FilmNerds Recommends: Summer Kick-Off
The FilmNerds crew is back once again with FilmNerds Recommends, our monthly feature where we do our sacred duty as film geeks by telling you which movies we think are worthy of your valuable home entertainment time. March is truly a dry season when it comes to new releases in theaters with studios dumping off their least promising projects before the summer season gets rolling. This month, as we occasionally do, the FilmNerds crew has chosen four of the month’s big releases and given you alternative choices that offer a more satisfying variation on the same theme. Every FilmNerds recommendation is currently available on Netflix so if you see a pick you like, simply click on the DVD cover art to link straight to the movie’s page on Netflix.
Mythology-Based Action (Instead of Thor)
I would love to recommend Disney’s HERCULES here, but I would be doing so for its musical numbers alone. The movie, overall, is not very strong. I will, however, recommend another animated features, this one guest-starring the Roman Pantheon: LES DOUZE TRAVAUX D’ASTERIX, or THE TWELVE TASKS OF ASTERIX. Probably the best of the Asterix films, this one is not an adaptation of any of the comic, but rather an original story.
I can’t think of an answer to this question, so I’ll just say HELLBOY. That had to do with mythology, right? Didn’t HELLBOY 2 have elves in it or something? There was that magic tree guy in that movie, too? A troll? I don’t know. Either way, Guillermo Del Toro’s monster-laden, Lovecraft-influenced, fantastical duo of superhero movies are great fun, visually stunning and just plain entertaining, with a delightful undercurrent of subversive horror weirdness just barely beneath the surface. It pains me that there’s no HELLBOY 3 in the immediate future.
Rarely would I ever recommend either Joel and Ethan Coen’s hilarious but overstuffed O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU (2000) or Wolfgang Peterson’s just stuffed TROY (2004), but you won’t find anything better from the canon of mythology-inspired cinema. While O BROTHER has some exciting moments, it doesn’t qualify as an action movie, so we’ll go with Peterson’s LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOSE “Iliad” adaptation starring Brad Pitt (abandoning Darren Aronofsky and THE FOUNTAIN for this) as the mighty jerkwad Achilles. Let’s ignore the gaudy sap and mercilessly dreadful dialogue (“IS THERE NO ONE ELSE?!”) and focus on the mostly thrilling swordfighting sequences, highlighted by the showdown between Pitt and Eric Bana, as the tragic Hector. It’s the best you’re gonna do.
The legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Roundtable spawned dozens of cinematic adaptations, and surely many more to come. One that falls under the radars of many cinephiles is the 1995 box-office underachiever FIRST KNIGHT. After building his career around classic “spoof” comedies like AIRPLANE! and THE NAKED GUN, director Jerry Zucker successfully transitioned to “serious” filmmaking with the blockbuster GHOST in 1990. His next film was FIRST KNIGHT and it failed to score both with critics and audiences. I, however, have a fond memory of seeing it during its initial release. It features a stellar cast and an epic scope, punctuated by romance, humor and excellent battle sequences. Hopefully via tv airings and Netflix, this 90s gem will finally get the respect it deserves.
I’ve never admired another man’s body like I admire Brad Pitt’s in Troy. In fact, I just recently removed the Troy poster from the inside of my closet door on my way out. This film is great if you’re looking for an action-packed, chariot-riding, sword-wielding experience full of violent and well-choreographed battle scenes. Unlike many of these types of films today, Troy isn’t saturated with special effects nor was it converted to a 3-D format during post-production. This gives it a more authentic feel. It’s got a great cast and a fairly strong script. As an added bonus, we get to see a rather sensitive Orlando Bloom humiliated on the battlefield. There’s also an underlying love story there for the ladies. Brad Pitt plays the unstoppable Achilles who pwns his way through giants and warriors with graceful ease and well-earned cockiness. He’s both a warrior and a ladies man. He is the called-upon savior of the Greeks and they fully realize that you don’t win unless Achilles fights for your side. Troy is based on Homer’s The Iliad and the cinematography, art direction and costume design are strong. Most importantly, it’s a lot of fun.
Female-Driven Comedy (Instead of Bridesmaids)
WAITRESS is one of the most underrated comedies of recent years. The last film by Adrienne Shelley before her tragic death, this is the rare modern romantic comedy that doesn’t pander and isn’t annoying. Check it out for awesome performances by Keri Russell and Nathan Fillion.
WAITRESS is a damn good pick! And it’s depressing I can’t really think of many female-driven comedies to choose from — there are a couple well-regarded movies I don’t really like (like LEGALLY BLONDE), a few movies that were good enough but not memorable (like THE HOUSE BUNNY, starring Anna Faris), and movies that are just flat-out terrible (like pretty much anything Kate Hudson’s the lead in, up to and including this year’s SOMETHING BORROWED) — so let me reach way back and highlight a film by James L. Brooks, who at one point knew how to write for women (not so much in his film HOW DO YOU KNOW, from last year), and proved it by crafting Holly Hunter’s best role ever in BROADCAST NEWS.
Would hate to give to an alternative to Kristen Wiig’s own hilarious female-driven comedy, but rules is rules, so let’s roll with ROMY AND MICHELE’S HIGH SCHOOL REUNION (1997), starring Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow. Another R-rated romp that could go toe-to-toe with any guy-oriented laffer in the 90s, this highly original and intelligent fairytale depicts a pair of dweeby BFFs who conjure up lie after lie about themselves in preparation for their titular high school reunion. Kudrow, at the peak of her “Friends” run, kills it with her ditzy sarcasm, while Oscar-winner Sorvino hangs every step of the way. Janeane Garofalo and Alan Cumming give silly supporting performances, too. But, still, see BRIDESMAIDS.
Graham Flanagan’s Pick – Tiny Furniture (2010) (currently not available on DVD)
America will soon become much more familiar with actress & auteur Lena Dunham when her Judd Apatow-produced HBO comedy GIRLS premieres at some point in the next year. She got this opportunity based on the deserved acclaim generated by her tour-de-force coming out party TINY FURNITURE, which stirred up big buzz on the indie scene in 2010. One of the best movies of that year, it also showcases Dunham as a fearless actress with talent that covers the entire dramatic spectrum.
This time of year I usually save my movie-goings for the big summer blockbusters. The smaller scale films I save for Netflix so by the time Oscar season arrives I can blow all my cash on the films that I need to see. So, if you’re like me and need to fill the void that not going to see Bridesmaids has caused, then you might check out the delightful independent film, Waitress. It stars Keri Russell who plays a pregnant, pie-making waitress who deals with an abusive relationship. Waitress isn’t as full-blown a comedy as Bridesmaids. In fact, it is a funny and light-hearted film that easily gets dark when it needs to. Adrienne Shelly (now deceased) both acted in and directed this film. It also stars Nathan Fillion, Cheryl Hines and the great Andy Griffith. Waitress easily made my Top 10 of 2007 and I suggest that everyone see this film.
It’s easy to dismiss what looks like a whacky comedy about two ditzes inadvertently becoming involved in the Watergate scandal but this Nixon-era comedy features two really nice comedic performances from Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams as well as a solid Nixon impression from Dan Hedaya. While it’s not absolutely necessary to be a political buff to enjoy this movie, there are enough clever references throughout the film to satisfy nerds like me while most of the laughs come simply from witty, well-written one-liners and fun situational comedy. Definitely a good time.
Underrated Classic Summer Blockbuster
Guys, please just take one second to slam some evil, okay? 1996’s THE PHANTOM is an underrated summer adventure that could not be a called a “blockbuster” by any stretch of the imagination, although it is structured like one. Despite a campy performance from Billy Zane and a slight mishandling of the Phantom mythology, the Ghost Who Walks’ only non-serialized film appearance is a fun ride. Fantastic production design, photography, and pacing make it well worth your time. If you need any more persuading, just check out the awesome score: http://tinyurl.com/3q4efws
I’ve seen my fair share of underrated summer blockbusters in the past few years, but I’m going to pick a handful from the last couple years, all big, dumb action movies that beggar belief in the best way possible, Let’s just hop back to last summer — THE A-TEAM was as big and dumb and gleeful as I like my action movies to be, with a self-aware comic streak that worked, and a cast unafraid to mug and look like they’re having a good time. From 2008, the totally juvenile, incredibly dumb WANTED is nevertheless sold on the conviction of its cast (James McAvoy and Angelina Jolie are awesome) and some totally awesome set pieces. Neither are classics — THE A-TEAM is just barely even a good movie — but they’re good examples on how to make a big dumb summer blockbuster, which is to make them really, really big and have some intelligence behind how dumb they really are.
DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE (1995) gives its classic franchise starter a legitimate run for its money, thanks to dynamite dialogue, superb action sequences and brilliant interplay between Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson. A smash hit overseas (earning $366M worldwide; and $100M domestic), John McTiernan’s welcome return to John McClane gave me all I needed in a big summer action blockbuster (and sequel) with thrilling car chases, carefully executed profanity and a worthy villain, played by a charmingly sadistic Jeremy Irons. Best of all, this movie one of 1995’s funniest movies. Throw a little gasoline and raw intensity (McClane’s first assignment in Harlem) into the mix, and you’ve got a surefire winner.
With ERASER, director of THE MASK Chuck Russell moved out of his apparent comfort zone to helm a wholly-entertaining, if somewhat straightforward, weapons-heavy action vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger. This might be the last solid Schwarzenegger actioner in existence. It is, excluding TERMINATOR 3, the last Schwarzenegger-driven film to gross more than $100M in the US.
Anything typed in this paragraph will either have been said before or will be a vast understatement. That being said, E.T. is one of the greatest movies of all time. Released in June of 1982 and the fact that it cleared $350 million at the box office makes it one of the best and most successful blockbusters. As I said before, I can’t do this film justice, but I must recommend it. Very few films exist that create as splendid a giddiness as E.T. Films like this are the reason I am a film fan. It’s one of a kind because, having seen it is a child and as an adult, I saw the film from two different perspectives and I firmly believe that this was Spielberg’s intention all along. Spielberg is a genius for many reasons, but in my opinion, what he did with this film is awe-inspiring. To make a film that speaks to two completely different age groups and can mean so much to both is incredible. There’s not another film out there that is as technically innovative and emotionally touching at the same time. It’s thrilling and action-packed, but it’s one of the more emotional films out there.
I think a lot of this has to do with the age I was when I first saw Brian De Palma’s big screen adaptation of the classic 1960s spy series but this movie has always stuck out in my mind as the epitome of summer blockbuster action done right. Tom Cruise was at the height of his powers here as a believably bad-ass action star and while the plot gets almost absurdly labyrinthine but the twists and turns keep the stakes high in between spectacular action sequences. The fact that the break-in scene is still referenced constantly today is evidence of what an original and well-executed idea that scene is.
Franchise with the Best Sequels (Instead of Pirates of the Caribbean
(I like PIRATES 2 & 3… but I’ll ignore the slight.) Yeah, if we’re going by long-running franchises, the James Bond franchise is the obvious answer here, if only by sheer number of sequels (there are a lot of terrible ones, but a lot of awesome ones too). I’ll also throw out the HARRY POTTER franchise. Look, there are a lot of remarkable things about this franchise — tight continuity, a central cast of children who all grew up portraying these characters as the characters got older — but it’s a sign of quality when the most tired and visually uninteresting films are the FIRST films. The series has actually gotten better with time, which is not something that many modern franchises can claim (with exception of the FAST AND THE FURIOUS franchise, I guess, but how could that not be the case).
Ben Stark’s Pick – James Bond
The JAMES BOND series is far from bulletproof. It must say something for the character, however, that I can still anticipate entries in the franchise after DIE ANOTHER DAY. The 007 approach works so well because each film is relatively free of continuity, allowing it to live or die by its own strength. Bad 007 movies flounder just like bad movies do, and great 007 movies can rise to the level of great films. It’s a fantastic template that has no logical reason to die out any time soon.
Dang, did I just waste DIE HARD on another category. Oh well. How I wish we could forget that CRYSTAL SKULL thing ever happened and rave on like a lunatic about a once-pure trilogy. I digress. Speaking of tarnishing legacy, and since the criteria involves sequels and not prequels, STAR WARS has to take the intergalactic cake, no? Most argue EMPIRE STRIKES BACK virtually owns the trilogy if we’re picking bests, but I was always and continue to be a RETURN OF THE JEDI man, myself. Either way, perhaps under the direction of saner gentlemen who knew the saga’s limitations, the sequels established a legacy that changed film and our definition of the Hollywood blockbuster forever, thankfully.
I don’t see any clearer choice than the TOY STORY franchise. The third installment ranked among juggernauts like INCEPTION, THE SOCIAL NETWORK and THE KING’S SPEECH as one of the most-acclaimed movies of 2010. Also, You’d be hard-pressed to find many people who don’t believe TOY STORY 2 improved upon it’s wonderful predecessor. With the TOY STORY franchise, John Lasseter and the Pixar staff achieved what few filmmakers have been able to create: a trilogy of masterpieces.
To me, Harry Potter is more of an obsession than it is a hobby. I read Harry Potter like I should read my Bible. Therefore, any opportunity I get to talk about it I seize. Every installment of this franchise improves with the exception of the 4th, Goblet of Fire. Mike Newell focused on the action sequences and the “school house” feel of things and completely lost the story. Unlike most film fans out there, I don’t view Prisoner of Azkaban as the best. Cuaron took what Columbus very successfully jump-started the franchise off with and added a refined artistic element to it. David Yates, director of the last 4 films, has taken the franchise to a completely new level. Yates, whose first feature length film was Order of the Phoenix, has learned the ropes and found his own style as a director with each film. As a result, both Yates and Harry Potter have benefited from this relationship. Yates has been able to build on his own work, giving the series another level of consistency and familiarity towards the end. He takes artistic liberties without too severely butchering the story. This franchise also has the absolute best set design and art direction out there and the special effects are completely unique. There’s an elegance to these effects that aren’t flashy and, therefore, fit well into this world.
Some really strong recommendations in this category, so I’m not going with my first (or even second) choice here. Back to the Future is, to me, an example of a truly perfect movie that not only refuses to diminish upon further viewings, it actually gets better. While Parts II and III don’t hold the same emotional pull with me, they are the perfect examples of sequels that use the groundwork laid by their predecessors and build off of that. While the stakes aren’t quite as high, Marty and Doc’s adventures in Parts II and III not only build on plot points from the first film, they actively involve them and allow us to relive them again in a different context (see Part II’s visit to the Enchantment Under the Sea dance). It’s probably the most inventive sequel I can think of in that respect.