Thursday, September 3, 2009

2009 Summer Movie Review part I: The Moments That Mattered.

Before I get into the usual 'what movies grossed what and why', I'd like to take an opportunity to recount the best and the worst moments of summer 2009. It was not the best of summers, and more movies disappointed than not over the May-August season. But there were diamonds (The Hurt Locker for example) in the rough and even some of the 'rough' had a glimmer within. For the record, while I've tried to avoid explicit spoilers, please proceed at your discretion. In no particular order:

Best moment of the summer - Up: The final page of Carl and Ellie's scrapbook is revealed.
I can only hope to find a better movie this year, but I'm doubtful. No film moved me as much this year as Pixar's tenth animated epic, and no moment in this masterpiece was as gut-punch powerful as the second-act climax, where Carl finally pages through his beloved scrapbook and discovers its surprising contents. It was one of many moments of heartbreak and affirmation that made this one of the highest-grossing animated films of all time. At $290 million, it is the third-highest grossing non-sequel cartoon and the fifth-highest grossing animated film of all time. It is the front-runner for the Best Animated Film Oscar and stands a decent chance of breaking into the expanded Best Picture race. Discussion of this timeless fable became a simple question of not 'did you cry?' but 'when and how often did you cry?' (and if you didn't cry, 'what kind of soulless monster are you?').

Best moment in a terrible movie - Transformers 2: Optimus Prime vs. Decepticons in IMAX.
The lightning-fast success and inexplicable legs shown for the much-loathed Transformers sequel is a troubling sign that quality may be irrelevant when it comes to franchise pictures, and especially sequels to popular originals. But the film did contain one unarguably astounding moment, one that would merit repeat viewing where the film surrounding it not so ghastly. An hour into the film, Optimus Prime and the Autobots rescue Sam and Mikaela while the Decepticons give chase, eventually landing in a forest. At this point, the movie switches to IMAX 70mm film, covering the entirety of the 100-foot screen and making your eyes explode. What follows is an unparalleled action sequence, an astounding set of blindingly colorful and sharp images, that depicts to scale the awesome sight of 60-foot tall robots beating the holy hell out of each other. Unlike pretty much every other scene in either Transformers pictures, this one is coherently shot and absolutely alive with drama and wonder. For five glorious minutes, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is one of the best action films of the decade.

Worst moment in good movie - Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince: Hogwarts invasion.
First of all, director David Yates omitted the entire action finale from this sixth Harry Potter picture. Fair enough, Hogwarts takes plenty of damage in the seventh book, but the missing battle scene negates the whole point of having said Death Eaters show up in the first place. More unfortunate however is the handling of the climactic moment of the film. What was tragic (what) and jaw-dropping (who) and mysterious (why) in the original novel becomes so painfully telegraphed as to be painfully obvious to even a casual viewer. Half Blood Prince is still a pretty good movie, but its handling of one of my all-time favorite plot twists is downright criminal.

Best villain - Inglourious Basterds: Christopher Waltz as Colonel Hans Landa.
Granted, this was the worst summer for memorable bad guys on record ("Look out... it's Danny Huston as the guy who was Brian Cox in that much better X-Men picture!), but Waltz would likely have triumphed as king of the summer baddies in any given summer. This would-be Oscar contender took Quentin Tarantino's worst vice, unending dialogue for the sake of dialogue, and turned it into a razor-sharp weapon of intimidation and control thereby creating often-unbearable tension and suspense. Oddly enough, one could argue that just as a good action film rise and fall by their villains, good Holocaust films live or die by the complexity of their lead Nazi. Like Schindler's List, The Pianist, and Black Book before it, Inglourious Basterds makes its three-dimensional SS officer the most interesting character in the movie. Waltz ups the ante by creating the rare Nazi figurehead who's almost charming, even at his most vicious.

Most obvious plot twist - Surveillance
While amusingly acted and archly comic, this Jennifer Lynch noir exercise is undone by the relatively easy-to-guess nature of its main plot. And since most of the movie involves a certain amount of mystery, those unlucky enough to solve the puzzle early on have little to do but wait for the movie to catch up with you. If you're going to have an easy-to-guess plot twist, you'd better not make that the crux of the whole movie.

Best plot twist - Orphan
No spoilers here, but it's a doozy.

Best unintentional laugh-out-loud moment - Angels & Demons: Climactic crash landing.
Angels & Demons was dumb but fun, where The Da Vinci Code was dumb and dull. But the peak of silliness occurs at the film's climax, when priest Ewan Mcgregor transports a bomb via helicopter away from its intended target moments before detonation. Along with the initial shock that comes upon realizing that McGregor's Camerlengo Patrick McKenna does not intend to sacrifice himself comes the awe-inspiring image of McKenna parachuting out of the doomed chopper without a trace of style, bumping and crashing into this wall or that roof on his way to safety. The less than smooth landing may be more realistic, but the 'watch out for that tree' visuals resemble a Loony Tunes cartoon.

Best intentionally funny moment - The Hangover: Ed Helms sings "What Would Tigers Dream Of?"
It was the gross-out, vulgar, sexist, balls-out comedy that really wasn't any of those things. The film had little gross-out humor, most of the vulgarity was merely referenced in past tense, and the female characters were not condemned based on gender (notice how, in the climax, Rachel Harris's Melissa is called 'not a good person', rather than a 'bitch' or a 'whore'). The movie worked because the characters and situations were individualized and the mystery narrative was genuinely compelling, crafting a comic riff on Memento. But the funniest moment was an off-hand bit. About two-thirds into the film, Ed Helms sits on a piano bench and starts crooning an ode to a missing tiger that was stolen during the previous night of debauchery. Not only is the moment funny, but the song is genuinely clever, with Ed Helms proving that not only can he sing, but he can do a mean Elton John mimicry to boot. That little attention to detail is a key reason why The Hangover ended the summer as the third-highest grossing R-rated film and third-highest grossing comedy of all time.

Scott Mendelson

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