Monday, December 31, 2012

The 10 Best Movies of 2012

What a year huh? Most years, I feel kind of weird about some of the movies hanging off the end of my top 10, feel that one or two at the bottom don’t completely belong there. This year? I wish I could have 15, 20 top movies. There are tons, and I mean TONS of movies that any other year would be on my top 10 (Avengers, Dark Knight Rises, Chronicle, The Grey, Looper) and a bunch of others that would probably be in my top 5 (Seven Psychopaths, Django Unchained, Robot & Frank) that just, for one reason or another, aren’t in my top 10. So please, if something isn’t here, don’t assume I don’t think it’s good. Read my review to get my opinion. So, here they are, my top 10 Best Films of 2012:

With it’s cast and director, Lincoln was always going to be a good, or at least well executed, film, the main question being how good. But, instead of being a drippy Oscar Bait drama, Lincoln takes it completely in the opposite direction. With a darkly comic tone, tight political intrigue and brilliant performances all around, this movie surprised almost everyone. Congratulations Steven, for reminding us why you’re such a big deal.

This is one of those movies where I don’t think a lot of people who see it are going to like it. But if you do like it, you’ll probably love it, because it’s just such a weirdly interesting experience, alienating and compelling at the same time, like Cronenberg’s own Videodrome. If you’d told me a few years ago that Robert Pattinson would be in the best position, post-Twilight, of the cast, I’d have laughed. Funny how that works out sometimes?

Beasts is one of those movies that seems like an impossibility in todays movie industry. Environmental without being preachy, elements of magical realism that don’t overwhelm the plot, accurate representations of the poor that aren’t pitying or fetishizing, this kind of stuff never happens. With a performance from a 6 year old that will go down in movie legends, the best analogy I can make for Beasts is that it’s like a live-action Ghibli movie. And there can be no higher praise.

Oh shut up, I’m allowed one personal pick, aren’t I? And it’s still a brilliant, beautiful movie, everything it should be. Martin Freeman is a brilliant Bilbo, Richard Armitage a note-perfect Thorin, with gorgeous CGI and technical works, and subtle callbacks to the original trilogy, this is in an incredible return to Middle Earth. It’s been far too long.

Speaking of the kind of movies we never get anymore, it’s almost impossible to make a movie about a recent event in history without politics or mythmaking. But this movie, despite being about moviemaking, manages to do it, and still have time for a ridiculously tense final act. Good on Goodman and Arkin for doing so much to carry this movie, and good on Affleck’s continued penance for the previous decade of his career. I wonder if it’s possible to do this trick twice in a year…

Oh, it is. And this one is a much more recent and much more public event, so it’s even more of a miracle. Brilliantly directed and disturbingly dark, with underlying themes of what happens when you hunt monsters and a revelatory performance by Jessica Chastain, this is one of the truly great films on the War on Terror, of which there have been far too few.

One of these things is not like the others… Oh well, great is great. The horror genre is one of the most tiresomely predictable genres out there, but here comes Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard to remind us, it doesn’t need to be that way. If you haven’t seen it, there’s no excuse now, but I’m still not going to tell you what happens. Seriously, this movie is brilliant, so go see it now.

The day Paul Thomas Anderson makes a bad movie is the day I completely despair. Don’t go in expecting a Scientology takedown movie, that’s not what it is. Go in expecting the story of a despicable man, and his tragic friendship with a man trapped in the religion he created, with a insane performance from Joaquin Phoenix my best actor of the year.

In a year of such big films, with big stories and big characters and big action sequences, it seems weird to give such a high spot to such a small movie. But while it’s small and quiet, it’s also brilliant, softly moving and incredibly acted. Wes Anderson has made good movies before, but this is the one that, to me, brought it all together, and will be the movie for him to beat for the rest of his career.

The fact that this movie got made at all, is a surprise. That it got made not as a low budget indie movie, but as a big blockbuster with an all star cast and top of the line special effects, is incredible. But the fact that it works, works brilliantly, beautifully and perfectly, is just plain a miracle. A hauntingly beautiful score, incredible CGI and makeup, directors and actors putting in career best works, and the kind of editing that can and will be taught in film school for years to come, this is easily the best film of the year. And I’m sure, when we’ve all had time to adjust to it, it will eventually stand as one of the best films ever made.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Review: Dark Shadows

You know, I actually like Tim Burton. I’m not kidding, I think he’s actually pretty good director. He’s got a unique visual aesthetic, a talent for writing interesting characters and a working understanding of story techniques. It’s just…lately there’s something wrong with him. I’m not quite sure what, I don’t know if anyone does, and it’s not 100 percent down (he’s made some good films lately, like Sweeney Todd) but his output has been going steadily downhill since the turn of the millennium. Shit like Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factor and Planet of the Apes, are actively terrible movies, which is distressing from someone who’s not a terrible director. But while Dark Shadows is not bad in the way Alice or Charlie is, it’s just…not very good.

The plot, based on a 1960’s soap opera, is about a 200 year old vampire, imprisoned underground by a jealous former lover who turns out to be a witch. He breaks out in the 1970s to find his old money family has descended into squabbling upper class twits. He arrives and makes it his mission to revive the family’s fortunes, opposed by the witch who is, as it turns out, immortal.

If that sounds like a thin premise, it is, and the movie isn’t doing a hell of a lot with it. It’s got a few funny moments, and a unique visual design (which is nice, as a lot of Tim’s later movies have the same goddamn visual design) but overall, there’s just not a lot to it. It’s a little too focused in on it’s ‘man out of time’ humor, which gets old fast (although I will say, to it’s credit, the 1970’s setting works really well, mostly for music and thematic reasons). It also fumbles it’s character relationships a bit, giving a lot of screentime to the entertaining interplay between the hero and villain, but not as much as to his relationship with his love interest or the kid he becomes a surrogate father to (yes a Tim Burton film includes a character with father issues, what a goddamn surprise), which leads the villainess to be vastly more interesting.

But all of this is ignoring the movie’s biggest flaw: That it’s just fucking boring. And that’s the biggest crime it commits. Sure Depp looks more engaged than he has since Sweeney Todd, most of the cast is game for the material and Burton is working his ass off, but it’s still just…dull. Not particularly funny, not particularly exciting, it’s just boring. So I guess I’m going to cut this review a bit short. I’ve heard Frankenweenie is good, so I guess I’ll see that when it hits DVD, but as for this one? Skip it.

Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he’d like to remind all of you to go see Ed Wood.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Review: John Dies at the End

John Dies at the End is a movie I’ve been anticipating all year, for 2 major reasons. Firstly, it’s the first feature directed by Don Coscarelli since 2002’s underwatched Bubba Ho-Tep. Secondly it’s adapted from an excellent novel, that Coscarelli’s directorial style seems to suit rather uniquely. So hopes are high going in.

The result? Pretty damned good. The story is devoted to David Wong (not his real name) living in an Undisclosed town in the midwest. When his best friend John takes a drug called Soy Sauce, he finds he can see creatures from other dimensions and remember things that haven’t happened yet. Soon, all sorts of shit is going tits up and it’s up to David and John to save the world.

As suspected, Don was a great fit for the extremely offbeat material. His direction is one of the best things about this movie, keeping the tone light and funny, even during the occasionally extremely dark happenings in the movie. It’s impressive when the movie manages to be both genuinely funny and genuinely scary, often at the same time. His choice, with the adaptation, is to take a series of some of the more famous moments from the book and adapt them to a slightly different narrative, that follows similar beats to the book while not being a slave to it. It’s a weird choice, but it works surprisingly well, especially since it’s tasked with boiling down a 450+ page book into an 100 minute movie. The dialogue and script, while mostly taken from the book it’s adapting, always manages to fit and never has the feeling that Watchmen had of character’s lines being divorced from their context.

The actors are all solid, which is especially impressive given how many of them are newcomers. The two actors playing Dave and John are both excellent, inhabiting their roles in a unique way. We’ve established before that Paul Giamatti is good in everything, and he proves it again here. Special mention must also go to Clancy Brown, playing Dr. Albert Marconi. He’s playing the character in a highly unique way, completely different from the book, but he sells it really well. And I have to say, as a Phantasm fan, seeing Angus Scrimm (aka the Tall Man) tell someone that he’s fucked over the phone really appeals to me in a weird way.

The movie does have issues though. The first is clearly the middling budget. I don’t know how much this movie cost, but it can’t be much (Don Coscarelli never gets a particularly big budget) and even though there’s very little of it above the line and he uses what he got well, the budget won’t let the effects get all the way there. The second is in the occasionally weird ways it does pay tribute to the book, even when it doesn’t really have time to. Good example, the movie includes the fairly prominent character of Amy Sullivan, but doesn’t really have a hell of a lot to do with her. Her role in the book is primarily concerned with backstory and dialogue, so there’s obviously not a lot they can do with her, but she’s still in the movie, just sort of hanging around. If you’re not a fan of the book, she and her role might seem a little baffling to you.

But those minor problems don’t prevent the movie from being a lot of fun. Right now John Dies at the End is playing On Demand, iTunes and Amazon Instant, and it will be in theaters come January 25th. And while this is a movie with something of a limited audience, I’m still going to highly recommend you check it out. If you’re into horrors, comedies, horror comedies or just any of Don Coscarelli’s previous work (in particular Bubba Ho-Tep or Phantasm) then I recommend it even higher. It’s not completely perfect, but it works surprisingly well and it’s a real blast to watch.

Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he wonders what they’re going to call the adaptation of the sequel? This Theater is Full of Spiders?

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Review: Django Unchained

Here then is one of the shameful secrets of my film nerd-dom (that’s some weird English right there): I don’t always like Tarantino. Now, don’t get me wrong, I never dislike him (Deathproof being the notable exception for being as boring as tar) but I occasionally have issues with him. But, issues aside, he typically makes movies that are at least good and a couple movies, including his last film, have been actually great.

Based on this and 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, he intends to keep moving backwards in time (anything that keeps him from making his increasingly tiresome references to 70’s movies is good with me, though he still manages to stick one in) but Django Unchained is also a weirdly different breed from his other movies. The plot, or rather the setup, is very straightforward. A slave, the titular Django, is bought by a bounty hunter who needs his help to track down a group of criminals, on the promise of his freedom and the eventual rescue of his wife.

Based on that premise, and the fact that Tarantino is directing, what kind of movie are you expecting? A cheesy, over the top, gory, western, with maybe some spoof elements in place? Well that movie is there, yes, but it’s also occupying the same space as a weirdly sincere attempt to portray slavery as it was, with no sugar coating or excuses. And it’s from this place that the movie seems to get not only all of its weaknesses but a good portion of its strengths. But we’ll talk about that in a moment.

The other place it gets its strengths from is the acting. Jamie Foxx is quite good in the title role, but we knew he was good, and his character is a little too one dimensional for it to really be the best in the movie (he’s playing what amounts to a well written action hero, so he’s going to be a bit straightforward). Christoph Waltz is a little more interesting, but like the lead he’s a little too straightforward to be really Oscar caliber, but he’s still playing it incredibly. No, the real heavy acting is from Leonardo DiCaprio, in a villainous role that he digs into with admirable gusto, bring brilliant nuance to a role that could easily be a one dimensional villain. He's playing a character who thinks he's charismatic and interesting, but is actually just...vile, and the way his character works and acts throughout the second and third act is incredible. Second consideration must also go to Samuel L. Jackson as…well I don’t want to spoil it, but trust me he’s great.

The direction is, naturally, rather excellent, as Tarantino has long been settled into his directorial style and ability. The writing is also good, and the usual issue Tarantino has about all of the characters having the same voice appears to have relaxed slightly. The action sequences, while sparse, are well put together and exciting.

Of course it’s in the movie’s frank and brutal (and therefore accurate) treatment of slavery that it gets a lot of its power. A lot, and I do mean a lot, of Django’s character comes from his reaction to the ridiculously brutal things done to slaves, both his anger and, during his attempts to infiltrate plantations, his attempts to hide his anger. But it’s also where the movie gets it’s only major failing, in it’s occasionally schitzophrenic tone. A lot, and I mean a lot, of the early violence the main characters inflict, is played for laughs, to the point where I at first thought it was going to be a straight ahead comedy for the first half hour. This is all violently at odds with the darker tone of the slavery scenes, and the mood can cause whiplash occasionally.

There’s also some minor issues with the pacing, mostly toward the end, but then pacing and tonal issues are pretty much par for the course, and it doesn’t stop the movie from being excellently made, wildly entertaining and a trip and a half to watch. If you haven’t seen The Hobbit yet, you definitely need to hit this movie up, it’s worth it.

Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and can he use Lannister as a synonym for incest? Cuz he think Leo’s character was Lannistering his sister.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Worst 5 Movies of 2012

Well it’s actually been a pretty good year for movies. 2012 had some out and out masterpieces and much more than it’s share of good to great movies. But with every year, there must also be some shit involved, and this year had it’s share of that. So, since my top 10 list is still taking shape, here are the 5 worst movies of 2012.

There are going to be a lot of people who object to this being here, as I know a lot of people liked this movie. Well fuck it, I didn’t. I thought it was alternately boring, because half the time NOTHING was happening and irritating because the good character and interesting potential was being squashed. The best I can say for it is that, unlike some other bad superhero movies (Green Lantern, Catwoman) it doesn’t constantly assail you with how terrible it is.

The original may have been ridiculously silly, but it was a working silly. This lifeless, emotionless and boring remake just doesn’t work. It’s also kind of disconcerting seeing Colin Farrel here, given that he’s also in Seven Psychopaths, one of the better movies of the year. Just goes to show, you might have good people involved, but it doesn’t matter for shit if you can’t make it work.

I feel kinda bad giving this spot to a small movie that got a relatively limited release. But hey, I give high spots to those kind of movies all the time, so why not be willing to give a low spot to it. It’s energetic and creative, which is more than I can say for a lot of these movies, but that only highlights how little most of it works. And why wasn’t Tommy Wiseau in it? He’s in their show all the time.

George, George, George. No wonder you gave away Lucasfilm, if this is the kind of movie you’re putting out. I feel bad for the Tuskeegee Airmen, as they deserve a better movie than this, but also for Anthony Hemingway, who has to live with this embarrassing movie on his resume, and as his future feature film. Maybe we could try to give the Airmen another movie in a few years?

Aggressively terrible is the word that I think describes it. You know how I said Spider-Man doesn’t constantly assault you with how terrible it is? Yeah, this does. A constant, unceasing barrage of painfully bad filmmaking that left me empty and depressed. Even weeks later, I can’t summon the anger. Just depression. Congratulations Sandler, you dragged Andy Samberg down with you too. And you'll probably win next year too.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Review: Les Miserables

Les Miserables the stage musical, itself an adaptation of a ridiculously huge Victor Hugo novel, is probably the biggest musical there is. Most musicals get by on one, maybe two, showstopper numbers. Les Miserables (hereinafter referred to as Les Mis) has, at last count, 6 (in no particular order: I Dreamed a Dream, On My Own, Do You Hear the People Sing, One Day More, Stars and Bring Him Home). That’s a lot of big numbers, and a movie adaptation would need big, grand direction to go with it.

Unfortunately, Tom Hooper is directing, and any issues the movie has are directly related to his flat boring direction. Don’t get me wrong, this movie is definitely worth seeing. The acting is amazing, the costumes and sets spot on (well...most of the sets...) and all of my worries about the singing were way off. There’s a lot of good IN the movie. But I’m sorry, this movie is crying out for huge beautiful direction and it’s just not happening. Just as an example, the first major showstopper is I Dreamed a Dream, an incredibly deep and moving number, which is still probably the most famous number from this musical. In this movie, it is realized…via a 4+ minute close up on Anne Hathaway. I don’t usually offer specific direction advice, but I’m sorry, holding the same shot for 4 fucking minutes cheapens the shot; You save the close up for the end of the song.

The plot? It’s the universe shitting on this one guy every time he tries to be a nice guy, for like 3 hours. That about sums it up, do you really not know this? It’s one of the most famous stories in the world. Jean Valjean is a prisoner, put away for stealing a loaf of bread. When he’s freed and breaks parole, he is hunted by Javert, a borderline psychotic inspector, who will not rest until he’s returned to prison. Oh and there’s a romance and something about a student rebellion. But mostly? Life shitting on Jean Valjean.

If there’s a reason to see this movie, it’s the acting. Anne Hathaway has been getting the most press, and it’s well deserved, she really sells her role as Fantaine. She will be up for Best Supporting Actress come Oscar time, and she can probably win. Hugh Jackman is a close runner up, as he is the tasked with holding up the majority of the movie, absent the director’s assistance, and he does admirably, his Broadway experience shining through. Newcomer Samantha Barks does an excellent job, showing solid acting chops and great singing range. Russel Crowe proved my worries of him being out of his depth when it comes to singing, but he rules the acting part as much as he can, even if he's not giving it his all. And Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen are welcome diversions in tertiary roles.

There are other minor issues, aside from the weak direction (seriously Tom, put in some goddamn effort, you are doing LES MIS!) While most of the cast is great, Amanda Seyfried is singing way out of her range and her acting is mostly flat. Also, Eddie Redmayne is disappointingly bland as Marius, but I think that’s more of a problem with the character than him (should have hired Daniel Radcliffe, like I said eh?) Also, the movie seems to want to jump back and forth between dark shots and light shots very quickly, which can hurt the eyes occasionally, but that’s a major nitpick.
I dunno. I feel bad, because it seems like I’m giving this movie a negative review. I’m not, it’s quite engaging and the acting is brilliant. But it’s an adaptation of one of the greatest musicals ever made, so saying it’s just ‘pretty good’ feels odd. It shouldn’t just be pretty good, it should be great, it should be one of the best movies of the year. With a little more directorial flare, this movie could be a modern classic. Instead, it just barely gets above being 'bad.'

Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he’s also a little pissed they cut Dog Eat Dog.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Director Reterospective: The Coen Brothers Part 2

Here is the Coen Brothers Part 2:

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Review: Zero Dark Thirty

The title means 12:30 AM in military slang, okay?

Anyway, the word of the title that stands out to me post viewing, is Dark. A film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden could easily be black and white, thrilling tales of heroics, etc. But Zero Dark Thirty opts to go a different route, showing us the horrible things the terrorists do, while still managing to remind us of the dark and morally grey things the government are doing. There are least 2 extended and incredibly brutal interrogation sequences, and they aren’t presented in a heroic Jack Bauer style. They are presented as brutal and dehumanizing, just another tool in the arsenal of the hunters, which includes bribes, intimidation, torture and occasionally murder, as they hunt people who do even worse things.

Aside from all of that morally grey stuff, the movie from 2012 that Zero Dark Thirty reminds me of the most is Argo. It’s a huge, real life story, taking place over several years, but the movie mostly ignores the importance of it’s own subject. It boils the story down to a straightforward procedural, drama, focusing in on a ground level perspective. In the lead up to this movie there was some debate about whether it would be pro-Obama propaganda, but he never once appears in it.

As a straightforward thriller, most of the weight is being carried by the directing and editing, which is extremely solid. Kathryn Bigelow has always been an extremely talented action and thriller director, and all of that is on display here. The sequence that stands out to me is the extended scene at the end, which shows the actual raid on Bin Laden’s safehouse. A lesser film or director might skip over it entirely, or reduce it in scale (especially since the movie had already passed the two hour mark at that point) but Zero Dark Thirty goes in the opposite direction, showcasing the tactics, difficulties and techniques of the SEALs who invaded the building. It’s a bold choice, but it more than pays off.

The weight of the story, the meaning if you will, is in the idea of becoming a monster while seeking them (I believe Nietzsche said something pithy about it), and all of that is embodied by its lead character, Maya played by Jessica Chastain. She’s a character who is obsessed with catching Bin Laden, even more than most people were, and the obsession is slowly consuming her. Chastain is damn near a revelation in the role, bringing subtly to a role that would be hard to play at the best of times, but that she pulls off excellently. There’s also great supporting work, mostly from Mark Strong and Jason Clarke, buoyed by a solid script.

There are nitpicks I can make, but they’re odd issues. Most notable is the semi-weird pacing, that makes it feel that the movie is moving too fast. The movie has a lot of ground to cover, going all the way from 9/11 to the night Bin Laden was killed, and some things feel that they’re getting rushed over. Still, if my biggest complaint about a movie can be boiled down to ‘I don’t think there’s enough of it’ that is a good movie.

Is Zero Dark Thirty accurate to what happened? I tend to doubt it, but it’s not really all that important. This is not the first movie made about the hunt for Bin Laden and I don’t think it will be the last. What you need to know is that it’s an excellent thriller, well made, engaging and really quite tense, even as you know how it has to end. It’s easily one of the best films made on the War on Terror, and a new high watermark for Kathryn Bigelow. I know it’s only playing in Limited Release right now, but the moment it gets to your area, you need to go see it.

Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he thinks the guy playing Bin Laden could have skipped the weeks he spent preparing for the role, given how much screen time he gets.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

If you’re under the age of say, 17-18, I wonder if you get how big a deal the Lord of the Rings movies were (says he, at the ancient age of 22). But seriously, they were. Fantasy movies had been in the shitter for a while, and most fantasy movies weren’t that good (sorry Krull). What’s more, the two biggest geek movie franchises, Batman and Star Wars, had just lived through Batman and Robin and The Phantom Menace. Then along comes this obscure New Zealand director, best known for offbeat horror films, and turns the most important work of modern fantasy into three of the biggest films ever made. And his financial, critical and eventual Oscar success with his adaptations of books previously thought unfilmable, changed EVERYTHING. It’s easy to say that without them, the geek dominated modern film landscape would not look like it does. Love it or hate it, they changed everything.

The thing is, The Hobbit is quite a different animal from Lord of the Rings. While LotR is a chronicle of Middle Earth’s massive apocalyptic war, Hobbit is a fanciful bedtime story. It would require careful adaptation to get across The Hobbit’s more humorous kid friendly story and tone, while still feeling like it existed in the same universe as the other movies. And look at me dancing around the obvious questions.

Alright, quickly: Is it good? Yes. Is it great? Yes. Is it the best movie of the year? No. Is it as good as Lord of the Rings. But as I said, it’s not really trying to be LotR, and all the better for it, but it also can’t have quite the same impact. Its less the massive game changer LotR was and more a really well played game. In a year with massive geek movies either already here or just around the corner, it feels only right that the king return to remind us why it changed everything.

As for the plot (for those of you who have been under particularly big and sturdy rocks for the last 50 years), Bilbo Baggins is a Hobbit living an idyllic life in the Shire, when one day the Wizard Gandalf the Grey comes along and talks him into joining a company of 12 Dwarves on their quest to return to their home, which has been taken over by a particularly nasty dragon.

In order to work three movies out of the material, the movie works all this through and adds in subplots about Bilbo trying to prove himself to the Dwarves (mostly to give him a character arc for the first third of the story), Thorin, the leader and the king of the Mountain they are returning to, disliking Elves despite needing their help multiple times, and most notably, Gandalf and the other members of the White Council (Galadriel, Elrond, Saruman and Radagast the Brown) investigating a possible return of Sauron to Mirkwood. Oh and action scenes. Lots and lots of action scenes.

This is one the things that I find interesting about the adaptation, that it takes literally every opportunity to have an action scene. Escapes, rescues, last stands, even flashbacks, everything leads to action sequences of varying sizes. Some of them are quite elaborate setpieces (including an elaborate chase scene towards the end that will stand as one of the most impressive action sequences of the year, and that’s saying something) but most, albeit not all of them, are embracing The Hobbit’s more kid friendly origins, allowing the scenes to be bigger and less bound by physics.

The story is well put together and paced and the cutoff point is probably the best one we could hope for. The Dwarves are all visually distinct enough that you can generally tell them apart, and it must be said Thorin is fucking BADASS (wait till you see the movie’s reason to call him Oakenshield). All of the actors inhabit their roles well, in particular Martin Freeman, doing a spin on his earlier Arthur Dent character that works perfectly in the role, and reminds more than of Ian Holm’s Bilbo.

As for the technical details, well what do you want me to say? This is the same team that made Lord of the Rings, the movie where they put details inside Theoden’s armor, despite the fact that no one would ever see it. They’re an incredibly talented and dedicated team, in everything from visual design, to CGI to good old weapon and armor making, and it all looks great, as does the cinematography and the incredibly beautiful soundtrack.

There are some nitpicks here and there. The pre-story bit with Ian Holm and Elijah Wood goes a hair too long. The lengths the movie goes to keep us from seeing Smaug the dragon in the flashback to his attack on Erebor gets a tiny bit silly at times (as he’s clearly their big CGI creation for the next movie). And while the design on the Orc who will clearly be serving as the trilogies Big Bad is unique and wicked cool, the design on the Goblin King leaves something to be desired.

But none of that really matters (I had to work to think of those nitpicks dammit). On the way back home from the theater, I was grinning like an idiot the entire way, and I almost never grin. Hearing the Shire theme floating over the title font felt a little bit like coming home, and holy shit is nice to be back. Go see this movie.

Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he’s a little pissed we didn’t get to see Beorn yet.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Director Retrospective: The Coen Brothers Part 1

With the year winding down and me looking for ways to provide content (only 4 more movies I HAVE to see this year guys, but several others I want to see) I decided to try something new and see if it sticks. The idea: I watch the entire catalogue of a director (in chronological order) and give each movie a little bite size reviews, 3 or 4 movies at a time, and stagger them out over the course of several weeks. So, who else should I kick off this experiment with, but with what I still think are the world’s greatest living directors: The Coen Brothers.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

DVD Review: That's My Boy

Anyone who knows me will know I am angry, bitter and cynical person. A few people have accused me of this being an act that I put on, but no I’ve been very committed to being this way for quite a while now. And as a result, I like giving negative reviews. Not enough to alter my opinion, mind you. But since I have to pay for this, I usually only give positive reviews, as I typically only see movies that I want to or are already interested in.

But since it’s approaching Holiday time, I’ve been fairly miserable (I hate this time of year) and looking to let off some steam by giving a hate filled review. This is meant as a long form defense against why I watched and am reviewing That’s My Boy, because I was sure I would hate it. After all his previous movie, Jack and Jill was bad enough to render me barely coherent in rage. So I would probably be able to write a rage filled review of this.

Turns out I was wrong. Oh the movie is bad alright, in fact it’s fucking terrible. But I can’t summon the rage, the way I could for Jack and Jill. I am here to tell you that That’s My Boy is so bad, so worthless, so utterly terrible and putrid and devoid of anything resembling quality, that I can’t even summon any anger. It’s fallen right off the end of my critical graph, past even Jack and Jill into a void I didn’t know existed, into nothingness. Fucking hell, even Freddy Got Fingered didn’t do that.

The only (ONLY) nice thing I’m prepared to say about this movie is that unlike it’s processor, it’s an actual movie. It doesn’t look like a pre-Oscar skit, or something they’d film in 20 minutes for The Tonight Show. It has an actual camera and actually looks like a film should look. That doesn’t mean the cinematography and editing are GOOD, they’re at best passably generic, they just look like they belong in an actual movie.

The story is probably the most loathsome Sandler has ever put out. A teenager has sex with his teacher, who winds up pregnant and he is forced to care for the son. I know,   I know, it’s supposedly a teenagers dream or what have you but…we all know this isn’t kosher right? Legally, morally, what have you? Anyway, the son grows up to hate his father and the father grows up to be an asshole who needs money to help with the IRS, but needs his son to reunite with his mother for, oh who gives a fuck?

I could literally go on and on for pages about this movie, about all the things that it does wrong, about how it’s disgusting and deplorable and just plain bad. Adam Sandler is horrifically awful and miscast in the main role (more on that in a moment) but that’s no surprise, with precisely 2 exceptions, he hasn’t made a good movie since the early 90s (and both of those movies had, you know, real actors and a real director). But this movie has the Transformers issue, where it has real actors embarrassing themselves. Susan Sarandon is in this movie, in an admittedly minor role, but the entire time I was sitting there going “Susan. Susan, no.” So she has the admittedly dubious honor of appearing in one of the best movies of the year (Cloud Atlas) and one of the worst. But she’s only on for a few minutes, no the real person hurt by this film is Andy Samberg, a talented comedian whose work with The Lonely Island is justifiably lauded and will have to live with this embarrassing dud on his resume for years. He spends the entire movie looking lost and slightly dull, his normal genius comic persona buried underneath a hopeless character, which doesn’t seem at all suited for him or his comedy style.

Of course he’s not the only character who’s hopeless in this movie, as the movie itself seems to not understand itself or it’s main character. Consider, for a moment, the character who Adam Sandler is playing. He’s playing a hopelessly alcoholic, drug abusing, childish, nostalgia obsessed, lecherous manchild, trying to recapture his glory days. His glory days, for the record, are some early fame and fortune based on him, to borrow a phrase someone else used, a rape survivor. This should be a dark and disturbing character, someone who is at best disconcerting and at worst, downright alarming. This is great fodder for a Death at a Funeral style dark comedy. But the movie seems to want us to regard him as the coolest guy in the world. Can I ask…why? The movie goes out of it’s way to present Sandler’s character as the guy who can make anyone happy, who can make ‘squares’ fun and who can get any chick and he just strikes me as annoying, a boorish lout who is looking to coast through life and who’s madness mantra of ‘I’m a good person’ seems to be all that’s holding this misplaced world view together.

This leads to my final point (as I promised myself I would avoid, just for this review, bitching about script or characters or story structure or the fact that this movie has no idea how to structure a joke properly). The movie is weirdly mean spirited, which all ties back to the issue of Sandler in the lead. Fat people, nerds, gays, people of other races (Chinese this time, to contrast with Latinos from the last one) and women of all types, all get raked over the coals, and it all seems oddly mean spirited. And not in a challenging or interesting way, just cruel. I bring it back to Sandler, and the way the movie treats him. Most comedies work by making their leads get hurt or mocked. Consider some of the classic comedies, everything from City Lights to Fawlty Towers and how they treat their lead characters. Hell, consider The Lonely Island’s song, Threw It On The Ground and how it treats the singer (if you haven’t seen/heard it, fix that). Imagine if the song was treating the lead as something other than a pretentious douchebag. Wouldn’t that be insane? Wouldn’t that just destroy the comedy of the song? I repeat: Adam Sandler’s character should be everything from pathetic to downright disturbing, but the movie wants us to regard him as awesome. How is that funny? Where is the joke?

Aside from those things (all 1000+ words of it) there’s not a whole ton to say. There is precisely one actual joke in this entire movie, one setup-punchline and it’s only bordering on clever. The rest is simply presenting gross or disgusting things and saying ‘isn’t that funny?” Except it’s not.

I’ve seen a lot of movies in my life, and a lot of them were bad. But I can’t remember the last time a movie actually made me feel like this. No anger, no rage, no snarky humor, not even ironic cruelty. Just an empty feeling of depression, like I’ve been defeated (yes I know it was a box office failure, but given how Sandler’s movies are financed and run, I doubt anyone actually lost money on it. I don’t have the time or energy to go over it now, so I’m just going to throw a link to RedLetterMedia’s excellent video on the subject here). What’s most depressing about this, and it’s processor Jack and Jill is how they reframe the world. A lot of comedies I’ve seen, from some of Sandler’s movies (Don’t Mess With the Zohan), to Jim Carrie’s (Dumb and Dumber) to more obscure ones (Dude, Where’s My Car), all of which are basically terrible, seem better by comparison. Neither of them are anywhere near the level of the terrible, but energetic and creative Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie. So basically what I’m saying is That’s My Boy has finally made me lower my comedy standards and if that’s not damning criticism, I don’t know what is.

Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and the entire time Sarandon was on screen, he kept hoping Tim Curry would show up in drag.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Review: Life of Pi

Life of Pi is a movie slavishly, some might say entirely, devoted to its visuals. Entire segments of the movie are devoted to nothing but giving us beautiful sights and lavish spectacles. It contains what I think is one of the best (thus far) uses of 3D in a movie, and it uses it a way that is artistic and unique, rather than for show. It is a bit of a shame, therefore, that it drops the ball in small, but damaging, ways in the story department.

Adapted from a solid book that I, for once, have actually read, the story is devoted to a teenager, Pi (actual name Piscine, but he stopped wanting to be called that in school for obvious reasons). His parents own a zoo but are falling on hard times and are moving to Canada, planning to sell the animals in order to start a new life. On the way to Canada, the ship sinks, leaving Pi alone on a lifeboat with a fully grown Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

All of the things that are needed to make a good movie are in place. The cinematography is gorgeous, the visuals and their design unique and well put together, the CGI is some of the best of the year, the editing and score are flawless and the character of Pi and (weirdly enough) Richard Parker are well sketched and believable. So all we need is a good story to hang all these things on.

And this is where the movie drops the ball. The movie, while energetic and exciting, is paced really weirdly. The first act takes forever, which could normally be made up for in an energetic third act, but the movie also doesn’t seem to have a third act. I feel like I’m exaggerating just typing that, but it really doesn’t. The movie has a long first act, an even longer second act, gets to the end of the second act and then just sort of…cuts to the denouncement. I suppose it’s a function of the story that it be without a third act, but it’s still incredibly weird to have happen.

Aside from the wonky pacing, the movie is ludicrously unsubtle at times, to the point where I’m starting to wonder if a behind the scenes editor was worried American audiences wouldn’t get it. The movie spells out a few of it’s morals and ideas at the very end (as in literally states them) and at least one of the visuals is so on the nose that I actually rolled my eyes.

If it sounds like I’m down on the movie I’m not. It’s a legitimate experience, something that is actually breathtaking to watch when it’s in motion. But the things I like to talk about are the things that the movie fails at. But it’s still a good movie, beautiful and moving and highly unique. So while it’s not perfect, I’m going to call this one recommended. After all, where else are you going to get 2 hours of a tiger on a boat with an Indian Kid?

Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he wishes movies would stop demonizing hyenas; I fucking love hyenas.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

DVD Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

There are a lot of factors that make The Amazing Spider-Man suck as much as it does. I hope to cover the majority of the reasons in my review proper, but for the first paragraph I want to focus in on one particular aspect that got to me the entire time; the main character. Peter Parker, in this film, lacks almost any consistent personality, switching between character traits from scene to scene. And the one character trait that remains consistent is that he’s a massive fucking tool.

And for the record, no this not me being a fanboy over the original Sam Raimi trilogy. I liked the first two (not so much the third) but I’ll be the first to admit they’re not without their issues. The character work and dialogue is universally awkward, they haven’t aged well and Kirsten Dunst looked bored throughout all three films. But for all their issues, I’d still take any of them, including the bloated, awkward mess of the third film, over the disaster that is this movie.

Okay, okay, stop ranting, back up and explain. So, if you’ve been under a particularly sturdy rock for the past decade, you might be unfamiliar with the Spider-Man story. For the rest of you, this is basically a new origin story, with a focus on high school Peter Parker and his romance with Gwen Stacy, while the villain is the Lizard, a scientist who lost his arm and attempts to regrow it, turning him into…well guess from his name.

Okay so since I’m trying to do things differently, I’ll say the things I like about the film first. The film desperately wants to be an action film and it’s good at putting together action, if little else. Most of the action scenes are well staged and shot, and at least one in genuinely inventive. And while this is the very definition of damning with faint praise, this movie has to have my favorite Stan Lee cameo of all time.

Now onto the shit, and there’s more than enough of that to go around. Since I was talking about the action, I think I’ll start by focusing on the things that get in the way of it, namely the look. Spider-Man’s new outfit is incredibly garish looking, but you get used to it around the halfway point. The real issue, however is the villain, as his design looks awful (in particular his face) and while the CGI isn’t bad in the strictest sense, it’s certainly sub-par, especially compared to some other recent superhero movies.

The plot and script are another big fat target, as they’re essentially what drags the whole enterprise down. While trying to differentiate this movie from the Sam Raimi trilogy is probably a smart idea, the way it’s handled is by devoting FAR too much of the movie to stupid high school bullshit that manages to tick off every single annoying cliché of high school movies, including the really minor ones that tick me off (it even manages to pull out my least favorite, IE bully physically assaults people without consequences, but when the hero humiliates him without harming him, the hero suffers both consequences and reprimands from nearby authority figure du jour).

The story’s world also feels ludicrously small, even more so than the original films. I always complained that it felt like the entire world of the films revolved around Peter Parker and this new one takes that issue and turns it up to 11. You’ll see what I mean. And finally there’s a whole ton of problems with the characters, mostly in their scene to scene characterization. I already addressed how Peter switches personality traits at the drop of a hat, with the only consistent trait being what a massive douche he is (seriously, whoever wrote his fucking ‘comedy’ bits that he spouts off during the combat scenes should get busted back down to writing Michael Bay movies), but that issue extends to the other characters as well.

The movie never really gives us a solid character behind Dr. Curt Connors, instead focusing in on the one aspect of his character that is established (IE, I am sad about my lack of arm) and never really feels like establishing why turning into a reptile makes him want to turn everyone else into a reptile. There’s a few scenes that look like their building that up, (which, it must be said, rather violently rip off the ‘talking to the mirror’ scenes from Spider-Man, and those were problematic to begin with) but they just sort of drop that aspect and he becomes a reptilian fascist for essentially no good reason.

Based on how schitzophrenic the movie is and especially how weird the editing in certain scenes get (notably the scene where the Lizard talks to himself and a couple of weird character scenes toward the middle and end) it feels like the rumors of massive script rewrites, re-edits and even reshoots going on behind the scenes were true. For example the teaser doesn’t seem to be teasing…much of anything, other than ‘there’s other villains out there.’ That usually only happens when the studio doesn’t think the product that’s coming out is very good and if the studio thinks this is shit, then who am I to argue. Bottom line, I didn’t see this one in theaters because I couldn’t be assed to spend any money on it. Now that I’ve seen, I justified that position to myself. Don’t bother with this.

Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he kept hoping Spider-Man would go ‘Webshooters…EMPTY!?’ like in the animated series.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Review: Lincoln

Imagine, if you will, the movie Lincoln based only on it’s description. It’s a biopic on Abraham Lincoln one of the most beloved Presidents of all time, directed by Steven Spielberg, with a ridiculously high caliber cast and starring, in the title role, Daniel Dey-Lewis, who is generally considered the best actor of his generation and high in the running for the best actor of ANY generation. What movie comes to mind, based on that description? Perhaps a well meaning but a tiny bit white washed version of history, well acted by heavily Oscar bait, like The King’s Speech?

Well what a treat you, I and everyone who sees this movie are in for. Not only is the movie not at all like the movie I made you just imagine, it’s a hundred times better for being different. All of this can be attributed to the area of focus, as the movie is not focused on a broad representation of Lincoln’s whole life; it expects to know all that. Instead, it focuses in on a tight period of history, the period inbetween when Lincoln won his second election and when he passed the 13th Amendment (the one that abolished slavery). This allows the movie, based on the excellent book Team of Rivals, to instead focus on the backroom deals and political arm wringing Lincoln pulled off to force, shame and bribe the lame-duck Democrats into passing the 13th Amendment through the House.

Given that the movie is basically a political thriller, the focus is going to be on the acting, which means that Spielberg’s choice of actors is crucial. I’m going to break form however and not talk about Dey-Lewis’ performance much. What’s the bloody point after all? He’s Daniel Fucking Dey-Lewis, he’s the greatest actor currently alive, of COURSE he kills it in the part, not only giving Lincoln the voice he probably had, but also portraying him in a way we rarely see on film. No, we want to focus on the other performances firstly from a played down Sally Field as Mary Lincoln. Her character is grieving for the death of their second son, but has to put on a brave face and support her husband, and she nails it in a way most portrayals don’t. Second comes Tommy Lee Jones as a thunderously pro-abolition (as well as pro-vote and pro-interracial marriage; extremely odd for his time) politician. He gives his best performance since No Country for Old Men. At one point you can physically see an internal struggle on his face, and that’s a hard thing to pull off. Fantastic supporting work comes from David Straithairn as Secretary of State Seward and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who is still having a great year) as Lincoln’s oldest son.

Of course, given it’s subject matter and style, a lot of the focus is going to be on the script, which makes talking about the direction (solid), SFX (excellent) or music (good, if sparsely used) pointless. Which is why it’s good that the script works. The film doesn’t shy away of depictions of Lincoln as odd, or unstable and certainly doesn’t avoid referencing or even depicting his occasional abuse of power. I like that the movie trusts us to KNOW the man was basically a Saint, and uses that to depict his abuse of power as bending the rules for freedom, making Lincoln basically a political vigilante; Batman in an awesome hat. Indeed, a large part of the plot consists of him delaying and hiding the fact that Confederate ambassadors are coming North to negotiate peace, because if the House knows their coming to surrender, they won’t want to vote for the Amendment.

Of course it has flaws, mostly in a running time that seems a bit overlong, but that doesn’t stop it from easily being one of the best movies of the year and a surefire candidate for a fuckton of Oscars come January. This a keeper guys, so it comes highly recommended.

Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he’s pretty sure Daniel Dey-Lewis is trying to win an Oscar every time he acts…and no Nine doesn’t count.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Review: Skyfall

I’m not a huge fan of James Bond. Is that okay? I don’t hate it, but I’ve never been overly fond it either. I think it’s because the first Bond I ever saw was Moonraker, IE one of the worst ones, which kind of colored my opinion of it. I like some of them, mostly the Sean Connery ones, but I also dislike my fair share. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I so enjoyed Casino Royale, because I didn’t care about the trappings of James Bond being in the Bond movies, I just care about them being entertaining. This is also one of the reasons I didn’t care for Quantum of Solace, because it was just fucking BORING. But, I’m pleased to report that Skyfall is both highly entertaining, and designed to return the trappings of James Bond to the Bond series.

The plot is a little interesting, as it seems this is the first real attempt to update the James Bond formula to modern day settings. Bond, after having nearly been killed on assignment, is tasked with tracking down a stolen list of MI6 agents. He finds out it’s been stolen by Raoul Silva, an insane former MI6 agent with a grudge against Bond’s Boss, M. And this is the first place that the story is a unique and interesting take on the Bond franchise. Raoul has a lot of the trappings of a Bond Villain (Trademark), like secret lairs, wacky gadgets and insane plans but with the details updated. You’ll see what I mean.

The lifeblood of this movie is going to be its action scenes, which are all interesting, well staged and inventive. A big chase scene towards the beginning in particular is one of the best chase sequences of the year and while the final action beat isn’t quite Best Ever material, it’s somehow managed to completely be hidden from the trailers, so going in fresh gives it a lot of power.

Daniel Craig is, naturally, killer in the roll of Bond, but we already knew that, ditto Judy Dench as M. But Javier Bardem is the real standout, as the villain. He plays him completely different from any Bond Villain before him and completely different from any performance he’s given before. By relying so heavily on the internet he distinguishes himself from a typical Bond Villain, but his personality and mannerisms are much less Goldfinger and much more Joker, and he really sells it, one of the more memorable villains of the year.

The script is the source of one of the movie’s bigger strengths and also, one of it’s minor letdowns. The strength is the fact that, unlike essentially any Bond movie before it, it has a running theme. In this case, the theme is a running point of how useful analogue agents can be in an increasingly digital world. But, the major failing is how wonky the pacing and structure are. I can’t really talk about it, because it would be a spoiler, but the pacing is awkward, especially towards the end and the act structure is little weird.

Overall though, I quite enjoyed Skyfall, a bit more than I expected. It’s November, so I’m more in the mood for serious actor driven dramas (the theater near me isn’t showing Lincoln yet) but that’s not really a flaw. It’s no Cloud Atlas or Argo, but it’s not trying to be. It’s an engaging and enjoyable action movie starring a well known and well loved character, that also seems to be intending to kick off a new franchise for him. So, unless you still haven’t seen Cloud Atlas (and there’s a lot of you) I can recommend this.

Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he wonders if Bardem’s character was supposed to be gay or not. I honestly can’t tell.