Monday, December 19, 2011

Movies 2011: Hits and Misses

As 2011 draws to a close, it brings a lot of questions for fans of "geek" movies, the films that fall into the sci-fi, horror, fantasy, heightened action and comic book genres. From the mixed bag of success we saw in the past 12 months  it seems as if the public is undecided on a lot of things: how many comic books heroes it wants to see, how much it really likes 3-D, and how far big stars and spectacular effects can go in making a film into a tentpole.

For example, what was one of the biggest success stories of the year? "Insidious," a little horror movie that cost less than $2 million and made more than $50 million, all because it did exactly what it set out to do: Scare the hell out of you without dismembering people at the same time. To be sure, some of our favorites of 2011 were not hits like that  while some of the worst pictures of the year were. But with the exception of the eternally dumb "Pirates" and "Transformers" franchises, smarter and less "packaged" seemed the better way to go this year.

Nothing in 2011 came close to the anticipation or expected massiveness of the behemoths we face next year -- "The Dark Knight Rises," "The Amazing Spider-Man," "The Avengers" and "Prometheus" -- but when a geek film worked in 2011, it really worked. And when it didn't ... well, keep reading for our list of misses, along with the hits and "almosts" of 2011.

Hit: "Rise of the Planet of the Apes"

Who would have thought that this left-for-dead franchise could be so successfully resurrected? Director Rupert Wyatt brought us a spectacular origin story that both respected the original "Apes" films yet veered sharply into territory all its own, anchored by a brilliant performance from Andy Serkis as lead ape Caesar. A smart script and tremendous effects only added to one of the best science-fiction films in recent memory.

Hit: "Captain America: The First Avenger"

After a shaky couple of outings with "Iron Man 2" and "Thor," Marvel steadied the ship with this exciting World War II superhero piece that director Joe Johnston drove with the momentum and earnestness of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Chris Evans was terrific in the title role, solidly supported by Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, Dominic Cooper and a deliciously evil Hugo Weaving. Rousing fun all around

Hit: "X-Men: First Class"

Another wobbly franchise got a major shot in the arm with this prequel, which delved into the early years of the friendship between Professor X  and Erik "Magneto" Lensherr   and set them squarely in the turbulence of the 1960s. Both leads were superb, with Fassbender in particular bringing out Magneto's tortured psyche, and the whole film moved like a sexier, super-powered James Bond outing.Hit: "Insidious"

At last, a horror movie that was truly frightening. "Saw" director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell left behind the torture porn for a good, old-fashioned shock show, and the result was a film that kept the goose bumps crawling up our arms for half its running time. Things got a little silly toward the end, and the movie's low budget occasionally showed, but we were so damn glad to watch a smart, scary movie that we hardly notice

Hit: "Insidious"

At last, a horror movie that was truly frightening. "Saw" director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell left behind the torture porn for a good, old-fashioned shock show, and the result was a film that kept the goose bumps crawling up our arms for half its running time. Things got a little silly toward the end, and the movie's low budget occasionally showed, but we were so damn glad to watch a smart, scary movie that we hardly noticed.

Hit: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2"

Even non-fans couldn't help but get caught up in the long-awaited climax to what has really become a remarkable cinematic accomplishment. The final confrontation between Harry   and Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) was grim and satisfying, and the emotional payoff after 10 years and eight films was surprisingly strong. A terrific send-off for a beloved franchise.

Hit: "Contagion"

Brisk, matter-of-fact and utterly terrifying, Steven Soderbergh's thriller took a realistic look at the spread of a deadly virus across the planet. Reminiscent of some of the great scientific thrillers of the late '60s and early '70s, "Contagion" was stark and unsettling, and even the all-star cast of comfortably familiar faces never let you feel safe once. A crisp and disturbing experience.

Hit: "Real Steel"

Yes, it was corny as hell, but somehow director Shawn Levy's boxing robots saga worked as old-fashioned melodrama and credible sci-fi. The world of the movie felt real and detailed, with lots of room for exploration, and the relationship between down-on-his-luck Hugh Jackman, his son and the fighting machine that unites them was satisfying. Kudos also for nearly seamless special effects melding physical and digital robots. This one was a nice surprise.

Hit: "Paranormal Activity 3"

Yes, they've stretched the formula  to the breaking point this time around, but you know what? It still works. "PA3" offers just enough of a twist on the previous two movies -- being a prequel -- to make it seem a bit different, but everything else is mostly the same, including the scares. Does it edge into over-explaining the entire trilogy? A bit. Does that explanation make for one of the creepier finales of the year? It sure does

Hit: "The Adjustment Bureau"

Released back in March, this was a refreshingly adult sci-fi tale   anchored by the great chemistry between its two leads  and peppered with some clever humor and a handful of thoughtful ideas. Entertaining and satisfying, we hope this is one of those movies that people keep discovering on cable, Netflix or DVD.

Hit: "Another Earth," "Melancholia," "Rubber," "I Saw the Devil" and "Trollhunter"

Let's give a round of applause to the indie films! A number of independent or art-house releases in 2011 were surprising genre exercises. The always controversial Lars Von Trier gave the end of the world an incredible psychological undertow in "Melancholia," while "Another Earth" told a tragic love story against an eerie backdrop of a parallel world. The weird "Rubber," brutal "I Saw the Devil," funny-scary "Troll Hunter" and others also made for a lot of good viewing this year

Almost: "Thor"

There was a lot to like about "Thor," including Chris Hemsworth's committed performance as the lead, Tom Hiddleston's brilliant turn as evil brother Loki, and the grandeur of many of the scenes in the cosmic realm of Asgard. But the film dragged once it got to Earth, the love story between Thor and Jane (Natalie Portman) was unconvincing, and there was a bit too much setup for "The Avengers." Still, this was a noble attempt that could have been much, much worse.

Almost: "Battle: Los Angeles"

We loved Aaron Eckhart as the commanding officer of a group of Marines fighting aliens on the streets of Santa Monica, and the "documentary" style of the filming added to the movie's visceral punch. Yet in the long run, the stock nature of most of the characters and the lack of a wider context to the story left "Battle: Los Angeles" unable to make a longer-lasting impression

Almost: "Limitless"

Bradley Cooper was terrific, the idea and stylistic flourishes from director Neil Burger were fun, but the movie seemed to run out of gas right toward the end, becoming a bit of a glorified chase thriller. Still, there was a lot to like in this tale of a man made super-intelligent by a mysterious new drug, and we wish it had examined the premise's potential a little more

Almost: "Source Code"

Like "Limitless," this sophomore outing from acclaimed "Moon" director Duncan Jones had a fascinating premise -- a special ops soldier is sent back into another man's memories to track the origins of a terrorist attack -- that was ultimately twisted to fit into a pre-approved ending. It's irritating when a film carefully sets up its logic only to subvert that logic in the quest for an audience-friendly finale that does not seem earned at all. "Source Code" got a lot of things right -- including its pace, suspense, and terrific work from Jake Gyllenhaal and Vera Farmiga -- but it also got that one thing wrong, and that takes the movie down a few pegs.

Almost: "Super 8"

Perhaps the most controversial offering of last summer, this collaboration between director-writer J.J. Abrams and producer Steven Spielberg bitterly divided fan boys   Was it a sincere, heartwarming coming-of-age story (with a rampaging alien) or a superficial homage to the spirit of Spielberg's Amblin films of the '80s? We fell squarely into the latter camp: The plot made no real sense as Abrams tried desperately to wed two completely separate story lines. Kudos to him for a great train crash scene and for working with an exceptional cast of kids, but this was the biggest wasted opportunity of 2011

Almost: "Fright Night"

Remakes are a dime a dozen around this town, and name recognition is the only reason for a reboot of the original 1985 horror comedy. This version played down the laughs somewhat -- which kind of misses the point -- but Colin Farrell scored as vampire-next-door Jerry Dandridge. In some ways a needless and perhaps even wasted opportunity, but not without its charms

Almost: "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark"

Produced and co-written by Guillermo del Toro, this had his fingerprints all over it even though it was directed by Del Toro protégé Troy Nixey. A remake of a 1974 TV movie that scared Del Toro as a kid, the spooky moments in "Don't Be Afraid" had some real teeth (pun intended), but too much of it felt like everything else we'd seen before -- right down to Guy Pearce's moronic dad who refuses to see the truth in front of his eyes about the haunted house he's living in.

Almost: "Drive Angry"

"Drive Angry" (in 3-D, lest we forget) was another of those weird, mid-level movies that have come out in the past few years  that didn't quite seem to fit the big screen but will probably be a lot of fun to catch on cable some rainy Sunday. This one involved Cage as an anti-hero who escapes from hell to rescue his granddaughter, although it was William Fichtner who stole the show as a demonic suit sent to get him back. Sort of fun for what it was, but kind of terrible when you thought about it too hard.

Almost: "Immortals"

The script was almost monumentally stupid, but you couldn't tear your eyes away from director Tarsem Singh's painterly 3-D visuals in this faux-mythology epic. Future Superman Henry Cavill did prove he's got the physical chops for action as Theseus, and Luke Evans also scored as Zeus. But Mickey Rourke was woefully miscast as the evil King Hyperion -- can you see Randy the Ram as a mythological warrior? Neither can we -- although his helmet was outrageous.

Almost: "The Adventures of Tintin"

Peter Jackson  and Steven Spielberg   teamed up for this motion-capture adaptation of the internationally popular comic books by Belgian writer Herge. The movie is visually stunning -- the best motion capture we've ever seen -- and several of the action highlights may rank up there with Spielberg's best. But unlike, say, Pixar's emotionally complex animated characters, it's hard to get invested in young journalist Tintin, and even more difficult since he's not a live-action hero. As a result, "Tintin" is a beautiful, occasionally breathtaking bore

Miss: "Transformers: Dark of the Moon"

Yes, the last hour boasted some of the most coherent and eye-popping action Michael Bay has ever directed (we can thank those 3-D cameras for keeping his cuts longer than a second), and the visual effects were technically almost perfect. But this bombastic, overlong pile of idiocy was just as dumb as its predecessors. Shia LaBeouf was more annoying than ever, Bay's leering shots of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley made his work with Megan Fox look like feminist filmmaking, and the whole thing just induced a searing headache. Please, Michael, give us a break.

..Miss: "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides"

It's depressing when a movie as lacking in energy and soul as the fourth entry in this inexplicably successful series does such huge business at the box office. But that's the case here as Capt. Jack  stumbled through yet another incoherent story and one pointless setpiece after another. It simply came down to a paycheck for all involved, from Depp to director Rob Marshall to probably even the catering staff, but the money they made was not earned

Miss: "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 1"

Just when the series seemed to climb -- just a little -- out of its morass of awfulness on the somewhat watchable third entry, "Eclipse," it lost its grip and fell back down hard into the pit of despair with this slow, soggy, lifeless mess. Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson seemed less interested in their characters than ever, while Taylor Lautner continued to make us believe that he's not really interested in learning how to act. Director Bill Condon had a pretty lurid story line to work with, but the inherent ridiculousness of the whole thing defeated him, just like every other director who has touched this crap. Just one more to look forward to

Miss: "I Am Number Four"

A weak attempt at launching a "Twilight"-style franchise, only with aliens instead of vampires, "Number Four" was based on a truly awful book written by James Frey, who proved he was no better at real fiction than fictional memoirs. The book was insulting even to young readers, but the movie was equally lame, with uncharismatic leads   and the silliest extraterrestrials we've seen in years. And it flopped, so hopefully we'll be spared sequels.

Miss: "Green Lantern"

This was supposed to launch the DC Universe on film -- much like "Iron Man" did for Marvel -- but instead turned into an "Infinite Crisis"-level event that has grounded the operation for now. Gritty action director Martin Campbell was ill-suited to the cosmic, space opera material, and Ryan Reynolds' Hal Jordan went through the usual turgid "reluctant hero" paces that are the sign of too many screenwriters taking too many hacks at the thing. The effects were pretty cool, but the 3-D was unnecessary and the movie seemed drained of life and fun. A huge disappointment at the box office, too -- thanks to this, the Flash gets to cool his heels a while longer.

Miss: "Red Riding Hood"

Take a classic fairy tale and give it an effects-laden "Alice in Wonderland" treatment -- although somewhat more cheaply done -- and then attempt to add "Twilight"-type teen romance into the mix. The result? This tedium. Amanda Seyfried was all eyes in the title role, while her two   romantic suitors acted as if someone forgot to wind them up. Throw in Gary Oldman chewing the scenery in desperation, some CGI werewolves, and a forest right out of the Hammer Films backlot, and you've got a film that nobody really thought through before making.

Miss: "Sucker Punch"

Director Zack Snyder built up a lot of good will -- and made a lot of money -- with his adaptations of "Dawn of the Dead," "300" and "Watchmen," so he leveraged that into a film that was supposed to be his own personal vision. Trouble was that even Snyder himself couldn't exactly explain what that vision was. "Sucker Punch" contained some of his trademark outstanding visuals, but its multiple-reality narrative made not one lick of sense, and most of his scantily clad clutch of female leads seemed lost in the murk. We still don't know what the title even meant!

Miss: "Cowboys & Aliens"

How do you combine James Bond (Daniel Craig), Han Solo  and the director of "Iron Man" (Jon Favreau), yet come up with one of the worst movies of 2011? We still can't figure it out because on paper, this sounded like a dream team and a fun concept. But the problem was on film, where it became a self-serious, plodding drag. Craig and Ford had no real spark together, the aliens were nonsensical, and the story ended up ill-conceived and half-formed. If it takes 15 years to develop a movie -- as this took -- maybe that should be a sign?

Miss: "Paul"

We had high hopes for this sci-fi comedy, written by stars Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, who played two overgrown fan boys who meet a real alien (voiced by Seth Rogen) in the desert while driving cross-country after Comic-Con. A cute premise, but the movie was just not funny, and had to resort to toilet humor and too many genre in-jokes before it was over. It's a shame, but this had little of the wit of the pair's previous "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz."

Miss: "Scream 4"

"Scream 4" tried to recapture the pop relevance of the original trilogy with some commentary on celebrity culture, but the ideas felt half-formed and had to fight for space with the returning cast, the recap of previous mythology, the need for a fresh kill every few minutes. Not as bad as "Scream 3," this one merely felt like the cash grab it was, adding nothing particularly innovative to the series and merely running through its paces. More of a whimper than anything else.
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