Whatever its other faults, 2012 was actually a pretty solid year at the cineplex. In terms of great movies, the crop wasn’t as rich as, say, 1999. (To name just a few from that year: Being John Malkovich, Fight Club, The Matrix, Three Kings, The Iron Giant, Election) But, in general terms, I thought most of the movies that came out this past year avoided obvious pitfalls and delivered at or better than the level they promised.
For example, almost all of the year’s superhero movies were surprisingly good — no real Green Lantern-y whiffs this year. Most of 2012′s unnecessary sequels and even-more-unnecessary remakes — MIB III and Amazing Spiderman, say — turned out better than expected. Horror moved out of the serial killer/torture pr0n ghetto in both conventional (The Women in Black) and unconventional (Cabin in the Woods) ways. Lowbrow, could-be-terrible comedies like 21 Jump Street and Ted actually had some solid laughs to them. And even the intentional B-movies — like Dredd, Lockout, or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter — all had their moments, even if I can’t recommend some of those in their entirety.
In any case, now that the last few 2012 films have hit DC theaters, and my dissertoral defense obligations are now behind me, it’s at last time for the usual end-of-year list ’round here. Since I didn’t do any individual reviews this past year — I still haven’t decided if those will return for 2013 — I’ve upped the 2012 list to 25 movies, and, at the end, added a few thoughts on some of the others that crossed my field of vision over the past twelve months. Without further ado…
1. The Dark Knight Rises: “Theatricality and deception, powerful agents for the uninitiated. But we are initiated, aren’t we, Bruce?” I know Christopher Nolan’s TDKR wasn’t as well-received in many circles as The Dark Knight, and for understandable reasons — the Joker will always be Bat’s #1 nemesis. Still, I loved this closing chapter of Nolan’s trilogy — its audacious scope, its Occupy Gotham meets the French Revolution ambience, its tight connections back to Batman Begins, its menacing yet loopy villain, its repudiation of the ends-justify-the-means arguments of TDK. (So much for the contention in that earlier film that “sometimes the truth isn’t good enough…Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.” That dubious line of thinking backfires for Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, Wayne, and everyone else who partook of it in the last film.)
I don’t know how The Dark Knight Rises plays to the uninitiated, since, like most fans, I went in presuming that (a) Bane would break the Bat and (b) Talia al Ghul was involved in some capacity. And admittedly there are some problems here, as in all of Nolan’s Batman movies. As soon as Alfred starts going on about French cafes in the first reel, it’s pretty clear where the film will end up eventually. (And that closing doesn’t make sense anyway, since billionaire Bruce Wayne is likely recognizable all around the world, certain Chinese prisons notwithstanding.) And speaking of prisons, how, exactly, did barefooted Bruce get back from somewhere in the Middle East into a Gotham City on lockdown?
All that being said, there was a lot to like here. I enjoyed the intricate plotting of TDKR, and how some of its central points hearkened back to lessons learned in the previous films. (For example, Bruce’s concern, in light of Joker-style escalation, about the fusion reactor becoming a weapon.) I liked how Anne Hathaway was introduced as a prototypical Anne Hathaway character — the Nervous-Nellie maid — before revealing her decidedly-unHathawayesque Selina Kyle. I was consistently entertained by Tom Hardy’s sing-songy Bane voice, including goofy flourishes like his admiring the pre-game rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. (“He has a beautiful voice!” If only Bane had subsequently gotten a chance to freestyle.) And I thought there were moments of real poetry, such as when, to suggest the passage of time while Bruce’s back healed, a Bane-commandeered Batmobile prototype rolls along a snowy Gotham side street.
One common complaint I heard about TDKR is that it’s a Batman movie without Batman — that the Caped Crusader completely disappears in the second act of the film. I don’t get it, and my theory is people who hold this view have never, personally, been broken. Granted, we all expect that Bruce Wayne will get his back fixed and get back in the game. Still, even if it’s weirdly the most mutually supportive prison on Earth (which makes more sense once you realize Bruce throws down a rope once he got to the top), I like the Lazarus Pit detour, and the ultimate payoff of seeing Bruce/Bats back in action in Act III. Fall down, get back up. Get your back broken, have Tom Conti punch that vertebrae back in. Get the s**t kicked out of you, get rid of that rope and rise.
2. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: “Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay…small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it’s because I am afraid and he gives me courage.”
I can see why some folks didn’t cotton to TDKR, but I really can’t get my head around all the Haterade that’s surrounded Peter Jackson’s excellent and entertaining first installment of The Hobbit. This was a great movie! And it was easily as faithful to Tolkien’s book in both tone and story as the latter two Rings films. (For people complaining about the inclusions of Radaghast the Brown, Dol Guldur, and the White Council, I submit to you Osgiliath and Far-from-the-Bookamir. Pale Orc, meet Lurtz.)
Particularly bewildering to me is all the whining about 48 FPS. I thought An Unexpected Journey looked amazing. Granted, I spent a childhood watching Doctor Who, Blake’s 7, and the like, and so I’m used to suspending my disbelief while watching images that seem video-immediate. But still. All the kvetching about the new standard was, in my opinion, totally over the top. (In terms of snapping my abilty to engage with a universe on screen, I had more issues with the operetta-ness of Les Mis. Er…are they really going to sing every single line of this movie? Russell Crowe too?)
As for all the complaints about the pacing, admittedly this first chapter was languidly told — Three and a half hours and we only got to Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire. But, y’know, I like spending time in Middle Earth — If the dwarves want to sing again, have at it, good fellows. (Just don’t go all operetta on us.) And given that, for example, GRRM’s Song of Ice and Fire books are getting ten hour adaptations each, or Treme or Boardwalk Empire are enjoyable 35-hour stories where, often, not much happens plotwise, I had no problem at all with the expanded length — particularly as the additions were straight from Tolkien’s notes and not, say, 40 minutes of dwarf-tossing jokes. Let’s hope that holds through the third film, which is the one I’m really worried about.
In any event, I thought An Unexpected Journey was a great adaptation of the first third of The Hobbit, and that it threaded the needle quite well between feeling like it took place in the same world as the LotR trilogy and bringing a more lighthearted and jovial tone to Middle Earth, in keeping with the children’s book nature of The Hobbit. Bring on the incident with the Dragon.
3. Beasts of the Southern Wild: “I hope you die and when you die, I’ll go to your grave and eat birthday cake all by myself!” I tend to consider myself a cynical and curmudgeonly fellow, so I was quite surprised that Beasts of the Southern Wild — a film I expected to find aggravatingly twee — kinda knocked me sideways. I’m not even sure if the movie would hold up to a second viewing — When I reflect on it now, those scenes in Beast that don’t feel like scraps of dream seem like they probably shouldn’t have worked.
But, at least that first time around on the big screen, this fairy tale of a young girl living on the wrong side of the Louisiana levees (a.k.a. “the Bathtub”) had a strange sort of magic to it. I particularly liked the End Times conflation of Katrina and global warming, and vibed with the film completely around the time Hushpuppy feared that the melting ice sheet would inadvertently unleash the four boar-monsters of the apocalypse. Pretty soon, we’ll all live in the Bathtub.
4. The Avengers: “Shakespeare in The Park? Doth mother know you weareth her drapes?” In the 2011 list, I voiced my sneaking suspicion at #14 that Joss Whedon’s The Avengers wasn’t going to work. Consider that crow eaten. Even despite a bland opening sequence and a third act alien invasion that felt weightless, this was a surprisingly fun time at the movies, and perhaps the best popcorn film of the summer.
In particular, I liked that this was never a particularly “dark” movie. The Avengers aren’t tortured souls like Batman or even the X-Men, and Whedon, a former X-Men writer, didn’t portray them as such. Instead he was able to capture the voice of each of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes — Cap the boy scout, Thor the thunder god, etc. — throw them in a hovering aircraft carrier together, and let shenanigans and shawarma ensue.
True, Hawkeye in particular got short shrift, Scarlett Johansson was still woefully miscast as the Widow (Olga Kurylenko anyone?), and Cobie Smulders, a.k.a. your Aunt Robin, just isn’t much of a film actress. (Exhibit A: this alternate opening.) Still, I liked the balance Whedon came up with here, where Robert Downey’s Iron Man was given the dramatic arc befitting his star wattage, but Chris Evans’ Captain America still ended up leading the team. And, arguably for the first time on film, Whedon got the Hulk exactly right.
5. Looper: “I’m from The Future. You should go to China.” Speaking of Marvel comics, Looper [moderate spoilers] may just be the best Franklin Richards movie we see in awhile. In any case, I wasn’t much for either Brick or especially The Brothers Bloom, but I thought Rian Johnson’s third film was a smart, well-crafted science fiction story that was very worthwhile.
As in most time travel tales outside of 12 Monkeys, Looper‘s final few scenes don’t make any sense. (Spoiler: JGL’s decision at the end would seemingly have to result in everything Bruce Willis did being rolled back — Thus, none of that carnage at Jeff Daniels’ compound or along the road would ever have happened, and there would be no money lying around, etc. etc.)
But until then, Looper is a satisfying and stylish mishmash of time travel, telekinesis, and the Chandler and Hammett-isms (by way of Miller’s Crossing) that inspired Johnson’s Brick. It also included the creepiest time travel outcome I’ve seen since people were ‘porting into walls in The Philadelphia Experiment. (That would be the grim fate of Paul Dano’s future-self.)
6. Lincoln: “I wish He had chosen an instrument more wieldy than the House of Representatives.” I’ve already noted my problems with the history here: It’s rather ridiculous to argue that the lesson of the Civil War is that compromise is awesome, or that the constitutional amendments that emerged from it are a product of such. Quite the contrary, really. Spielberg and Kushner also vastly overstate the danger that the Thirteenth Amendment would not pass here, and Kushner, given the comments cited in that earlier post, unfortunately doesn’t seem to understand Reconstruction at all.
That being said, Daniel Day-Lewis’s eerie evocation of our sixteenth president is the performance of the year, and I remain impressed that this film, while a touch too Spielberg-y in its opening and closing moments, nonetheless forewent the traditional biopic route and embraced a narrowcast, nineteenth-century CSPAN aesthetic instead.
7. Oslo, August 31st: “Look at my life. I’m 34 years old. I’ve got nothing. I don’t want to start from scratch.” A movie that made it here via Netflix, Oslo, August 31st is a well-observed day in the life of a recovering heroin addict (Anders Danielsen Lie), as he returns to his old haunts and tries to make peace with the shambles he feels he’s made of his existence.
Looking desperately for a way to reconnect to the world at large, or at least to transcend his current despair, Anders has a series of conversations with former friends and enemies, during which he discovers that even those who didn’t miss the train of life going by are, by and large, just going through the motions. Everything here feels uncomfortably true, from Anders’ visit to see a former partner in crime, now a married academic, to his self-defeating job interview, to his plaintive calls to the woman who disappeared, to his falling back into old habits. A quietly devastating film.
8. Moonrise Kingdom: “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.” True, this Wes Anderson film could not be any more Wes Anderson-y — I’m looking at you, Bob Balaban the omniscient narrator — so if that’s a problem for you, I wouldn’t expect Moonrise to change your opinion of the man’s work.
As with the less-successful Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited, Anderson is ensconced in his usual sandbox. Nonetheless, this story of two tweenagers enjoying a summer love, and the problems this causes for all the conflicted and compromised adults around them, ranks up there with Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums (#46), and The Fantastic Mr. Fox among Anderson’s best. It’s also a beautifully shot film, redolent of the sun-drenched afternoons of years gone by.
9. Cabin in the Woods: “Cleanse them. Cleanse the world of their ignorance and sin. Bathe them in the crimson of – Am I on speakerphone?” When it comes to Joss Whedon, I’m not at all what you’d call a browncoat. I liked Firefly and Serenity alright, but much prefer Farscape when it comes to Blake’s 7 knockoffs, and neither Buffy nor Angel spoke to me like it speaks to many. (The West Wing is another show I never understood all the love for, but I digress.)
At any rate, consider me as surprised as anyone that both of Whedon’s 2012 films ended up in this year’s top ten. Sure, this outside-the-box take on teen slasher tropes is a gimmick movie, and one that’s more wry than it ever is frightening. Still, at least the first time around, what a ride Cabin turned out to be — It’s rare to watch a third act of a film feeling like just about anything could happen. I just wish we’d seen more of “Kevin.” (see pic above)
10. Killing Them Softly: “This guy wants to tell me we’re living in a community? Don’t make me laugh. I’m living in America, and in America you’re on your own. America’s not a country. It’s just a business. Now f**kin’ pay me.” This is another movie that racked up a lot of negativity for some reason, presumably due to it being mis-marketed as an action/gangster film.
Since I knew going in that this was Andrew Dominik’s follow-up to the strange and languid Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I got about what I expected – a dark character piece that almost-but-not-quite-successfully tries to fuse Cogan’s Trade with a commentary on the Iraq War, the financial crisis, and general disillusionment in the Age of Obama. Personally, I liked spending time with these guys — Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn’s twin screw-ups, Richard Jenkins’ officious middleman, Gandolfini’s broken assassin. And, while the political angle didn’t quite gel, I still admired what Dominik tried to do here.
11. Amour: “Things will go on, and then one day it will all be over.” Not exactly the best time you’ll have in a theater this year — Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days comes to mind as a similarly unrelenting two hours at the movies. Still, Michael Haneke’s unflinching study of an elderly couple staring dementia and death in the face has a grim power to it, as well as two mesmerizing performances by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva.
I can assure you, I don’t plan to sit through this film again any time soon. Still, Amour puts the lie to so many other depictions of love you see at the movies, and I left E Street afterwards both somewhat shaken by it and thinking it was time to carpe some diem (or as the kids say, YOLO) right now, before it’s too late.
12. The Grey: “Once more into the fray. Into the last good fight I’ll ever know. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day.” And if old age doesn’t get ya, there’s always wolves, y’know? First, let me be clear: This movie is as wrong about wolves as another film I’ll get to in a bit is wrong about torture. All the Canis lupus stuff in here is abject nonsense.
But, to me, the wolves were really just the dispatching agents in this often-gripping existential drama. The real story of The Grey isn’t about wolves at all. It’s about Liam Neeson and his pack of tough-guy survivors coming to grips not just with their looming mortality, but with the reasons they wanted to live in the first place. In the Alaska wilderness, as in Paris or anywhere else, nobody gets out alive.
13. The Deep Blue Sea: “Beware of passion, Hester. It always leads to something ugly.” Just as past years have seen dueling underwater monster movies (Leviathan/Deepstar Six), asteroid disaster flicks (Armageddon/Deep Impact), and Truman Capote bios (Capote/Infamous) and 2013 will have two separate attacks on 1600 Penn (Olympus Has Fallen/White House Down), 2012 featured three quite good movies about women forsaking their kind, boring husbands for passionate, simpleton lovers, and subsequently running into a social buzzsaw as a result.
All of ‘em made this list, but in the end The Deep Blue Sea, Terence Davies’ lush evocation of postwar England, garners the top spot among them. Along with memorable turns by Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston, occasionally dream-like scenes like Londoners awaiting the Blitz in the subway tunnels or singing along to “You Belong to Me” have stuck in my memory this year.
14. Argo: “Brace yourself; it’s like talking to those two old f**ks from The Muppets.” Ben Affleck’s well-made chronicle of a successful CIA operation along the fringes of the Iran hostage crisis often felt like transparent Oscar bait to me. The Hollywood stuff felt it like needed to be more fleshed out and, since the history is well-known, the many attempts to ratchet up the suspense in the third act just didn’t work for me personally. (YMMV.)
Still, I was impressed by how well-balanced Argo came out — From its opening storyboard sequence, the movie doesn’t mince words about our many misadventures in Iran, making what could have been simply a depressing jingoistic exercise into a more thoughtful story of diplomatic blowback. Overall, I prefer Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone and The Town — Still, as a director, he’s now 3-for-3.
15. Celeste and Jesse Forever: “You know what your problem is? Contempt before investigation. You think you’re smarter than everybody else.” Full disclosure: Writer-star Rashida Jones was an acquaintance of mine in college, so I went in to Celeste and Jesse hoping more than usual that I would like it. Nonetheless, after a rough 10-15 minutes at the outset, this well-observed and wistful after-the-rom-com, about the break-up of a longtime couple, gradually gets to work on you.
It seemed like bit players like Elijah Wood (as Rashida’s gay boss/BFF) needed more to do, and Chris Messina has played the surprisingly wise frat-bro so many times by now that I can’t really take him seriously anymore. But otherwise, Celeste and Jesse earns it emotional beats and, by the time the final reel rolled, I felt quite invested in it.
16. Cloud Atlas: “Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”
Here’s yet another 2012 film where it feels like critics just began to pile on mercilessly at a certain point. The Wachowskis and Tom Twyker’s adaptation of David Mitchell’s high-brow sci-fi novel doesn’t quite gel, and some of the plotlines — Ben Whishaw’s amanuensis, Tom Hanks after the Fall — were more interesting than others, most notably Jim Sturgess in the South Pacific and Jim Broadbent’s nursing home jailbreak. (Also, no nice way to put this, but much like Keira Knightley, Halle Berry is an A-list actress who’s never all that good.)
But even if it doesn’t live up to its ambition, Atlas is still an impressive and intellectually (if not emotionally) engaging feat. Granted, it wasn’t subtle about its message, but the degree of difficulty here should count for something. At least Atlas was reaching for something totally new — and every so often, especially during the occasional montage bringing together the six tales, you can catch a glimpse of it.
17. Take This Waltz: “Life has a gap in it… It just does. You don’t go crazy trying to fill it.” The second of this year’s adulterous love triangles — this one set to one of Leonard Cohen’s many classics and The Buggles — Sarah Polley’s follow-up to Away From Her has a low-key, natural, and lived-in feel that’s hard to fake.
True, Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen felt a little too baby-talk-schmoopy in their scenes together, and Luke Kirby’s handsome pedicabbie always just seemed like a self-absorbed creepshow to me. But one of the strengths of this film is how all the characters here seem like three-dimensional human beings, with all the needs, vulnerabilities, and suspect decision-making attending.
18. Rust and Bone: “We’ll continue…but not like animals.” Speaking of follow-ups, Jacques Audiard’s second film after A Prophet felt like the movie the much-hyped Silver Linings Playbook wanted to be. This rough-and-tumble romance between a street fighter (Matthias Schoenaerts) and a damaged whale instructor (Marion Cotillard) after a terrible accident is never as good as A Prophet, and it goes seriously off-the-rails in its third act, around the time Cotillard tattoos her leg-stumps “gauche” and “droit.” But up until then, Rust and Bone manages to sidestep a surprising number of movie-of-the-week pitfalls and keep its gutter-punch rawness intact.
19. Seven Psychopaths: “No, it doesn’t! There’ll be one guy left with one eye. How’s the last blind guy gonna take out the eye of the last guy left?” I didn’t like In Bruges as much as a lot of people, and occasionally this new film by playwright Martin McDonagh suffers from the same outrageousness-for-its-own-sake. (Case in point: the scene where Woody Harrelson interrogates Gabourey Sidibe.)
Still, I kinda liked how this increasingly loopy and laconic film seemed to realize it would be more fun just to hang around with its gaggle of likable actors (Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Colin Ferrell, Tom Waits, Zeljko Ivanek, Harrelson) for awhile and just dropped the plot. I only wish McDonagh had found more to do with Olga Kurylenko and especially Abbie Cornish, who are (literally and figuratively) wasted here.
20. Anna Karenina: “Is this about my wife? My wife is beyond reproach. She is, after all, my wife.” Like Killing Them Softly and Cloud Atlas, Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Anna Karenina is a film I admired for its ambition, even if the conceit — here, that all of the Russian society scenes take place on a nineteenth century stage — doesn’t end up quite working. And even if there’s some of the same unnecessary grandstanding that marred Atonement‘s Dunkirk scene (intricate shots are fun and all, but they should serve the story), this is quite a beautiful picture.
While Keira Knightley unfortunately doesn’t make much of an impression in the title role, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson of Kick-Ass and Savages just seems out of his element as Vronsky, Jude Law brings pathos to a character that could’ve just seemed like the villain, and there are a number of enjoyable turns in the margins of this story, from Domhnall Gleeson (son of Brendan) covering the sociopolitical elements of the book to Matthew MacFadyen — who seemingly jumped right into late-Alec Baldwin mode right after his stint as Mr. Darcy in 2005 — as the oafish Oblonsky.
21. Skyfall: “Do you see what comes of all this running around, Mr. Bond? All this jumping and fighting, it’s exhausting!” Speaking of beautiful films, Daniel Craig’s third outing (and Sam Mendes’ first) as 007 doesn’t match the heights of Casino Royale, but it’s looks like the billion dollars it made, and it’s a far sight better than the sophomore misstep of Quantum of Solace. (It also features an instant classic Bond song in Adele’s title track.)
My biggest problem with Skyfall, and it’s a hard one to overlook, is that, in a transparent effort to capture some of that Dark Knight cachet, they effectively turned James Bond into Batman here. So Bond is now a rich orphan who grew up in Scotland’s version of Wayne Manor? Erm, ok. It doesn’t help matters that Javier Bardem’s ridiculous villain — The Joker + gay panic, basically — has exactly the same goofy plan as the Clown Prince of Crime did. (The next Big Bad to get captured on purpose, apparently? Gary Mitchell Garth Khan Gruber.)
But this is a Bond movie, so set your low expectations accordingly. Even if it feels like we’re already approaching Moonraker or Octopussy territory only three movies into the Craig era, this is still among the better outings in this long and storied franchise.
22. Django Unchained: “Gentlemen, you had my curiosity. But now you have my attention.” From the opening moments of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, it’s clear this film is going to be a bit of a mess. (Our title card reads: “1858. Two Years Before the Civil War.” Uh…that’s three years before the war, Quentin.) And, to be honest, I liked this movie better when it was called Inglourious Basterds — Here, we have basically the same experience, with QT once again righting history’s wrongs with a blood-spattered vengeance.
I actually liked that Tarantino decided to put the evils of American slavery front and center in this film, since it’s an ugly underside of our history that, cinematically, has been pretty much buried. (One admirable exception to prove the rule: CSA.) The funniest scene in the movie is probably QT riffing off both Blazing Saddles and Birth of a Nation with his Klansmen complaining about their eyeholes.
Nonetheless, I’m not sure why, given all the very real horrors of slavery QT often draws from, we ended up with the exceedingly fake Mandingo Fighting as a centerpiece of this story, other than it was in some blaxsploitation films QT used to enjoy. With that in mind, and more egregiously, a good hour of this movie makes absolutely no sense: Why wouldn’t Schultz and Django just be like, “I’m a lonely German guy who will pay top-dollar for a slave that speaks German?” (Tarantino tries to address that particular question here. I don’t think it works.)
Still, however sloppy and self-indulgent, Django was a decently enjoyable movie for most of its run. It would be nice, tho’, to see Tarantino take a stab at another Jackie Brown-style project at some point. As it is, it feels like he’s continuing to disappear up his own ass.
23. Holy Motors: “Weird! Weird! Weird!” I’m usually not one to end a movie once I’ve started it, but I turned off David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, via OnDemand, well before the end. (I hear Paul Giamatti shows up at some point.) Far more entertaining — and much, much stranger — was Leo Carax’s bizarro stab at the wandering limousine genre this year.
As with Django, it seemed like there was a lot of name-dropping and inside baseball, of the cinema history variety, going on in Holy Motors, which is behavior I find irritating a lot of the time. But I found Denis Lavant’s mad misadventures here compulsively watchable, even if we passed basic coherence two or three lefts ago.
24. The Woman in Black: “I believe even the most rational of minds can play tricks in the dark.” This wasn’t a Cabin in the Woods-style reinvention of horror tropes by any means. That being said, I quite enjoyed this played-straight Hammer films throwback, with Daniel Radcliffe unwisely investigating ghostly happenings at a mansion along the moors.
Rather than relying solely on blood, guts, and jump cuts, The Woman In Black resurrects classic cinema techniques and all the old standbys of this particular genre — rocking chairs, Victorian dolls, creepy children and whatnot — to put the audience ill at ease for ninety minutes. In sum, a slight but effective scare machine.
25. Dredd: “In case you have forgotten, this block operates under the same rules as the rest of the city. Ma-Ma is not the law… I am the law.” As with every year, a lot of films could have gone in this final spot on the list — Bernie, Life of Pi, Savages, Marley, ParaNorman. But I’m giving it to Pete Travis and Alex Garland’s Dredd, because it’s a good example of what went right at the movies in 2012.
There are better movies than Dredd this and every year, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better Dredd movie. Travis and Garland took what was distinctive about this character – give or take his Watchmen-like satire of American superheroes — and transported an issue of the comic to the screen, no more, no less. Extra points for a likable cast (Olivia Thirlby, Wood Harris, Lena Headey) and for Karl Urban — unlike Stallone back in the day — never taking off the helmet.
Prometheus: Pretty much everything that needs to be said about the dumb-as-dirt disaster this turned out to be has been encapsulated by the Red Letter Media guys. Whhhhyyyyyy? Why does a movie with such a terrible script ever get greenlit? Why does Damon Lindelof, after putting out an idiotic film like this, continue to get work in Hollywood?
It’s sad, since even notwithstanding the greatness of Alien and Aliens (and I’d submit that Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection are more admirable failures than this film), there are elements of a much better movie here — most notably Michael Fassbender’s T.E. Lawrence-loving android and the sheer look of the picture. Otherwise, however, this was just a terrible, nonsensical movie, and I ended up just feeling embarrassed for Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, and everyone else involved. For shame.
Silver Linings Playbook: I like David O’Russell. I like Jennifer Lawrence. I have no issues with Bradley Cooper. But, Lordy, I hated this film, and I just can’t figure out where all the hype is coming from. Granted, SLP falls into a very specific genre of movie I despise, whereby some severely damaged dude is suddenly saved from loneliness, madness, and/or general despair by a perfectly unique and perfect girl for him. (See also: Sideways, Punch-Drunk-Love, and all the other many iterations of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.) Honestly, all of you who keep making this same movie, go see Amour or something.
But even notwithstanding that sort of ubiquitous rom-comminess, SLP just seemed really by-the-numbers to me. The only variation on the same-old stale tale, as far as I could tell, is that this time there’s a really important game AND a really important dance competition at the end. And while Jacki Weaver does some memorable things as Bradley Cooper’s long-suffering mom, I didn’t take DeNiro seriously here at all. Just a bad movie.
Zero Dark Thirty: As it happened, I kinda hated Zero Dark Thirty too, but at least here I get where the positive reaction is coming from. To be honest, I expected going in that I’d leave ZD30 conflicted — that it would be a good movie undone by its egregious lies about torture. As it turned out, this is not even a good movie — it’s strongest pleasure consists of watching quality character actors — Mark Strong, James Gandolfini, Stephen Dillane – in brief turns as suits. (Tom Donilon is English?)
For one, ZD30 is far too blatant in its CIA embeddedness. Every CIA character here is a well-meaning tortured soul, heavy-hearted with the burden of saving the world. There’s no mention of, say, Tora Bora. The CIA’s egregious, world-historical fuck-ups, like arguing there were WMD in Iraq, are brought up only in passing. The agency’s outright crimes, like, say, waterboarding a guy 180 times to obtain a false positive, aren’t even mentioned. Watching Type-A go-getter Jessica Chastain and her ponytail flounce around for America for two and a half hours, you’d have no idea that her real-life counterpart and her ilk have been found guilty of, among other things, torturing and sodomizing an innocent man.
Admittedly, it could be because this pro-torture distortion of the history put me in an increasingly foul mood. Still, even as a movie Zero Dark Thirty has serious problems. As one of Chastain’s co-workers, poor Jennifer Ehle has to offer up some of the most ridiculous telegraphs of her impending death since Lt. Deadduck in Hot Shots. And I found the last forty minutes or so of the film, which depicts the actual raid on bin Laden’s compound in excruciating detail, to be a total snooze.
We know what’s going to happen here. And since we’re already in Fantasyland as far as the efficacy of torture goes, why not add sharks or tigers or man-eating bears to this war pr0n raid on OBL’s Afghan fortress? Or how about a badass female #2 (Maggie Q? Olga Kurylenko?) to fight Chastain, martial-arts style, over a deep chasm or conveyor belt or something? Might as well, since we’re already far afield from anything approaching the Real World. In sum, this film is sheer propaganda, and ham-handed agitprop at that.
The Master: Going into this film, I was rooting for Paul Thomas Anderson to build on the promise of the first hour of There Will Be Blood. Unfortunately, The Master is a pretentious bore, and not nearly as deep as it thinks it is. Get past all the Kubrickian grand-standing — Kubrick has clearly replaced Scorsese and Altman as PTA’s object of homage these days — and Anderson has made another variation of the same movie he’s always made, from Hard Eight to Boogie Nights to Magnolia to TWBB: People create fake families for themselves, look for validation in those families, and are ultimately let down by those families. It wasn’t a very interesting point three movies ago.
Poor Joaquin Phoenix sweats Method blood to give his character some resonance, and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams have their (brief) moments of note — To his credit, PTA always does seem generous with his actors. But none of them can do anything with what they’ve been given. The Master, unfortunately, is yet another solid case of the Emperor’s New Clothes.
MOST UNFAIRLY MALIGNED:
John Carter: Peter Jackson’s first installment of The Hobbit could go here, as could Cloud Atlas. But, in the end, it seems like no movie got a tougher racket this year than Andrew Stanton’s estimable adaptation of John Carter. True, I watched this on Netflix rather than in the theater, which tends to be a more forgiving experience. But still, this film was a well-made, decently intelligent, and reasonably faithful and engaging adaptation of its source.
It wasn’t my favorite movie of the year or anything — it wasn’t even in my top 25, as we just saw — but it was totally fine for what it was. I have no clue why everyone pounced on this movie like they did. But, as with all the detest in some circles for An Unexpected Journey, it speaks poorly of what the Internet has done to movies in some ways. There’s a rush-to-judgment and piling-on effect that, at least in this case, wasn’t merited at all.
Coriolanus: Not sure if this would have broken the 2011 list last year or not. Still, Ralph Fiennes’ bloody cover-version of a relatively unknown Shakespearean history, modernized by way of CNN and Afghanistan, has a lot to recommend for it. Along with Fiennes himself, Coriolanus features fine performances from James Nesbitt, Jessica Chastain, Gerard Butler and especially Vanessa Redgrave (as the general’s scheming mother) and Brian Cox (as the most hail-fellow-well-met of Senators). Definitely worth a Netflix.
Margaret: Whether you want to call it a holdover from 2011 (when it came out) or from the 2005 list (when it was filmed), Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret is also worth catching up with sometime. Here, Anna Paquin — better than I’ve ever seen her — is a self-absorbed NYC teenager forced to come to terms with the ramifications of a terrible bus accident she helped to precipitate. Along for the three-hour ride through this distinctively New York tale are Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick, J. Smith-Cameron, Jean Reno, Allison Janney, Olivia Thirlby, Kieran Culkin, and Rosemarie DeWitt. (FWIW, the provenance of the film’s name is also the best tell for what it’s ultimately about.) Well worth seeing.
Worth Netflixing: 21 Jump Street, Ai Weiwei Never Sorry, The Amazing Spiderman, Bernie, The Bourne Legacy, Detachment, Haywire, The Hunger Games, The Life of Pi, Les Miserables, Magic Mike, Marley, Men in Black III, ParaNorman, The Raid: Redemption, Savages, The Sessions, Snabba Cash, Ted, To Rome With Love
Don’t Bother: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Casa de mi Padre, Chronicle, Compliance, Cosmopolis, Dark Shadows, Flight, The Hunter, Hyde Park on Hudson, Jeff Who Lives at Home, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Killer Joe, Lawless, The Loneliest Planet, Lockout, Rampart, Red Hook Summer, Safe House,Snow White and the Huntsman, Total Recall
Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln; Liam Neeson, The Grey; Dennis Lavant, Holy Motors; Anders Danielsen Lie, Oslo, August 31st; Jean-Louis Trintignant, Amour
Best Actress: Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea; Emmanuelle Riva, Amour; Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone; Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Best Supporting Actor: Ben Whishaw, Cloud Atlas; Ben Mendelsohn, Killing Them Softly; Jude Law, Anna Karenina; Clarke Peters, Red Hook Summer
Best Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables; Samantha Barks, Les Miserables; Frances McDormand, Moonrise Kingdom
Unseen: 2 Days in New York, Act of Valor, Alex Cross, American Reunion, Arbitrage, Battleship, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Brave, Butter, The Campaign, The Cold Light of Day, Contraband, Deadfall, The Devil Inside, The Dictator, Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, End of Watch, The Five Year Engagement, For a Good Time Call…, Friends with Kids, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, The Guilt Trip, Hitchcock, Hope Springs, How to Survive a Plague, The Impossible, The Intouchables, Jack Reacher, Joyful Noise, Not Fade Away, One for the Money, Man on a Ledge, The Man With the Iron Fists, Mirror Mirror, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, On the Road, Parental Guidance, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Pirates: Band of Misfits, Premium Rush, Project X, The Raven, Red Dawn, Red Tails, Robot and Frank, Rock of Ages, Safe, Safety Not Guaranteed, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, The Secret World of Arietty, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Step Up: Revolution, Taken 2, This is 40, The Three Stooges, Tim & Eric Billion Dollar Movie, This Means War, Trouble With The Curve, Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part II, The Watch, W/E, The Words, Wrath of the Titans
2013: 2 Guns, 42, 47 Ronin, 300: Rise of an Empire, About Time, After Earth, All is Lost, Anchorman: The Legend Continues, The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, As I Lay Dying, August: Osage County, Before Midnight, Better Living Through Chemistry, The Black Marks, The Bling Ring, Broken City, Bullet to the Head, The Butler, Byzantium, Captain Phillips, Carrie, Chavez, Closed Circuit, Closer to the Moon, The Colony, The Company You Keep, The Congress, The Counselor, The Dallas Buyers Club, Dead Man Down, Devil’s Knot, Diana, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: His & Hers, Dom Hemingway, Don Jon’s Addiction, The Double, Elysium, Ender’s Game, The Europa Report, Evil Dead, Fading Gigolo, Fast Six, Filth, Foxcatcher, The Frozen Ground, Gambit, Gangster Squad, Girl Most Likely, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, Gods Behaving Badly, A Good Day to Die Hard, The Grandmaster, Grand Piano, Gravity, Great Expectations, The Great Gatsby, The Hangover Part III, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, The Heat, Her, Homefront, Horns, How I Live Now, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Hummingbird, I, Frankenstein, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Inside Llewellyn Davis, Iron Man 3, Jack the Giant Slayer, Jack Ryan, Kick-Ass 2, The Last Stand, The Lone Ranger, Lovelace, Mama, Man of Steel, Monster’s University, Monuments Men, Movie 43, Oblivion, Oldboy, Olympus Has Fallen, Only God Forgives, Oz the Great and Powerful, Pacific Rim, Pain and Gain, Parker, The Place Beyond the Pines, Red 2, Riddick, R.I.P.D., Side Effects, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Stoker, This is the End, Thor: The Dark World, The Tomb, To the Wonder, Trance, Twelve Years a Slave, Upstream Color, Warm Bodies, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Wolverine, The World’s End, World War Z, and
You have nice manners for a thief and a liar…
Ten days into the new year, it’s past time to knock out GitM’s best-of-2011 list. To be honest, last year’s movie crop was somewhat underwhelming, and as always, there are a few more gaps I’d love to have plugged first — Cedar Rapids, Margin Call, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Take Shelter, Warrior — but, for what I saw last year, here’s the best of ‘em…
Most Disappointing: Had I more faith in Zack Snyder beforehand, this would go to his thoroughly terrible Sucker Punch, and, alas, the unfortunately botched Green Lantern came close to taking this spot as well. In the end, though, this goes to Jon Favreau’s misfire Cowboys and Aliens. Cowboys! Aliens! Daniel Craig! Harrison Ford! And yet, this one came out duller than dirt.
Worth Netflixing: The Adjustment Bureau, Beginners, The Conspirator, A Dangerous Method, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 2, Hugo, The Ides of March, J. Edgar, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Tree of Life, The Trip, Win Win
Best Actor: Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; George Clooney, The Descendants; Michael Fassbender, Shame
Best Actress: Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Charlize Theron, Young Adult; Mia Wasikowska, Jane Eyre
Best Supporting Actor: Uggie, The Artist; Christopher Plummer, Beginners, Eric Bana, Hanna; Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Best Supporting Actress: Shailene Woodley, The Descendants; Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life, Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids, Cate Blanchett, Hanna
Unseen: 30 Minutes or Less, Albert Nobbs, Anonymous, Another Earth, Apollo 18, Arthur, Arthur Christmas, Atlas Shrugged, A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas, Bad Teacher, Barney’s Version, Beastly, The Beaver, Bellflower, Biutiful, Carnage, Cars 2, Cedar Rapids, The Change-Up, Colombiana, Conan the Barbarian, Coriolanus, The Darkest Hour, The Debt, The Devil’s Double, The Dilemma, Dolphin Tale, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Dream House, Drive Angry, Dylan Dog: Dead of Night, Everything Must Go, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Fast Five, Footloose, Fright Night, The Guard, The Hangover Pt 2, Happy Feet 2,The Help, Hesher, Horrible Bosses, I Am Number Four, Immortals, Incendies, In the Land of Blood and Honey, In Time, The Iron Lady, I Saw the Devil, Jack and Jill, Killer Elite, Kung Fu Panda 2, Larry Crowne, The Last Circus, Like Crazy, The Lincoln Lawyer, Margaret, Margin Call, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Mechanic, Melancholia, Moneyball, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, My Week with Marilyn, New Year’s Eve, Our Idiot Brother, Paranormal Activity 3, Pariah, Paul, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Priest, Puss in Boots, Rango, Real Steel, Red State, Rio, The Rum Diary, Sanctum, Scream 4, Sleeping Beauty, The Smurfs, Something Borrowed, Straw Dogs, Take Me Home Tonight, Take Shelter, The Thing, The Three Musketeers, Tower Heist, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Twilight: Breaking Dawn, The Way Back, Warrior, We Bought a Zoo, We Need to Talk about Kevin, Winnie the Pooh, Your Highness, Zookeeper
Less adventurous and more satisfying in its storytelling than Soderbergh’s last major film, 2009′s The Informant!, Contagion basically applies the Traffic technique of several separate, loosely interweaving tales told around the globe (albeit this time with a more subdued color palette) to spin a harrowing chronicle of a possible pandemic. The main reason the film works so well is because Contagion is actually not the end-of-times pestilence thriller the (spoilerish) trailers make it out to be. Rather, and much like David Fincher’s Zodiac, it’s mainly a smart, well-told procedural, and it’s the grounded, matter-of-factness of Contagion that ultimately makes it so frightening.
Contagion telegraphs its unsentimental, take-no-prisoners approach to the story in the first five minutes, when, after returning home to Minneapolis from a business trip to Macau (and a brief layover in Chicago), Gwyneth Paltrow starts having trouble breathing and [minor spoiler] promptly drops dead. Soon, her family (including a low-key, earnest Matt Damon) are in quarantine, and the CDC Director in Atlanta (Lawrence Fishburne) has dispatched an epidemiologist (Kate Winslet) to coordinate with local officials on plans for a possible outbreak. (FWIW, the Minnesota Department of Health is not amused with the film.) But, unfortunately for the world, the barn door is already open: This new MERS-1 virus — part-bat, part-pig — has already been unleashed, and not just in Minneapolis, but in cities all over. (Turns out, Oceans 14 in Macau was a terrible idea.)
As the situation worsens around the world, we start following more individuals on the frontlines in various locales: A CDC researcher (Jennifer Ehle) working to find a cure for this new plague. An academic biologist (Elliot Gould) trying to isolate the virus in San Francisco. A WHO official (Marion Cotillard) and Chinese doctor (Chin Han) looking to discover who was Patient Zero in Macau. Two homeland security suits (Brian Cranston and Enrico Colatoni) sent to determine if this is the work of the terr’ists. A blogger (Jude Law) firmly convinced of government conspiracies and homeopathic wonders. And all the while, even as secrets pass from person to person and fear mutates into panic, the virus continues to spread. Ain’t no Patrick Dempsey monkey gonna solve this one, I’m afraid.
There’re plenty of stars and recognizable faces flitting about this story — some have more to do than others. (The Cotillard subplot seemed a bit unnecessary to me, to be honest, and the Jude Law one is basically just an extended screw-you to the vaccines-cause-autism crowd.) But, as I said, Contagion‘s killer app is its versimilitude. The movie never talks down to its audience, or has its scientists repeating expository information over and over again. (For example, it explains once what a “R-naught” is and assumes you can keep up from there.) It doesn’t have scientists (or Matt Damon, for that matter) running around trying to catch infected monkeys with helicopters — The excitement mostly comes from watching scientists and bureaucrats do their job well. And I liked the fact that, even though no one is safe here, Contagion doesn’t feature some kind of sci-fi-ish, humanity-obliterating virus. It’s a nasty bug with, iirc, a 25% fatality rate — In other words, a more virulent version of the 1918 influenza epidemic — making the story that much more plausible, and scary.
Speaking of scary, I should say that, back in the real world, I’m a pretty sanguine sort about germs, and so I found Contagion more unsettling than anything else. But if you’re at all of the germophobe persuasion, hoo boy — You’re going to have a tough time at this one. From infecteds hacking up a lung on a public bus, to waiters wiping down bar glasses with a dirty rag, to people endlessly and unconsciously touching rails, bannisters, buttons, and each other, Soderbergh does a great job here of intimating that human beings inadvertently leave a slime trail of germy death wherever we go — not the least in movie theaters, exactly like the one you’re sitting in. Point being, [cough, cough], OCD-ish folks will probably want to Netflix this one, instead.
Hello all. So, yes, it’s been quiet again, and the movie reviews I’m behind on are piling up (I’m three back now, going on five.) In the excuse department, work has been even busier than usual, of late, and, obviously, the political scene has been depressing. So there’s that.
Anyway, in partial recompense, here’s my first entry of a fun meme I saw at Cryptonaut-in-Exile a few weeks ago: “100 Things I Love About My Favorite Movies. The rest will follow in a leisurely fashion at some future point.
Here’s the rules: “Rather than posting your 100 favorite films (which has been done and overdone), you simply post your favorite things about movies…[I]nstead of obsessing over whether the films you put on a list are ‘objectively good enough’ to put on said list, you simply jot down 100 moments/lines/visuals that have made a lasting impression on you or sneak their way into running gags between you and your friends.“
And, so, without further ado and in no particular order:
In the trailer bin of late:
“When you reach the point where you’re, like, ‘if I have to get into a van to do another scout I’m just going to shoot myself,’ it’s time to let somebody else who’s still excited about getting in the van, get in the van.‘”
Director Steven Soderbergh says he’s retiring after his next two films, Liberace (with Michael Douglas) and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (with George Clooney.) “[S]o it’s just time. For the last three years, I’ve been turning down everything that comes my way, so you’re not going to have Steven Soderbergh to kick around anymore.” That’s too bad…but we’ll see. This sounds to me like one of those Anthony Hopkins retirements.
[Ugh. It seems corporate ne'er-do-wells at Archer Daniels Midland conspired to erase this whole review just as I pressed publish. Here we go again...]
Give Steven Soderbergh credit: He’s astonishingly prolific — This is his second film of the year, after The Girlfriend Experience. He’s as at home in the arthouse (Sex, Lies, & Videotape; Kafka) as he is in the multiplex (Oceans 11, 12, 13.) He’s clearly animated by an interest in politics and a strong social conscience (Traffic, K Street, Erin Brockovich, Che 1 & 2.) When he’s on, he’s really on. (The Limey, Out of Sight.) And he’s not afraid to take stylistic risks to see what comes of them. (Solaris, Full Frontal, Bubble.)
The Informant!, a strange embellishment on the real-life story of whistleblower Mark Whitacre and the ADM scandals, shares many of these Soderberghian qualities. A merging of sorts of his indie and mainstream bodies of work, The Informant! also isn’t afraid to go out on a limb and try new things. But alas, partly because of those risks, the film doesn’t really hang together, and feels more like an experiment than an entertainment. It’s not a bad movie by any means, but it sadly never really lives up to the Coenesque promise of that exclamation mark in the title. I’d say, Netflix it.
On the interesting side, Soderbergh has dolloped everything in this movie with a sickly, buttery orange-yellow sheen, as if this entire ADM-run universe has been dipped and slathered in high-fructose corn syrup. But other stylistic ventures go less well. Matt Damon’s Whitacre is saddled with an in-head voiceover — we hear what he’s thinking — that pays considerable dividends in the final act, but often results in a lot of pointless meandering on the way there. (Like all of us, Whitacre’s mind tends to wander, and he tends to go about porsches, birds, and sundry other randomness at various times.) And, in the Big Mistake department, Soderbergh has farmed out the score to 70′s maestro Marvin Hamlisch, and the incessantly perky, bells-and-horns retro sound he’s come up with feels both tonally off and is consistently distracting. It is, in a word, corny.
The thing is, it’s not entirely clear The Informant! even needed all this flair. As the film begins, Mark Whitacre (Damon) rhapsodizes to his son about the many splendiferous virtues of corn — it’s in everything, it binds us, surrounds us, permeates us. And putting it there is ADM, “Supermarket to the World,” where Whitacre works as a biochemist and the youngest vice-president in the company’s history. Life is good, profits are made, the corn flows. But the view from the top gets shaken up a bit when some Japanese competitors of ADM ostensibly try to extort the company using a lysine-eating virus. And when a friendly FBI agent (Scott Bakula) arrives on the scene to investigate this corporate crime, Whitacre — propelled by his wife (Melanie Lynskey of Heavenly Creatures) into a burst of conscience — furtively tells him of even more sordid goings-on in the ADM empire: price-fixing.
Soon, with Whitacre as their Inside Man, the FBI are on the case, trying to unravel this criminal corporate conspiracy and get ADM’s Masters of the Universe to compromise themselves on tape. One big problem, tho’: Whitacre. To their dismay, the Feds soon discover that their mole — who learned everything he needed to know about espionage from Michael Crichton movies — is not only a risky asset, but a compulsive liar, one that’s been keeping some very big cards close to the vest. Sometimes, it’s not even clear if that boy is right in the head.
To play Whitacre, Matt Damon has gone through a pretty substantial physical transformation here. He’s gained thirty pounds of paunch and topped it off with a Ned Flanders moustache and a bad Shatner hairpiece. (Not that I’d advocate that he — or anybody — get on the Christian Bale method-actor binge-and-purge bandwagon, but he probably should’ve done something similar to make Robert DeNiro’s The Good Shepherd even remotely plausible.) Even notwithstanding the corn-fed “young John Bolton” look he’s taken on, however, this part suits Damon. His inherent likability dovetails nicely with the congenial aw-shucks Midwestern blandness that Whitacre uses both as a shield and a key weapon in his arsenal of misdirection.
Damon aside, one of the minor pleasures of The Informant! is getting to see a bevy of character actors play against type. (The exception being Bakula, who once again is the still, calm center of the world. Then again, few do fundamentally decent as well as Quantum Leap‘s Sam Beckett.) Joel McHale of Talk Soup — soon, no doubt, to be Joel McHale of Community — is both deadly serious and believably earnest as Bakula’s partner. The Kurgan, a.k.a. Clancy Brown, exudes a ruthless professional mien as ADM’s top corporate lawyer — It’s his intelligence, rather than his bulk, that is sinister and frightening this time. Funnyman Patton Oswalt shows up in the later-going as an FBI accountant and plays it laudably straight and dull. And, perhaps most surprising, Buster Bluth (Tony Hale) also shows up in the third act and manages to come off as hypercompetent. (No small feat — every time he appeared on screen, my brain still went “Hey brother!“)
This, I think, speaks to yet another of Soderbergh’s strengths as a director — he’s clearly good with actors, and gives them the freedom to take the same types of risks that he does. The Informant! never really coheres, true, but I’d much rather see a talented director like Soderbergh continue to stretch himself and experiment, rather than bask in his safe, tried-and-tested wheelhouse. In the end, The Informant! probably counts as an amiable misfire, but those will happen. Stil, so long as Soderbergh keeps making movies, I’ll likely keep watching them…perhaps with some ADM-enhanced popcorn on hand.
Simply put and for better or worse, Steven Soderbergh’s breezy Ocean’s Thirteen is two hours of sheer froth. The film attempts to dial back some of the in-jokes and meta-ness that marked the slack, sprawling Eurotrip of Ocean’s Twelve (which I actually enjoyed the most of the three) and tries to fuse it with the narratively leaner Vegas-centric heist flick that was Ocean’s Eleven (which I enjoyed the least.) The resulting film, like its gaggle of leading men (no women here, basically — Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones are written out in the first five minutes of dialogue), is cool, unruffled, occasionally razzle-dazzle, and, frankly, beginning to show its age. If you liked either of the first two or enjoy watching this collection of actors suavely goof around on camera, Ocean’s Thirteen is good for a mindless, moderately engaging two hours. But, even with Soderbergh’s considerable expertise on display, there’s really not much here. All in all, I was entertained during the film and forgot about it almost immediately afterward.
Ocean’s Thirteen wisely foregoes much of the “let’s get the band back together again” grandstanding of the last film to dive right in to the problem: Avuncular team member and scion of Old Vegas Reuben Tishkoff (Elliot Gould) has been screwed out of his partnership in a towering new casino on the Strip by the Wynn-like impresario Willie Bank (Al Pacino), despite them both being among the rarified elite who once shook Sinatra’s hand. To avenge this slight, Danny Ocean (Clooney) and Rusty Ryan (Pitt) reassemble their team of con-men, scoundrels, n’er-do-wells, roustabouts, and acrobats to take down the new hotel (The Bank) via a “Reverse Big Store,” i.e. break The Bank by having every guest win big on the casino’s (soft) opening night.
Unfortunately for them, Bernie Lootz is not on hand, and The Bank boasts many formidable defenses, from the world’s greatest Artificial Intelligence (“The Greco,” devised by Julian Sands, no less) in the basement looking for gambling anomalies to the well-preserved Ellen Barkin as Pacino’s sexy, take-no-guff majordomo Abigail Sponder. And thus the Ocean team’s foolproof plan instead involves, among other things, myriad disguises, lots of cybernetic and electronic doodads, more than a few random accomplices and compatriots, moles in Mexican factories, simulated natural disasters, making David Paymer’s life a living hell, and multimillion-dollar underground drills, at least one of which may force the team to involve their old nemesis, Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) in the takedown. (Oh, and, to constrain Barkin’s Dragon Lady, they resort to some drug that amounts to a cross between Axe Body Spray and Roofies, which seems like sort of a nasty turn for our otherwise gentlemanly near-dozen to take in their quest for revenge, I thought.)
All of which is to say, the heist makes very little sense, which is part of the problem here. I confess, while I really enjoy a caper flick like Spike Lee’s Inside Man, I get irritated with films that show criminals spending $29 million in order to steal $30 million, even if, as it is here, the motive is revenge. In Ocean’s Twelve, of course, the heist didn’t much matter — it was clearly just a flimsy excuse for Soderbergh & co. to fool around in Amsterdam and act like movie stars on vacation. Everything from Shaobo Qin getting lost in the luggage (“He’s the Modern Man, disconnected, frightened, paranoid for good reason“) to Pitt referencing Miller’s Crossing to Topher Grace “totally phoning in that Dennis Quaid movie” to all the breaking-the-fourth-wall shenanigans with Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis made that clear.
But by focusing so relentlessly on the plot contrivances here in Thirteen, we’re forced to recognize several times over that, frankly, the plot makes very little sense. There’s no danger here at all (with the possible exception of Vincent Cassel’s return as the Night Fox from the last film, but even he turns out to be a dud of an X-factor.) Even in Vegas, that veritable boulevard of broken dreams most of the time, we know this gang of Hollywood high-rollers are all going to come up aces…so why focus so relentlessly on the mechanics of a totally implausible scheme? Given this problem, my favorite moments of Ocean’s Thirteen were the ones where, as in Twelve, the gang just dropped the tired old rules of the caper flick and let their freak flag fly: Casey Affleck and Scott Caan unionizing a Mexican dice factory, Pitt channeling a hippie seismologist, Cheadle liberated, however briefly, from that godawful British accent, Matt Damon (for awhile) in that goofy Soderberghian nose. The nose, and its ilk, play — the actual heist here doesn’t.
In casting news, Al Pacino joins Ellen Barkin and the usual suspects in Stephen Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Thirteen, where he’ll play “Willie Banks, the owner of a high-profile casino and hotel in Las Vegas.” And, fresh from A History of Violence, Viggo Mortensen re-ups with David Cronenberg for Eastern Promises, a project penned by Dirty Pretty Things‘ Steve Knight.
It looks like the rumors are true, and Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Thirteen is a go, with everyone returning (except possibly Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta Jones) to shoot this summer for a 2007 release. Also joining in the fun this go ’round is Ellen Barkin, who will have something to do with Matt Damon’s character.
(It’s a doll revolution.) By way of Quiddity comes this rather creepy trailer for Steven Soderbergh’s recent side project, Bubble, a tale of love and murder amid the plastic baby parts.
Another director update: Steven Soderbergh, late of The Good German, talks Che and Ocean’s 13, and David Fincher, currently completing Zodiac, has picked up, yes, still another serial killer flick, Torso, about the latter days of Elliot Ness as a crimefighter in Cleveland.
For fans of heist flicks and celebrities behaving badly, word is a Soderbergh-directed Ocean’s 13 may be in the works for later this year. I preferred 12 to 11, and would be up for another outing if it continues in the goofy, self-referential vein of the last one.
Scarlett Johanssen joins Chris Nolan’s version of The Prestige as Olivia, the lovely assistant to magicians Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman. And, also in film news, Stephen Soderbergh’s next project after The Good German will be Guerilla, a Che Guevara biopic starring Benjamin Bratt.
Apparently, David Gordon Green’s forthcoming film adaptation of John Kennedy O’Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is no more. This version, co-scripted by Steven Soderbergh and set to star Will Ferrell, Drew Barrymore, Mos Def, Lily Tomlin, and Olympia Dukakis, was axed (according to Green) because “it didn’t cater to a lot of the cliches or conditioning of contemporary American studio sensibilities.”
For his next project, Stephen Soderbergh is apparently looking to direct The Good German, a romantic thriller set in the last days of WWII, starring George Clooney and Cate Blanchett (and based on a 2001 book by Joseph Kanon.) But will Nicky Katt play Hitler?
Happy New Year, everyone. Inauspiciously for 2005, it looks like I’m starting the year a day late on the end-of-2004 movie roundup…but better late than never. As you probably already guessed, this year’s film list will be the first in four years without a Peter Jackson Tolkien adaptation in the #1 spot (although I’m still keeping it warm for The Hobbit in 2008.) Nevertheless, my top choice this year was an easy one, and those of y’all who come ’round here often can probably figure it out.
1) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The one true classic of 2004, Eternal Sunshine has only grown in my estimation since its initial release in March. (David Edelstein’s take on it as one of Harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell‘s remarriage comedies is well worth reading.) A heartfelt examination of love, loss, and memory, Eternal Sunshine was also a strikingly adult take on romance and relationships, the kind you usually don’t get from Hollywood. With great performances from a caged Jim Carrey and an electric Kate Winslet, the film managed to be both an earnest, passionate love story and a wistful paean to those person-shaped holes we all carry in our hearts and memories. Along with Annie Hall and High Fidelity, it goes down as one of my all-time favorite films about the mysteries of love. (Why even bother? We need the eggs.)
2) Garden State. Writer-director Zach Braff’s “anti-Graduate” debut was a small but touching ode to home that, along with reviving Natalie Portman as an actress and offering the best soundtrack of the year, delivered exactly what it promised. A bit hokey at times, sure, but Garden State wore its heart on its sleeve and, for the most part, got away with it. It was a witty and eloquent voyage to the Jersey burbs and a testament to the proposition that as Paul Weller put it, it’s never too late to make a brand new start.
3) The Incredibles. Pixar has been delivering well-constructed eye-popping wonders since Toy Story, and The Incredibles is the best of the lot. I figured it might be awhile before a movie topped Spiderman 2 as a sheer comic book spectacle, but, as it turned out, The Incredibles did it only a few months later. One of the best comic book films ever made, The Incredibles was two hours of unmitigated fanboy fun. I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s probably also the best Fantastic Four film we’re ever going to see.
4) Sideways. Like a fine 1961 Cheval Blanc, Alexander Payne’s elegiac toast to California wine country and the regrets and indignities of middle-age has a tendency to linger in the senses. Paul Giamatti must tire of playing depressive, barely sociable losers, but he’s great at it here…Sideways isn’t as funny as Election, but it is a memorable trip.
5) Spiderman 2. A definite improvement on the first adventure of your friendly neighborhood wallcraller, Spiderman 2 was a perfectly made summer film that stayed true to the spirit of Peter Parker. Along with X2, this is the gold standard for comic book-to-film adaptations right now…let’s hope Batman Begins is up to snuff.
6) Shaun of the Dead. Although it lost its footing shambling to its conclusion, Shaun of the Dead was great fun for the first two-thirds of its run, and it’s now probably my favorite zombie movie (everyone should have one.) A much-needed dry British humor fix to tide us over until Hitchhiker’s Guide.
7) The Aviator. A bit on the long side, Scorsese’s life of Howard Hughes is most fun when it stays away from the airfields and lounges about Old Hollywood. Two very clean thumbs up.
8) The Assassination of Richard Nixon. A dark, unflinching 90-minute descent into violent futility. I originally had this before The Aviator, then figured the degree of difficulty on Scorsese’s flick was much, much higher. Nevertheless, this funereal biopic for non-billionaire crazies, while grim and not much fun, was well-made and well-performed, and I expect it’ll stay with me for awhile.
9) The Bourne Supremacy. Perhaps a bit too much like its predecessor, Bourne II was still a better Bond than anything we’ve seen in the past 20 years. Paul Greengrass’ shakicam work here bodes well for Rorshach in The Watchmen.
10) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkhaban. It’d be hard to make a better film of Harry Potter’s adventures at Hogwarts than Alfonso Cuaron did here — Azkhaban managed to capture the dry wit and subversive spirit of the books that’s so missing in the Chris Columbus movies. That being said, Azkaban also made it clear that much of the fun of Rowling’s tomes is uncapturable on film. What was great fun to read on the page ended up seeming like Back to the Future II on the screen. With that in mind, Year 6 begins on 7/16.
11) Ocean’s 12. Two swollen hours of Soderberghian glamour and inside baseball. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I know, but I found it an agreeable improvement on Ocean’s 11. (Don Cheadle’s accent is still terrible, tho’.)
12) Touching the Void. Snap! Aigh! Crunch! Aigh! It’d be hard to forget anything as memorable as Shattered Femur Theater. Well worth seeing, if you can stand the pain.
13) Fahrenheit 9/11. Hmmm…perhaps this should be higher. I definitely left the theater in an angry froth (not that it takes much)…unfortunately, apparently so did all the freepers.
14) My Architect. An excellent documentary on Louis Kahn, brilliant architect and terrible family man. Alas, it’s also a less-excellent documentary on Kahn’s son, and his Oprah-like quest for self-acceptance.
15) Kinsey. Take that, red staters.
16) Hero. A memorable meditation on love, power, and kick-ass kung-fu, until its train-wreck derailing in the last half-hour.
17) The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. As I said yesterday, Aquatic was a jaunty Wes Anderson joyride that nevertheless gets a little lost in its terminal cuteness. When you care more about the leaving-behind of Cody the three-legged dog than you do the death of a major character, there’s a problem.
18) I Heart Huckabees. Huckabees had its heart in the right place, and made for a decently appealing night at the movies…but it also had a terminal-cute problem.
19) Collateral. If the movie had maintained the promise of its first hour throughout, Michael Mann’s Collateral would have been a top ten contender. Alas, it all falls apart once Tom Cruise goes bugnut psycho in da club.
20) Kill Bill, Vol. 2. There was probably one really good movie somewhere in the two Kill Bills. The second half was closer to it than the first.
Not Seen: Bad Education, Before Sunset, Finding Neverland, Friday Night Lights, Harold and Kumar, Hotel Rwanda, Maria Full of Grace, Million Dollar Baby, Ray, Spanglish
Biggest Disappointment: The Ladykillers
Best Actor: Jim Carrey, Eternal Sunshine; Paul Giamatti, Sideways; Sean Penn, The Assassination of Richard Nixon.
Best Actress: Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine.
Best Supporting Actor: Thomas Haden Church, Sideways
Best Supporting Actress: Cate Blanchett, The Aviator; Virginia Madsen, Sideways.
2005: On paper, it’s looking like a better year for film, fanboy and otherwise, than 2004. The slate includes Star Wars Episode III, Batman Begins, The Chronicles of Narnia, All the King’s Men, PJ’s King Kong, Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm, Polanski’s Oliver Twist, Malick’s The New World, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Constantine, Sin City, Fantastic Four, and my own most-anticipated project, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. So here’s to the new year!
Nonsensical, self-indulgent, and occasionally even a tad smarmy, Steven Soderbergh’s much-hyped Ocean’s Twelve is also, I’m happy to report, just plain fun. While Eleven was an intricately designed (and quickly forgettable) clockwork caper flick, this sequel turns out to be a rather silly, rambling affair that reeks of inside-baseball, and I mean that in the best way possible. In fact, I’d say Twelve turned out to be what Soderbergh tried and failed to do with Full Frontal…As much a riff on stars and stardom as the heist movie we were all expecting, it’s probably the most sheerly pleasurable film experience you’re going to find this side of The Incredibles.
That’s not to say there aren’t problems here. The film starts slow, reintroducing every character from the first movie as if they were the reuniting Beatles. The plot…well, the plot doesn’t make much sense at all — this isn’t the type of heist movie where you can put the jigsaw pieces together yourself. A lot of the scenes are probably a beat or two too long, and the movie’s got more endings than Return of the King. But, y’know, in the final analysis, none of that really matters. Right about the time Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) goes to check in on imploding (i.e. “going all Frankie Muniz”) TV star Topher Grace (“I just phoned in that Dennis Quaid movie!”), Ocean’s 12 starts to show its true colors: Forget the crime and just have a good time.
And have a good time I did, although admittedly all the Hollywood in-jokes and cameos on display here are my cuppa joe. Sure, the movie could probably have used more Clooney and more Bernie Mac, but there’s a lot of characters to keep in play here, and, besides, it got the cowbell just right. I won’t say Ocean’s Twelve is a great film, but it is a well-made, entertaining film, and it kept a smile on my face for most of its running time. So, if there’s an Ocean’s Thirteen in the works, deal me in.
The trailer for Ocean’s Twelve also hit today, and it looks as fun, well-crafted, breezy, and instantly forgettable as the first outing.
Lots of fanboy speculation on the web today…The Fantastic Four is still looking for a director after losing Peyton (“Bring It On“) Reed, and apparently the short list includes Steven Soderbergh and Sean Astin. According to this Astin Q&A, both could bring George Clooney to the table as Reed Richards, which is great casting. I like Naomi Watts as the Invisible Woman, but she’s going to be busy with PJ’s Kong, and I could see Soderbergh going for one of his regulars, like Mary McCormack. Orlando Bloom as The Human Torch also works, although it could just as easily be Paul Walker or some other pretty-boy. And The Thing…well, I’d expect he’d be CGI, but you’ll need a Ben Grimm. Vin Diesel? Gary Sinise? I always thought the space-ship sequences in Brian DePalma’s otherwise-terrible Mission to Mars would’ve made a great intro to FF, with Tim Robbins (Reed Richards), Connie Nielsen (Sue Richards), Jerry O’Connell (Johnny Storm), and Sinise (Ben Grimm). At any rate, if FF does go to Soderbergh, let’s just hope he doesn’t pull an Ang-Lee.
Max of Lots of Co. points the way to this intriguing article on the pitfalls that have befallen K Street. I finally saw a few episodes at a friend’s house and, while James and Mary came off well, I thought the show suffered from a few strategic errors. For one, as this story points out, the only people who will recognize (or will care about) all the uncredited cameos are the same ones who’ll realize how ultimately fake the show is. For another, the show’s greatest strength was that it seemed news-dependent, but…if you have no news for a few weeks, trouble ensues. (Hence, the not-very-engaging personal subplots that have taken over.) Still, I think there’s definite potential for a show like K St.…perhaps Soderbergh & co. should try a second run a little closer to election time, if HBO wills it.
So the big TV story in Blog Nation and elsewhere today is K Street. With this and Carnivale, I now really wish I had HBO, but ah well. At any rate, I for one am rooting for K St., not only ’cause I’m big fans of all involved, but also because there’re many politicians out there (Orrin Hatch, for example) who only recognize the worth of a given position if they hear themselves saying it. (Take, for example, the debate wrought by Soderbergh’s own Traffic.) I do think, however, that the quick turnaround time between episodes will cause problems in the later going…not only is it often hard to get pols to commit their schedules so quickly, but the show is one controversial moment away from being on the butt-end of a freeze-out sponsored by some touchy soul like Tom DeLay. Nevertheless, it sounds like a fascinating show well worth watching, even if the life it depicts is considerably less glamorous and frenetic than it lets on.
The NY Times delves into K Street, the new life-meets-art political show brought to you by Clooney, Soderbergh, Carville, and Matalin. Should be interesting, if nothing else.
After having fun with last week’s triple feature, I threw another movie catch-up-a-thon last night. (I should do this more often…I’ve been neglecting the joys of renting lately.) I still vividly recall one night in the summer after high school, when I was working at Blockbuster and could partake of 10 free movies a week, that I was staggered by Reservoir Dogs, Glengarry Glen Ross, One False Move, and A Midnight Clear, all seen for the first time. That’s the kind of evening you hope for, but, suffice to say, last night didn’t quite measure up.
Full Frontal: Although it shows (very)-occasional flashes of promise and gets better as it goes along, this film about film was sadly chaotic, self-indulgent, and boring. I found the first forty minutes or so to be almost unwatchable, particularly the scenes of Blair Underwood and Julia Roberts struggling with their quasi-improv Rendezvous. As the various plot strands come together, the movie finally establishes some momentum (and the film v. life message gets ever more heavy-handed), but too little too late. As far as actors go, the standouts were David Hyde Pierce as a depressed cuckold and Nicky Katt as Hitler in The Sound and the Fuhrer. In fact, the best scenes of the movie were of Hitler (a) breaking up with Eva Braun (“I’m just really into my work right now”) and (b) checking his pager (“#%$@ Goebbels again…Thinks it’s a toy. ‘Getting a haircut’…what an asshole.”) And I would have liked to see more of blonde Julia – her scene with the assistant had more life in it than the rest of her performance combined. But, all-in-all, this film is a pretentious waste of time. After Out of Sight, Traffic, and The Limey, Stephen Soderbergh took a big step backward with this bad boy.
Femme Fatale: Oh Lordy, this flick is terrible. Can’t say I’m a huge Brian DePalma fan, but I rented this ’cause I’ve heard from a number of people that it was a return to form for him. And I suppose it is, if by return-to-form you mean Mission to Mars and Snake Eyes. (Ebert gave this movie four stars, suggesting once again that the man might be on crack.) The first fifteen minutes or so, involving a Cannes jewel heist replete with illicit sex, surveillance cameras, and anorexic supermodels (De Palma clearly has a David Kelley problem when it comes to women) comes off as the type of well-made, trashy, and self-derivative suspense flick I expected from De Palma. But, almost immediately thereafter, it runs off the rails, and ends up [[Spoilers, not that it really matters] being his nonsensical version of Vanilla Sky. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos is a trooper about it all, I suppose, but there’s nothing she can really do…this film is bloody awful. To paraphrase Marcy Playground, I smell sex and cameras…but mama, it surely was a dream.
Jackass: If you’ve seen the ads, you probably already know whether or not this film will appeal to you: You’re either going to find it hilarious or repellent (or probably both). I was sickened and disgusted, and there were times I was laughing so hard that Berkeley thought there was something wrong with me. Although I generally thought the Knoxville stuff was funnier than Steve-O’s fratboyisms, Alligator Tightrope may just be the dumbest, most nightmarish and cringe-funny thing I’ve seen all year. (I also thought they made a tactical mistake going to Tokyo, since I’d assume Japanese television audiences are even more attuned to bizarre stunts than we are.) Truly sick, twisted, and depraved, but, I have to say, it redeemed the evening.
Anger Management: (I saw this this morning.) Whatever Jackass‘s many many faults, at least Knoxville & Co. go for it. Much like the equally disappointing Old School (and, I suspect, Bruce Almighty), Anger Management takes a potentially hilarious premise and completely ruins it by trying to be an all things to all people feel-good film. I still think Happy Gilmore is a truly funny movie, but at this point I’ve gotten kinda sick of Sandler’s nice-guy-in-an-angry-body (or vice versa) schtick. Jack Nicholson brings nothing to the table, most of the cameos are groan-worthy, and the prodigious comedic talents of Luis Guzman and John Turturro are completely wasted by lousy writing. And then there’s the resolution, which was so sickeningly saccharine that I thought I’d need anger management myself by the end. Yet another watered-down mainstream Hollywood comedy in what now seems like an endless string of ‘em. Memo to the studio heads: When it comes to the funny business, don’t try to make me a better person. Just make me laugh.
Anyone else feel like taking a trip off-world today? George Clooney laments what have been in the Internet exclusive trailer for Solaris. Also in the trailer bin is this first look at Max, starring John Cusack as a German art dealer and Noah Taylor as his not-so-promising student, Adolf Hitler. Update: You can go ahead and add Daredevil to the mix as well…cheeseball Affleckisms and lame wire work have quashed any hopes I had for this project for the time being.
The official site for Solaris goes live, with a number of stills (basically George Clooney and/or Natasha McElhone running around the elegantly designed space station.) I was hoping to catch the original at the Film Forum but it’s already gone. If Soderbergh is right when he describes the remake as “2001: A Space Odyssey meets Last Tango in Paris,” it sounds like the premier date movie for the fanboy/fangirl nation (this side of The Two Towers, of course.)
With Superman v. Batman falling by the wayside, WB looks to move a Superman feature instead. The good news is they’re trying to replace McG with David Fincher, Michael Mann, or Steven Soderbergh. The bad news is the screenwriter (J.J. Abrams, of Alias) wants McG.
New teasers and trailers abound this past weekend, including the ones for Daredevil (I dunno…looks goofy. We’ll see.), xXx (looks more fun than any Bond movie I’ve seen in the past ten years), Goldmember (a bit long in the tooth, Michael Caine notwithstanding), and the Soderbergh/Cameron Solaris remake (I have very, very high hopes for this one.)