Tuesday, January 23, 2007

2nd Annual Golden Gallo Awards

It’s that time of year again. The Oscar nominations are out, as are the Razzies. Everyone in Hollywood is either aglow (you go Abigail Breslin and Ryan Gosling) or embarrassed (I’m talking to you Sharon Stone and M. Night Shyamalan). And I, Chris Gallo, solo member of the Wannabe Film Critics Association have just announced the winners of the 2nd Annual Golden Gallo Awards. Congratulations to all the winners, however undeserved they may be…

Most Annoying Domestic Quarrel: THE BREAK-UP

Best Revamping of a Dying Franchise: SUPERMAN RETURNS

Best Ending to a Seemingly Endless Franchise: X-MEN THE LAST STAND

Best Performance by a Scientologist: Tom Cruise, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III

The “What the Heck Were They Thinking” Award: LADY IN THE WATER

Best Use of Boy George’s “The Crying Game” - SLITHER

Worst Use of Lionel Richie’s “Hello” – SCARY MOVIE 4

Best Opening Credit Sequence: INSIDE MAN

Best Closing Credit Sequence: CARS

Best Comeback from a Previously Horrid Attempt at Filmmaking: Oliver Stone, WORLD TRADE CENTER

Best Misleading Marketing Campaign: MAN OF THE YEAR

Scene Stealer Award: Meryl Streep, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA

The Trailer is Better Than the Movie Award: MIAMI VICE

Best Gratuitous Use of Bathing Suits: TURISTAS

Best Film Most Likely to be Forgotten by the Academy: THANK YOU FOR SMOKING

The “Or How I Learned to Love a Bomb” Guilty Pleasure Award: POSEIDON

Best Documentary About Global Warming: AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH

Corniest Line of Dialogue from Snakes on a Plane: “Well, that's good news, snakes on crack.”

The Ishtar Big-Budget Stinker Award: ALL THE KING’S MEN

The Grease 2 Unnecessary Sequel Award: BASIC INSTINCT 2

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It Award: THE PINK PANTHER

The Jaws 3D “I Only Wanted To See It Cause it Was in 3-D” Award: MONSTER HOUSE

Best Self-Flagellation – Paul Bettany, THE DA VINCI CODE

Most Popular Word in a Movie Title – “good” THE GOOD GERMAN, THE GOOD SHEPHERD, A GOOD YEAR, & A GOOD WOMAN

Most Authentic-Looking Staged Sequence: Sacha Baron Cohen & Pamela Anderson, BORAT

Best Use of the Word “Bollocks” – Emily Blunt, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA

Best Eye-Gouging in a Holiday Movie – BLACK CHRISTMAS

Coolest Movie Poster Award: THE DESCENT

Most Graphic Panther Attack: APOCALYPTO

Best Striptease by a 7-Year-Old – Abigail Breslin, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE

Best Horror Film with a Cast Member of TV’s Lost: THE HILLS HAVE EYES

Worst Horror Film with a Cast Member of TV’s Lost: PULSE

Friday, January 19, 2007

Mobsters, Mayans and Royals, Oh My! The Best Films of 2006

Ahh, 2006 was a great year for movies. Then again that’s what I said last year. I just love movies! It was a year that finally brought snakes onto a plane, the return of Superman (to some triumphantly and to others boringly), and a foreign journalist who took a crap in the middle of midtown Manhattan. What a simply sensational year for motion pictures! And finally the so-called “box office slump” was able to reverse itself, at least slightly. No other form of entertainment can be as fun as checking out the local multiplex or art house. So grab some Goobers and check out my long-awaited list of the best films of 2006:

1) The Departed
"The Departed” is by far my favorite film of the year. Not only is it constantly entertaining, but it’s Best Picture worthy as well. Many know me as the guy who praises the stupidity of films like “Showgirls,” but I actually enjoy well-made films as well. Director Martin Scorsese, who has done nothing for me in the past, has finally made a truly enjoyable thriller with a knockout cast that includes Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, and lastly Leonardo DiCaprio, who simply shines as an undercover cop infiltrating a Boston mob ring. Kudos to that awesome soundtrack! This is brilliant, classic filmmaking on all levels.

2) Little Children
A film that sadly didn’t get the wide release it so deserved (it includes such taboo subject matter as adultery and a pedophile who’s portrayed as a human being!), Todd Field’s brilliant “Little Children” is a film as allegorical and beautiful as it is entertaining. Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson play unhappily married adults stuck in suburban hell who start an affair, with their “our kids are playmates” as a cover. This engrossing satirical drama, based on the thoroughly enjoyable novel by Tom Perrotta, is absorbing from the first scene and deserves every award that could possibly be given out.

3) United 93
"United 93” is a harrowing account of the last airplane to be hijacked on September 11, 2001. It was reported that the passengers fought back against the hijackers after hearing of the other flight’s fates. Their courageous intervention prevented the plane from reaching its Washington D.C. target. Paul Greengrass has crafted a disturbing, visceral but ultimately moving film that has to be seen to be believed. It honors those that died. Those who refuse to see the film are missing out on one of the 21st century’s most heart-wrenching and important films.

4) An Inconvenient Truth
How could a documentary staring Al Gore possibly be one of the best films of the year? Don’t ask stupid questions and see this amazing piece of environmentally conscious filmmaking. If you’re not fascinated by the vast scientific facts that Gore presents to us about the dangers of global warming, then you should have your pulse checked. Director Davis Guggenheim has crafted an engaging film that is powerful, entertaining and a devastatingly realistic portrait of the Earth in crisis. This is a film that you’ll thank yourself for experiencing.

5) Little Miss Sunshine
“Little Miss Sunshine” showcases a dysfunctional family on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The Hoover family makes the Griswolds of the “Vacation” series look like the Royal Family. It has an amazing ability to go from sidesplitting comedy to heart tugging drama within the same scene. All the actors are award-worthy including little Abigail Breslin, who just may be the breakout star of 2006. Eat your hearts out Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen!

6) Apocalypto
There seem to be so many things working against this film: overly graphic violence, its a movie about the decline of the Mayan civilization that's not really about the decline of the Mayan civilization, and speaking of which, it’s all spoken in an ancient Mayan language. Call Mel Gibson whatever you want, but he’s a talented director who surprisingly turned “Apocalypto” into the year’s most exciting, exhilarating chase film. Not only it is tremendously thrilling, but it’s also certainly something you haven’t seen before.

7) Cars
Pardon me for saying that “Cars” is the best animated film since “Finding Nemo.” No I haven’t conveniently forgot about “The Incredibles.” I just never found that film to be well, incredible. Even thought it’s title is boring, “Cars” showcases stunning animation, a great story and charming voice work by the likes of Owen Wilson, Bonnie Hunt, Paul Newman, and the list goes on. And besides, any film that can crack a Ten Best list that features Larry the Cable Guy must be one awesome flick. This is a movie you want to hug after it’s over. And you’ll never look at your car the same way again.

8) The Queen
Helen Mirren doesn’t just play Queen Elizabeth II she embodies her. She creates a character so deeply layered that you’re just simply drawn to her. Peter Morgan has written a winning script about what supposedly went on behind the palace doors the week after Princess Diana’s tragic death. Elizabeth refused to treat the tragedy as a public circus, but her loyal people were frustrated that this leader could be so cold and stubborn by not acknowledging what happened. Mirren’s character could easily have been the bad guy but her scenes with Michael Sheen as Prime Minister Tony Blair crackle with wit and authority. And importantly this film is far more entertaining than you’d ever expect.

9) The Descent
“The Descent” is one of the best horror films of recent memory. A sense of dread is created from the very beginning and you don’t know where it’s going until, WHAM it hits you. This is a film that’s scary, gory and most of all, suspenseful. You wont find all three of those in many of the recent excuses for horror. Director Neil Marshall places ordinary, strong woman (who go cave exploring in the Appalachians) in a frightening situation with extremely unordinary underground creatures who enjoy ripping people apart. This is the rare horror movie that is as intelligent as it is scary.

10) The Devil Wears Prada
Forgive me one guilty pleasure upon my list of 2006’s great films. This is a terrific portrait of the horrors of finding a first job and the suffering at the hands of the person in charge who is simply a pain-in-the-ass. We’ve all been there, but “Prada” takes it up a notch. A role Meryl Streep was born to play, Miranda Priestly is the devil of the film’s title. She’s the editor-in-chief of a splashy fashion magazine who makes life a living hell for her second assistant played by Anne Hathaway. Miranda’s demands are simultaneously sadistic and flat-out hilarious, but the one who steals the show is Brit Emily Blunt as the flippant first assistant who has a comment or wisecrack for everything.

Honorable Mentions in alphabetical order:

I told you it was a good year for movies!

Babel, Blood Diamond, Borat, Bubble, Children of Men, Dreamgirls, Half Nelson, Notes on a Scandal, Thank You For Smoking, This Film is Not Yet Rated

Scroll up for my picks for the Worst Films of 2006!

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Mourn Identity: “The Queen” is a Royal Achievement in Which Politics and Tradition Butt Heads

You certainly have to give credit where credit is due. Screenwriter Peter Morgan had the cajones to write a film that questions the Royal Family’s behavior after Princess Diana’s death. Okay, okay it’s not as if he’s suggesting the Royals should be kicked off of their pompous high horses, but it’s fascinating to witness a film in which Queen Elizabeth II can be portrayed as a royal pain in the butt, yet 100 percent likable. This is a role that could have easily turned into a Wicked Witch of the West type, but seasoned Brit Helen Mirren creates an aura of such sophistication and complexity that you’re simply drawn to her hook, line and sinker.

“The Queen” begins with newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (an altogether pleasant Michael Sheen) meeting the Royal monarch herself Elizabeth II for the first time. Only several months later Princess Diana is tragically killed in a car crash. The film sets up this conflict: is the death of the former princess a public matter or a private family matter, insisted by the Queen? Blair’s speechwriter insists Diana was “the people’s princess” and even though she wasn’t technically a real member of the Royal family she certainly was a respected and loved human being.

Of course Elizabeth in her traditional, stubborn ways insists the funeral should be a private matter and handled accordingly. But the public’s immediate grief and outcry begins a battle between the Queen and Blair. Elizabeth insists that the public’s mourning is nonsense, because after all it’s not as if they knew Diana at all. And inside her palace she sits, refusing to make a statement or even acknowledges the hundreds of people mourning the loss of their princess.

This is a film with top notch acting and writing. Every line is delivered with power, sincerity, emotion or wit. Mirren simply commands the screen, but she doesn’t pretentiously steal the show. She knows there are plenty of good actors around her (particularly James Cromwell as Prince Philip, Helen McCrory as Blair’s wife and Sylvia Syms as the Queen Mother) and she doesn’t pull the rug out from under her costars. Morgan’s script is dramatic without being overly so and it has a surprising amount of humor that never undermines the drama. The actors who are playing real life people never turn their roles into flashy impersonations, but rather create wholly realistic people.

Director Steven Frears gets tremendous performances from his cast and has to be commended for assembling a terrific film. He uses stock footage of Diana and integrates it seamlessly. Diana’s presence comes alive in the film.

“The Queen” is a fascinating character study that is outstanding from beginning to end. It’s a film that gives us a peek behind the palace doors. What exactly was Elizabeth up to the week following Diana’s death? Mirren is a strong lead and her costars are tremendous as well. This is a film that is completely enjoyable and will spark fun debates afterwards. GRADE: A-

Friday, January 12, 2007

Grim Fairy Tale: “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a Dark Blend of Fantasy & Reality Many Will Find A-maze-ing

Take the horrors of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, the magical awe of Alice in Wonderland and you might have a vague sense of what to expect of Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s adult fairy tale “Pan’s Labyrinth.” It’s got magic fairies and a world of wonder, but it also is home to bleak fascism and it’s one little girl’s wild imagination that takes her away from the horrors of reality and into a fantasyland where huge toads vomit gobs of gluttonous grossness. It’s a wild journey of magic and wonder that is something you’ve most likely never seen before. And while I found this fable at least worth taking, others will find it a mind-blowing cinematic experience.

Ofelia played maturely by 12-year-old Ivana Baquero travels with her sickly and pregnant mother to live with “The Captain” her new stepfather. This guy makes Ralph Fiennes’ Nazi character from Schindler’s List look like Mr. Rogers. I’m not completely clear on the politics of the situation, but its 1940s Spain, and the people are living in a fascist state that doesn’t seem like a very appealing place to live. Oflelia meets a large stick-bug creature who she believes is a fairy. She soon meets a Faun, a creature of well-designed bravado, who tells her she must perform three tasks. The big question is whether we believe the fantastical situations unfolding before her eyes and our eyes.

This is a film that even though it’s spoken in a different language and we’re forced to read subtitles, nothing really gets lost in the translation. It’s never too confusing. If anything, it makes a lot more sense than any of the “Lord of the Rings” films and it’s more imaginative if you ask me. There are visual effects here that seem to have been made with a smaller budget, but it all works. The combination of make-up, animatronics and CGI works well in bringing you into this world. And the striking imagery certainly speaks for itself. You don’t need subtitles to understand the awe that can be created. And I love the creature who has eyes on his hands and flabby skin that is straight from a nightmare.

It’s interesting to see such stark, graphic images in a film that feels like it should be for young children. There are shots that seem more appropriate for a Saw film but it works well. This is a film that doesn’t forget where fairy tales came from. It’s not afraid to make it’s tale frightening or suspenseful and certainly not all fairy tales have gloriously happy endings.

Some will say Pan’s Labyrinth is one of the best films of the year and while it won’t make my list, it’ still recommended viewing for fans of horror and fantasy. It’s a strikingly different type of movie well worth seeing. GRADE: B

Thursday, January 11, 2007

American Spy: “The Good Shepherd” is a Film About Foreign Intelligence and Intrigue That’s Neither Intelligent Nor Intriguing

If there were an Oscar category for Biggest Waste of Talent “The Good Shepherd” would win hands down. It kind of boggles my mind that so many great actors and filmmakers have come together to produce something that’s just kinda sorta alright. Robert De Niro is directing! Academy Award winners Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie and William Hut star! The writer of “Forrest Gump” and “Munich” has written the screenplay! And one of the industry’s great DPs, Robert Richardson, has captured it all on film! So where did everything go wrong? Okay, it’s not as if The Good Shepherd is a bad movie. It’s not like having to sit through “Lady in the Water” or “Gigli,” but it has the potential to be “The Godfather of CIA movies” and in that department it comes up a severed horse head short.

The biggest problem isn’t that the film isn’t technically well made, it’s that it’s really difficult to care about anything that’s going on. De Niro, in his second turn behind the camera, has managed to take a subject that should be fascinating and makes it completely unappealing. The film opens with the film’s most fascinating mystery: a grainy video of a couple doin’ it. Immediately I want to know who these people are and what does it matter? We’re then introduced to Damon’s character Edward Wilson. During his Yale years, he’s recruited into the Skull & Bones secret society, which is moderately interesting. Then he’s enlisted to help start a team of secretive operatives investigating God knows what. I didn’t really care and you probably won’t either.

This film is supposed to be about the “birth” of the CIA, but when exactly that happens in the film is beyond me. The film meanders for 2 hours and 40 minutes of uninteresting conversations. Wilson begins wooing a deaf girl, played by Tammy Blanchard, who doesn’t give nearly as good a performance as Rinko Kikuchi in “Babel.” But of course, Wilson is flawed and he then sleeps with Clover (Angelina Jolie) and knocks her up. They begin a marriage that hardly qualifies because he’s away doing boring secret spy stuff. She’s always mad at him because she insists, “I don't know what you do! You leave at five, you're home at ten, seven days a week! I live with a ghost! I don't know anything about you!” Perhaps their marriage is on the fritz because their dialogue is so melodramatic.

There is other supporting work from people we’d like to see more of. Joe Pesci turns up in one scene, playing an older version of his “My Cousin Vinny” role, complete with Mona Lisa Vito sound-alike wife. De Niro appears in a few scenes as wheel chair bound General Bill Sullivan who first tells Edward of his mission to start a foreign intelligence agency. Even Alec Baldwin, hot off of “The Departed” shows up. And wouldn’t you know Billy Crudup pushes the art of acting with a fancy British brogue. And frankly, and I may be spoiling something for you here, the best part of the film is when a certain supporting character gets thrown from an airplane mid-flight.

“The Good Shepherd” could easily have become a great film had it been more interesting. But the film meanders from scene to scene with boring dialogue and literally zero suspense. It’s really more of a film to admire than to really thoroughly enjoy, while “The Godfather” is both a movie to admire and enjoy. It’s really not anyone's fault in particular, but I guess the story of the birth of the CIA just isn’t exactly the story of the century. Some secrets are better left untold. GRADE: C

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Bleak to the Future: “Children of Men” Presents a Society in Which Humans Face Extinction

Have you ever been placed into a world that you don’t know anything about? Let’s say, getting dropped off in a foreign country. Or what about Paris Hilton stranded at a Mensa meeting? Films can transport an audience into a world unlike their present surroundings. Director Alfonso Cuarón does this splendidly in the appropriately dreary future of England in 2027. This society has turned itself inside out. Crime fills the streets, bombs go off at the local coffee shop and illegal immigrants are locked away. Like futuristic stories like 1984 or Fahrenheit 451, “Children of Men” (based on the novel by P.D. James) presents us a bleak future, but unlike those films it actually predicts that humans will become extinct. In this society humans can no longer reproduce and the world’s youngest person has just died at the age of 18.

Classic books like the ones I mentioned previously do a fantastic job of setting the scene of a futuristic hell. While the film “Children of Men” presents us with a vision of hell, it comes up short when it comes to giving the details of this society. The film’s opening is a little jarring at first, because we don’t really know how this society is run, but we definitely get it isn’t exactly “Pleasantville.” The film also doesn’t give away the answer to why humans are infertile, but that’s not exactly a big deal. It’s more fun not knowing exactly why. And that’s the film’s point; it doesn’t want to answer your questions, but wants to present to you something you’ve never seen before, and in this way it delivers in spades.

The film takes a little time to get going, but once it does it doesn’t stop. We meet Theo (Clive Owen) who seems to be just an everyday, normal guy. He’s a friend of Jasper (a completely loose Michael Caine) who’s constantly asking those around him to “pull my finger.” He’s an aged hippie who lives in a house in the woods. Theo used to be married to Julian, (Julianne Moore) who is part of a group rebels. Julian and her colleagues introduce Theo to a young woman, Kee, who just may have the answer to the world’s infertility problem: she’s 8 months pregnant. From here on it’s a race to get Kee to the Human Project, who supposedly are looking for a cure.

We are completely immersed in this decaying society. The camera is fluid and constantly moving. The editing is first rate. We’re put right in the line of fire, which is very often. This is a civilization that is in constant trench warfare. The film’s color is appropriately dark with blacks, blues, grays and browns filling each frame. And the detail to be seen is astonishing. Although we don’t really get to learn a whole lot about this society, there is plenty of it to be seen throughout the film’s entire run.

While it takes a little while to get into and some parts tend to be confusing, “Children of Men” completely takes a hold of you. Its point is to take you to a world that was once familiar but is not anymore. The idea that there aren’t any children left in the world is a depressing fact and the filmmakers use every ounce of talent to present a truly unique cinematic experience. GRADE: B+

Friday, January 05, 2007

The Talented Ms. Dench: The Dame and Cate Blanchett Share a Dirty Little Secret in “Notes on a Scandal”

It’s highly unlikely that Dame Judi Dench will be nominated for an Oscar for her supporting work in the recent 007 revival “Casino Royale.” However, when it comes her brilliant portrayal of withered spinster/teacher Barbara Covett in “Notes on a Scandal” she’s practically a deadlock for a nod. She creates a character who is darkly mysterious and pathetic and forces you to instantly connect with this wickedly wretched old woman. She is a lonely, frumpy teacher at a British private school who all the students fear and the other teachers basically avoid. The only one she has in the world is her cat. Enter Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) who first makes the mistake of befriending Barbara and secondly begins an unlawful affair with a fifteen-year-old student.

Barbara quickly spins a web of deceit and blackmail once she learns of Sheba’s illicit act. However, although Barbara is pitiful she’s not stupid. She confronts Sheba and confides that she’ll keep hush, hush about Sheba’s affair. Barbara instantly realizes that she could “gain everything by doing nothing.” And from then on the audience is on the edge of his or her seat waiting to see what demand Barbara will come up with next.

The film moves like a Hitchcock thriller, by mainly focusing tension-fill situation that the characters find themselves in. Dench is mesmerizing as Barbara most because director Richard Eyre (who previously directed Dench in the Oscar-nominated “Iris”) let’s us see the film through her eyes. We instantly sympathize with the bad guy much in the same way director Anthony Minghella forced us to identify with Tom Ripley in the similarly structured “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” While “Notes on a Scandal” is definitely more of a psychological thriller (there are no dead bodies or blood splattering to be found here) it instantly takes a hold of you and doesn’t let go.

Kudos goes to Blanchett for helping create (but let’s not forget talented screenwriter Patrick Marber) a similarly lonely and pitiful character. We want to like her but she does start the affair with Andrew (Steven Connolly, channeling a young Colin Farrell with a similarly hard-to-understand brogue), which is not something easy to sympathize with. Sheba is married to Richard (Bill Nighy) and has two children, one of whom has from Down’s syndrome. Like Kate Winslet’s character in “Little Children,” although Sheba is married, she hungers for something different than her traditional lifestyle. Sleeping with a 15-year-old boy isn’t necessarily the best answer, but she does it and we’re supposed to go with it.

And again Philip Glass provides a haunting score. Glass is the type of composer who you either love or hate because of his repetitive driving harmonies, but it helps drive the story forward. And it's catchy as ever.

“Notes on a Scandal” is a powerful and dark psychological drama with award worthy performances. If you’re a fan of the Dame then check out her latest acting gig because you certainly haven’t seen her like this before. GRADE: A-