2011 Entertainers of the Year

I decided that with this list it would be unwise to do a top 10 list.  There just aren't 10 people out there worthy of being called Entertainer of the Year.  I also didn't want to limit myself to one person because there are actually a few who deserve the honor.  So my list for Entertainer of the Year will include four entries.

4. Andy Serkis

Andy Serkis has had a big year.  He drew raves as the star (despite not appearing on camera) of Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  The film went on to gross over $176 million and much of that was probably due to the acclaim the film got (much of that was because of this guy).  Serkis didn't finish of the year there.  Instead he got to co-star (once again using the motion capture format for his performance) in The Adventures of Tintin.  He was easily the best part of the film as the unstable Captain Haddock.  However, Serkis' biggest contribution this year to film was his ability to single-handedly push motion-capture into the mainstream.  He is the King of the format and never receives enough recognition for it.  Because of Serkis we might be looking back at 2011 as the breakthrough year for motion-capture.

3. Bryan Cranston

Bryan Cranston appeared in 4 films this year.  Sure most of these were almost cameo-like appearances (for instance his appearance as a General in Contagion), but he was still able to deliver one of the most underrated performances of the year in Drive.  As the car mechanic (and mentor to Ryan Gosling's character) Shannon, Cranston was able to deliver a three-dimensional performance with little screentime.  He left a much bigger impact than the much raved about Albert Brooks.  The real reason Cranston is on this list though is for his continued performance as Walter White on Breaking Bad.  It's getting to the point that Cranston should be getting credited for delivering the best performance in television history.

2. Brad Pitt

It seems that Brad Pitt is having a career year with no one paying attention.  Sure he is credited as having one of the best performances of the year, but he has actually delivered two of the best performances in his long career.  Pitt was mesmerizing in The Tree of Life and gave a fun performance that deserved all of the credit it is getting in Moneyball.  On top of that, Pitt actually produced both of those films.  Both were high quality products (and will be appearing on a certain top 10 list of mine).  I don't think it is absurd to say that Pitt deserves 4 Oscar nominations this time.  Now that is a mega year.

1. Jessica Chastain

While Brad Pitt deserves 4 Oscar nominations, Jessica Chastain probably deserves an entire category devoted to her.  Chastain starred in six films this year.  I have only seen 3 (The Tree of Life, The Help and The Debt), but from what I hear she is just as good in the other 3.  Chastain has had one of the largest breakout years in memory as she delivered a graceful performance in The Tree of Life, a tour de force of chameleon acting in The Help, and a kick-ass performance in The Debt.  It seems Chastain will be a force for years to come, and I just enjoy anytime I see her on screen.

The Adventures of Tintin Review

You would think that Steven Spielberg's first entry into motion capture filmmaking would be anything but conventional.  This is one of this generation's great filmmakers after all.  Surprisingly, there is very few scenes during the course of The Adventures of Tintin that are truly inspiring.

The film follows Tintin, a child detective, as he tries to find the treasure from a long lost ship.  The plot seems like your generic adventure story and it is.  This film comes across as a lesser Indiana Jones film. Considering this was a collaboration between Steven Spielberg (who directed the film) and Peter Jackson (who was a heavily involved producer on the film), this can't be called anything but a disappointment.  The film also cements my hope that Spielberg will remain in live action filmmaking.  It seems that he is unable to get the full potential out of motion capture filmmaking.  The film rarely makes the audience feel any emotion for the motion capture characters and the camera doesn't move around in as interesting ways as it did in live-action/motion capture crossbreeds like Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Jackson's own Lord of the Rings Trilogy.  The only exception to this is a breathtaking tracking shot through the streets of a Morrocan city as the heroes of the film try to race the villains to a clue.  The scene is a technical masterpiece, but Spielberg never tries to attempt anything similar throughout the other portions of the film.

The real failure of the film is the script though.  With so much talent involved in the process of writing this film (Doctor Who's Steven Moffat, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World's Edgar Wright and Attack the Block's Joe Cornish), you would think this would be the highlight of the film.  However, it seems there was so much talent involved that it resulted in a film that was in-cohesive.  The film at time relies on nostalgia and presents dark subject matter (such as alcoholism), but at other times the film is gearing itself completely towards children.  The script also features some great banter between characters, but it also relies too heavily on the actors of each character making the characters stand out.  The film rarely stops for character moments, and the film just feels like action sequence after action sequence.  This would have been just fine (it did work with Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol last week) if the action sequences were memorable or well staged, but they always seem like attempts to get the characters to the next location to continue the story.  Even the chase through Morocco can't completely pull off this task without seeming like a struggle.

The saving grace of this film, though, are the actors.  Jamie Bell is a solid lead and its hard to imagine anyone else in the role now despite not even being the first choice for the project.  The King of motion-capture acting, Andy Serkis, also plays a prominent role in the film as Captain Haddock.  Serkis once again makes acting in this medium look easy.  His Haddock is a hilarious wreck of a man but fully realized.  The surprise of the cast is Daniel Craig who plays the villain of the piece.  His voice and mannerisms are completely unrecognizable, and it's great to see Craig (who has been choosing some safe roles as of late) play a character against his type.

Adventures of Tintin was able to obtain a plethora of talent in the making of this film, but this film might be a case of too much talent being a bad thing.


Terra Nova: Season 1 Review

Terra Nova was a show with a premise that had unlimited potential.  Time travel, dinosaurs, serialized storytelling are all subjects that when used properly can lead to the most entertaining of television.  Unfortunately, the pilot episode of the series showed that this series would never use all of that potential.  That first look into the series was a fun but run-of-the-mill Spielbergian sci-fi drama.  It wasn't going for any deeper meaning, but it was efficient at doing what it was attempting.  The two hour pilot featured a complicated family relationship, the beginnings of adventures and multiple dinosaur chases.  Essentially, it was a Spielberg rip-off, but a well directed and acted one.  The only downside about the pilot was that the much hyped visual effects were pretty lackluster.

Unfortunately, the waste of potential only grew as the series went on.  There was a writer shake-up after the pilot episode (talented tv writer David Fury left as part of it), and that clearly effected the quality of the show.  Whereas the pilot focused on a family that traveled back in time and became part of a community with interesting characters, the rest of the series focused entirely on the family (which was a pretty dull one) and ignored the rest of the characters in the community until the writers felt like wasting them in service of an unimaginative plot.  The visual effects did improve (or maybe it was me adjusting to my disappointment), but I would much rather have a serviceable storyline and interesting characters in place of visuals.

The series did ultimately gain the sense of cinematic scope that the pilot had in the season finale, but by then it was too late.  Showrunners Rene Echevarria and Brannon Braga should be ashamed of the collasal failure their writing team's contributions were.  The characterizations of the family were mind-numbingly idiotic and the plots and conflicts would only entertain a five-year-old.  Everyone else seemed to have brought their game at one point or another during the course of the series, but they never did.  I always wanted the return of dinosaurs to television, but if I knew it came with the catch of these two idiots, I would have waited.

The acting in the series was surprisingly strong for a show where the big catch was the dinosaurs.  Jason O'Mara was a great lead.  Even with the horrific things he was forced through by the writing staff he always came off as heroic and charming.  You could at least tell he was having fun with it.  His co-lead in the series was film star Stephen Lang.  If you have seen Avatar, you know that Lang can take a stereotypically written tough guy and change him into a badass.  So Lang was perfectly suited for this role and he ate up everything that was given to him.  The other adult actors on the series were pretty solid and none were at any point annoying like some of the child actors (Landon Liboiron, Naomi Scott and Dean Geyer being the worst offenders).  One of the other great actors in the series was Allison Miller.  She is one of the best young actresses in television, but she was completely wasted here.  The pilot episode brought her into some surprising relationships, but the writers rarely mentioned them in the following episodes.  Even worse the writers brought her character into some ridiculous plot twists.  It is such a shame that a talent as good as this was completely wasted.

The fate of Terra Nova is still being decided, but I will not be back regardless.


The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011) Review

If you have read Stieg Larsson's book or have seen the Swedish film directed by Niels Arden Oplev, you will realize many things about David Fincher's adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  First and foremost is that it is an unnecessary film.  While much more stylized then the 2009 Swedish film, Fincher's version really brings out the flaws in the book much more than that film.  However, if you have no history with the book or films, this turns out to be a solid mystery film.

The film follows Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) as he tries to uncover a 36 year old murder of a great-niece of a rich CEO (Christopher Plummer).  In order to solve the mystery, however, Mikael will need to enlist the help of a strange computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara).

The film begins with a very innovative take on the book.  It initially appears Fincher will be able to work beyond the boundaries set by the novel as he includes a well constructed cold opening and one of the most memorable opening title sequences set to a striking cover of "Immigrant Song" by Karen O and Trent Reznor (whose score doesn't leave as much of an impact as it did in The Social Network).  Fincher continues to make great stylistic choice after great stylistic choice as he brings his own artistic palette to material that is suited perfectly too it.  It's dark, grungy and ultimately fascinating.  This also means a much grittier version of the story and some of the more violent scenes (especially the rape scenes) are hard to sit through, but you have to give credit to Fincher for giving it his all.

The problem with the film emerges when it becomes clear that Fincher is going to just stick with the storyline of the book.  This results with a film that should have ended 30 minutes sooner than it did.  The mystery is solved but we are given much more character development after the conclusion of the conflict that just seems excessive.  Departing from a beloved source material is a major risk, but it's one that should have been taken here and Fincher didn't.

The one aspect about the film that clearly rises above its predecessor is the cast.  All of the actors are on top of their game.  Daniel Craig gives a very subtle performance and I surprisingly never thought of him as Daniel Craig which is shocking considering the character he is playing doesn't have many characteristics that make him a real individual.  Rooney Mara, however, is the true star of the film.  She clearly gave her all to the performance and it shows as she creates a character that is completely unrecognizable from the performances she has given in the past (even though small and few).  You can never take your eyes off her and she proves she will go to any length to pull of the performance (both in physical and mental ways).

The supporting cast of the film actually stands out.  In the Swedish version, I couldn't tell you anything about the supporting performances.  They are completely unmemorable.  Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard and Robin Wright all give performances that I will be able to remember.  Plummer brings a great sense of bravura to a performance that doesn't have much to give.  Stellan Skarsgard provides a set of skills to an important role that the actor in the Swedish film could not, and Robin Wright takes in all of the advantage of the added screentime her character receives.

Fincher and company do as much as they can to make an entertaining mystery film out of material that doesn't support it.  While they don't pull this off, it is a noble attempt.


Hugo Review

At many points during the runtime of Hugo, the film feels like a collision between two separate films.  The problem with this is that not only is one of these films pretty dull, but the two films seem to form into a heterogeneous mixture.  You can clearly tell that there are two films there and it really takes you out of the final product.  Martin Scorsese brings a lot of great parts to this film, but the film does not at any point exceed them.

The film follows Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), an orphan who lives in a train station, as he tries to repair an automatan, a robot that can write on its own.  The problem is he has to get the parts from a grumpy old man (Ben Kingsley) and has to avoid the strict security-man (Sacha Baron Cohen), who does not tolerate orphans in his train station.

One part of the film's main focus is on the struggle that Hugo has to go through to survive with no family alive and no real friends to help him.  This part of the film seems half baked and I would have expected a lot more from a director like Martin Scorsese.  The editing of this part of the film also seems to have been rushed as it could have used some more character development.  For example, Jude Law plays an important character in Hugo's life and barely gets a minute's worth of screentime.  

Surprisingly, the strong point of this first half is Asa Butterfield.  Asking a child actor to carry a large portion of the film (Butterfield is rarely offscreen during the entire film) is a major risk, but Scorsese had faith in his actor.  Butterfield ends up giving a strongly emotional performance that never goes into annoying territory (like so many performances from actors of a similar age will fall into).  He more than holds his own with veteran actors (like Kingsley) and gives the second best performance in the film (more on the best later).

However, after Scorsese makes us believe in the lead character he reveals why he really wanted to make this film.  The second half of the film brings in another subject matter.  Ben Kinglsey's character ends up becoming the main focus of the film and the film turns into a tribute to filmmaking.  Scorsese's direction here becomes much more unique and you can tell he really enjoyed directing this portion of the film.  Every tool Scorsese has is used to the best of its ability.  The cinematography is astounding (as it is in the early half too), and Scorsese actually uses 3D in a fascinating way.  The 3D not only adds depth to the Paris location (adding to its beauty), but actually makes the 3D work into the storyline.  The art direction is impeccable and even the effects are pretty good.

This is also the point where the ensemble is given a chance to work together.  Ben Kingsley is a great piece of casting and he delivers a solid performance that anchors the film.  Chloe Moretz is also solid, but is given nothing to do besides giving out exposition.  The film also shows that toning down Sacha Baron Cohen's antics works well for him as he gives one of his best performances to date as a security guard.  The real standout of the cast though is Michael Stuhlbarg as a film historian.  The role is nothing substantial but Stuhlbarg makes the most of it by showing how good of a chameleon he is.  I didn't even know it was him until someone mentioned he was in it a few days later.

There is a lot to like in Hugo, but when it is over, it doesn't seem like all of these great pieces fit together.


Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol Review

Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol is everything an action film should be.  It knows exactly what type of film it is.  It never overstays its welcome, and, most importantly, its just plain fun.  For a comparison to show how much enjoyment comes out of watching the newest entry into the Mission: Impossible franchise, I enjoyed this film more than the 6 minutes of a certain 2012 summer blockbuster that were shown preceding the film.

Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol follows Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and the IMF as they try to stop a Russian nuclear Strategist from causing a nuclear war.  In the director's chair this time is Brad Bird of The Incredibles and The Iron Giant frame.  It is his first time in the director's chair for a live-action film and you would think the transition from animation to live-action would take a while to work out the kinks.  Bird, however, immediately proves that he is a master of visuals, regardless of the medium.

Despite this film being the only proof, Bird appears to be one of the great action directors out there.  The film, itself, is non-stop action and all of it is staged and paced to perfection.  Look at the scene that reintroduces us to Ethan Hunt.  The scene is staged in a Russian prison and Brad Bird makes sure that everything that you would think would be in a jail is used during the course of the ensuing breakout.  Just when you think the scene will end, however, Bird pulls out another tool, suspense.  One of the things that has always worked against the Mission: Impossible franchise is that you know Ethan Hunt will never be killed off.  So no matter how ridiculous the challenges may seem (and it isn't called Mission: Impossible for nothing), Ethan will survive.  Bird, however, seems to have mastered the technique of not letting Ethan succeed until the last second.  So for the first time in the franchise, the viewer is holding their breath over the fate of the main characters.

The best showcase of all of this, though, is the much hyped Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world) sequence.  The sequence is a spectacle of grand proportions (especially so in IMAX where the camerawork actually makes it feel like you are falling along with Ethan Hunt).

The writing for the film is pretty poor, so it's great that Bird keeps the action going.  However, even during the few points at which the film slows down for some character development (if you can call it that) the actors are able to improve upon the screenplay.  This is Tom Cruise's best performance in the franchise as most of it is physical and he makes it look easy.  The performance is also just unhinged enough to make it fun without going overboard.  His supporting cast is probably his best to date.  Paula Patton is the best woman in the franchise as she works great as the viewer's view point into Ethan Hunt's world, and Jeremy Renner is Cruise's best partner yet as he looks like he was born to star in an action film.  The film also benefits from added screentime for Simon Pegg who kills it with the one-liners and silly mannerisms.  The rest of the cast is filled with a large amount of performances that just amount to cameos (well executed cameos though).

The Mission: Impossible series seems to just be getting better and better (with the exception of the second installment), and the franchise seems to have a lot of life left in it with a breakout director of action and a game cast.  I will also add that the film is a must in IMAX for the Burj Khalifa scene alone, which will end up as one of the greatest action scenes in cinematic history.


Time Freak Review

Time Freak is a lively and genuine short film that is very reminiscent of last year's live action short film Oscar winner, God of Love (an award that Time Freak has also been shortlisted for).  The film follows Stillman (played by Michael Nathanson) as he introduces his time travel machine to his friend (played by John Connor Brooke).

The great part about this film is that you know that you are in for a good time as soon as the opening credits begin to roll.  The credits themselves are a highlight of the film as they show glimpses of New York City intercut images of a quantum physicist's work.  The credits are a foreshadowing of the rest of the film as nothing is breaking new ground but all of it is done in an ingenious way.

Just look at the portrayal of time travel in the film.  Nothing jaw dropping is done with the format, but the originality of it is key.  Instead of pushing the concept to its limit, the film follows Stillman as he becomes preoccupied with fixing the things things in life (such as making the right impression on the girl he has a crush on) through time travel.  When you think about it, this is one of the more likely scenarios that would occur if time travel was possible, but films really haven't explored this side of time travel.  Andrew Bowler (who does double duty as director and writer) is due major credit here as he takes this original idea and sticks with it.  This allows the film to use a high concept structure without ever becoming confusing or tedious.

The real highlight of the short film is its technical prowess.  It's a very showy film as it is constantly jumping in time.  Geoffrey Richman steps up to the plate and does a phenomenal job of editing the film.    Following different strands of time can be very difficult, but not so here.  The visual effects (although sparse) are also expertly executed (especially during our first glimpse of how Stillman is able to time travel), and the film features a score that is subtle but suitably so.

With so much being done behind the scenes, it would seem the actors would be able to take a back seat.  However, each of the three main actors effectively grab the viewer's attention.  Michael Nathanson is a great fit for the character of Stillman.  I don't know who allowed Nathanson to mug it up for the camera, but it was a great choice as Nathanson is not only effective at it, but it contributes to the liveliness of the film.  John Conor Brooke is able to effectively play off of Nathanson and is a respectable "straight man".  The two have great chemistry together.  Emilea Wilson may have the most difficult role as she has to show why her character is so sought after with only a minute of screentime.  She is a success in the role.

Time Freak is completely enjoyable and there is a lot worse you can do with your ten minutes than watch this film.


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