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Monthly Archives: December 2012

posters

This year I watched a fair number of films I never wrote proper reviews for.  I also saw a fair number of films I wrote improper reviews for.  I don’t have time to fix the later, but here are a few thoughts on the films I never blathered on about, tore up, championed or otherwise said two words about.  All are kind of a mixed bag.  Probably why I never wrote much about them.

Men In Black III – Cotton candy cinema of the most expensive order.  Looks delicious, taste good for about 60 seconds, zero nutritional value, you know it’s not good but you can’t really hate it.  Concord refuge Jermaine Clement is a great foil made of teeth and a highlight of whole show.  Jones is barely here but Brolin mimics his spirit to some fine amusement.  Don’t bring that ‘Will Smith is a desperate, pathetic, craven, please love me leading man’ baggage into things and it could almost be fun.  Almost.  It’s last few minutes are insanely stupid.

Paranorman – Once again a top notch stop-motion effort, one of the finest ever really, is marginalized by achingly remedial characterization.  That means all the characters are dumb and annoying archetypes except Norman.  Thus it’s a movie which is beautiful to look at but tiresome and impossible to care about.  Worthy of a 1,000,000 screen captures but it’s big sister Coraline was much smarter and less condescending.  Don’t know why they felt the need to dumb things down.

John Carter Should Disney have spent $250 million on this?  No.  Did it deserve the malignant fate it was handed?  No.  A ridiculously ambitious production could never put its screenplay and pace together to form a coherent whole.  All the same it has fine, if fleeting, moments mixed in with its overly and unnecessarily convoluted narrative.  In more moderate hands it would have made a fine sci-fi adventure but expectation, money and the press destroyed it.  If you had slapped the Star Wars label on it things would be much different.

Beast of the Southern Wild – Put this movie in the hands of A&E and you have an episode of Hoarders or whatever other show features poor people exploiting themselves for a camera.  I know it’s one of the more beloved movies of the year to some, but to me it smacked heavily of simply being surrealistic art house cinema giving passing admiration to poverty, squalor and borderline child abuse.  I can’t fault the fearless performances and the technique involved but there’s so much wrong here it makes the head spin.

Anna Karenina – This bold and innovative adaptation of Tolstoy’s doorstop sized Russian tome deserves a lot of points for being so delightfully unorthodox.  Director Joe Wright (Hanna) takes the monolithic story and molds a dizzying theater experience around it.  The sets and actors shift around their closed quarters with grace and finesse and it’s an amazing accomplishment, for a while.  Eventually all that production ceases to really wow and you slowly realize Wright is trying to cram all 800 pages of Russian melodrama into his 140 minute runtime.  It starts to feel like a run on sentence and ends about 30 minutes later than it should.  Mostly well cast and admirably performed but has one glaring, ‘Keanu Reeves in Dracula like’ miscalculation.  Banality, thy name is Aaron Johnson.

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total recall

Reasons why the old Total Recall kicks the shit out of the new Total Recall

1 – Blood and Guts – The old Total Recall is one of the last examples of the old studio approved, non-PC, screw PG-13, action movie aesthetic.  Innocent bystanders are mercilessly mowed down by gunfire.  Blood flies everywhere when people get shot.  Arnold uses one of these poor saps as a ketchup spurting human shield.  Eyes bulge out, arms are ripped off and one guy gets a big metal rod through his brain.  SO COOL!  If Schwarzenegger helped create and typify this reckless, fuck all attitude he equally helped to bring about its end the very next year when his Terminator character started shooting people in the knee.  Anyway, the new Recall has Colin Farrell shooting lots of robots and when the occasional human get shot, they fall down like a kids toy having its battery yanked out.  Utterly fucking hopeless.

2 – Michael Ironside – Or as he should be known, Ironside the Amazing.  This beloved, granite chinned character actor didn’t have Arnold’s muscles but his glare looked like it could make Mr. Universe’s head explode.  Ironside is all smoldering rage and hatred and his painful demise is classic.  “See you at the party Victor!”  In the new movie his and Sharon Stone’s part have been melded together in the form of Kate Beckinsale who winds up doing a wit free T-1000 impersonation.  Speaking of which.

3 – Sharon Stone – Stone pretty much laid the groundwork for her few successful movie roles right here.  She’s hot sex and sadistic violence wrapped up in a pretty blonde fantasy package.  She pouts and flirts and with the flick of a switch kicks Arnold in the balls with unabashed glee, twice!  Her bullet through the head demise is all the more stunning when we watch husband Ironside find her dead on the floor.  Consider that a divorce indeed.

4 – Mars and aliens – The Mars setting really lets the old version move to somewhere fun and the alien aspect gives it an unorthodox story element.  The use of models and matte paintings to create the monolithic alien humidifier still looks pretty good too.  The new movie stays Earthbound, devising an even more nonsensical plot about England and Australia being the only places inhabitable on Earth.  The two locations are connected by a huge subway tube that goes through the Earth’s core.  It mostly feels like an excuse for lots of big CGI.  The cityscapes are cool looking and very convincing but once again the creative team is trying to make everything look and feel like Blade Runner.  The future it seems must always contain lots of neon lights and rain.

5 – Mutants! – How can you amputate this part of Recall?  Psychic, bug eyed mutants.  Mutants with steaks for a face.  Creepy, grasshopper-arm mutant.  The three tittied hooker!  And Kuato.  How does one top Kuato?  A babyman, prophet living in the chest cavity of another man?  Someone was so damn high.  The new Recall doesn’t even try to mimic or one up this aspect.  It just puts a bored looking Bill Nighy in a trench coat and says he’s important.  Fuck that.  The three tittied woman does make a fun if pointless cameo.

6 – Ahnuld – Absurd sci-fi stories are often best when they’re headed by equally absurd and/or charismatic actors.  Arnold is the perfect leading man for a ridiculous movie like this and TR goes out of its way to make him look silly.  He wears a turban for 10 minutes, pulls a tracking device out of his skull through his nose, briefly wears a dress and nearly has his head explode through atmospheric decompression.  If Arnold is a living cartoon TR does it’s best to prove that.  Colin Farrell by comparison has no such luck.  I like Farrell as an actor and he can do tweaked as well as anyone.  So to see him reduced to a Jason Bourne clone who runs, looks panicked and punches people is a waste of everyone’s time.  This Recall clearly cost too much to have a wacky maniac at its center.

7 – Paul Verhoven – If you had to condense all these things that make the old TR great into two words you simply say Paul Verhoven.  This mad Dutch nut was at his twisted peak when Recall came around.  He turned what could be a standard issue action piece into a sick, slick joyride.  He’s a director who is simply not afraid to swing his dick around in the middle of a cocktail party.  By comparison new Recall director Len Wiseman (Live Free or Die Bored) has had his movie manhood removed and thus delivers a film which reflects as much.  His Recall all joyless, cold, CGI craftsmanship.  And while that may impress some, the CGI is top-tier and impressively detailed, every other aspect of his story is bloodless and boring.  There’s not a memorable thing about it aside form how expensive it all looks.  It’s basically a $125 million X-Box game.

8 – The Little Things – A dwarf hooker stabbing a guy in the gut.  Ronny Cox killing his goldfish.  Screaming prosthetic Arnold heads.  An old woman screaming “Fuck you you asshole!”.  Innocent bystanders being sucked into the atmosphere of Mars.  CGI skeletons.  Bad Arnold revealing himself to be an evil dickhead to good Arnold.  “Get your ass to Mars” and mouse guts.

total-recall-kuato

Open your mind and Merry Christmas!

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1SJ7yaa7cI%5D
Ten Word or Less Review: A, Long, Repetitious, Unoriginal Journey.  

Somewhere in the second hour of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit Bilbo and the troupe of dwarves are making their way across a dark and stormy mountain range.  They look up and to their shock a giant boulder is being flung in their general direction but they aren’t the intended target, the mountain they’re crossing is.  What threw the boulder?  Another mountain.  The mountains come to life and engage in fisticuffs with one another, our collection of height challenged protagonists doing their best not to be crushed in the granite clad fight club going on around them.  My wife turned to me with a look of ‘What the Hell is this?’ and all I could do was shrug.  I didn’t know why it was happening and sadly, I really didn’t care.  Thorough indifference had set in long before.

The story of The Hobbit is known to multiple generations of children’s lit fans.  If you happen not to know it the story is a simple one.  Home body hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) enjoys a life of quiet solitude in his nice, clean hole of a home, well stocked with provisions of course.  One afternoon with no warning the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) appears and attempts to entice Bilbo into going on an adventure.  Bilbo politely declines but none the less that same evening 13 dwarves come knocking on his door.  They pilfer his food stocks, dirty his dishes and then tell him of their plan to retake their native home, a gold filled mountain overtaken by Smaug the dragon, a vile creature which reigns down fiery death on any and all who would take his gold.  Gandalf wishes Bilbo to join their ranks as the designated burglar of the bunch.  Of course the hobbit with no taste for adventure doesn’t want to go, but alas through circumstance and subtle provocation he does.  One hobbit, 13 dwarves, a wizard and an adventure.  Pretty simple stuff.  No, not really.

For 75 years this story eluded many filmmakers.  Many grasped at the seemingly simple task of turning it into a feature film to no avail.  Even after the massive success of Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit has taken another decade to get to the screen and lost it’s first director, Guillermo Del Toro, in the process.  Now finally brought to fruition, I would say the most overwhelming sensation one experiences watching The Hobbit is deja vu, followed by more deja vu, topped off with yes, deja vu.  Instead of treating Tolkien’s original fantasy tale with a different touch or a new coat of paint, Jackson has taken out his LOTR tool kit and painstakingly rebuilt his Middle Earth from a decade ago, no stone unmoved or modified.  Nothing looks or sounds any different.  The action moves in all the same ways.   Even the music hits all the same cues.  I surely expected a sense of the familiar to hangover the story but the absence of Del Toro as director feels particularly painful at this juncture.  I’m sure that mad Spaniard would have delicately blended his own style of imaginative filmmaking to the existing world Jackson built, but with Jackson back in the saddle there’s nothing new to behold.  One can view The Hobbit as a technically achieved and accomplished film, mostly, but it cannot shake off the weight of being just more of the same.  A lot more of the same.  With a whole lot more to go.

Jackson’s decision to turn Tolkien’s sparse narrative into three epic sized movies seems like a needless idea fairly quickly.  His first LOTR feature was just one of three movies but it stands on its own feet very well.  Part one of The Hobbit holds no such distinction.  Characters come and go, things smash and quake and destruction reigns down on so much, back stories are built followed by more back stories, but a complete movie it never is.  It feels like narrative padding stitched together under the promise of getting to better stuff later.  Where as The Fellowship of the Ring was abundant with colorful characterizations, no one bouncing around Hobbit  feels vital, important or interesting.  And that’s the biggest blunder of all.  Jackson doesn’t seem to care that this story is called The Hobbit because it’s about everything accept the furry footed adventurer of the title.

Early in the movie Gandalf justifies the presence of Bilbo to the dwarves by stating that hobbits can blend in and disappear seemingly at will.  This is something Jackson apparently took to heart because poor Martin Freeman is completely swallowed up by his surroundings.  Between the noisy dwarves, the cavalcade of monsters, orcs and goblins, the rock throwing mountains, the wizard on a sled being pulled by rabbits, the cameos from LOTR alumni and everything else, little, unassuming Bilbo Baggins cannot compete.  Freeman can make no dent anywhere.  He’s constantly at odds with the enormity of everything around him and in the end you eventually forget he’s there.  Only towards the end, when Bilbo has his famous riddle battle with the beloved Gollum (Andy Serkis), does the film feel like the kind of adaptation we expected and wanted.  It’s the first time Freeman has felt like part of the story and it’s one of the few scenes that doesn’t feel both overblown yet equally underwhelming.  But when he puts on that precious cursed ring that turns him invisible, it suddenly strikes you like a ton of bricks that he’s been invisible the entire time.

Jackson looks to have gone and done the one thing no one really needed him to do, turn The Hobbit into more Lord of the Rings.  We’ve already had 11 hours of that Pete, it was enough.  Some people will be perfectly fine with this adventure.  The mere existence of this feature, inevitably all three of them, will make some hearts soar no matter how much it feels like microwaved left overs.  This adventure has two more films and I suppose there’s a small chance things could improve, but Jackson has made it quite clear what he’s up to with this unneeded trilogy.  He’s going to meticulously repeat his glorious success from a decade ago, beat for beat, in some cases shot for shot, and wish to be thanked wholeheartedly for the experience of doing the whole thing over.  If the the next two installments fulfill that pledge then he will get no thanks from me.

hobbit

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KC2zbOwbeEs%5D
Ten Word or Less Review : Throwing rocks at Stone.

The downward trajectory of Oliver Stone movies has been pretty obvious for the last decade.  The debacle of Alexander and the collective yawns heard from audiences who watched Wall Street 2, World Trade Center and W have saddled the one time king of energetic, provocative mainstream cinema with a reputation for being a tepid old hippy incapable of making anything audiences care to see.  Then the preview for Savages appeared and a glimmer of hope broke through the fog.  Maybe a sordid tale of drugs, violence and sex would inspire the great man to knock the rust off his gears and apply a little energy back into his cinematic life.  If that’s what you were hoping for throw those hopes aside.

If Savages proves anything it’s that Stone is still lost in a haze of meandering narrative.  It runs a grossly unnecessary 140 minutes and is crippled by not only an unwieldy and dragging pace, but three leads who make all the impression of a blank paper piece of paper pinned to a wall announcing nothing.  Blake Lively (Green Lantern), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass) and 2012’s favorite whipping boy Taylor Kitsch (John Carter, Battleship) play off each other with the all energy of a pack of dead batteries.  Yes, their characters are supposed to be stoned but that’s no excuse to be boring.  Sturdy pros Benicio Del Toro and John Travolta would make fine fodder for a better movie somewhere else.  Though superior and far more tweaked than their leads might be, their satellite narratives drag things out to ridiculous levels.  Momentum killer, thy name is subplot.  And as if not content to have overloaded his movie with scores of tedious coming and going, Stone goes and tacks on one of the most chicken shit endings ever seen in a mainstream movie.  The gall it took to slap the audience in the face like this right as some nugget of respect may have been achieved is the last proof that I need to show that Stone has become a spineless filmmaker.  Bonnie and Clyde might as well have gotten up and yelled ‘Missed us!’ and drove off.

A thrilling romp of sex and violence needs to run 90 minutes, maybe 100.  True Romance ran two hours but that movie is the gold standard for a picture like this.  In the hands of a more youthful spirit with a bit more edge and something to prove, and better casting, Savages could have been the nasty, pulpy piece of B-movie schlock it so clearly was meant to be.  Poor Tony Scott could have delivered the appropriate sleaziness it needed in his sleep.  Instead we get a movie which lies on the ground like a corpse.  Stone has the defibrillator out, paddles at the ready yelling clear, trying to shock life into his creation, but no one’s told him his battery is dead.

savages

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mZEZ35Fhvuc%5D
Life of Pi : It’s absolutely the most gorgeous movie you’re going to see this year.  Ang Lee faithfully adapts Yann Martel’s widely read by middle aged white women novel into the most sumptuous cinematic experience one can imagine.  The spiritual symbolism just flies off the screen in eye-popping abundance.  And CGI tiger Richard Parker stands as a watershed moment in artificial movie lifeforms.  If James Cameron made the world believe in 8 foot tall CGI Native Americans, Lee can claim he’s made the world a better place with his big CGI kitty cat.  Beyond that the movie is dogged by a achingly bland framing device, middle aged Indian guy narrates story to young boring Caucasian writer, and a thick fingered need to underline it’s larger meaning in the final act.  It’s the unique movie of the season which can equally bore and enthrall in almost equal measure.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lj5_FhLaaQQ%5D
Silver Lining Playbook : Want to recreate the experience of watching this movie without actually going?  Fly down I-65 south at 5:17 PM on a Friday afternoon doing 93 mph.  As everyone honks, screams and otherwise curses your parents mistimed mating, throw your car back into traffic, blend in with the pack and quietly go about your day, the recklessness just flaunted quickly forgotten.

I can see why Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence read this screenplay and drooled.  Actors love ticking and mentally disabled pieces.  It gives them a chance to shine on camera and win awards for ACTING!  For 2/3 its duration Silver plows ahead fearlessly, unapologetically embracing the madcap laughs its unstable protagonists provide.  Even Robert DeNiro seems invested and ready to bring it like a fearless old bastard.  Then the Xanax kicks in the lithium induces hallucinations and cheerful movie 101 gently slips into the bloodstream.  It’s like Sandra Bullock showed up to direct the last 20 minutes.  A football game has to be won on top of a inspired dance competition.  It’s two manipulative pieces of shit for the price of one!

I’ve rarely seen a movie so completely abandon its senses so thoroughly.  And while the audience appreciation factor can’t be denied, I think I heard people clap, the misguided nature of it is oppressive.  Really, if every mental instability could be cured with a dance off, football game and love, why would we need psychiatry?  A possibly great effort reduced to a run of the mill uplift piece.  Enjoyable to a point but insulting in the end.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VWpMt2-Z-fc%5D

Ten Word or Less Review: Should Day Lewis should play every historical character?  Yes!

Playing the historically significant is ripe with trouble for actors.  One can never truly know what lurks behind the eyes of those who shape human history.  Arrogance?  Madness?  Ordinariness benefited through circumstance?  It’s up to actors and writers to determine an approach and very often it’s the wrong one.  Historical figures can calcify on screen as easily as they do in a 7th grade history book.  Go ask Oliver Stone and Colin Farrell about that.  And in deciding to tackle one of America’s penultimate figures, Daniel Day Lewis and director Steven Spielberg have set no small task before themselves.  While trusting in Day Lewis to find a way to approach Abraham Lincoln that would work seemed like a safe bet, betting on Spielberg not to mawkish up the story was a pretty long odd.  It turns out that the auteur actor and the oft overzealous director make fine bedfellows.  Lincoln is another notch in the superb career of Day Lewis and for Spielberg it’s a return to form he hasn’t accomplished in a decade.

It’s January 1865, Lincoln has been re-elected and while many feel that the end of the Civil War could be near, quick victory is no guarantee and a precipitous fall back into rampant bloodshed between the north and south is still a great possibility.  Clouding the future is the 13th Amendment, the amendment which will abolish slavery forever and all days in the still young but warring nation.  The passing of this historic legislation is sitting first and foremost on the mind of the 16th President but getting it passed could lead to ruin.  To push the legislation through as the specter of peace rises on the horizon flies in the face of the South and the peace they tentatively wish to discuss.  To not pass the amendment before war’s end means its loss of support from many, its indefinite shelving and a return to bondage for so many thousands on the cusp of freedoms doorstep.  With no war, why free a people you don’t need to?  This is the political minefield that drives the narrative of Lincoln.  Anyone holding out thoughts that this is an epic tale of the Civil War battles will be quick to discover that the only battles being fought are between white men in frocks and thick coats.

As far as historical figures go Abraham Lincoln has a fairly spotty resume of movie interpretations.  Henry Fonda did him proud back in 1939’s Young Mr. Lincoln  and  he made an excellent time traveler with Bill and Ted.  But lately our 16th President has been hijacked by the purveyors of cheap pop culture gimmicks.  The man known for that stove top hat has been relegated to fighting vampires and zombies of late.  In the nick of time he’s been salvaged from the slings and arrows of two-bit mockery by Daniel Day Lewis.  The world class actor avoids the obvious gestures one might expect.  His Lincoln never feels bombastic or stifled by historical importance.  Here, Lincoln is a sensitive and down to Earth personality, determined to push his nation towards the path of righteousness despite the cost.  Day Lewis gives him a sly wit, instills a deep sense of compassion and creates a conceivable humanity to someone so much larger than normal life.  This isn’t to say his Lincoln is a holy figure.  While there are some arguments to be made about punches being pulled, the film at least makes some attempt to address Lincoln’s feelings about the race he wants so desperately to emancipate.  The scene in question feels like a solid attempt to strip away any glorifying of Lincoln and find at least a nugget of honesty about how he felt about the African Americans he was lobbying to free.  The result is one of the film’s best moments.  Day Lewis breathes life into one scene after another, carrying the movie forward on his shoulders with such effortless skill.  It makes one wish that the talent he represents were more frequently on display.  I guess the greatest actor can’t play one of the greatest people every weekend.

The supporting cast around Day Lewis is immense and impressive as well.  It seems no corner of the acting world went untouched  and because Day Lewis plays Lincoln with a quiet presence instead of searing domination, much of the cast gets to shine.  David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones, Hal Holbrook, James Spader, Joseph Gordon-Leavitt and a slew of others populate this very large cast.  Every acclaimed TV show looks to have someone present.  Jones in particular distinguishes himself, using that withered mug of his for moments of wizened resignation but still able to summon up the fires of obstinate anger which have made him such a great screen presence.  Sally Field feels near to being the only female presence in the movie.  She’s saddled with the unenviable task of playing Mary Todd Lincoln, histories least pitied widow.  History hasn’t always been kind to Mary Todd but the filmmakers diligently confront her relationship with Abraham in all of the complexity the film can allow.  Less diligent storytellers could have easily shuffled her off into a corner and made her a hand-wringing hat rack, but Field and company boldly embrace this strange, troubled woman for all she’s worth.  Field, also known to go a bit over when performing, keeps her Mary Todd in check, careful not to lapse into hysteria and silliness.

Most important of all, director Steven Spielberg is careful to keep himself under control.  Last year’s War Horse wasn’t without its quality moments, but it also showed signs that the bearded legend may have lost all touch with what little restraint he ever possessed as a storyteller.  His capacity to over blow even the most rudimentary emotions on screen had many worried that he would turn Lincoln  into an overtly zealous piece of emotional mush.  Also nagging at things was how long it took to get to this movie to the screen.  Spielberg has circled this project for nearly a decade, once intending to make it with Schindler’s List star Liam Neeson.  Many assumed the subject was too daunting for him and he simply didn’t want to rise to the occasion.  Not the case.  While this movie is by all measure distinctly Spielbergian, he doesn’t overplay his story.  The screenplay by Tony Kurshner is largely confined to small chambers and political forums, forcing Spielberg to keep himself under control.  He clearly recognizes the delicate mastery that is Day Lewis’s performance and wisely lets it play without a lot of interference on his behalf.  That isn’t to say he never gets wound up, but he never takes it too far.  And though Spielberg must be applauded for regaining his footing as a director with Lincoln, he still hangs onto his nagging ability to run things on just one moment too long.  The ending of Lincoln stares squarely at the audience, a fade to black waiting to happen, but the story goes on for just a bit more.  It’s not a deal breaker at all, I just can’t help but wonder why this director of such skill, acclaim and longevity can’t figure out when to end his movies.

Over the years I’ve had my fill of movies where righteous white people lobby for the betterment of a minority seen off to the side of the screen, but if once exception could be made this is it.  Lincoln is so much better than I had hoped it would or could be.  It seemed destined to be a movie big on ambition but swallowed up by it all the same.  Marrying Day Lewis’s masterful interpretation of Lincoln to Spielberg’s improved storytelling instincts elevate the movie to a place few expected it would reach.  Those fearing a dry history lesson will be surprised at how quickly they find themselves drawn into this experience.

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