Friday, December 29, 2006

The Reel Gouda's 2006 Round-Up

So here you have it -- the culmination of a year's worth of substantial celluloid viewing condensed into a mere 10 standout. Even pretend film reviewers such as myself should be able to develop a 10 Best list, and there were quite a few worthy contenders this year. Keep in mind, however, that because I am a pretend film reviewer, I have to see movies on my own (limited) time. Also, being a pretend film reviewer means that I do not get the opportunity to attend critics screenings and therefore I did not get to see every single critically acclaimed movie that came out this year. So don't e-mail me asking why awards contenders like The Queen or Little Miss Sunshine didn't make my list. Time and opportunity were simply not available to me.

10. An Inconvenient Truth -- No matter how hard Al Gore tries to avoid it, he always manages to come off as a bit of a douchebag, but don't let that stop you from absorbing his message in this powerful, highly-effective, yet easy-to-digest documentary about climate change.

9. The New World -- A beautiful epic that was praised by critics but largely ignored by audiences, this Terrence Malick film about John Smith and the conflicts between the English and the Native Americans is quite simply a moving work of art, even if you don't consider yourself enthralled about this period of history. Stars Colin Farrell and Christian Bale.

8. Match Point -- The best Woody Allen film in recent years brings us a haunting tale of betrayal, deception, and greed when a young tennis instructor finds himself suddenly living a life of decadence when he meets a wealthy family. The film is immediately engrossing, but the last 30 minutes are particularly powerful.

7. Apocalypto -- It's a shame that an unsavory person like Mel Gibson has to be such a brilliant filmmaker, but it would also be a shame to leave his epic saga about the beginning of the downfall of the Mayan civilization off of this list, because it is truly like nothing you've ever seen.

6. Inside Man -- While Spike Lee has always been a rather inconsistent filmmaker, he hits this unconventional heist flick out of the ballpark. Denzel Washington is as strong as ever as a police detective determined to find out the truth behind a seemingly routine bank robbery.

5. Casino Royale -- The Daniel Craig naysayers are hopefully roasting over an open fire in hell, because not only is Craig utterly captivating as James Bond, but this renewal of the Bond franchise that is intended to take the character back to his darker, more rugged roots is the most skillfully-made, heart-pounding action thriller of the year.

4. Thank You For Smoking -- This unbelievably funny and intelligent movie about the tobacco lobby features political satire (not to mention actor Aaron Eckhart) at its finest.

3. The Prestige -- Proving that movies themselves can be magic, director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Batman Begins) weaves a story about two rivaling magicians and the consequences of their obsessions that is nothing short of spectacular. Features great acting work on the part of Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, and Michael Caine. Particularly a great film worthy of repeat viewing.

2. United 93 -- While many people are generally leery of seeing movies about September 11th, they are doing themselves a disservice by missing this brilliant film by Paul Greengrass. Filmed in almost a documentary style that captures the events of that dark day in real time, the characters are nameless faces, and it has the ability to make us feel as if we were right there with them, making this one of the most emotionally-impacting films to come out in recent years.

1. The Departed -- Martin Scorcese has proven time and time again that he deserves his spot as one of the greatest directors of all time, and The Departed is further proof of this. Featuring top-notch acting by Leonardo Dicaprio, Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, and even Mark Wahlberg, this dark, violent drama about two people who are forced to live double lives repeatedly hits you in the gut.

Honorable Mentions:

Monster House -- gleefully dark and entertaining. Not for the under-8 crowd.

Borat -- Shocking and at times brilliantly funny, Sacha Baron Cohen deserves high props for his daring faux documentary even though it can be difficult to watch.

V for Vendetta -- The Wachowski brothers make a solid, dark film about an eccentric man and his unlikely sidekick (Natalie Portman) who dare to remake a dystopian society by particularly incendiary measures.

Slither -- The ultimate in goulish good fun, this gory little flick, made in classic B-movie horror style, is bloody terrific.

Happy Feet
-- Fantastic, original kid fun about a group of singing and dancing emperor penguins.

The Lake House
-- The undeniable chemistry between Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves makes this paradoxical plot about two star-crossed lovers who are separated by a gulf of two years a pleasure to watch.

Dis-Honorable Mentions:

The Hills Have Eyes -- If it inspires you to walk out of the theater so you can go wash your car, well... it ain't very good...

The Da Vinci Code -- Its folley is that it was TOO faithful to the book. Add to that the bad hair, over-the-top acting, and Ron Howard's refusal to actually edit this bloated turd of a film and you have an overall awful trip to the movies.

Silent Hill -- Not only the worst movie of 2006, but also a stark reminder of how I'm still a bit sore from that loss of two hours of my life. I expect this film to one day help resurrect the Mystery Science Theater 3000 series.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Apocalypto

Loincloths. Lots and lots of loincloths.

The beginning of Mel Gibson's epic Apocalypto begins with a most apt quote by historian Will Durant: "A civilization is not conquered without, until it is destroyed within." When we are first introduced to a young hunter named Jaguar Paw and his family in a quaint, peaceful jungle, we see little sign of this inner decay. In fact, hunting and procreating are the main orders of business for this little village that appears to be completely cut off from pre-Columbian Mayan civilization that we envision with fancy headdresses and towering step pyramids. So imagine their utter surprise when they are invaded by a raping, pillaging, bloodthirsty brigade of fellow Mayan warriors who burn their village to the ground and round up all of the men to be taken to the main city as objects of blood sacrifice to the gods. Jaguar Paw takes his family and lowers them into a deep pit in order to hide them from the invaders before he is captured. What ensues from this point is a jaw-dropping, fast-paced, bloody glut of action that details our hero's attempts to get back and rescue his family.

The plot is rather simple, but the real substance of the film is in its craft. Gibson's knack for visual flair is as top-notch as ever, and he pulls no punches when he exhibits some of the truly barbarous practices of this culture, from their fearsome piercings and tattoos to their methods of sacrificial worship. He counterbalances this, however, by bringing the humanity of the Jaguar Paw's people to the forefront. They play practical jokes on one another and they love their children.

All that being said, Apocalypto is not for the faint of heart. While The Passion of the Christ remains his most graphic film, this one is more applicable to Braveheart in terms of its violence and its themes. Although Gibson does spare us some imagery of village women being brutally raped and murdered by the invaders, we see enough to know that it happened. We also see some unadultered shots of throat slashings, a man eating the raw testicles of a tapier, and a headless body tumbling down hundreds of stairs. Don't worry, I didn't spoil everything. There is plenty left to shock your visual senses.

Mel Gibson has been at the center of some unwanted publicity of late given his anti-semitic comments and eccentric behavior, and many questioned whether or not this film would be able to help salvage his credibility. The answer to that question is difficult to determine due to the fact that Apocalypto is not a bad movie (in fact, it's extraordinary). There are just many factors about this film that will not appeal to a mainstream audience. First, it details a culture that has been rarely depicted in Hollywood films, second it has subtitles, and third it is in the traditional Gibson style of being more than generous with the gore. If there is a large enough segment of the population who can be accepting of all those things, then Apocalypto will do strong business despite Gibson's public fiascos.

Apocalypto shows us a society on the brink of obliteration, and it makes any positive outcome for our heroes bittersweet as we see Spanish ships looming on the horizon. While some might complain that this film is another showcase for Mel Gibson's bloodlust, I would argue that the violence is not without a purpose, and in fact adds to the authenticity of the depiction of this primitive civilization. There may be no film that Gibson can make that can change people's opinions about his eccentricities and religious fanaticism, but Apocalypto is clearly demonstrative of his talents as a filmmaker.

Gouda's Final Grade: A

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Pursuit of Happyness

Father and son actively pursuing "happyness..."

One of the most durable and time-honored formulae in all of storytelling is that of the "pulls himself up by the bootstraps" hero who manages to escape hopeless circumstances by the power of his wits. Regardless of whether one believes in the existence of bad luck, it is hard not to sympathize for someone who has fallen prey the all-too human fault of making a wrong, albeit well-intentioned, decision. Chris Gardner (Will Smith) does just that when he decides to invest his and his wife's life savings in a business selling portable bone density scanners, a product that is deemed "an unnecessary luxury" by most of the doctors to whom he attempts to sell them. This business misstep places his family in financial dire straits. They can't pay their rent. The IRS is intent on collecting on a long overdue bill, and it is clear that his wife, Linda (Thandie Newton) has reached her breaking point. Weary and bitter, she leaves Chris and their son Christopher (played by Smith's real-life sone Jaden) to pursue a job on the other side of the country. This sets up a series of heartbreaking events that leave Chris on the brink of and eventually in the throes of homelessness. But Chris is not a stupid man. In fact, he was an excellent student as a child, is personable, can think on his feet, and he sees an opportunity for a better future for him and his son when he decides to apply for a stockbroker internship with Dean Witter.

Based on a true story, "The Pursuit of Happyness" details the trials this father and son face on Chris's transformation from a struggling, homeless venture capitalist to a successful stockbroker and eventual millionaire. We are continuously impressed by Chris's ability to charm and impress his colleagues by day while tending to his son in various homeless shelters by night. The bond between the two lead actors is palpable and touching. Jaden Smith's performance is so unlike that of average child actors in that he is completely natural and intelligent while managing to still be endearing. Will Smith gives his best work to date in a subtle, tear-jerking, physically transformative performance that is sure to garner an Oscar nomination, and he does a pitch-perfect job of portraying a man who is struggling to hold onto his spirit through ordeals that would have broken a lesser man.

Although the film tends to break the threshold of sappy cuteness from time to time ("Daddy, did mommy leave because of me?"), and feels a little long at times because it probably would have been better suited as an HBO film, it is grounded by its solid performances and its poignant story.

Gouda's Final Grade: B