Monday, December 31, 2012

An Expected Journey: The Worst Films of 2012

Battleship didn't even make the cut!
The New Year is almost upon us, and you know what that means... no, it doesn't mean you'll be getting drunk off of your ass tonight and waking up next to someone named "Charlie"... I mean, you will, but that's not what I'm talking about. No, December 31'st is time for the third annual "Worst Movies of 2012" list, compiled painstakingly by yours truly. This year was a big one for mediocrity in filmmaking, and while the industry as a whole took an upswing, you can mainly attribute that to the box office being dominated by The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall, The Hunger Games and The Avengers, the third highest-grossing movie of all time.

The rules? Well, there are two. For one, every movie on this list was a wide release. That means that while some of the worst movies I saw this year were in fact Branded, Girl in Progress, Casa de mi Padre, Tai Chi 0 and Bangkok Revenge, the fact that they all played at fewer than 500 theaters or screens means the vast majority of people in the country were never even subjected to them. The titles on this list were widely released, and everybody got to take a bite of something truly awful.

The second rule? I don't list movies I didn't see. I saw 117 movies in 2012, but there are still a few big ones that I missed this year. Most of those were ones whose Tomato-Meter ranked well below minimum standards or were rushed out of theaters quickly. So while the likes of A Thousand Words, The Devil Inside, Gone, Parental Guidance, The Lucky One and That's My Boy might be considered among the year's worst, I really wouldn't know anything about it. What I saw was bad enough.

So without more delay, these were Mr. Anderson's worst movies of 2012!

10) Alex Cross

Poor, poor Matthew Fox. Every time he tries to get a toehold on a legitimate movie career, he gets cast in duds like Speed Racer and this VERY bad thriller, which decided to go the low-budget route despite being adapted from one of the most iconic modern fiction characters. Okay guys, everything can't be The DaVinci Code but that doesn't mean you can't spend SOME money. Alex Cross wastes the talents of Fox and a rare non-cross-dressing Tyler Perry in telling a budget story that is stupid, derivative and just not worth anybody's time.

9) Chernobyl Diaries

Where exactly are the "diaries" in Chernobyl Diaries, a typical horror film (that feels like found-footage but isn't) that blocks out the gore but not the horrible acting and storytelling that made it all possible? Moreover, why should you care? Despite an intriguing concept and a fascinating locale, the whole thing reeks of an opportunity to take advantage of Oren Peli's name while never producing anything resembling a frightening moment. Half an hour into the movie you'll wonder where director Bradley Parker is going. As the final credits roll, you'll wonder what you were thinking.

8) Silent Hill: Revelation

Six years after the first video-game-inspired Silent Hill became a minor sleeper hit, the producers who owned its rights finally responded with a cheap, disposable sequel that lives right up to the game's dwindling prospects. It takes everything that was great about the original and replaces it (Except for Sean Bean) with mediocre effects and a silly, linear storyline that never takes advantage of the best aspects of the series. Revelation just couldn't overcome horrible Canadian-tinted accents in its solitary mission to bury the weary Silent Hill franchise for good.

7) Dark Shadows

The Tim Burton/Johnny Depp collaborative team has been an overrated pairing almost as long as the two have been in the business. Their latest "effort" was the destruction of a beloved cult classic soap opera that aired from 1966-71, one that quickly alienated longtime fans with its silly, over-the-top nostalgia trip that was apropos of nothing. Burton has yet to learn that his signature "look" will only go so far, and his best efforts in recent years (besides the excellent Frankenweenie) have involved him producing, not directing. Depp, meanwhile, hasn't been truly impressive in years now. That the pair manage to assemble an excellent cast, create an interesting story and STILL flub the whole thing is ALMOST downright commendable.

6) One for the Money

If One for the Money is the best we can expect from Katherine Heigl, then she should have never left network television. It's rare that a movie can be racist against EVERYONE, even whites, and the story itself tries to do far too much without anything resembling a solid foundation. Foul-mouthed hookers? Violent Latinos? Man Candy? One for the Money has it all! In the end, we just don't CARE enough about Stephanie Plum or what she has to do to get her man, and while the film - based on the series of novels by Janet Evanovich - is rife for franchising, this will likely be the first and last time we have to listen to so many Brooklyn accents at once at the theater. Outside of NYC, obviously.

5) The Cold Light of Day

Reason number one to worry about next year's Superman tale Man of Steel is actor Henry Cavill's lead-in, a movie that wasn't even supposed to be released wide but for a last-second push that amounted to less than nothing at the box office. How many Jason Bourne clones must we be subjected to (including half-hearted The Bourne Legacy) before we learn that there's no replacement for the real Matt Damon? Like Abduction before it, you have to suspend your disbelief to unheard-of levels in order to take anything positive away from The Cold Light of Day, a film that proves Sigourney Weaver just doesn't care what she's in anymore. Hopefully, Cavill will overcome this obstacle and rebound, because this definitely was not the way to establish him as a future action star.

4) The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2

I wonder which genre Twilight irreparably damaged more: teen romance or movie monster horror? It was bad enough that the franchise and series author Stephenie Meyer had single-handedly transformed the view of romantic relationships for young women for the worse by saying they are useless unless they find a man; even when filmmakers actually throw money at the finale, it's obvious that the creative minds behind this turd have no clue what they are doing. Bad special effects, bad screenplay, interesting characters but no sense of value for them: these are just some of Part 2's multiple transgressions. This was the #5 highest grossing movie in the year, and it cemented the talentless Kristen Stewart's place in the pantheon of Hollywood starlets. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to watch some Supernatural to purge myself.

3) Killing Them Softly

It's sad when a movie that was supposed to garner Oscar support falls so flatly that you never saw it coming. What could have been a solid crime story with great acting sabotages itself by turning out dull, disinterested dialogue to the tune of the uncertainty of 2008's presidential election. It takes a special kind of bad to turn Brad Pitt's acting career toxic overnight, and a talented cast is wasted on a film that doesn't seem to care that it was made, or the reasons why. You certainly won't.

2) Mirror Mirror

Ironically, that episode of the original Star Trek is still among my all-time favorites. This, however, was the worse of two (TWO!) Snow White adaptations that were released in 2012, and it was the number two new release behind the underwhelming Wrath of the Titans. It was obvious from the get-go that Tarsem Singh did not know how to create a decent family film after directing adult-only fare in The Cell and Immortals. But with the horrid acting of Julia Roberts and Lily Collins (the young woman was the star of TWO of the worst movies of 2011), Mirror Mirror sinks to a low that even Kristen Stewart couldn't hope to attain. Obviously, it was this title's destiny to be the #2 at everything, including worst of the year.

1) The Apparition

Don't recognize this title? Then you're one lucky human being. This movie came out briefly in late August, just as the summer movie season was coming to a close. Desperately trying to build a film around Twilight's Ashley Greene, Captain America's Sebastian Stan and Harry Potter's Tom Felton might have worked if director Todd Lincoln had tried putting in an actual story. Instead we see just about every horror trope reveal itself in a movie that lacks as much in logic as it does scares. Worst of all was the idea of a ghost that becomes more powerful the more you believe in it (you know, the only original thought the film had), a concept that was in the trailer but never actually mentioned in the movie itself. The result was a neutered, stillborn atrocity that I will never recommend to another human being. Ever.

What about you readers out there? What were the worst movies you saw in 2012?

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Open Letters Monthly: Jack Reacher

Sometimes what you really need to get through the day is a mindless action flick that doesn't challenge you but still leaves you feeling fulfilled. Thankfully, Tom Cruise has been pumping these types of movies out regularly since his early acting days, and his latest, Jack Reacher, might be just the thing to see if you're not interested in uber-violent revenge tales or Parisian musicals.

When a former Army sniper is arrested and accused of murdering five innocent people in a public park, he is asked to confess. Instead, he insists that it was not him and tells them one thing: "Get Jack Reacher." Reacher is a former Military Policeman with a killer investigative mind. When he puts the pieces together, he realizes that the arrested man has been framed, and starts to ask question and break skulls until things start to make sense. But a shadow group doesn't want him finding the truth, and soon target the unstoppable Reacher with a vengeance.

Jack Reacher is directed by Christopher McQuarrie and stars Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, Werner Herzog, David Oyelowo and Robert Duvall.

Click here for the full review at Open Letters Monthly.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Black Panther

I have not always been a fan of Quentin Tarantino. These days, he's known as one of the most influential directors in Hollywood, but for the longest time I didn't quite get it. Sure, Pulp Fiction was pretty good, the nonlinear storytelling was certainly unique and interesting, but to this day I can't stand Reservoir Dogs; I just don't understand what it was is that people saw in that mess. It wasn't until I finally caught Kill Bill on DVD that I gained any interest in the incomparable director, who borrows heavily from his favorite sources yet still manages to create an experience all his own. I was even more fond of his portion of the 2007 double feature Grindhouse. Sure, my friend Kiki may never forgive me for dragging her in, but even she has to admit that Death Proof was a lot of fun to behold.

But it was 2009's Inglourious Basterds that might be remembered as Tarantino's best film. The director's WWII-inspired vengeance tale had it all: Femme Fatales, orgies of violence, excellent acting (and an Academy Award for newcomer Christoph Waltz) and an excellent, vengeance-filled story. Best of all, gone was possibly the worst and most-telling sign of a Tarantino movie; the unnecessary conversation. Every previous flick of his had them: long, arbitrary dialogue meant to express the filmmaker's opinion on one topic or another. Usually they had little or nothing to do with the plot of the movie, and often were the dullest aspects of his work. Basterds was surprising in that it largely rid itself of them, and the result was a clean, uncluttered film that retained all of Tarantino's creativity and imagery and none of his self-indulgence. It's as if the years of experience had finally matured into a sense of focus, and he no longer needed to add these elements out of mere amusement.

Just don't call him "Sundance"...
That maturity is what made Django Unchained such a desirable destination this Christmas Day, though to be fair I saw it only because Les Miserables was sold out until late in the evening. It seems like all I see on Christmas lately are dark, violent movies (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, True Grit), and I confess I had hoped for a more uplifting tale this time around. But, Les Mis will wait, and I was certainly going to see Django anyway. As many film aficionados know, Tarantino's is not the first Django flick, which began as a violent 1966 spaghetti western directed by Sergio Corbucci and starring Franco Nero (who makes a cameo here), and spanned dozens of unofficial (and one official) sequels. The new movie slightly resembles those older ones if you squint and turn your head to the side, but while the new Django (Jamie Foxx) doesn't drag his own coffin around behind him, he does cut a patch of bloody vengeance through the pre-Civil War south as a former slave freed by bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (the returning Waltz) to rain terror and lead on bad men. Seeking out his abducted wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), he and Schultz must discover a way to rescue her from the plantation of the charismatic. ruthless, and evil slaver Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Yup, that's some hammer.
There are usually two major sides to any Tarantino film. The first is the humor/violence aspect. Yes, I know it seems odd to pair two seemingly disparate themes in the same discussion, but when these elements seem to go well in hand with this particular man behind the camera. Even with such serious themes as American slavery and the thin line between law and crime, Tarantino makes sure to have fun with his characters, whether through visual gags or legitimately funny dialogue and contexts that he puts them in. That extends to his famously violent scenarios as well, as often he makes positively grisly carnage appear light-hearted and fun. There's nobody in the industry who loves squibs more than Tarantino, and he puts on arguably his bloodiest display of violence and depravity for the amusement of his audiences. Following Django as he kills white men for money is genuinely cathartic as well, tickling that portion of your brain you don't often get to use in a world that tries to be politically correct, especially when it comes to the slavery issue. Here is a cinematic hero that attempts to right the wrongs of the era, and it's absolutely entrancing to watch.

Yes, that's Samuel L. Jackson. Yes, he's awesome.
The other aspect is the darkness Tarantino often embraces. Like Basterds, Django focuses on a grim era in human history, substituting the pro-slavery Deep South for Nazi Germany. While certainly not historically accurate (also like Basterds), the director certainly does his absolute best to capture the horrors of being black in the mid-1800's. The result is definitely powerful, as we see just some of the horrors and atrocities happened upon people at the time, down to even the casual use of the "N" word (hey, I'm white; I have no desire to say it) to emphasize just how bad things were. To that point, he also deftly forms his cast with some of the better actors in Hollywood, with Foxx ably leading them with a dry wit, a thousand-mile stare and just enough crazy to be believable. While I would have loved to see The Wire's Michael K. Williams in the role (early reports had the excellent actor as a favorite), Foxx puts forth one of his better performances, followed closely by the blessedly consistent Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson and a creepily effective DiCaprio, who just seems to get better with each performance. My only complaint is Washington, whose potentially interesting character is reduced to a damsel in distress. Tarantino has created a number of strong female characters in his films (Jackie Brown, The Bride, Zoe Bell in Death Proof and Shosanna in Basterds), and the lack of one here certainly feels like a step back. Putting it in historical context, I guess it makes sense, but considering his willingness to revise history I would have loved to see more strong females, especially when Washington has enjoyed better roles in the past.

You don't say anything bad about Django's dress code.
It's a tough call to name Quentin Tarantino's best movie at this point. I still say his best is Basterds, but I can definitely understand the argument that puts Django Unchained on top. It's a strong, fun, enjoyable adventure that includes some of the director's best work behind (and of course, occasionally in front of) the camera. It feels like forever since I've updated the list, but Django Unchained finishes off as the #3 movie of 2012. Tarantino has grown so much as a director that it's impossible not to be drawn into the world he has created, whether you are sickened by the time or entertained by the exploits. You definitely won't be bored, that's for damned sure.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Hit Me Baby

So which is the real Killing Them Softly? One is the film that competed for the Cannes Palm D'Or this past spring, and received decent reviews overall, to the tune of 79% on Rotten Tomatoes. It was supposed to secure star Brad Pitt a Best Actor nomination and steal a lot of attention from bigger blockbuster titles during the awards season. The second film is one reviled by audience-goers, given a rare "F" rating on Cinemascore and bombing badly when it was released almost three weeks ago. That's a fairly wide gulf, and while critics and audiences have certainly disagreed on what makes for quality movie time (just look at any Twilight flick), rarely do their opinions appear so disparate when it comes to a potential Oscar darling. So which one is the film you should expect if you go to the theaters?

Frankly, I'm shocked that so many critics could get past the frenetic opening credits sequence to really get into the film based on George V. Higgins' 1974 novel Cogan's Trade. The jagged and frankly pointless opening sequence sets a tone that resonates through the entire film. As to the story, it focuses on the effect of two amateur goons (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) knocking over an underground card game, and the mob hitman (Brad Pitt) who is hired to find and make an example of them. The tale is set to the background of the 2008 Presidential election and the financial crisis that defined both that year and election, and as we see, not even the criminal underground is safe from the recession.

You just know it won't end well for these guys.

Actually, looking at the recession's effect on even criminal markets was a fascinating take on the subject, and in all honesty it's likely the main reason so much critical affection was given to this title. Every character has stories of falls from grace, for instance James Gandolfini as a hitman whose depression has spiraled into passions for booze and prostitutes. The economy is such that probation systems cannot help many reformed criminals, so that those men are forced back into the game to survive. Mob bosses are forced to work together by committee rather than risk alienation by carving their own path, and assassins must offer discounts to remain competitive. It's a unique take on the typical crime drama, and changes the rules and politics of the mob system. The violence is also stylish, with director Andrew Dominik taking the extra effort and making each hit feel like a visceral, important and rare occurrence.

Richard Jenkins is always good, no question.
Unfortunately, while Dominik has a flair for the visual, he rarely indulges it in film chock full of talk, questions, pondering and tons and tons of plot exposition. 100% of often-excellent performer Richard Jenkins' scenes take place with him sitting down and not doing a whole hell of a lot. The cast is full of talented performers but Pitt, Gandolfini, Ray Liotta and Sam Shepard are largely wasted on explaining basic concepts to both one another and the audience. Pitt especially feels pointless, spending most of his time talking instead of actually doing anything of interest. Only Mendelsohn and - most especially - McNairy stand out acting-wise, with Mendelsohn playing nicely as a grubby do-anything character with little-to-no morals and a penchant for disaster. But while his partner is amusing at best, McNairy actually manages to achieve the rare feat in this picture of being someone to root for. As the young Frankie he is forced into a corner as both a character and actor, and McNairy impresses with ample charm and talent. It's a shame most people won't see him in this, as he won't likely get recognition from the his excellent work on Argo, which saw him take on a much different appearance.

Could it possibly be a crime movie without this guy?
While I get why Killing Them Softly has received some positive press, I feel that this was a case in which a movie was overrated thanks to the quality of its cast and a few good moments than for being the powerful, allegorical tale that it was surely meant to be. It's certainly making up for that now, and might be remembered as among the year's worst. Killing Them Softly gets a few things right and doesn't skimp on the blood, but the rest of Dominik's work is a boring, trite and completely unsubtle waste of an hour and a half. Skip at all costs.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Double Feature: Hyde Park on Hudson and Breaking Dawn Part 2

We're rapidly approaching the year's end, and I find myself in the uncomfortable position of having too little time to see too many movies. This will only become more complex in the coming week, as Christmas weekend brings us a number of decent-to-great options that include Les Miserables, Django Unchained, Parental Guidance, The Guilt Trip, Jack Reacher, This is 40 and the 3D re-release of Monsters Inc. That means that as much as I want to avoid them, I have to at least try getting to the more poorly-received November/December releases while they're still around. I can't discover hidden gems otherwise, and in the worst-case scenario they'll just hit my Worst of the Year list, which goes up every December 31'st.

Today, I saw two flicks with an excellent chance of making that list, for wholly different reasons. It's blatantly obvious that Hyde Park on Hudson is bucking for an Oscar opportunity for lead actor Bill Murray, playing former US President Frank Delano Roosevelt Sorry, I know all I seem to talk about lately is the Best Actor race, but to be fair it's the only category that seems to be getting any action lately. In the film, the country is in the fragile state between the worst of the Great Depression and the future global conflict of World War II. At home, the people have enough trouble holding down jobs and want little to do with the problems halfway around the globe. But the leaders of Great Britain know that war with Nazi Germany is inevitable, and King George and his wife Queen Elizabeth have been invited to Roosevelt's private home to convene about the island nation getting future support from us.

Another Dark Horse Oscar contender?
The movie pushes its actors first and foremost, and of course a lot of attention is given to Murray, who adds this performance atop an impressive list of roles in the past decade in films like Lost in Translation, Broken Flowers, Zombieland, and this year's Moonrise Kingdom. Once again the actor manages to blur the line between dramatic composure and comedic relief with ease, and any acclaim he earns from this is well deserved. He's also surrounded by an abundance of talented ladies, with Olivia Colman, Olivia Williams and Elizabeth Marvel as Queen Elizabeth, Eleanor Roosevelt and Roosevelt's private secretary Marguerite LeHand, respectively. The biggest surprise however, is easily Samuel West as King George VI. It seems the Queen's father has been appearing everywhere lately, from Colin Firth's well-deserved Academy Award-winning performance in The King's Speech to Madonna's romance film W.E. Credit has to go to West for not allowing the role to go stale, and even managing to be as impressive in scenes both with and without Murray. Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) also does a great job focusing on the similarities and differences between the President and the King, sharing in disabilities but separate in their appreciation for their wives, among other things. When the story focuses on the budding friendship between these two great men, it's simply amazing.

Seriously, why is nobody talking about this guy?
Unfortunately, the film's tale is told through possibly the worst witness of all, simple-minded sixth cousin to the President Margaret "Daisy" Suckley, invited to help Franklin relax. The pseudo-incestuous relationship that follows is both uncomfortable to watch and lacking in any major impact. Even if the trite love tale is actually based on a true story (discovered letters between Suckley and Roosevelt), Laura Linney's performance as Daisy is weak beyond words, and her voice-over narrations are dull and uninterested, dragging down both the tempo and importance of the event as a whole. It certainly makes it difficult to recommend Hyde Park on Hudson as anything more than a potential rental; Murray and West put in spellbinding performances, but they're stuck in a story that needed more cutting if it wanted any chance of turning out well.

But that's Shakespeare compared to every teenage girl's image-destroying teen paranormal romance finale The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2. First, the admission: I've never read or watched anything to do with the Twilight franchise. Even with former roommates who were hardcore fans I've managed to avoid the Stephenie Meyer phenomena for as long as it's been in existence. In fact, the ONLY reason I had any interest in seeing this final entry to the series? The promised battle royale between the heroic Cullen clan and the Illuminati-esque Volturi, with the fate of the future in the balance. The question was whether I could sit through an hour and a half of trite dialogue, poor story and cringe-worthy romance before I got my promised ten minutes of bloodshed.

Breaking Dawn Part 2 definitely gets off to a poor start, with director Bill Condon (this is the same guy who did Chicago?) showing off some of the absolute worst CGI to appear in a major blockbuster. These are special effects so bad, the term "special" takes on a whole other meaning. Looking haphazard and slapdash, they never get above the level of "mediocre", and it's shocking that care wasn't made to get decent SFX for a proven franchise worth billions. Thankfully so much of the movie focuses on pretty people problems and setup for the final battle that once you get past the opening half hour, effect use is minimal at best.

So... why are we doing this again? Oh, right, the mortgage...
On the other hand, one of the best kept secrets in the Twilight series is that it has actually developed some pretty good actors. Sure, everybody gets stuck on Kristen Stewart's wooden and lifeless performance throughout (and that doesn't change here), but for the most the films have done a good job showcasing the talents of Robert Pattinson and many of the secondary actors who have made careers off of the franchise, from Ashley Greene to Peter Facinelli to Anna Kendrick (who sadly does not appear in the finale). Okay, Taylor Lautner has gone stale, but while you need a scorecard to keep track of the dozens (!) of characters who appear in Breaking Dawn Part 2, many of them are either very talented actors or carry the benefit of playing fascinating characters who suffer in the shadows of the "Big Three". Standouts include Michael Sheen, Lee Pace, Dakota Fanning (who I don't believe even says a word), Jamie Campbell Bower, Rami Malek, Casey LaBow and a sorely underused Joe Anderson, and they're supplemented by a wealth of depth that includes ultra-violent Irish vampires (of course), old-school Romanian vamps, female Amazon warriors, and others with special abilities (none of which explains how they survive in the sunlight, however). It's surprising how talent-rich the series has become, and most of these people will go on to have special Hollywood careers.

If you ever see this, it's probably too late.
But while the final battle (15-20 minutes of bloodless fun, up from the 10 I had been expecting) was everything I could have hoped for, the whole experience is undone by shoddy logic, amateurish writing, and ultimate failure by resorting to deus ex machina to immediately undo any emotional turmoil by fans. On one hand, this final act of Twilight is probably the most accessible entry to the saga for genre fans. On the other hand, that decent 20 minutes was all I really wanted, and am left with no interest to go back and revisit the story behind it. Now that I've sated my brief, insane sparkly vampire desire, I can go back to REAL blood-sucking fun from the Underworld series or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which I already own on Blu-ray (thank you, Black Friday midnight sales). The point is that when I want a vampire film, I don't need the silly romance and stupid dialogue that is clogging up teen romance shelves these days. I want blood, guts, and a little animal cruelty, and that's just not something you're going to see from Stephenie Meyer.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Open Letters Monthly: The Hobbit

Behind the criticisms of 48 frames per second, spin-the-wheel options for director, and allegations of animal cruelty, one thing has not been forgotten: Peter Jackson has brought Middle Earth back to us! Todd and I have been eagerly awaiting this movie's release, and we have now witnessed - along with an IMAX exclusive first ten minutes of geek dream Star Trek Into Darkness - the first part of Jackson's newest trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

When Gandalf the Grey arrives unannounced on the stoop of mild-mannered halfling Bilbo Baggins, little did the Shire resident know it would be the beginning of a grand adventure. A small company of dwarves led by the warrior Thorin Oakenshield is determined to recapture their homeland from the covetous dragon Smaug, and they need Bilbo's assistance. Along the way they will face many dangers, including trolls, goblins, orcs, and even a strange, ring-wearing creature named Gollum...

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is directed by Peter Jackson and stars Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Graham McTavish, Ken Stott, and Andy Serkis.

Click here for the full review at Open Letters Monthly.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Lady Killer

I was about to go to the movies yesterday when it hit me; nothing I hadn't yet seen looked all that great. Between feel-good romance Playing for Keeps, Brad Pitt flop Killing Them Softly and Saw knockoff The Collection, I just couldn't muster the effort to walk out the front door. I had work in the evening, so showtimes also conflicted in me going to Anna Karenina or Breaking Dawn: Part 2. That's right, people; desperation makes a Twilight film look better than most other options.

So I turned on Netflix to see if there was anything I could watch to pass the time. I still typically use it to watch TV shows, as most movies available in streaming aren't worth a second glance. It should also be pointed out that I had watched the (brief, unsatisfying) Golden Globe nominations in the morning, so I had a good idea what movies I had missed that might have been worth catching up on. Lo and behold, Bernie popped up almost immediately on the screen. Released last spring, Bernie had garnered some positive reviews but never really caught any traction. I can't say I'm surprised; Jack Black's star has quickly faded domestically, and as many people know I prefer the comedian in supporting roles, where his particularly manic frenzy can be mitigated by limited screen time. But with his nomination in the Globes' "Best Actor - Comedy/Musical" category, plus those aforementioned reviews, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to see what all the fuss was about.

Not the first thing you want to see in the morning.
Black plays real-life Bernhardt "Bernie" Tiede, an assistant funeral director and all-around good guy living in Carthage, Texas. When the effeminate, transplanted Louisianan arrived in Carthage, he quickly became a popular fixture in the small town. Always friendly, charitable to the point of excess and constantly thinking of new ways to contribute to society, he was one of Carthage's most popular residents. Naturally, when he befriended the town's least-liked member, 81-year-old millionaire widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), they became inseparable, touring the world and spending more time together than Nugent ever had with her family. But she was a cruel, jealous and venomous woman, and eventually her toxic personality pushed the mild-mannered, eager-to-please Bernie to murder.

One of these things is not like the others...
It's easy to see why Black has received such acclaim for his performance as Bernie Tiede; this was a role that could have easily veered into the territory of effeminate characters a la The Birdcage, which would have undermined the obvious appeal the real-life Bernie had on the small, Texas community. Black does get to have his fun, but his work here also carries unexpected amounts of subtlety that was missing from almost every single movie he has done before. It's easy to see why the real Bernie was so liked, and this performance shows the potential of maturation that Black has finally experienced after more than a decade of lewd, rude "humor". Perhaps it was reuniting with School of Rock director Richard Linklater that caused this unforeseen transformation, as familiarity often helps encourage risks. This was a good one, then, and Black manages to command every single one of his scenes with ease.

Hello, room service? I'd like a bowl of Fruity Pebbles with a side of Grapefruit.

The rest of the film is okay, but doesn't quite stack up with its leading actor. Pacing is one problem; the lack of it, actually. Often the story moves along at its own pace, which at times is brisk and at others slothful, with almost no middle ground. Much of the early portion of the story is utterly without focus and the final act passes far too quickly, resulting in an uneven tale that relies on its lead to impress. Also, Linklater is way too biased in his storytelling, his aim on portraying Bernie as the hero in all this, and Nugent as a mad spinster who got what she deserved. Any bad thoughts about Bernie are funneled into the prosecuting attorney determined to take him down (played competently by Matthew McConaughey) and few others, and the director gets a little picky about historical accuracy; he choosed to ignore the fact that in fact the people of Carthage were split on their opinion of Bernie's crime and instead focusing on the supporters on the whole.

ANGRY tanned man!
But Linklater does a lot of good as well. In one nice touch, he uses real Carthage residents in interviews about the murder and both Bernie and Nugent, and the more charismatic ones he even uses in the scenes of the actual movie. Despite his biased storytelling, he does it in a way that is both entertaining and unpredictable, so that unless you had read the Texas Monthly article on which the movie was based, you wouldn't have any clue how things would shake out. There are also many standout scenes which will have you unexpectedly bursting out with laughter, and of course there's his excellent work with Black. Given these treats, it's easy to forgive Bernie's faults, as it certainly never left me bored.

We find the defendant funny... THIS time...
When it first became available, I passed on Bernie for a number of reasons. But while I'm not sorry I didn't pay to see it in the theater, I am happy that I decided to give it a second chance. If you're like me and didn't take the opportunity, do yourself a favor and nab it on DVD or Netflix. It's a black comedy with an unexpected strong acting performance, and if you give it a chance then you will certainly be surprised by how much you enjoy it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Getting Hitched

Put together a list of your Top 10 all time film directors. Don't worry, I'll be here when you get back.

Now I'll say a name I bet is on almost every one of those lists: Alfred Hitchcock. A legend of the horror and suspense genres (where legends are remarkably rare), the director is responsible for many of the greatest movies of all time; The Birds, North by Northwest, Vertigo and Rear Window are all renowned classics. But his most famous work, the one for which he is chiefly remembered, was one of his last, the 1960 horror masterpiece Psycho. In it, Hitchcock changed the faces of both horror and Hollywood and laid much of the groundwork in which his fans and contemporaries have followed in droves since its inception. Now Hollywood delves into its own dark shadows in Hitchcock, the pseudo-biographical story of Hitchcock, Psycho, and the struggle to create one of the most enduring thrillers of all time.

"Good evening."
After releasing the brilliant North By Northwest in 1959, the legendary Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is going through both career and personal crises. He's sixty years old and beginning to worry if he has reached the peak of his talents, and is desperate to discover his next project, to prove to himself and studios that he can still work. He finds that inspiration in Robert Bloch's novel Psycho, itself based off of the heinous crimes of real-life killer Ed Gein. Forced to mortgage his home to self-finance the picture as major studios don't want to take a risk on it, Hitchcock also is going through a period of conflict with his wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), a former film editor and his biggest supporter who nevertheless aches to get back into a business that seems to respect her talents more than her husband does.

"Quick show of hands: who here did NOT work on Total Recall?"
What perhaps surprised me most about Hitchcock was how well rookie director Sacha Gervasi balanced two disparate conflicts: that between the director and the studios who did not want to make his next movie, and he and his wife Alma. You certainly get the idea how Hitchcock was a trouble-making individual, with obsessive tendencies that often made him appear standoffish or aloof, and he always liked to do whatever he thought he could get away with. An unhealthy fixation with his leading ladies also raises the stress levels between the embittered director and his wife, whose own forays into screenwriting for old friend Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) manage to raise his own suspicions. Hopkins and Mirren are both top-notch performers, and their interactions (or lack thereof) make for some wonderful storytelling, as each tries to dominate the scene and manage to settle into a contested draw. Hopkins will of course garner most of the attention thanks to his pitch-perfect mimicry of Hitchcock and his perfectly-shaped fat suit, but Mirren is of course the sum of her multiple talents. She manages to take a generally unknown woman from Hollywood's past and turn her into the perfect embodiment of what it takes to be Alfred Hitchcock's better half.

"Cut here, and here... oh, and a little exercise wouldn't kill you."
Unfortunately, I could have used a little more on the filmmaking aspect of the movie, which Gervasi steps away from to give more attention to the interactions between his stars. Though the director takes pains to show Hitchcock acting like "a perfect gentleman" towards leading lady Janet Leigh (Scarlet Johanssen), I would have loved more than the occasional behind-the-scenes drama, especially with the snubbed Vera Miles (a surprisingly underused Jessica Biel), the timid Anthony Perkins (James D'Arcy) and a bevy of actors that includes Toni Collette and Michael Stuhlbarg fighting for screen time. Little and less are said about Hitchcock's crew, with the one exception of the man who engineered the shower scene music. One question I had was whether Hitchcock truly imagined killer Ed Gein as his spirit guide (a perfectly creepy Michael Wincott), and whether he was ever haunted by his subject matter in the past. It certainly would have explained his personality and his manic obsession for getting Psycho onto the big screen.

The scene 14-year-old boys have been waiting for.
But despite any seemingly lost information, this is a movie that benefits greatly from it's leading pair. Hopkins and Mirren are fantastically well-suited to one another, the screenplay rife with fun and funny bits that will draw you deep and deeper into the world of Hollywood filmmaking. While I wish they had done less whitewashing in painting the famed director in a good light (he had a history of sexual harassment and other difficulties on the set), it doesn't hurt the film as a whole. You can point to Gervasi's experienced crew as a sign for why the whole thing turned out so well, as Jeff Cronenweth's (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) cinematography, Pamela Martin's (Ruby Sparks, The Fighter) film editing and Danny Elfman's music play a huge part in the final product. But it's still Gervasi's show, and he proves that he can make an entertaining movie when given the chance. Not just a lead actor/actress love-fest, this is definitely a movie you should be watching in preparation for the upcoming awards season.

Open Letters Monthly: The Sessions

Right now the Best Actor category is getting a little crowded. Modern-day legends Daniel Day-Lewis, Denzel Washington and Anthony Hopkins are all but guaranteed three of the five slots for Best Actor when nominations are announced next month, and a slew of named actors that includes Joaquin Phoenix, Hugh Jackman, Bradley Cooper, Richard Gere and Bill Murray will be competing for the final two. One actor that might have an inside shot is John Hawkes, the recent indie sensation who also pulled in a Best Supporting nod two years ago for Winter's Bone.

In The Sessions, Hawkes plays real-life journalist and poet Mark O'Brien, who contracted polio at a young age and spent most of his adult life stuck in an iron lung. While researching for an article on sexuality and the disabled, Mark decides to see a sex therapist in order to lose his virginity. A romantic, he also hopes that God will help him discover a woman who will love him for the man he is, and not pity him for not being able to move anything below his neck.

The Sessions is directed by Ben Lewin and stars John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, Moon Bloodgood and William H. Macy.

Click here for the full review at Open Letters Monthly.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Open Letters Monthly: Life of Pi

Sorry for the lateness of this one, we had some scheduling issues with my friends over at Open Letters Monthly. Fortunately, things were restructured and sorted and now I have my very own review of Life of Pi sitting in their archives!

When the ship he and his zookeeper family were traveling on sinks to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, young Pi finds himself the sole survivor on the one boat that made it away. At least, he is the sole HUMAN survivor. Also making it to safety is Richard Parker, a fierce Bengali Tiger who means to claim the boat all to himself, and eat anything he can get his claws into, Pi included. As the two wander the endless blue waves, they must learn to accept one another if they have any hope of surviving.

Life of Pi is directed by Ang Lee and stars Suraj Sharma, Irfan Khan, Bollywood star Tabu, Adil Hussain, Gerard Depardieu, and Rafe Spall.

Click here for the complete review at Open Letters Monthly.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Double Feature: Silver Linings Playbook and Red Dawn

I've been having major problems with the Internet at my place lately, to the tune of days at a time without service on the network. That's mainly what caused my recent difficulties with posting, so hopefully the new cable modem and the threatening letters to my service provider means I'll be posting with regularity for the extended future. Of course, that also means I'm catching up on some serious movie reviewing, so today will be another double feature from flicks I've seen recently.

I've been looking forward to Silver Linings Playbook for a while now, for a number of reasons. For one, it's director David O. Russell's much-anticipated follow-up to his excellent The Fighter. Second, it carries a talented cast including Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro. Third, it featured what appeared to be a unique and somewhat comedic look at the world of mental illness, a move that is either very brave or very, very foolhardy. The story focuses on bipolar sufferer Pat Solitano (Cooper), who returns to his parents' home after eight months in a mental health facility and the violent outburst that landed him there in the first place. As he struggles to cope with his illness and tries to win back his wife, he meets Tiffany (Lawrence), the widowed sister-in-law of one of his friends. Tiffany suffers from issues stemming from her late husband's death, and soon the pair strike up a somewhat antagonistic friendship in preparing for a local dance competition. But while Pat still pines after his departed wife, does Tiffany hold a torch for Pat?

They agreed to never speak of that photo again.
Silver Linings Playbook is definitely an actor's dream, and its performers are probably the reason it has received such universal acclaim. Russell did an amazing job putting together his cast, who carry the story on their immensely-talented shoulders. Cooper continues to grow as an actor, showing even more depth here than he did in September's The Words, and continues to look like the next generation's superstar. But it's Lawrence who commands the screen, and not just because of her looks. It's easy to forget how young she was when this film was made, as her performance makes her look decades more experienced. It's almost a shame she's locked up for three more Hunger Games sequels, as she really should focus on this side of herself as an actress; more mature performances and a strong presence will not go unnoticed. De Niro and Jacki Weaver do good work as Pat's parents, and their additions create one of film's better family dynamics. Together, their highly dysfunctional family will speak to those who come from similar circumstances, funny and sad all at once. It certainly hearkens back to the familial struggles of The Fighter, and Russell definitely takes advantage of the chaos of an arguing family to make for some singularly impressive scenes.

Scenes with just the two of them are fine, as well.
Unfortunately, the film has a few problems. One is that despite immense acting talents, very few of the character are likable at all. You don't find yourself rooting for them to recover so much as you hope the redemption angle makes its way about so you CAN root for someone.The characters are so mired in their issues that they somehow forget that we have to like them for the story to have any meaning. Also, for all the use of mental illness as a twist on the usual romantic comedy genre, that's the extent of the differences between Russell's film and everything else. Behind the mental illness smokescreen, this is just another romantic film, complete with the usual tropes. The result is that Silver Linings Playbook is not nearly as original as it would have you believe. If you're okay with a slightly upgraded romantic comedy and can sit through some completely unlikable bits, Silver Linings Playbook is worth your time. But it's just not the awards darling critics are making it out to be, and you might be happier waiting for DVD than catching this in the theater.

I actually enjoyed the delayed remake of Red Dawn better than the romantic comedy, surprisingly. I was introduced to the 1984 original while at a friend's house just a few years ago, as we played a drinking game based on the DVD's oughta-be-classic "Carnage Counter", which kept track of deaths, explosions and other gooey occurrences. As you can imagine with a movie based on the idea of a Russian military invasion of the United States, the counter climbed quickly, and the group of us proceeded to get drunk off of our asses. The 2012 version, which sat on a shelf for two years thanks to MGM's bankruptcy problems, features a bevy of young actors, and Chris Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson have turned themselves into genuine stars in the years since its filming. So it's nice to see early, rough performances from them in a remake that replaces Russians with Chinese, and then digitally into North Koreans to avoid pissing on the Chinese box office.

In Spokane, Washington, the world is just as it should be. Jed Eckert (Hemsworth) is home from a tour of duty in the Middle East. His younger brother Matt (Josh Peck) is a young school football star with loving girlfriend (Isabel Lucas). Jed and Matt have always had issues with one another, but when the North Korean military suddenly and violently invades the country, they must put that aside and escape capture. Teaming up with other teens who managed to evade the army, they dub themselves Wolverines, and under Jed's leadership wage a guerrilla war against the occupying force.

At 5'11, Palicki makes Hemsworth not seem quite as tall.
One distinct advantage Red Dawn has over its progenitor is that even if you've seen the original, you won't be able to predict the outcome of the remake. Sure, the overarching storyline is more or less the same, but the way former stunt coordinator and first-time director Dan Bradley uses his cast and story is so far removed from its inspiration that they barely resemble one another. While the script uses the usual action cliches, the young cast that also includes Connor Cruise and the perpetually up-and-coming Adrianne Palicki make it work for them. Bradley shows a real know-how for the action genre, quickly establishing himself as a potential go-to for future projects. His film features the right amount of drama, action and humor, and while the characters aren't especially deep, they are typically likable for a number of reasons. Peck is also surprisingly strong in a co-lead role, an unexpected development when he's surrounded by many more talented performers (and as he's one of the few actors not to have broken out since its filming).

A new take on Gladiator?
Bradley's film does have a few hiccups; in one scene a couple of teens die rather unceremoniously and without actual certainty that it happened until much later, and the entire concept of a North Korean invasion is way more far-fetched than 1984's Russian/Cuban attack. As I mentioned before, it was supposed to be the Chinese invading our shores, but with China's box office now being one of the top moneymakers on the international scene, it's seen by many as foolish to make China seem aggressive in movies. And so MGM made some changes to avoid being blacklisted completely. The problem is that what would have made China more believable was it's massive population. North Korea can't make that same claim, and the idea of their military managing a successful invasion of our home is so ridiculous that it makes Red Dawn feel more like the blatantly 2'nd Amendment-thumping piece I thought it would be. The movie does its best to make up for that issue, but leaves it an obvious play for Chinese dollars. Still, Red Dawn is a pleasant surprise from a first-time director, and if MGM had managed to stick it out for another year, I wonder what this, Cabin in the Woods and Skyfall could have done to reverse its financial windfall. It's a moot point, and those films all eventually got their time in the sun. If you're hankering for a good action flick, you can safely nab a ticket to this and enjoy the experience.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Justice for All

I know I might upset a lot of Academy Award voters with this statement, but here goes: I'm not that big a fan of Steven Spielberg.

Sure, his early stuff - Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind - are classics, and everybody who has seen his early thriller The Duel tells me that it's a movie I need to watch. But as good as Jurassic Park was, was it REALLY one of the best the year it was released? Are E.T. and Schindler's List REALLY among the best movies of all time? I say no. I believe Spielberg is one of the industry's more overrated directors, one with a certain amount of talent and an eye for the cinematic but lacking a consistent storytelling ability. Look at last year as an example; War Horse was a bloated, over-hyped mess that would have been shunned had anybody else been in the director's chair. Instead, it was nominated for Best Picture over more deserving fare such as Drive, Bridesmaids and even David Fincher's solid adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Spielberg's name can still move mountains, even if his movies more often move me to boredom. It's why I don't look forward to his products, even when they are Lincoln and feature the inimitable talents of Daniel Day-Lewis.

Ah, the days of smaller cabinets...
Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography Team of Rivals, Lincoln focuses on one of the most crucial battles for our sixteenth US President, one that had (almost) nothing to do with the Civil War. The Battle of Gettysburg has ended, and the disastrous Civil War is coming soon to a close. Lincoln (Day-Lewis) has just secured reelection, and makes it his priority to add an amendment to the Constitution to abolish slavery. With public support at an all time high, now is the time to get the amendment ratified by Congress. But even with all his strength, he doesn't have the majority vote necessary to guarantee victory. And so Lincoln and his allies must convince his Democrat rivals that approving this measure is more important than petty political machinations.

As Jessica Rabbit's evil clone would say: "A Man!"
First and foremost, let's get the obvious statement out of the way: Daniel Day-Lewis is simply astounding. an almost guaranteed lock for this year's Best Actor categories, Day-Lewis does far more than simply emulate the recorded character of arguably our most revered President. As the stovepipe hat-wearing politician, the actor embodies Lincoln's persona, from his easy command of an audience to his sensitive compassion to his ability to speak on any given subject. That he does this convincingly comes as no true surprise; that it seems to arrive so easily is what makes Day-Lewis the outstanding performer he is. There isn't one moment in which he is on the screen that he does not demand your attention, respect and awe, and he also appears to garner those same responses from his erstwhile costars.

It was Mr. Booth, in the Theater, with the Revolver. I win!
But he doesn't have to carry the whole movie on his own back, as Day-Lewis is surrounded by some of the best actors Spielberg could cobble together. You can't fire a musket without hitting any of a number of talented character players, from David Oyelowo to Walton Goggins to Jared Harris to Lee Pace to the amazing Michael Stuhlbarg, and those are just the small cameo roles. Tommy Lee Jones, who had been regressing in the quality his performances the past few years, leaps back to relevance with his portrayal of Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens. His is an Oscar-worthy performance, a far cry from more Men in Black sequels. More strong performances come from David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and it was obvious a lot of research went into making their relatively obscure characters as true to life as possible. Watchmen's Jackie Earle Haley manages to steal a few moments (opposite Day-Lewis, surprisingly) when he is allowed on screen, putting a much-appreciated face to the Confederate government. And some of my favorite moments in Lincoln involved the banter between John Hawkes and James Spader, playing Republican lobbyists tasked with garnering Democratic support for the amendment. Spader especially is one of the film's best additions. Certainly he's the most entertaining, and while his witty repartee won't likely be enough for Oscar considerations, I'm surprised he's not getting mentions in that regard.

No Oscar for you!
Of course, no Spielberg film is without significant drawbacks. Like most of his work, the director tends to spell everything out in no uncertain terms. Subtlety isn't his specialty, and he's not above using blatant humor, cliched situations and imagery, and telling rather than showing to get his point across. It's not as bad here as it was in War Horse, and the director is helped by his performers in not allowing these weaknesses to get too out of hand. One actor that doesn't really help him however is Sally Field, who plays Lincoln's mentally fragile wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. Spielberg has said that he only saw Field in the role, and that's likely what blinded him to the fact that her performance was typical of what we expect from the character. I frankly wasn't impressed; I've seen good Fields roles over the years, and this wasn't one of them. One scene in particular between Lincoln and his wife didn't quite fit, thanks to a decidedly theatrical take that I'm not entirely sure wasn't intentional. And Spielberg has issues with keeping all of his details straightforward. At times he uses subtitles to effectively introduce new characters or locations that we had only heard of before; at others he leaves us to our devices, confused as to the latest turn of events.

My favorite performer of the whole show.
Besides Day-Lewis and the mostly-amazing cast, what I liked most about Lincoln was the history behind it. For many audience members, this is the first we've heard of many of the details leading up to the ratification of the thirteenth constitutional amendment. The reasons behind each character's actions are closely scrutinized, and Spielberg actually does a good job of showing us both how things have changed in the last 150 years and how much they've remained the same, from the gullibility of the public to the divisiveness of Congress. Again, at times he makes things a bit TOO clear cut (especially with politicians perpetually shouting "What's next: black voters? WOMEN voters?" Yeah, we get it), but this is still likely the most authentic look at Lincoln's political career you're going to see on the big screen. The director's ability to capture a scene on camera is one of his greatest strengths, and likely the main reason he has maintained his foothold atop the Hollywood hierarchy after all this time.

I wonder if he has "Old Man" written on his business cards?
Despite my early reservations, Lincoln is a fine film, and one of the better historical dramas of the past decade. It's not perfect, and Spielberg's inability to get over his own hype slightly sabotages any chances of a Best Picture win. But Daniel Day-Lewis is more of a sure thing than anything else in theaters right now or at any time this year. This is a film that - warts and all - is worth watching for his performance alone. If you want to see a master at work - and really, who doesnt'? - then you simply must give Lincoln a shot. It's easily Spielberg's best film in two decades, and is a much better than most of his critics will ever admit.