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?

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