Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Last Stand, Arnold's Return to Average Action

     Arnold Schwarzenegger's last starring role was all the way back in 2003, when he again took the role of the T-800 in the third (and disappointing) installment of the Terminator franchise. Coming back from his long and political hiatus, the Austrian actor has chosen a film that exists directly in the middle of his comfort zone, a film that's full of one-liners, the bang bang of a various assortment of guns, and a laughable script that only serves the purpose of propelling the film into it's next car chase. I actually was interested (and sort of excited for) The Last Stand for one reason: the director, Jee-Woon Kim, who created one of my favorite films of 2010, I Saw the Devil. But going into Arny's latest with any sort of expectations at all is a bad decision: the film is unfunny and unspectacular, and though it has a few moments of inspired stylistic violence, it's just a typical not-very-good extremely violent action movie.
     You'd never know my opinion of the film just by listening to the crowd's reaction during the screening: women and men alike were laughing it up during every quip or look at Johnny Knoxville's funny hats. It's almost as if Jackass has earned Knoxville a lifetime of good will the the movie-going public. My usual movie date (Chief) even had an interaction with a stranger on the way to the bathroom where the man exclaimed how excited he was to witness Knoxville's hilarious hijinx! I haven't been this disappointed with the plight of humor in film in a while.
     But Knoxville's just a sidekick, and Arnold is the film's clear star. He portrays Ray, the Sheriff of a small Western town near the Mexican border. He likes the quiet life, sipping a cold brew with his feet up after a stint in the LAPD narcotics division when he was younger. The town's small (seemingly too small, as there is no real sign of a population other than a select few cast members because there's a football game out of town), and low on crime. He's got a few deputies that are basically useless and are there for comic relief (namely Luis Guzman's Mike), though I don't think I ever laughed at him once or even cracked a smile.
     After a truly atrocious first twenty minutes or so, the film switches to a few more characters in Las Vegas that are far more interesting: Forest Whitaker as FBI agent John Bannister and Eduardo Noriega as violent and captive prisoner Cortez. During a transfer of Cortez, he escapes in an inventive sequence that adds some flair to the film and sets up the plot that brings the two groups of characters together: Cortez steals a suped-up Corvette (he's conveniently got experience as a race-car driver) and attempts to make his way to the Mexican border, with the FBI chasing him along the way and Arnold and the Unfunny Gang making their "last stand" in the sleepy border town.
     Most of the film is completely throwaway until the last 30-40 minutes, when the action and explosions finally become relentless and sort-of fun and an inventive cornfield car chase catches your attention. Director Jee-Woon Kim, whose style was totally badass and exciting in his Japanese films (this is his first foray into American cinema), doesn't do anything particular special here except for a couple innovative death scenes that are particularly gory. Arnold Schwarzenegger is 65 years old, and one has to question his motives ($) in returning to this type of action film: he looks every year of his age, and he's only involved in a few of the actual gun fights in the film. He's also in a hand-to-hand combat scene that is cool but clearly benefits from quick-cutting to not notice his stunt double.
     So here we are, the month of January, the dumping grounds of the cinematic landscape every year--and every year I hope for something different, something actually surprising and exciting (actually got it last year with The Grey). The Last Stand had some potential, with its clearly talented director and Arnold's ability to make action fun, but by the end it's all just predictable and uninspired, including a script that is boring and lazy and a cast of sidekicks that are forgettable. It's a violent mash of one-liners and heads exploding that makes me yawn instead of yell with excitement.     (C-)

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Top 10 Films of 2012

      The year of film 2012 was a time of possibility, a time of high expectations and week after week of seminal viewing experiences in the last quarter of the year. I barely had the time to write reviews in November and December, since every week was a new film that needed to be seen to have my comprehensive list be taken seriously at all. The biggest surprises? I never could have guessed that Prometheus wouldn't even crack my top 25 and that Taken 2 would be my least favorite film (more like extended television commercial) of the year (okay, maybe it was This Means War). 

     I saw 64 films released in the year 2012. That doesn't include the ones I've watched twice (or three times). A Top 10 list was a tough one this year, at least for the bottom half. Tough for a reason: I wouldn't quite call Top 10 lists arbitrary--surely they arn't totally random or devoid of any sort of system--but opinions can change on a day to day (or view to view) basis. I've switched out the last film on my list maybe a dozen times, depending on mood, another watch, or a few extra minutes of quiet thoughtfulness about the project.

    For example, on first viewing I found Wes Anderson's film Moonrise Kingdom to be a joyous experience, a film of nostalgia and young love that ranked among his best films. But a re-watch showed that maybe the film was a bit slight, a bit too typical of Anderson's always-there eccentricity. Seven Psychopaths and Killing Them Softly are two films that were tied for a place on my list a couple months ago: their similar dismantling of genre conventions (both in their own way), clever/vulgar scripts, and extreme violence left a lasting impression--just not lasting enough. And who could forget--maybe the most anticipated film of the year for many people--The Dark Knight Rises, the culmination of excitement of Chris Nolan's Batman trilogy. It was a fitting--not incredible--end.

So here we are: ten films that I still think about (especially one of them, since I saw it within one hour of writing this) now that the year has passed. These are films that I would be glad to pop into the Blu-Ray player and watch again at any moment, films that--in this exact second in time--are my favorites of the year 2012.


     You can call it what you want. A history lesson? A predictable story? A plot that would fare better watching at a real theater instead of a movie cinema? Sure, it's all of those things. But it also includes many wonderful aspects: another astonishing performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, a lifelike script written by Tony Kushner, and a film that's packed full with so many fruitful supporting performances that it's ripe to burst, namely Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones in two of the best roles of their careers. Not to mention an entertaining story about political backroom dealings and good direction by Steven Spielberg that mostly avoids his sometimes-eye-rolling sentimentality.

Django Unchained

     One question kept entering my mind while watching Django Unchained, the new spaghetti western slavery epic by Quentin Tarantino: if I had black skin--instead of white--how would I feel about what I was watching on the big screen, essentially a tongue-in-cheek vengeance tale of a black slave getting freed and murdering racists and plantation owners? Probably about the same as I do now: this shit, though never quite reaching the greatness of  most of Tarantino's previous efforts (namely Inglorious Basterds and Pulp Fiction), is typical awesomeness from the director, full of stylistic entertainment, humor, and a bold vision of slavery that hopefully kicks down the door for other worthwhile stories about the horrific subject. 


    Ben Affleck got snubbed for a Best Director nomination at the Oscars this year. I'm not sure why: his steady handle at the controls of Argo is one of the main reasons it makes this list. After Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and now this, it's clear that the (sometimes laughable) actor is much more adept at creating tension behind the camera, though his acting performance in Argo is also something to be praised. Showcasing an intricate sense of place and detail, Argo is Affleck's best film yet, a film that's still suspenseful even though the outcome is well-known. By leaving his comfort zone of stories set in Boston, we leave the comfort zone with him, and the result couldn't have been much better.

The Sessions

     The Sessions is an adult movie about sex that doesn't resort to gross-out gags or one-liner dick jokes. John Hawkes gives one of the best performances of the year (and coincidentally was another Oscar snub) as  Mark, a poet paralyzed from the neck down due to polio. Wanting to lose his virginity and experience the glorious wonder of a woman's vagina, Mark hires Cheryl (Helen Hunt) a sex surrogate who specializes in getting down and dirty with the disabled. It's heartfelt, touching and emotional. 


     Can't say that I am a huge fan of the Bond franchise. Sure, the films are fun--a mild diversion to get you away from your everyday life. But the old ones are a tough sit through, and the Brosnan films are chipper but cheesy. It wasn't until the steely-eyed Daniel Craig took the reigns that Bond became worthwhile for me, with their new-found slickness and dark sensibility. And Skyfall, in all its personal and simple glory, is the best one yet: a Bond movie that feels like it should actually exist on its own right instead of being just a bi-yearly predictable incarnation. And by giving a wink to the past Bond films--instead of giving fully in to their absurdity--Skyfall became a great blend of 21st century Bond fun. 

Zero Dark Thirty

     You can call Zero Dark Thirty, the new film directed by Kathryn Bigelow (creator of the wonderful The Hurt Locker), a meticulous story about the pursuit and killing of Osama Bin Laden. But--ultimately--it's significantly more than that too: it's a story directed by a determined woman (rare in Hollywood these days) about a determined woman. Jessica Chastain portrays Maya, and she gives one of the top two performances of the year. She's a woman who would do anything to find and kill the most well-known terrorist in the world. But the really brilliant thing about Zero Dark Thirty is that it's truly a non-biased view of the investigation leading to his assassination. Draw your own conclusions about how effective torture is: I'll draw the conclusion that Zero Dark Thirty is one of most intense films of the year.

Silver Linings Playbook

     Silver Linings Playbook was a big surprise for me: the trailer for film looked dull and corny. But it was misleading--it's one of those films where the jokes that fall flat in the preview are seamlessly integrated into the actual movie when you watch it all the way through. It's the best romantic comedy of the year, and it's actually an evolution for the genre: instead of stereotypes that revolve around unhappy women and men who need to be broken in like puppies, Silver Linings has real characters that live their lives full of real problems--mental illness, death, and loneliness all play a role. Not to mention it has two of the best performances of the year: Bradley Cooper (never thought I'd see him next to the words "Best Performance") as Pat Jr. and Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany. 

The Grey

     This is one of those choices that many people will think is a little kooky. A movie starring Liam Neeson that's about a group of plane crash survivors fending off a pack of wolves in the snowy wilderness? It was easy to dismiss. But you'd be wrong to give up The Grey, to write it off as another cashed paycheck in the pantheon of Liam Neeson films. It's a survival story with a philosophical edge, a movie about the choices you have to make in the face of death when you realize that God isn't coming to help you. It's an incredibly bleak vision for some: all hope is lost so what's the point of fighting anymore? When one realizes that this life is all there is...plenty. 


     Looper, the best sci-fi film of the year and directed by Rian Johnson, smartly makes a decision early on in its run time: instead of focusing on the intricacies of time travel (which is the biggest plot device of the movie, after all), it throws those discussions to the wayside and lets the cool action and slick direction take the viewer on a fun and violent ride. Featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis playing old and young versions of the same character in a futuristic cat and mouse game, Looper is incredibly solid sci-fi entertainment containing hovercrafts, blasting blunderbusses, telekinetic freaks and an original nature vs. nurture debate. 

The Master

     2012 had quite a large number of films that I was incredibly excited for that didn't at all live up to my expectations: namely, Ridley Scott's sort-of-Alien prequel Prometheus and the overlong The Hobbit. Others came extremely close to meeting them, but not quite: The Dark Knight Rises and Django Unchained were both great, but I thought that either could have been my number one film of the year before I watched them. Considering Paul Thomas Anderson has written and directed two of my favorite films of all time (Magnolia and There Will Be Blood) and two others that I still love (Punch-Drunk Love and Boogie Nights), its safe to say that The Master--a story about an alcoholic veteran who returns home only to get sucked in by a Scientology-esque religious leader--was one of my most anticipated films of the year. And there's one reason why The Master is my number one film of 2012: it met those incredibly high expectations.  Beautifully acted by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman and gorgeously directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master is one of those rare American films for smart adults: a challenging and transfixing story that can leave you meditating on its questions for days on end. 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Overlooked Films from 2012

       As the year of film comes to a close, there are always a few stray cinematic experiences that need to be seen before I feel comfortable making a year-end Top 10 list (either they were not released in Maine or I wanted to wait until the Blu-Ray release), but I usually see everything that I need to see before the end of January. Though I (almost) have that list all figured out, I figured it would be a good idea to look at some films that didn't make the cut in 2012, films that I didn't review during the calender year, films that were shining gems in their own right. Hopefully these six films will spark your interest about movies that you've never heard of or remind you about that one title that you heard about in January but you had forgotten about by December. Off we go:

We Need to Talk About Kevin
     Technically released overseas in 2011, it then flew to our shores for a limited theater run in January of 2012. Based on the novel of the same name by Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin stars the great Tilda Swinton and is more relevant than ever in the violent wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting. Eva (Swinton) is the mother of Kevin, a child with serious violent tendencies and a sickening inability to relate to other human beings. As he grows older (and grows more angry), a significant question arises: in this nature vs. nurture debate, is Eva at fault when Kevin plunges to the depths of a killer? Or is Kevin's mental illness totally to blame? Swinton's performance in Kevin is one of the best of her career.

     One of the most entertaining recent films to come out of Norway, Headhunters is based on a novel by the hugely popular Jo Nesbo (I just finished a book in his series of detective novels starring alcoholic cop Harry Hole). The film is totally over-the-top absurdest fun: Roger is a rich employment recruiter for a flashy company who also steals expensive pieces of art to maintain his meretricious lifestyle. When he gets introduced to Clas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who is Jaime Lannister of HBO's Game of Thrones fame), a man who is supposedly in possession of an extremely valuable painting, Roger gets into a violent and unbelievable cat-and-mouse game with twists and turns that are as implausible as they are fun. A strange and funny take on a common thriller story. (Subtitled.)

Magic Mike
     I'm not ashamed to admit that one of the more interesting films this year was about male strippers and starred Channing Tatum (supposedly based upon some of his real life escapades). It was also directed by Steven Soderbergh, who has a knack for making any subject--a rapidly-spreading virus in Contagion, the illegal drug trade in Traffic, whistle-blowing in The Informant!--peculiar and watchable. Mike (Tatum) has a variety of jobs, but he makes the most money working for Dallas (Matthew McConaughey in a good performance) at a high-end strip club in Tampa, FL. When Mike takes young Adam under his wing, the film fills with funny sequences and moral quandaries about capitalism and voyeurism in America, where taking your clothes off for money is sometimes the best career path. 

The Queen of Versailles
     Keeping with the theme about the U.S. economy, The Queen of Versailles is a documentary that is funny, touching, sad and very watchable. It's about the pursuit of the American dream, when that dream has become obtaining the biggest house ever built on American soil. Jackie and David Siegel own Westgate Resorts (a timeshare company) a hugely successful business that has made them billions. But when they try to build a 90,000 square foot house that mimics that elaborateness and intricacy of a palace, the world around them begins to crumble. Filmed over a couple of years, their empire falls and the large family tires to adapt to their new lifestyle of coupon cutting and cleaning up their own dog shit. It's an intimate look at a failing family where greed used to rule. 

Shut Up and Play the Hits
     Another documentary, this one my favorite of the year, almost cracking my official Top 10 list. Shut Up and Play the Hits follows the front-man (James Murphy) of LCD Soundsystem, not even arguably one of the greatest musical acts of the past 10 years, as he prepares for his final show at Madison Square Garden. Unlike 99% of the musical puke that's barfed onto radio waves, Murphy decided to end this fruitful band after only three major albums (all modern classics). His music, a blend of electronic dance/punk/indie rock, is the real showcase, as much of the documentary provides the viewer with incredible renditions of his best songs (the final concert was actually 3.5 hours, and the Blu-Ray has two separate discs showing it in its hi-def entirety). A great interview with the awesome writer Chuck Klosterman narrates much of the film as a lingering sadness starts to envelop Murphy's last hurrah. Don't mess around with this one: watch on a good sound system with the volume on high. 

Beasts of the Southern Wild
     Released to a critical fervor at Sundance film festival earlier in the year, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a visually transfixing film with a touching story about a girl named Hushpuppy and the cutoff-from-a-flood community that she inhabits. Wandering among the elements and creatures, alone in life except for a poor, abusive father and select group of colorful and strange characters, Hushpuppy must learn to survive and thrive in a world cut off from the world. An unknown face at the incredible age of six years old, Quvenzhane Wallis embodies the character with a wonder and an aptitude that the most polished actors would be jealous of. The film's a real and original work of Americana art.