Cloverfield (Reeves, 2008)

Despite the endless hype and inevitable reality check of expectations, Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield turns out to be an interesting take on the monster movie genre, residing somewhere between The Blair Witch Project and Godzilla. And if you’ve read about the film anywhere else, you probably knew that already. However, Cloverfield is worth talking about because it could have been great as a silent film. It’s maybe the best example of a modern day film that’s completely unhinged by exposition and dialogue. While the impressive, chaotic visuals and sound design speak for themselves, screenwriter Drew Goddard infects each scene with a sense of cliche and comedy that feels both idiotic and unwarranted. This kind of dumbed down attempt at character depth takes the viewer out of the impressive disaster premise, ultimately making Cloverfield a tepid example of a film riding the proverbial genre fence, trying to please everyone at once.

Rendition (Hood, 2007)

A disquieting yet simplistic morality play from South African Gavin Hood about the global ramifications of U.S. foreign policy, specifically a practice entitled “extraordinary rendition.” This particular post 9/11 tactic enables the C.I.A. to ship a terror suspect out of the country to be tortured under a foreign government where human rights become mute. Hood’s three interlocking stories and characters hit dramatic points with little originality or convincing tension for such highly charged subject matter (Reese Witherspoon has more emotional heft in Legally Blonde). But Rendition deals with temporality in fascinating ways, mirroring the viewers assumptions and expectations with that of the characters’ tragic decisions in dealing with love, family, and sacrifice.

Joshua (Ratliff, 2007)

Add this titular character to the long list of cinematic child sociopaths. Joshua, a disturbed eight-year-old genius going on fifty, tears his family apart when a newborn sister intrudes on his dominance. Well meaning but idiotic New York parents Sam Rockwell and Vera Farminga remain unbelievably stupefied through the first two acts, flying blind to the fact their son is reeking havoc not only in their own apartment, but in school and at Central Park as well. The film squanders countless moments of tension through typical genre cliches, but surprisingly gets better as the demon kid comes out of his shell. Horror fans in particular might appreciate the final twenty minutes, where Joshua’s plotting, pandering, and punishing demeanor embark on a calculated final solution worthy of Hannibal Lector.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Yates, 2007)

After Alfonso Cuaron’s fascinating Prisoner of Azkaban, which beautifully played with temporality and character, the Potter series has seemingly lost its edge. While a step up from Mike Newell’s dreadful Goblet of Fire, David Yates’ entertaining but repetitive Order of the Phoenix once again finds Harry battling the rise of Ralph Fiennes’ evil Lord Voldemort. Following the structure of it’s predecessor’s, Order of the Phoenix show’s it’s titular hero first under-appreciated, then misinformed, and finally resurrected to save the day yet again. Boring, but it works.

The Potter films fill a great niche for quality fantasy entertainment, but like most franchises, come up short in the originality department. This doesn’t seem to have much to do with Rowling’s source material (which still resonates with wonder and intrigue), but with the filmmakers chosen to helm the cinematic versions. As Cuaron showed four years ago, a Harry Potter film has enough room for stylistic experimentation and the expected magical coming of age scenarios. You don’t have to sacrifice one for the other. But who cares when the huge box office take keeps rearing it’s ugly head.

Digital Bloodletting: Shoot ‘Em Up (Davis, 2007)

It’s sure getting messy out there in Hollywood. As was the case with Zach Snyder’s laughably serious 300, Michael Davis’ comedic action extravaganza Shoot ‘Em Up paints the walls red, pouring over countless pints of digital blood splatter in the process. But Davis, unlike Snyder, sees the ridiculous nature of such an aesthetic and the comedic undertones ripe for commentary. This approach comes across in the first scene, where Cilve Owen’s unnamed hero watches a pregnant woman with a gun and then a threatening thug both run past his perch at a bus stop. Owen’s wink-wink reluctancy to get involved spells out the rules of this particular world; just another moment of random violence which needs fixing. In this sense Shoot ‘Em Up is laughable, but the heinous nature of the actions that follow speaks to the contrast in tone Davis achieves.

While the relentless action, digital effects, and sexual innuendo revel in the artistic potential of shallow entertainment, the film also reveals an underlining critique of the American gun control quagmire, one steeped in political corruption and greed. Whereas 300 bloodily marked it’s sword in the sand with overzealous chest pounding and hollow screams, Shoot ‘Em Up uses severed legs, gouged eyes, and the like to call attention to the ridiculous nature of such actions, showing digital blood splatter as an extreme form of cultural artificiality. Davis might be attempting to capture the balletic movement of early Hong Kong John Woo with some complex action set pieces, but his film mires itself in how fake everything appears being played out. As Owen and arch nemesis Paul Giamatti battle it out for the umpteenth time, Davis seems to be showing movie violence broken down to the safest common denominator, where the bad guys always die first, and the hero selflessly reigns supreme no matter the odds. Our own passivity toward the material is more disturbing than any of the creative killings in the film. For better or worse, Shoot ‘Em Up produces a form of guilty pleasure thrill out of the dirtiest of deeds, possibly saying more about the current state of Hollywood moviemaking than some would like to admit.

Happy Feet (Miller, 2006)

The soul of a film rarely grabs hold from the first frame, but in George Miller’s masterpiece Happy Feet, the hypnotic constellation of a giant Penguin layered with the rhythmic fancies of an unseen musical mosaic does make an immediate impact. Joy seeps from the screen, filling the viewer with a sense of visual awe one might experience with Busby Berkely’s work. Here’s a film about song, dance, balance, romance, and the environment, showing the beauties of each in the opening five minutes. Miller’s film deals with the singing Arctic world of the penguin where dancing outcast Mumbles attempts to overcome social alienation. However, like all exciting adventures, our hero’s destiny and impending journey have greater importance. Mumbles’ trek to find out why his food source (fish) is disappearing leads him to distant lands, dangerous adversaries, and devastating realizations about the human world beyond the ocean, which has crept slowly into the Arctic one large fishing boat at a time. Miller’s haunting mise-en-scene frames each character through blue hued ice caps, bleached white horizons, and countless roving tracking shots of a world in motion and slightly out of whack. Staged as a pure musical, with some truly impressive routines featuring modern pop songs, Happy Feet vibrates with spectacle, showing off both it’s great animation and even better story through the eyes of a socially conscious theme. Happy Feet will inevitably be one of the most important children’s films released in a long time, most notably because it connects with the viewer not through browbeating messages or sensationalist slants, but via a universal story. It’s built around the global ideology that environmental balance cannot occur without education, of both your own experience and the alien’s abroad. Ignorance spells destruction and famine, while a little singing, dancing, and brilliant filmmaking can send the perfectly pitched shock-wave someone (especially kids) might need to recognize the crucial problems facing our future. Happy Feet lives this dream wonderfully. There’s no reason important enough we can’t as well.

The Simpsons Movie (Silverman, 2007)

Very fun as a whole, but the film does showcase some singular hilarious moments for each Simpsons character. I’m still (and probably will be for a while) busting my gut over Homer’s “Spider Pig Song.” There’s something glorious about watching a bald yellow animated man dance a pot-bellied pig across the ceiling, leaving tracks of mud every mother would dread. For The Simpson’s Movie, it’s all about becoming the superhero everyone knew you couldn’t, even if by complete dumb luck. Fluffy, forgettable, and yes, it’s like watching a 90 minute episode, but that has always been fine with me.