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Category: 2012 Films

2012 Top 10!

20131227-115429.jpgIt’s that time of year again, the magical posting of my Top 10 Films of 2 years ago! I’ve actually managed to see over 40 films from 2012, which has to be my highest number in the decade. Thanks to Netflix Instant, I watched a lot of stuff I wouldn’t have, and a lot of those films made the list. This method of distribution (and the other Instant services like Hulu Plus or Amazon Instant) is amazing for film lovers. The hardest thing is actually committing to a film and not just watching the next episode of whatever TV show you are sprinting through.

I’m not sure I can speak to any themes in my list. As I grow older, I think I’m better able to embrace the things I love without hesitancy and without a fear of their worth or importance. I tend to watch films more jealously now; I want to be entertained, surprised, provoked, and challenged (and probably in that order). I probably watched more “bad” movies this last year and more throwaway things than I have for a long time, and this is probably because of having them right at my fingertips. And I’d say this is a pretty complete list. Really, the only two films I haven’t seen that I’m still going to watch are Amour and Lincoln. Other than that, I’m not aching to see any of the films on my list that I didn’t watch.

And as always, I’m planning ahead to next year. I’ve got 50 films on my 2013 list, and have seen probably 10 of them. So come back next year, and get more outdated favorites!

10. Tie: The Avengers (Joss Whedon)/Jack Reacher (Christopher McQuarrie)

These are my genre picks. Obviously, I’m a big comic book fan, but for the most part, I’ve been disappointed with superhero movies. Either they are too serious (why so serious?!), too stupid (Green Lantern, Man of Steel), or just plain boring (Captain America, Thor: the Dark World, Iron Man 3, Batman Begins…). With The Avengers, Joss Whedon managed to mix the comedy of Iron Man with the action-adventure that a superhero film needs. The result was the best theater experience I’ve had in a long time.

Jack Reacher is probably the most surprising movie on this list. More and more, I just have a craving for the kind of action adventure movies I loved growing up, ones that weren’t able to rely on special effects to create entertainment. This is an old-fashioned action film; it’s smartly directed (with logical, comprehensible action scenes), sharply written, and well-acted. It’s funny when it needs to be funny, campy in a classic way (WERNER HERZOG IS THE BAD GUY!), and entertaining from start to finish. I wish it would have been more successful, but I don’t think the movie studios know how to promote a movie like this anymore (although, word is we are getting a sequel).

9. The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Grienfield)

I don’t know if there is a better examination of wealth in America than Lauren Grienfield’s documentary The Queen of Versailles. The way it is able to highlight the huge disparity between the rich and poor, primarily in terms of mindset, while also sympathetically presenting it’s titular queen is a better critique of capitalism than a hundred essays or manifestos. And like the best documentaries, so much of what Grienfield filmed was spontaneous and unpredicatable; when the stock-market burst halfway through filming, these rich caricatures that we had been watching build the biggest house in America quickly turn into relatable human beings, all the while yearning for their disgusting past. That internal contradiction is what makes this such a fascinating documentary.

8. This is Not a Film (Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and Jafar Panahi)
Shot in his home, illegally, while under house arrest by the Iranian government, Jafar Panahi’s This is Not a Film is part documentary, part essay, and part experiment. It certainly isn’t a film in any traditional sense, but it displays a stronger love and obsession with film and its power than anything I’ve seen in ages. The film is driven by Panahi’s intense passion for filmmaking and his complete inability to stop, even under threat of imprisonment. More than that, I think its a testament to what is possible, both politically and artistically, with our current technology. You don’t need a traditional camera to make a film; you just need a phone, a story, and a drive to make your voice heard.

7. Brooklyn Castle (Katie Dellamaggiore)

I watched a bunch of documentaries this year (thanks Netflix), but this was easily my favorite. It isn’t a daring technical achievement, structurally bold, or experimental in any way. Instead, it picks a stunning group of subjects and trusts that we will fall in love with them because of who they are. The story of Brooklyn’s IS 318 will give you hope in an increasingly depressing world. Once you meet Pobo, Justus, Rochelle, and Patrick, everything gets a little easier (seriously, for weeks after we watched this, whenever Lizz had a rough day at the office, I’d remind her of Pobo and she’d smile and perk up). And like any good documentary, it has deeper connections to all kinds of relevant issues: class, gender, race, place, etc, but it does it from the perspective of these wonderful kids. Man, writing about this is making me get all emotional!

6. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)

I think Wes Anderson is caving in on himself, which isn’t a bad thing if you are a fan. I think this is a return to the Anderson of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. It is full of the idiosyncratic stuff that you either love or loathe, but it also has the bite of Rushmore, my favorite of his films. I had so much fun watching this, and really fell in love with Sam and Suzy. Edward Norton is also fantastic. I’d also say this is the most focused of his recent films. This is a tightly plotted, beautifully photographed coming-of-age story that builds wonderfully.

5. Holy Motors (Leos Carax)
A nearly incomprehensible film that is completely understandable as you are watching it. Like This is Not a Film (I believe in my original post on Panahi’s film, I said they would make a perfect double-bill), Carax is only interested in pushing cinema as far as he can. It’s surreal, beautiful, gross, funny, boring, mesmerizing, and singular. Denis Lavant also gives the performance(s) of the year.

4. 21 Jump Street (Phil Lord & Chris Miller)

I still can’t believe how much I love this movie. It takes the bromance formula that has become standard in today’s comedy world, but doesn’t get overly bogged down in itself; the obvious fault with the Apatow films is that they are too bloated, but this film just blows through its running time, packing in as many jokes as possible. And Channing Tatum is undeniably charming. I want to hate him so much, but it’s just impossible. He has serious comedic chops and timing (and he’s willing to do anything: see This is the End), and he works beautifully with Jonah Hill (who, surprisingly, never becomes annoying). Throw in amazing bit roles for Chris Parnell, Daxflame!!, Rob Riggle, and Ice Cube, and you have the best straight-up comedy since Borat. I don’t even feel like I need to write more to justify this. If you don’t like 21 Jump Street, you’re a buzzkill.

3. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)

I wasn’t enamored with The Master when Lizz and I saw it in theaters, but it is one of those movies that just sticks with you. Little lines of dialogue or images just kept coming to me for months afterwards. When I first started getting obsessed with movies, I’d rewatch entire films for little sequences (John Travolta shooting heroin in Pulp Fiction, the rain of frogs in Magnolia). In The Master, Joaquin Phoenix running across the lettuce fields is so spectacularly perfect that I just want it to last forever. But the whole film left me a little cold. When I finally watched it again, it all really clicked for me, though. I love how unsympathetically adult Anderson’s films are. The Master is a movie that forces you to work and chew on big ideas; it provokes and critiques. But there’s also this undeniable love for the characters, even the despicable ones, that is quite remarkable. Anderson’s films are so out of place and time that you just have to marvel at his single-mindedness (and it isn’t that they are old-fashioned either; quite the contrary. He’s finally reached a point where he’s shed the Altman tags and truly started creating things that are his own); this doesn’t look, sound, or feel like any movie made in the recent past, except, of course, for There Will Be Blood. Joaquin Phoenix is out of this world good, too.

2. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

This movie has stuck with me in fragments. The cinematography is stunning, and certain shots and sequences sneak back into my mind on a constant basis: a young girl carrying a candle, a police motorcade wandering through the Turkish countryside, a group of grown men clumped into a tiny car. This is easily the most beautiful film of the year. I’m just in love with the pacing of this film and the willingness of Ceylan to settle into his characters and setting and see what happens. It’s not going to be for everyone, but if you are willing to give yourself over to it, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is amazing.

1. Take This Waltz (Sarah Polley)
This isn’t a film I wrote about on here (I watched it in the height of crazyness), but I’m not sure I even have the words to explain why it resonated with me so strongly. There is such a dearth of truly adult films about relationships, that to see one deal with them so honestly, so poignantly is a real revelation. And particularly, this film really deals with people in their late 20s in relationships, which is obviously where I’m at.

The entire film hinges on the performance of Michelle Williams as Margot, as she finds herself increasingly drawn away from her husband, played by Seth Rogen, to her charming neighbor (Luke Kirby). It sounds like a standard plot, but Polley and Williams play it so beautifully that it is never cliché. Margot clearly loves her husband (some of the small, couples-moments are my favorites and ring so true to my own marriage), and he adores her. But she can’t help her attraction. The most beautiful sequences in this film involve Margot playing with this attraction while trying to stay true to her husband: it really culminates in an amazing sequence where Williams and Kirby swim together late at night. They are almost performing a choreographed dance in the water, but the spell is broken the minute he touches her; she snaps back to reality and realizes she’s crossed the line.

The real miracle here is that Polley manages to make all three main characters sympathetic and believable. While you may disagree with Margot’s ultimate decision, it’s completely understandable why she makes it, even if it’s messy, ugly, and difficult too. And maybe it’s this presentation of relationships that I find so amazing. The Williams-Rogen relationship feels real; these are two actual human beings living actual lives.

While it isn’t necessarily a film that calls for adventurous camerawork, Polley still manages to make the cinematography beautiful, whimsical, and impressionistic. She makes some daring visual choices that don’t call attention to themselves, but really help sell the mood of the film (also, the soundtrack is pitch-perfect). It’s so refreshing to see someone actually thinking about the camera, even if it’s a film centered on relationships, which generally leads to generic, boring cinematography (unlike Anatolia, for example, which seems to really be about the visual first). There’s an undeniable style here that breathes life into her setting and characters (their house, for example, is a wonderful character in the film). While Polley does fall into some traps (she makes her themes too explicit), overall, this is my favorite film of the year and the one that continues to poke at my brain the most. I’m really anxious to see her documentary follow up, Stories We Tell. Maybe it will show up this time next year!20131227-115041.jpg

Summah Break

If I’m posting, it goes without saying that it’s also been a while since I posted. Much of this was written last week, but my life has gone from boring to insane almost instantaneously. But before that happened, I managed to watch a bunch of movies.

Also, here’s to Aaron Ramsey, the shining light in the otherwise depressing last 2 months of being an Arsenal fan.

To the movies:
Film #29: It’s a Disaster
(Writer & Director: Todd Berger)

A Netflix Instant special. I love David Cross, so I knew this was worth a shot. This is the couple’s comedy version of This is the End. Glen (Cross) and Tracy (Julia Stiles) visit her friends for a couples brunch. While there, their city is attacked with dirty bombs, and they wait it out in a house. Tensions rise, secrets are revealed, and emotions are toyed with. The script is fast, smart, and cutting, and for about an hour, I think it really works. The problem is that Berger doesn’t really seem to know where he wants this to go or what we are supposed to get out of it, so he relies on a weird, unearned twist in the final act that feels like a cop out. There are some genuinely funny moments and fantastic dialogue, but it doesn’t quite come together in the end. An interesting film though and worth a watch.

Film #30: Starlet
(Writers: Sean Baker & Chris Bergoch; Director: Sean Baker)
Starlet is a little indie film from last year that won an Independent Spirit Award and picked up buzz online. I was happy to see it going on Netflix Instant because I probably wouldn’t have gone out of my way to see it. It definitely has the prototypical indie feel in terms of visuals and pacing and I don’t think there is anything about it that is spectacular. Jane (Dree Hemingway) finds a ton of money in a vase she bought from a cranky old woman, Sadie (Besedka Johnson), but she doesn’t return it. Instead, she tries to befriend Sadie to cure her guilty conscience, even though Sadie is resistant. The film doesn’t do anything revolutionary and the plot follows a fairly predictable path, but it is well made and engaging. In particular, Dree Hemingway is really fantastic. It’s hard not to fall in love with her portrayal of Jane. She’s a supermodel, so I’m not sure how well she’d fit into most films, but here, that look works perfect.

Film #31: Argo
(Writer: Chris Terrio; Director: Ben Affleck)

I’ve generally liked Affleck’s directorial stints, although I’d say they are really just solid Hollywood films. They remind me of Clint Eastwood’s films. Solid stories, professionally made, but nothing exceptional or unique. Argo is easily his weakest film and has easily been one of the most disappointing films I’ve seen recently. The biggest problem is Affleck’s on-screen performance. Tony Mendez is one of the most boring characters I’ve ever seen on film. There is NOTHING interesting about him. I don’t understand the character’s motivations, I don’t understand his backstory, and Affleck’s portrayal is so flat that it’s almost as if he isn’t even present. Similarly, on the direction side, Affleck does nothing to get us to care about the Americans Mendez is trying to rescue. Aside from one annoying couple, they are completely non-descript. We are given no reason to truly care about their safety, aside from the fact that they are American. I also think Affleck’s portrayal of Iran and its people is problematic and generic, but that’s an issue I don’t have the energy to get into. This could have been a really fun movie given its premise, but it just falls flat on all accounts.

Film #32: Safety Not Guaranteed
(Writer: Derek Connolly; Director: Colin Trevorrow)

This movie is so full of people I love that it’s hard not to enjoy it. Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is an intern at a Seattle Magazine who volunteers to help writer Jeff (Jake Johnson) investigate Kenneth (Mark Duplass), who is looking for a partner to go back in time with him. Their goal is to figure out who Kenneth is and why he wants to go back in time. Like any good indie film, this is both funny, beautiful, and sad. It’s a movie about how the past is always present, and how every person, no matter what they say, has something they wish they could change. I was particularly surprised with Aubrey Plaza who is really, really good here. Sure, she’s still that awkward Aubrey Plaza you know and love, but she brings a real humanity to this role that surprised me. Like It’s a Disaster and Starlet, this isn’t going to blow anyone away, but it’s solid, entertaining, and thoughtful filmmaking.

This Is Not Pitch Perfect

Film #27: Pitch Perfect
(Writers: Kay Cannon & Mickey Rapkin; Director: Jason Moore)

I have a deep-rooted hatred of musicals, but this is probably one of the least offensive ones I’ve seen. I guess I can handle a musical if the music makes sense and it isn’t meant to be an exploration of the characters’ inner thoughts and emotions. Here, it’s just karaoke, and I can handle that. The plot is ludicrous, but knowingly so, and Anna Kendrick’s alt-DJ character is just silly. But this movie doesn’t take itself seriously and it’s quite funny in parts. Any movie, musical or not, where Adam Devine pretty much plays his character from Workaholics is ok with me. Nothing spectacular, but a pleasant hour and a half.

Film #28: This is Not a Film
(Directors: Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb)
Jafar Panahi is an Iranian filmmaker who was imprisoned when a film he was trying to make ran afoul of the government’s liking. He was put under house-arrest and given a 20 year ban from making films. This Is Not a Film is his attempt to resist this ban (hence the name). Essentially a documentary, Panahi, with the help of his friend and documentarian Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, creates a subtle, thoughtful critique of modern Iran and filmmaking itself.

But it isn’t just a documentary. It quickly becomes an investigation into the nature of film, and more importantly, the instinctive drive Panahi has to make films. The film begins with him simply placing the camera in places in his apartment and recording his daily activities as he makes tea, talks with his lawyer, and feeds his daughter’s lizard. When this feels too forced to him, he has Mirtahmasb come over to help him film. Panahi wants to re-create the film that got him arrested that he never had a chance to film. He blocks off his living room with tape and walks through what would be happening, what we’d be seeing, and what the characters would be doing. It sort of comes off like a director’s commentary but without an actual film.

But then Panahi backtracks again. He shows a clip from one of his previous films and explains that his actor brought something to the scene that would have been impossible for him to account for in the script. He realizes that walking through what will happen in a movie is not a movie. The story he wants to tell is reliant on actors and setting, things completely barred to him in his apartment.

What does a filmmaker do when he can’t make films? How does an artist express himself when he’s been barred access to his tools? This Is Not a Film is an attempt to come to terms with those questions by flipping them on their heads and making them into narratives themselves. What results is compelling, beautiful, antagonistic, and a true love letter to film.

Suggested Double-Bill: This Is Not a Film & Holy Motors


Film #25: Bully
(Director: Lee Hirsch)

The problem with Lee Hirsch’s Bully is one of intent. What is Bully trying to achieve? If it is merely to bring attention to bullying, I’m not sure that Lee Hirsch tells us anything we didn’t already know. Yes, the kids that get bullied are human and it hurts them. Yes, the families that lose children to suicide hurt too. It isn’t that these things aren’t worthy of being documented. In fact, this film is full of powerful moments around these very things. The problem is that Hirsch is so committed to his hands-off style that the film often stops when it could really push forward into interesting avenues. There are even moments where that stylistic choice puts Hirsch into ethically questionable situations.

Bully is pretty frank in its depiction of bullying. This film received some notoriety when the MPAA initially decided to give it an R rating because of language. The filmmakers and their supporters argued that this would deny the film to its intended audience, school-age children who are both the perpetrators and recipients of bullying. The rating was changed after a few edits. And there are definitely some troubling sequences. In particular, the main subject of the film, Alex, is often shown being physically assaulted. While these scenes are incredibly sad, its actually more troubling that Hirsch doesn’t intervene. He just sits back, records, and lets the abuse happen. Later, he shows the tape to Alex’s parents and it’s left to them to go to the school and try and get something done. Regardless of his desire to stay neutral in the filmmaking process, wouldn’t Bully have been much more insightful and powerful if Hirsch had confronted Alex’s bullies as they were hitting him? Wouldn’t it have been much more interesting and provocative to force the bullies to explain themselves?

The most interesting sequence in the film also illustrates this weakness. After the bus incident, Alex’s parents confront the vice-principal, Kim Lockwood. As they explain to Lockwood what has happened, she says that she’s ridden that bus and that those students are “good as gold.” She then deflects their inquiries as to what will happen with pictures of her newly-born grandkid. It’s a surreal exchange that paints Lockwood as willfully and devastatingly ignorant. As disappointing as her handling of the situation is, what’s even more disappointing is that the meeting just ends. We know that Hirsch has the footage! Why doesn’t he force this idiot to explain how the same students that slam Alex’s head into a seat are “good as gold”? Why doesn’t he do any sort of investigation into the school district policies that may hamper Lockwood’s ability to root out bullying?

The observational, verité style works in some instances, but it really is a matter of subject. This would have been a more powerful, provocative documentary if Hirsch was willing to open up and become more responsive to what was happening in front of his cameras. Instead, we get a documentary that tells us what we already know.

Film #26: The House I Live In
(Director: Eugene Jarecki)

In contrast to Bully, Jarecki’s investigation into the war on drugs, The House I Live In, follows each new question raised to its logical conclusion. It works more as a video essay than a documentary, which is to its benefit and its detriment.

The House I Live In links the nation’s war on drugs with its endemic racism. According to Jarecki, each new movement in the battle was spurred by a new ethnic tension. The wave of Chinese immigrants into California led to the criminalization of opium, the influx of migrant workers from Latin America led to the illegalization of marijuana, and the introduction of crack cocaine led to unfair punishments towards blacks. This is a compelling argument, and depending on your worldview, a sadly believable one. I could see people objecting that this view of the war on drugs over-simplifies the issue and unfairly turns criminals into victims, but it’s hard to deny the timeline.

Luckily, he doesn’t let this linkage blind him from the newest wave in the war on drugs, meth. This is primarily a white drug, and thus poor whites are the most affected. Here, Jarecki opens up and explains the economics of drug use and drug policing. From the user’s end, drug use is generally spurred on by economic struggle, and the poor are disproportionately imprisoned (this is illustrated in the radical discrepancy between minimum sentences for possession of equivalent amounts of crack and cocaine). From the enforcement perspective, the war on drugs has become an economic boon. Cities are built and sustained by local prisons, enforcement agencies use money taken in raids to fund themselves, and prisons are run by private industries that must make a profit. Thus, we are left with a cycle that just intensifies itself with little hope of actually helping the people affected by drug use.

As a teacher of argumentative writing, I just love how efficiently this is put together. Each link in the chain is perfectly placed next to the one before it, and by the end, it’s forms a pretty convincing whole. It isn’t a particularly artistic documentary and certainly not one that takes many creative leaps, but it achieves exactly what it set out to.

Woo! WOO!

Even though I’m working less than usual, this summer has been crazy. Going places, doin’ thangs. The biggest news is that MAH WAHFE was offered a job at the VA. She’s worked her butt off for 9 years to get this very job, so it’s awesome that it is actually happening (and it was certainly a roller coaster getting there, especially in the last few weeks). I’m so incredibly proud of her.

Last week, I had one of the best meals of my life. The college I teach at has a pretty renowned culinary arts program, and they have an on-campus bistro that is run by students (with the help and guidance of the culinary arts faculty). A group of us from the Writing Center went on Thursday and it was spectacular. I think Lizz and I counted 9 courses (of varying size of course). Salmon, tuna, black cherry sorbet, creme brulee, bacon-wrapped pork belly, homemade butter and bread. Ah. I’m dozing off just thinking about it. Here’s a link to their website to get a taste: Sage Bistro

In nerd news, my movie viewing has slowed down quite a bit. Lizz and I finished Firefly and Serenity, so that took up some of my time. It was totally worth it though. Fantastic series and the film actually did an incredibly job of wrapping things up. I have watched a couple of other things though.

Film #24: Brooklyn Castle
(Director: Katie Dellamaggiore)
This is an amazing documentary about the chess team at I.S. 318, a middle school in Brooklyn, New York. They are the best chess team in the nation, even though most of the students live below the poverty line. The film was shot right in the midst of the financial crisis, so much of the film deals with the students coping with the forced budget cuts. The film works because these kids are incredible. You just instantly fall in love with all of them, and their ability to persevere and overcome their economic situation is humbling. I also love the way Dellamaggiore shoots the matches themselves. We don’t see the boards or even know what’s happening in the games; instead, we just watch the kids. At points, she employs slo-motion panning shots of them in deep contemplation, and they suddenly turn into epic heroes. And like any good documentary, Brooklyn Castle tackles issues of class, race, and gender head-on, but through the frame of these incredible kids. If you can’t fall in love with Brooklyn Castle, you aren’t a human. Prepare to cry.

2013 Film #3: Spring Breakers
(Writer & Director: Harmony Korine)

Spring Breakers was one of my two most anticipated films of the year (along with Only God Forgives), and sadly, it failed miserably to live up to my hopes. This movie is just so disingenuous. It indulges a vapid narrative and aesthetic in an attempt to critique hedonistic consumerism, but it’s ironic sheen only serves to cover up for lazy filmmaking. I should have loved this movie. I love the idea of the aesthetics of this movie, but every image just feels forced. It feels like Korine is trying to do Terrence Malick and Spring Break, and every frame is burdened with that trying. My biggest problem, though, is that it is just damn boring. And not in a good way. The characters are forgettable (save for Franco’s Alien, although he is only memorable by force) and the writing is TERRIBLE. The voice-over narrations from the film’s female leads are some of the worst shit ever put on film. But again, and this is the real problem with the movie, Korine is so gutless in his filmmaking, that I imagine most of his supporters deflecting this criticism: “That’s the point of the movie! They are supposed to be inane, vapid materialists.” Blargh.

2013 Film #4: This is the End
(Writers & Directors: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg)
This, on the other hand, was the perfect summer movie. The gimmick is that all of the actors in this film play themselves: Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, James Franco, Jonah Hill, and Danny McBride form the core group (there are a ton of cameos that I don’t want to spoil. Half the fun of the movie is seeing who shows up). While at Franco’s house warming party, the Biblical apocalypse goes down, and the group try to hold out in his mansion. While the actors play themselves, they obviously are playing heightened, stereotyped versions of themselves. It’s awesome seeing these guys indulge and make fun of these stereotypes and their careers (Franco, for example, has a giant penis statue in his house and they frequently make fun of him giving blowjobs). We even get a sort of Sweded version of Pineapple Express 2 midway through. This film is just an assault of jokes and it will take 10 viewings to catch everything. It’s the 21 Jump Street of 2013. I’m sure critics will claim this is just another bro-mance about guys incapable of growing up, but, you know, so what?

2013 Film #5: Man of Steel
(Writer: David S. Goyer; Director: Zack Snyder)

This is the worst film I’ve seen in ages. Goyer and Snyder team up to ruin Superman for a whole generation! I can’t even begin to list the things wrong here: Zod’s goatee, an F5 tornado in the sunshine (which is, ironically, one of the only times this bleak-ass movie about a dude WHO RUNS ON SUNSHINE actually uses it), Superman destroying both Metropolis and Smallville, *SPOILER* Supes killing people?!?!?!!, and the most boring, endless fight scenes of all time. This movie never ends. I’m still watching it.

Anna Karenina

Film #23: Anna Karenina
(Writer: Tom Stoppard [from Leo Tolstoy]; Director: Joe Wright)

These 19th century, heavily themed social realism books are so not my cup of tea. Shockingly, I haven’t read a line of Tolstoy, and seeing that the story that unfolds in Joe Wright’s two-hour adaptation takes over 800+ pages to unfold on the page ensures that I never will. Whether this film is an accurate, irresponsible, or ever adequate adaptation of the book Anna Karenina is up to others to decide. For me, I really enjoyed what I saw on the screen.
The most notable element of Wright’s adaptation is that he’s decided to shoot the entire film (bar a few scenes in the Russian countryside) in a theater. The sets all incorporate elements from the theater in their design to tell the story of love, lust, and social inequality. While this is initially confusing (after the first scene, Lizz asked why a character had his face shaved on a stage), Wright uses a whirlwind camera shot to “show” us that the sets will all take place in this theater, and soon, it becomes fairly seamless. Of course, the question is why. I’m not sure there is a fantastic answer. Because Wright could? Overtly, I guess it hints at the superficiality and constructed nature of the Russian aristocracy, but I prefer to take it as an exercise in style. Themes be damned!

This is a heavily stylized film. In fact, it feels like a musical sans singing. From the staging to the character movement, and the performances to the music, I kept expecting everyone to burst into song. Given my predilections, I’m so glad it never did. And actually, I really began to enjoy the performance of the thing. In particular, the ball scene is pretty fantastic. The dramatic emphasis on Anna (Keira Knightley) and Vronsky’s (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) attraction really worked. It’s a really beautiful sequence.

I will say the last half of the film isn’t quite as satisfying as the first half. I’m sure this is partly the result of Tolstoy bringing home all the THEMES, but the film was less engaging the more depressing it became.

Overall, a surprisingly enjoyable work.

Hello and Welcome to Movie Phone


2013 Film #2: Iron Man 3

(Director: Shane Black; Writers: Drew Pearce & Shane Black)

My first summer blockbuster and it was a stinker. Like most people, I really enjoyed the first Iron Man and was decently entertained by the second. Although I had high, high hopes for a Shane Black written and directed effort, this is just loaded with problems. First, I’m completely unclear why Tony is having such a hard time coping with the events of Avengers. This whole anxiety thing just does not work. Either go all “Demon in a Bottle” or leave it. Second, these bad guys are so stupid. Their basic power is that they make things hot, which makes getting close to them ridiculously stupid. And yet, that’s all Iron Man does. (And why are all of Tony’s suits breaking?!) Finally, there are like 10 different plotlines here, but none of them are actually followed through with. It just a hot mess from start to end, lumbering along until it doesn’t anymore. Major disappointment.

Film  #19: End of Watch

(Director & Writer: David Ayer)

It’s amazing what I’ll watch simply because it is on Netflix instant. Writer and director David Ayer’s attempts to tell this in a sort of “found footage” style, with lead cop Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) recording while on patrol for a student film (and weirdly, we never see him in the class or near a college). But Ayer isn’t consistent in this and your brain will start melting when you try to figure out how Brian was able to get the kind of shots he did. You’ll then give up when they start throwing in footage from nonsensical sources like Border Patrol and the criminals themselves, who are all carrying HD cameras. But let’s set that aside. The story itself is asinine, and more importantly, our two cops are borderline incompetant. In our first scene of them “policing”, Mike (Michael Peña) gets into a fight with a suspect and Brian cheers him on, while filming. Mike wins, which means the perp goes to jail. But we learn later from the now released suspect that the fight was cool, and that Mike and Brian “keep it G.” WHAT. The only moments where the film works is when Brian and Mike are just casually talking in the car. These conversations feel natural, funny, and even revelatory, but they are too few and far between. As soon as the plot starts back up, everything falls apart. And the Mexican gang in the film has some of the worst actors I’ve ever seen on film. Truly terrible.

Film #20: The Grey

(Director: Joe Carnahan; Writers: Ian Mackenzie Jeffers & Joe Carnahan)

Another Netflix Instant watch, but this was actually really good. Grizzled men get stranded in the Alaskan winter after a plane crash and search for safety while a pack of wolves hunt them. Not a complicated plot, but Carnahan makes it work through a fantastic depiction of this frozen wasteland. This is why we have HD cameras. Carnahan embraces the look of HD and uses it where it shines: bright whites and harsh blacks. The only colors are red blood and orange flame. Much of it is shot at night around campfires, and in these moments, we watch and listen as the men take in their predicament. I think Liam Neeson’s Ottway is a little too…knowing? He feels a little off, but overall, the film really works. A very surprising genre flick.

Film #21: Jack Reacher

(Director & Writer: Christopher McQuarrie)

Talk about surprising, I loved this movie. It seems like there was a time when you could count on a steady stream of these types of Hollywood action films. It isn’t revolutionary, but in contrast to what we get now, it’s fantastic. The key to this is in the directing: it is smooth, readable, and easy to follow. The action scenes are clean, the chase sequences are thrilling without being nauseating, and McQuarrie gives us moments of levity that remind of that it’s just a silly action movie. There are a couple issues: the plot is pretty hoaky, especially when it is all revealed, and there are some obvious plot twists. But there are also pretty solid performances all around, particularly from Tom Cruise and a super creepy Werner Herzog. I really can’t recommend this enough. This is already criminally underseen, but I could see it developing a cult following. I’d certainly like to see more, although that seems unlikely.

Film #22: Prometheus

(Director: Ridley Scott; Writers: Jon Spaihts & Damon Lindelof)

There are moments in Prometheus that are truly awesome. In particular, I think the first half is fantastic. The limited CGI, the stark cinematography all work to make this a unique blockbuster. And it is a fairly heady action film, which might explain some of the criticism. I love the premise, but I don’t think it really sustains itself. You get the sense that writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof weren’t quite sure where they wanted to go with this, and by the last half hour or so, things get pretty muddy. It seems like there were far more interesting places this could have gone, but they just didn’t. Or they left them for a sequel. I’ll say it’s ¾ of an excellent film, but it just didn’t quite make up its mind.

Moonrise Kingdom

Film #18 – Moonrise Kingdom
(Writers: Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola; Director: Wes Anderson)
20130517-101230.jpgIs there a more idiosyncratic filmmaker in the history of cinema than Wes Anderson? It seems beyond pointless to even spend time illustrating his unique quirks, and certainly, that specificity has turned reviewing his films into a routine. Either you buy Anderson’s approach or you don’t. Until you change your mind. Moonrise Kingdom is probably the most Wes Anderson Wes Anderson film ever made; I’d venture that most film enthusiasts would be able to name its maker within 3 seconds of its beginning (name another film so markedly the work of its creator so quickly!). And yet, somehow, inexplicably, it is also the best film Anderson has made since Rushmore and easily one of the best films of 2012. Moonrise Kingdom made me remember what I loved about Anderson’s best films.

Like most of Anderson’s films, Moonrise Kingdom is about family. But unlike most of his work, this story has nothing to do with genetic families and everything to do with family as belonging: the Khaki scouts are a family, Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Howard) are a family, and Sam and Cpt. Sharp (Bruce Willis) become a family. Most of our main characters are desperately searching for someone who will accept them for who they are, regardless of the costs. This instantly engaged me in the story of the film in a way his other work has failed to do. This is a Wes Anderson film with heart; I truly cared about so many of these characters in a way that I have never done in one of his films.

And it’s damn funny. People certainly don’t speak naturally in Wes Anderson films, but there is an obsession on his part with how language works that makes even a simple conversation vibrant and alive. Dialogue is so frequently used as a way to propel the plot, but in this film, the dialogue itself is the point: how people speak, how they think, how they listen, how they accentuate their dialogue through physical mannerisms (the funniest scene in the movie is a mini-monologue by one of the Khaki scouts as he rallies the troops. The whole scene hinges on the way he moves his arm and scrunches his face to emphasize a point, and it is so funny, Lizz and I watched it 3 or 4 times). The film moves so fast that I can’t wait to watch it a couple more times to pick up on everything.
Anderson has added a few new actors to his company and they fit right in. In particular, Ed Norton is amazing as Scout Master Ward. He doesn’t feel like a Wes Anderson actor, but as soon as he steps in frame, it feels like a shame he wasn’t in any of the previous films. He’s just so genuine as the loyal, but hapless scout master, and he handles the dialogue really well. Similarly, Bruce Willis plays against type, and to a lesser degree, manages to fit naturally into the already established troupe. Of course, Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman are present, although Murray doesn’t get as much to do as I would have liked. Schwartzman’s appearance is also brief, but it’s a whirlwind of awesome.

The music to this film is incredible. A large section of the soundtrack comes from Benjamin Britten. I’m not going to pretend I knew who that was before the film, but it fits so beautifully with what Anderson is going for. Alexandre Desplat fills in the original score and, of course, there are some choice pop songs that fit snuggly into place. Every song feels like it was specifically made for this film, which is a testament to Anderson’s cinematic ear.

After years, I think Moonrise Kingdom is the impetus to look at those early Wes Anderson films and remember how important they were to me in high school. And for the first time in a long time, I’m anxious to see what he will do next.

The Deep Blue Sea

#17 – The Deep Blue Sea
(Writer & Director: Terence Davies)
As I was watching Terence Davies’s The Deep Blue Sea, I couldn’t help but think of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun. Both films are haunted by the spectre of World War II. Both films employ melodramatic techniques from the 1950s like music and complicated framing to magnify emotional moments. Both feature striking performances from powerful women. And both deal with the messiness of relationships. Fassbinder’s famous proclamation that love is an unbalanced equation governss both films, and that unbalanced equation has tragic consequences.

The Deep Blue Sea begins with Hester (Rachel Weisz), a beautiful, mid-30s Englishwoman as she composes a suicide letter to her young lover. She swallows a handful of pills and places herself in front of an open gas furnace. But her attempt is unsuccessful, and the rest of the film documents the following day with frequent flashbacks that show us how Hester ended up at her choice. Altogether, Davies weaves a melancholic story of the disaffected Hester becoming bored in her marriage to the much older William (Simon Beale) and turning to young, brash veteran Freddie (Tom Hiddleston). Their relationship is based purely on lust, and despite their confrontational, angry, and even violent connection, she can’t leave him.

This feels like a film out of time, not only in terms of content, but also in technique. DP Florian Hoffmeister uses soft-focus and dramatic lighting to give everything a fuzzy, white halo. His camera is beautifully controlled and economic, while the editing is seamless, metaphorical, and precise. There’s a craftsmanship here and an intent behind each shot and cut that evokes the best of old Hollywood films. In one beautiful sequence, the camera records Hester and Freddie from above while they nakedly embrace on a white bed flowing with sheets. The camera spins slowly and the shot eventually dissolves to Hester in an elegant negligée next to Freddie; still the camera spins. This shot dissolves into another, and now Hester is lying on the ground in front of the open furnace, still wearing the negligée, but with an old, frumpy bathrrobe added on top. It is so perfectly controlled and beautiful, and we seamlessly travel through time.

Weisz is stunning as Hester and it is a challenging role. Davies employs many tropes of the classic melodramas, the most glaring being the impulsive and overly-emotional female lead. It certainly isn’t a role about female empowerment, but it’s a testament to the skill of Davies and Weisz that they never fall over the edge. Hester’s impetuousness makes sense and she has enough self-awareness about her situation that we almost respect her decision. She never wants us to feel bad about what she’s done, and even though Freddie deserves blame, she refuses to place any on him. I could also use the film’s conclusion to elaborate this point, but I’m not quite sure where I stand on it. Overall, a really unique film, especially in contrast to what we are used to seeing produced.

I should say, after watching this, I was compelled to watch The Marriage of Maria Braun again. It is so good. The way Fassbinder mixes politics with melodrama is so seamless. You can jump in if you want, or you can just go for the story. And Hanna Schygulla…unreal.

The K-Fry-C

Film #15 – Dredd
(Writer: Alex Garland; Director: Pete Travis)

Pete Travis’s Dredd just never quite took off for me. There are so many missed opportunities and hints at what a great action film this could of been. First, scope. By limiting the film to a single highrise, Peach Trees, the best part of Judge Dredd, Megacity 1, gets eliminated. A single city stretching from Boston to DC housing 800 million people? The possibilities are endless. But instead, we get stuck in a single, fairly non-descript building. Second, Slo-Mo, both cinematic and drug-induced. The narrative is driven by the Ma-Ma gang’s production, distribution, and use of a drug that works to slow the perception of time in the user’s brain. It seems like there are possibilities here for interesting story-telling, but the filmmakers only use it for 2: victims are given a dose and thrown from the 200th story so that the fall is agonizing for them, and it gives Travis a chance to indulge in hyper-slow action sequences (think The Matrix x 100). Are there no other ways to utilize the drug? Finally, Lena Headey. You’ve got Queen Cersei as your main villain, yet she couldn’t be more boring, generic, and uninteresting. They tell us she is known for violence, but beyond that we get nothing. I just kept hoping they’d turn her into a badass, or at least a worthy villain, yet she was hardly even given a line. In fact, she seemed depressed for much of the film, not menacing or even engaging. Overall, there’s just a strained seriousness to the film that defies all logic. Judge Dredd is a ridiculous creation. Indulge, go crazy, have fun! This could have been the 21st centuries RoboCop.

#16 – Killer Joe
(Writer: Tracy Letts; Director: William Friedkin)

It’s nice to see William Friedkin embrace the possibilities of digital to create small-budget, weirdo films like Killer Joe and Bug. I can’t say I’m a love either (Bug just isn’t my type of film), but you can tell when a great filmmaker (past his prime, sure) is behind the lens. This is a grimy, provocative, grindhouse film. The tone is set immediately: on a rainy evening, Chris (Emile Hirsch) violently pounds on his father’s (Thomas Haden Church) trailer door until his step-mom (Gina Gershon) opens up. Except she isn’t wearing pants and Chris is eye-level with her netherregions. From there, Friedkin and Letts set a prototypical noir plot against a backdrop of grotesque violence and sexual weirdness. Chris hires crooked cop Joe (Matthew McConaughey) to kill his mom for $50k in insurance money. Joe wants Chris’s sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as a retainer, and things go predictably bad.

Friedkin and Letts walk a fairly perilous line between indulgence and satire. At times, they fall off and the tone gets ruined through awkward dialogue or weak performances (I’m not a huge Emile Hirsch fan and there’s probably a reason we haven’t seen Gina Gershon since Bound). But when they get it right, this is a darkly funny film that is both surprising and disturbing. In particular, the final setpiece in the family kitchen has such a breathless forward momentum that the choppy opening hour is forgiven. Like in Magic Mike, McConaughey sort of goes nuts here and it’s fun watching him dig into Joe. Likewise, Juno Temple plays Dottie with just the right amount of awkwardness. But I think Thomas Haden Church steals the show. He plays Ansel so effortlessly; the dumb oaf comes of as the only really likable person on screen. He gets the best lines and interjects levity just where it’s needed. I can definitely see this film developing a cult following and think it will definitely improve through repeat viewings.

I would avoid, however, if you are particularly fond of the K-Fry-C or chicken legs in particular.

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