Thursday, January 24, 2013

Totoro's Fantastic Four of 2011

Aloha, everybody!

Yes, I know that this article is long overdue. But, now that we are back in production, I invite you to take a trip back down memory lane with me to the films that graced our screens just two short years ago.

2011 is remembered as one of the more bleak years in cinematic history, at least from a creative standpoint. According to this article from Wikipedia, twenty-eight sequels were released - the most in a single year. But, for a cinephile like me with a decidedly geeky palette, there were plenty of films for me to see and enjoy.

Alright, let's stop stalling. Before moving on to this year's list of selections, I proudly present to you my favorites from the previous articles:

Totoro's Fantastic Four of 2008
#2: WALL-E

Totoro's Fantastic Four of 2009
#2: Up

Totoro's Fantastic Four of 2010

And of course, the guidelines:

1) I have seen the movie during its original theatrical run.

This is almost a personal matter of pride. For me, the hands-down best way to see any film is in the theater. So, in order for me to even consider a film for this article, I must have observed it in its natural habitat.

2) I have re-watched the movie at least once, either in theaters or on DVD.

As someone of limited means even before this difficult recession, I am particularly picky when it comes to watching any type of entertainment. So, if I have seen a movie either a 2nd time in theaters or watched it again after it comes out on DVD, then it is definitely a contender for this list. If anything, this demonstrates a movie's "replay value".

3) I have quoted dialogue from the movie to either a family member or a friend.

As an aspiring writer, I am drawn to great stories and storytelling. But as an actor with a pretty good memory, I am drawn to great dialogue. Over the years, I have amassed a substantial library of movie quotes for use at any opportune moment. So, if I have heard myself repeat a line from any particular movie, than it either was a favorite or at least something worth remembering.

And now... the opening paragraph.

A common theme among entertainment aficionados is to compile a list of either the best or worst examples of a particular subject. Movie critics have their list of the top 10 movies of the year, while fashion watchdogs have a list of the best and worst-dressed celebrities. Even Maxim, which I like to call "The Essential Guide To Understanding Modern Man" has their own list (The 100 Hottest People).

While my own contributions may not matter much in the long run, a part of trying to stand out against a large landscape of voices is to do something different, especially when it comes to things that I feel passionate about (in this case, movies.) So, in homage to both this "listing" tradition and to my mother's favorite superhero team, I am proud to present to you...

Totoro's Fantastic Four of 2011

 #4: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Having read the original novel by John le Carré during my high school years, I could see a bit of myself in George Smiley - a dutiful, observant worker bee who knows his way around the labyrinth of his institution's inner workings. So I was excited when I heard a feature-film adaptation would soon enter production with Gary Oldman (one of my favorite actors) being cast as Smiley. I was more intrigued upon finding out that the movie was being produced by Peter Morgan (The Last King of Scotland, The Queen, Frost/Nixon), who has emerged as one of my favorite screenwriters. Expectations were high because I had also seen the 1979 British TV miniseries starring Alec Guinness (another fave actor of mine) in the role of Smiley. Would this movie meet expectations or would it be a middling attempt to capture the subterfuge and spirit of the novel that helped re-define the spy genre? Well, it must have. Otherwise, why would I include it on this list?

Gary Oldman's highly-nuanced, understated performance as George Smiley put him as a shoe-in for the Best Actor Oscar (however, he later lost to Jean Dujardin for his performance in The Artist). I also had the pleasure of seeing it in theaters with fellow Otaku 5-0 Executive Producer Mr. A and former contributor Zyconis, who both walked away with mixed reviews. This film, however, fit with my own sensibilities perfectly- deliberate, yet intimate in its portrayal of 1970's Europe at the height of the Cold War. The film's director (Tomas Alfredson), cinematographer (Hoyte Van Hoytema) and editor (Dino Jonsäter) have all previously worked together (most notably on the vampire film Let The Right One In) and here they have crafted another great movie. Apparently the film took six months to edit, and looking at the finished product, I can understand why. If one scene was out of place, the film collapses.

Regarding acting, while it's true that Oldman's performance as Smiley is the lynchpin that holds the movie together, he is helped by an able all-star cast, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Ciarán Hinds, John Hurt, Toby Jones and Mark Strong. While doing research for this article, I learned that a sequel is currently in development. Well, you can be sure to count me in for a screening or two. What a great film!

#3: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2
What can I say about the Harry Potter series that hasn't been already said? This franchise, in both its print and cinematic form, will hold a special place in my heart alongside The Lord of the Rings and the Thrawn Trilogy as my all-time favorite pieces of literature. After having already seen the first installment (which made last year's list of selections) I entered the theater eager for a thrilling conclusion. Suffice it to say that I got just what I asked for.

In this final installment, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his compatriots Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), after a brief interlude at the wizard bank Gringotts, make their way to Hogwarts school, where Harry prepares for his epic showdown between himself and the Dark Wizard Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes).

David Yates, who directed this film and three other preceding movies of the saga, leaves this timeless tale on a largely satisfactory note. While my problems with movie adaptations are well-known to any fan of our audio podcast, people left the theater with a mix of profound joy and sadness - joy that we have just been through THE fantasy series of the current generation, but sadness because we were apprehensive of what to look forward to.

Indeed, I was also a bit nervous. With Harry Potter now left to the ages, the fantasy genre would be hard-pressed to find a suitable alternative to fill the void. Of course, while a few contenders would emerge (including The Hunger Games and Hobbit trilogies), I didn't find Hunger all that appealing, and Hobbit was going through a phase, filled with delays and disputes. Additionally, my personal life was getting a bit more hectic, so free time (especially enough to sit down to read a new piece of literature) was becoming a commodity.

But soon the dust settled, and I gradually came to my senses. I remembered that the best stories are timeless, and can be revisited over and over again. And with that in mind, I decided to make some changes, and adopt my current policy of reading a book for two hours every evening, before bedtime. Since that time, I have trudged through many books, including the esteemed His Dark Materials and A Song of Ice and Fire sagas. So you see, it was because of Harry Potter that I learned a valuable lesson - in the journey of life, you should never forget the friends you pick up along the way. And I am proud to call myself a friend of Mr. Potter and his band of misfit wizards.

#2: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
I have loved the Sherlock Holmes stories since I was a teenager. I remember first hearing of the detective while reading through the Encyclopedia Brown series of young adult books by Donald. J. Sobol. However, as much of a fan as I was of the great detective, I found that his various cinematic incarnations were a bit... middling.

Every single actor who has stepped into the shoes of the great detective has in some way failed to meet my own expectations of the character. And so, upon hearing that the first movie was going into production with Robert Downey, Jr. portraying the eccentric sleuth, I was quite intrigued. And when Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch., RocknRolla) was announced as the film's director, I knew it would turn out to be a match made in heaven.

I argued upon seeing the first film that Downey's own troubled past provided him with the necessary context he needed for his pitch-perfect performance. Equally perfect was Jude Law in his portrayal of the steadfast and earnest Dr. John Watson. That, combined with Ritchie's choice to show a gritter, more realistic 19th century European setting ended up as one of my favorite movies of 2009. The only weak link in the production was Rachel McAdams as "the woman" Irene Adler, but such mistakes are easily forgiven when the final product is so compelling.

Of course, time (as it must) marched slowly onwards, and I learned that a second film was going in production. Again intrigued, I dived once more into the Holmes canon, re-reading four Holmes stories in preparation: A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of the Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Final Problem in particular after learning that Moriarty would be featured as the primary villain.

This film ends up being far superior to the previous installment. Holmes and Watson are once again drawn into yet another tangled web of intrigue, this time with Moriarty at its center, pulling strings that reverberate throughout all of Europe. Although McAdams returns in a brief stint as Irene Adler, it is the addition of Noomi Rapace, Jared Harris (in a scene-stealing turn as Professor James Moriarty) and Stephen Fry (who turns in a hilarious performance as Mycroft Holmes) that drive the film's story towards the inevitable climax atop a mountain fortress astride a large waterfall. This was a great movie, and I will re-watch it for a long time to come.

#1: The Muppets
I must confess that I'm an unabashed Muppet purist. I only accept the films produced during Jim Henson's tenure (The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, The Muppets Take Manhattan) as the TRUE movies of the franchise, with every film afterwards a pale imitation of Henson's original efforts.

Of course, I have justifications for this reasoning. Consider: prior to the release of The Muppets, two of the films produced after Henson's death were just adaptations of existing literary works that featured the Muppets as characters. Additionally, the only feature film with an original story, Muppets from Space, ended up $2 million short at the box office. To me, the Muppets seemed like a quaint piece of old-school Americana that has lost its relevance.

And so, I was a quite skeptical when it was announced that Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, TV's How I Met Your Mother) announced that he was writing and starring in a new Muppet movie. Many questions went through my mind, but only one needed to be answered: 1) Do these characters still have a place in our collective culture? Additionally, prior to this film, Segel wasn't known for his screenwriting cred. While Sarah Marshall was quite a funny film, I didn't really see how this pairing could possibly work.

All that changed when former Contributor Zyconis and I watched the film. Segel and the producing team have accomplished the rare feat of not just introducing the Muppets to a new generation of audiences, but they also included enough references for older fans of the characters to enjoy. I also really liked the movie's story, which involved Segel's character Gary and his Muppet "brother" Walter getting Kermit and Co. back together to put on a telethon to raise enough money to save the old Muppet Theater building from being torn down by a greedy oilman. On that note, credit must be given to Chris Cooper, who turned in a scene-stealing performance as greedy oilman Tex Richman. (maniacal laugh).

So for the time being, the Muppets are back. But only time will tell whether they'll be here to stay. As I write this, a second film (entitled The Muppets... Again) is in development, which will feature Tina Fey (Mean Girls, TV's Saturday Night Live & 30 Rock), Ricky Gervais (The Invention of Lying, TV's The Office) and Ty Burrell (TV's Back to You & Modern Family). If you ask me, I think the future is looking very bright indeed!

See you at the movies!
~Totoro (Creator, Executive Producer)

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