing, and some weeks, I gave in to my frustration by not writing anything at all, but I’m back to give it another go. It certainly helps that there are a couple of good films worth talking about this week or I might have never had this crazy (and almost surely regrettable) idea to begin with. Let’s get started, shall we?
The last time I watched Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning drama “Traffic” was when it was released in theaters, but the film is just as riveting today as it was back in 2000. Criterion’s Blu-ray release has everything that you’ve come to expect from the cinephile label – including a digitally restored high-definition transfer, hours of bonus material and an excellent essay by New York Times critic Manohla Dargis – but nothing outshines the movie itself. An expertly crafted examination of the illegal drug trade that effortlessly interweaves its many narratives into a searing commentary on the war on drugs, Soderbergh distinguishes each story with a unique color-coded treatment that adds style. And although the cast is overflowing with talent, Benicio del Toro and Michael Douglas are the real standouts. “Traffic” is without a doubt Soderbergh’s best film, and with the recent rumors of his impending retirement, there’s a pretty good chance it will stay that way.
Blu-ray Highlight: There’s some really good supplemental material on the disc – like audio commentaries with the movie’s producers, consultants and composer Cliff Martinez, as well as demonstrations on film processing, editing and dialogue editing – but Soderberg and writer Stephen Gaghan’s commentary track is jam-packed with so much great information about making the movie that you’ll definitely want to start there.
“The Ides of March”
George Clooney will probably never be as successful behind the camera as he is in front of it, but his latest directorial effort is still a really solid political thriller that thrives thanks to its fantastic ensemble cast. Ryan Gosling continues to prove why he’s one of this generation’s finest actors with perhaps his most grown-up role to date, while veterans like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti and Marisa Tomei also get in on the fun playing characters whose only real flaw is that they’re not in the movie enough. The scandal at the center of the story may seem a little trite (and as an interview with Clooney and producing partner Grant Heslov reveals, it’s probably the biggest difference between the film version and the Beau Williamson stage play that it’s based on), but you can hardly fault “The Ides of March” for relying on such a tried and trusted premise when real-life politics are just as dirty.
Blu-ray Highlight: Though Clooney and Heslov’s audio commentary is worth a listen, the aforementioned featurette where they discuss adapting “Farragut North” for the big screen will make anyone unfamiliar with the stage play interested in checking it out.
Taylor Lautner’s first starring vehicle didn’t perform as well as studio execs probably anticipated based on the star’s “Twilight” fame, but you have to wonder if any of them actually watched the movie. Not only is it a blatant rip-off of the Jason Bourne franchise, but it’s a pretty terrible one at that, with Lautner’s complete lack of acting talent even more noticeable than usual. There’s absolutely nothing redeeming about this film. Lautner’s history of martial arts (the one thing that he actually had going for him as an action star in training) is never exploited to its full potential, while veteran actors like Jason Isaacs, Maria Bello and Sigourney Weaver are smart enough to jump ship before the first act is even over. I could continue to list reasons why you shouldn’t waste your time, but what’s the point when you can read this much funnier, snark-fueled review by Dustin Rowles at Pajiba?
Blu-ray Highlight: The movie may be really bad, but the extras are actually quite good, especially when viewed in the Abduction Application, which integrates all three production featurettes (including a making-of) into a personalized in-movie experience.
Looking back at this year’s slate of films, it would be easy to label it a disappointment. But while 2011 may not have been very memorable, it wasn’t exactly forgettable either. In fact, the biggest problem I came across while compiling my year-end list was that while there were a lot of movies I really enjoyed, there weren’t very many that I loved. That might not be the most encouraging statement to make before announcing one’s Top 10, but it’s the honest truth, and it doesn’t make the movies listed below any less deserving of my praise, even if there are some films missing that you believe should have made the final cut. But that’s why critics love writing year-end reviews; each one is unique to their specific taste, and mine is nothing if not unique. Well, except for maybe my worst-of list, which is filled with movies that I think we can all agree sucked big time.
Though I wasn’t that impressed by Nicolas Winding Refn’s previous films, they have an undeniable visual flair and originality that you don’t see very often. “Drive” took those qualities and applied them to a conventional Hollywood thriller, resulting in a movie that feels much more mainstream without abandoning Refn’s art house sensibilities. The film is as beautifully poetic as it is strikingly violent, while Ryan Gosling (who’s had a banner year between this, “The Ides of March” and “Crazy Stupid Love”) has never been better as the soft-spoken yet brutally intense protagonist. But for as much attention as the film’s graphic violence has received, it’s the opening sequence – an edge-of-your-seat car chase packed with tension so thick you could cut it with a knife – that is without a doubt the biggest highlight. And when a movie can start so brightly and continue to build on it like “Drive” does (thanks in part to fine supporting turns from Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks), it’s no wonder why so many people love this film.
It’s not every day that you get to see a film before the rest of the world, so I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that being among the lucky few in attendance at the SXSW premiere of Joe Cornish’s “Attack the Block” played a part in my overall enjoyment of the movie. A genre hybrid film with influences ranging from “The Warriors” to “Critters,” Cornish’s directorial debut is a lean, mean sci-fi action thriller that, although it boasts a mostly unknown cast and was made for a fraction of the cost of the average Hollywood movie, is the most fun I’ve had at a theater all year. The young actors are great, the creature effects are even better, and the film is fueled by a relentless, infectious energy that keeps the action moving at a rapid clip. There might have been several alien invasion movies in theaters this year, but “Attack the Block” was the best of the bunch – a fun slice of nostalgic geek cinema that blended action, comedy, horror and sci-fi to create an instant cult classic.
It’s no secret that Diablo Cody has her share of critics, but “Young Adult” proves that she’s more than just a vending machine for the kind of quirky one-liners that initially earned her notice back in 2008 with “Juno.” Thematically darker and more mature than her first feature, the film also feels more personal in its examination of what it means to grow up, providing the perfect platform for Cody’s voice to shine. Blisteringly funny and surprisingly poignant at times, “Young Adult” is so daringly original that its somewhat contentious ending has even divided audiences. But while Cody deserves a lot of credit for taking these risks, it’s Charlize Theron’s performance that brings out the comedy and emotion of the situation, delivering some of her best work as the beautiful but bitchy Mavis. It’s not very easy to make a character like that sympathetic, but Theron pulls it off so effortlessly that it would be criminal to see her name absent from any award ballot.
A funny thing happened at the movies this year: absolutely nothing blew me away.
There were things I really liked, but my list of favorite movies is kind of a joke, really. They’re not bad movies (not in my mind, anyway), but there are few, if any, Best Picture candidates in the bunch. Compare that to last year, where six of my top 10 movies were nominated for Best Picture. This time around, that’s just not happening. Just want to lay that out up front.
Worse, there isn’t one movie that stands above the others. I liked my favorite movies equally, more or less. That might sound like a copout, but it’s true. Of the movies I’ve seen so far, this was the year where movies were just sort of…there. Maybe we’ll have better luck next year.
My Favorite Movies of 2011
Selling one’s soul is a popular subject in movies, since no two people are willing to settle for the same amount. “Margin Call” explores the subject on a massive scale, since the ripple effect of the actions of a few will be felt around the world. It’s not a thriller in the traditional sense, but it’s absolutely gripping. Kevin Spacey shines here, as does the ever-reliable Stanley Tucci.
It probably helped that I grew up in a small Ohio town not terribly unlike the one in “Super 8″ (though no one used the word ‘mint’ the way Riley Griffiths’ character does here), but “Super 8″ wasn’t merely an exercise in nostalgia; the movie delivered top-notch thrills, well-drawn characters, and the most spectacular sequence of the year with that jaw-dropping train crash. Elle Fanning, meanwhile, put on an acting clinic, and she’s only 13. Wow.
October has never been known for offering much in the way of quality at the cineplex (in many respects, it’s the dumping ground of the fall movie season), but usually, horror fans can at least expect a bunch of scary movies to help get them in the mood for Halloween. This year is a little different, however, because there are very few horror films in sight. But while the month certainly looks to be short on scares with the exception of “Paranormal Activity 3,” “Red State” and perhaps “The Thing,” the rest of the schedule is filled with some interesting titles that really have the potential to surprise.
Who: Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly and Anthony Mackie What: Set in the near future where robots have replaced humans in the ring, a former boxer and his estranged son discover a junkyard bot that could become champion. When: October 7th Why: It’s easy to see how someone might be a little skeptical about a film that looks like “Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots: The Movie,” but after visiting the set last summer, any concerns I might have had were quickly laid to rest following a chat with director Shawn Levy and star Hugh Jackman. I’ve also had the opportunity to see the finished product since then, and while the movie certainly isn’t going to earn a spot alongside “Rocky” and “Raging Bull” as a boxing classic, it’s still a really enjoyable underdog sports drama with strong central performances and plenty of awesome robot-on-robot action.
“THE IDES OF MARCH”
Who: Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti What: An idealistic staff member for a Democratic presidential candidate gets a crash course on dirty politics during his latest stint on the campaign trail. When: October 7th Why: With a big name like George Clooney attached to a movie come big expectations, especially when he’s the one calling the shots. Thankfully, his latest directorial effort appears to be more “Good Night, and Good Luck” than “Leatherheads,” and it doesn’t hurt that he’s surrounded himself with such an incredible ensemble cast. In addition to the film’s multi-hyphenate star, “The Ides of March” features two other Oscar winners and two nominees. It might not be considered the year’s strongest awards contender, but the Academy always loves a good political thriller, and this definitely looks the part.
Who: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje What: When an alien life form begins wreaking havoc at an Antarctic research site, a graduate student teams up with a helicopter pilot to prevent it from escaping. When: October 14th Why: There’s been a lot of debate over whether Universal’s “The Thing” is a remake or a prequel to the 1982 John Carpenter classic (the fact that it shares the same title certainly hasn’t helped matters), but it’s now been confirmed that it takes place prior to R.J. MacReady’s trip to the Antarctic and will detail what happened at the Norwegian camp featured in the original film. I’m not sure if that makes this prequel any less unnecessary, but at least it’s got a couple of good actors in Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Joel Edgerton. That’s definitely a start, but it still has a ways to go to winning back the fanboys after Ronald D. Moore’s script was reportedly scrapped back in late 2009.