Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Snooch to the Nooch!

2009 has had some exciting cinematic opportunities in the first third of the year. OK, I’m not talking about the Jonas Brothers concert film or “Hannah Montana: The Movie.” We’re talking geek films, box-office surprises (who knew “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” and “Taken” were gonna take audiences by storm?), and most importantly, unlikely surprises. A lot of that has to do with me getting into offering independent filmmakers with a chance to get reviewed on the site along with the big boys. The results have been some exciting and original views on the world and in cinema. A lot of those will be explored below, as will the films that’ve hit (and missed) with me early on, and what to look forward to this summer.

Viva La Resistance!

Brian Skutle

What Sizzled:
A lot of stuff, actually, but a lot of it had to do with the fact that I’ve had a lot of independent filmmakers show an interest in getting reviewed. That’s not to say some of the major releases haven’t had something to offer. Let’s start with Alex Proyas’ thrilling science-fiction epic “Knowing” (A+), which didn’t impress critics (except for Roger Ebert), but audiences really enjoyed Nicolas Cage as a professor whose son is in possession of proof that the universe isn’t quite as random as it appears. Following “Knowing’s” visionary storytelling muscle is Henry Selick’s odd, beautifully-animated 3-D stop-motion film “Coraline” (A), bringing Neil Gaiman’s haunting fairy tale to life with elegant movement and delightful music and Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” (A), which brought Alan Moore’s tough, dense graphic novel to imaginative length and depth that didn’t really strike a chord with audiences, but gets richer the more one watches it. Beyond those dark fantasies, more character-driven works delivered the goods big-time, starting with Joe Wright’s beautifully-acted and made “The Soloist” (A), with Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx getting to the heart of a fragile bond between writer and subject, and continuing with Russ Camarda’s “Night for Day” (A), a thriller about a guy in over his head, afraid of what will happen if he can’t get away from the predicament he’s in; “I Love You, Man” (A-), with Paul Rudd and Jason Segel in a hilarious bromantic comedy for the ages; “Cookies & Cream” (A-), an independent character study with a young woman dealing with the difficulties of romance when she’s also working as an adult performer; “Friday the 13th” (A-), a revamp of the iconic slasher flick that delivered the goods as good as any modern horror film has in recent years; “Baystate Blues” (A-), a family drama about a couple whose marriage has been on the rocks since a car accident six months ago; “Uptown” (A-), about two people whose friendship veers on the edge of being something more; and “New York Lately” (A-), and multi-character look at lives and relationships in the Big Apple. That’s a lot of movies- the next few didn’t sizzle as much, but did offer plenty of entertainment, starting with “Monsters vs. Aliens” (B+), Dreamworks’ hugely-promoted 3-D CG extravaganza that was pretty darn funny as well, and continuing with “The Cross: The Arthur Blessitt Story” (B+), a thoughtful doc about a true believer in Christ’s message who traveled the globe to spread it; “Observe and Report” (B+), a darkly funny comedy starring Seth Rogan that pushed the boundaries of where funny could go; “Notorious” (B+), a by-the-numbers drama about the life of rapper Notorious B.I.G. that’s fueled by terrific acting and deeper meaning; “My Bloody Valentine 3-D” (B+), a remake of the slasher classic with eye-popping (sometimes literally) use of Digital 3-D; “carter.” (B+), another indie effort that gets to the heart of its’ characters in a complicated life situation; “State of Play” (B+), a deviously complex political thriller with acting bravura to spare; and “Duplicity” (B+), a crafty to a fault twist on the caper genre from writer/director Tony Gilroy that succeeds on the shoulders of its’ actors.

What Sucked:
In truth, not much at all. At least of the films I’ve seen so far. It helps that a lot of those were indies I was approached about reviewing- it also helps that I avoided a lot of the crap- but that doesn’t mean this year will be bereft of its’ share of garbage. That’s kind of why the one film I can include on here- Tyler Perry’s “Madea Goes to Jail” (D+)- is so unfortunate. Don’t get me wrong, all the stuff with Madea is pretty darn funny, but why do we have a complete side story that is melodramatic to a turn, and all but negates the comedy? Perry may be an Atlanta boy, but that doesn’t excuse him for a film so tonally all over the map…

What’s Just OK:
A lot of middle-of-the-road, middling efforts, some of which hit it surprisingly big at a recession-driven box-office onslaught. Among the surprising successes was “Taken” (B), the Luc Besson-penned thriller with Liam Neeson as a bad-ass father looking for his kidnapped daughter in France- it’s a pretty good bit of mindless escapism- and the Kevin James-starring comedy “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” (C), which wasn’t as amusing as its’ trailer, but James makes the silliness go a long way. Not so surprising a hit was “He’s Just Not That Into You” (B-), a trip into chick-flick Hell inspired by the best-selling book that played by all the rules, even though the cast did have some good moments to play with. Films that didn’t quite burn it up like people hoped- and rightfully so- were Tom Twyker’s political thriller “The International” (B), which was too complex for its’ own good; “Confessions of a Shopaholic” (B-), which wasted a good star turn by Isla Fisher on a fashion-centric chick flick that couldn’t beat “Sex and the City” at its’ own game; and “The Last House on the Left” (B-), a remake of Wes Craven’s ’70s film that started off unnerving for all the right reasons (that rape scene was rough), but ended up being unnerving in how predictably it went to slasher conventions. Other theatrical releases that bombed creatively- as well as financially- were “The Unborn” (C+), which had some good horror moments, but was too much of the same; “Fired Up!” (C+), a cheerleader comedy with plenty of eye candy, but not enough laughs; and “Fanboys” (C), a really geeky movie about “Star Wars” die-hards looking to steal a print of “Episode I”- unfortunately, it forgot to be really funny as well. Thankfully, there were a couple of rays of light seen in this middle road in the form of two indies their respective filmmakers gave me the opportunity to watch- the first was a short film that was long on style and short on substance (“Sex and Justice” (B-)); the second was a faux documentary about the “E” scene in L.A. (“Rolling” (B)). While neither really blew my socks off, both showed hope for an art form that sometimes takes obvious roads when afraid to push the envelope. Not that I mind a little mindless entertainment now and again.

Favorite Performances: Ok, so you guys should know as well as I do that acting isn’t exactly a big draw for the early months of the year, especially since most critics feel that the first couple of months is a veritable no-man’s-land for quality in movies. Balderdash, I saw, and several actors proved me right this year. Start with a couple of “Watchmen’s” morally-questionable masks- namely, Jackie Earl Haley as Rorschach and Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan, both Oscar-worthy- and work your way down the acting foodchain. Of the many indies I saw this year, memorable performances were abundant, most especially turns by Jace Nicole in “Cookies & Cream” (as a sex worker struggling with a real relationship), Meissa Hampton and Chris Riquinha in “Uptown” (as friends whose bond struggles to remain platonic), and Russ Camarda in “Night for Day” (as a jazz musician whose past doesn’t want to let go of him). Comedies also brought a lot of great turns, making the fun even more appealing, starting with bromantic partners Paul Rudd and Jason Segel in “I Love You, Man” and Seth Rogan in his scene-stealing turn in the animated comedy “Monsters vs. Aliens,” to say nothing of the psychotic turn as a mall security guard on a mission in “Observe and Report.” Dramatically, a lot of actors turned in stellar work in diverse roles, starting with the bond Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx as a reporter and subject who form a unique bond in “The Soloist,” and continuing with Nicolas Cage as a scientist whose conceptions of the universe are thrown for a loop in “Knowing,” and Jamal Woolard as the tragically shot-down rapper Notorious B.I.G. in the biopic “Notorious.”

Favorite Music: Music hasn’t exactly been a big selling point for me so far in the movie year- stories have been. A lot of that has to do with the films I’ve watched, but this summer looks to improve on that. That said, a few films did stand out and deliver soundtracks worthy of inclusion in my collection. Let’s start with “Watchmen”, which supplemented a vintage song soundtrack (with classic tunes from the ’60s-’80s) with a score by Tyler Bates that didn’t really improve on comic book film work by icons like Elfman and Zimmer, but used the time period and scope of the story to create its’ own sound. In “Knowing”, Marco Beltrami brought suspense and scope to a movie where the hidden nature of the world is greater than anything we could have conceived in Alex Proyas’ dark thriller. And for the indie “Night for Day”, composer Vincent Nigro combined jazz and traditional underscore to delve deep into this film’s dark world. Still, the winner so far this year for best music has to go to “Coraline”, an evocative and lovely work by Bruno Coulais that’s beautiful and beautifully twisted, as is befitting for this stop-motion jewel by Henry Selick.

What to Watch This Summer- 10 Flicks to Get Psyched About:
Last year was one of the best, most unexpected summers of all-time. The ones that smashed the box-office came to the plate big-time, while even some of the ones that failed were better than expected. This year, the gloves are coming off. Will we get another summer of great entertainment of the likes of “Iron Man,” “Wall-E,” “The Dark Knight,” and “Speed Racer?” It’s certainly looking possible just by looking at the list of films below. But we’ll have to wait to see whether these mavericks can deliver the goods.

1. “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” (7/17)- We shouldn’t have had to wait so long for this film. But movie studios- they’re a greedy bunch. And if they see an opportunity to make mondo box-office on a film, they’ll do what it takes to make it possible. This is what led Warner Bros., after the record-breaking run of “The Dark Knight,” to move the sixth film in their “Harry Potter” franchise back eight months to the same summer weekend that film debuted in. Don’t think its’ absence wasn’t noticed in theatres. Now, Potter and co. are back in theatres- under the direction of “Order of the Phoenix” filmmaker David Yates- to delve into the origins of Lord Voldemort before we must wait further for the 2-film conclusion of the franchise with “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows” in 2010.

2. “Up” (5/29)- With film after film, Pixar has continued to push the envelope of CG animation in bold and imaginative ways. Now, the four-time Best Animated Feature winners follow up their masterpiece about a robot in love with their first excursion into 3-D features. The director in charge is “Monsters, Inc.’s” Pete Doctor, telling a story of an old man on a mission, a boy scout along for the ride, and a dog with the ability to talk. Admittedly, not exactly the type of premise to get people’s hearts racing, but Pixar has managed unlikelier successes over the years, and until they have an unequivocal failure (no, “Cars” does not count Ron), they have my confidence.

3. “Inglourious Basterds” (8/21)- So, “Grindhouse” experiment aside, we’ve been without a Quentin Tarantino film for five years now since his split-in-half epic “Kill Bill.” Well, that’s not too bad, especially when the film in question is the directors long-in-development “men on a mission” WWII epic, with a title lifted from the cult Italian film. The trailer had me at, “And I want my scalps.” The premise is simple enough- a Jewish company of soldiers goes behind enemy lines to massacre Nazis. The execution? Well, that’s where Tarantino turns pulp maliciousness into darkly comic gold. With Brad Pitt as the leader of the company? Oh, I’m so there.

4. “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” (8/7)- Look, like Hasbro’s other action figure-based franchise, I’m looking forward to this film less for the franchise itself than the people involved in bringing it to life. Ok, not so much director Stephen Sommers (“The Mummy,” “Van Helsing”) as the cast he’s brought together for this action-adventure of the real American heroes. In addition to Dennis Quaid and Channing Tatum as General Hawk and Duke, respectively, Sommers also brought hottie Sienna Miller, stuntman extraordinaire Ray Park, Marlon Wayans, and character actor par excellence Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as Cobra Commander) together for what producers are hoping will be the beginning of another franchise. The trailer is promising, but we’ll see.

5. “Public Enemies” (7/1)- Johnny Depp just keeps changing it up on us, doesn’t he? And bless him, that’s why we love him. Here, he takes on the visage of notorious old-school bank robber John Dillinger for co-writer/director Michael Mann’s latest excursion into the criminal underworld. If it’s anything like his previous turns in the genre- “Heat,” “Collateral,” “Miami Vice,” “Manhunter”- you know it’s gonna be an intriguing and morally-examining trip into a world where cop and criminal tend to be two sides of the same coin. With Christian Bale as the cop out to get Dillinger and a supporting cast that includes Billy Crudup and Marion Cotillard- not to mention a trailer that shows off what fans are just dying to see in this film (Depp performing brilliantly, action that pops off the screen)- this throwback to old-school gangsters looks to be a modern blast of excitement for a genre that never gets old.

6. “Drag Me to Hell” (5/29)- All I really needed to get me to this movie was the combination of Sam Raimi and the horror genre. Anyone familiar with his iconic “Evil Dead” trilogy has to agree with me on that. And then I saw the trailer. Cue geekgasm. So it’s not so much the combo of Raimi and horror that appeals most to me but Raimi and occult horror that seals the deal. Now if he could only find room in this film for Bruce Campbell, and timing had only worked out to get Ellen Page in the lead role. No matter- Allison Lohman is a worthy successor.

7. “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” (6/26)- In 2007, Michael Bay made a bona-fide star out of Shia LaBeouf and a monster profit off of his first film based on the iconic ’80s toy line that’s more than meets the eye. He also made a pretty darn good action adventure film in the vein of executive producer Steven Spielberg’s own film. Now, a mere two years later, Bay is back in the driver’s seat of what looks to be a bigger-and-better sequel, with the Decepticons taking revenge on Optimus Prime and his Autobots for the defeat in the first film. The footage we’ve seen so far looks too good to be true. Hopefully, it’ll be pretty good in its’ own right. For a lot of people, this is the film they can’t wait to see. Me? Suffice it to say there are some others ahead of it.

8. “Star Trek” (5/8)- I’ve never been much of a Trekkie. I was always on the “Star Wars” side of that eternal debate (yes, even after the prequels and the “Clone Wars” animated show). That said, despite never really watching the shows, the films based on Gene Rodenberry’s eternally-ongoing creation has always held some interest for me. Time has been kind to “Wrath of Khan,” and “The Search for Spock,” “The Voyage Home,” and “First Contact” have long been favorites of mine in the franchise. Based on trailers- and the buzz that’s been building since the film was first unveiled in Texas a few weeks ago- J.J. Abrams looks to reinvent the franchise for me and others with this look at the beginnings of the Enterprise we are all familiar with. And Michael Giacchino- the most exciting composer to hit the scene in years- is peaking my excitement to see what he comes up with musically for the film. The film would be higher if I wasn’t looking forward to so much this summer- I can’t wait to see this in IMAX.

9. “Terminator: Salvation” (5/21)- Look, I wasn’t exactly high on this film myself. Not because I felt like anyone other than James Cameron was unworthy to direct (’cause hey, I did think Jonathan Mostow did a good job with 2003’s “Rise of the Machines”), but because Warner Bros. had handed the reins to McG, the auteur behind the “Charlie’s Angels” epics. Even with Christian Bale in the role of John Connor this time around, is there a reason NOT to be skeptical? Not if you’ve seen the last few trailers, which deliver the appropriate levels of action and sci-fi nonsense in spades. And word is, a fifth one’s on the way. Even if governor Arnold isn’t involved, we might see a great renaissance with this series in the unlikeliest of hands.

10. “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (5/1)- I could write a similar write-up to the nine above for the summer’s first blockbuster offering, but it’ll be better to just read what I think of it in my review, published yesterday after screening the film at work.

Here are some more movies to look out for this summer:
So much to watch during the summer, so little time. But you can bet I’ll be making the effort to catch these films in theatres during the dog days of summer, starting with: “500 Days of Summer” (7/17), an indie rom-com with faves Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel as the leads; “Year One” (6/19), a pre-historic road picture/buddy comedy directed by Harold Ramis (“Groundhog Day,” “Analyze This”) with Jack Black and Michael Cera- you gotta admit, can you really go wrong with those two?; “The Brothers Bloom” (5/15), an intriguing and darkly-comic caper from “Brick” writer-director Rian Johnson starring Mark Ruffalo, Adrian Brody, and Rachel Weisz; “Taking Woodstock” (8/14), Ang Lee’s dramatic look at the iconic ’70s music festival with a cast that includes Demetri Martin, Emile Hirsch, and Liev Schreiber; “Angels & Demons” (5/15), the Ron Howard-directed sequel to “The Da Vinci Code” with Tom Hanks still ruffling Catholic feathers as academic Robert Langdon; “Funny People” (7/31), the latest writing-directing effort by modern comedy master Judd Apatow with his onscreen muse Seth Rogan being taken under the wing of aging comic Adam Sandler; “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” (5/22), the “are you kidding me?” sequel to Ben Stiller’s 2006 smash family adventure, with Amy Adams in on the fun as Amelia Earhart- yeah, I could go for that; and “The Girlfriend Experience” (5/22), Steven Soderbergh’s latest low-budget effort with porn sensation Sasha Grey as a call girl with a heart of gold. Yes, more potentially great offering exist for this summer, but if you want a place to start, look no further than above.

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