Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Worst Movies of 2013

I'll be honest, it's more fun to make a worst list than a best list.  While I enjoy debating whether Before Midnight is great as a movie by itself, or whether I'm rewarding the entire trilogy is a good discussion. 

But the movies on this list stole my time and I can never get it back.  In some cases, it's not just the fact that the movie was bad.  It's the reason the movie was made.  All movies are made for money, but you always hope there is some art in there somewhere too.  If someone tried and failed, that's one thing.  But most of the movies on this list are examples of movies by committee.  Someone decided a sequel was needed, or they were trying to create a franchise.  No one involved in the movie was telling a story that was personal to them. 

Anyway, here my worst of 2013 list:

1.  Grown Ups 2 

I like Adam Sandler, and I like most of his movies.  I even liked That's My Boy and Jack and Jill.  They weren't good movies, but they made me laugh.  But Grown Ups 2 should not exist.  They didn't even bother writing a script.  It's like he and his friends hung out every day, filmed themselves goofing around, and they edited that into a 90 minute highlight reel.  There is no story, but even worse there are no good jokes.

2.  Getaway

Ethan Hawke and Selena Gomez drive around for an hour and a half, getting in car chases with the police while a voice on the speakerphone tells them what to do.  He has to do what the voice says otherwise they'll kill his wife.  Except when he chooses to defy the voice, in which case it says "That was the right answer."  Ok, what?  I can suspend disbelief when a car drives on the sidewalk and everyone is able to jump out of the way with no injuries.  But he drives through a crowded park at high speed and is able to avoid hitting one person.  That's just ridiculous.  And all the stuff the voice makes them do is for absolutely no reason.

3.  The Host

This is the movie that killed Roger Ebert.  Seriously.  His review was posted on March 27, and he died a week later.  Coincidence?  First Stephanie Meyer showed she had no idea why vampires and werewolves are good movie monsters.  Now she shows us that she doesn't understand what makes an Invasion of the Body Snatchers type of movie work.

4.  R.I.P.D.

This was a bad Men in Black ripoff with a dumb story and no fun.  But the worst part was that they got Jeff Bridges to play Rooster Cogburn, which makes it harder to enjoy True Grit now.

5.  The Mortal Instruments - City of Bones

This started as Harry Potter fan fiction, and it should have stayed there.  The success of Harry Potter and Twilight means that the hot thing to do now is turn a young adult fantasy series into a movie franchise.  This story wouldn't work if it was a series on the WB.  My favorite part was when they revealed that Beethoven was one of the Shadow Hunters, and if you play a Beethoven sonata it will make a demon reveal himself.  Really lame.

6.  Hell Baby

From the team that created Reno 911, this was a really cheap horror spoof that didn't work at all.  No laughs and the only good part was the end when the demon baby was born and started trying to eat everyone.

7.  A Good Day to Die Hard

The fifth Die Hard movie.  Oh how this series has fallen.  The first was probably the best action movie of the 80s, maybe of all time.  Has any other series covered the spectrum from greatness to crap the way this series has?

8.  G.I. Joe: Retaliation

The first G.I. Joe wasn't horrible.  It has some fun parts to it but this one just sucked.  And just like a bad Die Hard movie, it also had Bruce Willis sleepwalking his way through it.

9.  The Lone Ranger

No, just no.  It was so obvious Disney and Bruckheimer were hoping for another Pirates of the Caribbean franchise with this.  There was no reason to make it 2 1/2 hours long.  The last 15 minutes or so were fun, and that should have been the tone of the rest of the movie.

10.  The Internship

Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson were great together in The Wedding Crashers.  Not so much this time around.  Once again, a comedy that isn't very funny.  Vaughn's schtick just seems tired now, and there is no way these characters are this dumb about the internet.  It's like they were transported from the 80s into 2013.

Biggest disappointment - Man of Steel

Not one of the worst movies, but it should have been great.  They got Superman all wrong.

Best Worst Movie - Movie 43

I still can't decide if this movie is so bad it's great, or if it's so bad the joke is on us.  It's a bunch of different sequences that don't try so much to make us laugh as to gross us out.  Some of them made me laugh, but not much.  I wish I could erase the image of Halle Berry and Stephen Merchant with their weird plastic surgery from my mind forever, as there was something just so disturbing about it.  But I did laugh at Hugh Jackman with balls on his chin.

Top 10 Movies of 2013

All critics have to make lists at the end of the year.  I think it's probably written somewhere.  The challenge is ranking your favorites in a particular order.  My preference can change from day to day.  I made my list the other day, looked at it this morning and made some changes.  If I look at it again tomorrow, I may want to make more changes.  But at some point I just have to make my list and walk away.  So while the order is somewhat arbitrary, here are my picks for best movies of 2013.

1.  12 Years a Slave
2.  The Way Way Back
3.  Gravity
4.  The Act of Killing
5.  Before Midnight
6.  This is the End
7.  Enough Said
8.  Blue is the Warmest Color
9.  Star Trek Into Darkness
10.  World War Z

Honorable mentions (or the movies that almost made the cut):  Saving Mr. Banks, The World's End, Short Term 12, American Hustle, The Heat, Iron Man 3, Elysium.

I'm sure you're surprised by my list.  I was too.  I really liked most of Saving Mr. Banks, but in the end too many flashbacks knocked it down on my list.  The World's End and This is the End had similarities, but I laughed a lot more in This is the End.  For Star Trek, I really wish they hadn't relied on The Wrath of Khan so much for the story, or had a Leonard Nimoy cameo for no reason (communications are up and they call Spock instead of calling for help?), but I still enjoyed the movie a lot.  And yes, I really liked World War Z.  Deal with it.

Anyway, feel free to debate my choices.  And if you don't recognize some of the titles on my list, I encourage you to seek them out.  But make sure you watch Before Sunrise and Before Sunset before you watch Before Midnight.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Utah Film Critics Association Awards

Last night the Utah Film Critics Association held its annual meeting.  There were laughs, arguments, even blood and tears, but we managed to come to a consensus on the best performances of 2013. 

Gravity was the big winner with 3 awards including best picture and director.  There were a few surprises, including Scarlett Johansson as best supporting actress for Her, Bill Nighy as best supporting actor for About Time, and The World's End for best original screenplay.  Here is the complete list of awards:

Best Picture
Winner: Gravity
(runner-up: 12 Years a Slave)

Best Achievement in Directing
Winner: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
(runner-up: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave)

Best Lead Performance by an Actor
Winner: Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
(runner-up: Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis)

Best Lead Performance by an Actress
Winner: Adele Exarchopoulos, Blue is the Warmest Color
(runner-ups: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine & Sandra Bullock, Gravity) (tie)

Best Supporting Performance by an Actor
Winner: Bill Nighy, About Time
(runner-up: Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave)

Best Supporting Performance by an Actress
Winner: Scarlett Johansson, Her
(runner-up: Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle)

Best Original Screenplay
Winner: Simon Pegg & Edger Wright, The World's End
(runner-up: Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, The Way Way Back)

Best Adapted Screenplay
Winner: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy & Ethan Hawke, Before Midnight
(runner-up: John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave)

Best Cinematography
Winner: Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity
(runner-up: Bruno Delbonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis)

Best Documentary Feature
Winner: The Act of Killing
(runner-up: Blackfish)

Best Non-English Language Feature
Winner: Blue is the Warmest Color
(runner-up: The Past)

Best Animated Feature
Winner: Frozen
(runner-ups: From Up on Poppy Hill & The Wind Rises) (tie)

The Utah Film Critics Association is made up of film journalists from print, online and broadcast media based in Utah.  Members include:  Rich Bonaduce, TheReelPlace.com; Luke Hickman, TheReelPlace.com / KEGA-FM; Jimmy Martin, KRSP 103.5 FM / Big Movie Mouth-Off; Sean P. Means, Salt Lake Tribune, Dan Metcalf, Davis Clipper News; Andy Morgan, KNVU-AM; Ryan Michael Painter, KUTV 2; Aaron Peck, Logan Herald-Journal; Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly; Steve Salles, Standard-Examiner (Ogden); Mike Thiriot, KHTB 94.9 FM; Tony Toscano, Talking Pictures; Jeff Michael Vice, Big Movie Mouth-Off, and Doug Wright, KSL Movie Show.

Saving Mr. Banks - 3 1/2 stars

This is the story behind the movie Mary Poppins.  For 20 years, Walt Disney tried to get the rights to make the movie, while the author P. L. Travers resisted.  She didn't like movies to begin with, and she hated cartoons.  She was afraid Disney would turn her beloved creation into a light and fluffy kids movie.

Because she needs the money, she agrees to fly to Los Angeles and spend a couple weeks working on the script with writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and composers Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B. J. Novak).  What follows are a series of painful writing sessions where Travers (Emma Thompson) basically shoots down almost every idea they have.  She doesn't want Mary Poppins to be a musical, every detail has to be exact, and no cartoon penguins. 

Emma Thompson is wonderful in this role.  She plays the most stereotypically uptight British woman you can imagine.  She has no patience for pleasantries or small talk, and she seems to have no sense of humor.  She's even prickly to her friendly limo driver (Paul Giamatti).  But through flashbacks we see the troubled childhood she had, and we come to understand the inspiration for her stories.  Her father (Colin Farrell) plays her father, who worked at a bank and was an alcoholic. 

Tom Hanks plays Walt Disney, and I can't imagine anyone better for the role.  While he doesn't look exactly like him, he captures him perfectly.  It also doesn't hurt that like Walt Disney, Tom Hanks is something of a national treasure.  He speaks with this gentle midwestern tone that is so reassuring it's amazing Travers held out as long as she did. 

I loved this movie, but I thought the flashbacks hurt the pacing of the movie.  I was so engaged with the scenes of them working on Mary Poppins that I started to get annoyed every time the movie cut to Travers as a child.  I think the flashbacks took up at least 45 minutes of screen time, and I think we could have learned all we need to learn about her childhood in about 10 minutes.  Some of the scenes were nice, and I especially liked the way they cut back and forth between her father giving a speech about the bank and the song Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. 

So I loved the scenes with Travers and the writers, and the scenes with Travers and Disney together.  I also really liked Paul Giamatti's character.  He has a few really good scenes with Emma Thompson where he becomes her only real friend in LA.  I think this movie is going to do really well and it's safe for the whole family.  I think young kids may get bored by it, and it certainly doesn't hurt if you grew up watching Mary Poppins.  Highly recommended.

American Hustle - 3 1/2 stars

If you were alive in the late 70s and early 80s, you might remember the ABSCAM scandal.  It was an FBI sting operation targeting public corruption which led to the conviction of several senators and congressmen.  American Hustle is a mostly fictitious story about how ABSCAM came about.

Christian Bale and Amy Adams play Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser, successful con artists who are busted by an FBI agent named Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).  Richie offers them a deal:  they can avoid jail time if they help him bust some city officials for corruption.  They cook up a scheme to get the mayor and other officials to accept bribes in order to get a casino built in New Jersey. 

This movie is a lot of fun.  We quickly realize that Richie is getting in over his head.  His boss at the FBI (played by Louis CK) keeps saying no to all his requests for more money.  The operation gets expensive because he needs to convince these officials that a rich Middle Eastern sheikh wants to invest in the casino.  The levels of corruption get higher and higher, and then when the mob gets involved they all realize their lives are now in danger if they're discovered. 

Jennifer Lawrence plays Irving's wife, and she steals the movie.  She's this obnoxious blonde bimbo who may be much smarter than she seems.  The mayor (Jeremy Renner) is taking bribes and involved in corruption, but he's doing it in order to provide jobs for the people of Camden, New Jersey.  He and Irving form a friendship that you know is going to end badly, because eventually he's going to find out that this is an FBI sting operation. 

All of the performances are good in this movie.  Christian Bale put on weight and has a really bad combover, and he does a really good New Jersey dialect.  The movie gets a little crazy an hour or so in, and it's a little too long.  It runs about two hours and twenty minutes.  It also gets hard to follow all the details of the operation, but that doesn't detract from the fun of watching these characters try to keep everything together.  Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues - 3 stars

Anchorman 2 is probably a better movie than the first one.  As much as I liked Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, it's not a movie I like to watch from start to finish.  It's the kind of movie I like to watch for 15 or 20 minutes when it's on cable.  There are a number of hilarious scenes, but as a complete narrative I find it a little unsatisfying. 

The sequel is a little better in that respect, but not by too much.  It has a very random feel.  One scene doesn't always lead to the next, and it could have been edited a dozen different ways without making it a different movie.  But there is more story structure than in the first movie. 

The movie starts with Ron and his wife Veronica Corningstone as co-anchors in New York.  When Veronica is promoted to be the first female national news anchor, Ron is fired.  He reacts as well as you would expect him to, and he and Veronica split up.  He heads back to San Diego and just when he's at his lowest point, he gets a job offer to join a brand new 24 hour cable news network.  He gets his old news team back together - Champ Kind (David Koechner), Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), and Brick Tamland (Steve Carell) - and they head to New York.  Wackiness ensues.

There's not much more to say without spoiling where the story goes.  There are a ton of jokes, and not all of them work.  But if one doesn't make you laugh, there will be another 30 seconds later.  I spent the entire movie either chuckling or laughing out loud.  There is some great stunt casting, and there is another battle involving multiple news teams ("No touching of the hair and face!").  Not all of the stunt casting works (this just isn't Harrison Ford's type of movie), but don't look at the cast list on imdb because most of the joke is just who shows up.

Only a few minor complaints.  For one, I wish they had more of Ed Harken (Fred Willard) in this movie.  Also, I think they used Brick too much.  When the first movie came out, Steve Carell wasn't a big star.  He had some crazy, random lines that were just hilarious, and he was used sparingly.  But since 2004, The Office has come and gone, and they probably figured they needed to feature Carell more.  He still has some great moments in this movie, but sometimes it just seems like he is trying way too hard.  Brick works best when he's low key, not when he's standing in the middle of a room and screaming.

Anyway, the movie is funny.  Go see it.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - 2 1/2 stars

Oh Peter Jackson, why?  Why did you have to take one book and blow it up into 3 movies, each over 2 1/2 hours in length?  The Lord of the Rings trilogy made sense.  That was 3 books, and lots of stuff had to be cut out.  But The Hobbit is the exact opposite.  Just because Lord of the Rings was 3 epic movies, doesn't mean The Hobbit has to be.

If you recall the events of the first movie (An Unexpected Journey), 13 dwarves, Gandalf and Bilbo Baggins are on a quest to recover the Arkenstone from the dragon Smaug.  Somehow this stone will enable one of the dwarfs, Thorin Oakenshield, to become king, and the rest of the dwarfs will be able to reclaim their homeland.  The movie ended with the company being attacked by Orcs and rescued by the giant eagles from Lord of the Rings.  I'm tempted to ask why the eagles can't be enlisted to just fly them to the Lonely Mountain, but then we wouldn't have a movie (or 3 movies). 

The Desolation of Smaug starts right where the previous movie left off (after a brief prologue).  The group is still running from the orcs, and they take refuge at the home of Beorn.  While leading them there, Gandalf is his usual, unhelpful self.  When asked whether they will be safe there, he answers "Perhaps.  He will give us shelter, or he will kill us."  The next day, they head towards Mirkwood, a creepy looking forest.  At this point, Gandalf remembers something Galadriel said to him and he decides to leave.  So once again Gandalf is gone for most of the running time of the movie. 

I've never read The Hobbit, so I can't say what was added or changed.  I am getting tired of Galdalf always going off on his own.  It seemed like it happened twice in the last movie, with him showing up just in the nick of time to save the group.  This time, we see where he goes.  The problem is he doesn't learn anything.  He visits a mountain tomb, meets up with Radagast, and explains a few things.  But he already knew this stuff, so what was the point of his trip?

My two favorite characters in these movies are Gandalf and Bilbo.  We lose Gandalf for most of the movie, and while Bilbo is still around, he is relegated to the background most of the time.  Thorin is the star of this movie, and he gets more lines and screen time than Bilbo.  Which is a shame since Martin Freeman was such a good choice for Bilbo.  Richard Armitage is a good screen presence and brings a lot of gravitas to the role of Thorin Oakenshield, but his character is boring as hell.  He's in a bad mood the whole time, and every line is delivered in exactly the same way.  Just once I'd like to see him lighten up and joke around.

One of the things that made Lord of the Rings so enjoyable was that we got to know and like the characters.  In between action sequences, the characters would talk to each other and it was nice spending time with them.  Not so much in these Hobbit movies.  I had a hard time caring about any of the dwarfs, and so if the story is not being advanced, I got bored.  Too many times I was looking at my watch and hoping the movie was almost over.

Legolas (Orlando Bloom) is in this movie, and that's ... fine.  It's ok for director Peter Jackson to add characters from Lord of the Rings in wherever he can to help tie the two trilogies together.  But Legolas was the least interesting character in Lord of the Rings, and he doesn't really add much here.  He gets to spend a lot of time jumping around and shooting orcs, which gets old after a while.

The highlight of the movie is when Bilbo encounters Smaug the dragon.  There aren't too many movies that pull off a dragon well, and this one does.  He looks great, he has the right amount of menace, and Benedict Cumberbatch is the perfect actor to provide the voice.  There is a great 5 - 10 minutes of Bilbo and Smaug, but then the rest of the dwarfs show up and it becomes a video game.  Smaug is chasing them around the caves under the mountain, they run and hide, and on and on.  Like everything else in this movie, it goes on too long.  After 20 minutes or so I got tired of Smaug. 

I loved The Lord of the Rings, and I was looking forward to The Hobbit.  But so far, the first two movies have been disappointments.  Hopefully the last movie, There and Back Again, will be better.  We'll know in a year.