[27 August 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
With only one more official weekend left in the Summer 2009 season, and the one-two horror show punch of The Final Destination 3D and Halloween II not being screened for critics, perhaps its time for a little forced perspective. On Monday, 31 August, SE&L will unveil its picks for Best and Worst Films of this year’s popcorn parade. As usual, box office success and critical acclaim are more or less mutually exclusive. Additionally, it seemed like this time around, there was a decided bell curve when it came to consensus. Films were either very good or very bad, with a much smaller valley of outright mediocrity to maneuver through. There were the occasional surprises and the equally shocking letdowns, but for the most part, Hollywood delivered exactly what they promised over numerous trailers and PR ploys - for good and for bad.
But before that sure to be controversial list, here’s another collection of insights from the last four months. Indeed, sometimes, a critic’s job can consist of nothing more than the discovery of a series of small miracles among a veritable cosmos of crap. When found, they are definitely worth mentioning. So in lieu of a legitimate round-up (who knows - maybe Rob Zombie delivers another bit of classic horror remake reverence, right?), we provide this look at 10 memorable, sequences, performances, personalities, or plotpoints that really stuck out during the May to August marathon. Inside the numerous hours of proposed entertainment, within a domain frequently dominated by the routine and redundant, these individual gemstones stood out. And like any true treasure, they need to be stolen away and savored, beginning with:
Dr. McCoy Signs On in Star Trek - May
Casting was crucial to J. J. Abrams “reinvention” of the classic space series. Choose unwisely and an entire geek nation will be breathing down your prone pencil neck. Among the brilliant bits of actor/icon matching, none can top bringing New Zealand’s Karl Urban to the part of prickly starship doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy. Pitch perfect in both voice and demeanor, the arrival of cantankerous cuss aboard the Enterprise shuttle became the moment when everything about what Abrams was trying to do gelled, and gelled effortlessly. From line readings to reactions, he remains the new Star Trek‘s MVP.
Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds - August
Nazis are not supposed to be heroes. Unless you’re talking about Germans who want to overthrow the standing Reich regime (ala Valkyrie) or bumbling members of some sitcom take on the swastika, these jackbooted jerks deserve their everpresent placement as go-to villains within our WWII historical dynamic. So when Austrian actor Christoph Waltz turns famed ‘Jew Hunter’ Hans Landa into the driving force behind Quentin Tarantino’s brave deconstruction of the war film, he manages the next to impossible - he replaces Brad Pitt and the entire Allied cabal as our primary focus. He’s simply superb.
A Visit to a Prawn “Research” Facility in District 9 - August
As serious speculative fiction films go, Neill Blomkamp’s race allegory is like Planet of the Apes turned on its apartheid prone head. One of the most haunting, and horrific, moments comes toward the end of the second act, when desperate bureaucrat Wikus Van De Merwe brings an alien into the MNU building to help him locate an important item. Along the way, they discover a disgusting lab filled with gory experiments, all aimed at unlocking the keys to extraterrestrial “weaknesses”. Like Dr. Frankenstein’s lab in George Romero’s Day of the Dead, this one sequence illustrates humanity’s inability to handle its own mortality, and the extremes they will go to in probing/protecting it.
Ponyo Atop a Tsunami in Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea - August
Full of magic ocean power and desperate to get back to her friend Sosuke, the heroine in Hayao Miyazaki’s ecological take on The Little Mermaid stirs up a literal tempest, waters surging like tuna stuck in a fisherman’s net. As the waves swell and pitch, rising high above the tiny Japanese village where the story is set, Ponyo climbs on top, little newly discovered legs running just as fast as they can. In one memorable shot, Sosuke looks out his mother’s car window to see his friend keeping pace with the vehicle, her sunny smile supporting a sea full of fury and destruction. It remains Summer 2009’s purest pen and ink delight.
Zack Galifianakis in The Hangover - June
Whenever the surreal stand-up is on screen, playing bumbling brother-in-law-to-be Alan Garner, this otherwise straightforward exercise in scatology discovers a brave bizarro world subtext. Honestly, Galifianakis makes any line, even the most mundane (“Is this really Caesar’s Palace?”) sound like the height of hilarity. That he bonds with an abandoned baby and takes a punch from Mike Tyson merely adds to his anarchic persona. Here’s hoping any proposed sequel probes Alan’s ambiguous legal status, as well as his penchant for jock straps as underpants.
The Soundtrack from (500) Days of Summer - July
Director Marc Webb got his start in commercials and music videos, so he clearly has an ear and eye for how sound and images should go together. While he relies on one too many montages to get his point across, his sonic backdrops for this unusually effective post-modern RomCom are undeniably effective. From the Smiths and the Pixies to tracks from talented newcomers like Regina Spektor and Mumm-ra, every cue is flawless. In a genre that typically lets songwriters sell the sentiment, Webb works magic out of the music he chooses. Like others skilled in the aural/actual combination (Scorsese, Tarantino, etc.), said selections remain as memorable as the movie.
Randy! from Funny People - July
While the entire film as a whole is very hit or miss (the last 45 minutes alone may be the most misguided in any toilet humor honed comedy), there is no doubting that Judd Apatow knows the world of stand up. He proves this by taking sketch actor Aziz Ansari and turning him into the delightful disgusting phenom Randy. Every time this character is onscreen, and this is a minor turn at best, he steals the scene. Even better, when working the stage, he celebrates all that is delicious, and dangerous, about the joke-telling art.
The 10 Minute Silent Backstory from Up - May
We don’t usually expect the serious, or the sad, from a Pixar film. Instead, the CG wizards usually keep things light, airy, and full of life. But when aging hero Carl Fredricksen reflects on his life with (and without) late wife Ellie, the next few minutes are some of the most spellbinding, sublime silent storytelling every committed to a cartoon. Painted in perfectly realized vignettes, each one building and expanding on the previous, we see love discovered, bonds cemented, and lost both dire and devastating. By the end of the sequence, we never doubt Carl’s motives - or his means of achieving them.
Burt Stands Up to Some PC Thugs in Away We Go - June
For most of Sam Mendes madcap baby boom roadtrip, John Krasinski’s father to be is a low key, non-confrontational sort. But when Maggie Gyllenhaal and her hippy reject partner Josh Hamilton try to read him the riot act about child rearing, New Age style, the mild mannered salesman can take it no more. He let’s loose with a denouncement so cutting, so calculated, that to call it a comeuppance would be an understatement. Instead, Burt makes us believe that his future offspring has little to worry about. Dad may be a tad dense, but he’s ready to defend his family when necessary.
Malcolm Tucker’s Curse Laden Rants from In the Loop - July
If Peter Capaldi doesn’t get nominated for his role as the foul-mouthed “fixer” for the British Government in Armando Iannucci’s brilliant political satire, there really is no justice. Here is a man who is so angry, so constantly primed to fly off the handle, that he’s practically levitating. Blessed with the belief that he is better than those around him and quite capable of taking them down a peg when they think differently, it is the kind of comic turn that usually gets noticed. Here’s hoping we’re right.
Anything in Mega-Shark vs. Giant Octopus
The new definition of direct to DVD schlock - and cinematic silliness is all the better for it.
The 5 We Wish We Could Forget
Robot Gonads in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen - June
In a contest between racially insensitive machines and mechanized testes, big automaton balls win every time, and not just because of what they suggest about the man adding the oversized steel nutsack to the proceedings.
Steve Zahn’s Psycho Motivational Speech from A Perfect Getaway - August
In a collection of FBI profiler monologues, complete with statements about time standing still and living a million lifetimes, this classic case of killer speak couldn’t have been more hammy, cheesy, or laughably stupid.
Hank Azaria’s Accent from Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian - May
Wait…is that Boris Karloff? No, it’s Michael Palin playing Pontius Pilate in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Maybe it’s an ineffectual combination of the two. Whatever it is, it marks a low point in this comic actor’s otherwise fine voice work.
Ben Stiller in The Marc Pease Experience - August
There’s a reason Stiller’s high school director can’t get off campus - and it has nothing to do with a penchant for teenage poon. If this were a real teacher, he’d be incarcerated or dead. Instead, as with most statements of cinematic inappropriateness, he is one of our heroes. Ugh.
A Sexually Inappropriate Chaka from Land of the Lost - June
Speaking of placing unnecessary sleazeball content in the middle of a supposed family film…how did Sid and Marty Krofft allow their adolescent caveman to be turned into a walking fur-laden advertisement for the bad touch. Talk about ‘raping’ one’s past!