The Modern Age - Music Reviews

To say it bluntly, 2010 has been a phenomenal year for music. If you are still operating under a false, hidebound mindset that music created since the inception of this new millennium is not worth your time, then you are missing out (and simply behind the curve). Below are my reviews for a number of exceptional albums that have been released over the past 12 months and, with the exception of the first, all of them are from this year, 2010. All of these are worth listening to, but it is safe to say that some rise above the rest, so typical ratings will be assigned. 

Phrazes for the Young


Artist: Julian Casablancas
Released in 2009

I have not found a proper venue to really proclaim it yet but let me say it: I love The Strokes. As far as modern rock bands go, there is no better, and they successfully found a way to evolve the rock sound while maintaining its garage rock roots. The brains behind the band is Julian Casablancas, a rich kid with rich parents raised in a rich part of New York City. He did not rest on his laurels for long, however, as he was the chief songwriter for The Strokes as well as the iconic voice behind it all. While the band plans on releasing a new album by next year, Julian was busy during the hiatus they have had since 2006. This solo album, Phrazes for the Young , named after an Oscar Wilde work, shows that this time was put to good use, as this album puts a greater emphasis on the man's voice while exploring a different sound.

The rough garage rock style of The Strokes is eschewed in favor of a more pop-oriented record that has some political undertones in its lyrics but really just wants to provide a pleasant listening experience. That it provides. On the opening track, "Out of the Blue," smart, witty lines like, "Somewhere along the way, my hopefulness turned to sadness/Somewhere along the way, my sadness turned to bitterness" provide a humorous progression of connecting ideas that seems to touch upon the basics of human communication: love, politics, afterlife, etc. His voice ranges from a sardonic baritone in the verses to a higher, clear sustained pitch during the chorus ("Sooo-ooo-ooo"). It may not contain the original brilliance of "Last Nite", but "Out of the Blue" may be Casablancas' best showcase of his voice, undoubtedly one of the best pipes in modern music. "Left & Right in The Dark" and the hit single "11th Dimension" also continue this rock/pop sound with some more political lyrics (11th Dimension's "Where cities come together to hate each other in the name of sport/America, nothing is ever just anything") and both showcase his songwriting. In particular, I liked the syncopated rhythms of "Left & Right" that culminate in its great outro. There is some 3/4 country swagger on "Ludlow St." and a Sam Cooke-inspired R&B gospel with "4 Chords of the Apocalypse." The sweeping "Glass" seems to be a tribute to his newly-married wife, Juliet, and a vow to protect her from harm (Paparazzi, jealous fans) as well as to always care for her. This song in particular is quite beautiful, and stays personal while still serving as a grand vocal showcase. The same can be said about basically the whole album in the end. It may not be as conceptually brilliant or innovative as Is This It? but this is Julian's most personal album yet, and with lyrics and vocals like this, this will please fans and bring plenty more to the cause.

Final Verdict:
4 Stars Out of 5



Contra
Artist: Vampire Weekend 
Released in 2010

"Ivy League, Afrobeat indie rock" is as sensible a phrase as words Shaq tries to play in Scrabble, but this style has been precisely the draw of Vampire Weekend. They suffered no sophomore slump with their second album, and it ends up more polished and tighter than their excellent debut. The album starts innocently enough with "Horchata," a quintessential Vampire Weekend track, capturing their strange mix of eclectic auxiliary percussion and Ezra Koenig's diaphanous tenor (echoes of Paul Simon's Graceland can be felt throughout). "White Sky" and "Holiday" both feature some high notes sung by Ezra (really high in the case of White Sky), while the lyrics seem to offer disparate outlooks to the jovial melodies, which in this case clandestine sex and war seem to be the topics, respectively. The polarizing track here is "California English", featuring Auto-Tune and furiously fast verses. It is my favorite track on the album but is as nontraditional as their songs come. "Giving Up the Gun" and "Cousins" are the two singles built for radio play, and for a band as original and talented as this, it is comforting to see them enjoy this overwhelming commercial success on top of their critical acclaim (Contra debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts, a rare feat for an independently-released album). "Diplomat's Son" is another favorite of mine, as Ezra tells the story of a girl who falls in love with a boy while also attempting to use him for personal gain. The varying "oh-oh-ohs" that run throughout this album are particularly defined in this track, almost angelic in a way. The lyrics on this track are the best the band has composed yet, and it shows there is still much substance in their music once the initial curiosity of their anomalous sound dissipates. Vampire Weekend is two for two, and they are only getting better.

Final Verdict:
4 Stars Out of 5


Plastic Beach

Artist: Gorillaz
Released in 2010

The Gorillaz are safely the most successful cartoon band of all time, but, as the previous work by former Blur lead man Damon Albarn shows, they are more than a cheap gimmick. Their latest LP, Plastic Beach, is a motley collection of songs that try to unify themselves under some anti-materialism theme. That does not succeed. What does work, however, is supplying the listener with a whole batch of new, groovy, polished tunes. "Stylo" is a bass/synth-heavy track that is far from the best on the album but just what the iTunes singles crowd is looking for. Two other songs, "Empire Ants" and "Glitter Freeze," are not, but are ambient, rich tracks that may lean too heavily on their circuitous loops but nonetheless have an intriguing sound. My personal favorite on the album is "Some Kind of Nature," sung by the Master of Cool himself, Lou Reed. He pronounces most of the words with a jagged, rough conviction that he has mastered over his long career, and the robot-like beat makes this one of the few songs on this album that achieves the environmentalist message in both the music and lyrics. 

All of the aforementioned tracks feature guest artists, and this somewhat makes this less of a true Gorillaz album and more of a "Gorillaz Plays With...". Tracks like "Superfast Jellyfish (feat. Gruff Rhys & De La Soul)" and Snoop Dogg's intro make good use of their talent, while "White Flag" and "Sweepstakes" feel nothing like the Gorillaz and could easily belong on each respective artist's own album. "White Flag" in particular is an irritating, clawing song that I always skip. Perhaps it is the bombastic vocals or overly political lyrics, but it should never have been included on this disc. The Gorillaz tracks sans-guests are all bright, though "On Melancholy Hill" and "Rhinestone Eyes" are the strongest. Rhinestone's instrumental bridge, with female backing vocals, is Gorillaz at their best, and ideal played real loud. Melancholy's lyrics live up to the name, as they are about someone fantasizing about an absent love in depressed solitude. This song in particular has the most staying power (you gotta love that synth opening) and 2D's vocals have a heartfelt soul that is not present in the rest of the album. It is a disparate collection of songs, some fantastic, some less so, but Plastic Beach is still an album that goes above and beyond the necessary standard of quality for an "animated band. "

Final Verdict:
3.5 Stars Out of 5



Congratulations
Artist: MGMT
Released in 2010

With Oracular Spectacular, MGMT opened to both critical praise and huge sales, and their hits "Kids", "Electric Feel" and "Time to Pretend" immediately formed a wide fanbase. Their debut was excellent in its own right, but the fame and stardom that they experienced as a result of it, the exact life they poked fun at in "Time to Pretend", seems to have captured them by surprise. Their new album, Congratulations, is a radically different sound, more reminiscent of "Weekend Wars" and their core 60s and 70s psychedelic influences than the hits that made them favorites of college radio and soccer moms alike. And they are only better as a result. "Pretend" was one of the greatest songs of last decade, and there are no hit singles of the sort here, but this is a complete, mature album that is a significant step forward in the careers of these talented musicians.

I have listened to this album over a dozen times now, and each time I am appreciating it in one or two more ways. They delve into humorous tribute (hey it's "Brian Eno"!) and the weird ("Lady Dada's Nightmare" is the bizarre equivalent of David Bowie's "Warszawa" from Low), but the focus is mainly lyrical. 

Still, they are becoming better musicians as well, as Andrew VanWyngarden's voice has a wider range in this album, peaking at upper registers in "Someone's Missing" while solemnly muttering verses about the misunderstanding in life with "Siberian Breaks." The latter track, a 12 minute plus monster, is "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" meets Yes' "And You and I", where a bunch of incomplete song ideas come together in a prog rock epic that, in this case, focuses on the consequences of fame. It opens with an acoustic guitar ostinato behind some of the most harmonic vocals the band has recorded yet, where Andrew is describing a hazy reawakening and ultimate rebuttal of the fame they have received ("Wide open arms can feel so cold, so cold"). A muddled critique on American society ("Vote to decide who'll advance" is a jab at reality television) follows at a faster pace, and expresses a feeling of entrapment ("Running away isn't rough, but it's not enough").  An echoing segment with snare shots similar to Simon & Garfunkel's "The Boxer" is next, and then a beautiful, dreamy string sequence abruptly follows. A reworking of the infamous line from "My Generation" reads as "I hope I die before I get sold" in the nearly inaudible lyrics over this section that take sharp aim at the music industry.  A straightforward rock beat emerges from this, then a reprise of the opening acoustic style as Andrew accepts his fate to create more music but reminds he "can always go into hiding." A psychedelic outro closes this track, which is safe to say the best on this album and the most impressive piece of songwriting the duo has achieved yet. They are not interested in catering to dance parties or arena games as much as a core group of fans who can appreciate them more for their talents and creativity. They achieve that here. "It's Working" aims for a similar theme (the overrated drugs are "working in your blood/which you know is not the same as love/love is only in your mind and not your heart"), as does "Congratulations", which is a tongue-in-cheek pat on the back  for their previous success, as they believe they rose to fame for the wrong reason ("I save my grace with half-assed guilt"). All in all, Congratulations is a significant step forward for this enormously talented duo. They are attempting to hide from fame, but with stellar albums like these, their attempts to conceal themselves are totally failing, with us, the fans, to gain.

Final Verdict:
4 Stars out of 5
 


High Violet
Artist: The National
Released in 2010
Matt Berninger's defined baritone is the focus here; the instrumentalists are all fantastic but the distinct vocals give this band its appeal. "Anyone's Ghost" has Berninger croon about mad, twisted love ("I had a hole in the middle where the lightning went through it/told my friends not to worry") that affects his social and emotional life, over guitars heavy with reverb. Even when in a relationship, love is difficult to interpret, the message seems to speak. This F. Scott Fitzgerald-esque disillusionment about love, the world around us and our place in life seems to permeate the lyrics in most of these songs. In "Lemonworld", Berninger seems to be the only gloomy soul around, as "you and your sister live in a Lemonworld/I want to sit in and die." As he describes a world of anguish and violence around him ("Living or dying in New York it means nothing to me"), he comes across as either an enlightened, apocalyptic harbinger or just a sad, pessimistic soul. Either or, he is not in the best mood, and the lyrics reveal a solemn, tortured soul. However, taken with all the aspects together, High Violet does not come across as an emo confessional. The marching drum beat that propels my favorite track, "Afraid of Everyone", balances with the dark subject matter and creates, strangely, great summer music. "Sorrow" has a rolling acoustic part that accompanies the patterned drum beats with an almost enthusiastic air, despite the lyrics' theme. Berninger is not afraid to inject some humor as well, even if they are mainly metaphors to the images he is trying to convey. On "Conversation 16", easily one of the best songs on the album, he says "I was afraid/I'd eat your brains/Cause I'm evil." Zombies? This man is having too much fun. But he does not want to become an emotionally broken "zombie" in a society that takes control of his life, happiness and desires. I could run down the brilliance of each individual track but is best to listen to this album, listen to it a few more times, then read the lyrics along with it, and then listen to it for countless months, possibly years, to come. The members of The National are all older than what is usually seen on the indie scene (they are all in their late 30s or early 40s), and considering they are hitting their peak now, it makes them a different, refreshing success story. The years they all hold above most of their peers brought them a firmer understanding of life, something no 21 year old can even come close to grasping. High Violet is a masterpiece. Not of epic, earth-shattering proportions, but of the wise, harmonious honesty that bleeds through every second of this album.

Final Verdict:
5 Stars out of 5


This Is Happening
Artist: LCD Soundsystem
Released in 2010

LCD Soundsystem has nothing to prove, considering James Murphy (the sole key member) has already produced two superb albums, his eponymous debut and Sound of Silver. With tracks like "Losing My Edge" and "All My Friends", Murphy has blended his extensive knowledge of musical history and his quirky, uncool nerdy personality to create something, well, cool and a consistent standard for quality. He appeals to the rock kids, he appeals to the indie kids, he appeals to the techno kids. Murphy is a beloved asset to the music industry for his merging of genres and totally original approach to all the work he does. So, considering This is Happening is apparently the last album by the middle-aged maestro, fans may be downtrodden, but everyone should feel satiated because this is his finest work yet.

Quiet, pattering bongos behind muted vocals opens the album in "Dance Yrself Clean", a 180 degree turnaround from the sonic blasts of energy kicking off "Daft Punk Is Playing At My House", the first track from his debut. The repeating lyrics, plus some winning lines like "Talking like a jerk/Except you are an actual jerk/And living proof that sometimes friends are mean" add an ironic wit to the initial, almost droning first minutes. Once the 3 minute mark rolls around however, incendiary bursts of synthesizers and, what else, cowbell turn this peculiar novelty into a irresistible dance track that comments on everything from nagging girlfriends to Marxism. Or how about "Drunk Girls", the frat life send-off that is simultaneously parody and yearning tribute. "Drunk girls are unusually mild" he confesses, though he paradoxically states they are also "boringly wild." "I Can Change" is a humorous track that seems to comment on a man's desperate quest of love for a woman that seems to have nothing in common with him. While he believes "Love is a murderer" he also quickly appeals, "I can change if it helps you fall in love." The David Byrne-inspired "Pow Pow", with Murphy's always amusing spoken word lyrics, is a carefree track that is a hilarious commentary on his current state in life ("from this position...").  A mainstay in albums these days, the industry exec flipoff, is "You Wanted a Hit", not surprising considering the title. While the marketing heads are saying they "want it real," he asks, "Can you tell me what's real?". This 9-minute piece is layered over a pseudo-Far East keyboard part and driving bass line, and while the message is driven home often ("We won't be your babies anymore"), it remains a slow-jam dance track.

The best song on this album is "All I Want", designed in the same vein as "All My Friends" (which in turn was unmistakeably influenced by Bowie's "Heroes") in that the vocals slowly build to culminate in a emotional, dynamic ending. It is a song about longing, though for what is unsure. He seems to be after the one that got away, though by the conclusion he says "let's do it different/cause I just want what I want", and wails "Take me home!" over and over as the band around him crashes in whining guitar licks and dying synthesizers. Murphy is neither content nor totally dissatisfied by the end, only accepting what he has, shrugging, and moving on. The final reaction to this album is nothing of the sort. LCD Soundsystem's past albums have been consistently excellent, and this is his most complete, flowing record yet. Murphy may be 40 going on 41 but he's not losing his edge anytime soon.

Final Verdict:
4.5 Stars out of 5



Before Today
Artist: Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti
Released in 2010

Bizarre, confusing, and strangely evocative of some unremembered past, Ariel Pink's Before Today is, like its title suggests, a time capsule of an era long ago, dripping with obscure nostalgia that few today will recall. The aim is 70s AM radio, and those songs, which Ariel Pink has dubbed part of the "chillwave" genre, feature a heavy use of filtered vocals, thick keyboards, and psychedelic, blurry guitars.  On top of all this, the recording sounds as if it was printed on a cassette, transferred to a VHS audio track, and then finalized on an 8-track cartridge. These recordings are rough and unpolished, but the incredibly unique sound is achieved. 

Instead of focusing on the lyrics of these songs like the rest of these albums, it is best to focus on the styles and musicality present. The lyrics are not total nonsense (though the perverse "Menopause Man" certainly qualifies), but they are clearly not the main area that Ariel Pink stressed over. The album opener, "Hot Body Rub", throws screeching automobile sound effects over a spacious saxophone solo that feels completely anachronistic on a 2010 record. This album takes you back to a time you may not be sure even existed. Case in point, the second track, "Bright Lit Blue Skies" is a cover of a 1960s deep cut from a garage rock band called The Rising Storm. This song, with its driving beat and harmonious chorus, is the most straightforward track on the album, and, thus, a good place to start on. Everything gets stranger from here.  The apocalyptic "Little Wig" and the raucous opening chords to "Butt House Blondies" (yes, that is a name to a song here) draw influence from artists like The Velvet Underground, Stooges and R. Stevie Moore (apparently a mentor of Pink), but the songs all have their own, warped psychedelic sound to them. "Can't Hear My Eyes" is an Alan Parsons-esque, keyboard-driven track that oozes nostalgia. The standout song is "Round and Round", a brilliant track with alternating time signatures and a somewhat prog rock feel that culminates in the sing-along chorus (the sustained "Hold onnnnnn" at the center of the song has now entered my everyday vernacular when I delay a chore or task). This album can sometimes be too eccentric for its own good, but "Round and Round" is a perfect example of what Ariel Pink can achieve, and in a way no one else can emulate. Before Today is peculiar but nonetheless an engaging listen. Often bands aim for the weird and end with a product that is completely unlistenable. No such problem is had here; that in itself is an accomplishment.

Final Verdict:
4 Stars out of 5


The Suburbs
Artist: Arcade Fire
Released in 2010

With college admissions coming up, I have been told that, no matter previous academic history, admissions offices love to see an upward trend in grades.  A logical viewpoint, as a steady improvement in one's studies displays maturity and growing intellect. Now, how about hitting the highest standard, and then sustaining it? Not many can hold claim to display that trend. Arcade Fire, Canada's greatest gift to the world since Wayne Gretsky, or maybe even Neil Young, released their first album nearly six years ago.  Its name was Funeral, and it was a shockingly profound, yet an ebullient and cheerful, meditation on the importance of family. The album was near perfect in every regard; I, as well as countless fans and critics, consider it one of the best albums of the last decade. Their anticipated follow-up, Neon Bible, did not match the immaculate quality that was their debut, but it came very close, and proved this was a special band that was here to stay. Now, in 2010, their third album, The Suburbs, is released. It is a departure in both theme and style to its predecessors, yet, in some inconceivable way, it matches the brilliance of their first album in an instance I can only call a miracle.

Upon the first listen, however, the reaction was not so laudatory. With 16 songs, the album felt almost too long, and it lacks any bring-down-the-house epic track like "Rebellion (Lies)" or "No Cars Go". After at least 15 listens, that opinion has drastically altered. The energy that this band is known for has in no way diminished, and it maintains for the full duration of this album. The approach to The Suburbs is not as stylistically uniform as their previous works; instead, it is constructed in a White Album manner. Creativity runs wild, even if some may nitpick that it is not consistent in tone. They are missing the point; Arcade Fire is here to provide us with stellar music, a goal they reach, and then some.

The album bursts open with an exultant piano riff in "The Suburbs", even if the song turns out to be a cry for a normal life ("I want a daughter while I'm still young...Before the damage is done"). The Suburbs, as an album, is actually a hipster takedown, bashing the pretentious nature of countless modern folks ("with their arms folded tight" as in the song "Month of May") who also happen to be Arcade Fire fans. They might not look to fondly on this twist, but this is just another reason for me to love it. Anyway, about the music. The opening lines " In the suburbs I, I learned to drive/People told me we would never survive/So grab your mother's keys we leave tonight," are repeated again in "Suburban War", a great song with a guitar riff that sounds like 90s Kirk Hammett and R.E.M.'s Peter Buck blended together. These specific lyrics, however, seem to give weight to the yearning desire for Win Butler, Arcade Fire's frontman, to break out of his devil-may-care attitude about life and finally settle down. The particularly doleful line, "All my old friends, they don't know me now," reveals a weary, melancholic Butler who finds the innocence of his youth absent, as well as those he shared it with. What he did to separate, we do not know, but these songs show how the title, The Suburbs, is not just a ploy at some concept album. It is more than a location as well; The Suburbs is a state of mind that the band is looking back at today with a certain nostalgia, yet also a conscious understanding that they are adults who may have to - the word that Liz Lemon despises so - "settle." 

As the members of Arcade Fire go through their realizing-they-are-in-their-middle-life crisis, they still produce a killer set of eclectic, beautiful songs. "Modern Man" is an excellent track with a Cars-esque guitar riff that is a biting critique at the conformity of today's society ("Like a record that's skipping/I'm a modern man"). "Ready to Start", the second track of the album and the real kick-off, has lyrics akin to a Bob Dylan song ("Businessmen drink my blood") with a low chorus that sounds like Let's Dance Bowie. Influences from other artists like Springsteen can be felt in "City With No Children", which seems to fit perfectly with the sunny summer weather despite its gloomy lyrics. A fan favorite already, "Rococo", is a venomous slam against the Pitchfork hipsters of the world, as they "use big words they don't understand" (I enjoy some of Pitchfork's criticism and features, but there is no doubt a thick layer of arrogance runs throughout that site). The repeating "rococo" provides an epic ending in only the way Arcade Fire can bring it. The furious violin intro to "Empty Room" sets the stage perfectly for Regine Chassagne, Butler's wife and second key member of the band. Her beautiful voice, which melted hearts and faces simultaneously on Funeral's "In The Backseat", supports some of the strongest tracks on the album. "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" has a surprising, heavy synthesizer part that, with Regine's aggressive voice, is redolent of a Blondie cut. Nonetheless, this song is a graceful ode to running from your troubles and living in bliss with your love. It is simply beautiful in every way; I keep coming back to this song and believe it may be my favorite on the album.

This "fleeing your problems" theme runs through plenty of these songs, as "Half Light II" will attest. These problems are more than trivial personal conflicts, as lines like "When we watched the markets crash/The promises we made were torn," show Butler has a worldly concern for the terrible events of today. And while the foreboding fade-out of "The Suburbs (Continued)" suggests that he would give anything to return back to adolescence (" If I could have it back/All the time that we wasted/I'd only waste it again"), Butler has realized that those gray hairs on his greasy top are rapidly approaching. This reflection on childhood and reluctant adulthood forms the core of The Suburbs, an album that I may dare to call as flawless as Funeral.  That debate will rage endlessly between fans, so I will step my foot out of the ring; my mind has been made up. I never feel comfortable awarding perfect (or to be PC, "near perfect") ratings, and no less in the same blog post, but The Suburbs, along with the rest of the albums above and countless others (shoutout to King of the Beach), show that 2010 has been one of the greatest years for music in ages. With Arcade Fire's spotless track record, they would make even the most-hardened Ivy League admissions officer faint in awe.

Final Verdict:
5 Stars out of 5
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Inception Review

Your day is going well. Shockingly great, even. That band you wanted to see, you know the one whose closest show was located

three hours away, has just revealed a new date in the town adjacent to yours. Why anyone would play in Closter, New Jersey, is besides the point, because they also resurrected Jimi Hendrix from the dead and he will be jamming at this show as well! The opener is Radiohead. Winston Churchill and Marilyn Monroe have speaking engagements on top of that. Wait. You begin to question the origins of this situation. You do not remember necessarily how you were confronted with this joyous news, only that it seemingly came to be. The patterned, hardwood floor snaps to black nothingness. As your eyes fly open, only to find yourself lying on your disheveled bed with its tousled sheets, disappointment pours over you as you realize it was merely a dream, a fantastical figment of your subconscious. This was a pleasant dream, but there were undoubtedly some dark secrets hidden deep within. The line between reality and fantasy becomes increasingly blurred, leaving us wary of where, or who, we really are. Such is precisely the concept of Inception, Christopher Nolan's latest (literally) mindbending thriller with huge setpieces and an even larger imagination. 

It is not easy to condense Inception's storyline to a mere few paragraphs, as well as leaving out any spoilers, so it is best just to provide the bare synopsis.  Dom Cobb ( Leonardo DiCaprio) is a master at a very specialized form of espionage:  entering the subconscious of those his employer specifies, and then stealing critical, secret thoughts. Cobb is estranged from his children and his mysterious wife, Mal, whose fate is left in the balance until the end of the film. He is given a chance to reunite with his children if he accepts the job the wealthy Japanese magnate Saito ( Ken Watanabe) offers him. Fittingly, the task is near-impossible. Known as "inception," it is the process of implementing new thoughts into a person's subconscious, as to make it seem that the subject thought of them himself. The subject is Robert Fischer Jr., played by Cillian Murphy, who is the son of an ill energy tycoon and Saito's main competitor. The job, and its rewards, seem straightforward enough for everyone to agree. Obviously, as in any dream, nothing every works that easily.

The film opens with a spectacular action sequence, which this film is full of, as Cobb and his partner, Arthur, a suave Joseph Gordon-Levitt, invade the mind of Saito in order to extract an important piece of data. The "rules" of subconscious engagement start to materialize. For instance, the sleeping Cobb is kicked into a bathtub, while the Cobb in the dream is surrounded by a world that suddenly fills with water. The opening hour or so focuses on exposition, which may seem to be a slogging introduction to some, but I equated it to a tutorial for a video game. Before you can master an action game, you must learn the basics. Same goes with this original, very different take on the human dreamscape. The film introduces the rules of this unique form of combat, such the need for an architect, or someone who builds a complex dreamworld in order for the subject to have difficulty realizing that this world is a foreign creation. Other neat ideas include the fact that the "dream invaders," let us call them, experience pain inflicted in the dream upon their true, grounded self, though a death will simply wake them up (the exceptions to this rule prove interesting). The different levels of a dream (yes, they dream within dreams, and continually stack them), are given different standards by which time is measured, though pounding music with a defined cadence will apparently resonate equally.  A recurring motif that plays a critical role in the movie is the totems that these agents use to ensure them that they are back in the real world. Arthur has a red die, while Cobb has a silver spinning top. This mechanic is an original way to explain the realities, or lack thereof, of the dreamworld. 

It is not often for a movie to have such an intriguing premise, yet deliver on nearly all counts. Inception does this, and, while it is
not completely flawless, it is the most refreshing, intelligent sci-fi film since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I found myself grinning and shaking my head in disbelief when plot strands would tie together so well, or just at the genius behind many of the mechanics. The interesting thing is, this film spells out so many rules and details about the laws the world occupies that it makes the viewer believe they conquered all the small storytelling nuances. Of course, by the ending (and what an ending it is), as one analyzes the bigger picture, many questions are left unanswered. Some are left up to your own interpretation, while the established fiction can answer the rest. Naturally, the whole process of subconscious extraction is never fully explained, which is perfectly fine. A suitcase filled with cryptic lights and circular dials holds a number of tubes that, presumably, are inserted intravenously into each dreamer, who then are left unconscious and free to bob around without much resistance. Explaining the science behind the whole process is about as necessary as revealing the true nature of the Force in Star Wars (and don't you dare bring up midi-chlorians). 

A number of different influences run throughout this film. An obvious pick is The Matrix, where the worlds are built upon unreal creations of people's minds as well. A liberal use of slow motion is shared between the two films, though it is integral to the storytelling of Inception in a sense. There is also, somewhat shockingly, an "Architect" in both, though the roles are reversed. The Architect in The Matrix seemingly knows all the answers, while Ariadne ( Ellen Page), the architect in Inception, is the audience surrogate, new to the practices of these agents and as initially bewildered as the viewer to the process. The heist and spy nature of the film can be traced to Ocean's Eleven or James Bond (the ski sequence is an obvious throwback to Spy Who Loved Me), both involving a wide range of diverse, wisecracking characters. Traces of Blade Runner can be felt, as the uncertain nature of certain characters hangs in the balance. And of course, Christopher Nolan's greatest film (which may still hold the title, though only time will tell), Memento, is the lifeblood for the script itself. It is worth noting that Memento, which chronicles its events backwards, is dwarfed in complexity by this film and its limitless intricacies. 

In the same way as The Matrix, this film is paving new ground in its special effects. Every visual trick is incredible, such as when Paris folds in on itself and Cobb and Ariadne nonchalantly walk vertically, upside-down, and every which way on the circuitous grid. However, Nolan does not garner all the respect just for the computer wizardry he accomplishes but for his steadfast commitment to live-action effects, with limited digital tampering. A freight train storming through the city streets is something that could only occur in a dream, yet the scene was actually filmed on a expansive stage, not on high-processing computers.  The most stunning feat is the zero-gravity hotel scene, in which Arthur fights and flies through long, spinning corridors. This is not the first time that actors have ran, or danced, on spinning setpieces; Fred Astaire dazzled audiences in 1951 with his Royal Wedding ceiling dance. However, nothing of this scale has been done before, and the added fact that the actors are floating the rest of the time is simply stunning.  I should give a shoutout to the sound design as well, which, like any Nolan film, is impeccable. Notice the crisp "clank" sound when the taxi runs over an assault rifle on the ground, or the cacophonous shattering of glass. Hans Zimmer's pounding score is sometimes overwhelming, but it fits the epic feel with heavy brass and bass. In the end though, it is the visual feats of wonder that resonate. Neo's first bullet time scene, or Terminator 2's mix of computer and physical effects were revolutionary for their time, and this is the modern equivalent.

No amount of special effects can counter a bad script (ask a bare, DVD version of Avatar) or flat acting, but Inception encounters
no such problems. The screenplay, penned by a likely exhausted Christopher Nolan, is imaginative and rife with emotional conflict. That's not to say that it is without fault (a few events at the end could qualify as deus ex machina), but few screenplays have dared to venture in such risky, complex territory as this one, while simultaneously aiming for huge audiences. While it is the mind of Fischer that the specialists invade, the story ultimately belongs to Cobb. DiCaprio impresses once again with a demanding role that calls for action hero antics on top of perpetual psychological dilemma. His character is deeply flawed, as his relationship with his wife can attest. The memories he holds of his wife are of questionable authenticity, and once the answers are provided by the conclusion, the ending proves even deeper than initially expected. Many parallels can be drawn between the mind-centric roles of this film and Shutter Island, another Leo DiCaprio vehicle, but it is safe to say that he has been in two of the best films of the year and supports them with ease. 

The rest of the cast is varied but no less impressive. The youthful Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who balanced elation and melancholy perfectly in (500) Days of Summer, is an ideal partner to DiCaprio. He plays the sane(r) man to Cobb's rapidly spiraling mind, and this is the first blockbuster for the young man that will surely launch a career of many more successful films. He exchanges entertaining banter with Eames, played by Tom Hardy, the typical British bloke. The two provide most of the comic relief in the film, which is not terribly often, but humorous when it appears. Ellen Page, who narrowly missed an Oscar for Juno, excels in her role that begins in perplexed naivety to end as the only one besides his wife to truly understand Cobb's psyche.  Her genius draws her to Cobb's attention through Miles, played by Michael Caine, who stops by for only five minutes total. He apparently is one of the main minds behind this "subconscious security" process, so when he sits behind a desk in a 19th century lecture ampitheater, it does not really meld with his character's reputation. Still, there is no harm in Michael Caine, and I would have welcomed more screentime. Avatar's Dileep Rao is the chemist behind the operation, supplying the sedatives for the subjects. It is strange, however, that these complex chemicals are simply stored in some dusty old store, which seems a bit off the mark. Nonetheless, Cillian Murphy plays his extremely critical role with an apt blend of wealthy elitism and frightened disorientation. A larger Tom Berenger, somewhat similar in complexion to Mickey Rourke nowadays, is the righthand man to the Fischer family, and proves to be a key point in successful inception. A scene when Eames, who is a "forger," alters his appearance to become a physical manifestation of Berenger's character is clever as the sparse editing makes the effect seem lifelike. 

Letters From Iwo Jima's Ken Watanabe, one of the greatest English-speaking Japanese actors in Hollywood, is excellent as the wealthy, occasionally quite humorous catalyst to the whole operation.  He not only assigns the operation but proves to be a vital figure in the mental unraveling of Cobb. The chief figure in Cobb's life, however, is undoubtedly his wife, Mal, played by the beautiful Marion Cotillard. Her performance is never consistent because Cobb's projection of her constantly vacillates to fit his mental state. Cotillard, who won an Oscar for La Vie en Rose two years ago, nails the emotional nuances of this complex role no matter the situation. She can be frightening, romantic, philosophical, or just smooth like the best Bond girls. Cotillard has not had a bad role in her career, and the transition to blockbuster films has not mitigated her talent at all. If anything, she is getting better with each new movie. 

As much as I would like to call Inception perfect and close shop with that, it is not. No film is really, but there are a few qualms I should note. Mulholland Drive this is not, and while that will please most viewers who do not want to be savagely assaulted by perverse images and jagged storylines, it is almost too straightforward for a dream world. Dream logic is, well, devoid of any real logic, so the ease at which the agents move around the world and control themselves does not really align itself with the true science of dreams. The one problem that was notably apparent, however, was the bland nature of the dream worlds. As my opening paragraph attests to, dreams are supposed to be discordant, senseless and fantastical scenes that center around an impossible notion or ideal setting. Instead, the settings of these dreams are just city streets, hotels, and snowy fortresses without any conflict. The straightforward nature of these dreams is the only way a mainstream audience would be able to digest them, and there is already enough abstract content to deal with, so I understand where Nolan is coming from with these alterations. These minuscule flaws have little to no impact on the final product, but I feel obliged to express my thoughts. 

Inception is a rare beast. The visual effects are astonishing and unlike anything you have ever seen before. Better yet, its wholly
original and brilliant story qualifies every action scene as intrinsic to the progression of the plot, and not merely pedestrian eye fodder. Christopher Nolan may be the greatest filmmaker of the new millennium, as he combines the old, traditional ways of making classic films - huge soundstages, stuntmen, and, most important, a limitless imagination - with the technology of today, and, never leaning too heavily on either, crafts a product that is irresistible to every form of audience. In Inception, your dreams are never safe. But this film proves that the Hollywood dream is alive and strong.  
 
 
 
Final Verdict:
5 Stars Out of 5
24 Comments

Toy Story 3 Review

Check out the review here at Screened.com for an improved format and, of course, the ability to rate. ;) 
 
As the final scene of Toy Story 3 faded into black, I was bombarded by a deluge of emotions and thoughts. First off, what a
phenomenal film, I said to myself. Everyone around me seemed to unanimously agree. Then, I realized how relieved I was that Pixar, the master at animation with an impeccable lineup of feature films and digital shorts, has been channeling their power into good instead of evil. Because if this studio, which has achieved the impossible by making not only an excellent, but the best entry in a beloved series with the third installment, focused their powers on the diabolical then we would all be hopeless. I would gather that I was alone in that sentiment. No matter. The mad geniuses at Pixar have created what, dare I say it, may be their best film yet with Toy Story 3. They take everything they do well - humor, adventure and, of course, tear-jerking sentimentality - and ratchet it up to the tenth degree. 

Everyone knows the general premise of the Toy Story films:  a diverse collection of toys come to life when humans are not around. It is a brilliant concept, something everyone as a child must have wondered. It worked for the groundbreaking first film, as well as the sequel which held its ground and then some. Now for the third and supposedly last entry in the trilogy, the toys' owner, Andy, is moving off to college, leaving the expressive pieces of plastic to an uncertain fate. Andy's favorite, and the rightful protagonist, Woody tries to rally the crew to take refuge in the attic, where Andy assigned them. However, the idea of "Sunnyside" Day Care sounds much more enticing, and here the rest of the toys happily spend their time until they realize this is not the synthetic nirvana they hoped for. The story flows seamlessly, even if it is broken into a number of "acts," per se. There is a surprising variety of settings and conflicts the toys get themselves in, but the true scope of the film does not come into perspective until post-analysis, as the movie just rolls along uninhibited. 

Like any Pixar film, the voice talent is stellar. In Toy Story's case, however, it is has always been a degree above the rest. Tom Hanks returns with wit and soulful longing as Woody. His character has been a premier example of the emotional depth animated characters can hold since the series' inception, and this time Woody is even more conflicted, more layered, more multi-faceted. He has learned not to expect Andy's attention anymore, but to nobly surrender his arms and face his doubtful fate, akin to a discharged soldier. By his side is Buzz Lightyear, Tim Allen once again, though more subdued than before. A few malfunctions and some romantic tension keep Buzz in the spotlight, though he shares it with the rest of the cast to a greater extent this time around. Among those around him are cowgirl Jessie (a spirited Joan Cusack), sarcastic Hamm (Pixar staple John Ratzenberger), the dim but sweet Rex ( Wallace Shawn) and the finest casting decisions of all, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, voiced by the Master of Venom himself, Don Rickles, and Estelle Harris of Seinfeld fame, respectively. These returning favorites all provide inspired performances, and prove once more to be lovable, vivid characters.

Joining the established cast is a new band of superb characters. Leading is the strawberry-smelling Lots-o-Huggin', or Lotso for short. His chill Southern drawl and penchant for bear hugs means he can only be good, right? Voiced by a hearty, impassioned Ned Beatty, Lotso is the ringleader of the day care's toys, and his warm facade hides a dark past. This backstory
is beautifully told through a narrated flashback (by a memorable Chuckles The Clown no less), and establishes Lotso as one of the richest characters in the Pixar canon. Some of his cohorts include a glittery octopus with Whoopi Goldberg's voice, a freaky baby doll, and Ken from Barbie. Ken, played by Michael Keaton, consistently reveals himself to be the feminine fashionista he is, even when adopting a tough guy attitude. He melts at the first sight of Barbie, and awkward scenes such as this and the bookworm ( Richard Kind) encounter make his character nowhere near as psychologically complex as others but a key figure for comic relief. 

And much comedy there is to be had. Toy Story 3 is surprisingly hilarious; one of the funniest movies I have seen in some time, in fact. The laughs remain G-rated but will probably appeal to adults more than kids. Of course, there are some clever sight gags, including a brilliant scene involving Mr. Potato Head and a tortilla, but Hamm's unexplained, precise musings on technology, and allusions to classic films like The Great Escape and The Exorcist make this film comical to a nearly universal audience. Apparently a portion of this audience is located in Spain and Latin America, as Buzz has a moment with the Spanish language, complete with subtitles. This scene is both respectful to the Hispanic culture as well as completely priceless, dance moves and all. Coming from a different culture is the thespian, high-brow Mr. Pricklepants, voiced by Timothy Dalton. It is amusing as he believes he is "acting" when his owner plays with him, and tries to stay in character even when said owner is absent. The laughs in this film come at a constant pace, and make for the funniest Pixar film yet.

What is perhaps most impressive about this film, however, is how well it balances all of the emotions it stirs. The frequent moments of hilarity do not in any way mitigate the impact of the suspense or sadness this film presents. Tender, touching scenes have been a skill of Pixar's, seen in the near-perfect intros to both Wall-E and Up, and this film once again reaffirms their prowess.  The general premise of physical atrophy and mental maturity present far more austere dilemmas than in the previous Toy Story films. The toys can save the day and make it back to Andy's house, but instead of being greeted by a youthful boy's grasp, they face a dank attic, or worse. The main reason I believe this film affected me so deeply is because, in a sense, it is presenting my story. I am just a little younger than Andy on screen, and I spent my youthful days absorbed in imagining preposterous scenarios, or playing with an overwhelming multitude of toys. Now, I am faced with circumstances that are anything but quixotic dreams: SATs, college admissions, declaring a major, and deciding what I really want to do with my life. Andy and I shared those innocent days together, but now we mutually have to move forward, to grow up. Anyone in my age group will draw the same parallels, and suddenly the massive time gap between the second and third Toy Story does not seem like an unnecessarily prolonged wait but, simply, aging. It is so basic yet so beautiful in a way; this film arises both the most progressive and nostalgic senses in me. 

There is no doubt that the timing of this film's release is perfect for me, but the emotional resonance will strike anyone. Parents will be wrecked, as shown in that scene of pure simplicity involving Andy's mom and his empty room. There is also a scene near the end, which I will not spoil, that may catch some off-guard, as it may initially seem immature. But, just like a somewhat similar film Where The Wild Things Are, this scene captures the inner child in all of us, showing the immortality of imagination. The introduction montage to Up may be a more condensed, beautiful scene of emotional perfection, but a number of scenes in this film rival anything Pixar has done before. As a whole, it may be their most affecting movie yet. And it is also the funniest! Again, the balance between the two is flawless; neither side is adversely affected by the other. Anyone with a pulse will be somewhat moved by this movie, some more than others, and it is truly an outstanding feat that this remarkable depth of the human psyche is conveyed through computer animation alone.

It is also worth mentioning the traditional digital short that precedes the feature film. Called Day + Night, the short is, unsurprisingly, superb as well as extremely innovative. Combining 2D, hand-drawn animation and 3D Pixar animation, this film is set on a blank, black backdrop with only two mute cartoon characters. The inside of their bodies is filled with a CGI day or night setting, and all of their actions are performed through natural actions. For example, urinating is sensibly conveyed by a running river (complete with a blissful face expression), and quacking ducks symbolize laughing. The short is merely about these two, disparate beings interacting with each other, and the end result is a touching, humorous experience that is unlike you have ever seen before. The short's appearance is so shocking, in fact, that it may take a few seconds to even realize what it is going on on-screen. Day + Night is an original, charming short film, and a fitting lead-in to the main attraction.

So, Pixar has done it again. Toy Story 3 is an achievement in animated storytelling, and a laugh riot in itself.  Third installments in movie series, especially animated ones, are typically a sad occasion, when the quality and reputation of the previous episodes are thrown out the window. Not so for Toy Story 3:  everything that made the first two films modern classics is improved and polished. This is a seriously funny film, one that will make anyone of any age, race or creed laugh throughout. This is also a thrilling film, filled with suspense and that rolling sense of adventure that makes the Toy Story films so appealing to adults and children alike. This is also a sad film. Not in the lugubrious, doleful sense but in a bittersweet manner. Because beneath the animated guise and entire premise about walking, talking, independently-minded toys, lies something real. It is the most intrinsic concept in our human existence:  growing up. Every single human, living creature, even cell in the world goes through this process, yet a computer-generated, 3D, $190 million budget film captures it beautifully. Toy Story 3 will stick with you, occupying your mind as you stroll down life's finite road yourself.  
 
Final Verdict:
5 Stars Out of 5
9 Comments

The A-Team Review


Links here go to Screened.com, a pretty sweet website you probably know about.  
 
When walking into a theater to watch the latest summer blockbuster, your standards for enjoyment are set much differently than they would be if you were seeing, say, Doubt. An explosion or two, or three or four, and a familiar cast of macho men and pretty ladies are all that is really necessary for a hit. Audiences love it when this plan comes together, to paraphrase Col. Hannibal Smith, but critics usually do not. I like to think of myself as not too snobbish in my opinions (I took Iron Man 2 for the glitzy fun it was), but I have to side with the evil pundits on this one. The A-Team is a reasonably fun time with a few particularly sharp action sequences, but it is drowned in many flat attempts at humor, a ridiculously predictable plot, and, most shocking of all, a lack of real excitement. 

To paraphrase Hannibal Smith again, the plot is so banal and predictable that you can always see three steps ahead. That being said, it is serviceable for this brand of brainless cheese. As we all know, this movie is based off the absurd television show of the 80s. The premise of that series, in which four Vietnam veterans are charged of a crime they did not commit and subsequently fight for peace through covert means, is used here. The only edit here is, instead of the Vietnam War, these soldiers served in the Iraq War, which actually ends near the beginning of this movie. Let's bring that detail to life, please. Nonetheless, the A-Team is comprised of four members:  the leader, Hannibal ( Liam Neeson); the philanderer, Face ( Bradley Cooper); the brawn, B.A. ( Quinton "Rampage" Jackson); and the deranged, Murdock ( Sharlto Copley). Throughout the film, their status oscillates between heroic acclaim or unjust ostracization by the military. This fluctuation of stature provides a constant conflict, on top of defeating the antagonists, but, in the end, there were one too many double crosses for a senseless flick like this to handle properly. 

As trailers will attest to and the cast alone shows, this is a man's film. At least, that is what I believe. For every scene of B.A. piledriving a fool, you get about five minutes of shirtless Bradley Cooper. This puzzled me, perhaps more than any other aspect of this movie. Sure, the guy is in great shape and is, to quote Hannibal for the third and hopefully last time, "really tan." But, unless you are a bodybuilding monster like an 80s Stallone or Schwarzenegger, a topless male lead will not appeal that much to the masculine crowd this film is meant for. If it is trying to reel in (Steely Dan references are incessant in this movie as well) a female audience, every other aspect of this film, such as Jessica Biel's near useless role as nothing more than eye candy, screams otherwise. The wise middle ground? Try the guinea tee, a la Bruce Willis in Die Hard, for a mix of muscle and moderation. 

Digressions aside, there is still enough masculinity to appease the average action junkie. Liam Neeson chows on enough fat cigars to make J. Jonah Jameson blush, and the ridiculous stunts (assisted by a nagging presence of CGI) are so bombastic that they will appease anyone who only values spectacle. There are many ludicrous explosions, more so than necessary, but that was the point of the original series in the first place. The special effects and action could be better, as all the hand-to-hand fight scenes are shakily filmed in a way that aims for Greengrass' Bourne films but fails to achieve that sense of palpable grit. It should not be this way, as the director Joe Carnahan also did Smokin' Aces, a movie with a more outrageous storyline but some really innovative, spectacular action sequences. 


There are a few noteworthy scenes to mention, however. It will send any physicist to an early grave, but there is a part in the
movie when the team is "piloting" a military tank...in the sky...freefalling...reaching terminal velocity......by shooting the cannon at certain degrees. Hannibal barks the angle placements with such timed certainty that you cannot help but laugh at the preposterous premise this scene holds. Their solution is to land in a small lake, where an old couple is using dynamite to fish no less, so learning to accept the nonsensical science, or lack thereof, is mandatory to get through the film. Less egregious is a Dark Knight-esque skyscraper assault in which the A-Team truly fulfills its potential by incorporating grapple hooks, flashbangs, and a low-flying helicopter into one shocking attack. This scene is the one that sticks out in the end as what the film could have been if everything was done with such care.

Unfortunately, said care was not paid to most of the film. The finale throws (literal) fireworks at the audience with its large setpiece and liberal amount of fiery detonations, resulting in an ostentatious display of soulless action. It adds insult to injury when the screenwriters underestimate the intelligence of the audience when they constantly throw a barrage of flashbacks on the screen just to make sure the viewer knows how certain plot twists relate to previous events. It infuriates me when a sleight of hand maneuver that was furtively done five minutes before is interpolated between the unfolding action, only with an added video filter or two to exclaim, "HEY, REMEMBER THIS? Well...you didn't see that move coming did you?" Sorry, but everyone did. Everyone.

The team of four leads are all fine actors in their own right (though I am not too acquainted with Quinton Jackson's acting career), but the material that they are given does not make them particularly compelling or even comical. The mentally ill pilot, Murdock, is positioned to be the key comic relief for the film, but some of his lines simply fall flat. This is no fault to the magnificent actor filling his role, District 9's Sharlto Copley, as he takes bad lemons and attempts to make fine wine. There are welcome instances when his character is legitimately hilarious, such as his Braveheart parody or any teasing badinage between him and B.A..  When the main antagonist, Pike, not only watches but offers assistance to his own bumbling supposed executioner as he struggles with attaching a pistol suppressor, a successful scene of hilarity is made. But a lack of real laughs is an Achilles heel for any popcorn action film as self-aware as The A-Team, and considering some bad lines even repeat themselves (Enough with the toast points, B.A.), it is obvious more effort could have gone into the script.

Speaking of Bosco "I ain't gettin on no plane!" Baracus, the UFC fighter slides into the vintage mohawk rather well, but he is still a perplexing character. Mr. T's original portrayal of the character included a fear of flying, which is humorously explained in the [very, very long] intro, but this film takes it farther by attempting to make him a pacifist as well. This leads to an odd character progression in which he starts as a cold blooded killing machine, reforms to an enlightened student of Mohandas Gandhi, but then returns to his bloody ways at the end. This makes him a pretty weak character in a sense, and he is not on screen as much as one would expect anyway. I would be lying, however, if I said I did not grin at watching Jackson kick a hapless, capoeira-twirling enemy into a wall about seven feet away. Now that is why I went to see this movie in the first place.


Bradley Cooper is mildly nagging in his dominant role, perhaps usurping Hannibal for on-screen facetime (sorry, could not resist the pun). He was a great fit for The Hangover, but this dude is not cut out to be the Tom Cruise that seems to be the aim here. On the other hand, Liam Neeson continues to put forth so much effort in roles that demand so little, as he did with Taken two years ago. The delightfully tacky line, "I love it when a plan comes together," is repeated a few times, and Neeson continually delivers it with such defined authority that the perpetually delayed Spielberg biopic, Lincoln, in which Liam plays the eponymous president, seems like the best idea of all time (seriously, get on that). 

Overall, The A-Team  is a superficial, fun time at the movies that always feels like it is failing to meet its real potential. Explosions ring left and right, but there is nothing between the ears. In the end, you may feel shocked that you were not actually shocked by any particular scene or plot twist in the movie. We have all seen it before; these are not the droids you are looking for. Adjust your expectations accordingly, for enjoyment can be had here in more than a modest degree, but I pity the fools behind this who did not deliver on all cylinders. 
 
Final Verdict:
 
2.5 Stars Out of 5
12 Comments

Iron Man 2 Review

Iron Man 2 :

Directed by Jon Favreau
Released in 2010

"Style over substance." This complaint is often lodged at films that sacrifice an intelligent narrative structure, or even a basic plot, in favor of flashy, eye-catching effects. It is not a compliment for a movie to be described as such, but it is the approach to use when trying to reel in huge audiences. After all, look at Transformers 2:  millions of dollars spent on visual overload while pennies reserved for a senseless story. Now this phrase does not apply to Iron Man 2 but a variation of it: Style over too much substance. That definitely sounds preferable to the former, and it is. The cluttered, unfortunately underdeveloped character plot lines are ultimately just distractions from the energy the fantastic actors and director present. This approach works perfectly fine, and Iron Man 2 ends up a more entertaining, absorbing package than the first.


This sequel picks up exactly where the last left off, when Tony Stark, played with the charisma and attitude that only Robert Downey Jr. can muster, declares to the world that he is, in fact, Iron Man. He becomes a national icon, beloved by the American public and, lacking any modesty whatsoever, believes that this attention is deserved. After all, as he so tersely states, he successfully privatized world peace. In no surprise whatsoever, Stark faces a few new adversaries, both at home and abroad. The United States government is seeking to get Stark's weapons in, supposedly, " the people's hands," to which Tony is vehemently opposed not only because it violates his rights but because no other country is even close to equaling Stark Industries. Cue Whiplash. This Russian brute, whose real name is Ivan Vanko, seeks to destroy the Iron Man due to possibly shameful incidents that haunt the Stark family tree. A failing arms tycoon, Justin Hammer, in an enjoyable, slimeball performance by Sam Rockwell, enlists the help of Vanko to execute the common goal they both share. 

On top of this, Tony deals with the stress of physical atrophy from the machine that is, ironically, keeping him alive, as well as the detachment he is facing from his steadfast support and love, Pepper Potts, played with domineering confidence by Gwyneth Paltrow.  Meanwhile, Lt. Col. James Rhodes cannot tolerate his best friend's self-destructive attitude and decides to make his own decked-out Iron Man after a scuffle.  Yet even stacked atop this is the foreboding emergence of S.H.I.E.L.D., a superhero group led by Nick Fury, the badass motha himself, Samuel L. Jackson. Scarlett Johansson, Stark's new assistant, turns out to be a member of this group under the moniker Black Widow. Obviously, due to the size of this synopsis and the incoherency of it all, the story could have used improvement in editing and less character overload.


The sole flaw of this movie is not necessarily a discordant plot, because it does make sense if you pay attention, but a lack of character development besides the main stars. Iron Man obviously takes centerstage, and there is no lack of the typical superhero sequel middle section in which the protagonist has to overcome emotional and psychological problems, a la Spiderman 2 or The Dark Knight. Whiplash is also prominent throughout, his story being one of pain and vengeance. We see the pain in his character, plus a humorous faux-Russian accent as well. However, other characters like Lt. Rhodes are not as developed as they could have been. Nick Fury appears in merely two scenes, and by now it seems as if the filmmakers are just teasing us to his future involvement in an Avengers movie. Natalie Rushman, Scarlet Johansson in top, sexy form, does not have much prominence to the plot and serves more as eye-candy than anything else. Fine by me, but I will admit it is wasted potential.

The botched character progression is disappointing- because that is something the first did very well- but it is far from fatal. In fact, the movie is so fun overall that these
problems are easily overlooked. The reason why Iron Man 2 succeeds so well is because it is full of fantastic, talented actors who are all over-qualified for their roles. Take Mickey Rourke, aka Whiplash, for example. Rourke, who gave one of the finest acting performances in years with The Wrestler, goes beyond what is required, or even expected, for this performance as Ivan Vanko. His Eastern bloc drawl is definitely cheesy, especially as he croons for his bird one too many times, but he brings an emotional depth to the character that is not necessary in a big budget action film like this one. His character seeks to destroy Tony Stark as a personal vendetta, and Rourke conveys this bloodthirsty pain with an energy that only a gifted actor can convey. Pair him aside the star of the film himself, Robert Downey Jr., and you have two actors that are surprisingly alike. Both were hot commodities in Hollywood years ago, but then had a self-destructive period where they disappeared into obscurity. Only in the last four years have these excellent actors, as Tony Stark says of himself in the beginning of this movie, risen from the ashes in "the greatest phoenix metaphor the world has ever seen." The first Iron Man takes the credit for Downey's true return, but now that the sequel contains both him and the other comeback hero of recent Hollywood history, we can enjoy the talents of yesteryear at their top form, today.


Downey Jr. carries the film on his shoulders with ease and grace.  His conservative, playboy character stands in sharp contrast to a more noble hero like Bruce Wayne, but Stark is engaging because he loves himself as much as everyone else does. The opening scene, in which Stark is questioned by a United States Senate committee, shows how Tony believes he is above all others. Senator Stern - a hilarious, sordid and scarily plastic Garry Shandling - demands that the Iron Man suit be transferred to government hands, but Stark associates himself with the observing audience and turns the tables on the interrogators. Downey is a unique, gifted actor who can play with his food before eating it, and all the while with a sly smile. The script, written by Mulholland Drive star and Tropic Thunder co-writer Justin Theroux, gives him some winning lines, but the spot-on delivery is all attributed to Downey. When Tony Stark goes through his internal conflict in the middle of the movie, Downey bares a melancholic spirit, like one who is flying too close to the sun. This performance may not be as shocking or classic as his controversial turn as Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder, but it may as well contain some of his finest acting yet. There's an energy pulsing through the screen when Robert Downey Jr. is on it; the film plays it wise and refrains from taking him off it.


The rest of the cast is stellar, by no means a necessity for a movie of this type. Thankfully, this is a different type of beast. Gwyneth Paltrow is a commanding, occasionally cold, yet commanding figure who, if absent, would leave Tony Stark helpless. Pepper Potts is no longer the naive, bewildered assistant that she was in the first:  she actually bosses Tony around this time. By her side is Happy Hogan, the lovable yet bumbling bodyguard, played by Jon Favreau, also the director.  Watching him struggle to subdue a goon while Black Widow easily clears a room of thugs is an interesting juxtaposition, to say the least. Black Widow, aka Natalie Rushman, aka Natasha Romanoff, is underutilized in her role but nonetheless provides to be a...pleasant sight on the screen. As Stark observes, she is unreadable in her motives, making her an intriguing character. "Rhodey," previously Terrence Howard but now played by a superior Don Cheadle, is given an imposing physical presence and is less of a pushover than the first. In fact, his strict, militaristic demeanor proves to be a main conflict in the movie. However, he still knows how to fun, and Cheadle, who proved his acting prowess in Hotel Rwanda, is a winning actor. There is no dispute to the mastery of Samuel L. Jackson, who is painfully absent from most of the movie but a scene-stealer when on the screen. John Slattery, the boss from Mad Men, is an insightful father for Tony, revealed in old footage, and Clark Gregg plays a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who tries to control Stark but learns that trapping a lightning bolt is not a facile matter. The last lead actor is Sam Rockwell, who was so robbed of an Oscar nomination in last year's Moon, and will play a character well even when he is an annoying prick. Justin Hammer, his arms manufacturer persona, is a pathetic individual in all respects but given a humorous, pitiful edge by Rockwell. Summer blockbusters often have a large list of high-profile names on their poster, but rarely do all the actors fulfill their potential and deliver winning performances such as this film.

 

Typically, the star of the show for many will be the action. The acting is where this focus should be directed but the fight scenes are filmed with confidence and filled with visual wonders. Favreau, who also directed the first, is an excellent director who can balance the demands of action with the quality necessity of character development, even if the screenplay does not deliver on all fronts. The explosions look expensive, but do not carry a moronic aura when surrounded by an absorbing plot and cast of winning players. Michael Bay should take a hint here. This film actually outdoes Bay's vapid Transformers movies with the typical "flashy assembly of armor" scene. In the middle of a French speedway, Tony Stark uses the "Iron Man suitcase" (which curiously is light enough for Gwyneth Paltrow to carry without struggle) to put his metallic exoskeleton on. There is a ridiculous sense of detail and liberal use of clanking sounds, as well as the ludicrousness of the situation, that makes this the key scene for the visual effects crew behind the film. Favreau and the team behind him craft a dynamic, truly badass spectacle of what is really pieces of metal scraping against each other. Again, Michael Bay, take note.


Iron Man 2 may not bring that fresh, vivid guise that critics praised for the original, but it delivers with excellent acting and tons of more fun. What more is there to ask for a huge blockbuster like this? This may not be an equal to The Dark Knight as far as superhero sequels go but it ups the ante in every department, usually all to the film's benefit. It is unfortunate that Theroux's screenplay does not contain enough room for all the characters to properly flesh out, but Favreau and the actors take what they have and make something genuinely magnetic.

Final Verdict:
4 Stars Out of 5
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Kick-Ass Review

Kick-Ass :
Directed by Matthew Vaughn

Released in 2010

Ever wish to fill in the shoes of your favorite superhero? Imagine holding the ability to swing from building to building like Spiderman or using your wealth and intellect to fight crime like Bruce Wayne.  Well, after a viewing of Kick-Ass, these wishes may wane as this somewhat realistic take (note the somewhat) on superheroes is unforgiving in its depiction of vigilante crime fighters. From the first scene to the last, Kick-Ass delivers a unique, hilarious, violent and occasionally shocking take on the often-cliched superhero genre.


Ironically, the film starts out with perhaps the most routine high school plot out there:  an unimpressive, though handsome and compassionate, teen named Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) has the "superpower" of being invisible to girls as he deals with hormones, bullying and awkward situations. His lame friends are Evan Peters and the new Jonah Hill, Clark Duke, from Hot Tub Time Machine. He has a crush on the pretty girl - Lyndsy Fonseca, also from Hot Tub - but it does not help that she thinks he is gay. Thankfully, this does not remain the main storyline for long as Dave decides, for almost no emotional reason at all, to become a superhero. He buys a green and yellow scuba costume online and seeks to help those who are ignored by bystanders when they need help most. His moniker? Kick-Ass.


So begins the kinetic, and sometimes disturbing, riot this film becomes. Dave becomes an Internet sensation as a video of him sloppily fighting a few thugs becomes a hit on YouTube. He begins to take requests by those who need help, but he has one particular target held above the rest. When trying to "kick ass" in order to impress the girl of his dreams, Dave runs into the real stars of this movie, Hit Girl and Big Daddy. Hit Girl, the remarkable Chloe Moretz who will be recognized from (500) Days of Summer, viciously - and really unnecessarily - slays a room of goons with a double-edged sword after dropping the C bomb. All the while, a childish chanting tune plays in the background to provide a queasy juxtaposition.  Big Daddy provides support from afar, and the character is captured by none other than the brilliant Nicolas Cage. After this particular event, a millionaire crime boss, played by Mark Strong, perceives these misfit heroes as legitimate threats to his drug ring. His spoiled son, Christopher Mintz-Plasse  - forever McLovin' - dons a costume himself and tries to get Kick-Ass on his side in order for his father to dispose of this nuisance. The plot dips and dives from this point to the end, making for an entertaining, if thematically inconsistent, ride.


The content at hand may shock some with its dark tone and liberal use of violence, not to mention pervasive language. Completely inexperienced and naive Kick-Ass tries to fight off some gangsters only to end up in the hospital. The film does not portray it too comically either; you are left feeling somewhat nauseated. The equally stupid gangsters are portrayed in a different light, as every misstep of theirs usually ends up in a bloody mess but is played off for worthwhile laughs. The actions of Hit Girl and Big Daddy lay somewhere in between. Every time they take the screen, awesomeness is guaranteed to unfold. Sometimes it is comical, such as the first appearance of Hit Girl, or sometimes it is a brisk, well-choreographed slice of action that can be seen when Big Daddy disposes a group of mobsters in record time. The violence is certainly exaggerated, but not over-stylized a la Kill Bill, to provide a proper, concrete disconnect between the viewer and the action on-screen.  These scenes all oscillate in tone and purpose, making the movie a rough, bumpy wooden roller coaster instead of a smooth, comfortable steel one. That is fine for a young, blasé youth like myself, but this practice tends to polarize viewers, the Coen Brothers' Burn After Reading as an example. Wanted, from 2008, pulled off this style better than most, blending comedy with ruthless violence, but it lacked the charm of either of these two films. Take one, leave the other, apparently.

The greatest point of contention for many in this film is the star of the show herself, Hit Girl. The adorable Chloe Moretz steals the show as the foul-mouthed, guiltless killer who was raised by a loving father who forgoes Barbie dolls for butterfly knives.  She is a riot in every scene, and though much of her draw comes from the shock value of what she is doing on screen, she certainly has talent on her own. She has the ability to be simultaneously menacing and cute at the same time, and I am sure she will headline her own film very soon. Nicolas Cage, the actor who is great even when he is terrible, is the obsessed, troubled father who cares for his daughter, even if the two only talk about the obscure names for famous firearms. When he dons his Batman-like costume, he speaks with an indisputable Adam West cadence that is both hilarious and a reminder that, no matter how  kick-ass these superheroes may be, they are ultimately a bunch of comic book geeks. Truly, the film is alive with these two stars on the screen.


The rest of the cast is solid, if unremarkable. Kick-Ass himself, Aaron Johnson, provides an uninteresting narration but delivers a worthy performance. His trials and tribulations, both with and without his costume on, are overbearing throughout, and he convincingly conveys this deep pain. While his pseudonym is the film's name, he is not really the leading character, instead acting as the vehicle to fit in every other character's story around him. The antagonist, Frank D'Amico, is a soulless villain who is hard to root for, but the performance by Mark Strong is certainly better than his super cheesy turn in Sherlock Holmes. He does not cease to chew the scenery, but a more interesting character, one who is intertwined with Big Daddy's past, makes this a far better performance than the bland Lord Blackwood. Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who will never live up to his immortal role of McLovin, disappoints as he barely has any notable lines, nor is he too interesting as Kick-Ass's wealthy counterpart, Red Mist. Kick-Ass is an entertaining package, but upon analyzation, it is not hard to notice that the film nearly grinds to a halt when Cage or Moretz are not on the screen.


Kick-Ass will, and already has, offended many and been condemned by family groups and critics alike. Roger Ebert himself stated that this film is "morally reprehensible." Nah. The film relies on shock value, certainly, and can get very, very dark at times, but the only problem that this ultimately creates is a constantly vacillating shift in tone. Hit Girl, near the end, gets brutally beaten by D'Amico, making for another disturbing scene, but this just reveals the film's haphazard pacing, not the demonic intentions. There is no reason to castigate the  ethics behind the movie (named Kick-Ass by the way) because I can state with 100% certainty that no one without a severe preexisting mental condition will turn into an abhorrent cursing maniac, or a perverse, bloodthirsty killer. We Americans are a jaded bunch. With the Internet, we can see anything we want, free of charge. Kick-Ass should not prove too disturbing to a generation that can watch the uncensored 9/11 attacks on YouTube. To those complaining about the "morals" behind this film, lighten up. Kick-Ass may have problems of its own, but it is too much fun to be blacklisted by a cranky few.

Final Verdict:
3.5 Stars Out of 5
 

19 Comments

Hot Tub Time Machine Review

Hot Tub Time Machine :
Directed by Steve Pink
Released in 2010

Simplicity is underrated. Films with titles like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Precious: Based On The Novel Push By Sapphire can be clumsy and lead to confusion. Confusion leads to thought, and who wants to think when seeing a movie? Thankfully, the film with the best name in years, Hot Tub Time Machine, is here and allows you to turn off your brain for about 100 minutes and revel in the mindless hilarity. 

The story is, as one would think, fairly self-explanatory. Four dudes (John Cusack, Craig Robinson, Rob Corddry and a newcomer, Clark Duke) are experiencing a nadir in their once-rich lives. John Cusack is Adam, whose girlfriend just dumped him, Craig Robinson is Nick, a hopeful musician who settled down too quickly, Clark Duke is Adam's geeky nephew, and Rob Corddry is the reckless alcoholic, Lou, who shows a surprising disregard for his own, as well as his friend's, well-being. They decide to take a weekend off at a ski resort and have a crazy party in a mystical hot tub, which, to the audience's complete surprise, transports them through time. The new year is 1986, and the guys, with the exception of Clark, who was not born yet, realize that they have to replicate the exact events they did over 20 years ago in order for the "space time continuum" to remain intact and....actually, nevermind, this information is not necessary. Too much thought. Anyway, they first try to adhere to the past but realize that doing so took them to their miserable current existence, so they decide to change things up as a result. The writers do not even attempt to logically explain the science behind the time travel and it is better off because of this. Quantum physics is not what one should expect when going to see a movie called Hot Tub Time Machine.

To put it in layman's terms, this movie is funny. The opening has a eclectic Hangover vibe before it eventually develops as a crude cross between Superbad and Back To The Future . Speaking of that time travel classic, Crispin Glover (the dad from Back To The Future) makes a welcome appearance as the hotel butler Phil. In the present day he is missing an arm, leaving him a vile, offensive brute, but mysteriously has the appendage in the past. The group witnesses Phil run into several close encounters that could result in an avulsion. Lou's disappointed reaction when Phil turns out to be safe is one of the best parts of the whole movie. The laughs come quickly and rank in the upper echelons of recent R-rated comedy fare. 


The cast shows a dynamic comedic range that may provoke thoughts of The Hangover's leading men. Cusack is the straight man, Robinson is the troubled married man, Duke is the nerdy, spineless geek, and Corddry is the outrageous, mentally-troubled buffoon. The combination works wonders, thankfully, as they all have a share of hilarious scenes. John Cusack is, and has always been, a terrific actor and he seems to be overqualified for this role. There are scenes when he convincingly emotes the deep melancholy of his character, and he may follow with a winning comic line delivered with sharp cadence. This role certainly also seeks to remind the audience of Cusack's role of teenage icon in the 80s with such films as Say Anything and Better Off Dead. It succeeds.


The rest of the cast is equally bright. Craig Robinson, the often-harassed Darryl from The Office, shines as a noble yet weak-willed married man who must cheat on his
 The one and only Chevy Chase
current wife with a girl in the past. Technically, that is not cheating is it? Chevy Chase literally pops out of nowhere for a few scenes as the prophetic "Repair Man" who seems to be the Doc Brown to the group's Marty McFly. Chase, whose physical appearance and movements have made him as much of an icon as his extraordinary comedic timing, does not have many memorable lines but his mere presence only helps the film in the end. Crispin Glover is a pleasure to behold as well, and, with his other recent film Alice In Wonderland raking in hundreds of millions at the box office, it is great to see such an interesting and, daresay it, forgotten actor back in the spotlight. That leaves us with the star of the show, Rob Corddry. I have been a huge fan of Rob since he started on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, so it is great to see him get a big role that shows the world his superb talent. "Lou" is eccentric throughout, whether it be resorting to hiring hookers upon stepping into the room or shooting projectile vomit at peaceful squirrels. Lou also seems to be the one character to take advantage of their situation and current knowledge by placing inordinate bets on obscure events or trying to impress others with his forebodings of the future. At one point he drunkenly shouts "John Lennon will get shot" before realizing that has already happened.

Considering it takes place in the 1980s, there are countless references to that decade shown throughout. The way these clues stack up to the initial revelation of a time switch is rather ingenious, but, for the rest of the film, some of these nostalgiac tidbits seem tacked on.  As Adam walks into a room to meet his smokin' girlfriend in a tight, furry jumpsuit (and it is worth mentioning that, like any R comedy nowadays, there are handfuls of hot women, clothed and topless, here), David Bowie's "Modern Love" plays (an interesting song choice considering the title) and a Duran Duran Rio poster is seen briefly afterwards. This scattershot piling of references actually makes for a superb soundtrack, led by Motley Crue's "Home Sweet Home", but does end up feeling disorganized. This is barely a complaint, however, as anyone who lived through the 80s or appreciates the decade will notice the liberal allusions placed within.

 Crispin Glover
In conclusion, Hot Tub Time Machine is not original or groundbreaking in any way besides in that it embraces its inherent simplicity. The scientific plausibility of the events that occur is briskly ignored, as it should be. The title itself eschews metaphors or romantic imagery and gets straight down to business. What is here is a hilarious, raunchy time warp with an excellent cast of characters. The script is strong for the most part, though The Hangover and Anchorman can lay claim to more "classic" nonsensical quotes. Do not expect the rapid-fire, witty screenplay a la In The Loop either. Nonetheless, feel free to join the dudes in the glowing hot tub. The time will be eventful and you'll ache from laughing.  Just do not drink the water. There's no way it can be good for your health. 

Final Verdict:
3.5 Stars Out of 5
18 Comments

Alice In Wonderland Review

Alice In Wonderland :
Directed by Tim Burton
Released in 2010

Who can possibly create a reimagination of Lewis Carroll's beloved Alice's Adventures in Wonderland story and the subsequent 1951 Disney animated film? Tim Burton, of course. It seems etched in stone. Atop Mount Sinai there is probably a lost tablet foretelling the day when Burton would direct a new Alice. Look at any of Tim's previous work, whether it be Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish, Beetlejuice, or even Batman, and traces of Lewis Carroll's tale can be found. So why do I feel disappointed by Burton's latest work? I share an inordinate love for the man's catalog of films, more than most. However, like 2012 on the Mayan calender, not every event God portends is meant to be great. 

Now, comparing the new Alice in Wonderland to the apocalypse is harsh. This movie is good. It is a solid entry in the usually-disparate month of March, and its huge box office draw so far is encouraging for the director whose last big success was the shoddy Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (this movie is better than Charlie, rest assured). It is not as impressive as I hoped for, however, and that can be blamed on a few aspects. I am going to break into list format, a first for a review of mine, and list the 3 problems with this movie:

  1. 3D. What used to be a juvenile accessory to add incentive to see such masterworks like Fly Me To The Moon and Open Season in theaters is quickly turning into the norm. After the most successful film of all time, last year's Avatar, showed the world how to properly make 3D work, every movie now believes throwing 3D glasses on their patrons will equally throw butts into seats. Avatar was beautiful; the 3D helped enhance the experience by adding depth and never relied on cheap cliches like tossing hats at the screen to remind the audience that this was not something that could work (at least not yet) at home. In contrast, Alice In Wonderland is a 3D film with no use for this extra dimension. The added dimension desaturates the color, lessening the impact of the excellent work gone into the art design, shown by the not-so-bright foliage of "Underland" (that is what the world is actually called). Unless studios are going to go all out, scrap 3D.
  2. CGI. Computer animation is a wonderful thing. Look at the beauty Pixar has been able to capture time and time again with this colorful, advanced medium. The Harry Potter and Lord Of The Rings films have also successfully merged live action with digital effects, crafting a believable, though fake, world. Similar to recent George Lucas and Steven Spielberg works, Alice suffers from an over-reliance on CGI. Beautiful environments are rendered unfortunately prosthetic as seams in the animation show. As the film progresses, it becomes apparent that the only real objects on the soundstage are the actors themselves. 
  3. A lack of focus. In a movie like Alice in Wonderland, the first true acid trip in cinema form, this complaint may come as elitist and unnecessary. Nevertheless, this film straddles between an adult psychedelic tale and a children's action film, as the final action scene will attest. Watching Alice wander around Underland, encountering all of the strange citizens and dangers, is entertaining to a point. There is a lull in the middle that should not be in a story of such hypnotic energy, or else one that is under 2 hours long. Then a final battle scene comes out of nowhere to inject some energy, but does it fit in context? I am not so sure.


Thankfully, everything else I have to say about this film is positive. First off, the cast is stellar. Johnny Depp is the Mad Hatter, the signature Wonderland resident who will slip from a soft accent with a lisp to a rich Scottish accent depending on the level of aggression he is aiming for. Depp is a consistently excellent actor and watching him act, literally, insane is a pleasure. Helena Bonham Carter, who has been in nearly all of the recent Burton (her husband) films, works for her slot as she plays the Red Queen. More silly than menacing, the Queen has a huge, "bulbous" head and is obsessed with cutting off every enemy's head. A bit dim-witted herself, the Queen is an entertaining character and given a fair treatment by Carter. Anne Hathaway is the peaceful White Queen, and perfectly acceptable in her role. Nothing amazing from her but it is hard to draw up any legitimate complaints. The elusive Crispin Glover plays the Knave of Hearts, basically the Knight to the Red Queen. Glover is a fascinating actor considering he is known for his quirky behavior and strange cadence but, like many unusual actors, he is an excellent performer. Let's see more of this smart, yet creepy, dude.

The voice talent behind many of the digital characters also draws from the finest in the English crop. Everyone loves Alan Rickman, and he is the prophetic Blue Caterpillar who usually reminds the audience that this film had a drug-influenced motif all the way back to the 1951 animated film. Stephen Fry, the Brit with that very memorable voice, lends his pipes to the role of Chesire Cat, the diaphanous feline whose floating face will always haunts children. Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew from Harry Potter and The Beadle in Sweeney Todd) is the loyal dog Bayard, and Michael Sheen is the expeditious White Rabbit. Matt Lucas, the raunchy, baby-faced English comedian, is both Tweedledee and Tweedledum, and the CGI that powers his appearance is both hilarious and disturbing. Last but not least, Alice is played by a relatively unknown actress, Mia Wasikowska. Mia is beautiful and really looks like Alice; the casting was perfect in that sense. She could have been more emotive, but I enjoyed her grown-up take on Alice.

The story itself is technically a sequel to the original story, as an older Alice revisits the land that she visited as a young girl. In the Victorian world she calls home, she is currently forced to marry a lord on status, and not love, alone. The charming recreation of Victorian England starts the film out strong, and, of course, she falls down that rabbit hole one more time. Her destiny is told to her outright, as she must slay the vicious Jabberwocky (voiced by a booming Christopher Lee). What follows is very similar to the original tale, such as the various character encounters and trippy aesthetic feel. Tim Burton could have gone farther with the vibe of Alice's original tale that was caught in song by Jefferson Airplane's famous "White Rabbit." Whether it is the PG rating or focus on a younger audience (again, this is in 3D), the mature feeling of the original is somewhat lost. 

In the end, we all knew that Tim Burton was going to do Alice In Wonderland. Some of us just believe it could have been done better. Style reigns over substance, and while that could be acceptable in this story that relies so heavily on visuals, the 3D ends up spoiling the artistic merit. Perhaps a viewing of this film in two dimensions would cure this feeling, but it certainly leaves a bad aftertaste. Still, after saying all of this, I enjoyed this movie. Any fan of the story or just Tim Burton himself will find something to like here. The cast is solid and, deep under the artificial layers, there is a beautiful world of flora and fauna. To add to this, last night I rewatched Where The Wild Things Are. This update on a children's classic combined deep symbolism and its fascinating visual style to create the equivalent of a graphic poem. Alice has its attractive aesthetics, crippled as they are, but is missing its lyrical core. I just wish Alice's fall down the rabbit hole was, ironically, deeper.

Final Verdict: 
2.5 Stars Out of 5
22 Comments

Shutter Island Review

Shutter Island

Directed by Martin Scorsese
Released in 2010

For five decades now, Martin Scorsese has directed some of the finest films of all time. Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed are his most notable accomplishments, and his influence has affected filmmaking worldwide. Now, in 2010, Scorsese has released his latest triumph, but any evidence of his signature style is nearly stripped. Shutter Island is a psychological thriller in the vain of The Shining or Memento and even has traces of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and Mulholland Drive. The result is a captivating film that will not appeal to the universal audiences Scorsese usually receives but stands as one of his most unique and ambitious accomplishments yet.

Based off the novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane (who has had a lucky streak in Hollywood with this, Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River all getting the silver screen treatment), Shutter Island follows a winding narrative structure that does not resolve until the eye-opening conclusion. The beginning synopsis is not that complicated, however:  Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) is a federal marshal joined by his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) to investigate the disappearance of an inmate at the ominous Shutter Island, a house for the "criminally insane." Located 11 miles into the Boston harbor, the island is overseen by Dr. Cawley, a composed yet freaky Ben Kingsley. He believes that the patients can be cured through attention and a healthy environment rather than heavy doses of drugs. However, Teddy sees through the smokescreen and suspects something else is up. A doctor with possible ties to the Nazis, played by Max von Sydow of The Exorcist fame, and a downright creepy warden, given that aura by Ted "Buffalo Bill" Levine, set Teddy off to uncover the truth. Telling much more about the story would venture into spoiler territory but, rest assured, this is a film you will want to see twice. 

Set in 1954, the film quickly becomes a psychological-centered tale once Teddy's mind serves as the stage for much of the action. Teddy is prone to migraines and sea-sickness, and usually recalls his experience as a concentration camp liberator in World War II when he is impaired by these ailments. Disturbing flashbacks of heaps of dead bodies, as well as fresh Nazi corpses, haunt his memories. The increasingly hostile weather on the island serves as a huge obstacle on top of this and the gap between reality and imagination unpredictably widens. The scene atop the cliff is particularly memorable for both serving as a branch in the story as well as a showcase for neat film techniques. Freeze frame images and brisk editing give these scenes a nightmarish quality, a technique more akin to Stanley Kubrick than anything Scorsese has done yet. Even if you are familiar with Scorsese's work, his name will probably not come to mind if you view this film without any knowledge of the forces behind it.

Nonetheless, the directing is the force behind perhaps the legendary director's most distinctive work yet. While not a horror film in the sense of Kubrick's Shining, the unnerving atmosphere and grim images certainly cast a tense aura over the entire story. Marty, to my surprise and petty disappointment, does not include any long, tracking shots a la Goodfellas, a technique that was popularized in Kubrick's aforementioned film 30 years ago. He showed his unparalleled mastery at this form in the classic mobster film, and considering those shots naturally draw suspense, an incorporation of the tracking shot into Shutter Island could have been both a nostalgic homage but, more importantly, the making of a classic thriller scene. Alas, this qualm is very minimal as it only applies to idiosyncratic movie buffs like myself, and the directing overall is stellar. Scorsese has always been able to delve deep into the soul of his characters, forming a personal connection between the viewer and the protagonist. He uses this to his advantage here, but also relies on the provocation of the senses to connect to the viewer. Some excellent sound design accompanies the most harrowing scenes, and, to contrast, beautiful picks by Gustav Mahler and Lou Harrison plant the film in its time during the seemingly "normal" sections. The haunting main theme by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, who, ironically, composed the iconic soundtrack for The Shining, guarantees that the final scene will stick in your head for some time.

The acting is excellent overall, though Leo's performance is getting the most attention. In the beginning he speaks in his imperfect Boston accent, but thankfully his dialect does not remain the focus; his true acting ability does instead. I cannot think of any role that was more complex or nuanced than this one, even including The Aviator, and it may be safe to say that this is his finest achievement yet. He grows convincingly frustrated at the stalemate of an investigation he is presented with, and conveys true loss when needed. Leo is almost never off the screen and, even those who usually dislike his work, will find his presence welcome. Meanwhile, Ben Kingsley does what he does best and chews up the scenery. However, this time around it is more urbane than some of his recent work and he is a menacing delight to behold. One line he speaks (and you will know what is upon hearing it) shocks you like cold water but, you have to admit, you love it. John Carroll Lynch, the lovable husband in Fargo but also the suspected serial killer in Zodiac, is the Deputy Warden and convincing as an arrogant authority figure who does not need much more than his word to get work done. He finds himself, funnily enough, in the middle of those two memorable roles, for this film here. Watchmen's Rorschach, Jackie Earle Haley, shows his intimidating mug for a tense scene that starts shining a light on the whole story. Finally, Michelle Williams, the talented young actress, plays Teddy's wife in many of the flashbacks and hallucinations. She is excellent as the diaphanous figure of a spouse, especially once the difference between those two types of scenes becomes muddled. All the performances together are superb, though Leo's will be the only one that will be particularly remembered.

If there was one problem I had with Shutter Island more than anything, however, it was its marketing campaign. Simply put, the trailers give away a little too much, as the conflict is not established until a considerable amount of time in. This is not the filmmaker's fault, and the delayed release schedule is most likely to blame. The marketing team had to saturate the public with an amount of revealing promos to draw attention, after all. Nevertheless, this con is separate from the film's quality itself. Shutter Island is, like its setting, insular in Scorsese's catalog. He has not done a thriller of this type or caliber before, and, while it still is a strange offering from the master of high-class, yet accessible films, it is a first-rate offering. The story takes you on a ride that dives, loops and corkscrews until the final scene. Your heart races and you need to catch your breath. But, like any great roller coaster, you cannot wait to get on it again.

Final Verdict:
4.5 Stars Out of 5
29 Comments

The Top 40 Films Of The Decade

This blog is big....fair warning ahead. 
 
The last 10 years have been dizzying, shocking, tragic, uplifting, tiresome and, overall, fast. Technology advanced at a rapid speed and keeping up with the latest gadget or website was always a trial. Our country fared an interesting fate these years as well. Nonetheless, while it is debatable whether or not America's politics or economy made any significant strides between 2000-2009, it is a fact that this decade was phenomenal for cinema. Special effects were elevated to new heights and many new faces arrived who are now household names. It is terribly difficult trying to condense the brilliance of some of the movies of the last 10 years into one article but I will try. 
 
The following list contains what I considered to be the best movies of the decade. This list is going to be varied and representative of different genres but, of course, quality is the main factor. Perhaps on top of that is whether or not it left a lasting emotional impression on me, a true benchmark of a film's value. Innovation is another point of consideration for all of the movies chosen and their influence since. Without further ado, this is my list for the Best Films of the 2000s.
 

1.    There Will Be Blood (2007) - It is certainly a tough call, but no film this decade blew me away as much as Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood. It is a true
masterpiece but executed in such a way that final impressions may range from utter awe to confused perplexity. Nonetheless, there is no debating that this is something special. It is the tale of an oil man, Daniel Plainview, who, with his adopted son, accumulates wealth and property but loses his mind in the process. Daniel Day-Lewis gives the best performance of the decade with every movement: his somber tone, painful facial expressions, drawn-out cadence, and even his stilted posture. The result is magnetic, aided by a haunting score from Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood and beautiful, stark cinematography. Watch the American Dream go sour in the finest movie of the last 10 years.

2.    Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) - A truly unique fusion of romantic comedy and science fiction, Eternal Sunshine stands by itself as a extremely innovative film as well as a masterfully executed one. A couple (Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet) have a rough, emotional breakup and decide to erase the relationship from their memory through a new form of technology. While undergoing the procedure, Jim Carrey's character starts to have doubts as he sees their happiest moments. The grade A script by Charlie Kaufman and Michael Gondry (also the director) is full of twists and touching moments that progress in a flawless manner with no boring lulls. Jim Carrey shocks with an incredible performance, subduing his crazy man persona in favor of a humorous, but sentimentally centered, character. Tom Wilkinson, Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood and Mark Ruffalo round out the stellar cast that brings this one-of-a-kind tale alive. There has never been another movie like Eternal Sunshine and, for that reason, it takes top marks. 

3.    The Departed (2006) - Martin Scorsese is still king. Taxi Driver was one of the defining films of the 70s, Raging Bull of the 80s, Goodfellas of the 90s, and, now, The Departed for the 2000s. The rough, gritty style of Marty reaches Boston in this violent, hilarious, and tragic film. A cast of heavyweights featuring Leo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Alec Baldwin and, the one significant female role, Vera Farmiga all combine their talents. The result is not  a convoluted mess, like what could have been, but a modern crime classic. Watch Jack as he nonchalantly pulls a dismembered hand out of a plastic bag to joke about the poor soul's demise, all the while eating lobster and quoting John Lennon. Nicholson is a mad man in top form (which he usually is) but the movie also succeeds because all the stars around him are so bright. Scorsese has been strong for four decades now and there is no doubt he will last five or maybe six. 

4.    Up (2009) - Up is Pixar's best film yet, but the reason it stands so, uh, high on this list is because Pixar delivered hit after hit this decade. Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., The Incredibles, Ratatouille, the brilliant Wall-E, Cars...actually forget that last one. Nonetheless, they were the most consistent production company in the business and every film of theirs deserves a top slot here. However, Up was their most-balanced film yet, executed in a way that both adults and children loved. The humor is sharp throughout, with two lovable animals in tow, both featuring hilarious introductions. The real reason why Up holds top honors however is for its perfect introduction. We watch as a couple fall in love, marry, go through life, and ultimately face the worse in less than 5 minutes and without any dialogue. It is the closest any scene this decade came to perfection and is guaranteed to reduce anyone to a sobbing mess, or at least a sniffling one. 

5.    Inglourious Basterds (2009) - My personal favorite on this list, Inglourious Basterds is Quentin Tarantino at his most excessive and self-indulgent. Sure, dialogue scenes could have been 3 minutes each but he makes them 25 minutes. Thankfully, it pays off because these scenes of increasingly hostile badinage are so intricately detailed; Tarantino is in control of his own script and can draw suspense from the mere scooping of cream for a strudel. The story itself is about a band of Jewish soldiers who go to World War II era France to do one thing only: kill Nazis. Brad Pitt leads the squad that also has such standouts as Til Schweiger as Hugo Stiglitz and Omar Doom as, well, Private Omar, whose nearly silent-movie demeanor is offset by a few winning lines. Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent) and Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) are the strong-willed females who have their own plans of taking down the Nazis, leading of which is Colonel Hans Landa, played by Christoph Waltz. In one of the most stunning performances this decade, Waltz spans four different languages while remaining sinister, yet truly unknown in his motives, throughout. As he exclaims "Thats'a BINGO!!," you wonder if his or your sanity went away first. 

6.    Memento (2000) - This was the film that launched Christopher Nolan into the public conscience before The Dark Knight. While obviously not as commercially successful, Memento features mind-bending, non-linear plot progression that goes backwards; B to A instead of A to B. You know what happens but...at the same time, you do not. It is best leaving the film to speak for itself as it contains such a tight, well-written script that keeps you gripped from beginning to end. Guy Pearce stars as an ordinary man who has a severe memory loss issue, leaving him to trust people based off of photographs and notes he takes. Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano are his friends who guide him along, and their motives stay cloudy until the very end. The defining thriller of the decade.

7.    No Country For Old Men (2007) - The Coen Brothers created a sinister masterpiece based off the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy. With shocking violence and an ultimately pessimistic message, this is not the ideal family movie night fare. However, for those willing to go forward, they will find one of the most well-crafted films of the decade, featuring a haunting performance by Javier Bardem. As he saunters from one motel room to another, silenced shotgun in one hand and cattle gun in the other, with an expression of true sociopathic madness, the hostility is palpable.

8.    City of God (2003) - Paying homage to classics like The Godfather, Goodfellas, and Shawshank Redemption while inspiring Slumdog Millionaire in the process, City of God draws influences from the best but creates its own unique and totally unforgettable experience. Set in 1960s-70s Rio de Janiero and entirely in Portuguese, the film is about one boy (Rocket) and his life in the hoodlum underworld of Rio. The primary business is drugs and it gets paid out in blood, lots of it. The violence is shocking in this film; the body count by the end must have far surpassed the 200s. Nonetheless, the film is kinetic and, strangely, upbeat. While the very memorable villain Zed resembles a Goodfellas-esque Joe Pesci, the protagonist uses his photographic skill to win his way over with the gangs and ultimately take them down in the end. City of God sticks with you and shows you that films can really engrain themselves into your conscience.

9.    Pan's Labyrinth (2006) - Films have always been respected enough to be labeled "art," but Jimmy Fallon's Taxi will make you sometimes doubt this notion. Once in a great while, however, a film of such true artistic beauty will come by and stun you. For this decade, that position belongs to Pan's Labyrinth, directed by Guillermo del Toro. The art design is captivating, as is the story of a girl in fascist Spain who is transported to a magical world to escape the troubles of the real world while encountering new ones all the same. She encounters savage monsters, giant toads and other frightening, or just strange, creatures along the way. Violence is prevalent throughout, so an "adult fairytale" is a proper term to label this one. However, it successfully combines its bloody brutality and childlike sense of wonder to create something thoroughly excellent.

10.    Mulholland Drive (2001) - Condensing the insanity that is Mulholland Drive to a mere paragraph is impossible. I do not think that it can even be summed up in 10 pages. Nonetheless, David Lynch's hypnotic nightmare centers around two gorgeous women (Naomi Watts and Laura Harring) as a whirlwind of events encircle around them. Watts, with this as her breakout role, stuns with her character, who starts as a cheery, naive actress and progresses to something totally different by the end. Haunting settings, an erotic but passionate relationship and monsters all make their way into this film, and you are left more bewildered by the end than the beginning.  It speaks for the quality of the structure and narrative when I say that this film could have been made in any year over the last three to four decades, eschewing special effects for a dreamlike approach to cinematography. David Lynch is America's modern surrealist:  pay attention to this nearly extinct breed. 

11.    The Diving Bell and The Butterfly (2007) - Directed by Julian Schnabel, Diving Bell is a film that explores the limitless expanses of the human mind. After suffering a stroke that reduces his whole body to an immobile state with the exception of one eye, Jean-Dominique Bauby narrates from inside his head, seeing the events unfold around him but unable to react. Based off a true story and a book of the same name, the film shows the true value of imagination and how it can transport you to faraway places, even when you are unable to merely move a finger. Bauby composed an entire autobiography by blinking at certain times, and Schnabel combines his natural artistic talent with amazing cinematography to create a movie that makes you value how impressive the brain we waste every day on YouTube cat videos and Jersey Shore really is. 

12.    The Dark Knight (2 008) - Now this is strange....this is a movie that most people reading this may actually have seen!! What the hell is a movie that made over a billion dollars doing here? Well, The Dark Knight is the product of uncontained ambition, lots of money and an unfortunate, premature death. Heath Ledger's Joker gained popularity because he died before the movie was released but his performance is incredible, death notwithstanding. He showed us a maniacal Joker who does not cower over the abyss but instead laughs as he jumps down, feet first. A strong supporting cast and a new mature tone give this film a strong artistic value, a nice trait when it can also reel in the big bucks. 

13.    Big Fish (2003) - One of the most underrated films of the entire decade, Big Fish is Tim Burton's best film to date, one that utilizes his visionary mind and eliminates the pretentiousness. What is left is a fascinating fairytale full of intriguing characters, comical situations and heartrending conflicts. Ed Bloom (Albert Finney) is a father who has constantly told tall tales throughout his life, leaving his son William (Billy Crudup) unaware of what is true and what is false. As Edward slowly dies, a series of flashbacks, some exaggerated yet many true, is shown with Ewan McGregor as the younger Ed. These scenes are all visualized with such an esoteric beauty that only Tim Burton can realize, one that elevates this film from mere fairytale to a fantasy that is as inspiring as The Wizard of Oz upon first, and repeated, viewings. 

14.    Into The Wild (2007) - 2007 was a year of standouts, but Into The Wild combined stellar filmmaking with a freewheeling, entertaining value that others that year lacked. Emile Hirsch plays the infamous Christopher McCandless, an intelligent yet adventurous young man who abandoned his education, hiked into uninhabited Alaskan territory and never returned. Sean Penn reveals that he is a very adept director, on top of his other skills, and gives the film a very soulful air. Hal Holbrook commits a heartrending performance as an old man who finds Chris on the road and believes he is the piece that has been missing from his life for so long. We know now that Chris' actions were careless but we cannot help but root for him as he has the guts to do something we never would do. 

15.    Kill Bill Volumes 1&2 (2003-04) - While all part of one, cohesive narrative, the two Kill Bill films are surprisingly different from each other. The first is one of the best action films of the decade with buckets of blood and a stylized feel that incorporates black and white as well as incredibly violent anime. It establishes an interesting story of "The Bride," played with burning hatred by Uma Thurman, a reformed assassin who decides to settle down with a family, only to be nearly killed by her former employer, Bill. Vowing revenge on all of those who wronged her (including Lucy Liu and Michael Madsen), The Bride makes the first a bloody ride that also has one of the better endings in recent memory. The second goes for a slower paced, methodical approach that is more reminiscent of Basterds but very satisfying. Bill, David Carradine's last great role, is given the spotlight at the end for some of Tarantino's best writing yet. It all wraps up in a way that most sequels would envy. Think of it as The Godfather I and II; the first establishes the fiction while the sequel fleshes it out. In its own insane way, the quality is top-tier throughout as well. 

16.    Mystic River (2003) - In the black and white genres of ancient times, there were Comedies and Tragedies. Mystic River defines "Tragedy" to the utmost extent, more than basically any movie this decade. Its tone starts somber and only gets darker, as one kid in a Boston group of friends gets abducted and molested by creeps early in his life. This individual is Dave, whose later life remains scarred from this incident and whose mind becomes senile. Jimmy, in an acting tour de force by Sean Penn, is an ex-convict who is in the middle of a violent conflict that his other childhood friend, Sean (Kevin Bacon), now a cop, investigates. Tim Robbins as Dave is haunting: his tragic disposition makes him so vulnerable and occasionally frightening that his Oscar for this part seems like an understatement. The same goes to Penn, whose incredibly nuanced and emotional performance reaches deep into a desperate soul. Marcia Gay Harden is also fantastic as Dave's wife; she is so fragile and diaphanous that a wind could seemingly blow her away. This film is a downer and a true tragedy, but as an exhibition of acting as well as Clint Eastwood's talent behind the camera, Mystic River is worth diving in. 

17.    Lord of The Rings (2001-03) - A lock on any "Best Of" list, Lord of The Rings, as a trilogy, is not a personal favorite of mine but there is no denying the amazing craftsmanship and respect to the source material. Peter Jackson created the only true epic of the decade, with the final chapter tying up the loose ends nicely while sweeping the Oscars in the process. 

18.    Hot Fuzz (2007) - Does this film deserve to be in the Top 20? Possibly not but for me, no other film has stood up to as many repeated viewings as Hot Fuzz. A star London cop, Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) is transferred to a small English village because he is making the city cops look bad. A series of gruesome murders, with seemingly innocent victims, gets Angel on the prowl. A supporting cast including Nick Frost, Timothy Dalton and Jim Broadbent give this film a distinctly English bent that blends well with fast editing, excessive yet cheesy violence and energized action. Some hate it, some love it. For me, this was one of the most memorable films of the decade.

19.    In Bruges (2008) - In Bruges was a breath of fresh air. The characters, writing, setting, humor...it all was original in its own strange way and created a film that was funny throughout, immensely quotable and also full of shocking violence. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson are two hitmen ordered to lay low in the quaint village of Bruges, Belgium. The personalities of the two greatly differ, as Gleeson greatly appreciates culture while Farrell sees the old city as a bunch of boring buildings. A bloody conflict ends up with their boss (a profane and hilarious Ralph Fiennes) assigning them an order that will compromise the other; the story from there winds and turns but ends up with a biting, satisfying conclusion. The script is top-notch and hilarious, as is the acting. This Irish film takes jabs at Americans, racism, midgets, and everything, large and small, in between. Have fun. 

20.    Million Dollar Baby (2004) - I saw this in the theater when I was only 11 and its harsh and very sentimental theme should have been a detractor. However, this was my real segue to dramatic cinema, and for that reason it is personal to me. The tale of the determined boxer, played with such battered tenacity by Hilary Swank, is directed with grace by the veteran Clint Eastwood. Morgan Freeman delivers in possibly his best performance to date, and this drama knocks you out on the mat.  

21.    Adaptation. (2002) - Believe it or not, there was a time when Nicolas Cage was not only a good actor, but an excellent one. Adaptation. (though he was apparently brilliantly nutty in the recent Bad Lieutenant) is the last known document of this. Cage plays the screenwriter for the film, Charlie Kaufman, and his "twin brother" Donald. This complex comedy goes through the strains of screenwriting and far, far beyond. Meryl Streep is a successful author who is struggling to find what she really wants in life, and then she sees Chris Cooper as the man who already knows what it is. Cooper, who won an Oscar for this performance, delivers another amazing performance as a nearly toothless orchid hunter in Florida who has a love for Streep's character. Kaufman gets in the middle of this all and the situation turns ugly. This self-deprecating satire on love and Hollywood is mad as hell and revels in it. 

22.    Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) - The best Harry Potter film, but also a great film in its own right, Prisoner of Azkaban sees a switch in directors (Alfonso Cuaron) and mood, swapping the elementary school antics and looks for a matured, darker setting. The children all excel in their roles, but it is Gary Oldman as Sirius Black and the consistently perfect Alan Rickman as Severus Snape who make this film more than another teenage supernatural tale but an acting powerhouse. The technically impressive and equally funny opening sequence of Aunt Marge rapidly expanding still amuses, and, as a piece of cinema itself, I am shocked by how great this film really is. 

23.    District 9 (2009) - Fresh, intelligent and badass, District 9 is the decade's premier sci-fi film. The budget was surprisingly low ($30 million) and no big names were attached to this besides Peter Jackson for producing, so its success and overall quality was shocking, to say the least. Drawing influence from The Fly and South African history, D9 creates its own realistic take on an alien invasion, but this time, the aliens want to leave. Sharlto Copley stars as the tool turned hero who turns in a unexpectedly great, raw performance as one man against the whole human world. The cinematography, blending a documentary style with impressive special effects, and moving, human story combine for this close-to-perfect film. 

24.    The Darjeeling Limited (2007) - Wes Anderson delivered a few winners this decade: The Life Aquatic was flawed but quirky, while The Royal Tenenbaums had an all-star cast and a great black comedy vibe. Fantastic Mr. Fox was perhaps his best yet, but The Darjeeling Limited holds a place in my heart. Either the older celluloid feel or exotic setting did it for me, but this spiritual journey through India had an essence no others did. Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman are three estranged brothers who want to reunite by going on an impromptu train ride through India. Pepper spray, snakes, and sweet lime juice all appear for comical sequences but the human, family connection this film makes is why I found it so real. 

25.    Spirited Away (2001) - Visually stunning and intimately scary, Spirited Away is Hayao Miyazaki's magnum opus. This animated feature is about a girl who loses her way to find herself in a surreal world of beasts and magic. The sense of mystery throughout the whole setting and the lack of any parents made this a riveting film to watch when I was less than 10 years old, but it is easy to appreciate the brilliance now. The animation is beautiful: creature designs are unlike anything ever seen and this shows that Pixar's 3D is not the only route for spellbinding animation. 

26.    Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) - While the seminal Hurt Locker deserves props too, Letters was the finest war film of the decade. Clint Eastwood created the problematic but inspiring Flags Of Our Fathers in tandem with it, but Letters really is the superior movie. It shows the story of Iwo Jima from the Japanese point of view, all in the native language and coated in a grimy, grey filter. The superb Ken Watanabe plays General Kuribayashi, the fearless leader who accepted surrender as a fate worse than death. His performance shows a sense of courage unseen in most American protagonists, and you actually sympathize with the enemy by the end, even if it was our GIs who claimed victory. 

27.    Gladiator (2000) - It is hard to believe Gladiator was released in the last decade, but it won its handful of awards for a reason. Ridley Scott directs and Russell Crowe stars in this years-spanning Odyssey of betrayal, exile and revenge. The beautiful cinematography, chilling performance of Commodus by Joaquin Phoenix, and brutal action all make for an inspiring Roman epic. 

28.    Slumdog Millionaire (2008) - The world loved this Best Picture winner set in India for good reason. No other film of 2008 felt more vibrant or awe-inspiring than Danny Boyle's masterwork. Slumdog is the tale of three kids growing up in the slums of India and how far one will go to impress his true love. Sure, some of it seems cheesy on paper but when the young actors show their skill and the simply amazing cinematography from Anthony Dod Mantle manifests in city-wide chase scenes, there is no denying the mesmerizing lure Slumdog pulses through its veins. 

29.    Avatar (2009) - Now the highest grossing film of all time in a matter of weeks, Avatar is not only a technical marvel but also a spellbinding experience. From start to finish, you remain glued to your seat, unable to move as the world of Pandora comes alive in front of your eyes. The lush flora and fauna are a sight to behold, but the real draw comes from the shockingly detailed native species, the Na'vi. Created using state of the art technology, the Na'vi are James Cameron's brainchild that he has tried to put onto the screen since childhood. While the story sometimes becomes encumbered with its noble yet heavy green message and there are more than a few plot holes, there are more than enough reasons to enjoy this mesmerizing blockbuster. Considering this film has already surpassed $2 billion in earnings and has reignited the entire moviegoing business, the draw is certainly apparent.

30.    Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) - No film this decade was as straight-up hilarious or more quotable than Anchorman. Will Ferrell and the gang (with the classic Brick character performed by Steve Carrell) embody the 70s virtues of alcohol, sexism and indecency to a tee. It is San Diego in the Me Decade, and an attractive, strong-willed female reporter is set to overthrow the current establishment. The chaos that reigns, especially during the totally random but memorable fight scene, define this comedy that will make you love lamp by the end. 

31.    Children of Men (2006) - I could say how I felt this film rushed through a few of its plot lines or was unremittingly depressing, but that was probably the point. This frantic tale of one man's quest to save the first newborn baby on Earth in 18 years finds its strengths in the immense talents of its director, Alfonso Cuaron, and cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezski. A few scenes are shot in one take, lasting up to 10 minutes. The action is visceral and the viewer becomes one with the events unfolding. This film has its flaws but is so memorable for those killer moments.   

32.    Up In The Air (2009) - Jason Reitman crafted a superb script with Up In The Air, leaving you wondering why he just did not write the screenplay for the painfully sassy Juno. His film is crafted with finesse from a young filmmaker, and the performances shine. George Clooney becomes one of the most relatable protagonists in recent memory as the suave but commitment-phobic Ryan Bingham, and Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick excel in the two, different female roles they play in his life. The writing and acting are top-notch, and the best part is that they form into one comical yet tragic whole. 

33.    Casino Royale (2006) - The James Bond series was in need of a serious reboot and Casino Royale delivered. Daniel Craig is a surprisingly able Bond, caring less about how his martini is served and more on the mission at hand. His recklessness and close encounters with the several Bond girls still makes for great entertainment, and this time it is directed with action movie flair by Martin Campbell. Craig's resilience in the squeamish torture scene alone make this possibly the funniest yet most disturbing Bond film yet. 

34.    Downfall (2003) - Those funny YouTube clips showing Hitler getting angry that his Xbox Live was banned actually derive from excellent source material. Emotionally intense and uncompromising, Downfall is the document of Adolf Hitler's final days at his bunker in Berlin. Bruno Ganz becomes absorbed in the main role like only a few actors can:  he creates a human (not sympathetic) version of the leader of the Third Reich that goes beyond emulation and into art. His emotions sway from reserved compassion to violent outbursts of anger, and details like the twitching of his left hand as he walks suggest his mental state was rapidly deteriorating. The hidebound ethics and horrible actions the Goebbels family committed, as well as the general theme of suicide, make this film a tough one to watch but a fascinating look into the greatest symbol of evil known in modern history. 

35.    Superbad (2007) - Before the Apatow train became so exhausted of relevance, there was 2007. Knocked Up is a personal favorite of mine (Paul Rudd as Robert DeNiro is classic), but Superbad was more of a comedic Odyssey, with two high school kids looking to get laid by their crushes through the only means possible: alcohol!! Michael Cera and Jonah Hill's performances remind of a simpler time when their presence was not only tolerable but a pleasure. McLovin is still an immortal comedy figure however:  the fake ID scene, his "Aladdin" vest and his ultimate score make him a youth icon for our times. The funky soundtrack sets the vibe for a film that is still a riot today. 

36.    United 93 (2006) - Any media interpretations of the attacks on 9/11 are still considered taboo, and with good reason, but United 93 went beyond the despicable exploitation that was expected and emerged as a harrowing tale of American heroism. Paul Greengrass, seen below in the Bourne films as well, cast unknown actors to star as the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93, the flight destined for the White House before the passengers bonded together to revolt. The claustrophobic intensity is palpable as the tubular coffin the passengers were aboard careens towards certain doom, with tense cinematography by Barry Ackroyd. This tragic tale ends up being one of the most inspiring films I have ever seen, as a group of unknown, diverse bystanders decide to take action and overthrow the terrorists on board. The heartbreaking final scene leaves you paralyzed, leaving you angry, bereaved but astonished. Forget James Bond or Harry Potter:  these were the decade's heroes. 

37.    Sin City (2005) - This decade saw the largest influx of comic-based movies ever, but none where as faithful or uniquely stylized as Sin City. With three separate stories that have surprisingly little to do with each other, the movie features a sexy cast with the likes of Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson and the late Brittany Murphy, as well as Clive Owen, Bruce Willis and, in arresting performance, Mickey Rourke. The film is brutal, with inordinate amounts of violence even by graphic novel standards, but the black and white (with special red bursts) style does not ever let you look away. 

38.    The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) - The stellar Bourne series improved with every outing, which naturally makes the last one the best. With some amazing technical work in sound and editing, Ultimatum is given a sharp, kinetic edge that thrusts Matt Damon's Jason Bourne into the action for a final, explosive round. Hand-to-hand fight scenes are captured by Paul Greengrass in a brutal, efficient manner unrivaled by almost everything else. A tight, suspenseful plot of corruption and murder propels this action fest forward and, thankfully for us, it never looks back. 

39.    A History of Violence (2005) - If one word can define this film, it is "gritty." The violence is uncompromising, and the entire story, as suggested by the excellent title, is centered around bloodshed. Viggo Mortensen is a small town man who is accused of having a violent past by Philadelphia mobsters; he finds these accusations out of line but the core of his character slowly reveals layer after layer as the movie progresses. Ed Harris and William Hurt turn in excellent performances, and the action stuns.
 
40.    Synecdoche, New York (2007) - The last item on this list is one that I will take a long time to fully conquer. Written and directed by the legendary Charlie Kaufman (this is his third item on this list) and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Synecdoche, New York is a tale of life and almost every element it encompasses. Love, hate, life, death, obsession, divorce, growth, atrophy...it is all here. The film defies the term "bizarre" as Hoffman's character, Caden, a theater director, creates the most ambitious production in the city by turning a whole warehouse into a duplicate of the city. This project lasts for decades, and Caden's true nature, such as his sanity, health and even gender, comes into question.  Go read any of Roger Ebert's multiple articles to try to digest the film that makes Mulholland Drive's story arc look as complicated as a Will Ferrell movie.
 
 
 
Wow, thanks for reading! Feel free to comment at your digression and, if you would like, view this list on my blog in a different format.
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