Friday, January 18, 2013

December 2012

As the year drew to a close, I hurtled off to the chilly mountains of northern Georgia for the Christmas holiday and endeavored to catch up on some of the movies I missed in the preceding 12 months. In all, I watched 23 films in December, which may be a personal 2012 record for an individual month. And what an array of films, ranging across the quality board from "1" to "10"! Here's what I saw:


HITCHCOCK (2012)—Who was the man behind the camera of all those classic thrillers? This film attempts to show us that unflappable, one-liner-spewing genius as embodied by Anthony Hopkins—the man famous for portraying Hannibal Lecter, arguably the best on-screen villain in any non-Hitchcock flick. Hopkins wears lots of makeup to try to bring the famous director to life, but he barely reminded me of Hitch. The film shows us how he brought the film Psycho to life, and some of the machinations of that movie's production are moderately interesting, but I never found myself particularly engrossed in Hitch's marital challenges. (5)

HYDE PARK ON HUDSON (2012)—Nicely acting, costumed and set-designed—but exceedingly slight—tale of FDR (Bill Murray) hosting the King and Queen at his country home in Hyde Park, NY, while simultaneously embarking on an affair with a distant cousin (Laura Linney). What might have passed as an interesting article or a short story is stretched out needlessly for what ultimately exists merely to present a punch line involving the eating of a hot dog. As my movie companion Joan accurately observed, all you need to see is the trailer, which preserves by far the most interesting bits in this dull piffle of a movie. Olivia Colman and Olivia Williams are standouts as the Queen and Eleanor Roosevelt, respectively. (6)

JACK REACHER (2012)—A slick, fast-paced action thriller starring Tom Cruise as author Lee Child's tough-guy drifter who solves mysteries and cracks conspiracies wide open. This movie—which Paramount hopes to launch into a franchise—is actually based on Child's ninth Jack Reacher novel, One Shot, about an ex-soldier turned sniper who kills half a dozen random people in a park…but there's a lot more to the story than meets the eye. British beauty Rosamund Pike (An Education) does a very convincing American accent playing a district attorney mixed up in the case. Great fights and car chases in this one, and some unexpectedly funny one-liners as well. Bring on the sequel! (9)

DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)—Director Quentin Tarantino's epic love letter to the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s—a sprawling, gloriously bloody revenge fantasy set a couple of years before the U.S. Civil War. Bounty hunter Schultz (Christoph Waltz) partners up with slave Django (Jamie Foxx) to make corpses of wanted men for the government—then set out to locate Django's forcibly brotheled wife. Hold on to your hats! This is a mesmerizing action film full of great performances, including a hammy Samuel L. Jackson (barely recognizable under pounds of old-age makeup) and a scenery-chewing Leonardo DiCaprio as two of the movie's numerous villains. The only things preventing this from being a straight-up "10" are an admittedly funny but totally out-of-place comedy scene involving Jonah Hill that should have been cut, as well as the inclusion of some contemporary rap songs and oldies like Jim Croce's "I Got a Name" on the soundtrack that totally take you out of the film. (Seriously, rap in a film set in 1858? That's seriously stupid.) Still, Waltz and Foxx turn in spectacular performances; the film is dazzling from beginning to end, and director Spike Lee should just shut the fuck up about how it degrades the memory of his ancestors. They can kiss my black ass. (9)

ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012)—Director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) was preparing to shoot a completely different kind of Bin Laden film last year when the internationally despised terrorist was finally killed. Consequently, Bigelow and her crew hastened to rewrite their tale, updating their focus to include the Big Capture. Zero Dark Thirty follows the decade-long efforts of one CIA operative (Jessica Chastain) to capture the Al Qaeda leader; it becomes something an obsession for her, and something not unlike a mystery story. The first two-thirds are vaguely interesting, as we watch the CIA torture suspects and attempt to gather leads, but the film only really springs to life when a strangely secure complex in Afghanistan that may be Bin Laden's hideout piques her interest. After that, it's a roller-coaster ride to the big finale. The film is part history lesson, part social studies lecture, and part thriller; it lacks the unpredictable panache of The Hurt Locker, but it's ultimately worth seeing for that final third. (8)

PROMISED LAND (2012)—This was a last-minute movie choice for Joan and me—after seeing Zero Dark Thirty, we decided not to subject ourselves to another long film (Les Miserables), opting for this one instead. What a great idea! Promised Land turns out to be one of my favorites of the year. Matt Damon and Frances McDormand roam the country buying up natural-gas drilling rights, which is music to the ears of recession-plagued land owners eager for a cash influx. But is the underground drilling process, known as "fracking," as safe as Damon's company promises? Not so, says an environmentalist (John Krasinski), who shows up out of nowhere to start cock-blocking his pitch in one particular town by sharing some of the purported hazards of natural gas, i.e., tainted water supplies. It's a fun cat-and-mouse routine as we watch two basically nice guys wrestle with morality (and even spar over the affections of a local girl). Director Gus Van Sant, never a favorite of mine, hits the bullseye this time—I was mesmerized from beginning to end. (10)

THE GUILT TRIP (2012)—This was a free-screening at the releasing studio, Paramount Pictures. A road-trip comedy with lots of Jewish-mommy-smothering jokes, Guilt Trip gives us Barbra Streisand, accompanying son Seth Rogen on a cross-country journey that examines why their relationship isn't perfect—and how the trip helps to improve it. There's nothing terribly profound or meaningful here (I kept wondering what a delight this would have been in the hands of a young Albert Brooks), but the leads do reasonably well with the material, and there are enough chuckles along the way to make it worth seeing—for free. (7)

ON THE ROAD (2012)—Along with The Master and Beasts of the Southern Wild, this film completes the trilogy of films that bored me nearly to death. Back in the 1940s, attractive young people Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley and Kristen Stewart drive around America, have sex, smoke lots of cigarettes and do whatever it takes (odd jobs, prostitution) to earn money for hotel rooms, gasoline and smokes. Staring at a bare wall might have been more interesting; I didn't care about a single character and couldn't wait for the film to be over. (1)

PARENTAL GUIDANCE (2012)—Billy Crystal is a funny (if shamelessly schticky) Borscht-belt comedian, and his memorable Oscar-hosting chores are legendary—I relish his Academy Awards appearances. So the few times I laughed in this unbelievably contrived misfire were because of the handful of gags he delivers so effortlessly. Unfortunately, this is the kind of "family" comedy that relies so heavily on doody, wee-wee, fart, vomit and smelly-feet jokes that there's barely room for anything else. Crystal and Bette Midler are grandparents who are called in to babysit their thankless, spoiled-rotten grandkids while mom and dad go on vacation, and of course the geezers become analog people suddenly stuck in a digital world. Still, you know from the get-go that everybody will learn from one another and that the myriad disasters and catastrophes will serve to make everybody love each other sooo much. Yeccchh! Among Billy's worst films, and a very far cry from When Harry Met Sally, The Princess Bride and City Slickers. (3)


RUBY SPARKS (2012)—An adorable romantic-fantasy for those of us who loved Groundhog Day. Simple plot: Paul Dano plays a novelist who starts writing about his dream girl…who then comes to life (in the guise of Dano's real-life squeeze, Zoe Kazan). Decent as both a romcom and as a character study, and fun to see Annette Bening with a nice head of hair—I almost didn't recognize her. Kazan also scripted. (8)

V/H/S (2012)—Imagine a mashup of Tales from the Crypt and The Blair Witch Project on a third-generation VHS tape, and you've got a pretty good idea of this found-footage shocker. Much (most?) of it is deliberately shot in low-resolution with hand-held cameras—there are even "tracking problems" thrown in to make it seem more authentic — and it's an effect that will doubtlessly render the film unwatchable for many. Even so, this is a pretty scary horror movie...I probably shouldn't have watched it immediately before going to bed. It may be the first found-footage anthology movie; there are five stories in all, with a sixth "framing" tale that ties them (howsoever tenuously) together. Most of them are at least unsettling, and all are quite gruesome in one way or another. This is a must for horror fans who like their movies dripping with gore, and who aren't terrified of the ultimate movie menace—namely, the shaky hand-held camera shot. (8)

DAMSELS IN DISTRESS (2012)—Pretty Lily (Analeigh Tipton) goes to a college called Seven Oaks where nobody ever studies, and where most of the students are either (a) stupid or (b) exceptionally stupid. Like 2006's Idiocracy, the movie trades on dumb-guy jokes (some of the frat boys don't know what the names of colors are, for example, and none of them have ever seen the inside of a shower). But this is an equal-opportunity school of non-learning—most of the girls are equally as vapid. At school, freshman Lily meets Violet (Greta Gerwig), an odd, aroma-obsessed junior who heads up a clique of young women who run a suicide-prevention center. The film explores why people are attracted to doofuses (or "doufi," as these girls call them), what factors make certain people "cool," and asks whether any of this truly matters. Damsels would be worth watching simply for the sheer amount of pretty faces (including Carrie MacLemore and Megalyn Echikunwoke), but it contains enough quirky humor and quotable laugh-out-loud lines to make up for its somewhat plodding pace. Bonus: Mark Suozzo's engagingly loopy "lounge" score. Double bonus: A running joke involves oh-so-sweet Tipton getting butt-fucked by her pompous French boyfriend. Debit: Lack of a satisfying resolution. (8)

QUARTET (2012)—Former opera star Maggie Smith arrives at a nursing home for others of her ilk—including her estranged former husband (Tom Courtenay). Also present is horn-dog Billy Connolly, as well as several other dotty and colorful inhabitants. Dustin Hoffman may not have been the ideal candidate to direct what should have been a very classic British comedy of manners, but instead, he's turned it into a rather mild-mannered affair, which centers on (naturally) the staging of a concert. Maggie is always brilliant, but the film wants you to accept her as both an acid-tongued grouch and a blitheringly sobbing softy, and she simply can't be both things. Likewise, Connolly's character is so unrelentingly horny that he becomes a one-dimensional caricature instead of a real character. (6)

TAKE THIS WALTZ (2012)—When Michelle Williams meets neighbor Luke Kirby, they connect on numerous levels—it's love at first sight. Unfortunately, Williams is already married to emotionally distant, uncommunicative Seth Rogen, who spends more time focusing on cooking chicken than on her. Will she trade her boring marriage for the prospect of an exciting new relationship? Put it this way: When Rogen tells Williams that they don't need to make dinner conversation because they already live together and know everything about each other...well, that's a red flag. Sarah Polley wrote and directed this slow-moving but romantic and absorbing comedy-drama, which gives the usually comedic Rogen and Sarah Silverman a chance to show off their dramatic chops. Kirby, who suggests an attractive version of Kevin McDonald of the Kids in the Hall comedy troupe, is a standout. More than the usual amount of female nudity in this one, including full frontal from Silverman. Filmed in Canada. (9)

JOYFUL NOISE (2012)—Shamefully manipulative and relentlessly corny quasi-musical about a small-town church choir attempting to win a national singing competition, amid myriad personal conflicts involving the church's biggest contributor (Dolly Parton), her studly grandson (Jeremy Jordan), the choir director (Queen Latifah), her beautiful daughter (Keke Palmer) and the church's pastor (Courtney B. Vance). Will they see past their egos and resolve their differences in time to wrangle a trophy? What do you think? Despite its outrageously predictable paradigm, Joyful Noise is a delicious trifle that contains numerous uplifting, tuneful and perfectly performed musical numbers, as well as a heartstring-tugging love story between Jordan and Palmer (who is, for my money, the hottest female on the face of the planet—I would watch her play tiddlywinks for two hours). One of the coolest things about the movie is that even its most likable characters have flaws, just like real humans do—in fact, there are no real villains in this picture, just the flaws of the protagonists. Like last year's Country Strong, this is proudly corny soap opera with great music that's impossible to dislike. Excellent performances from everybody involved, especially Latifah as Palmer's stubborn mama. (9)

PITCH PERFECT (2012)—What better way to follow up a movie about a singing competition than with a movie about a singing competition? This one goes where few others dare: the a cappella route. Anna Kendrick, who magically classed up movies like Up in the Air, End of Watch and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, plays a college student who dreams of being a music producer but somehow winds up singing in an all-vocal group called The Bellas instead. The film is so silly and slapsticky—there are not one but two projectile-vomiting scenes—that at times it suggests Glee as directed by The Three Stooges. (Some of the less farcical scenes have to do with Kendrick's romance with a dude from a rival singing group, but a giant chunk of the movie is marked by utter daffiness.) In this year's Les Miserables, the actors were persuaded to sing live for the camera; Pitch Perfect is that film's polar opposite, with "live competition" performances that are so slickly produced and prefabricated that the lip-synching almost qualifies as a joke all on its own. That's not a particularly big complaint, though; at least Pitch Perfect's producers make sure the singing is, well, pitch-perfect. Chunky Rebel Wilson supplies the film's forty billion fat jokes (she insists on being called Fat Amy to her face); Anna Camp is a domineering and uptight leader of the Bellas; and Hana Mae Lee, as a barely audible Japanese girl who at one point makes snow angels in her classmate's puke, supplies the film with its only avant-garde humor (i.e., why was a veritable mute hired to sing?). Based on a so-called "nonfiction novel" by Mickey Rapkin, the movie gets by on the sheer fun of its singing scenes, of which there are plenty. (8)


RAMPART (2011)—Woody Harrelson plays a dirty cop in late-1990s Los Angeles, when the famous Rampart scandal was rocking the city. Harrelson has been embroiled in too many questionable conflicts, confrontations and shootings, and the authorities are closing in on him as he tries to balance family, his questionable morals, and his 1,000-pack-a-day cigarette habit. This is not a tightly plotted film that is heavy on story…it's more a film for film students and directors who care more about the atmosphere that is created than a cohesive story (The Shield did this same thing much better on TV). Sigourney Weaver is a standout in the relatively small role of district attorney. Ends with a whimper instead of the bang the film was theoretically leading up to. (6)

BEDTIME STORY (1964)—Before Steve Martin and Michael Caine joined up for Frank Oz's deliciously wicked 1988 comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Marlon Brando and David Niven occupied the same roles in 1964's Bedtime Story. The two movies are surprisingly similar, although each has its peculiar charm; among this version's pluses is lovely Shirley Jones (in a role later essayed by Glenne Headly.) Screened by Jay and me at his apartment. (9)

THE NAKED TRUTH (1957)—Dennis Price, who publishes a scandal magazine, writes revealing articles about Terry-Thomas, Peter Sellers, et al., and blackmails them for big bucks or he goes to press with them. Give the guy credit for being an entrepreneur, but it won't be long before his victims attempt some sort of revenge tactics. Here's a little gem of a comedy, in lovely black and white, that utilizes the great Peter Sellers in a variety of costumes. As with the next film, this was screened by Jay and me in Hiawassee, GA, over Christmas. (8)

GASLIGHT (1940)—Why is Paul (Anton Walbrook) trying to make his wife Bella (Diana Wynyard) believe she's insane? Could it be because he's a despicable killer with evil on his mind? Patrick Hamilton's 1938 play became two different films in the 1940s; this was the first, and it's very well done. (8)

THE REEF (2010)—What happens when some young, attractive people get stuck in shark-infested waters without a boat? That's the plot this movie shares with 2003's Open Water, and even the posters of the two films are extremely similar. In this version of the story, five unlucky saps capsize off the coast of Australia while sailing to Indonesia; what happens next isn't terribly different than Friday the 13th with Jaws taking the place of Jason. It ain't Citizen Kane, but I guess they gave me what I paid for. (7)

THE INNKEEPERS (2011)—Positive reviews attracted me to this haunted-hotel horror flick, which is rather curious considering that virtually nothing happens for about 80 percent of the movie. Sara Paxton and Pat Healy trade front-desk duties at a once-famous Canadian inn, where a woman once hanged herself more than a century ago and now supposedly haunts the place. Paxton and Healy look for answers, with help from psychic guest Kelly McGillis (no longer recognizable as the sexy Amish girl from 1984's Witness), but as always, it's best not to rouse these spirits. Seems to go on forever; would have been vastly more effective as a half-hour TV show. (6)

PERFECT SENSE (2011)—Falling in love can be a real bitch when the apocalypse arrives. That's essentially the plot of David Mackenzie's sad science-fiction story, in which chef Ewan McGregor and epidemiologist Eva Green meet, fall in love...and then slowly fall victims to a worldwide disease that first robs people of their sense of smell, taste and hearing. Love Story meets Contagion! Can romance prevail if all our senses are taken away? Mackenzie is clearly more interested in the impact the disease has on his love story than the sci-fi trappings themselves (the cause of the affliction is barely referenced, and there's never even a whisper about the search for a cure), but he works that to the film's advantage. It's a quite a unique film, bleak and harrowingly sad, but well worth seeing. (8)

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