I need to do another giant-size movie round up. Here we go!
How To Train Your Dragon (2010) - Loved it. Kudos for the writers/directors for spending time building up the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless. I feel like I've seen a lot of recent movies where such a relationship is implied but not actually earned. In HTTYD, we see the trust and friendship build believably. The training aspect was also believable. Rather than showing the problem in one scene, the brilliant solution being built in the next, and the solution working after that, we see development, trial, and error, and it adds to the believability of Hiccup as an actual engineer. Having both of these things develop side-by-side is a natural and effective construction, too.
I enjoyed the idea of different dragons and their respective strengths and weaknesses. As a kid, I would have eaten that up even more, going home to invent my own dragon, or arguing with my brothers over which one we'd choose for ourselves.
The ending had a great emotional pay-off, and tied Hiccup and Toothless even closer together in a unique way. (It reminded me of the end of Earthboy Jacobus, too.)
My only complaints are minor ones that I have with a lot of other animated movies: too much "modern talk" (stop using the phrase "not so much" -- in any movie, now that I think about it), pointless celebrity casting, pointless "realistic" hair and water (everything else is stylized and cartoony, why does hair and water and eyeballs have to look as real as possible?), overuse of Scottish accents (though I admit I don't have a good solution for the problem of making Vikings sound "different"). My other complaint is less minor but also possibly less valid: I was bored by the conflict between Hiccup and his father. The dynamic of the "Dad who doesn't get me and his love is dependent on my performance" is universal and time-tested, but I've seen it in way too many movies, and HTTYD didn't do enough different with it to make me interested. It's a very predictable road to travel. On the other hand, it was nice to see it resolve without the father being the villain.
Sherlock Holmes (2009) - Just what I expected: a fun flick with two likeable leads that isn't necessarily a "great film." High on adventure, liked the characterizations a lot, was bored by the "mystery" and villain. Moratorium declared: no more "this world will end" scenarios, please. There's absolutely no danger felt in such a threat. Everyone and their grandmother knows the world isn't going to end in these films. Make the threat more believable! Pick something that you think the filmmakers might actually allow to happen, so that there is tension and danger! While we know the heroes will usually defeat the villains, with a more believable threat the movie has a better chance of creating genuine tension. Anytime your villain threatens the entire world, I yawn and know he will fail to even cause much damage to his immediate location. (Terminator 3 is the only movie I can think of that actually follows through on its threat.)
Tom Horn (1980) - Decent Western with enough originality to make it worthwhile. This was Steve McQueen's final film, and he was around 50 years old when he made it. I've never seen him looking quite so old and worn out. Tom Horn is the true story of one of the West's final legends who was hung for murder in 1903. The movie concerns his final year, when he is already notorious for his past exploits.
The director uses slow motion to great effect during several death scenes. That probably brings to mind Michael Bay cliches, but they're actually much closer to Kurosawa's shots in Seven Samurai. There is no music in these scenes; their purpose is not melodrama, but the true violence of death.
The action is also pretty unique. One particular scene has Tom riding up to a guy in his cabin and confronting him about stolen cattle. The man is watching him from his kitchen table through a large open window. The man suddenly fires on Horn with his Colt Walker, killing Tom's horse, and as Tom is falling he gets off a shot that strikes the man right in the head. It's a great stunt and scene, edited very well. (Interesting side-note: one of the design requirements by Sam Walker for the Colt Walker was that it would be powerful enough to take down a horse. Kudos to the armorer for picking a pistol that could actually do the job.)
Tom's primary weapon is a Winchester 1876 chambered in the large .45-60 round, a weapon and configuration rarely (if ever) seen in Westerns. His prowess with an unusual long-range rifle reminded me of Quigley Down Under. One aspect that hurts the movie for me is that, like Pale Rider, the sound designer used canned A-Team sound effects for the gunfire. For such a unique weapon, you really do need to design a unique and powerful sound effect.
The movie is edited in an odd way. It makes very fast jumps from scene to scene, some of these cuts span days or weeks, and we're dropped into flashbacks with no warning.
The movie seems to stick to the facts of Tom Horn's life fairly closely. It's an interesting story.
Zombieland (2009) - Decent movie, some laughs to be had, but it didn't kill me (no pun intended), and it didn't come close to replacing Shaun of the Dead as the ZomCom to beat. I think Jesse Eisenberg is a talented actor, but I couldn't help picturing Michael Cera throughout the movie. They seem like two sides of the same double-headed coin. They're slightly different, but nearly interchangeable. I know they probably hate hearing that, but I couldn't help thinking it.
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) - Boy am I a sucker for these Capra movies. I love them. The good and innocent people in his movies, and the battle to remain so, gets me every time.
Gremlins (1984) - I don't get why this is so popular. Aside from the fun puppet effects, this is a weird movie that doesn't have enough of a hook to keep me around. And it takes FOREVER to get going. It was something like 40 minutes before the gremlins even appeared! Bad script. Bad!
Black Dynamite (2008) - Hilarious. Loved it. Terrific send-up of the genre, and watching the behind-the-scenes stuff helped me appreciate all the little subtle jokes even more. Michael Jai White is perfect as Black Dynamite. Turns out he has a black-belt in, like, a billion fighting styles, so the fight scenes are actually awesome.
Ponyo (2009) - Very similar to My Neighbor Totoro in terms of structure. There is a goal for the characters, but there's never really any danger or conflict. You just get to enjoy watching them get there. Ponyo is about the cutest thing I've ever seen. I loved watching her run around with that big grin on her face, and interact with others.
Lonely Are the Brave (1962) - (some spoilers to follow) I wish I had more to write about this one. It's great all over the place. It's my favorite role of Kirk Douglas'. There have been many Westerns about the Last Cowboy, but Kirk's character and the era he's in may make him the definitive Last Cowboy.
You start with the famous opening shot of a cowboy sleeping on the prairie, horse by his side, campfire smoldering. The year could be 1880. Then a jet flies over.
Kirk is making his way back to a town where his buddy has been thrown in jail. In a funny bit of contrast, it's a tiny town, but it seems like Manhattan compared with the prairie he's just come in from. Kirk is planning on breaking in to jail so he can bust his friend out. He just needs a good reason to get thrown in jail. In another bit of irony, he visits a bar, planning to get drunk, and ends up in a fight with a tough-as-nails one-armed man with a giant chip on his shoulder, despite doing everything he can to avoid the fight. Then, when it turns out that even this won't get him into jail, he slugs the police officer who is letting him go. Then, he gets in to jail, only his friend doesn't want to leave!
This is all the first half of the movie, and it could stand up on it's own as a great film. But from here, he busts out and is making a break for the mountains, with police chief Walter Matthau on his trail. This second half is, again, a whole other story that would be compelling on its own.
Interspersed with all this is Carroll O'Connor driving a big rig full of toilets somewhere. From the moment you first see him, you know how the movie is going to end. But a movie like this couldn't end any way else anyhow, so knowing isn't a detriment to enjoying the film.