Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Snooch to the Nooch!

Well, another summer has come and gone at the movies. Man, was this a long one. Seriously. I haven’t been this exhausted when Labor Day came around in years. Work was constant, film watching was frequent (including four actual midnight shows, a record for me or anybody perhaps). Was it worth it? Certainly. This summer had its’ fair share of middling efforts, including many I just never got to (that’s what DVD is for people, and don’t expect commentary from me on the ridiculous HD format war; I’m not caught in the middle of it yet), but many of the bigger films delivered- I felt- what was most expected of them, even if that was just a fun damn time at the movies. My big regret is all of the smaller films I’ve missed the past four months; the list- regretfully- includes “La Vie en Rose,” “Talk to Me,” “Crazy Love,” “Goya’s Ghosts,” “Rocket Science,” “A Mighty Heart” (with Angelina Jolie, hardly a small movie, but certainly a neglected one), “You Kill Me,” and “My Best Friend,” among others. But Netflix is a great resource with which to find such films on DVD for viewing, and will be of great benefit in the coming months. For now, let’s look at the best and worst of the past months, and what’s to come in the month’s ahead.

Viva La Resistance!

Brian Skutle

End-of Summer Best/Worst/Oscar-Worthy:
Best Film: “Once” (A+); While I felt that- for escapism- this was one of the better summers in recent memory, quality for the year is still muted from previous years. Makes one appreciate the gems in the rough even more, lead by John Carney’s Irish love story about two people (real-life musicians Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova make a beautiful pair) who find each other at just the right moment of their lives. Bolstered by the year’s best soundtrack, it’s the only film I feel has merited 4 stars all year. But “Once” wasn’t alone at the top of the quality heap; not far behind was Brad Bird’s latest marvel for Pixar (“Ratatouille” (A)); Michael Moore’s scathing indictment of American Health Un-Care (“SiCKO” (A)); David Yates’ darkly satisfying continuation of J.K. Rowlings’ young wizard’s adventures onscreen (“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” (A)), all of which current occupy my Top Five films of the year. Hopefully, it won’t last.

Best Entertainment: “Spider-Man 3” (A-); Like most everyone else, I can gripe about the film’s approach to its’ three villains, the sometimes heavy-handed soap opera of a story, and the final battle, which doesn’t match the excitement of “Spider-Man 2’s” runaway train. But thematically, Sam Raimi’s trilogy-capper with the never-better Tobey Maguire was the thrilling battle between Peter Parker and himself; look for this film to gain esteem as the years go on as a result. Not far below Spidey in the popcorn movie pyramid is the slyly moronic wit of “The Simpsons Movie”; the warmly endearing storytelling of Brad Bird’s “Ratatouille”; the thrilling wizardry of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”; the sweet musical love story “Once”; the psychological horror of “1408” (A-); the bombastic adventure of “Transformers” (B+); the raunchy fun of the heartwarming “Knocked Up” and the horny adolenscence of “Superbad” (B); and the indie pleasures of the down-home “Waitress” (A-) and the British farce “Death at a Funeral” (B+), among many others.

Worst Film: “Rush Hour 3” (F); In all honesty, this wasn’t too interesting of a group until the past week, when I saw Brett Ratner’s pointless three-quel to the smash Chris Tucker/Jackie Chan action comedy series. I suppose a less discerning filmgoer will be entertained, but it was just painful to see these guys trying so hard when you knew it was all about the money anyway. I skipped a lot of the films critics trashed this summer, while others weren’t as bad as critics made them out to be; they were just average genre efforts. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t scold “Balls of Fury” (D), however, for doing wrong by a promising comic premise. Then again, it was from the same guys responsible for this year’s equally-horrid “Reno 911!: Miami,” so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Worst Disappointment: (Artistic) “Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer” (C-)/(Financial) “Shrek the Third” (C)- I can’t say I’m surprised of the artistic failure of “Silver Surfer,” since much of the crew responsible for the 2005 turd of a movie was involved here as well; what disappointed with it, however, was that the filmmakers clearly didn’t do anything to improve the situation the second time around. And I normally don’t put mediocre films as financial disappointments, but the crass cash-in that was the second “Shrek” sequel deserves consideration since, as one of this summer’s record-breaking four $300 million smashes, it not only conned audiences into paying for mediocrity on a grand scale, it also outgrossed far superior animated films (be they legit smashes “Ratatouille” and “The Simpsons Movie,” underrated minor efforts like “Surf’s Up,” or the indie-released anime gem “Paprika”). I know I’m not alone in feeling this way.

Biggest Laughs: (tie) “The Simpsons Movie” (A-) & “Knocked Up” (B+); Comedy is still tricky business in Hollywood, and if there was any proof necessary that it should be left to the experts, see the two films above. Along with Edgar Wright’s “Hot Fuzz” this Spring, the big screen debut of Matt Groening’s yellow-skinned universe of idiots and Judd Apatow’s latest laugh riot blend of raunch and feeling have provided enough gut-busting moments to where, if Hollywood doesn’t make me laugh for the rest of the year, I may not even care because of how funny those three were. Hopefully, that won’t be the case, though.

Biggest/Best Surprise: In all honesty, I don’t really have anything that I can qualify as the summer’s “biggest” surprise- all you needed to do was look at the lineup and know what was going to hit and what was going to strike out. Among the best surprises, however, was the fact that “Live Free or Die Hard” (B+) was actually worthy of being considered in the same breathe as the seminal 1988 actioner that began the franchise. It’s also nice to see Matthew Vaughn’s lovely fantasy “Stardust” (A-) hold its’ own in its’ own way, possibly paving the way to the same type of cult status Rob Reiner’s classic “The Princess Bride” has achieved.

Biggest Dud: I think this is the type of thing people were worried about with “Waterworld” all those years ago. It’s always a risk to spend $175 million on any movie, I don’t care what it is. It’s even riskier to spend it on a sequel without the original star being released in one of the most competitive family film seasons in recent memory, not exactly the tone that the original film was. It didn’t pay off for Steve Carell, still not quite as big a star to fill Jim Carrey’s shoes, when it came to the modern version of Noah’s Ark he starred in with “Evan Almighty” (B-). It didn’t help that laughs were in short supply, either, but it was fun to watch Carell and Morgan Freeman (back as God) play off each other.

Most Gratuitous Cash-In: You could easily point to tripe like “Daddy Day Camp,” which starred neither of the leads from the first film, except I have yet to see it. You could also point to “Live Free or Die Hard,” but at least that was, you know, worth the price of admission (at least during matinee). Instead, let’s look at the crass commercialism of “Rush Hour 3”, more noteworthy for the talent salaries that finally put it in front of cameras that what actually was put to film.

Favorite Performances: Usually, this is basically a long list of personal favorite actors doing what I enjoy seeing them do really well, and I suppose this year’s no different. That said, there’s a reason that usually happens- they live up to the hype. See, for instance, the transformation of Shia LaBeouf from promising young talent to legitimate star with his turn as a surfing penguin in “Surf’s Up” or, more likely, as a kid who gets the coolest car a high schooler’s ever gotten in “Transformers,” this after a well-deserved breakout hit this Spring in “Disturbia.” But while Shia’s star was the brightest this summer, I’d be remiss without mentioning Keri Russell, Andy Griffith, Nathan Fillion and the rest of the cast of “Waitress”; Kevin Costner and William Hurt for their psychological battle in the underrated “Mr. Brooks”; Tobey Maguire for his continued excellence as Peter Parker in “Spider-Man 3”; newcomer Christopher Mintz-Plasse as hot geek McLovin in “Superbad”; Claire Danes as the romantic star and Robert DeNiro as the reputation-concerned pirate in “Stardust”; John Cusack for the dramatic depth he displays in the frightening “1408”; Imelda Staunton for her chipper wickedness, and Daniel Radcliffe for his sullen heroism, in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”; Seth Rogan and Katherine Heigl for their sweet and unplanned courtship in “Knocked Up”; and Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova as the musicians who strike and unforgettable chord together in “Once.” But in the end, no performance gave me greater pleasure this summer than the one the ever-amazing Dan Castalanetta delivered as the sweetly stupid Homer Simpson in “The Simpsons Movie”- the screen is bigger, but Homer’s eternal idiocy leaps off of it in ways few characters in popular fiction are capable of (although Albert Brooks as the evil E.P.A. agent delivered the goods as always too).

Oscar-Worthy Mentions (Acting/Directing/Writing): Discussing the Oscars when it comes to summer movies, especially in these characters, is generally an exercise in futility, what with the annual rat race towards gold that is Fall to go. Still, this summer provided some possibilities I wouldn’t mind seeing personally. Starting in Best Actor, joining an already crowded category is Kevin Costner (“Mr. Brooks”) for his best lead performance in over a decade, Kevin Bacon (“Death Sentence”) for a tour de force exploration of what vengeance brings to the soul, Glen Hansard (“Once”) as a soulful musician who follows his dreams, Seth Rogan (“Knocked Up”) as a slacker who becomes a man, Christian Bale (“Rescue Dawn”) as a POW obsessed with escape, and- what the Hell- Matt Damon (“The Bourne Ultimatum”) as the relentless superspy trying to piece his memories back together. If I had my way, both Keri Russell (“Waitress”) as a pregnant, unhappy wife and Marketa Irglov (“Once”) as the single mother who finds her soulmate would make Best Actress a much more interesting race this year. Best Supporting Actor is never a dull race, especially when consideration should be given to diverse names like Andy Griffith (“Waitress”), Steve Zahn (“Rescue Dawn”), William Hurt (“Mr. Brooks”), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (“Superbad”), Robert DeNiro (“Stardust”), and Nathan Fillion (“Waitress”). Unfortunately, the same can’t really be said of Best Supporting Actress, although Imelda Staunton (“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”) delivered a mesmerizing performance that is one of the year’s most memorable, and the late Adrienne Shelly (“Waitress”) displayed onscreen talent to match her offscreen skills, gone too soon for some of us film fans just getting to know her. For Best Director, I wouldn’t expect serious consideration from the Academy towards “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’s” David Yates, “Once’s” John Carney, “Rescue Dawn’s” Werner Herzog, or “Stardust’s” Matthew Vaughn, but all showed daring and imagination in the way they told their stories that brings to mind previous contenders in the category. And the last thing you look for in summer movies is screenwriting literacy, but look for serious, and deserved, critical pushing for the likes of “Once” (John Carney), “Waitress” (Adrienne Shelly), “Knocked Up” (Judd Apatow), “Ratatouille” (Brad Bird, Jan Pinkava, Jim Capobianco), and “Mr. Brooks” (Bruce A. Evans & Raynold Gideon) for Best Original Screenplay and “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” (Michael Goldenberg), “The Simpsons Movie” (check my review for its’ 11 writing credits), “1408” (Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski), “Stardust” (Matthew Vaughn & Jane Goldman), and “Spider-Man 3” (Alvin Sargent, Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi) for Best Adapted Screenplay. OK, maybe a lot of those are more my personal hopefuls for the screenwriting categories, but you’ve gotta admit, we did get a good amount of better-than-average scripts this summer.

Oscar-Worthy Mentions (Technical): With so many megablockbusters released in the past four months, it’s stunning how few of them actually made an impact on the technical categories so far. OK, that’s not exactly true, but it feels that way. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Oscar turn its’ attention towards “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” (Best Visual Effects, Best Sound, Best Sound Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design), “Stardust” (Best Visual Effects, Best Sound, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Makeup, Best Costume Design), “1408” (Best Visual Effects, Best Sound, Best Sound Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing), “Spider-Man 3” (Best Visual Effects, Best Sound, Best Sound Editing, Best Film Editing), “Transformers” (Best Visual Effects, Best Sound, Best Sound Editing), “Sunshine” (Best Visual Effects, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction), “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” (Best Art Direction, Best Makeup, Best Costume Design), “The Bourne Ultimatum” (Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing), or “Rescue Dawn” (Best Cinematography) when looking for the year’s best in what some call the “lesser” categories.

Oscar-Worthy Mentions (Musical): My soundtrack collection doesn’t exactly convey how artistically uninspired this summer has felt for film music. There’s been much in the way of entertaining film music (Hans Zimmer and co. delivered two terrifically fun scores for “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” and “The Simpsons Movie,” John Powell continued to dominate contemporary action cinema with “The Bourne Ultimatum,” and Christopher Young capably filled in for Danny Elfman on “Spider-Man 3”), but Oscar worthy music? That was a little trickier to come across. Still, I wouldn’t mind seeing Oscar make up for a past wrong by giving “Incredibles” non-nominee Michael Giacchino a nod for his lovely lyricism for “Ratatouille” (thus far, the year’s best score), listen to the artistic ambition horror inspired in Gabriel Yared in his music for “1408,” revel in how well-suited Philip Glass’ arpeggiated figures are to the romantic drama-comedy “No Reservations,” and even forgive Nicholas Hooper his non-John Williams-ness in his better-with-each-listen effort for “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” for Best Original Score. For Best Original Song, things aren’t quite so bleak; “Ratatouille” contained a little gem in Giacchino’s “Le Festin,” and “Waitress” had a sweet, original lullaby in Andrew Hollander and Adrienne Shelly’s “Baby Don’t You Cry,” but if you think anything’s gonna get in the way of this summer’s little indie that could- “Once”- and its’ collection of memorable ballads, you underestimate Oscar’s ability to get one right every once in a while.

Summer 2007: The Complete Moviewatching List:
The A’s: “Once” (A+); “Ratatouille” (A); “SiCKO” (A); “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” (A); “Waitress” (A-); “Spider-Man 3” (A-); “Stardust” (A-); “Mr. Brooks” (A-); “Rescue Dawn” (A-); “The Simpsons Movie” (A-); “Paris je a’temie” (A-); “1408” (A-); “28 Weeks Later” (A-)

The B’s: “Death Sentence” (B+); “Death at a Funeral” (B+); “Knocked Up” (B+); “The Bourne Ultimatum” (B+); “Surf’s Up” (B+); “Paprika” (B+); “Transformers” (B+); “Live Free or Die Hard” (B+); “Lucky You” (B+); “Sunshine” (B); “Superbad” (B); “Ocean’s Thirteen” (B); “Becoming Jane” (B); “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” (B-); “Evan Almighty” (B-); “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” (B-)

The C’s: “No Reservations” (C+); “An Arctic Tale” (C+); “Shrek the Third” (C); “Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer” (C-)

The D’s: “Balls of Fury” (D)

The F’s: “Rush Hour 3” (F)

Brian’s 4 “Must-See” Movies of Fall 2007
1. “American Gangster” (November 2); Admittedly, this is an odd choice for me to put at my number one slot, but the fact of the matter is, nothing else this fall has gotten me so excited than Ridley Scott’s true American crime story about Frank Lucas (the always-superb Denzel Washington), who made a living running drugs in New York in the ’70s before he was taken down by cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). Long in development (an earlier attempt by Antoine Fuqua, also starring Washington (who’s deal means he was paid for both attempts), fell through), one look at the trailer points to a crime thriller in the vein of the ’70s classics and the work of Marty Scorsese. How’d he do with his latest crime epic? Oh yeah, “The Departed” won Best Picture and Director. I’m just saying…

2. “I Am Legend” (December 14); I wouldn’t expect Oscar to be in the cards for this post-apocalyptic adventure, but don’t be surprised if it has cash registers ringing all winter, with Will Smith starring as a man who remarkably survives Armageddon (the real deal, not the Michael Bay film), but finds he isn’t completely alone in the world. Also a long-in-development project (Ridley Scott was once attached as directing Arnold Schwarzenegger), this adaptation of Richard Matheson’s classic novel (which also inspired “The Omega Man”) is brought to the screen by Francis Lawrence, who made an underrated, intriguing bit of escapism two years ago in “Constantine.” If that was what he’s capable of with Keanu Reeves (an underrated action star, to be fair), just think of the possibilities with multiple Oscar-nominee (and consistant box-office draw) Smith.

3. “Beowulf” (November 16); I’ll admit that the trailer took some of the luster off of this project for me, but just some. The classic English epic poem- a high school English staple for all-time- gets unique treatment from director Robert Zemeckis (who, for all of his blockbusters over the years- from “Back to the Future” to “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” to “Forrest Gump” to “Cast Away”- is becoming somewhat Kubrickian in his approach to filmmaking) in the same oddly beautiful style of digital animation he first experimented with in the kiddie film “The Polar Express.” Expect something a little more, shall we say, adult this time around, as Zemeckis goes the “300” route with a cast including Ray Winstone (“The Departed”), Angelina Jolie, Crispin Glover (“Back to the Future”), Anthony Hopkins, and John Malkovich, and a script by sci-fi/fantasy author Neil Gaiman and “Pulp Fiction” co-writer Roger Avery. I’m dying to see this one on IMAX in 3-D.

4. “Sweeney Todd” (December 21); I have never seen Stephen Sondheim’s classic Broadway musical about a 19th Century London barber with a penchant for cutting off more than hair on his customers; my closest association with it is the hilariously devious scene in Kevin Smith’s “Jersey Girl” where a family re-enacts the film for a talent show. I’m sure something got lost in the translation- I’m not expecting to this time around, with the wickedly macabre Tim Burton bringing Sondheim’s grisly tale to the big screen, songs and all, with frequent collaborator Johnny Depp taking on the acting (and singing) responsibilities as the main character. And if that wasn’t enough to get people into theatres? The cast also includes “Borat’s” Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, and “Buffy’s” Anthony Stewart Head. Get ready for the marketing challenge of 2007 folks; I’m already in line.

Other Fall Films to Be on the Lookout For:
There’s actually quite a bit this fall to really get excited about- I just don’t have the same out-and-out excitement about the following (some just because I haven’t seen anything on many of them yet): “Eastern Promises” (9/14), the latest piece of provocation from “A History of Violence” director David Cronenberg, this one starring Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts; “Lust, Caution” (9/28), the latest left turn from Oscar winner Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) is a political thriller set in 1940’s Shanghai, so sexually explicit it’s garnered an uncontested NC-17; “The Mist” (11/21), with writer-director Frank Darabont (“The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Green Mile”) taking on his first Stephen King horror adaptation with “Punisher” star Thomas Jane; “Fred Claus” (11/9), a holiday family comedy, hopefully with bite, with Vince Vaughn playing the older no-good brother of Paul Giamatti’s Santa (and Kevin Spacey as the villain looking to stop Christmas); “No Country for Old Men” (11/9), the latest undefinable creation from the Coen Brothers (“Fargo,” “Raising Arizona”) starring Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, and Javier Bardem; “3:10 to Yuma” (9/7), an adaptation of the Elmore Leonard short story from “Walk the Line” director James Mangold starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale; “Martin Child” (11/2), a potentially-weepy drama with John Cusack as a single father to a loner child; “The Brave One” (9/14), a revenge thriller not getting enough press from “The Crying Game” director Neil Jordan starring a scary-looking Jodie Foster as a vigilante; “Across the Universe” (9/14), a Beatles-heaving, generation-defining avant garde musical from “Frida” director Julie Taymor that’s gotten too much press about a behind-the-scenes editing battle; “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” (12/21), with Nicolas Cage returning to solve another lost American mystery in the name of duty to family and country; “Gone Baby Gone” (10/19), the promising directorial debut for Ben Affleck, based on a novel by “Mystic River” author Dennis Lehane, starring Casey Affleck, Morgan Freeman, and Ed Harris; “Saw IV” (10/26), the next chapter in the grisly “torture porn” saga that’s become a Halloween tradition; “Southland Tales” (11/9), the long-shelved follow-up to writer-director Richard Kelly’s “Donnie Darko”; “Lions for Lambs” (11/9), with Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep starring in a modern-day political drama for director/costar Robert Redford; and “Youth Beyond Youth” (12/14), with Francis Ford Coppola returning to filmmaking after 10 years with a small character piece starring Tim Roth. There are many other films, of course (Mike Nichols’ “Charlie Wilson’s War”- with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts- could be prime Oscar bait, Richard LaGravanese’s “P.S., I Love You” could be a four-star weepie, “The Golden Compass” could be another fantasy smash, and what I’ve seen of “Alien vs. Predator: Requiem” looks encouraging), but from what I know, these are the ones that show the most promise this Fall.

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