My March was largely concerned with the creation and production of Performance Boats Magazine's May issue; free of travel plans, I immersed myself into the world of film and ended up with quite a respectable showing, especially on the features side.
HAYWIRE (2012)—This is one of those suspense films (like Three Days of the Condor or North by Northwest) involving innocent heroes that everybody is trying to kill, and it's up to them to put the situation right, against all reasonable odds. Mallory Kane is a Mission: Impossible sort of operative hired by the government for top-secret dangerous spy stuff that leads her into a deadly double-cross situation, and she spends the whole movie being chased or chasing others. Kane is played by attractive martial-arts expert Gina Carano; the capable cast includes Channing Tatum, Michael Douglas, Ewan McGregor and Antonio Banderas. Joan and I caught this one as a free screening at Paramount; it reminded me of Zoe Saldana's 2011 action flick Columbiana, to which it compares favorably. (8)
THE WOMAN IN BLACK (2012)—Daniel Radcliffe, freshly graduated from his Harry Potter franchise, is the latest to headline a version of Susan Hill's 1983 supernatural novel, which has already been adapted a number of times for radio, TV and stage. In the early 1900s, while appraising the estate of a recently deceased woman, a young solicitor (Radcliffe) starts seeing and hearing mysterious things, and I don't consider it a particularly egregious spoiler to reveal that those things are of the spooky variety. Director James Watkins pulls the old trick where the hero spots a spectre of an unknown human, then looks away, and presto—the ghost has vanished! There are also the requisite number of fake-out jump scenes (i.e., errant bird flying around the house makes a startlingly loud noise, scaring Radcliffe and us). The movie is quintessentially forgettable; mere weeks after seeing it, I remember almost nothing about it, aside from the marshy scenery. (6)
THIS IS NOT A FILM (2012)—If only I could forget about having seen this documentary! Universally praised (it has a 100% positive rating among critics), I felt obliged to check out the work of the acclaimed Iranian director Jafar Panahi, whose politically charged movies recently got him sentenced to six years in prison. Banned from making any more movies, he sits around his apartment while waiting for his sentence to be appealed and has himself filmed as a way of creating something. The result is supposed to demonstrate how you can't prevent a true artist from creating, but as we witness Panahi feeding a pet iguana, making phone calls, watching TV and interviewing the trash collector, the result is a painfully dull affair, even at a mere 75 mins. This Is Not Entertaining. (2)
A THOUSAND WORDS (2012)—In what turned out to be the most deliciously ironic twist of March, I got the opportunity to see two films in a row that received the polar opposite reviews by critics. While This is Not a Film was sitting pretty with 100% positive reviews, Eddie Murphy's latest crapfest earned a huge goose egg—0%. And yet, despite its dumb premise (due to a cryptic curse, Murphy has fewer than a thousand words left to say or he'll drop dead), this was far from the worst movie I've ever seen, and was in fact far more entertaining than the insomnia-curing This is Not a Film. Admittedly, it is forgettable fluff, has some very annoying characters (Clark Duke, ugh!) and is rarely funny, but Joan and I went in with extremely low expectations and that undoubtedly helped. (4)
JOHN CARTER (2012)—I had not been planning to see this Disney-produced adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough's creaky sci-fi series, but Connie's positive review prompted me to take in the very first showing on the movie's day of release. Turns out I was one of the few who bothered to see it at all—it has quickly become one of the biggest financial flops in cinema history. And yet, it's nothing even remotely resembling a bad movie. It reminded me of the Star Wars series in ways that were both good and bad; on the one hand, it contained a planet-sized amount of impressive special effects. On the other hand, too many of the characters seemed to be distractingly reminiscent of Jabba the Hutt, Jar Jar Binks, et al. (See images below.)
There are more tropes and clichés in the script than I previously thought could be contained in a single motion picture; the following are just a few of the ones that instantly spring to mind:
1. Hero falls from a dangerous height implausibly grabs on to a ledge or cliff, stopping his fall.
2. Hero encounters alien craft (i.e., airborne jet-ski) and instantly understands how to pilot it, albeit in a half-assed manner. (Note that the hero in this case is a former U.S. Civil War soldier who has never seen so much as a lawnmower before.)
3. Hero is a disinterested third party who is conscripted to fight "in someone else's war." Sigh.
4. Hero does battle with monsters roughly 89 zillion times bigger than he is. Guess who wins!
5. The heroine (and the audience) are led to believe that the hero has chosen to forsake her…ah, but no! He stayed to help. Wow, didn't see that coming!
6. Evil bad guy is a shape-shifting genius, so at various points in the movie, we see our hero talking to a confidant (whom we later see morphing into the baddie!) or a confidant is talking to the hero (whom we later see morphing into the baddie!), etc.
On the upside, despite the regurgitations of ideas, plot devices and character designs from other media, it's a fast-paced adventure story that's never boring, and there's a pretty girl involved, and did I mention the presence of monsters? (8)
SILENT HOUSE (2012)—Amazingly, this obscure Paranormal Activity-ish shocker turned out to be pretty much the most positive experience I had at the movies in March. Based on a 2010 Spanish-language thriller with the same name, it features Elizabeth Olsen (so good in last year's Martha Marcy May Marlene) as a young woman who finds herself trapped in a dark house where ominous things are happening…but all may not be exactly as it seems. The movie unfolds in real time, and in what appears to be all one continuous shot, which is by itself impressive enough to warrant seeing it. Julia Taylor Ross has a brief but memorable part. Genuinely unnerving and more thought-provoking than the usual haunted-house chiller; would absolutely be worth a second look. (9)
THIN ICE (2012)—Greg Kinnear stars in this black comedy involving a web of crime and intrigue he inadvertently stumbles into and can't seem to get out of; it's vaguely reminiscent of the Coen Brothers' Fargo, but not quite as well written or clever. Still, it does contain a satisfying and startling resolution that made me feel like what preceded it was worth sitting through—I almost felt like I'd just witnessed a magic trick. Alan Arkin, Lea Thompson, Billy Crudup and Bob Balaban contribute solid performances. (8)
FRIENDS WITH KIDS (2012)—Like last month's Wanderlust, this is a comedy that could be improved significantly if it were slightly less repellent. In fact, I almost walked out within the first 15 minutes, during which I endured a barrage of scatological humor and babies crying and screaming. Eventually, though, the movie finds a more harmonic tone as Jennifer Westfeldt (who also wrote and directed) and Platonic friend Adam Scott decide to have a baby together even while they continue their respective search for a romantic life mate. But this is a romcom, so there's never really a smidgen of doubt about how this will wind up, and the movie shambles along in an agreeable manner toward its inevitable resolution. Megan Fox (my first time seeing her in anything) is fetching in the role of Scott's "other" girl. (8)
JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME (2012)—Another free screening at Paramount. A sweet, dopey comedy about family members (a mom and two sons) who are each lost in their respective ways, but who ultimately discover what they've been looking for, as well as each other. It's small and slight, and embraces its cosmic "everything happens for a reason" mantra in a way that's meant to seduce the audience, and it mostly succeeds. Jason Segel and Ed Helms are the brothers; Susan Sarandon plays their mom, and Rae Dawn Chong is given a small but pivotal role as well. Note: IMDB adds a needed comma to the title, while the poster omits it; I can't remember how the movie's title sequence dealt with this punctuation issue, but perhaps Joan will enlighten me on the story behind the title, if there is one. (8)
THE LORAX (2012)—Here's the latest attempt by Hollywood to cash in on the beloved books of Dr. Seuss after live-action abortions by Jim Carrey (How the Grinch Stole Christmas) and Mike Myers (The Cat in the Hat). Presumably, 2008's animated Horton Hears a Who was a hit (I didn't see it), so now animators have turned their sights on Seuss's 1971 illustrated children's book. Despite a few forgettable songs, it's a mostly enjoyable romp, fun and colorful, with voice-over contributions by Zac Efron, Taylor Swift, Ed Helms and Danny DeVito in the title role. Though not as wonderful as the original 1972 small-screen version produced by Friz Freleng (none of the movies are), it's pretty good, and the environmental message is one for both children and adults. I had fun seeing this one with Emma—it was her third viewing of it, and she called it her favorite movie! (8)
THE HUNGER GAMES (2012)—Once upon a time, there was a trilogy of books, a fantasy-adventure series, that filmmakers turned into huge blockbusters. And although everybody seemed to love the books and the movies, The Lord of the Rings left me completely cold and wondering why everybody thought this story was such a big deal. So the feeling of déjà vu was palpable as I sat watching it all happen again. To be fair, the experience of watching The Hunger Games was markedly less dispiriting than sitting through two of the Rings films, but I'm still not a convert. There have already been plenty of violent films about a futuristic dystopian society where people are compelled to play a violent game in which people get killed—Rollerball, Death Race 2000 and The Running Man immediately come to mind. The gimmick of The Hunger Games is that kids are playing the game; that was also the twist of the 2000 Japanese film Battle Royale. In the film adaption of the immensely popular Suzanne Collins books, Jennifer Lawrence (so good as Ree in 2010's Winter's Bone) plays Katniss Everdeen, a virtuous lass who volunteers to engage in what is essentially a state-sponsored reality TV show where "only one will survive" in order to spare her younger sister, who was chosen to participate via a lottery. Katniss mostly survives this nightmare in the forest by waiting for the other players to kill each other, and generally only kills in self-defense. (The other kids who play the game are all portrayed as ruthless savages.) The movie is dull, unengaging and crummily directed; only Woody Harrelson's character has any kind of shading. A bizarre disappointment; are the books this boring? (5)
LAST DAYS HERE (2012)—My good friend Geof O'Keefe was one of the founding members of the 1970s heavy-metal band Pentagram, and he's the reason I attended this documentary. It traces the career of the band's leader, Bobby Liebling, who is mostly zonked out on heroin and other drugs for much of the movie and sometimes incoherent. Pentagram still has an appreciable cult following, though, and one fan (Sean Pelletier) tries to get Liebling off drugs and back in the studio, making music. Much of the life we see of Liebling's is of the auto-wreck variety—the kind you wish you could look away from, but can't. I attended the Los Angeles premiere of the movie with Geof, who was reunited with the now clean-and-sober Bobby for a Q&A session following the screening, and a good time was had by all. (8)
ONE FALSE MOVE (1992)—Co-written and starring a pre-Sling Blade Billy Bob Thornton, this crime thriller came to my attention after I'd read a positive review. Co-starring Bill Paxton, it's an intriguing and suspenseful story of a trilogy of sociopathic criminals who rob and murder all who stand in their way, and a small-town cop who has an intriguing personal connection to one of the gang members. Undeniably brutal, but quite gripping. (9)
DAVID COPPERFIELD (1935)—One of my dreams is to read everything by Charles Dickens, but I barely have time to watch the movies based on his novels. I have been slowly acquiring them, though, and it was finally time to view one of the most beloved of his classics. Turns out to be very…Dickensian! Apparently this version was pretty severely truncated to make a run time of 130 minutes, so I found a multi-part BBC miniseries to watch at a later date. (8)
THE HISTORY OF MR. POLLY (1949)—Wish I could read more of H.G. Wells, too, but the movie versions will have to suffice. I wonder if most people realize that Wells wrote more than just science fiction; this version of his 1910 book is a comedy starring the great John Mills, and it's an amusing diversion, tracing the life of a young man trying to find his place in the world. Excellent acting and direction. (9)
FUNNY HA HA (2005)—This is apparently the first "mumblecore" film (an extremely low-budget indie featuring amateur actors); it got very positive reviews despite having a minuscule budget—and that word is a bit of an overstatement. It's all about a temp named Marnie who tries to find a better job and deal with her unrequited crush on a college buddy named Alex. I'm not sure I would have cared much about the story or the movie (shot on 16 mm film) had it not been for its attractive star, Kate Dollenmayer, whose performance was simply charming. (7)