My favorite films of the year

Posted by Sean Stangland on Thu, 12/30/2010 - 18:54

In a year when television proved to be far more satisfying than the feature film, I saw what must be a record-low number of movies. (In my adult life, anyway.) As of Dec. 30, I had seen 43 films released in the year 2010. By comparison, I saw 66 films in 2009, 74 in 2008, 62 in 2007, and a jaw-dropping 92 in 2006. I consciously avoided more potential stinkers this year, but that doesn't explain why I saw "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" or "The Last Airbender."

Making the customary list of the ten best films of the year seems more than a little silly when you've only seen 43 of them, but that's not going to stop me. Though I am presenting my picks alphabetically this year, I will say that "The Social Network" would probably finish at No. 1. So here we go:

As good as "Dead"

Posted by Sean Stangland on Mon, 12/06/2010 - 18:01

2010 ends with an unthinkable television champion. When American Movie Classics rebranded itself as the far more modest AMC in 2003 and introduced a programming schedule that had Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman rolling in their graves, would any of us have predicted it would soon deliver the most-watched drama in cable history?

But that's just what AMC did last night, as 6 million people watched the first-season finale of Frank Darabont's "The Walking Dead." This show's overwhelming success is somewhat of a mystery to me; though a big-budget serial about the zombie apocalypse is right up my proverbial alley, I never imagined it was something the entire country was clamoring for. Perhaps "The Walking Dead" is filling a void for a number of niche audiences: Sci-fi fans reeling from the demise of "Lost" and the strange absence of "V" chose zombies over NBC's laughable "The Event." So did fans of breakneck action, who may also have given up on CBS' formulaic "Hawaii Five-O" reboot. And then there are the "Mad Men" fans who ventured outside their TV comfort zone after seeing weeks and weeks of "Walking Dead" promos in between Don Draper's lovemaking and drink-taking sessions. There's also the fact that the show's Halloween premiere landed on a Sunday night, which means the target audience probably got their partying out of the way on Friday and Saturday, and were ready for a relaxing night at home with the undead.

Of course, the easiest explanation is the best: "The Walking Dead" is just plain good.

Disney's 50th animated film

Posted by Sean Stangland on Wed, 11/24/2010 - 17:22

"Tangled" -- which arrives in theaters today with a surprisingly high score on Rotten Tomatoes, and which I plan to see Friday -- is the 50th animated feature produced and released by Walt Disney Pictures. At least, that's what Walt Disney's marketing machine is calling it, as shown in the YouTube video I've embedded here. That lineup of 50 films excludes all of their collaborations with Pixar, but includes some films that are simply feature-length collections of animated shorts ("The Three Caballeros," "Fun & Fancy Free" and "The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh," for example).

"The Walking Dead" comes to life

Posted by Sean Stangland on Tue, 11/23/2010 - 22:09

The new Entertainment Weekly* arrived in my mailbox today and proclaimed, in gigantic block letters, that "The Walking Dead" is the best show on television. A picture of star Andrew Lincoln showed his hand-cannon pointing right at me, ready to fire should I disagree.

And not many of us do. "The Walking Dead" has been a runaway hit for AMC, whose "Mad Men" struggles to find an audience to match its overwhelming critical acclaim. Sunday's fourth episode, "Vatos," drew 4.8 million viewers, making it the most watched scripted program on cable amongst those in the key 19-49 demographic. The critics have mostly been kind, too. This tag-team slam on the fourth episode by the writers at CHUD seems more like sour grapes from the "cool kids" than valid criticism.

"The Walking Dead" certainly is unlike everything else on the air; I can't think of a like-minded series that comes close to its quality. (Before you angrily defend "The X-Files," I suggest you watch an episode or two. They haven't aged well. At all.) The show's driving force is Frank Darabont, the "Shawshank Redemption" director who also helmed some episodes of "The Shield," and the style put forth in his first episode has clearly been the template for the three that followed. The sound design is key to the show's success, using minimalistic music and letting little details loom large.

Franchise frenzy

Posted by Sean Stangland on Mon, 11/22/2010 - 20:40

I don't know what angered the nerd universe more today: the second Comic-Con registration failure, or news that "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" would be getting a big-screen reboot without the guiding hand of Joss Whedon.

I'm not surprised by the latter. As long as movie studios don't want to invest blockbuster money into something that's not a proven commodity, reboots and sequels will dominate the box office. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was not a runaway hit in either of its previous incarnations, but Whedon's TV show was a critical favorite that remained in the pop culture lexicon long after its demise in 2003. Pair that brand recognition with a new script that will almost certainly draw inspiration from "Twilight," and Warner Bros. gets a relatively cheap flick with modest blockbuster potential.

All hail 'Hallows'

Posted by Sean Stangland on Sat, 11/20/2010 - 02:26

Inexplicably, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1" made me cry for one of the most annoying characters in recent cinematic history.

That the film made me cry at all is proof that director David Yates and his filmmaking army stepped up their games for the boy wizard's last hurrah; while the series has been engrossing and endearing, it has never, until today, been an emotional experience for me. That changed in the opening moments of this penultimate film.

As HP 7.1 begins, Lord Voldemort's Deatheaters are desperately seeking Harry, the muggle world be damned. The Dursleys flee Privet Drive, and Hermione makes the impossible choice to erase herself from her parents' memories. Ron loves his friend, and wants to help him, but he loves his endangered family more. The tragic lives of our three young heroes have never been more tragic, and the one man they could always count on for help is dead. Dark and difficult times, indeed.

But these are no longer helpless children, and this is no longer a children's story.

Harry Potter and the Amazing Film Franchise

Posted by Sean Stangland on Wed, 11/17/2010 - 18:37

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1" arrives at midnight Thursday, a prelude to the July finale of one of the film industry's great success stories. For nine years, we've expected a great Potter film every 18 months or so, and, generally speaking, we haven't been let down. Every film will have its detractors -- "Chamber of Secrets" and "Goblet of Fire" seem to have the most -- but this series has been as consistently entertaining and well-crafted as any.

No other series can boast what Warner Bros., J.K. Rowling and producer David Heyman have done with "Harry Potter." When "Deathly Hallows: Part 2" comes out next summer, the series will have given us eight films in ten years, all with the same ensemble cast. (Not to mention a domestic box office take that will land somewhere north of $2 billion.) The only thing that has so far eluded Mr. Potter is recognition at the Oscars, which probably won't happen. The series' best shot has come and gone, I'm afraid; how did Imelda Staunton not get a nod for playing Dolores Umbridge in "Order of the Phoenix"?

But the Oscars would merely be icing on the cake. These eight films will still be playing on cable every weekend when I'm Dumbledore's age; hopefully by then I'll have grandkids to share them with.

Why do I like the "Harry Potter" films? Here are ten great reasons:

The game is afoot

Posted by Sean Stangland on Mon, 10/25/2010 - 17:20

The best new show of the TV season finally arrived Sunday night -- and it will be gone in less than two weeks.

At first glance, you may find "Sherlock" to be an unnecessary adaptation of a moldy property that just made a big splash on the big screen. But this British production, presented in America on PBS' "Masterpiece: Mystery!" series, smartly puts Holmes and his constant companion, Dr. John Watson, in London 2010. This week's first episode, the 90-minute "A Study in Pink," immediately put its setting to use, showing Holmes to be a constant texter who solves the case with the help of a smart phone and a laptop.

This is not a cheap imitation

Posted by Sean Stangland on Mon, 10/04/2010 - 00:28

"Let Me In" has me pondering this question: Is director Matt Reeves the real deal, or does he merely stand upon the shoulders of giants?

There is enough evidence to support both responses. Reeves worked on the TV series "Felicity" with J.J. Abrams as a writer and director before the newly anointed king of Hollywood gave him his first job helming a feature. That was "Cloverfield," the P.O.V. monster movie that impressed me so much I saw it twice on opening night. Reeves may have been the director, but Abrams certainly got most of the credit in the media. Now comes Reeves' remake of the beloved Swedish vampire film "Let the Right One In," a heartbreaking horror story that's more concerned with building dread and character than making you jump out of your chair. Understandably, many worried that an Americanized version would be overblown and underwritten. What Reeves has delivered is so close in spirit to the original that some have deemed the new film "unnecessary." (Is any film "necessary"?)

Would "Let Me In" had been as great a film if Reeves had been the first to adapt the novel? Given how much his film shares with "Let the Right One In," I must assume the answer is no. Of course, we'll never know the answer, and I can happily report that it doesn't matter. "Let Me In" is one of the finest American horror movies of the last decade.

The curious case of Mark Zuckerberg

Posted by Sean Stangland on Sun, 10/03/2010 - 18:47

Sometimes, I go to the local watering hole. Sometimes, I talk to young women at said watering hole. And sometimes, the conversations I have with those young women leave me flustered and frustrated. I go home, lubricated by Miller and/or Jack Daniel's, and log onto Facebook and Twitter, where I say things I shouldn't about my continued romantic failures. Then I go to sleep.

When I do this, I wake up the next morning, feel horribly embarrassed and self-loathing, and delete all the evidence.

When Mark Zuckerberg did this, he became a billionaire.

So begins "The Social Network," which has already been anointed the best movie of 2010 by, oh, everyone -- and it's going to be hard to argue with them.