Tuesday, December 04, 2012

November 2012

With 13 first-run movies screened, I believe November represents a personal record in the most number of feature films viewed in a single month, at least in recent memory. Naturally, my grades are all over the map, including very enjoyable movies I wasn't looking forward to, and crushing disappointments that I was truly excited about. Here's what I subjected myself to:

FLIGHT (2012)—Denzel Washington is one of the few actors in Hollywood whom you can always trust to turn in an Oscar-worthy characterization, no matter what kind of role he plays. Flight pairs him up with acclaimed director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Cast Away, Forrest Gump), who for the past several years has focused on motion-capture films like The Polar Express, and it's very nice to have Bob back at the live-action helm. Whip Whitaker, the airline pilot played by Washington, is a national hero with a tragic flaw, and the film challenges the viewer to experience the darker sides of his nature. It's a long film, one that starts with an extremely intense first half hour, then slows down for a long character study. The movie requires a bit of patience, but the payoff (it got me a bit misty-eyed) is worth it. Special recognition must be given to John Goodman for his first-rate comic-relief character, while sexy Nadine Velazquez sets the screen on fire with an eye-popping nude scene right at the start of the film. I think Flight will ultimately make it onto my "movies I'd like to see again" list. (9)

WRECK-IT RALPH (2012)—As I sat watching this Disney cartoon, I realized that populating your movie with numerous video-game characters (both real and fictional) was a stroke of genius—an obvious variation on the famous Toy Story franchise. You get hulking behemoths (the title character) and action heroes rubbing shoulders with cutesy-funny icons like Q-Bert and Pac Man. There's a terrific cross-section of characters that will be recognizable to both kids and adults, and as with the best Disney movies, this one has something for all ages. The plot isn't anything terribly new or original—people must be saved and bad guys neutralized, just like in actual video games—but the dialogue is snappy, entertaining and funny. Wreck-It Ralph delivers amusement park ride thrills and ends with a sweet, sentimental chord that might make your eyes moist. My showing was prefaced with an extraordinary short cartoon called Paperman that does more with zero dialogue than full-length movies do with entire screenplays. (9)

SKYFALL (2012)—I am not a fan of spy movies, let alone James Bond. I am totally the wrong audience for this kind of picture; the few Bonds I've seen from beginning to end—and trust me, it's fewer than four—have totally confused and/or bored me. I rarely know what's going on or who's double-crossing whom, and the gadgets and gimmicks have never impressed me like so many others. By far the worst spy/Bond movie I've seen was the most recent one: 2008's Quantum of Solace, featuring Daniel Craig as 007. I was dragged along by a friend, and we both thought it was a crashing bore. The only reason Skyfall wound up on my radar at all was that the reviews were unusually strong. And while I have my quibbles about the movie, it's an undeniably suspenseful and entertaining piece of work. I appreciate that they've taken certain steps to tinker with the formula (although not by much), since I was never a fan of the original formula to begin with. The movie starts off with a breathless chase scene, followed by the usual sultry song played over credits with arty images, and then cascades from one thrill scene after another. All of my objections about this movie would be pointless to belabor, as this is basically a long cartoon with outlandishly far-fetched plot elements (i.e., the bad guy has an unlimited artillery and armies; people don't simply shoot and kill their prey when they have an opportunity, etc.). The formula has been altered in subtle ways, but many more of the cliches are intact. Still….it's a fun time, although about 20 minutes longer than necessary. Naomie Harris and Bérénice Marlohe make succulent Bond girls; nobody makes a better villain than Javier Bardem, and Ralph Fiennes is first-rate in a smaller role. Actually, all of the actors do a tremendous job, except for Craig, whom I find dull and singularly charmless. (8)

ANNA KARENINA (2012)—All the world's a stage…and director Joe Wright never lets us forget it by infusing his adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's novel with the annoying gimmick of placing his actors on a stage, framing them with a proscenium, flying the scenery in and dropping painted backdrops. That might have been a reasonable introductory conveyance, but after gradually turning Karenina into a real film with real outdoor scenery and traditional sound stages, he repeatedly reintroduces his little trick, even going so far as to turn the extras and background performers into a kind of Greek chorus, rubber-stamping paperwork in time or rhythmically kicking and posing. It simply didn't work for me. The effect pulls the viewer out of the story and becomes increasingly tiresome. The story shows how Anna (Keira Knightley) gets caught up in a triangle between ice-cold aristocrat husband Jude Law and pretty-boy Aaron Taylor-Johnson in 19th century Russia. Knightley, a truly gorgeous woman, is photographed from close-up angles that draw attention to her crooked lateral incisors—a lamentable decision. Law, formerly a young male hottie, is made up to look dark and severe; he plays Karenin with such unsmiling gloom that you wonder what could have attracted Anna to him in the first place. I haven't read the Tolstoy novel, but from what I gather, this version strips the book down to the bare elements of the story, tossing away virtually all of the political and ideological elements that made it relevant in its day. On the plus side, the costumes and music are outstanding, and Knightley remains one of cinema's most striking beauties. I'm curious to experience one of the many earlier movie versions of this famous novel. (5)

THE MASTER (2012)—Watching this yawnfest was, as I told Joan as we walked out of the theater, akin to walking on glass in my bare feet. Although the are two fine performances by Phillip Seymour Hoffman (as a psychobabbling L. Ron Hubbard-like cult figure) and Joaquin Phoenix (as a boozer with anger-management issues), the movie is a resounding, 138-minute bore in virtually nothing happens and all of the characters are varying degrees of loathsome. Taking place in 1950, we watch the irredeemable Phoenix—filmed in frequent close-ups that magnify the unsightly upper-lip scar he was born with—misbehave in the Navy, lose his job as a photographer and mumble out of the left side of his mouth. By and by, he falls under the spell of writer Hoffman, who proceeds to mindfuck him via a series of exercises and tests as he lays the groundwork for a "spiritual movement" called The Cause, which encourages people to recall their past lives. There's a bit of drama here and there, such as when Phoenix wrecks a jail cell, but much of the film is devoted to capturing pointless, ponderous exercises like the one where Phoenix is forced to walk back and forth in a room feeling and describing the walls and windows. Meanwhile, the film itself attempts to mess with the viewer's head by adding layers of ambiguity—check out that party scene where Hoffman warbles and all of the female attendees are suddenly and inexplicably naked. The movie is also saddled with one of the most annoying soundtracks of all time (by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood) that made me want to rip my hair out, stuff it into a pillow and move to Belgium. The only thing keeping me from walking out of the theater was the hope that one of the main characters would be killed horribly. No such luck! A complete waste of time. (2)

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012)—Bradley Cooper (his hair shorter than I'm used to seeing) is prematurely sprung from a mental facility, still reeling from the trauma of having caught his wife cheating on him and attacking her secret lover. Since his wife has a restraining order against him, he plots to win her back and so strives to demonstrate that he has his shit together, which he unfortunately does not. In a welcome reworking of the traditional rom-com formula, Cooper meets a pretty young woman (Jennifer Lawrence) with some issues of her own, and the two of them slowly forge a friendship. Will it lead to something more? You don't have to be Nostradamus to figure that out, but part of the fun is the scenery on the road to the inevitable—the movie is populated with interesting characters, likable in spite of their flaws, including Robert DeNiro as Cooper's superstitious, football-obsessed dad, and Julia Stiles as a beautiful but shrewish wife. (Only the presence of Chris Tucker, playing a friend of Cooper's, felt like a bit of an afterthought.) The movie has a feel-good message and an uplifting if predictable ending. Connie recoiled by a perceived aroma of "We're mentally disturbed! It's all so funny!" But aside from a line here and there, I didn't find a lot of the mental-illness aspects terribly funny, nor do I believe they were intended to be uproarious, exactly. I do think this is an example of a mainstream-movie version of an indie-type picture, but as much as I have enjoyed indie pics, a lot of them (i.e., "Away With Me") are horrendous. Happily, this one mostly gets it right. Full disclosure: This film had the advantage of being viewed immediately after two in a row that I did not enjoy, making it seem even better by comparison. (8)

TWILIGHT: BREAKING DAWN, PART 2 (2012)—Oh, Twilight. Remember back in 2008, when you were just a movie about two crazy kids falling in love? The fact that one of them was a vampire just added to the fun. But here we are, five movies later, and the love I had for Part One of the franchise (which I liked enough to sit through twice!) seems like a distant memory as the emphasis has shifted from character to hair, makeup and lazy characterization. None of the subsequent chapters in this teen-fantasy saga has come close to resonating with me quite the same way; though each installment contains a good scene or interesting idea here and there, parts 2-4 have consistently suffered in comparison to the original. Now here comes the finale—Part 2 of Part 4, if you're inclined to keep count—in which newly vamped Bella (Kristen Stewart) and brooding husband Edward (Robert Pattinson, who is absolutely brilliant in the area of looking at people without emotion) deal with the fallout of having a "half-mortal, half-immortal" baby, Renesmee—a concept that makes about as much sense as a half-pregnant woman. Those mysterious royal vampires, the Volturi, are really pissed off by the presence of a vampire baby, as it is apparently against the rules for some reason. (Used to be that vampires just drank blood and turned into bats; now they glitter and have a rule book that makes chess seem like tic-tac-toe. What's more, they each have impressive superpowers, including super-strength, prognostication, protective shields, ability to inflict heat/pain, etc.—they have more in common with The Avengers than Dracula.) Anyway, the entire movie is essentially an incidental setup to a huge showdown scene with the Volturi, "who come dressed for battle like they're being photographed for a Dutch Masters cigar box," as critic Mark Ramsey hilariously observed. The finale prominently features those unconvincing CGI werewolves that have long been the weakest visual element of this series, as well as a series of howlingly fake-looking decapitations. Breaking Dawn, Part 2 lacks any sense of subtlety or nuance, which I guess is perfect for kiddies but maddening for grownups. Since the love-triangle plot is now irrelevant, muscular wolf-boy Jacob is around exclusively to remove his shirt and act protective; one of the movie's few truly interesting ideas is the "imprinting" contrivance in which Jacob psychically links with the child Renesmee, although this is never explained on film as well as it is (I assume) in the novels. Despite the movie's vapidity and Lifetime movie-caliber performances, it can be trashily and campily entertaining—I never really hated what I was seeing, though I was rarely intrigued. Stewart may not smolder, exactly, but she's pretty enough, and the filmmakers have found an uber-adorable tot to portray Renesmee, although looking adorable is all she's called to do in this picture (she only has one or two lines of dialogue). By far my favorite thing in the movie is the beautiful and striking closing credits sequence, presented in spectacular monochrome and played over Christina Perri's stirring pop masterpiece "A Thousand Years" (from Breaking Dawn Part 1). The song comes closer to achieving an "epic" feeling than the whole movie does. (7)

LIFE OF PI (2012)—One of Chinese director Ang Lee's biggest hits in the USA was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Twelve years later, he is back with another tiger—namely the one from Yann Martel's supposedly unfilmable story about a shipwrecked boy who winds up in the same lifeboat as the ferocious beast. Perspective is everything: I saw Life of Pi the same day as the Twilight finale, and it's interesting to me that both movies attempt to render animals via CGI, and the difference in quality is astonishing: Breaking Dawn's wolves look comparatively cheap and SyFy Channel-ish compared to Richard Parker, as the Bengali tiger is affectionately named. The special effects are astonishing, even viewed in 2D (I switched theaters after surmising that the 3D glasses were hindering, rather than amplifying my experience). Life of Pi is a beautiful, moving and incredibly rewarding experience for viewers of all ages—one of the year's best! (10)

THIS IS 40 (2012)—Although it doesn't open until Dec. 21, I got my hands on a screener of Judd Apatow's latest comedy, a semi-sequel to Knocked Up in that it follows up on the characters played by Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd. In the film, both hapless indie record-company exec Rudd and better half Mann (Apatow's real-life wife) try to figure out how their respective companies are hemorrhaging money—and both deal with their daddy issues. (Albert Brooks gets all the best one-liners as Rudd's father, while John Lithgow provides welcome presence as Mann's dad.) This well-written comedy suffers from Apatow's reluctance to edit—this is a 134-minute comedy that desperately needs to be well under two hours—and if the crass potty humor could be excised, the length would be simply perfect. (Even the film's poster shows Rudd on the toilet.) Megan Fox is perfectly cast in a small but pivotal role. I'll award this film an (8), but if I get a chance to trim the scenes I didn't like, my version would easily rate a 9.

THE IMPOSSIBLE (2012)—Another advance screener (also out Dec. 21) is a real-life disaster movie that recreates the horrific 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, which killed nearly 280,000 people in Indonesia and surrounding countries. The Impossible focuses on some vacationing tourists (Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts) enjoying a fancy Thailand resort when the giants waves wash them away, along with their three sons. The special effects are so good that you'll wonder how they were able to achieve such realistic shots, and much of the resulting carnage is hard to watch. The family survives the initial impact but are separated—most of the movie is about their efforts to find each other. Though the movie is entertaining in a disaster-film sort of way, there's not much of a compelling script here, and although I felt bad for the characters, I never felt like I got to know them at all. (7)

LINCOLN (2012)—Every year, a movie strikes a universal chord with filmgoers that somehow fails to connect with me—it's the Slumdog Millionaire effect. Director Steven Spielberg trades in his Indiana Jones / E.T. hat for his more serious persona to tell the story of how our beloved 16th president successfully got Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to ban slavery. Tech production values, including scenery and makeup, are first-rate, as is the characterization of Daniel Day Lewis—he is more convincing as Lincoln than as Daniel Day Lewis. But the film is a two-hour bore and never engaged me. I realize I am in the vast minority; I guess I just enjoy Spielberg's dinosaur movies a lot more than his historical epics. (4)

THE SESSIONS (2012)—Wow! I caught this at a free Paramount screening, not having the motivation to see it for actual money, and was enormously impressed by the superb humor and scripting in this real-life story of how Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes), confined to an iron lung, seeks a sexual surrogate (Helen Hunt) to introduce him to the world of carnal pleasure. When the two come together in what is supposed to be a clinical capacity, though, emotions inevitably come into play. Even the secondary characters score big in this gentle story, including Moon Bloodgood and William H. Macy. At times, Hawkes reminded me so much of Roddy MacDowell that it was creepy! (9)

THE BAY (2012)—Director Barry Levinson, perhaps best known for movies like Diner, Good Morning Vietnam and Rain Man, inexplicably turns to the found-footage genre with this eco-thriller that suggests a hybrid of Contagion and Paranormal Activity. Something Extremely Bad is happening on the coast of Maryland, where people start to drop like flies after developing revolting giant blisters all over their bodies. What is causing this unsightly and terrifying phenomenon? A budding young broadcast journalist tries to get to the bottom of it as her local townsfolk puke blood, scream and keel over dead in the streets at her feet. The subject matter may not be as deftly handled as Contagion, but it's a corker of a horror movie, for those who liked movies like 1984's Impulse and 1995's Outbreak, but think they needed to be somewhat more grotesque. One particular scene, set aboard a boat, actually made me jump out of my chair! (8)