Sunday, January 20, 2013

Trailer Sunday Presents The Films of 2012: The Middle (Part Two)

This is 40

The Silver Linings Playbook

Indie Game: The Movie


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Dark Knight Rises


Seven Psychopaths

The Man with the Iron Fists

Wreck-It Ralph


John Dies at the End

21 Jump Street

Monday, January 14, 2013

Cap'n Howdy Presents: The 14 Best Films I saw in 2012 (Part Two)

 I believe when we left off, the Cap'n was lamenting that of the first seven "Best Of 2012" movies that I only had existing reviews for two of them (The Avengers and Cosmopolis) whereas the second half of the list includes only one movie I haven't already reviewed. How silly of me not to, you know, split up the writing duties between the two pieces, but as it turns out I have plenty to add about the films that made this list.

 If the theme of Part One was "surprises" - and, looking back it it, it clearly was movies I didn't expect to be blown away by - Part Two is comprised of films that I had a strong inclination I would enjoy, but that surpassed even that. It's also become clear that more than a few of these films are ones that people I know (and whose opinions I often respect) REALLY hate. One in particular looks to be a repeat of one of my top picks from last year, and we'll address that accordingly. To save some time, I'm going to let the links to the original reviews do most of the heavy lifting this time and focus my energy on additional reflections now that I've had some time to digest these films and to study reactions from around cinephilia.

 The difficult bit is figuring out where to start, so maybe I should get the most controversial choice out of the way first:

 Looper - To be honest with you, I was expecting The Master or Cosmopolis to be the movie I had the most disagreements about this year. Even Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained seem to have a healthy debate surrounding them, but I'm continually surprised by the immediate and negative reaction I get for suggesting Looper was one of my favorite movies of 2012. It's akin to my inclusion of Drive in last year's list, when I discovered that many good friends really and truly hate that film, often for the very reasons I enjoyed it.

 I get the impression that people don't like Looper because the time travel logic is nonsensical, or that the resolution of the story leaves audiences feeling like they wasted their time, or that (in the words of an acquaintance of mine) the film felt like someone was shooting "a first draft."

 Needless to say, I don't agree, but this is a much more hotly contested movie than I had any idea after seeing it. Whether you left the film feeling ripped off or wanting to see it again immediately, I guess it's better to feel strongly about it than to feel nothing, but for my money Looper was worth revisiting. I think that Rian Johnson sets up a world with its own rules about time travel, sticks to them and tinkers with themes set up in the film in clever ways. He also leaves a few elements ambiguous (I find it amusing that in his downloadable commentary, Johnson is fascinated by the "Kid Blue is Abe" theory but doesn't say one way or the other). I've given Prometheus grief for intentional ambiguity, but since Looper is a self-contained story that is pretty clearly about closing Joe's "loop," the story elements not specifically addressed don't fall under the "kick the can down the road" sequel-izing that Prometheus and Tron Legacy are guilty of.

 You'll notice that in my original review I posited a theory that can't possibly be right. One commenter suggested another theory, so I checked to see if that held any water.

This is the comment:

 I saw this posted on another blog about Looper and watched the movie again and realized yup this person has got it right: ( I was a bit uncomfortable with the thought of Joe sleeping with his mother but turns out he didn't at all)

"I'm going to throw everyone for a "loop" no pun intended. If anyone paid attention, Young Joe slept with a hooker whom had a daughter named: SARAH. "Sarah" was the girl looking after Cid. Considering the hooker knew what Young Joe did, and that Old Joe went after the hookers daughter(Note long hair of the kid the hooker carrys to the room, it's blonde.) as one of the three targets this leads you to one conclusion. The hookers daughter is the Sarah watching the young Rainmaker. She herself looped back to change him from a young age, remember Cid stated that, "Sarah's a liar, she's not my mother. My mother was killed." and Sarah stated she was trying to raise him properly. Boom, now you know how Sarah know's what Looper's are.

I caught it the first round. If I hadn't heard the hooker state her daughter's name was Sarah, I would of never of caught it." 

 Unfortunately, none of this is true. I literally just finished watching every scene that Piper Perabo's Susie is in the film, and she never once says her daughter's name. The child is also not blonde, but brunette (which helps the argument because Emily Blunt / Sarah's hair has brown roots). Rian Johnson is actually pretty tricky in avoiding Susie's daughter's name, even in the deleted scenes, but when you look at the age matches Old Joe finds, two of them are visible:

 The cagey bit is leaving the bottom one off (and the edit happens right before the bottom picture gets close), but since Cid is one of the possible choices and the other possibility was the boy that Old Joe kills, I think we're meant to believe that Megan Richardson is Susie's daughter (even though the address doesn't match). So that doesn't help my theory or the reposted comment theory, but I guess if you hate Looper for "not making any sense," then this is only going to bolster your case.

 Fair enough. I'm not going to try to argue with you about whether every plot point makes perfect sense or not, or in failing to do so that it means the film is terrible (and I've heard that a lot). I still think that Johnson sets up the universe well, raises the stakes in a compelling way, and tells an interesting story that leaves you asking questions. Are the answers to those questions in Looper? Well, I've seen it several times now, with and without the commentary/ies, and I find there's something new to discover every successive time. For me, that's successful, but I get that for others, the film collapses under its own logic. We'll have to agree to disagree on this one.

 Moonrise Kindgom - While I will continue to debate with myself what my favorite Wes Anderson film is, I'm settling down comfortably with saying that Moonrise Kingdom is his best made so far. For a film that's set in the period that Anderson fetishizes unabashedly in all of his other movie (the mid-1960s), Moonrise Kingdom manages not do feel bogged down by its period trappings. I don't mean to diminish Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums or The Life Aquatic, et al, but Moonrise Kingdom's cast of characters feels less like a motley collection of "let's see what these types would be like together" and more like an ensemble that fit together in the story. In particular, I like the way the adults are continually flummoxed about how they're supposed to handle Sam and Suzy's determination to stay together, in particular Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) and Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton). I don't think I mentioned it in the old review, but the scenes with them talking to Sam's foster parents and Social Services (Tilda Swinton) over the phone made me laugh as hard as anything in the film.

 Argo - Ben Affleck made a Zero Dark Thirty that doesn't seem to bother the people bothered by Zero Dark Thirty. Does that make sense? I don't wish to diminish his truly engrossing, exceedingly well made retelling of a declassified true story by implying that because it doesn't address torture that the film is somehow "less than" another movie that retells something more recent. Not at all. Argo is Ben Affleck firing on all cylinders, and while I enjoyed Gone Baby Gone and really enjoyed The Town, that didn't prepare me for how accomplished his third directorial feature is.

 The parallels to Zero Dark Thirty are inevitable - both deal with CIA Operatives who, in real life, tenaciously pursued their goal and succeeded when nobody believed they could. One was made with the cooperation of the individuals involved and the other wasn't (if you don't already know which is which, go check - you might be surprised). Both manage to keep the audience engaged in the narrative, to give them a laugh or two, but to then turn that switch and be genuinely suspenseful even when we know what happened. Zero Dark Thirty is harder to watch, but don't take that to mean I'm suggesting that Argo's palatability (probably not an actual word) means it should regarded with kid gloves. I've seen it twice, and it holds up both times. Hopefully we can get over this "Ben Affleck who stars in crappy movies" stigma and begin to enjoy his second life as a director of high quality films. We know what he can do, and I look forward to seeing him top himself after setting the bar this high.

  The Master - If Cosmopolis is a hard movie to like, then The Master is its mercurial cousin. Paul Thomas Anderson continues to push his films further away from the concept of conventional narrative and towards specific types of character studies, of dichotomies. Since Punch-Drunk Love, he's edged away from the "three act" structure of conventional cinema and instead hones in on two specific archetypes, pits them against each other, and plays out the result in front of us. The films don't so much end as they drift off, and even more so than There Will Be Blood, The Master is less about the lives of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as it is the specific intersection of their paths for a period of time lasting no longer than two or three years. We learn as much about Freddie as we're ever going to before he meets Lancaster, and what little we know about "the Master" comes from the way that other people react to him.

 I can understand the frustration from audiences (and working at a theatre where The Master was playing, I saw it first hand), but I don't believe the point of the film was to tell a story about these two men - any more than the film is a meditation or expose on Scientology - so much as it was to throw the embodiments of two essentially divergent philosophies together and allow them to coexist for as long as humanly possible. Or perhaps you'd like to think of The Master as the Id and the Ego clashing, as the Super Ego strains to separate them, all the while acknowledging a futility in fighting their codependent addiction. In the end, they both get what they want, and unlike most Hollywood films that turns out not to be each other. Eventually I hope to be able to talk to more people who have seen The Master, as so far it's been a limited sample size.

 Skyfall - It took MGM going bankrupt to settle the Daniel Craig as James Bond run of 007 films. Like another movie on this list, the down time helped, rather than hindered, the end result, because for all of the promise of Casino Royale and all that Quantum of Solace failed to build on, Skyfall at last figured out how to bring Bond full circle. Yes, it borrows a bit liberally from The Dark Knight in its villain's story structure (I'm sorry, but it's hard to watch the interrogation scene and not see Javier Bardem giving his best take on the Joker), but where it stumbles in some places it excels in others. Yes, Silva sometimes resembles a certain Clown Prince of Crime in his philosophy and execution, but his reasoning for it is more sound in the Bond universe, and his maternal fixation to M (Judi Dench) elevates some of the "copycat" mechanics of the plot.

 But besides all of that, Skyfall is a cracking good James Bond film that feels like it's a James Bond film. Gone are many of the Bourne-inspired aspects of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, and in its place are clear action sequences, clever quips, and nods to the earliest of 007 films that serve a purpose beyond just referencing the series. Skyfall ends in a comfortable nook that should have James Bond fans very excited for what's to come, because it's the promise of what we've been looking forward to married to the series that brought us here in the first place. The revelation of who a certain character is caught me completely off-guard because of how well Sam Mendes, John Logan, Robert Wade and Neal Purvis built their arc (I'm being cagey just in case you haven't seen it and want to) in the story. Needless to say that we end Skyfall in a very familiar location with a fitfully intriguing dynamic moving forward.

 It's fair to mention that there isn't a "Bond Girl" in Skyfall, not in the conventional sense or really in any way that you'd define the character type. There are characters that would seem to fit into those roles, but without spoiling too much, neither of them actually where you think they'll be. Instead, Skyfall focuses more on Bond's relationship with M, with Silva's relationship to M, and briefly where Bond himself came from (all the while debunking the long-standing theory that "James Bond" is a code name assigned to 007 agents). On the other hand, I can't gripe too much with a movie that brings back Q and the Ashton Martin and has refreshingly clever things to do with both of them.

  Django Unchained - I don't know that I have a lot more to add to my review of Django Unchained. It is, bar none, the most fun I've had watching a Quentin Tarantino film, and that includes the giddy experience of watching Pulp Fiction when I was far too young and that first audience reaction to Kill Bill Part One. It still makes me chuckle that Tarantino brazenly gets away with using a Jim Croce song and it's totally appropriate for the montage he includes it in. That, even more than the Rick Ross or the James Brown / Tupac Shakur mashup, made me laugh out loud in the theatre. If you want to read something silly, Google Armond White's critique of Tarantino (and more specifically, of Samuel L. Jackson), "Still Not a Brother." It's hilarious in the way that almost everything Armond White writes is, and if you haven't heard of the intentionally contrarian reviewer before, it's as good a place as any to learn what he's all about.

  The Cabin in the Woods - I was watching Serenity the other night, and when I finished it made sense to watch some of the extras again. In particular, I wanted to watch them for the conception of Joss Whedon in 2005, when he was still mostly known as the guy who made Buffy and Angel and Firefly. He had a small legion of devoted fans (of which the Cap'n counts himself, to a degree) that helped turn the cancelled Firefly into Serenity, which didn't set the world on fire (at first, anyway - today it has a solid fan base I run across frequently). Whedon made Dr. Horrible and Dollhouse, and then 2012 happened.

 Now he's the proven box-office commodity / smash hit director slash writer of The Avengers, a movie that really shouldn't have worked and even then shouldn't have worked as well as it does. The world is his oyster, but it's funny to think that because MGM went bankrupt, the Whedon-scripted / Drew Goddard-directed meta-horror film The Cabin in the Woods went from coming out to relative anonymity in 2009 (when it was made) to being a preamble of sorts to the blockbuster to come. And honestly, if I really had to choose between the two, I'd give the edge to The Cabin in the Woods.

 I've mentioned it before, and because horror films are something of a specialty for the Cap'n, I come back to it a lot, but The Cabin in the Woods doesn't necessarily deconstruct or redefine horror films in the way that I think some people believe it does. That fact, counter-intuitively perhaps, actually helps the film more than it hurts it. Scream was a deconstruction of slasher films while also being a slasher film. The Cabin in the Woods slaps the structure of "Scooby Doo" on top of the concept of horror archetypes - trust me, you'll have a hard time finding a horror film that corresponds closely to the "rules" of Cabin, especially The Evil Dead - and then uses that pretext to explore what audiences expect in scary movies.

  The Cabin in the Woods is clever as a meta text not because of how it deconstructs the genre, but in exploring why the genre persists when people firmly believe that it's the bottom of the barrel in "entertainment." Whedon and Goddard throw in a few specific references (a Pinhead stand-in complete with puzzle box) but by and large focus on the broader purpose of horror, and of audiences who don't get what they want. Look at it this way, complaining about the way the movie ends is really making their point.

  Had The Cabin in the Woods been released in 2009 or 2010, I'm not sure how people would have responded to it. That was still in the height or remakes and Saw-mania, and I think that unlike some movies that sit on a shelf for a few years, Cabin benefited from being able to wait until a lull in horror trends. The impact was that much stronger last April, because not knowing what I was in for made all the difference that first time.

 And yes, to be fair, it was following Lockout, the worst movie I saw in 2012, but I've seen The Cabin in the Woods three times since that fateful weekend, and I tell you with confidence that it still delivers the goods and rewards multiple viewings. So, sorry Avengers, but in the battle of Whedon projects, you come in second this year... 

 * I'll include the link down here, although I generally disagree with everything in this review and don't necessarily see the connections he tries to make with other films listed.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Trailer Sunday Presents The Films of 2012: The Middle (Part One)


Dark Shadows

To Rome with Love

Screaming in High Heels: The Rise and Fall of the Scream Queen

The Woman in Black


Some Guy Who Kills People

Side By Side


The Expendables 2


Cloud Atlas

Killing Them Softly

Friday, January 11, 2013

Cap'n Howdy Presents: The 14 Best Films I saw in 2012 (Part One)

 Why fourteen? That's an excellent question, dear readers. It was actually going to be thirteen, but I forgot to include a movie in the "Middle" section and figured "oh, what the hell?" and decided to include it here. We can pretend there are fifteen if you'd like, and I'll just leave an open spot at the bottom for you to fill in with your favorite movie that I overlooked (for example: Life of Pi, The Grey, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Battleship...), but for now I'm cutting it off at fourteen.

 Because fourteen reviews, even in a smaller than normal for the Cap'n format, is going to mean a lot of digital real estate, I'll break this up for you into two parts. Trust me, your eyes will thank me.

 As you might have heard, this would have been here a week sooner had I not been privy to a movie that hadn't been released yet and accordingly put the Cap'n under embargo. As it shifted the entire dynamic of what I considered to be the "Best" of 2012, naturally I had to wait, and in the interim most of you have since seen it. So you don't have to wait to find out what it was (or don't want to guess), we'll start the list with that film.

 The list is in no particular order, because how the hell am I going to rank such disparate (but excellent) experiences against each other?

 Here are the first seven:

 Zero Dark Thirty - I'm going to sidestep all of the debate about the politics behind killing Bin Laden or the implied advocating of torture in Kathryn Bigelow's partly-fictionalized telling of real events because it doesn't matter in this sense: the noise surrounding the film does not, in and of itself, change the fact that Zero Dark Thirty is a riveting, intense, and compulsive "edge of your seat" experience for two and a half hours. I found myself getting dragged into the ancillary issues when talking to people who hadn't seen the film, mostly because once you have it's pretty clear that the concept of "advocating torture" or "enhanced interrogation" in the film itself is overstated.

 Zero Dark Thirty is, at its core, a procedural about obsession, personified by "Maya" (Jessica Chastain), a CIA operative who fixates on the notion of finding Bin Laden's courier and killing the leader of Al Qaeda. That's it. Other members of the team come and go - some live, some die, some come back, but Maya is relentless and single-minded in her quest to track down a man she isn't even sure exists and then "kill Bin Laden." Chastain is fantastic in the film, and if for nothing other than the scene near the end when she realizes what her myopic view on the "war on terror" cost her as a human being (we know almost nothing about Maya at the outset and learn very little over the course of the film) I firmly believe she deserves an Academy Award.

 As I said in the first paragraph, Zero Dark Thirty is an intense experience. From the opening, when we hear (but do not see) 9/11 from first responder phone calls and voice mails to the harrowing final thirty minutes - where we follow Seal Team Six (led by Joel Edgerton) into the compound - the film is gripping and relentless. Despite knowing what happened, I found myself wrapped up in the film and unable to divert attention during the raid, and that's just the capper to an already gripping film. It never feels inauthentic, even when you start recognizing actors like Jason Clarke, Mark Duplass, Harold Perrineau, James Gandolfini, Stephen Dillane, and John Barrowman (yes, Doctor Who fans, Captain Jack Harkness has a small role as the CIA Director's assistant).

 I didn't honestly think that Zero Dark Thirty was a movie that I wanted to see before it came out, but I have to admit that I'm glad I did watch it. It's an excellent companion piece to a movie on part two of this list, also based on CIA operations, and while that one has a little more humor and might be seen as more palatable to most audiences, if you have the stomach for a terse, unemotional thrill ride, you must see Zero Dark Thirty.

 The Avengers - Because of how long ago it was since I saw The Avengers, I tend to forget about it when talking to people about my favorite movies. That's a mistake, because there's a tact implication that I somehow don't think that The Avengers isn't quite an achievement and also immensely satisfying as a comic book movie. I'm not in love with qualifying it as a "comic book movie" as though it makes it "less than" normal movies, because with one or two exceptions, The Avengers was the most fun I had watching a movie this year.

 To be greater than the sum of your parts, especially when those parts included Iron Man, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and... uh, Captain America (okay, I didn't love Captain America) is impressive in and of itself, but to take those films and create a narrative that feels like a natural continuation of each of the individual story lines (especially Thor) is really something. It feels like old hat congratulating Joss Whedon for finding a way to balance so many disparate elements (and it won't be the last time I do it in this recap), but I'll be damned if he didn't manage to avoid getting bogged down in back stories and interpersonal relationships and get straight to the point, delivering a cracking fun experience along the way.

 Does it all make sense? No, not really. It's easy to nitpick things like "I'm always angry" or laughable expository lines like "Loki! Brother of Thor!" but Whedon keeps the story moving along at a brisk pace for the first and last third of the film, only slowing down on the airship to let the superhero dynamics play out in the dysfunctional way only he could imagine. It's a long film that rarely feels long, punctuated with good action, great special effects, and big laughs (it took most audiences until the second time they saw the film to hear Hulk say "Puny god" because they were laughing so hard). For sheer popcorn entertainment value, The Avengers handily takes the prize over The Dark Knight Rises, and while I've seen both films more than once already, The Avengers will probably get the edge when I'm ready to watch one of them again.

 Lincoln - So I meant to put Lincoln at the top of the "Middle" after 21 Jump Street, and despite my misgivings about how Steven Spielberg chooses to end the film (take a guess), there's something I liked so much about this film that I'm actually comfortable putting it up among the very best.

 Picture in your mind "Steven Spielberg's Lincoln": life story, big speeches, struggles with the Civil War, internal debates about emancipation, and you know, ending how it's going to end. Now throw out almost all of that, because Spielberg and Tony Kushner instead took Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals and focused in on the month of January, 1865, as Lincoln is trying to effectively end the Civil War by cajoling Congress into passing the Thirteenth Amendment. Specifically, the House of Representatives. While there's more going on in the background of Lincoln (including a delegation of Confederate leaders preparing to negotiate peace and Robert Todd Lincoln's determination to serve for the Union army), the film is narrowly focused on passing the amendment that outlaws slavery.

 Does Spielberg sneak in the Gettysburg address? Kind of - the film begins with Abraham Lincoln talking to a few soldiers, two of whom nervously recite most of the address, but we never hear Daniel Day-Lewis say it. Instead of a "greatest hits" approach, the film is more interested in pursuing what Abraham Lincoln was willing to do in order to ensure that his "bending of the law" through war powers would become a permanent legal decree in the United States, and if that meant hiring men to grease the right palms, he wasn't wholly opposed to it. Lincoln asks William Seward (David Strathairn)  to hire a trio of unsavory types (played by Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes, and James Spader, who provide much of the comic relief in the film) to entice several members of the Democratic party (played by the likes of Walton Goggins and Michael Stuhlbarg) to vote for the amendment, one vigorously fought for by Abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones).

 And that's the film - it's about the President's willingness to do what he has to do in order to pass what he firmly believes is right, even if it means politics making strange bedfellows. It's not at all what I expected from the film and to be quite honest was less reverential than I'd assumed it would be. Lincoln is portrayed as a man who wants desperately to do right, even if it means ending the war on his terms and not through more readily available means. Aside from the foolish decision to extend the ending beyond January of 1865 and unnecessarily jump forward three months, Lincoln is a refreshingly unexpected take on the historical biopic.

 It also has just about everybody in the movie. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a little bit, but not by much. When David Costabile (Gale from Breaking Bad) and Adam Driver (from Girls) are in the same movie, that's no small feat, but here are some of the recognizable names in Lincoln that I haven't already mentioned: Hal Holbrook, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Sally Fields, Jared Harris, Lukas Haas, Lee Pace, David Oyelowo, and Dane DeHaan (from Chronicle and Lawless). That's Spielberg, I guess; he can get anybody for his movies.

 Killer Joe - This is a tough film to watch, but damn was I impressed by the end result. William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist) re-teamed with writer Tracy Letts (Bug) to adapt his stage play and it's a nasty slice of neo-noir the likes of which haven't been seen since Joel and Ethan Coen made Blood Simple.

 On the surface, it's a pretty basic film noir structure: a down on his luck loser, Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch), owes the wrong kind of people more money than he has, so he talks his old man Ansel (Thomas Hayden Church) into killing his mother (Ansel's ex-wife) to collect the life insurance that's in Dottie (Juno Temple) - Chris' sister's name. Since they don't want to be directly involved, Chris heard about this detective, Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) who moonlights as a hitman. The only problem is that they don't have the money Joe demands up front, so the deal's off. But Cooper takes an interest in Dottie, and provided they put her up as a retainer, he'll do the job.

 There are some nasty twists and turns, involving Chris' unhealthy interest in his sister, Dottie's unpredictable social awkwardness, and Ansel's new wife Sharla (Gina Gershon), but the real treat of Killer Joe is watching McConaughey's titular character dance around this family, who are in way over their heads. It all comes to a head during a particularly brutal dinner scene near the end of the film, one that almost assuredly earned Killer Joe its NC-17 rating. I'll just say you'll never think of KFC the same way again. I won't pretend that this is a movie many of you will be able to handle, but if you like your neo-noir gritty and southern fried (i.e.: you really like Blood Simple), Killer Joe is essential viewing.

 Dredd 3D - I had no interest in Dredd whatsoever from the period it was announced to the point the press screenings started. Perhaps it was the memory of the Sylvester Stallone farce from 1995, or the uninspiring announcement of Karl Urban as Judge Dredd (sorry, but when you have Doom and Pathfinder on your resume, Star Trek and The Lord of the Rings get cancelled out), but I assumed it would be another low-rent, lame-o post-action comic book adaptation that would fade away into that good night. I couldn't have been more wrong.

 The first indication that Dredd was more than just a quick cash-in on a vaguely recognizable comic character were the surprisingly positive reviews from just about everywhere. Then I heard that Urban never took the helmet off, which sounds minor but is actually quite a significant indicator that the source material was being taken seriously. Coupled with a hard "R" rating for what turns out to be pretty graphic violence and a plot structure not unlike The Raid: Redemption, Dredd started to look like it could be a pretty damn good movie.

 Sure enough, it's better than pretty damn good. while limited in scope, the decision to focus on Dredd "training" potential Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) and ending up under siege by drug manufacturer Ma-Ma (Lena Headey)'s gang operation in Peachtree Tower is exactly what this film needs. It's not an "end of the world" scenario or a super villain that our heroes have to contend with; it's just the bad luck of the call that Anderson decides to answer out of any number of crimes in progress in Mega City One. We're allowed to acclimate to the world of the film with our main characters in small doses, seeing Dredd and Ma-Ma through the eyes of Anderson, a rookie who can't pass her exams but who gets a shot because of her psychic abilities. And she makes the best of it, even when the decisions get tricky (like when she realizes the husband of a woman who helps them is a perp she killed in cold blood).

 The "Slow-Mo" drug that Ma-Ma is introducing to Mega City One gives us the opportunity for even more violent moments in an already excessively violent film, but it's a satisfying kind of excess. Dredd is the sort of action movie that understands sometimes it's best to strip away all of the subplots and gimmicks and just deliver on the goods. It does that, and not at the expense of anything. It's stripped down but not "no-frills". Just "no crap," and that turns out to make a big difference in the quality department.

 The Perks of Being a Wallflower - While it wasn't my intention to have this half of the list be movies I wasn't overly enthused about initially, Stephen Chbosky's adaptation of his novel wasn't high on my list of "to see"s late in 2012. While not having read the book was probably a factor, I was more turned off by the trailer, which seemed to be marketed to the same demographic that eats up The Hunger Games and Twilight. It's not that I don't understand that it has its purpose for that generation, but it's not my cup of tea. What I didn't know about The Perks of Being a Wallflower turned out to make all the difference.

 Rather than being a movie about what it's like to be a teenager in 2012, Perks is Chbosky's story of what it's like to be in high school in the mid-1990s. Appropriately, the story of Charlie (Logan Lerman) coincides almost exactly with when I was a freshman in high school, and the film immediately was more resonant. It's not that our experiences were the same (aside from having friends involved with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, they aren't at all), but it brought back memories of what it was like to be that age in that time. It's not just the "no cell phones or internet" or any of the other generational shifts between 1990 and 2012, but it was funny when Charlie, Patrick (Ezra Miller), and Sam (Emma Watson) hear David Bowie's "Heroes" while driving around and they don't know who it is. It takes them a year to find out, which isn't as outlandish as you might think for the time period.

 I can't say that I loved the sharp left turn the film takes in the final act (even if it slowly laid the groundwork over the course of the story), but Chbosky's self-adaptation stuck with me long after I finished the movie, and that counts for something in my book. The Perks of Being a Wallflower has the ability to make an emotional connection with the audience, one that overcomes any hiccups in the story structure. Also, I appreciate the inclusion of Paul Rudd and Tom Savini as teachers at Charlie's high school. The former I knew from the trailer, but the latter was quite a surprise, much like Melanie Lynskey's cameo that weighs heavily on the second half of the film.

Cosmopolis - I'll close this first list out with one of the two movies I've actually already reviewed. I watched David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis again not too long ago, and I think I like the film more, even as it aggressively works to keep you at arm's length. I totally understand why people would opt to put it on their "worst of" lists, and while I disagree, I don't dismiss the negative reactions. One has to work very hard to find the inherent value in Cosmopolis, and even then it always threatens to slip away from your grasp, to leave you adrift in a sea of seemingly pointless philosophical meandering, often for its own sake. So yeah, I can totally understand why it may not be worth the effort. I'm still working on what the extended effort on my part towards the film amounts to, but I feel like I'm getting there, and that the time spent in DeLillo's world as told by Cronenberg through Robert Pattinson is worthwhile. In the words of Radiohead, "I might be wrong," but it's a risk I'm willing to take.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Cap'n Howdy Presents his 2012 Recap: The Middle

 The middle section of this recap of 2012 is the largest, and perhaps trickiest to deal with for the Cap'n. It's not as though I didn't enjoy many of these films, and most of them come recommended for one reason or the other, with some reservations. I have a good reason why the bottom of the middle include movies that are a marked improvement over the worst films I saw (which I'll explain), and the top of the list are movies that almost made the cut of my favorites. In fact, several of them may be on your "favorite" list, but I had to draw the line somewhere, and despite REALLY enjoying all of them, there's just a little something that keeps them from being among the very best I saw.

 But that doesn't necessarily explain why it's so tricky writing about the middle section. You'll find that many of the movies on here are films I didn't write reviews for, mostly because I didn't have much to say about them at the time. Lots of them are all right, but nothing special, and I just didn't think I could add anything to the discussion about them, which leaves me with the task of doing so now. So this is going to be the longest of the recaps, likely with the fewest links to original reviews. That's your warning; grab a bite to eat, a cup of coffee, and let's sit down and look at 2012 from The Middle.

 As I said, all of these films are recommended, mostly as something you could rent if you felt curious about the directors, cast, writers, or stories. They aren't films you need to run out and see right now - that's the next list - but on their own these films could provide an evening's entertainment that won't drive you into a Resident Evil induced rage.

 Starting at the bottom of the middle:

 Dark Shadows and Frankenweenie - Tim Burton continues along his path of "things you recognize, re-imagined by a director you really used to like" by adapting the long running gothic soap opera Dark Shadows and his own short film, Frankenweenie, but this time it's stop-motion animated and three times as long.

Are you ready for the shocker? I actually liked Dark Shadows more than Frankenweenie. Nobody else did, but Dark Shadows isn't nearly as horrible as I expected it to be, and instead of nonstop jokes about the 1970s, it's a surprisingly atmospheric and violent meditation on family ties. That said, it has too many characters, superfluous cameos that really don't move the plot forward (Alice Cooper, I'm looking at you), and while it's better than I was prepared for, that doesn't mean it's even close to the best Tim Burton is capable of. I suppose after being disappointed by Sweeney Todd, Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Corpse Bride, the idea of a marginally entertaining Tim Burton film was refreshing. That said, everybody else seems to hate it, so be warned.

 Frankenweenie could be better if Burton could figure out how to stretch a 30 minute short film into a full narrative, but he didn't. Basically the structure of the original Frankenweenie has been elongated and stitched together with a clever pastiche of Joe Dante-esque "monsters run amok" - including the best (and possibly only) Bambi Meets Godzilla reference I can remember. Unfortunately, the first forty five minutes drag so much that it's more of a relief than a delight when the reanimated pets wreak havoc all over New Holland. I will say it was nice to (hear) Catherine O'Hara, Martin Short, and Winona Ryder return to the Burton-verse, but ultimately Frankenweenie overstays its welcome before it has the chance to be any fun.

To Rome with Love - This is pretty much "mid-grade" Woody Allen - it's judged more harshly because of how great Midnight in Paris was, but To Rome with Love is nowhere near as bad as Small Time Crooks, Anything Else, or Curse of the Jade Scorpion. It's just a pretty good anthology film with all of the baggage that accompanies that genre: some good stories, one that's just okay, and one outright dud.

 My favorite of the four sections involves Jesse Eisenberg having a chance encounter with Alec Baldwin while the latter is visiting his old neighborhood. Both are architects, and Eisenberg invites Baldwin to join him for coffee with girlfriend Greta Gerwig. You've probably seen the trailer and know that Ellen Page shows up as Gerwig's friend, a notorious boyfriend stealer, and Baldwin is immediately aware of what's going to happen. What makes it successful is realizing that Baldwin's character isn't actually there for most of the story - he exists as a sort of Jiminy Cricket for Eisenberg, interacting with everybody only in his imagination.

 To Rome with Love has its moments, but most of the segments are slow to start (the Allison Pill / Woody Allen in particular is unbearable at the outset) but are salvaged by images like an opera singer who can only perform while in the shower. Only the section with Penelope Cruz never goes anywhere, but it's a mostly amiable effort by the prolific Allen.

Screaming in High Heels: The Rise and Fall of the Scream Queen Era -This is a pretty short documentary focused on the "Big Three" of Scream Queens: Linnea Quigley, Michelle Bauer, and Brinke Stevens. If you don't know who they are then I can assure you this documentary won't be of much interest to you, but if you're a fan of Night of the Demons, Slumber Party Massacre, Return of the Living Dead or Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, then you'll have fun watching this. You get to know all three of them before, during, and after their runs as the faces (among other parts) of horror flicks in the 1980s. It is, at times, a little aimless in direction, but Stevens, Bauer, and Quigley are such entertaining subjects that it's worth checking out.

 The Woman in Black - A pretty good horror movie that works best by avoiding jump scares, but don't really reinvent the wheel. I will admit to being creeped out after watching the film alone and trying to sleep in an empty house.


 Some Guy Who Kills People

  Side By Side - This is a well made documentary about 35mm film vs digital film, hosted and narrated by Keanu Reeves, who manages to talk to the big names in digital and conventional filmmaking. Like who? Well, James Cameron, David Lynch, Steven Soderbergh, George Lucas, Robert Rodriguez, Christopher Nolan, Walter Murch, the Wachowski siblings, and Martin Scorsese, just to name a few. It's quite comprehensive and I wish I had enjoyed it more than I did. I enjoyed the debate, even if it leans heavily on the "digital" side of the argument, but I tended to drift while Side By Side explained how film is developed, edited, how cameras work, and what color timing is. While it makes perfect sense to explain it to audiences who don't know, it held me back from really getting into the film early on.

 V/H/S - This is a highly divisive combination of the anthology and "found footage" subgenres of horror, and if you have reservations about the latter or you get motion sickness from it, I'd go ahead and pass. The first and last segments are my favorites, with the others falling between "that was okay" and "I could do without that," and it's probably longer than it needs to be, but I liked it. Be warned, there are a lot of people who really hate this movie.

 The Expendables 2 - A more successful sequel than I think any of us were expecting, in large part because the narrative is streamlined to a "revenge" film. It benefits greatly from having Jean-Claude Van Damme as the villain, but is offset by the cameos from Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris being mostly one-liners referencing their films, including a "Chuck Norris Fact" from the man himself. I guess the groan inducing nature of that is worth putting up with because The Expendables 2 is a better movie than The Expendables.


  Cloud Atlas - So... I appreciate what the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer were trying to do. Adapting David Mitchell's Russian Nesting Egg of a novel into a movie that is, essentially, about recurring motifs (emotionally, historically, and experientially) and not totally dropping the ball deserves some level of admiration, and the nearly three hour film tries hard to keep it together for most of its running time.

 I can admire it, and appreciate it, but I don't think it was that successful. I'm not certain I liked it, although I wouldn't say I disliked it or outright hated it. I'm still on the fence. After a while, the decision to have the cast play multiple characters (of varying ethnicity and, eventually, gender) ceased to be effective and instead became distracting. I didn't want to be able to identify Hugh Grant immediately every time he showed up in the film, but sure enough that's what ended up happening, especially during his turn as "Hugh Grant plays Michael Caine." Ultimately the film gets hung up on that gimmick, even though I'd like to believe that it's not an intentional case of gimmickry. Why it's necessary makes sense, from a narrative and tonal standpoint, but it just doesn't gel. Or it didn't for me.  

 Killing Them Softly - There's a great crime movie in Andrew Domink's adaptation of George Higgin's Cogan's Trade, but along the way in adapting it, the director of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford had an idea that just hamstrings the whole project. I can understand why Dominik saw parallels between the novel and the 2008 financial crisis - it concerns mob gambling being disrupted by corruption on the part of its higher ups - but by integrating those parallels into the film, he nearly ruins the entire movie.

 Brad Pitt is great as the hitman who comes in to clean up the mess made by two lowlife fuck ups played by Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy (who are also great) after they rob a game run by Ray Liotta, who once held up one of his own games and then bragged about it after the fact. Richard Jenkins is very good as the middle-man between Pitt and the faceless mob decision makers, who are so cowardly they can't even convey what it is they want the killer to do, and James Gandolfini has a nice smaller role as a hitman so destroyed by alcoholism and his divorce that he won't leave his hotel room. Most of the actual story is really compelling and I enjoyed it, but then EVERY SINGLE TIME a television or radio is on, we have to listen to news coverage of the financial crisis, usually with Bush or Obama making speeches about the impending bailout. If that's not heavy-handed enough (and its omnipresence is frustrating to say the least), the film opens and closes by reminding you that Obama is running for President and then wins, which is coupled with a dismissive commentary about the politics of "Change." Why? To be honest, I'm not sure, because the ultimate payoff of the final conversation between Pitt and Jenkins doesn't need this ham-handed political commentary. It's a shame, because otherwise I think I would really dig Killing Them Softly.

 This is 40 - Judd Apatow's latest film has the least plot of any of his directorial efforts, and that has to be saying something. It's less of a movie than a chunk of the lives of characters we kinda knew from Knocked Up (hence the "Sort of Sequel" tagline), devoted to the fact that both protagonists are turning 40 in the same week. They are having financial trouble but go on vacation, they fight, they have tenuous relationships with their parents, they have daughters trying to figure out their place in the world, and jobs that aren't going the way they planned. None of this necessarily pays off in any way, and while Apatow finds room for Jason Segel, Chris O'Dowd, Lena Dunham, Megan Fox, John Lithgow, Albert Brooks, Robert Smigel, Melissa McCarthy, and Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day, neither Seth Rogen or Katherine Heigl's characters appear or, unless I missed it in passing, are even mentioned, even though both films end in a hospital and involve a surprise pregnancy (SPOILER).

 Despite the aimless nature of This is 40, it is an oddly appealing film, in no small part because of Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd. The film definitely leans more in the Funny People side of Apatow's films than the Knocked Up category, but if you don't mind spending a little over two hours watching people live fictionalized versions of the writer / director's experiences, there's a good time to be had.

 The Silver Linings Playbook - This is probably my least favorite David O. Russell movie, and I don't mean that as a sleight to The Silver Linings Playbook. Unfortunately, when the standard is set by Flirting with Disaster, I Heart Huckabees, and Three Kings, a movie as predictable as The Silver Linings Playbook is going to pale in comparison. And yet, despite the fact that you can watch the trailer and know exactly where the story is going to go, I did really enjoy the journey. The actors make most of the difference, although it doesn't hurt that all of them are playing characters with moderate to severe emotional issues.

 It's a funny movie in an uncomfortable way, especially in the awkward ways that Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence's characters try to navigate their emotional baggage, and that helps overcome the predictability. That, and it's also nice to see Robert DeNiro and Chris Tucker in a good movie for the first time in a while. I don't quite agree with the Academy Award nominations for acting, because while I liked The Silver Linings Playbook, I guess I didn't think it was anything more than just pretty good. Not great, but fun. 

 Indie Game: The Movie

  Prometheus - What I really enjoy about Prometheus is constantly being off-set by the truly stupid character beats and story turns, and while I am intrigued by a lot of the ideas in the film, the decision to introduce plot points for the express purpose of "saving them for the inevitable sequel" drives me nuts. Believe me, I've written about this before.

 By the same token, Prometheus is one of the few movies from 2012 that I've seen more than once this year (many of the others are on this list, oddly, although at least two will show up in the "Best Of"). I've watched the film in theaters, with the commentaries on (Ridley Scott's and the John Spaihts / Damon Lindelof bicker-fest), the deleted scenes and I watched The Furious Gods: The Making of Prometheus - all four hours of it. I mulled over Scott's decision to explicitly connect the Alien and Blade Runner universes, I've re-examined why characters made the idiotic decisions they made, and read the original draft of the screenplay.

 Somewhere in there, one can piece together where Prometheus went right and where it went very wrong, and I guess that makes it all the more frustrating. When Prometheus is firing on all cylinders, I'm blown away by Scott's vision and world construction. But so many inexplicably stupid things happen that I just can't overlook that it makes it hard to commit to the film, and no amount of appendices to the film itself can change that fact.

 The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Speaking of appendices, can I suggest that for a movie called The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins is actually mostly absent (or at least not a factor in any way) for most of the story? I actually liked The Hobbit, but often find myself telling people "it's not as bad as you've heard," which is never a good way to entice someone with reservations.

 The truth is that the negativity towards The Hobbit IS hyperbolic, and the film is nowhere as bad as you've probably heard. It's not perfect though, and I suppose that's the standard Peter Jackson is being held to. With the rose-tinted memory we have of The Lord of the Rings films and the misgivings about turning one book into three movies (not to mention the anti-Jackson backlash in the wake of King Kong and The Lovely Bones), as soon as critics and the internet smelled blood, they pounced. The Hobbit is... leisurely, to say the least. Not un-enjoyably so, but languidly paced nonetheless. Jackson tries very hard to make a small story a larger part of the Lord of the Rings narrative, and in doing so adds a LOT to the film that's either mentioned in passing or not mentioned at all in the book.

 I resisted writing a review because I didn't see the film in 48fps and was tired of reading about the experience from people who had, and there didn't seem to be much to say that hadn't already been covered ad nauseum elsewhere. For me, An Unexpected Journey was a lot like The Fellowship of the Ring, in good and bad ways, but overall it was a trip worth taking. Maybe all of the digressions weren't necessary, but I liked Radagast the Brown and the White Council. The Game of Riddles was fantastic, and Martin Freeman had a good go at Bilbo, even if he barely factors into his own story. So yeah, it's not what I guess everybody expected, but it's not the worst thing ever. Sorry if you genuinely hated The Hobbit, because I don't quite get where that would come from. It misses perfection, but it's unrealistic to expect that considering the extenuating circumstances.

 The Dark Knight Rises - I thought it was a fitting end to Christopher Nolan's interpretation of the Batman mythos. People really seem to hate this movie, at least if the internet is to be believed. In the link you can find some discussion of "plot holes" in The Dark Knight Rises, and why they don't matter thematically. I'd also add that Anne Hathaway was a great Catwoman and I wasn't expected the film to have so much humor early on. It was appreciated - including the hilariously bad remixing of Bane's dialogue on the plane, which makes him sound like he's speaking from a different room.

 Lawless - I really liked Lawless. The Proposition is still my favorite John Hillcoat movie, but Lawless is no slouch. Read the review to see the little things that endeared the film to me, and please don't let the presence of Shia LeBeouf keep you away. His character is quite appropriate to how you're likely to view him as a person, and you'll get to see Guy Pearce beat the ever loving shit out of him.

 Seven Psychopaths - Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) writes and directs a movie that ends up being about itself. It's a mixture of Adaptation and 8 1/2, filtered through the lens of movies about criminals and hitmen. Like In Bruges, it's frequently quite funny, often violent, and gleefully inappropriate. We laughed quite a lot during an employee screening, but I must admit I haven't seen it again yet. I want to, but the memory is fading, and like Lawless, while I really did like Seven Psychopaths, I prefer McDonagh's In Bruges more.

 The Man with the Iron Fists -  Not much I want to add here, other than I saw it again (twice) after writing the initial review. It's probably fair to mention that if you don't REALLY like kung-fu movies and the Wu-Tang Clan, The Man with the Iron Fists might not be your cup of tea. I mean, it might be, but I was pre-disposed to want to see a RZA movie, and it doesn't surprise me at all that for the most part I was satisfied with the end result.

 Wreck-It Ralph - Confession time: I'm not a huge video game nerd. I caught probably half of the "easter eggs" in Wreck-It Ralph - most notably a random Metal Gear Solid joke - but the good news is that you don't HAVE to be encyclopedic in your knowledge of arcade games from the 80s and 90s to have a good time watching the film. I think I was more surprised by Sarah Silverman than John C. Reilly, because she's very much against type in Wreck-It Ralph, and it works in a way I wasn't expecting. In fact, most of the film really works, including the reveal of the villain, which I honestly did not see coming. Impressive, Disney, most impressive.

 Haywire - I didn't get around to seeing Magic Mike in 2012 (I'll rectify that, I promise), so Steven Soderbergh's action movie gets the nod near the top of the "almost" list. The review pretty much covers why.

 John Dies at the End -This is a faithful adaptation of David Wong's novel by Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, Bubba Ho-Tep), at least for the first half. The film gets to about the halfway point in the book, and then realizes it has thirty minutes to wrap up the rest of the story, so liberties are taken. Honestly, I didn't mind them, because I knew what was being condensed and most of the spirit is kept intact.

 That said, I totally understand why people who haven't read John Dies at the End don't like the movie. There's a sense of context that's missing from the film as it hurtles towards its conclusion that further confuses the comedy / horror tone and probably loses a lot of people. If you haven't read the book, I wouldn't watch the movie at all. You're going to hate it because of how it collapses in the last thirty minutes. If you have read the book, know Coscarelli mostly made sensible changes (not going to Vegas, diminishing Amy's role in the overall story, dropping certain elements of Korrok's plan), and made at least one I don't really understand (changing Molly's name), and two I don't know how I feel about (no Fred Durst and John's band doesn't sound nearly as bad as I thought it would). I dig John Dies at the End, and if it ever happens, I'd watch This Book (Movie?) is Filled with Spiders, although with what they had to do on a low budget here, I can't imagine that ever happening. That's a shame.

 21 Jump Street - I don't think I've laughed that hard or that consistently at another comedy this year. I was not expecting this movie to be good in the first place, let alone as funny as it is. For some reason, "Korean Jesus don't have time for your problems" pops up at work in conversation regularly.

 I'll be back soon with the cream of the crop, and because I've given up on trying to put it in order, you can expect a structure similar to this one. Are you excited?

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Trailer Sunday Presents the Worst Films I Saw in 2012

Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies

Underworld: Awakening

Resident Evil: Retribution

Piranha 3DD

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Taken 2