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Top Five movies of the first-half of 2011 (Jan-Jun)

The front of half of 2011 is in the books now. I know everyone says this, and now so will I: I can't believe the year is half over! Where the hell does the time go? Okay, now that I have that cliche out of the way lets get on to one of the biggest cliches in blogging: A list!

I'm a big movie geek who tries to get to the theater at least once a week when there is stuff worth seeing. Most years I average over 50 trips but this year has been a little slower. I've only been to the movies twelve times this year! Maybe things will pick up in the second half of the year. But of those dozen films I've seen there has been some gems. Here now are the best movies of the first half of 2011.

1) Win Win

Win Win is the story of Mike, a lawyer who specializes in elder care and his attempt to do the easy thing instead of the right thing. After becoming a wealthy client's, Leo, legal guardian he places the man in retirement home against his wishes. This seems to be the perfect scenario since Leo will be cared for and Mike will collect a stipend for caring for him. This works until Leo's teenaged grandson enters the picture.

There seems to be a progression to writer/director Thomas McCarthy's films. His first film The Station Agent was about three outcasts forming a family like bond. His second film The Visitor was about an illegal alien and his wife forming a friendship. This film shifts perspective a bit telling the story of a family man allowing outsiders in. Can't wait to see what McCarthy does next.

2) Cedar Rapids

There's a scene at the end of The Truman Show where the front of his boat runs into the "end" of Trumans world. It's a profound moment. I remember being annoyed at people in the theater for laughing since I've always felt the scene was not played for laughs.

Cedar Rapids shares that scenes theme. Tim Lippey leaves small town Wisconsin for the "Big city" of Cedar Rapids. During the trip he encounters a world much larger and complex than the one he knows. His lessons are played for laughs, but are no less profound.

The greatness of the film is not just the funny script, expert comedic performances, but the richly written characters. Tim maybe a naive small-town boy, but he's not played stupid like most comedies.

3) Super 8

For years movie goers have complained about prequels, sequels, and remakes. The problem is everyone still sees them. Deep down inside we hope that blockbuster based on a beloved toy line can live up to the expectations of our nostalgia.

But Super 8 gets it right. It's story has a nostalgic feel. Not so much because of it's setting but in the way it's told. It puts the story and character first. It allows the characters to be smart. The interesting choice it let's one character make sets it apart from standard movie cliches.

4) Paul

Paul is another film that really puts character first. In many movie comedies nerds/geeks are portrayed as only being interested in their geeky pursuits. Take a movie like Fanboys, where they quote and live Star Wars 24/7, those characters have no grasp on appropriate behavior in non-geek moments. It's good for some laughs but quickly gets old

That is not the case in Paul. These characters are allowed to be more than just nerds, geeks, and outcasts. Much more rounded characters that easy to attach to. Of course there is still plenty of geek humor.

5) Hanna

Hanna's childhood is much more interesting than that of most people. She grew up in seclusion in the Arctic. Living only with her ex-CIA agent father. Being trained to kill for a specific purpose. When the time comes to carry out the mission her real education begins as her journey takes her on a coming of age story unlike any other.

Hanna really succeeds because while the action is there, it is really the story of a teenager facing the strange and wonderful world we live in for the first time. Most of us went through these experiences in high school but Hanna gets to do it in a fairy tale.

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Money in the Bank '11
As a wrestling fan last night and even today have been amazing.

I was fortunate enough to be in attendance last night at the WWE's Money in The Bank Pay Per View at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont. Suburban Chicago. Chicago, home of CM Punk.

Quick recap for you non-wrestling fans. Punk is a local guy who worked his way up in the indies to finally got his shot in the WWE. For the last five years he's been both a good guy and bad guy. But his work in the ring and on the mic have set him apart from nearly every other guy in the locker room. Basically, he gets "it".

A few weeks ago he cut this awesome promo where he talked about his contract being up on July 17th, the night of the Pay Per View and his WWE title match with John Cena. Punk says he's going to win the belt and leave the company. He talked about behind the scenes stuff until they "cut off" his mic at the end.

Now you have to understand that in the WWE has complete control over what these guys say and do. In fact the promos are written by the company for them. So it was pretty shocking to here someone say these things on TV.

But this got the wrestling community buzzing. His contract really is up and there was speculation over whether he'd re-sign or not. This was played up in the story. Also adding drama is the stipulation that if Cena lost the belt to Punk, Cena would be fired by Vince McMahon. It was a great angle that everyone was worried wouldn't be delivered on.

No need to worry.

The Punk/Cena match was a classic! The other matches on the card were great. The in-arena crowd was on fire and the wrestling on-line community is still buzzing about it.

For once everyone seems happy and wrestling is fun and exciting for the first time in about a decade! I can't wait to watch RAW tonight for the next chapter.

Oh by the way, Punk posted this pic on his twitter account this morning.

Damn it feels good to be a wrestling fan!

It was a different time...

Word around the campfire is DC is going to run television ads to hype the DCNu relaunch. They've done this before, in the nineties.


Make sure to stay tuned for the whole thing, there is a long gap between the DC ad and the Marvel one.

Posted via LiveJournal app for iPad.

Of reboots and wrestling
There has been much written about DC comics decision to reboot the entire line. As you probably already know in September DC will ship 52 number one issues. A line-wide reboot. On the one hand it's frustrating for long time readers. Not knowing if the titles they've been reading for years will have any context in the new status quo. But for others it's a fun time. Being able to jump on at the start of something newish yet familiar is a fun idea.

No matter which side you fall on it raises an interesting question: How do you manage a collective of history and characters that is decades old? There are not many sources of inspiration better suited than the wonderful world of professional wrestling.

Think about it, there are more than a few similarities, colorful good guys and bad guys fighting, periodical big events that will "change" everything, a rotating cast of characters that sometimes die and come back to life. I think that if DC, and Marvel for that matter, could think outside the box and inside the wrestling ring they could find a happy medium that would bridge the gap between appealing to older readers while also attracting new ones.

For starters; honor the past without abandoning it. One of the highlights of Wrestlemania weekend is the WWE Hall of Fame ceremonies. Every year a handful of performers from yesteryear are inducted. Names and faces that many fans enjoyed are honored for their years of service.

This seems like a no-brainer. Instead of ignoring or re-writing the past they acknowledge it and move on. Lets face it when you "wipe out" history it pisses readers off. Readers who may come back IF you don't tell them that everything they know about this world is now non-existent.

So how can this be done with comic characters? At some point the question has to be asked if there are anymore interesting stories to be told with these characters? How long can someone read stories of Hero A fighting Villain B before it gets old? All good things come to an end and the best way to do this is push brand new characters. Not different characters dressed as the the old ones, but actual new heroes. Ones that will appeal to a younger generation.

Turn on any episode of WWE programing and you will see a variety of stars. Some have been around for decades, but most only for the last ten years or so. Both comics and Pro Wrestling's target audience have been kids to adults in their early twenties. As a result the characters must change. They must be younger and more in tune to what appeals to this younger generation.

In wrestling they have no choice, guys get older and can't keep the same pace At some point they all have to retire. How lame would it be to still have Hulk Hogan fighting The Ultimate Warrior every year for the last twenty years. That is essentially what happens every time Spider-man fights Doc Ock, or The Flash battles his Rouges gallery. Rehashes of battles older readers read about when they were kids, stretched out over a readers lifetime. Readers are treated to Superman vs. Lex Luthor XXVII, and everyone wonders why we don't see more kids at the shops or at conventions.

So if we're pushing new characters what do we do with the old ones? Kill them? Maybe some, retire others, but the important thing is they step into the background. Take a wrestler like The Undertaker for example, time has caught up with him. His body has taken over twenty years of abuse and isn't as durable as he used to be. He takes most of the year off but always comes back for Wrestlemania and the crowd eats it up! It's gotten to a point where fans know it's a special attraction to even see him on television or live. Making the experience even more special.

Why not take that same concept and apply it to comics? Imagine if instead of appearing in four or more books a month we only got a Superman story a couple times a year tops. Imagine the excitement that would come knowing every time you saw Clark on the page it meant something special was going to happen.

Now some might say this won't work. That they need to keep these characters in the limelight in order for Superman to sell toys, pillow cases, movie tickets, etc. But let's be honest for a moment. Are kids learning about these characters from reading comics? Or do they know them from going to the movies, watching them on television, playing the video games, etc...? Unfortunately comics are no longer the entry point like they had been. Now it's the older crowd holding on to nostalgia for the past that is driving the comics market.

Of course comics and wrestling are not exact the same in terms of their storytelling. But that doesn't mean they can't learn from one another. The fact remains that they both share some of the same obstacles in their different styles of long term storytelling.

Movie Review: How To Train Your Dragon
It’s no secret that PIXAR is far and away the industry leaders in the animated movie game. Their list of critical and commercial success are unmatched. The runner-up is Dreamworks, their results are a little more flawed. So what is the secret that propels one company while the other struggles?

PIXAR focuses on story and character first. Sure there are cute and furry animals and plenty of opportunities for merchandising, but the story is king even if it’s risky. Take a look at Up. The story of an elderly man trying to correct his life’s biggest regret doesn’t exactly scream mainstream success.

On the flip side of that you have Dreamworks. They have found a niche of crowd pleasing yet bland films; The Shrek series, Madagascar, and Monsters vs. Aliens. Not terrible but nothing that is particularly inspiring either. But seemingly out of nowhere comes How To Train Your Dragon and suddenly Dreamworks shows they can get it right.

Hiccup is a teenage Viking growing up in a village called Berk. The town seems to have one industry: fighting and killing the various types of dragons that attack on a regular basis. Everything revolves these battles. Most kids anxiously await their chance to participate in dragon training and take their places in the field of battle alongside their parents.

For those like Hiccup, whose talents clearly lay elsewhere, other jobs are found. His job is that of an apprentice to the local blacksmith. Hiccup wants to fight, but it just never seems to work out very well for him. Until one night Hiccup gets off a lucky shot and manages to down a mysterious “Night Fury” one of the most feared types of dragons.

The next day he travels to the forest to track down the beast. He finds it, still bound from his weapon and moves in for the kill. Only he can’t, deciding instead to cut the creature loose. Before too long Hiccup befriends the dragon he names Toothless, and learns that the vikings don’t know as much as they thought.

The films biggest strength lies in the filmmakers faith in the story. Most family films feel the need to dumb down stories in an attempt to appeal to kids. H.T.T.Y.D. never does that. Take the scene where Hiccup first attempts to befriend Toothless. After offering the dragon food the boy reaches out several times to pet the creature, who backs off each time. It isn’t until Hiccup lays down everything that can be thought of as hostile and avoids eye contact that Toothless allows him the boy to pet him. During this whole sequence there is very little dialog. No needless exposition to describe what is on-screen. A fine example of showing and not telling.

It’s Hiccups relationships that really drive the story along, not just how he interacts with the dragon but really with everyone in the film. Especially his father Stoic, who wants nothing more than to see his son become a great dragon slayer. However he has long given up on that particular hope and now wants to the boy to just stay out-of-the-way when all Hell breaks loose. Hiccup is eventually put in the position of not wanting to disappoint his father, but at the same time he no longer dreams of killing the winged beasts. It’s the tension of this dynamic that finally allows Hiccup to reach his unexpected destiny.

The action scenes are thrilling but it is the smaller and quieter moments that are the heart of the film. There is a moment near the end of the film where one relationship is brought full circle and it one of the most touching moments of film I’ve seen in years. These are the kinds of moments that can only be achieved with characters that feel real and genuine, not with the cardboard archetypes we typically see in these types of films.

With the surprise of Kung Fu Panda a couple of years ago and now How To Train Your Dragon, Dreamworks is showing a willingness to ditch formula and tell bold and original stories. If they can build on the momentum of these films they will be equal to PIXAR in no time.

How To Train Your Dragon is the perfect example of everything a family can and should be: an enjoyable film that mixes enough elements to appeal to every family member individually. But more than this it is easily one of the best movie of the year.

***** out of *****

Top Ten Movies of 2009
The totals break down like this. I saw 75 different films in the theater in 2009. Some I saw more than once and some were special attractions, Close Encounters of The Third Kind, The Wizard of Oz, and Let The Right One In, so I walked through theater doors no less than 84 times. Even so there were a few things I didn’t see that I wanted to before I compiled this list; Crazy Heart, Big Fan, Sherlock Holmes, The Road, A Serious Man. But I’m not a professional critic who gets into screenings so I only see what I can get to and pay for. These are the best of what I saw in the theater in 2009.

10- The Hurt Locker An Iraq war movie that doesn’t try to make any statements, just shows you the world the soldiers live in.

09- Away We Go Despite being a bit heavy on the “quirkiness” it’s a very funny and truthful movie about maturity.

08- 500 Days of Summer Another movie a bit heavy on quirk, but also very funny and truthful about how we perceive our relationships.

07- Precious Not exactly a feel good film, though it is very optimistic at parts given the subject matter. Powerful film that is worth seeing at least once.

06- Adventureland The advertising mislead audiences into thinking this was a wacky comedy. Instead it’s a quiet and charming coming of age story.

05- The Hangover Funniest movie in some time. Perhaps the best straight-up comedy of this new golden age of the rated R comedy.

04- Up Funny, sweet, and visually stunning. Pixar hits another one out of the park.

03- Star Trek J.J. Abrams did what no one has been able to do in twenty years. Make Star Trek cool for a non geek audience.

02- Inglorious Basterds Quentin Tarantino’s epic World War II masterpiece. The bar scene is an exercise in building tension.

01- Up In The Air Not a flashy movie but a very entertaining one. Clooney is on top of his game in this grown up comedy/drama that never goes for the obvious joke or payoff.

Honorable mentions: Moon, Watchmen, Knowing, I love you man, Duplicity, Drag me to Hell, District 9, The Informant, Where the Wild Things Are, The Men Who Stare at Goats, The Box, and Avatar.

My Flickchart list!
If you’re a movie geek and have never been to www.flickchart.com you are really missing out. It’s addictive, time-consuming, and a hell of a lot of fun. Simply, two movie posters are on the screen and it’s up to you to pick the movie that you like/think is better. Some match-ups are easy (The 5th Element vs Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes), some are more difficult (Boogie Nights vs Three Kings) but everybody’s experience is different. If a movie is ranked 10th on your list and you pick the film against it, then the new film is ranked 10th and the previous film drops to 11. There are thousands and thousands of movies in the database, with new ones added routinely. You just keep matching and it keeps lists and statistics. Here are my top 20 movies according to www.flickchart.com.

1) Almost Famous; 2) Pulp Fiction; 3) The Goonies; 4) The Right Stuff; 5) Jaws

6) Bottle Rocket; 7) Three Kings; The Terminator; 9) Ed Wood; 10) Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

11) Rushmore; 12) Fargo; 13) Clerks; 14) True Romance; 15) Say Anything…

16) Leaving Las Vegas; 17) Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade; 18) Cop Land; 19) Star Wars; 20) The Lord of The Rings: The Return of The King.

It’s a great list but not quite right. As much as I like Cop Land, I don’t think it should be in the top 20. Star Wars should probably be number one. Raiders of The Lost Ark should replace Last Crusade and be higher on the list. The Goonies should probably fall into the second half of the list. But mostly I’m happy with the twenty films listed.

After The Fact: Close Encounters of the Third Kind
When we watch a movie we, hopefully, see a complete story about a character. In a good film by the end we know all we need to know about that character. But what about the other characters? What happens to them?

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THRID KIND: At the end of the film Roy Neary is chosen by the aliens to ride along in their spaceship. Most people would feel it's something of a happy ending. A man overcomes great personal obstacles to follow his calling, his reward a celestial journey to see things no one from this planet has ever seen. But what about his family?

At the onset of the story Roy is married to Ronnie and they have three kids Brad, Toby, and Sylvia. During the film as Roy becomes more obsessed with Devil's Tower it causes a lot of dysfunction in the family. With no way to justify his behavior Ronnie takes the kids and leaves Roy. We see the tension take its toll not only on Ronnie but, also the kids. Roy goes off for his date with fate and is never seen from again.

It's doubtful that the government would reveal what really happened that night. Even if someone was able to dig up records of the event would there be any mention of Neary? There was a crew of men and women who prepped to go into space, but Neary was chosen even though he was not part of the program. The only way to prove what happened to Roy would be from eyewitness accounts. Assuming no one involved in the operation said anything there are only two people who could shed some light on the subject.

During his journey to Devil's Tower, Roy is detained by the military. After an interview he is placed on a helicopter with a group of people who were compelled to travel from all over the country to be there. Before the helicopter takes off Roy makes a run for it, joined by two others: Larry and Jillian. As they make their way around the mountain the Army starts dusting with a sleeping agent. Larry succumbs and doesn't make it to see the big show. If interviewed he'd only know part of the story. Jillian is the key but would she talk?

Jillian makes it with Roy to the landing area for the spaceships arrival. But where his journey is just beginning, hers ends as her missing son emerges from the starship. All she ever really wanted was to get her boy back, once that happens she fades to the background to watch what happens. One important fact: she has a camera and she is not shy about using it. Would the Army find it and confiscate it? If she published the pictures would anyone believe her?

If the Neary family did some research and was able to track Roy's adventure to Wyoming it would be Jillian who would be able to tell them what happened. I think she would, her and Roy clearly shared a bond and I think she would want them to know what happened.

Most likely Roy would be declared missing and then presumed dead. The Neary family's last memories of Roy would that he was going insane. Obsessed with flying saucers and building and replicas of a national monument. Until one day, for seemingly no reason, he disappeared. As hopeful and uplifting as Close Encounters Of The Third Kind is, it's also a dark tale of how one man lost his family, job, and possibly his insanity to pursue an obsession.

Movie Review: TEACHERS
Growing up in the early eighties movie choices were somewhat limited. VHS was just catching on and new releases were sometimes difficult to come by. But we could always count on HBO to entertain us.
The only problem is they ran the same movies over and over. Most movie geeks who grew up in that time probably remember movies like Midnight Madness being played on a seemingly continuous loop. One of these films, Teachers, was a favorite of mine. But would it hold up after all these years?
Alex Jurel (Nick Nolte) is a popular Social Studies teacher at J.F.K. High School. He seems to be so popular because he treats the students as people instead of kids. After many years as a teacher he seems to have been worn down. We get hints that in his early years he was pretty idealistic, now he seems to be coasting through life.
The central conflict of the movie is what will Alex say at an upcoming deposition? A former student is suing the school on the grounds that he was given passing grades he did not deserve. The lead attorney for the plaintiff is Lisa Hammond (Jo Beth Williams). After a coordinated lack of cooperation on behalf of the school district, Hammond decides to hold depositions at the school. Of course she has other motives, not only did she graduate from the school, but she has also had a lifelong crush on Jurel. So the question becomes will the formerly idealistic teacher do the right thing and testify against the school or will he tote the company line?
It seems like that alone would be enough for one movie, not the case here. Other sub-plots are added. Some are meant to be funny, like the story of the mental patient (Richard Mulligan) who impersonates a substitute teacher. Others are meant to showcase what issues big city schools face; violence, teen pregnancy, and general apathy. Very ambitious but in the end there is more drama at this school than in a soap opera.
One might mistake it for a soap opera. While there is a talented cast (Nolte, Williams, Mulligan, Judd Hirsch, Laura Dern, Ralphh Macchio, Crispin Glover, etc) does their best to deliver the overexaggeratedd dialog with a straight face but much of the dialog comes off as cheesy. Throw in several dramatic moments punctuated with “inspirational” 80's rock and you have a recipe for melodrama.
Despite the heightened dramatics there is still a lot to like in Teachers. Jurel's do the right thing or take the easy path of compliance works very well. The characters themselves are mostly likable and sympathetic. Many issues addressed in the film still feel relevant today. While the movie itself may not be AS good as I'd remembered it to be, it's still an enjoyable watch.

*** out of *****

 "All things considered

He’s not bitter
He’s not mean (and he’s not done)
All things considered, what he’s telling us
Isn’t hurting anyone”

“All Things Considered” by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones.


Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) has reached a point where life as a newspaperman has become not so rewarding. After his wife leaves him and a co-worker dies at work Bob feels the call to do something with his life. But what? After a strange interview he decides to head to Iraq to cover the start of the war.

Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) was lost too, except it was back in the eighties when he joined the U.S. Army looking for direction. Fortunatley for him Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) already found his own path in the Army, the path of the Jedi. Django set out to create “The New Earth Army”. A group of soldiers that would use all sorts of psychic abilities to become a group of warrior/monks.

If you’ve seen the trailers for The Men Who Stare At Goats you know the rest. Wilton decides to write a story about the Jedi after meeting Cassady. The two go on an adventure together filled with danger and many laughs. The movie is goofy and funny and profound in a couple of unexpected ways.

The story is something of an homage to the original Star Wars films, not only sharing a few themes but also commenting on the a what eventually happened to the franchise. One of the soldiers in the program is an opportunistic jerk named Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey). Where Django is more about growth and spiritual balance, Hooper is much more manipulative. He likes to agitate and use these abilities for personal power. Eventually he forms his own business and becomes a contractor for the military in it’s war on terror. Thus taking something that filled people with joy and exploiting it for cash. Mirroring how many people felt about the Star Wars prequels.

But the central issue is by far the more interesting one. The Men Who Stare At Goats is filled with people searching for a greater meaning. Cassady even reflects that he never felt like he fit in anywhere until he was training to be a Jedi. The movie shows many instances where these people are attempting to use their abilities. But the fun thing is we’re generally not sure if they are crackpots or the real deal.

The beautiful part is it doesn’t matter. It’s not important if they can really walk through walls or stop a goat’s heart with through willpower. These are simply people searching for meaning and finding it. What could be more meaningful than that?

**** out of *****