Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Snooch to the Nooch!

This summer, I hit the movies fast and furious. Of the major movies between May and July, only “Sex and the City” and “Mamma Mia!” were missed in theatres- the latter intentionally, the former because of a truck-totaling car accident. If the indies didn’t get much play from me this summer, it’s only because I was too busy hitting my faves again, and too busy in general with work, friends, and finding a new truck. No matter: this was one of my favorite summers in recent memory, both personally and movie-wise. A lot of things fell into place, and even if the Fall movie season looks a little dimmer (see below), things in general seem to be movie on to a better place. This summer’s movies had a lot to do with that, and even if some August releases haven’t been seen yet (no “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor”; no “Death Race”; no “Babylon A.D.”; no “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”…yet), this is one of my busiest moviegoing summers in a good long while. Here’s where everything placed, as well as a look at the Fall to come.

Viva La Resistance!

Brian Skutle

End-of Summer Best/Worst/Oscar-Worthy:
Best Film: “Wall-E” (A+); Nothing else came remotely close this summer, and I’ll be surprised if anything tops it for the year as well. After 12 years of classics from the two “Toy Story” movies to “Finding Nemo” to “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” Pixar has made their masterpiece courtesy of “Nemo” writer-director Stanton, two love-struck robots who speak largely in beeps and blips, and a fully-realized sci-fi story where imagination is the only limitation. If you aren’t in tears by the final unforgettable frames, you haven’t opened your soul enough to the ways life sometimes surprises you with the heartwarming and the heartbreaking all at once. True, the visionary league of summer superheroes in the form of “Iron Man” (A+), “The Dark Knight” (A), and “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” (A) delivered the goods on both the escapist and excellence fronts (with Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man” being the most surprising), the twisted comic mind of Ben Stiller bit the Hollywood hand that feeds him in the epic satire “Tropic Thunder” (A), and the documentary front provided insight into an equally-maverick real-life journalist in “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” (A), but only with “Wall-E” did you feel like you were watching a genuine work of art to rival the greatest films- not just animated (although it does rank with the likes of “Spirited Away” and “Fantasia” as one of the greatest in the art form’s history)- of all-time. I know I’m having a hard time placing it on my list.

Best Entertainment: “Wall-E” (A+); Again, nothing even came close, but that didn’t stop “Iron Man,” “The Dark Knight,” “Tropic Thunder,” “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” and the likes of the Fedora-d one’s “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” (B+), the Wachowski Brothers’ “Speed Racer” (B+), the animated “Kung Fu Panda” (A-), the spy spoof “Get Smart” (B+), the episodic thriller “The X-Files: I Want to Believe” (A-), and the stoner action movie that was “Pineapple Express” (B+) from giving it the old summer go, with a few of them actually coming close.

Worst Film: “The Love Guru” (F); OK, I haven’t seen “Meet Dave”- the latest nail in the coffin that is Eddie Murphy’s live-action movie career- or “Death Race”- with hack action man Paul W.S. Anderson at the helm- or “Disaster Movie”- which I can safely say I’ll be avoiding at all costs for the sake of my sanity- but let’s face facts, was an experience more excruciating this year than watching Mike Myers recycle old jokes in new, lame material for this “comedy” that’s anything but funny? At least you know what you were getting into with the three films above. Who could’ve guessed how low Myers had sunk with his latest film?

Worst Disappointment: (Artistic) “Step Brothers” (D)/(Financial) “Speed Racer” (B+)- This year’s pair of disappointments stung particularly hard, for different reasons. “Step Brothers” failure as a successful comedy because of the genuine laughs Will Farrell and John C. Reilly earn with co-writer/director Adam McKay (their “Talladega Nights” director) when the movie isn’t going for all-out crudity and mean-spiritedness at this dysfunctional family. “Speed Racer” because the movie surprised a lot of people- myself included- by how much fun it was, Spritle and Chim-Chum antics aside. This was a genuinely entertaining family movie that worked because the relationships were so genuine, and let’s face it, the action rocked, even if you knew none of it was real. That said, the silver lining in “Speed Racer’s” failure is that we won’t see a sequel anytime soon for a movie that should stand-alone as a single movie.

Biggest Laughs: “Tropic Thunder” (A); “Love Guru” and “Step Brothers” aside, this was a great summer for comedy. The laughs came fast and furious in “Get Smart,” “Pineapple Express,” “Hamlet 2” (B-). “Kung Fu Panda,” and the Adam Sandler comedy “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” (B+). Even “Wall-E” and “Iron Man” got into the act with some sly wit, as did “The House Bunny” (B-), which flew higher on the looks of hotties Anna Faris and Emma Stone than on the wit of a “Legally-Blonde”-esque script, but points for effort anyway. Still, nothing came close to matching the anarchic, balls-to-the-wall comedy of “Tropic Thunder,” which turned Robert Downey Jr. into a black man, Ben Stiller into an action star, and Tom Cruise into a comic tour de force that must be seen to be believed. And even then, it’s unlikely you’ll believe anything you see.

Biggest/Best Surprise: “Speed Racer” (B+); For me, the Wachowski Brothers’ family-friendly action-adventure provided both the biggest and best surprises of the summer movie season, with a sports story that feels more like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” than another “Rudy” clone, a visual look that may go better with acid, but pops with a luster and imagination the “Star Wars” prequels couldn’t muster, and a personal story populated by interesting characters that are also sympathetic.

Biggest Dud: “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” (B)- Well, financially it’s “Speed Racer,” which didn’t make a third of its’ money back. Creatively, it’s obviously “The Love Guru.” But I’m gonna go with “The Clone Wars” for several reasons. 1) It squandered an interesting animated style on voice acting that felt as flat as Hayden Christensen’s performances in “Episode II” and “III.” 2) The writing and dialogue didn’t get any better, even though George Lucas had nothing to do with the screenplay. 3) The story? Jabba’s son getting kidnapped? Really? We couldn’t come up with something more epic? No matter. At least it’ll be on TV soon where it belongs, and we can pass judgement fairly.

Most Gratuitous Cash-In: “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” (B)- I mean come on, anyone with half a brain could see that George Lucas and co. just took four episodes worth of scripts, and put them together for a big-screen venture intended to get excitement up for the upcoming television show. Instead, I think they might have caused more concern than excitement.

Favorite Performances: As has been the case in many of the past summers, my favorite performances tended to come in pairs (or trios) from individual films. These are the performances that I enjoyed watching the most, whether they catch Oscar’s eye or not, and they contributed to many of my favorite films. Let’s start with the romantic couple of the summer from Pixar’s masterpiece “Wall-E” (Wall-E and EVE), and continue with “The Dark Knight’s” duo of villainy in The Joker (an unforgettable final performance by Heath Ledger) and Harvey “Two Face” Dent (Aaron Eckhart), “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s” father and son duo of Harrison Ford and Shia LaBeouf, “The House Bunny’s” comely comedy team of Anna Faris and Emma Stone, and a trio of the stars from “Speed Racer’s” family adventure by Speed (Emile Hirsch), Trixie (Christina Ricci), and the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox). As far as individual actors go, the award goes to comeback star Robert Downey Jr., who turned on the charisma big-time as a billionaire superhero in “Iron Man” (where he teamed up beautifully with Gwyneth Paltrow as his perky and loyal assistant) and went balls-to-the-wall looney as an Aussie playing a black man in “Tropic Thunder” (where Ben Stiller matched him ball for wall as an action star trying to act). Other individuals for strutted their stuff- and made an impression- include Steve Carell (continuing where Don Adams left off as Maxwell Smart in “Get Smart”), James Franco (as a drug dealer de force in “Pineapple Express”), Jack Black (as a martial arts geek-turned-hero in “Kung Fu Panda”), and Will Smith (as a reluctant superhero in “Hancock”).

Oscar-Worthy Mentions (Acting/Directing/Writing): If this summer was better-than-average on the entertainment front, it was less-than noteworthy on the Oscar front. That said, some escapist flicks filled the bill big time to allow for some dark horses in each respective race. Nowhere is this more true than in the screenplay categories. Don’t get me wrong, the Best Original Screenplay category has some legitimate contenders with imaginative brilliance of “Wall-E” (Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon) and the broad satire of “Tropic Thunder” (Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux, Etan Cohen), and some less-likely- but no-less deserving- contenders in “Pineapple Express” (Seth Rogen, Eric Goldberg) and “Kung Fu Panda” (Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger, Ethan Reiff, Cyrus Voris), but don’t look for much of a look at this summer for the Best Adapted Screenplay outside of “The Dark Knight” (Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan), even though anyone worth their weight in geekiness can see how smart and surprising “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” (Guillermo Del Toro) and “Speed Racer” (Andy and Larry Wachowski) were on that front this year. Best Director doesn’t have a whole lot to offer Oscar this year, either, although I’d throw my support towards Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”), Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight”), Guillermo Del Toro (“Hellboy II: The Golden Army”), and Ben Stiller (“Tropic Thunder”) any day for the clear vision they brought to their films. The most curious possibilities for Oscar this year come from the acting categories…at least two of them. Best Actor probably won’t get much play from the summer blockbusters this year, although for my money comeback kid Robert Downey Jr. (“Iron Man”) deserves a hard look from the Golden Boy, with more-than honorable mention to be considered for Steve Coogan (for his comic tour de force in “Hamlet 2”), Luke Wilson (for his best performance yet in “Henry Poole is Here”), and Christian Bale (for the dark pain he brought to “The Dark Knight”). Best Actress is less clear from this summer, mainly because I missed a the big “female-driven” vehicles like “Sex and the City,” “Mamma Mia!,” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” but that shouldn’t stop Anna Faris from getting a Golden Globe nom for her comic star turn in “The House Bunny.” Best Supporting Actor provides the biggest test for Academy voters. Will they honor the late Heath Ledger for his unforgettable final full performance as The Joker in “The Dark Knight?” I’m with so many others saying yes, but that shouldn’t stop them from giving a look to Robert Downey Jr. (worthy of duel nominations after his brilliantly subversive turn in “Tropic Thunder”), Aaron Eckhart (for his bold perspective on Gotham mayor Harvey Dent in “The Dark Knight”), James Franco (for his stoner-centric hilarity in “Pineapple Express”), and Ben Stiller (for his ego-maniacal action star turned crazed prisoner in “Thunder”). Best Supporting Actress has a little more to offer than its’ lead actress counterpart, but that doesn’t mean consideration- however deserving- will come for Adrianna Barrazza (“Henry Poole is Here”), Gwyneth Paltrow (“Iron Man”), Elisabeth Shue (who deftly skewers Hollywood and herself in “Hamlet 2”), and Emma Stone (who teams with fellow hottie Anna Faris to help make “The House Bunny” a winner). That said, it’ll be interesting to see if this summer has anything to offer Oscar beyond minor awards, which this summer seems to have locked up if you look below.

Oscar-Worthy Mentions (Technical): How good has this summer been? As far as I’m concerned, these awards are already locked up, no questions asked (top choices per category w/ bold print). Sure, it’s no doubt that Oscar will gum up the works by insisting on bringing the Fall movies into the fold, but be it “The Dark Knight” (Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Art Direction), “Wall-E” (Best Sound, Best Sound Editing), “Iron Man” (Best Film Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound, Best Sound Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction), “Speed Racer” (Best Visual Effects, Best Sound, Best Sound Editing, Best Film Editing), “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” (Best Art Direction, Best Makeup, Best Costume Design, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound, Best Sound Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing), “The Incredible Hulk” (Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Editing, Best Film Editing), “Tropic Thunder” (Best Sound, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup), “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” (Best Sound, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design), and “The Happening” (Best Cinematography), this summer provided more than enough quality here to give Fall films a run for their money. OK, it’s a bit presumptuous to think that NOTHING worthy of any of these Oscars will find its’ way into theatres this Fall, but if you saw any of these films, I think you’ll agree they’ll be awfully hard to beat for any competitors to come.

Oscar-Worthy Mentions (Musical): Summer isn’t where a lot of Oscar-worthy/winning music tends to come from- for reasons of pure snobbery- but that didn’t stop some of Hollywood’s best composers from delivering the goods. Leading the pack- for the summer and the year- for the Best Original Score Oscar were Thomas Newman for the melancholy romanticism he brought to “Wall-E” and Michael Giacchino for the propulsive action/adventure with heart he helped turn “Speed Racer” into with his rhythmic melodies. Also high on the list rate Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard for their continually-potent collaboration on the new Batman movies with “The Dark Knight”, Ramin Djawadi for his guitar-heavy heroism he brought to “Iron Man”, and Danny Elfman for his take on the fantasy adventures of Red in “Hellboy II: The Golden Army”. But that’s not all that worked musically- Harry Gregson-Williams expounded on his formulaic first score for the “Narnia” films beautifully with “Prince Caspian”, John Williams returned to fun form for the latest Spielberg-Lucas joint “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” even when his theme was butchered in the otherwise-exciting musically “Star Wars: The Clone Wars”, which gave fans a listen to what Kevin Kiner has in store for them on the TV show. Even Best Original Song got a couple of contenders in it, starting with the Peter Gabriel-sung “Down to Earth” (Peter Gabriel, Thomas Newman) from “Wall-E” and ending with the wickedly reverent- if formally-irreverent- “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” (Ralph Sall, Pam Brady, Andrew Fleming) from “Hamlet 2.” Yes, those two couldn’t be more different from one another, but that doesn’t make them less Oscar-worthy, and to Academy members- a nod to “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” and all is forgiven for ignoring “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut.”

Summer 2008: The Complete Moviewatching List:
The A’s: “Wall-E” (A+); “Iron Man” (A+); “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” (A); “The Dark Knight” (A); “Tropic Thunder” (A); “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” (A); “Encounters at the End of the World” (A-); “Kung Fu Panda” (A-); “The Incredible Hulk” (A-); “The X-Files: I Want to Believe” (A-); “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” (A-)

The B’s: “Speed Racer” (B+); “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” (B+); “Get Smart” (B+); “Pineapple Express” (B+); “Henry Poole is Here” (B+); “The Happening” (B+); “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” (B+); “Bottle Shock” (B); “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” (B); “Hancock” (B); “Hamlet 2” (B-); “The House Bunny” (B-); “Swing Vote” (B-); “Wanted” (B-)

The C’s: “Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D” (C+)

The D’s: “Step Brothers” (D)

The F’s: “The Love Guru” (F)

Brian’s 5 “Must-See” Movies of Fall 2008
1. “Quantum of Solace” (November 7); What with Warner Bros. selfishly boneheaded move to push back “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” to Summer 2009, that leaves the sure-thing blockbuster front alone for the picking for Bond. After 2006’s terrific “Casino Royale,” fueled by a star turn by Daniel Craig as the new 007, excitement is sky-high to see how the venerable franchise- now 46 years old- continues after being reinvigorated by a paired-down, character-driven style. The teaser certainly gets my blood going about the possibilities. The interesting thing will be to see how director Marc Forster- the versatile director of “Finding Neverland,” “Monster’s Ball,” “Stay,” “Stranger Than Fiction,” and “The Kite Runner”- will handle the action genre. My guess is, if the above films are any indication, he’ll handle himself just fine.

2. “W.” (October 17); After the movingly earnest way he handled the true story of “World Trade Center,” leave it to Oliver Stone to get back to controversy with an equally-compelling vision, this time of our embattled, and now lame duck, Commander and Chief, George W. Bush. The trailer points to broad satire that tries to point to hard truths. Not sure whether Stone will be able to pull it off, but we’ll see what happens. He certainly has a brilliant cast at his disposal- Josh Brolin as W., James Cromwell as his daddy, Richard Dreyfuss as his VP, Thandie Newton as Condaleeza Rice, among many many others. Even Bush detrators may think Stone will go too far, but one thing’s for sure- I’ll be checking it out to find out.

3. “Burn After Reading” (September 12); After spending the better part of a decade on quirky studio projects (“Intolerable Cruelty,” “The Ladykillers”) and quirkier personal projects (“The Man Who Wasn’t There,” “The Big Lebowski”), seeming to cool their heels after their acclaimed masterpiece “Fargo,” the Coen Brothers roared back with another masterpiece in last year’s Best Picture winner “No Country for Old Men.” For an encore to that triumph, they’re following up with what promises to be a deeply funny comedy thriller about CIA secrets that end up in the wrong hands, by which I mean, not exactly the brightest ones. The cast includes names like Brad Pitt and George Clooney and award winners like Frances McDormond, Tilda Swinton, and Richard Jenkins. The trailer promises a return to comic form along the lines of “Raising Arizona” and yes, “The Big Lebowski.” I’m dying to see this one. Could we see back-to-back Oscars for Joel and Ethan? It’s unlikely, but I definitely want to see for myself.

4. “My Name is Bruce” (October 30); I’ll be honest that I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to catch this film in theatres in its’ limited run. No matter; the Bruce of the title is Campbell, not Banner or Almighty, and that makes it an event worth my time. After his directorial debut with 2005’s cheesy fun “The Man With the Screaming Brain,” Campbell steps behind the camera again and stars as himself, who runs into all sorts of supernatural shenanigans when a small town mistakes him for his iconic character Ashe (from the “Evil Dead” movies), and think he can save the day. Hell, forget Chuck Norris; Campbell is the type of unique personality both onscreen and off that you totally believe he could take on the forces of evil. One look at the trailer (I watched it on YouTube) and you might be thinking the same thing.

5. “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” (October 31); Here’s a non-View Askewniverse film that might actually work for writer-director-fanboy Kevin Smith (’cause let’s face it, “Jersey Girl” didn’t). The premise is explained in the title: to make some extra money, best friends Zack (Seth Rogen, actually working with someone NOT Judd Apatow for a change) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks, continuing to make herself known) make an adult film. But as happens in this type of arrangement, things get a little complicated. Smith may have sold his soul for a sequel in “Clerks II,” but come on, there have been worse fates for cult hits…that movie was still pretty funny. With a pair of comic stars in place for his leads, and a premise that seems more “Chasing Amy” than “Mallrats,” something tells me that Smith is gonna be making some comic waves again. All I have to say to that is, welcome back buddy.

Other Fall Films to Be on the Lookout For:
A closer look at this Fall reveals a lot of interesting projects on the horizon, both high-brow and low. Let’s start with the curiosity that is “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (12/19), the latest film from maverick director David Fincher (whose 2007 film “Zodiac” gets better with each viewing), starring Brad Pitt as a man who reverse ages from 80 down even as his marriage to Cate Blanchett continues- Oscar buzz is already swarming around this film- rightfully so if you’ve seen the trailer. Also making headway in the Oscar race is “Miracle at St. Anna” (9/26), a WWII film/mystery from provocateur Spike Lee (on a roll with 2006’s “Inside Man” and his paralyzing documentary “When the Levees Broke”) about a little know story of murder and discovery from the Great War; “Changeling” (10/24), the latest film from the better-with-age Clint Eastwood starring Angelina Jolie as a mother whose son is kidnapped, but isn’t sure the one she gets back is her own; “Defiance” (12/12), another WWII story- this one about three saviors to a group of Jews during the Holocaust- stars new Bond Daniel Craig and is directed by “Glory” and “Courage Under Fire” director Edward Zwick; “Frost/Nixon” (12/5), a political drama centered around an interview David Frost held with Richard Nixon in 1977- early buzz has Ron Howard in the running for another Oscar and Frank Langella a sure-fire nominee as Tricky Dick; and despite changing release dates and on-set controversy, don’t count out “Valkyrie” (12/26), Bryan Singer’s bold thriller about a plot to assassinate Hitler, with Tom Cruise as the German ordered to do so. Test screenings have had early word rising for this film, which was originally set for this summer, then next year, finally this Christmas. But Oscar hopefuls aren’t all to look forward to this year; I can’t wait to see Shia LaBeouf and his “Disturbia” director D.J. Caruso take on Hitchcock some more with the man-on-the-lam thriller “Eagle Eye” (9/26). Or surrealist screenwriter Charlie Kaufman try his hand at directing Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Synecdoche, NY” (10/24). Or watch Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx team up for a true story in “The Soloist” (11/21). Or Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe pair up with Ridley Scott for the timely “Body of Lies” (10/10). Or watch the quirky animated film “Igor” (9/19), with John Cusack lending voice to Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant and giving voices to 2nd bananas everywhere. Or take in the purely escapist pleasures of the teen rom-com “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” (10/3) starring Michael Cera and the Nicolas Cage action thriller “Bangkok Dangerous” (9/5). And while I’m not much a fan of the man, I am looking forward to seeing what Bill Maher has to say about religion around the world in his documentary “Religulous” (10/3). I’m missing a lot of other films to be sure- like Frank Miller’s “The Spirit” (12/25), Sam Mendes’ “Revolutionary Road” (12/25), John Hillcoat’s “The Road” (11/26), and Rian Johnson’s “The Brothers Bloom” (10/24)- but don’t fret; these will get talked about as the Fall goes on.

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