Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Snooch to the Nooch!

At the movies, 2007 got off to a slow start. I mean, really slow. Let’s put it this way, about half of the movies I’ve seen thus far this year were in the past month. That’s how slow. Still, I have to say, it’s rare to see such a broad spectrum of movies- quality-wise- this early. I’m not quite sure how I feel about that. I have to say, though- the films that hit the mark for me raised the bar for the movies coming up this summer, which, well, I get to those. I still have a lot to catch in theatres (“The Invisible,” “The Hoax,” “The Black Book,” among others), and a handful to catch on DVD (“Bridge to Terabithia,” “Black Snake Moan,” “The Host,” among others), but as you’ll see, this year has offered a wide variety…maybe a little too wide, but, you’ll see what I mean.

Viva La Resistance!

Brian Skutle

What Sizzled:
Define “Sizzled,” exactly? Just kidding. Actually, there were a good 6-7 films that I wouldn’t have a problem with putting on either a best or favorite list come the end of the year, though I certainly hope there are some that I have to, painfully, leave off of there (I’d like for the makers of any Summer and Fall films this year to keep this in mind, as if any of them are reading this, when finishing their movies). None hit the 4-star level- a common occurance two years running- but several hit their mark, and left their impression. Topping the list thus far is David Fincher’s “Zodiac” (A), his riveting serial killer procedural with a killer cast and production values that scream for Oscar’s attention (too bad the movie fell flat at the box office); Mira Nair’s “The Namesake” (A), a heartfelt and memorable look at two generations of an Indian family- both parents and first son are important to the story’s impact- living in America; and the bloody fun of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s “Grindhouse” (A), with the dynamic indie duo churning out two-fisted, not to mention twisted, block of cheese double feature that few got (the movie is a major box-office bomb for both) but those who got loved. The next tier of films ranged from indie-style crime thrillers (Scott Frank’s “The Lookout” (A-), with another impressive performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to cheeky British spoofs on American genres (Edgar Wright’s “Hot Fuzz” (A-), which doesn’t match “Shaun of the Dead” in laughs, but is bullet-for-bullet its’ equal in parodying a braindead genre) to a big studio romantic comedy with charismatic leads and a catchy tune in its’ heart (the Hugh Grant-Drew Barrymore charmer “Music and Lyrics” (A-)). Slightly below that are a formulaic firecracker of an action film (Antoine Fuqua’s “Shooter” (B+), with a game Mark Wahlberg); a character-driven drama about getting back on your feet that’s more than just a movie-of-the-week (Jonathan Kasden’s “In the Land of Women” (B+), proving himself to be his father’s son); a period film about abolishing slavery from a master craftsman (Michael Apted’s “Amazing Grace” (B+)); and a stupidly funny sports comedy about figure skating (the Will Ferrell-Jon Heder hit “Blades of Glory” (B+)). What do all of these films have in common? On the surface, not a damn thing. Look closer, though, and you’ll find that each find that perfect blend of material with filmmakers who can make it come alive onscreen. Deep down, that’s all you really have to hope for from any movie.

What Sucked:
More than I saw, if the critics are to be believed (don’t worry, I’m braving the waters of “Norbit” and “Hannibal Rising” on DVD just so you don’t have to), but enough to make you go, “ugh…”. Worst of all was “Reno 911!: Miami” (D-), which actually concocted a better story for the big screen than you’d expect from this low-brow “Cops” spoof; unfortunately, it couldn’t come up with enough laughs to justify the effort. Actually, is that the worst it got? In quality, yes, but what about “The Reaping” (D), which wasted an interesting horror-movie premise and a 2-time Oscar winner (Hilary Swank) for the sake of schlocky scares? Or how about “Smokin’ Aces” (D), Joe Carnahan’s action comedy with too much action, not enough comedy, and too good of performances by Jeremy Piven, Jason Bateman, and Alicia Keyes to go to waste in a film this busy? Or worst of all, there was “Because I Said So” (D+), which had the audacity to render Oscar winner Diane Keaton painfully unfunny and uncharismatic in an otherwise interesting mother-daughter story that allowed for a performance by Mandy Moore (an underrated talent onscreen) that would be worthy of Keaton’s full talents to play against. Yay for Mandy; our condolences for Ms. Keaton. Our best wishes for a movie worthy of your efforts in the near future.

What’s Just OK:
It seems as though more and more over the years is “just OK.” Still, in some cases, OK is better than nothing (see the “What Sucked” section for examples). In others, well, it’s quite a letdown. This year, there was a lot of letdown. Can’t really complain much with movies like “Breach” (B), an FBI thriller based on a juicy true story that allows for fine performances by Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, and Laura Linney; “Ghost Rider” (B), where the somewhat cheesy tone of the movie- based on the Marvel comic- fits right in with Nicolas Cage’s appeal as an action star while being respectful of the source material; or “Wild Hogs” (B), a buddy comedy that’s become a big hit because John Travolta, Tim Allen, William H. Macy, and Martin Lawrence compliment each other so well, and the movie doesn’t pretend to be more than it is. But then there’s the flip side of OK, as in, “OK?” I’m talking about Zach Snyder’s “300” (B-), which became a geek cause celebre (and the year’s biggest hit thus far) with such stylish visuals, imaginative gore, and thundering gusto- which, make no mistake, is what you expected from the previews, and the film delivers on in spades- that no one bothered to notice that the best bits are lifted from better movies, and there’s not a genuine sense of character or feeling to be found to make me care in the least. I’m looking at you “Premonition” (B-), a Sandra Bullock thriller that could take its’ story of grief-inspiring-action in several directions, but doesn’t commit to any of them in a way that makes any sense. And don’t even get me started about “TMNT” (C+), the stunningly-animated reboot to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise with a stunningly hokey screenplay to render its’ animation triumphs null and void; “Reign Over Me” (C), Mike Binder’s unfocused and awkward drama about a traumatized father/husband (Adam Sandler) who lost his family on 9/11 and is lost in life until an old friend (Don Cheadle) tries to lead him back; and “The Number 23” (C-), Joel Schumacher’s psychological thriller where the ending hints at a more intriguing story than the numbers game we just watched Jim Carrey and Virginia Madsen be subjected to. The last three are prime examples of what’s not OK in modern movies- wasting good ideas and actors on unpolished material; it happens far too often of late.

Favorite Performances: There was a lot to like acting-wise this year- and the individual performances will be discussed later in the year. Here’s a quick rundown of who impressed, Oscar-worthy or not: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “The Lookout”; Mandy Moore, “Because I Said So”; Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore, “Music and Lyrics”; Rose McGowen (“Planet Terror”), Kurt Russell and Zoe Bell (“Death Proof”), all from “Grindhouse”; Jake Ghyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr., “Zodiac”; Will Ferrell, Jon Heder, and Jenna Fisher, “Blades of Glory”; Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, “Hot Fuzz”; Meg Ryan, “In the Land of Women”; and Tabu, Kal Penn, and Irrfan Khan, “The Namesake.”
Favorite Music: OK, so I can kind of start to see a pattern here- with little exception, movie music doesn’t really start to get good- I mean, really good; like, Oscar-worthy good- until the summer movies start to hit. Thank God for the exceptions; they were fewer and further between this year, but they were there. As a general music, most film music is good, in that it serves its’ purpose to serve the story, but little really stands out in the memory as truly special. Thankfully, we were treated to a few such examples, like the pop-rock original songs that were written for “Music and Lyrics” (I’d especially love Oscar nods for “Way Back Into Love” and “Pop! Goes My Heart” Academy voters); the moody orchestral score by David Shire that complimented an evocative choice of period songs in “Zodiac”; the clever spin on his recent stints as the Bond movie composer David Arnold brought to “Hot Fuzz”; and Robert Rodriguez’s horror movie blats and bangs for his “Planet Terror” and Quentin Tarantino’s typical deft ear for the right music for the scene for “Death Proof,” a potent combination in the geeky blast from the past event of “Grindhouse”.

What to Watch This Summer- 6 Flicks to Get Psyched About:
So yeah, let’s talk about what the next four months have to offer movie fans. You got your typical blend of franchise flicks, silly comedy, and animated adventures vying for top dollar in the annual Hollywood horserace for box-office gold. But is any of it gonna be any good? Even looking at the smaller films on the slate, I’m not completely convinced. And there are at least four sequels- the strictly about-the-box-office “Shrek the Third” (May 18), “Toy Story” this franchise is not; the hopefully-better-than-the-first one “Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer” (June 15); the “isn’t he too old- and good- for this?” “Live Free or Die Hard” (June 29); and the “wasn’t two enough?” “Rush Hour 3” (August 10)- whose very conception is problematic at best, and therefore will not be mentioned beyond this point. They’ll be seen by me- make no mistake- but I’m not getting my hopes up. Below are the six movies I’m most stoked about this summer- as well as a dozen or so others I’m interested in- and some of the reasons why.

1. “Spider-Man 3” (5/4)- The release date was announced before the second one- the 800-pound gorilla now of superhero movies- was even released, so it’s no mistake that no expense is being spared for director/co-writer Sam Raimi this third time out (recent reports have it as the most expensive American film ever made). But even before the reviews started coming out, you knew the franchise was at a crossroads. Would this be the end for main players Raimi- and couldn’t-be-better-matched stars Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst- in their run of the franchise? Is the film trying to cram too much (a la “X-Men: The Last Stand”) by having three villains- with Thomas Hayden Church as Sandman and Topher Grace as Venom joining James Franco’s Hobgoblin- matched up against Spidey? Will the behind-the-scenes aspect suffer from the loss of composer Danny Elfman (whose music for the first two was one of its’ greatest assets) to “creative differences”- “The Gift” composer Christopher Young takes the baton- and visual effects supervisor John Dykstra (an Oscar-winner for his work on the second one) to “Hot Wheels?” All questions will be answered this week; all I know is that the film- like its’ predecessors- has blown me away in trailers, and Alvin Sargeant’s screenplay, based on said trailers, promises to be a cohesive and all-encompassing look at how a hero’s dark side can be exposed at its’ worst, and how they must fight the urge to run with it to show their true colors. I’m sorry; I don’t care what the early word is- I can’t wait to see it for myself.

2. “The Simpsons Movie” (7/27)- As someone who’s been buying up the season box-sets of television’s longest-running animated show (the season finale this year marks episode #400 for Homer and co.), I’ll admit that there’s some truth to the idea that this probably should have happened 10 years ago…but it didn’t. And I don’t think there’s a true-blue “Simpsons” fan alive who can’t tell me that the trailers for Springfield’s maiden voyage on the big screen haven’t gotten funnier and funnier, even if we still don’t know what the story is. Matt Groening and co. are pulling out all the stops for this film- the director is David Silverman, who’s been around since the Tracy Ullman days; the writing credits are a veritable who’s who of the show’s best over the years; the film’s secured a PG-13 rating and is being filmed in Cinemascope framing (you know, like “The Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars”)- and with a guest voice list that includes Kelsey Grammer (back as Sideshow Bob) and the great Albert Brooks (as, oh, who the Hell cares- you know he’ll be hilarious), July 27 can’t get here fast enough as far as I’m concerned.

3. “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” (7/13)- Another franchise at a crossroads. Actually, the crossroads was the last one- 2005’s “Goblet of Fire”- when the film franchise of J.K. Rowling’s dileriously popular wizard saga- which comes to a close on the page this summer with “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows”- got its’ first PG-13 rating and really plumbed its’ dark side for the first time. The film was still a smash, but with an unknown Brit at the helm (TV director David Yates is a gamble, but also tentatively attached to ’08s “Half-Blood Prince” adaptation), Steve Kloves out as screenwriter (“Contact” and “Peter Pan” scribe Michael Goldenberg is in, though Kloves will be back for “Half-Blood”), and John Williams long gone as composer (newcomer Nicholas Hooper has the podium), will the success continue? So long as the core cast remains intact, the cast continues to be a who’s who of Brit masters- with Helena Bonham Carter being added to the growing cast list- and the story follows through on the dark path it’s headed the last two movies, I’ll be with this franchise until the end…whatever that may be.

4. “Ratatouille” (6/29)- By most accounts, Pixar lost their way with “Cars,” the first film Pixar founder John Lassetter had directed since “Toy Story 2” and the one that lost the Best Animated Feature Oscar this year to the singing and dancing penguins of “Happy Feet.” It was a hiccup in the run of genius (and their “worst” film to date), but hardly an effort worthy of the drubbing most people gave it. Actually, “Ratatouille” seems more of a gamble. From what little I’ve seen, it’s about a rat living in Paris who wants to taste the high-life of cuisine as a chef. Gotta say- it doesn’t sound very tantilizing so far (though the trailer was funny). So why is it getting a pass so far? Two words- Brad Bird. He’s the man in the director’s chair this time around who won an Oscar for 2004’s terrific “The Incredibles” and was a longtime supervisor/director on “The Simpsons.” If you know either of those things, you know he’s got a knack for combining the nutty with the nuanced. With the next combination of Pixar’s animation might and Bird’s storytelling brains, I’m looking for another hit from the Pixar magic factory.

5. “Transformers” (7/4)- Their more than meets the eye, you know. Sorry, just had to do it. Still, this film- more than any other blockbuster- could go one way or the other. Make no mistake- the older persuasion of geek like myself will come out in droves to see Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg bring the popular ’80s robots from another planet to life onscreen. But will the focus be on the battles between Optimus Prime’s Autobots and Megatron’s Decepticons where it should be, or on the human characters- including hot Spielberg protege Shia LaBeouf (who just landed a role in “Indy IV” for next summer)- that ally themselves with the Autobots? Don’t look for any answers from the trailers (which are promising, if not “Independence Day”-esque exciting), but given the geeky tendencies of screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who damn-near reimagined an “MST3K” movie with their script for Bay’s “The Island” after working on the likes of “Alias” and “M:i-III,” you hope for the best. Here’s hoping Bay and Spielberg can read the minds of fanboys everywhere and know what they want to see…and plenty of it.

6. “Knocked Up” (6/1)- OK, enough of the geeky stuff, let’s get to something, you know, just out-and-out funny. You know, something like, let’s say, accidental pregnancy. OK, the subject matter is anything but in real life, but writer-director Judd Apatow- who hit comic and box-office paydirt with 2005’s hilarious “The 40 Year-Old Virgin”- is banking on it being nothing but in his latest film in both roles, as a one night stand by “Virgin” supporting player Seth Rogan and “Roswell” hottie Katherine Heigl turns into a nightmare situation both hope to turn into anything but by, you know, getting to know each other, and seeing where it leads. The trailer promises what “Virgin” delivered for losing your virginity- insight mixed with insanity, not to mention supporting turns for Paul Rudd, Harold Ramis, Leslie Mann, and others that will no doubt result in much in the way of over-the-top laughs. Is it wrong to think that this might be the surest bet of the summer? Only if you haven’t seen “The 40 Year-Old Virgin”; if you have, you know what you’re in for with this one.

Here are some more movies to look out for this summer:
That headline kind of says it all, doesn’t it? This list includes: “Paprika” (5/25), the latest feature film effort by master Anime director Satoshi Kon (“Perfect Blue,” “Millennium Actress”); “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” (5/25), the continuation of Jerry Bruckheimer and Gore Verbinski’s “Pirates” saga with Chow Yun-Fat joining Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Kiera Knightley, et all on their swashbuckling adventures; “Lucky You” (5/4), a good-looking romantic comedy-drama from director Curtis Hanson (“L.A. Confidential,” “Wonder Boys”) starring Eric Bana, Drew Barrymore, and Robert Duvall; “28 Weeks Later” (5/11), the sequel to Danny Boyle’s zombie movie reinvention- 2003’s “28 Days Later”- that looks as visceral and intense as its’ predecessor; “The Bourne Ultimatum” (8/3), the next story in Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne series, as brought to life by star Matt Damon (a perfect fit in the role) and director Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Supremacy,” “United 93”); “1408” (7/13), an intriguing sci-fi/horror thriller- based on Stephen King- starring John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson; “Ocean’s Thirteen” (6/8), the second sequel to Steven Soderbergh’s caper remake with George Clooney, Brad Pitt and friends- Julia Roberts is out, but Ellen Barkin and Al Pacino are in; “Evan Almighty” (6/22), a spin-off of the 2003 smash “Bruce Almighty” with Steve Carell (“The 40 Year Old-Virgin”) as the new prophet God (the great Morgan Freeman) chooses to do his work; “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” (7/20), a comedy about two New York firefighters- played by Adam Sandler and Kevin James- who try to scam their life insurance company by pretending to be married; “Day Watch” (6/1), the second part of the Russian horror trilogy that finally began to see the light of day last year with “Night Watch”; “Angel-A” (5/25), a new action movie from director Luc Besson (“Leon the Professional,” “The Fifth Element”); and “License to Wed” (7/4), a comedy about marriage starring Robin Williams and Mandy Moore. There are others beyond here to be sure, but these are the ones that have my interest peeked at this time.

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