Tuesday, January 14, 2014
2013 Recap: The Final Stretch Before the "Best Of" (Part Four)
At long last, the recap of what constitutes "the middle" is nearly over. Comparing this project to last year's one post, title and quick synopsis / review, I think I'm happier to spend the time giving you a better idea of the strengths and weaknesses of each film, and explaining why they're worth seeing, but not quite the best movies I saw last year. Hopefully the feeling is mutual, but if not, I can go back to the old way next year.
New York (and Jersey) State of Mind.
As much as I personally enjoyed Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha, it's been a struggle to recommend it to friends. I'm not really sure who will like it and who won't; Baumbach and Greta Gerwig's distinctly American version on the French New Wave might strike a lot of you as precious and contrived. Some might find it annoying and might be turned off completely by the title character (Gerwig) and her inability to commit to any one direction in life. I say this because that's consistently been the criticism from people who hate it (and I mean HATE). Others take umbrage with its adoption of the FNW aesthetic, arguing that the film is a weak imitator that can only be enjoyed by those who aren't versed in Truffuat or Godard or Malle. Maybe that's so, but I'm not convinced of that argument. Maybe Frances Ha has to catch you in just the right mood.
On the other hand, if it does strike your fancy, you'll find a lot to enjoy in what is an essentially jubilant and upbeat take on the quarter-life crisis. Baumbach borrows music from The 400 Blows, Bed and Board, Contempt, and King of Hearts to set the tone, and the film is, to me, structured a bit like Vivre sa vie, although nowhere as depressing. Rather than break the film into chapters, Baumbach divides each chronological section of Frances Ha using a title with Frances' current mailing address. Gerwig is in every scene of the movie, and while the character can sometimes be infuriating, her performance as Frances is always riveting. But I'm still not sure how many of you are going to take to the film, so if you watch it and hate it, don't say I didn't try to give you a head's up.
Don Jon, the Jersey equivalent of Frances Ha (sort of but also not really) is the directorial debut of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also wrote and stars in the film. Like the titular character, Don Jon has confidence to spare, and the film is tremendously charming, which is a good thing. It stumbles a little bit on the back end (I'll get to that in a moment), but for most people you won't even think twice about it. The trailers have been misleading you into thinking it's just about Gordon-Levitt trying to date Scarlett Johansson while also having a porn addiction, but that's less of the story than you might be expecting.
This you probably knew from the trailer, and that he also meets Barbara Sugarman (Johansson), the rare "10" that Jon knows he wants immediately. But Barbara isn't so easily won over, and the "Don" has to play the long game to win her over, which begins disrupting his routine. She doesn't like that he cleans his own apartment. She wants him to go to school in order not to be a bartender forever. She really objects to the porn, but Jon keeps watching it on his phone (sometimes at school). But her friends like Jon and his family loves her, and most of the things she wants are improving his life, so how can he complain? He likes porn, she likes dumb romantic comedies (one of the ones they go to see in the movie stars Anne Hathaway and Channing Tatum in amusing cameos), what's the difference? It's all fantasy, right?
And then Don Jon takes a left turn, introducing a character you don't see in the trailer and whose name you'd certainly recognize if I told you (her name is on the poster, by the way). That's where the movie starts to diverge from whatever you expected based on the trailer. I don't want to say too much because not knowing is Don Jon's greatest strength - leading you into thinking this is one kind of romantic comedy and then heading in another direction midway through. Let's just say that Jon's routine starts to come apart a little bit, and maybe that's not such a bad thing for the "Don."
If anything, I wish Gordon-Levitt had been willing to go a little further than he does; I kept waiting to see where the story was going, to see what he had up his sleeve, only to realize that Don Jon was going to be far more conventional than I'd hoped for. The ending isn't bad, necessarily, but it's safer than I was expecting, more fitting of the typical "three act structure" romantic comedy that the movie seems to be poking fun at and less willing to really take the genre to task. Don't get me wrong, it doesn't end the way you'd assumed based on the trailer, but by mentioning that there's another character you haven't seen in the previews, you can probably guess what happens.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a fine job directing, even if the writing is more conventional than the Cap'n would have liked. I'd also like to give him kudos for casting, especially with Jon's family. Not only was it nice to see Tony Danza and Glenne Headly again (I can't remember anything I've seen her in since Dick Tracy), but along with Brie Larson, they felt like a real family sitting down for dinner after church. Everybody has great chemistry and the fun is infectious, so I have the feeling you'll come out of Don Jon smiling, as long as you can handle fleeting glimpses of porn. Guys, I guess you should be prepared to address that question if you watch this on a date. That's your head's up.
Science Fiction Double Feature
Is Pacific Rim just a dumb, loud movie that caters to the twelve year old boy inside of 20-30 something nerds that like to see robots fighting monster? Probably. Are the characters, at best, wafer thin with ridiculous names you wouldn't say out loud even if you could remember them? Almost certainly. Did Guillermo del Toro decide to make a silly movie inspired by Japanese kaiju pictures when he left The Hobbit and At the Mountains of Madness was to dark and too scary for a major studio? Pretty much. Do I care? Not really.
Gravity has some truly inspiring camera work and visual effects, and watching the movie is like riding on a roller coaster with more suspense than an Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece. I can totally understand why it took Alfonso Cuarón seven years to make this, and some of the camera work and (seemingly) unbroken takes are genuinely impressive. It was everyone's favorite movie this summer, the "must see" event that friends and family and audiences in general couldn't get enough of, and now I'm not hearing so much about it. It didn't make my "Best Of" at any point, really, despite its myriad of achievements and how gripping the entire film is. Why?
Gravity is wholly successful at being a movie you want to watch, and to experience, even if it seems thoroughly implausible at times. On an IMAX screen, I'm sure it felt like "you are there," particularly in those first person perspective shots of trying to grab the space station(s). It's a triumph visually and in design and execution. There are shots in the film that continue to impress me when I think about them now. But the longer I go since I've seen Gravity, the more fleeting my engagement with the predicament of Stone and Kowalski is, so while I remain dazzled with what Cuarón achieved visually, I'm less enthused about the whole package.
Based on a True Story but Actually (kind of), This Time.
Previously on Cap'n Howdy's Blogorium... documentary recap! While not all of the movies covered in the recap were from 2013, it does reflect how I feel about Rewind This! and Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony. This section should be about the documentaries I didn't get around to seeing but wanted to, like Blackfish, The Act of Killing, and Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay, all of which I hope to watch in the new year. Maybe We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, but I did just watch the fictionalized / Cumberbatch-ized version, The Fifth Estate (not in time for the recap) and it was just okay.
What I left off of the documentary recap (for space, mostly) were two other documentaries I saw in 2013 - Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie and Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th. I feel like the latter should (and probably will) get its own post some time soon, but I thought we could spend this time together covering them as I think you would enjoy one or the other based on its subject matter.
Well, Morton Downey Jr., for starters. Whether his TV act was just that (an act) or not, there does seem to be a great disparity between the activist of the 1960s who wrote a book of poetry and supported the Kennedy's and the foul mouthed, caustic, abrasive radio turned talk show host who berated his guests until they walked out. Meanwhile, he took his show on the road and recorded a folk album with a long time friend (from what you hear in the movie, it's pretty terrible). The documentary covers Downey from all angles - friends who knew him before and during the show, executives, producers, audience members, and impressively, some of the guests. Alan Dershowitz and Gloria Steinem appear on camera and seem to have fond memories of sparring with Downey on the air.
Not appearing, but a large part of the discussion, is the Reverend Al Sharpton, whose continued presence on the show during the Tawana Brawley case helped increase the prominence both of him and Downey. The legendary brawl at the Apollo Theater during one of Downey's live tour is given a new perspective from the point of view of the show bodyguard, who considered it to be more of a "party" than a riot. Throughout the documentary there's a discussion of what was real and what was exaggerated on the show and whether its host even believed what he was saying. Interspersed between are animated segments that reminded me a bit of American: The Bill Hicks Story, as well as readings from his book "Quiet Thoughts" Make the Loudest Noise (published under Sean Morton Downey). There's never a dull moment in the documentary, and worth checking out.
Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th is the follow-up to Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy from Daniel Farrands, and at nearly seven hours, it would be hard to argue that it wasn't exhaustive and thorough. I liked it, but not as much as Never Sleep Again, and it's not so much that I enjoy A Nightmare on Elm Street more, but that I feel like Friday the 13th has been covered more often in different places.
There's still a LOT to learn here, and like Never Sleep Again, my least favorite Friday entries often produce the best stories (parts V, VIII, and the remake). If you're a fan of the series who hasn't read or seen tons of anecdotes about Friday the 13th, there's going to be a lot to love here (and if you're lucky, maybe you can score a copy with the bonus disc that includes another 4 1/2 hours of additional interviews), but die hard fans should know that there's a good deal of ground covered here you already know, as entertaining as it is to hear again.
Where Have You Been?
This last section is designed to cover directors I'd been waiting to see follow-up well known (or at least, well liked by me) films or, in the case of one of them, return to making a style of movies most thought he'd long abandoned. In any other sense, these films have almost nothing in common, but you have to close out somewhere, right?
I had been waiting for a long time for Shane Black's next film after the riotous, irreverent, clever take on detective films, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and finally got it in the form of Iron Man Three earlier in 2013. Like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it takes place during Christmas, has deceptive narration, and doesn't take itself, the source material, or even the films that preceded it in the Marvel Universe too seriously. The last part was a serious sticking point for hard core Marvel fans, as Black's insouciant attitude towards The Mandarin soured many a fanboy and the internet is still screaming about how Black and Ben Kingsley "ruined" their favorite Iron Man villain.
The Avengers, has night terrors, and is obsessed with perfecting his armor in order to be ready for when (not if) it happens again. Instead of an alien invasion, Stark finds himself picking a fight with international terrorist The Mandarin (Kingsley) while Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) fends off the advances of Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a scientist who has his own history with Tony. Along for the ride are Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), re-branded as the Iron Patriot, and one of Killian's former associates, Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), who is more than a little worried about her boss's association with The Mandarin.
Much credit is due to Black for doing two things you should never do: 1) keeping Stark out of the Iron Man armor for most of the middle of the movie and 2) introducing a kid "sidekick" for Tony during the same stretch of film. Not only is Stark forced to be more resourceful, but we see how he deals with someone that, in a million years, Tony would never pair up with but has no choice. And rather than being the typical obnoxious child, Haley (Ty Simpkins) goes toe-to-toe with Tony and their bickering manages to avoid most of the problems with involving a kid in the story.
The film is loosely adapted from the Extremis story in Iron Man, but it's probably going to be remembered less for the balance of action and comedy and more for the introduction of The Mandarin and the (SPOILER) subsequent revelation that he's just an actor playing the part of a terrorist. Comic fans hated Black taking down the Mandarin mythos and revealing him just to be some guy hired to be the face of the operation, and I get it. It's a huge bait-and-switch and no amount of theorizing that "Trevor Slattery" is "actually really The Mandarin doing a double fake-out" is going to assuage taking the piss out of the villain.
All the same, I must say I really enjoyed Iron Man Three (spelled that way in the closing credits, which means it's how you should address it, mmkay?) and Black's foray into the Marvel Universe. Based on interviews where he was asked, it sounds like he doesn't really want to do any more Marvel movies, so I look forward to whatever he's up to next. Let's just not take another eight years, if that's cool.
While on the subject of Marvel directors, Joss Whedon surprised everybody in 2013 by revealing he had, mostly in secret, already completed his next film, an adaptation of William Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing. Filmed entirely at his house (where he staged regular Shakespeare readings with friends) and starring vast swaths of cast members from the Whedon-verse, Much Ado About Nothing is a breezy, enchanting modern take on the Bard that, thanks in large part to its location, brings a sense of intimacy to the story. It's also a marked contrast to The Avengers and Serenty in scope, and closer in execution (if not tone) to his television work.
Whedon makes an interesting decision at the beginning of Much Ado About Nothing to explicitly show Beatrice and Benedick's romantic history preceding the story, which is (maybe) hinted at in the play but never stated. It adds an additional layer to the banter between Acker and Denisof (who already had great chemistry on Angel, sorry but I am a nerd). It takes a moment to adjust to Shakespearan dialogue in American dialect (the last time I heard it presented that way was in the awful 2000 version of Hamlet), but once you've settled in the presentation and black and white photography seem perfectly natural. Whedon once again indulges in including a song in the film ("Say No More") and while he didn't write it, for some reason I just can't get into the presentation of music in any of his projects, which makes a critical scene early in the film more of an annoyance for me than it should be. But that, I know, is completely my issue and won't affect many of you at all. Just know that "Once More with Feeling" and Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog are not my favorite Whedon related projects. Technically I suppose Much Ado About Nothing is supposed to be a 2012 film, but there wasn't anywhere I could see it before 2013, so that's how I'm counting it. It's a welcome change of pace from an always unpredictable voice in geekdom.
As divisive as Iron Man Three and Frances Ha are likely to be (for different reasons), I think Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives is going to take the cake. If you hated Drive (and I know several people who were quite vocal in their disagreement over its place in my 2011 "Best Of" list), you're really going to hate Only God Forgives. If you liked Drive (as I did and continue to), there's still a very good chance you're going to hate Only God Forgives. It's even less direct in where it is going, even more abstract in its storytelling, and even more withdrawn in its performances. The subject matter is consistently brutal and borderline abhorrent, and the violence is more extreme. There are no characters worth pulling for, and nobody really wins in the end. So that's your warning. That said, I think I really liked it. Didn't love it, but I'm pretty sure I really like it.
Only God Forgives has less of a story than Drive, and that's saying something. Where Drive was a neo-noir that followed the wrong character (traditionally speaking, the Bryan Cranston character should have been the protagonist based on most noir conventions), Only God Forgives is a revenge film where the person seeking revenge a) doesn't want to and b) is grossly outmatched in his opponent, but he's been coerced into doing it, so things probably won't end well.
When Julian isn't acting fast enough in taking revenge, Crystal hires his associates to do the job and kill both the father and Chang, and it doesn't end well. Chang is a brutally efficient killer with a stringent moral code. When he's done committing horrific acts of justice, he sings karaoke. Julian has premonitions of losing his beloved hands to Chang, but is pressed onward by his warped mother (also revealed to be the boss behind the drug dealing) to murder the police officer. Julian tries to fight him and loses (badly), but presses on, even though no good can come of this.
Every character in Only God Forgives is unlikeable, from the practically comatose Julian to the loathsome Billy to the repressive to the point of extreme outbursts Chang. Crystal is probably the worst of all of them, egging Julian on to kill someone he can't hope to defeat, but she's seeking retribution for her dead son. Then again, Julian's in Thailand because Crystal asked him to kill his own father and he did it. Nothing about Only God Forgives is pleasant, but there's a strangely hypnotic quality in Refn's opaque presentation of what little story there is. It's a march towards inevitability, to be sure, but one that transfixes. And one that most of you will find every bit as loathsome and unappealing as its protagonists.
Ryan Gosling is nearly motionless for long stretches, to the point of appearing catatonic. Pansringarm is stoic, even during moments of violence, and the juxtaposition in the karaoke lounge doesn't waver much from that. On the other hand, the nearly unrecognizable Kristin Scott Thomas oozes malice and manipulates everyone in her sight, breaking the formality. I don't suppose the droning score will help, or the mostly neon lighting, or the long opening section (in what is a fairly short movie) where nothing happens. The only appeal, I suppose, is if you desperately need to see Ryan Gosling get his ass handed to him, because that does happen. Otherwise, I would proceed with caution - this is going to be a seriously divisive film for years to come.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, I never thought I'd seen the David Gordon Green who made George Washington, All the Real Girls, and Undertow again. After Pineapple Express, Green seemed to be enjoying making high concept lowbrow comedies that people really didn't warm to, like Your Highness and his ill-advised remake of Adventures in Babysitting, The Sitter. For a stretch there, one could assume he was happy making comedies for major studios. But then again, you know what they say about assuming...
To everybody's surprise, Green announced he'd already finished a new movie, filmed on the low down, and would be releasing it in 2013. Prince Avalanche, based on a Swedish film called Either Way, is David Gordon Green returning to minimalist storytelling, to his independent roots inasmuch as that's possible, and it's a fine return to form. I also didn't know Either Way existed, so there was no basis for comparison in my mind while watching it, if that's a mitigating factor for anybody.
In the summer of 1988, after wildfires ravaged the Texas country side, Alvin (Paul Rudd) is working on repainting the roads out in rural areas. He brought along his girlfriend's younger brother, Lance (Emile Hirsch), in part because he asked but also because Lance is a "city boy." Alvin is surprised and disappointed that Lance has no idea how to fish or fend for himself, but Lance is just interested in getting to the weekend so he can go back to town and get laid.
If you're in the mood for a small movie that's more character driven than narrative, I think you'll do very well to watch Prince Avalanche. With Rudd and Hirsch starring, I suppose it's somewhere between and "indie" movie and a major release (it's something I think we would have had at The Galaxy), and it's the best thing Green's done since Pineapple Express. And if you didn't like that, I'd happily tell you this is as good as All the Real Girls, if even more limited in scope. That's not a bad thing, by the way. Prince Avalanche also makes me want to seek out Either Way, which is something to do between now and Green's next film, Joe, another drama with Nicolas Cage. Count me in.
This is it. We've finally made it to the end of the middle, as strange as that sounds. All that remains now are the final twelve, the best of the best. My favorite movies of 2013, and as we've built towards them, you can imagine how enthused I am to share them with you. Most of them I've already seen more than once, and I've been driving my friends crazy for the last three months to see all of them. But that you must wait a little bit longer for. Not too long, but a little suspense will do you good...