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Bangitout.com's 2009 Year End Movie Recap!

by Jordan Hiller Posted: 01-06-2010(Viewed 33261 times)

2009: Year End Movie Recap 

by Bangitout's Senoir Film Critic, Jordan Hiller

The year 2009 happened to have been a great one for movies. Arguably, the best of the millennium. Not in a way that will make it especially difficult to determine Best Picture come Oscar night (I like Star Trek for that honor, which apparently makes me low brow), but rather in a way that matters to the Entertainment Weekly devouring masses who don’t mind paying higher ticket prices as long as the product is there. And the record setting box office receipts this year support the theory. 2009 was the rare year where the blockbuster slate and awards bait came and went with no real disappointments (and you’re kidding yourself if you expected more quality from X-Men Origins: Wolverine or Transformers 2). The movies that were supposed to be good, were. The filmmakers and actors we expect extraordinary things from did not disappoint. Spike Jonze, The Coen Brothers, J.J. Abrams, Jason Reitman, and even James Cameron - our go-to guys for substantive, engaging, and entertaining cinema - delivered. And then there were the surprises like 

500 Days of Summer 

A refreshingly different tart and tangy take on relationship films where the ominous, honey voiced narrator openly confesses at the outset that we are in for an anti-love story. Marc Webb’s film from a sharp, deliriously original script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber takes us along the emotionally painful journey of sensitive, nice guy in the city Tom Hansen (affable Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as he undergoes a valiant search to find true love. When he meets Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel doing her patented and at this point slightly annoying little girl lost thing) we set our brains to PDR (predictable romantic comedy) mode and settle in; however, Neustadter and Weber have an alternative design in mind.  Yes, the two screenwriters falter at times, particularly with the clichéd supporting cast, with extra demerits for Tom’s impossibly mature kid sister and a ridiculously melodramatic quitting scene. And yes, there is also the rather gimmicky staccato storytelling technique to deal with, whereby we flip somewhat randomly through the five hundred days encompassing the sweet beginning, jarringly bitter middle, and somewhat optimistic end of the Tom and Summer saga. But redemption is in the (greeting) cards, because the movie provides such a unique and daringly unconventional take on romantic destiny, especially in the face of what Hollywood regularly churns out, that the existence of Webb’s film and what it stands for is a milestone to be celebrated.

Although it vaguely evokes the morbid devolving processes of a once promising relationship as seen in recent films like 2006’s The Break-Up, 500 Days of Summer really has you smitten, invested, and then devastated when Tom and Summer don’t happen. We have been trained by Hollywood to react a certain way to a certain kind of movie and 500 Days of Summer seeks to un-train us through shock therapy. It endeavors to reveal that a protagonist’s perspective is merely an individual point of view. The truth of any circumstance observed only through one person’s eyes is at best subjective. Tom falls for Summer and we are enchanted. Even though the audience is told quite fairly from the gate that she will break his heart, we take the risk along with Tom and soon hope we can change her pre-programmed mind. For a while we actually believe we succeeded. That somehow the narrator misspoke, and the film was altered through our passionately watching it. But by the end, when all that’s left are emptiness and scars (and, yes, a faint glimmer of hope), we are challenged to distance ourselves from Tom and, like architects with our chalk and sketchbooks, survey the bigger picture. That is where the hard, bedazzling truths crystallize and we take comfort in the pleasures of being so rudely enlightened.  

Practically on par with the feels-so-right-but-just-not-meant-to-be relationship analyzed in 500 Days of Summer is that portrayed between an alcoholic has-been country signer and a single mom reporter in Scott Cooper’s tender gem  

Crazy Heart 

Where Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) and Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal) initially seem like soul mates thrown together by merciful fate in a harsh, judgmental world – and both sort of need that break and a fresh start – but alas wind up on disparate roads due to unrelenting circumstance. Unlike in Tom and Summer’s case, the demise of Bad and Jeanie’s union remains objectively understandable. Despite our once again frivolously pining for a happily ever after reconciliation, Bad is plain irredeemable for most of the story and really has been for most of his life. If it’s not the bottle dragging him down, it’s regret and hard, hard living. I kept thinking Bad might be the perfect example of some vestige of the great American patchwork that we kind of like being reminded is out there – the lone cowboy in his pick up truck with guitar riding shotgun – but also confidently know we’d be better off without such unstable, unhappy hombres wandering about. Bad is a tortured, self destructive spirit dead set on being alone and miserable, though because he has ample kindness and softness lingering inside, his addictions are all the more deceptively dangerous and his fall from grace all the more pathetic.

The tale of wasted talent and the downside of fame and fortune is nothing new in terms of movie subject matter, but Scott Cooper wrings every ounce of despair from Bad’s predicament before allowing the man (and a patient, anxious audience) a measure of satisfaction. Cooper really makes us earn our weary smile by the closing credits.

The legacy of Crazy Heart is not its moral, and there certainly is an important one to be gleaned about staying focused, healthy, and taking care of yourself before you can relate positively to others, but rather it can be found in the film’s details and in the overwhelming caliber of its quality. With crisp, soulful, and hummable original songs composed by revered songwriter and producer T-Bone Burnett, Crazy Heart sustains an authenticity that makes us feel comfortably uncomfortable hitting the road with a struggling former country star as he plays dive after dive (with the impressive practiced professionalism of someone coasting). We wince observing Bad swallow his pride  in an attempt to keep it together long enough to score a mild comeback.

Between Gyllenhaal and Bridges we find two actors operating on a primal level of expressiveness, with no affectation, ego, or self awareness to be detected. We are left enraptured by the messy collision of two people who actually look, talk, and react like two average, snake-bit people. If it weren’t for an ill advised Colin Farrell cameo, we’d practically be lost in their gloomy misadventures. 

Bridges may even be ripe for his first Oscar with a deeply felt and thoroughly inhabited performance; though he’ll face his stiffest competition from George Clooney for Clooney’s work in 

Up in the Air 

Because Jason (Juno) Reitman scores another straightforward, dialogue propelled miracle with his latest winner about a virtual synthetic humanoid named Ryan Bingham (played by Clooney) who coldly hops from state to state firing people for a living. For reasons associated with cutthroat, innovative, neophyte co-worker (Anna Kendrick) Bingham must come to grips with and locate whatever human tendencies and desires he still possesses after a lifetime of detachment. As we travel with Bingham from one bustling airport to the next, from one tidy, antiseptic hotel to another, Reitman innovates stylistically and handles a camera with such flair and precision that it is as if we are seeing the sky, clouds, and the diverse landscape of America filmed for the first time.

One might say that the tantalizingly timely theme Up in the Air presents exposes the potential for loneliness in our hectic, post-modern, constantly plugged in society. That the simple message of Reitman’s film (from his and Sheldon Turner’s script) is that with our vast, complex, and ever-expanding capability to connect, whether via travel, internet, or mobile lines of communication, we are putting at risk and conceding the purest and most critical method of bonding with our fellow man. We see this proven not only via the confounding nature of Bingham’s isolated, guarded existence, but in the tragically flawed relationships he attempts to formulate with his family and with a female equivalent played smartly by Vera Farmiga.

There is likely no keener eye for scripts that produce textured and layered men in central roles than George Clooney (or his agent). Between Up in the Air and 2007’s Michael Clayton, it becomes glaringly apparent that no actor can carry a script-driven character study better than Mr. Clooney. If it is possible, I would venture that Clooney’s talents as an actor are underrated. Without overcompensating by mugging, raging, or flagrantly emoting, George Clooney always finds a way to keep the audience’s eyes locked on him and hopelessly interested. He proves often enough that with properly tempered acting and a good script, nothing else is needed. Meticulous role choices evidence experience in the business; however, Clooney’s experiences as a human being, whatever they may be, and his ability to incorporate a real life comprehension into a character like Ryan Bingham is what elevates a performance. He even manages to transmit this richness of experience through his smirking gravelly voice alone in  

Fantastic Mr. Fox 


The astonishing adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1970 children’s novel which essentially cemented 2009 as the greatest year in the history of animated feature films. Clooney speaks for the lead, Mr. Fox, in this mesmerizing, brilliantly conceived stop motion wonderment from Wes Anderson (co-written with subversive director Noah Baumbach). How cool are filmmakers like Anderson, Baumbach, and Tim Burton who interrupt their tremendously successful careers as live action directors to bestow splendid cinematic gifts like Corpse Bride or Fantastic Mr. Fox upon us?  

In this trippy fable about a world where animals and humans occupy adjacent properties and must contend with one another for societal dominance, Mr. Fox is a domesticated rogue, toeing the line between primitive impulse and civilized sophistication. He works blithely as a columnist by day, but at night he dwells in subjective mediocrity, reminiscing on the wild days when he and his wife (Meryl Streep) prowled the countryside and stole chickens from a trio of callous farmers, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. Fox longs to burst apart the inhibiting chains that go along with family life and advancing age, and attempt one last ravenous scratch at that unyielding itch.

Of course this inclination and ache are metaphors for a human being’s struggle with maturity and responsibility. Are we not the same instinctual, anti-intellectual creatures who grow increasingly stir crazy in our organized, uniform, pre-conditioned environments and constantly blunder through half-hearted attempts to rebel, maintain autonomy, and express an unfulfilled purpose?

While this anthropological dynamic is certainly stimulating and thought provoking, Fantastic Mr. Fox succeeds more readily as a vibrant, absurdist, bitingly funny feast for the eyes and a marvel of artistic craftsmanship. Each frame is exquisite in its basic, anti-CG methodology. The film incorporates all the quiet, improvisational style, dry humor delivery as found in other Anderson pictures, but combined with the proletarian fluidity of the animation; the result for audiences is a gleeful trance-like holiday. The madcap, seemingly arbitrary series of events that unfold over the course of the film – karate battles with enormous rats, jealousy and a competition for approval between two fox cousins, an impossible mission concocted by impeccably dressed badgers, weasels, mice, and otters – contribute mightily to the dreamlike effect of the movie. The likes of Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman lend their voices to the menagerie of critters along for the ride and each understated performance seamlessly increases the quality of experience.

In a year where Wes Anderson’s eclectic, back to basics take on animation came as startlingly unexpected, the veteran pros at Disney racked up another banner year, beginning with their Pixar unit. With 

Up 

They manage to create a visual masterpiece infused with a lot of heart. Although certainly not as insightful or remarkable as Fantastic Mr. Fox, Pete Docter and Bob Peterson’s Up has its share of transcendent moments. Up mainly succeeds as a visually stunning achievement (as it was available in IMAX 3D). With its signature, striking image of a rainbow hued explosion of balloons floating above a home and carrying it aloft through the blue yonder, Up is a treat for the senses and as endearing as any generic Disney offering. Needless to say, Disney Pixar is aiming for a much lower common denominator than Wes Anderson, and Up proves as palatable to children (who will swallow any bright and shiny gunk on screen) as to their sometimes reluctant adult chaperones. Where Up sets itself apart is through a heartbreaking prologue whereby we learn that Carl Fredrickson, a shy, pudgy boy who fancies himself an explorer once upon a time met a kooky, extroverted lass named Elie Docter and they became best friends, then devoted husband and wife, then lifelong partners, and then Elie died. Through an eloquent montage we learn that their life together was filled with the typical beauty and disappointments that we all must acknowledge and face at one time or another. And we also learn (more importantly for the story) that their exotic, fantasy trip to Paradise Falls where a famous pilot once went missing had been forever delayed by costs and distraction. Now it is too late because Carl is a pygmy-sized grumpy old man stuck in a rut (voiced with a grumbling snarl by Ed Asner).

From there the movie takes its course in relating an “epic” adventure that sort of pales in comparison to the stimulating narratives established by Toy Story, The Incredibles, or even Bolt. For my money, Up peaks way too early. Once the balloons make their grand, eye-popping entrance in a kaleidoscope of color and texture, the film becomes chaotic and silly, and coasts downhill for the remainder. The humor, typically much more balanced between insider adult and kid friendly, ranges almost entirely into the arena of childish buffoonery. A worshipful dog who talks through a computerized contraption. A goody goody rotund Asian Boy Scout who joins Carl on his quest after inexplicably being stuck on the porch as the house took off. I think Docter and Peterson could have dug (no pun intended) a bit deeper in terms of character development and storyline, especially in light of          

The Princess and the Frog 

Where Disney returned to their classic hand drawn animation department and conceived an utterly engaging new “princess” movie with a bevy of new, outstanding characters and songs to charm generations of children and grown-ups alike. Ron Clements and John Musker’s vibrant, emotionally resonant movie earns extra points for not only giving platform to carry on and trumpet the recently muted voice of majestic and mysterious New Orleans, Louisiana, but also for introducing a princess whose skin is not as white as snow.  

Tiana, an African American cutie, is the daughter of a seamstress who dreams of one day marrying a prince. Sorry, not in 2009. Tiana, rather, wishes upon a star to collect enough tip money from her two waitressing jobs to submit a down-payment on some waterfront property where she could open a happening and chic gumbo and crawfish joint. Disney has been turning out one independent feminist heroine after another in recent years, and Tiana takes her place proudly amongst non-Caucasian spitfires Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan, as well as forthright white chicks Belle from Beauty and the Beast and Jane from Tarzan.

My only reservation with this film being an authentic princess movie is that Tiana spends most of her screen time with green, mucus coated skin and a bubble in her throat. She transforms into a frog, y’see. Indeed that becomes a reasonable criticism of Disney’s confidence in showcasing a princess of color. But I also think discussing it further would feed into media inflated poppycock. The Princess and the Frog is too busy being charming and thoughtful to worry about hyper-sensitive political correctness controversies. The dream weavers at Disney have a fanciful story to tell about a chauvinist frog prince who needs kissing, a musical romp through the bayou, a jazz adoring alligator, a love-stoned Cajun firefly, and a sinister Shadow Man – and sparklingly tell it it does. As with all such Disney production, only time will dictate where The Princess and the Frog ranks in the revered pantheon of Walt Disney “masterpieces.” Will it sit on the shelf with Pinocchio, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin, or just below with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, and The Fox and the Hound? Who is to say at this point?

Though Tiana is not the most memorable Disney creation in history, the score and songs by Randy Newman are top notch. The villain, a nameless voodoo maestro who does shady business with “friends on the other side” is also an all-timer, as terrifying as any Jafar, Captain Hook, or Queen of Hearts.    

Keith David, who growls the nefarious demands of this Shadow Man, did double duty this year, contributing his vocal talents toward Henry Selick’s insanely imaginative   

Coraline 

As well. David, more softly this time, gives voice to the cat, a wise, mangy looking feline who guides Coraline through her bizarre experiences in both the real and the “other” world. Coraline is a cool tween with blue hair, a razor sharp wit and attitude, and busy, unmotivated parents who are more interested in publishing gardening journals than alleviating the boredom and unhealthy seclusion of their temperamental (but optimistic) daughter. She may also be the diabolical focus of a needle fingered spider witch who craves the affection and company of lonely children, lures them into her home, tempts them with warm familiarity, and entices them with feasts and games, just before stealing their eyes and placing buttons over the empty sockets. As you may have deduced, Coraline, another stop motion spectacular (likely better than Fantastic Mr. Fox but certainly less enjoyable) is not for children, nor for spineless audiences of any age. While Selick’s production is not by any stretch graphic or gory, the use of odd and irregular shapes, proportions, and movement creates a dark symphony of macabre images that horrify the psyche and chill the blood all the same.

Like many of the films discussed in this year’s crop of exceptional releases, Coraline is best to be appreciated for the incredible (dare I say ludicrous) amount of effort put into producing it. Each elaborately decorated set is real and manufactured to detail. Each facial twitch and subtle gesture is the manipulation of a figurine. The artistic merits of Coraline are over the moon impressive. What is also remarkable - the synergy between director Henry Selick and author Neil Gaiman. The marriage between the director of Tim Burton’s A Nightmare Before Christmas and the author of the 2002 spooky children’s book is a match made in purgatory. Madness and genius are qualities well shared.

Even if Coraline were not so immaculately realized, the script and its crucial underlying message about paying attention to our children before we lose them would have been a powerful reminder and warning to parents who often get caught up in their career webs. Though the dangers lurking in Coraline – which I’m pretty sure are not metaphorical, but actually happening – may not ensnare our children, it is imperative that parents realize that temptations and harmful alternative choices lie elsewhere. We don’t want our children to feel the need to search for love elsewhere.   

The alternative realities and dream worlds that children are capable of constructing to avoid disappointment at home is taken to a devastating level in  

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire 

Which nakedly exposes the self-lacerating miserable existence of a twice raped, twice impregnated by her father, obese and abused black teenager who, in moments of extreme stress, vividly imagines herself a glamorous sought after diva lighting up stage, screen, runway, and red carpet. Coraline sulks because she is ignored. Precious suffers because she is rendered inanimate.

Lee Daniels’ Precious is a special movie with that rare, stand up and take notice, shout it from the hilltops sort of specialness. It’s special because it is brave, fearless, courageous, and any other synonym that means it shines a gleaming (almost blinding) spotlight on ugly truths about society. Terrible, awful truths about this world and what we’ve allowed to develop and fester beneath the layers of so called civilization, and Daniels unmercifully crushes us with it. But he doesn’t kill us with it. Almost, but not quite. Because Precious is a story not only about the hideous things of which men are capable, but equally about the righteousness and beauty that any one of us can make bloom by opening our hearts and doing the right thing.

If the brilliant direction and soul searing screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher were not enough, Precious manages to coax phenomenal performances from the most unlikely of sources. With a cast that includes comedians Mo’Nique and Sherri Shepherd, pop singers Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz, and untested Paula Patton in prominent, highly difficult roles, I would almost accuse Daniels of foolish arrogance. But each turn in pitch perfect, unforgettable work. Mo’Nique, particularly in a late confessional scene, tears the blazing house down. She’s guaranteed an Oscar.

Precious is portrayed by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe and she, whether because of her startling appearance or because she is fresh to our eyes, becomes this morbid, listless character, matching her heartbeat for heartbeat. It genuinely seems as if the actress is not trying.

Told mainly with an unsentimental eye, Precious seeks not to celebrate its lead for her controlled defiance, nor are we meant to pity her for the torments she sustained in her innocence. We are merely asked to witness her and to hopefully become informed by her plight as it is unfortunately the reality for so many. Maybe the details change, but the destitute child victim of abuse resulting in disastrous self-image issues is increasingly common.

Precious starkly expresses the calamitous damage that evil, thoughtless adults can almost unconsciously inflict upon helpless children who depend on them. It also reveals the uncanny ability children possess to disassociate and grittily endure waking nightmares.

Through a grossly dissimilar format, Spike Jonze ventured to investigate this particular capacity of children by bringing    

Where the Wild Things Are 

From the page to the big screen. And for a film immeasurably triumphant in the realm of visual magnificence and one that intoxicates with frenetic, reverberating sounds and movement, it is astonishing to acknowledge that Jonze and lauded novelist David Eggers’ loose adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s cherished children’s book is most significantly gratifying because it is written so well, with such a keen understanding of what it means to be a young boy. While the performance of Max Records as a typically difficult, hormonally unstable child taking drastic psychosomatic steps to deal with a traumatic series of events at home, and the puppet/costume/CG wizardry utilized to animate those fierce, reckless, furry wild thing monsters are beyond sensational, it is what Max and the monsters say that sets the movie on a truly otherworldly and magical plane.

Jonze said in interviews that Where the Wild Things Are intends not to be a movie for children (and it isn’t), but rather a movie about childhood, which initially comes across as a pretentious sound bite. The advertising for the film contributed to this impression by being all non-linear, indie rock with ambiguous, egalitarian slogans declaring that inside all of us is fear, love, etc. But I’ve learned to trust Spike Jonze and so should you. He is a careful, caring filmmaker and scribe upon which we can completely rely.

The conversations and interactions he orchestrates, whether real, imaginary, spoken with an inner voice, or cried aloud, are delivered with the unmistakable rhythm and in the grandiose rubber and glue terminology of children. Each word and reaction reflects that blend of improvisational creativity and unwarranted determination, where phrases and concepts just erupt from the consciousness and fly out of the mouth with a pure, yet perplexingly complicated logic. Max and his wild friends teeter back and forth across the spectrum of emotions, from extreme joy to extreme misery, constantly and in an instant, for reasons that strike us as entirely understandable, yet at the same time utterly inappropriate. It makes one wonder whether something quaking and unrealized is inside of us.

And though the depiction of childhood in all its unfathomable glory is Jonze’s intended ambition, his vision of an untamed island where freakishly enormous (but lovably goofy) creatures snuggle, debate, butt heads, lock horns, and throw tantrums is also an incredible accomplishment. The set decorator and art departments reveal to us a world that is both exotically foreign and at the same we can believe that a short boat trip through stormy seas might take us there. And it doesn’t matter in the end whether Max actually took the journey or not (though in the film, unlike in the book, Max flees home instead of holing up in his bedroom after being punished). We certainly do not need the filmmakers to spell out the allegory for us, and they gratefully do not. We are well aware of what a wild thing represents and why a child might retreat to the recesses of his or her mind to discover one. But in case a child has a fairly pleasant, uneventful home life and their imagination needs assistance escaping to a dark and dreadful place full of fantastic creatures and mythic danger, there is always  

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince 

To get the gears churning. The Harry Potter series, books that much like Maurice Sendak’s work, will be read by millions of young people for well into the foreseeable future, relate the (like you don’t know) episodic milestones, trials, and generally challenging exploits of a boy wizard and his friends as they come of age and face the impending and increasing wrath of a Dark Lord named Voldemort and his minions. What is most intriguing and refreshing about the books and their celluloid counterparts is that as Harry grows up, the subject matter and overall tone of the story follows. While Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first movie based on the first book, surely had its share of jolts, it could comfortably fit into a child’s video library. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince is an icily grave and somber affair, with few moments of relief amid the mounting turmoil and a finale that blackens an already charcoal gray sky. That is not to say that director David Yates’ second go at masterminding a Harry Potter event is not a worthwhile endeavor; quite the opposite – it is sublimely atmospheric in its cloak of doom and gloom. As Harry, along with erstwhile mates Ron and Hermione, physically mature and mentally evolve (well, maybe not Ron), and their philosophies and powerful potential grow more disturbingly complex, it is acceptable if not mandatory that the cinematic renditions of their undertakings keep pace. Just to cement the point further, the responsibility for filming Harry’s unequivocally English tinged journey has gone from the American director of Home Alone (Chris Columbus – Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets), to the Mexican director of A Little Princess (Alfonso Cuarõn – Prisoner of Azkaban), to the Brit director of Donnie Brasco (Mike Newell – Goblet of Fire), and finally to the English TV director Yates whose credits pre-Order of the Phoenix include Sex Traffic and The Sins. Yates is currently working on the last two films of the saga, based on one book, the last in the series, titled Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

With each release, balanced scrupulously between high flying entertainment and provocative pathos, it is amazing to see how clearly the studio and producers recognize that they are not abandoning Harry’s target audience by increasing the sophistication of the films, but rather allowing the first generation of Potter fans to grow along with their hero. Potter creator J.K. Rowling, through her books, pursued and succeeded in achieving the same result. The problem evidenced by this sixth chapter is that we know these characters a bit too well. A trilogy is often considered the ideal format for extended storytelling in film because it engenders a comfort level between audience and the protagonists but closes the curtain before circumstances get stale. Harry Potter movies are ingeniously crafted, but the underlying material and personalities involved are no longer fresh. Yates, Radcliffe, Grint, Watson, Gambon, Rickman, and co. have the process down to a calculated science. The films have become somewhat interchangeable, cold and unfeeling. Thankfully, The Half Blood Prince introduces the staggeringly brilliant actor Jim Broadbent as Professor Slughorn in a doozy of a performance as a prideful potions instructor who favors certain students and “collects” them. Associating his work with this particular installment should save the movie from getting lost in the shuffle.

Some might argue that a distinction is unnecessary. That in the end, execution is all that matters, and The Half Blood Prince executes to a razor’s edge. Whether the characters are familiar or need to be introduced and developed does not play a role. Only the manner in which the story is told dictates audience enthusiasm. J.J. Abrams proved this in 2009 by taking characters much deeper entrenched in our cultural consciousness than J.K. Rowling’s brood and re-launched the  

Star Trek 

Franchise with a rip-snorting, mega-confident, tremendous looking origin epic that arguably represents the most thoroughly entertaining and satisfying film of the year. First off I should disclose that the Star Trek brand means about as much to me as Buffy The Vampire Slayer. In other words, I am aware that it has its passionate cult following and legacy to live up to, but there is no personal connection to the foundation of the fanaticism. Many moviegoers were looking for Star Trek to fill a void in their lives; I simply wanted something that enhanced the deliciousness of a medium popcorn and Cherry Coke (okay, and a king size Kit-Kat). However, to be even more honest, I am a Lost junkie, and the fingerprints of director J.J. Abrams’ breathtaking television series are all over the lightning storm in space electric and frenetically paced reboot of how Kirk, Spock, Bones, Uhura, Scotty, Chekov, and Sulu first met and became the captain, first (science) officer, and assorted crew of the starship Enterprise. From the pulse pounding yet heart wrenching score divined by Michael Giacchiano, to moments of brutal violence and death mixed impeccably with over the top, screwball, 1930’s serial style action sequences, to a purposeful concentration and attention toward individual character development, to a mind twisting time travel plot device – with a healthy deference to course correction – that essentially erases the entire previous Star Trek mythology (affording Abrams a tabula rasa going forward), Star Trek truly is Lost in space. I can pay it no higher compliment.

Like many of the great motion pictures of 2009, Star Trek attains its lofty status through being intellectually involving while at the same time visually mesmerizing. Every frame is a dazzling, drool inducing example of precisely how a blockbuster is meant to look. One could melt into the luxury of the experience Mr. Abrams provides and objectively appreciate every penny spent in the budget as there is not a false or cheesy speck to be found on screen. Even his maverick technique in continuously beaming light at the audience is an unassuming masterful stroke. Indeed, Abrams does well again by not only cradling the casual sci-fi fan or even Star Trek novice in that he sells the movie as a complete, autonomous, no need for instructions movie experience, but he also wisely pays homage to the Gene Rodenberry created 1960’s TV program starring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy (Nimoy even makes a crucial appearance, seamlessly and reverently handled). While I had to look up such cleverly incorporated hidden trivia like Orions, Kobayashi Maru, and Captain Pike, even a Trek ignoramus like me can get the chills from a solemnly delivered, “Live long and prosper.”   

The cast of this film, lead by hellcat cool Chris Pine and debonair Zachary Quinto, are polished, energized, and primed to warp into a bright future of sequels. As the crew of the Enterprise will undoubtedly continue to boldly go looking for trouble on the surfaces of alien planets in space,  

District 9 

Imagines a situation where aliens from space find trouble by crash hovering here. Part horror, part sci-fi, part mockumentary film about a ghetto of aliens on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 seeks to disgust its audience on two levels; one visceral and the other political. On a pragmatic level, the film, named after the shantytown slum where revolting, cat food eating aliens dubbed prawns by hateful, apprehensive locals are forced to live, is a riveting little movie that could, with plenty of high camp absurdities and textbook horror grotesquery to go around. We follow Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a bumbling, too sweet and naïve to live, exceptionally irritating tool placed in charge of coordinating and carrying out the deportation of aliens from District 9 to a far less pleasant government controlled area. Somehow in the process Wikus becomes infected with an alien serum and begins to…metamorphose. From there, the plot, which involves an insufferable bit of family drama, the frantic race for a cure, a malicious gang of voodoo warlords, and a government’s ruthless efforts to control advanced alien weaponry, doesn’t amount too much. It’s all kind of funny and kind of repugnant (and none of it makes enough sense to genuinely matter).

The disgust that we feel when watching the aliens (and their wee alien babies) being tormented, their “civil rights” flagrantly violated,  their poverty stricken state, is alleged to be a schematic to remind us of how black people were treated during the years under an apartheid regime in South Africa. As Copley, a white man, slowly changes into the other, we are supposed to conclude that we’re really all the same and….I’m not exactly sure.

The advertising campaign for the movie suggested that there was a secret to be discovered in District 9, intimating that a dark and shocking revelation would be awaiting those daring to enter the theatre. This effective technique rallied the film to a sizeable box office take. Having Peter (Lord of the Rings) Jackson credited as a producer didn’t hurt either. While Blomkamp’s disturbing thriller does have a semi-revelatory ending, the real secret is that District 9, for all its pomp and circumstance, is no more than a decent but scrappy science fiction flick. No better or worse than, say, The Arrival. Perhaps because many took it to be a scathing social commentary relating to apartheid it received some inflated and overly emphatic praise. The truth is, there are no redeemable lessons to be extracted from District 9. It is just an amusing, uncompromisingly repulsive, ambitious alien invaders movie that takes place in a country where race relations and crime control are in demoralizing disarray with no resolution in sight. A movie about a post-apartheid South Africa that contains and imparts many relevant lessons is Clint Eastwood’s inspiring Nelson Mandela film  

Invictus 

Although the posters try to portray the film as a beat the odds sports movie (the better to take your ticket money with, my dear), Invictus is adequately sculpted as a deserved monument to Mr. Mandela. Mandela, the political prisoner groomed to become the first freely elected leader of a democratic South Africa in 1994, has been played by many great actors over the years including Danny Glover and Sidney Poitier. Morgan Freeman takes on the responsibility here and his portrayal is nuanced, absorbing, as well as rigorously controlled and researched. He slips into the icon’s shoes with a soft, veteran actor conviction that a younger and lesser performer would never begin to grasp, however, much like the movie, the impression left by Freeman’s Mandela, while striking during the movie, does not remain with or haunt the viewer as it properly should. Mandela was a quiet, instruct by example leader – and a tremendously admirable and effective one – but such qualities do not make for moving cinema. We like (and remember) leading men who pound tables and stand on chairs pumping fists. We like locker room rallying cries, not sincere smiles, warm handshakes, and straight talk over tea. Invictus succeeds in making one sympathize with and root for Mandela; it does not succeed as a thrilling film-going experience, as it well could have. You can lay that blame on Eastwood, who keeps matters too tidy and pristine when they should be grittier, with more exaggerated levels of immediacy and intensity. Or, more accurately, you can lay the blame on rugby.     

The narrative game plan of Invictus is to relate and educate its audience regarding the noble crusade and persona of Nelson Mandela through an entirely factual (yet slightly manipulated) episode where Mandela encouraged his nation’s beloved Springboks (well, beloved to the then petrified white population) to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup which was being played that year in South Africa. The Springboks, their flag, their colors, their anthem, in a glaring way represented the old South Africa, that of apartheid and division and bigotry. Mandela believed that he could unite his anxious nation (and moderately relieve the white people who feared severe repercussions for the previous, abhorrent culture) by embracing the Spingboks and getting the entire country to focus on one lofty purpose - victory.

If rugby was not such a foreign, unrelatable sport, and, say, the Springboks played American football, rugby’s safer cousin, I believe Invictus would have been a rousing, exhilarating sports movie with a message. Though the sport is utilized to provide the film’s action and narrative center, all the important moments arrive via an acute insight given into Mandela’s courageous, yet at the same time fragile and wounded heart and mind.

Matt Damon, with cool platinum locks and a prosthetic nose, plays Francois Pienaar, the captain of the Springboks, who slowly, perhaps begrudgingly, begins to realize the extent of Mandela’s greatness. Eastwood intends for him to be our surrogate. If Pienaar can change, South Africa can change, and we can too.

Damon is receiving supporting actor Oscar buzz for his work, but only by default. He really should be ignored for Invictus and up for Best Actor due to his phenomenal turn in another 2009 film based on an incredible true story. In 

The Informant! 

Damon is Mark Whitacre, a shlubby, toupee wearing, mustachioed, geek working as a high level VP for Archer Daniels Midland, a massive corn syrup corporation that was taken down by Whitacre in the late 90’s. In this Steven Soderbergh directed caper (screenplay by Scott Burns based on the Kurt Eichenwald book), Matt Damon is used to counterintuitive perfection. The same I am Jason Bourne movie star Matt Damon who humbly accepts third banana roles in Soderbergh’s Oceans 11 movies, who relishes the opportunity to contribute to the quality of a movie even when he’s not the focus of it (i.e. The Departed), dives into a superbly written leading role that allows him to shine as a dramatic and comedic actor. Nearly unrecognizable in the considerable extra weight and utter nebishiness of a middle-aged, Middle American husband and father, Damon manages to disappear as his character equally succeeds in deceiving friends, co-workers, family, the government and even the FBI…well, for a while.

Whitacre marks a very interesting reflection point in Matt Damon’s career as it eerily evokes a controversial character he portrayed ten years ago, and probably the last time he was so deserved of awards consideration for a lead role. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, Damon played an emaciated, pasty loser who weaves a precarious web of lies in order to continue living a fantasy lifestyle. He creates a convincingly sympathetic, distressingly tender façade that draws the audience in wholly, making us protective of him, before we realize the psychotic dangerous potential of the character. We realize the frightening extent of Ripley’s madness only as it unfold before us, without warning and without chance of escape. It’s almost as if the horrible acts he perpetrates so intricately are spontaneously committed when a maniacal, primitive self-preservation mechanism kicks in.

In The Informant! Whiteacre’s betrayals, lies, and double crossings; his sheer, unabashed hypocrisy, dawns upon us with that same Tom Ripley suddenness. The only difference between Ripley and Whitecare (beside the whole murder thing) is that Whiteacre’s condition is given a clinical term. And it is no great stretch to imagine that Tom Ripley suffered a bi-polar type disorder as well.

Soderbergh – who strangely filmed the story with a tacky 1970’s look and an array of enigmatic casting choices including Scott Bakula, Thomas F. Wilson, Patton Oswalt, and Joe McHale – has us convinced of Whiteacre’s virtuousness before hysterically revealing the wells of corruption. Soderbergh and Burns cleverly take great advantage of our natural inclination to mistrust the government and its policy first agencies.

      

The Hurt Locker 

Has a lot to say about our government as well, but brutally shows that through the looking glass of war, trust of government is just another phantom obstacle in the minefield. Survival, sometimes mental more than physical, becomes the only relevant objective. We lose our nation’s youth to these wars at a crushing clip, but – and it’s difficult to say and mean – sometimes the ones who come back are worse off than the ones buried in Arlington. The Hurt Locker explores this dark possibility.

I recall one critic or journalist called The Hurt Locker a “war movie for our times,” or extended some comparable sentiment. As if this rough, down and dirty ticking time bomb action drama about a team of explosives disposal experts equitably represents the war on terror our country has been sickeningly mired in for nine long years. I disagree. Because what The Hurt Locker says about this war – that it is a futile exercise in madness, an impossible, maybe pointless pursuit with no practical outcome other than bringing arbitrary death and misery to ourselves, the enemy, and bystanders getting in the way – is essentially the truth about almost any war. Replace the Iraqi desert with a jungle and The Hurt Locker is a Vietnam movie.

If director Kathryn (Point Break) Bigelow’s mission is to show the immense psychological toll this war has inflicted on those conducting it and their families, Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah is far superior and exponentially more riveting (even without the BOOM that The Hurt Locker takes such panicky pleasure in devising). What the great Kathryn’s film accomplishes in its own starkly intelligent way, however, is to make the token war is hell argument, but through the filtered lens of a superior B action movie, her forte. All the Best Picture talk is misplaced.

Owing a debt to another taut and tense bomb disposal tech movie, Stephen Hopkin’s 1994 Blown Away starring Jeff Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones, The Hurt Locker plays out as a series of mini set pieces where each bomb discovered presents its own unique challenge and immanent situation of mortal danger. When strung together, a heart attack inducing movie is the result.

James Renner is accumulating Oscar buzz for his performances as Sgt. William James,        the cavalier, fearless replacement leader of a three man unit in Iraq after Sgt. Matt Thompson (memorable prologue work by Guy Pearce in a street cred role) gets caught in the wake of a detonated car bomb. Renner plays haunted, tormented, and maybe even crazy as well as could be expected, but it is the sort of flashy, one note everyman actor’s role that doesn’t take a whole lot of genuine depth. Much more intriguing a part and much more delicately rendered is that of Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), an officer serving under James who must contend with the chain of command while trying to understand and if possible vanquish his superior’s demons.    

While The Hurt Locker is not as dismally negative as Precious, it certainly abides by the 2009 trend to explore the darker aspects of our shared humanity (recession related? You decide). If one were to seek out a film that incorporates its obligatory 2009 measure of darkness with boisterous hilarity, Todd Phillps’ 

The Hangover 

Fits the bill. While there have been plenty of movies about wild bachelor parties, and plenty about jaunts to Las Vegas where matters get ridiculously out of hand, The Hangover, in a very winning, charming, yet uproariously edgy way, takes the best of both guy movie staples, manipulates them into a reasonably involving story, and slings the concoction into the outer regions of – as the Golden Globes might say – motion picture musical or comedy possibility.

In the realm of popular entertainment, most genres become more likely to succeed as technology improves along with narrative capabilities and globalization. We have more things to say, in more ways, to more people. Comedy, on the other hand, becomes harder. Because comedy does not rely on green screens, pyrotechnics, or any other sort of wow me effect. Nor does it necessarily translate easily to other cultures. Comedy needs to be, well, funny, and the last thing an audience wants to see or hear is an old joke (or a new joke with a weak punchline). One would think that the well of humorous scenarios, witty verbal exchanges, and cases of mistaken identity has to dry up at some point.

Pioneers like Brooks and Caesar gave way to innovators like Bruce, Carlin, and Pryor, who allowed for the explosion of talent emanating from Saturday Night Live, which created the zany, shock me comedy routines that we see played out in the pop culture moments of everyone from The State to Tom Green to Ali G. to Judd Apatow. Not to say that these people are unworthy of our laughs, but simply to acknowledge that these laughs have become harder and harder to come by. Because modern life is increasingly complicated and convoluted, and because comedy by its definition needs to make light of life, quality comedy today requires so much more elaborate and creative an effort and execution than when Jackie Gleason had America’s side’s splitting over sixty years ago with a balled fist.

Todd Philips, who wrote and directed Road Trip and Old Scool, wrote Borat, and even plays the coked out Israeli dude in the elevator in The Hangover, has had his finger on the pulse of modern comedy cinema for a decade. (That’s five years longer than Mr. Apatow, but to far less fanfare). He has been orchestrating genuine laughs, developing and presenting characters and stories that people care about, quote, remember, and revisit for his entire career.

In The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore), a man soon to be married (Justin Bartha) heads to Vegas with his two best friends (one a reckless, a-hole teacher, the other a nice, buttoned up dentist) and his mentally challenged brother-in-law for an unpredictable night of male bonding. What ensues is of course the movie, which rather seamlessly comes to include Mike Tyson singing In The Air Tonight, a tiger in a bathroom, a missing baby, a naked Chinese man in a trunk, a Rain Man homage, Heather Graham breastfeeding, an old man’s ginormous bare ass, and about two dozen other bizarrely appealing twists.

The atypical cast of Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms, and Bradley Cooper spend the bulk of the movie searching for Bartha’s character after a night they don’t remember, but the evidence of its insanity is all around them. This slightly incredible plot contrivance allows the movie to move with a steady and invigorating flow, with jokes, both dialogue driven and visual, coming fast and furious. A soundtrack that bumps with Rihanna, T.I., and Usher at all the right moments certainly contributes to the all night party atmosphere.

And in a year that brought us down just a bit further into the doldrums, it’s nice to end with a party.             


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Bangin' Reader Comments:


From: Garth, Ireland
Date: 01-06-2010
Rating: 10
Comments: A little oversight: George Clooney was in "Michael Clayton", not "Michael Collins".

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From: Steve, Canada
Date: 01-06-2010
Rating: 10
Comments: Micheal Collins??? I think you meant Micheal Clayton... 

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From: Steve, Canada
Date: 01-06-2010
Rating: 10
Comments: Micheal Collins??? I think you meant Micheal Clayton... 

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From: Chris, Kendal, England
Date: 03-07-2010
Rating: 9
Comments: Very informative and in-depth reviews. I'll have-to slightly disagree with your opinion on Up though! I loved every minute. A brilliant and, overall, uplifting film. I also found Hurt Locker to be a realistic portrail of the mechanics and reality of modern warfare, and thats from an informed\personal point-of-view! However, I shall now be following and trusting-in your reviews. Good stuff matey. Chris.

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From: Ava
Date: 02-05-2011
Rating: 10
Comments: I just came across this article in 2011 following a link from Rotten Tomatoes page on The Informant! I just wanted to post a note to say I loved the depth and thoughtfulness of all your reviews, agreed with most of them and am saving this article as a nice touchstone of 2009 films to remember. Thanks for writing such a great piece.

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From: Cape Town, South Africa
Date: 05-13-2011
Rating: 7
Comments: I have to disagree with your comment about Invictus. I see your dismissal of the movie - simply because it's rugby - as arrogance. And you Americans wonder why the rest of the world doesn't like you? Small wonder. Other than that, I thought your reviews of the other movies were interesting.

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Average Rating:9.3333333333333 out of 10





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