Sunday, July 29, 2012

First Half of 2012: The Favorites

It's probably about time we get to finishing the Halfway Point Review...since it's almost August and all. When last we met, I went over twenty-four films that I hated, forgot, or just liked all right. The majority of films, of course, fall into the middle ground, a fact that seems lost in the insta-judgments you find on the Internet. But there are always films that stand up above the rest. They may not be better than the others, but they connected with me more, and I feel a desire to see them again (The Devil Inside almost made it here).

So, the sixteen 2012 films released between January and June that I will make a point to re-watch are:

Just Made It

Mirror, Mirror
Much as I liked Snow White and the Huntsman, Tarsem's earlier-released, family-friendly fantasy was more tonally consistent, more solid in its storytelling, with a more game ensemble. Armie Hammer's the stand-out, but this is not to give short shrift to adorable Lily Collins and the dwarf ensemble, each one distinct and charming.

Guilty Pleasures
This Means War
Chemistry between the actors, confident direction, tight editing. Fun time.

What to Expect When You're Expecting
I'm a little surprised that this one made it this far, but the heart wants what it wants. While not the most brilliantly-written or beautifully-acted ensemble film (actually, some parts are just plain terrible), there's no denying its effectiveness when it works. Elizabeth Banks, Rodrigo Santoro and Anna Kendrick are all delivering, performance-wise, but one should also credit the writers for the sudden quality in crafting these more complex characters.

Great Stuff

The Avengers
Marvel's multi-million dollar gamble paid off, with a great bit of that due to Joss Whedon's expert handling of an ensemble. You don't have to travel far on the Internet to find tracts praising Whedon and his actors; suffice it to say that, with one or two exceptions, I agree wholeheartedly. Alan Silvestri's invigorating score, too, is worthy of honors.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
I've written about this film before, so let me just briefly reiterate that it's a slight but delightful charmer anchored by solid turns from Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Tom Wilkinson. And those costumes!

The Cabin in the Woods
Clever, funny, and more than a bit gory: just the way I like it! A fun deconstruction of the horror genre, it thrills without ever being really scary. And that's not a bad thing. Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford seem to be having a ball.

John Carter
Remember my review? Great visuals, moving score, Lynn Collins.

Men in Black III
I'm actually a fan of the second one, yet I was still surprised that this turned out as well as it did. Josh Brolin's dead-on embodiment of the younger Tommy Lee Jones was uncanny, almost scarily so. But perhaps the greatest shocker was the emotional resonance of the script, as it dealt with the father-son relationship between J and K while also exploring regret, responsibility, maturity, and free will. I teared up more than once.

The Pirates! Band of Misfits
Trust Aardman: they always deliver on the briskly-executed, cleverly-written stop-motion comedies. I would also rank it as the best Hugh Grant performance I've ever been seen. Or heard, rather. And I trust there won't be many times where I can say Charles Darwin made me laugh out loud.

Certainly, much of the script is complete nonsense. But give credit where it's due: I never thought about it while watching the movie. The direction, the acting, the cinematography, the visual effects, the score, THE SCORE, the editing....all distracted from inconsistent characters and slipshod plotting. There's a reverent feel throughout the film, and it's hard not be awestruck by the visuals. And again, the real standout is the score, composed by Marc Streitenfeld, evoking the sense of wonder we see in Noomi Rapace's face as she explores the origins of man.

It finally happened! I enjoyed Jennifer Aniston in a movie! But no, that's not the only reason it shows up here. First of all, it's an apt satire of both materialism and the romanticizing of the commune lifestyle. Secondly, director/co-writer David Wain and his fellow The State alums consistently -- miraculously, really -- balance their absurd, over-the-top sense of humor with characters that feel genuine. This is especially impressive in the cases of nudist vintner Joe Lo Truglio and lush housewife Michaela Watkins, both of whom could have been one-joke caricatures, and instead wind up being sympathetic and relatable, in some weird way.

The Sublime
21 Jump Street
Hilarious and surprisingly moving, one of the few films I saw twice in the theater (in as many days, I think). Proved Channing Tatum's mettle as a comic leading man, and guaranteed my falling in love with Brie Larson.

Although it is, perhaps, the least ambitious of Pixar's output so far, for me this ranks alongside Finding Nemo and the Toy Story films. The film effortlessly flits between comedy and drama, with the impeccable voicework by Kelly Macdonald and Emma Thompson anchoring the film's emotional arcs. Rousing score, lovely songs, breathtaking visuals....need I go on?

Damsels in Distress
Dry yet over the top, Whit Stillman's deadpan take on college, self-discovery, and reinvention had me chuckling more than laughing, but I definitely wanted to revisit when it was all over. Great as Greta Gerwig usually is, this was the first time I felt her peculiar acting quirks were properly utilized. Analeigh Tipton continues to impress, but it was Megalyn Echinkunwoke who stole the film out from under everyone else. And there are dance numbers!

Moonrise Kingdom
Lit with the bright haze of a summer memory, this surely must be the most gorgeous film Wes Anderson's offered us. It's woozily nostalgic with a bittersweet flavor, as we recognize the naive passions and awkward realities of young love. As young runaway Sam, Jared Gilman fits comfortably into Anderson's world, dances with an a-rhythmic fearlessness, and has the best line of the film ("I love you, but you have no idea what you're talking about"). As the sad, somewhat dim, lonely Chief of Police, Bruce Willis gets the meatiest role he's had in years, and of course gives a touching performance as a melancholy yet hopeful man. When I recommend this to people, I use the word BEAUTIFUL. And it is.

The Raid: Redemption
There's about one scene of exposition before everything goes nuts in Welsh director Gareth Evans' Indonesia-set actioner about a SWAT team trapped in a high rise ruled by a ruthless drug kingpin. Some of the best technical work of the first half, with the score, editing, cinematography and sound working together to amp up the tension for a breathless 100 minutes. It's a relief when you can finally exhale.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Bad, the Worse, and the Pretty All Right

Six months in, forty films down. Not such a bad record, if I say so myself. Indeed, this could very well be the best I've ever done. This time last year, I'd seen fewer than 25. I guess that's what happens when you work at a movie theater, close to home, in the center of Hollywood.

It's been an interesting year, so far. Potentially great films have been mishandled/disappointing, while mere distractions have turned out to be quasi-masterpieces. The best films so far have been unassuming, pleasant little things for the most part. And even the worst films have a little spark of something to recommend them -- probably why they're so frustrating.

Still, I suppose it's great that there are only three films that I could say I hated, and even those come with something redeeming. The Five-Year Engagement is overlong and self-indulgent -- co-writer Jason Segel plays a stand-in for co-writer/director Nicholas Stoller who women keep hurling themselves at -- but at least Rhys Ifans and the ever-reliable Emily Blunt play frustrating, endearing, terrible, wonderful, real people. The Lucky One has neither story or characters, but the cinematography sure is beautiful. And The Lorax is just terrible, but that earbug of an opening song fooled me into thinking I was going to have a good time. Still, all three films just filled me with such deep loathing that I hope to never even see those posters again.


Then there are the films that I know must be terrible but are quite watchable...and rewatchable. I actually saw The Raven twice; it's gory and the idea's cool, even if they completely fuck it up in the end. And middle. And beginning. Ok, it's a huge mess, but John Cusack's performance, reminiscent of a recently-awakened drunk's sudden outbursts, must be seen. It may actually be genius, which is more than I can say for the hilarity of The Devil Inside. Perfect example: one scene intercuts between the film crew's POV and security cam footage. It's the interview between our heroine and her crazy, possibly-possessed mum, and our film crew gets great, emotional close-ups....but in the security-cam footage, the cam crew is nowhere to be seen. There's nowhere else they could be, they're just not in the wide. It's hilarious.

But lest we think horror has a monopoly on this, Lawrence Kasdan's decade-long retreat from cinemas broke with Darling Companion, in which all his movie-star friends get together in the Colorado mountains and hang out. I guess there's subtle character development, sorta, kinda, but come on. Nothing happens. At all. Yet it's all very pleasant, like having a hot chocolate with some old friends.

Old friends who like to play handgames, amirite?

 Jeff, Who Lives at Home and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen were also pleasant, albeit pedestrian time-fillers. Lola Versus seemed like it could have used more breathing room, but on the whole I liked what Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones were up to. Like Breaking Upwards, the performances are strong and the protagonist so relatable that it's a while before one realizes how awful she can be. Or human, I guess, is the correct way of putting it. One for the Money was a lot of fun, Debbie Reynolds' awful mugging aside. Tim & Eric's Billion-Dollar Movie has a lot of great things happening, though they're really reaching for that feature-length. I'd see any of these again, but I'm not in a hurry to do it.

I would also check out these movies again, if just to remind me that they existed. I even have a mini-review for one of them! They are: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Hysteria, Safe House, Wrath of the Titans, The Woman in Black and Haywire, the latter of which I fell asleep in the middle of. Not necessarily bad movies, but I probably could've skipped them and experienced life just the same. In fact, I'm even having some trouble recalling Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which I saw a week ago. 

I can't stress enough my disappointment with Dark Shadows and Rock of Ages, both of which are the best and the worst movies this year, depending on the scene. Both suffered from too many characters with not enough to do, great individual performances (Cruise, Depp, Akerman, Green, Pfeiffer, Giamatti) opposite embarrassing ones (Moretz, Boneta), and absolutely god-awful climactic lines/line-readings ("Woof", "Yeah, Heyman, rock 'n' roll will never die!").  I will say that, while Rock of Ages only comes together when Cruise is on-screen, Dark Shadows is a consistently enjoyable romp for about 2/3 of its runtime. Then Act Three spoils all the fun with its rhythm-less "action" finale. Oh, well. At least its post-dubbing was consistent with the actors' mouths; Rock of Ages never seemed to get that right, in scenes both spoken and sung. I would see either one again, but it'd have to be on DVD: that way I can just hit SKIP.

Hopefully, the last time I will ever see this face.

Come to think of it, I might just do that with Snow White and the Huntsman, too: Skip all of Charlize Theron's embarrassing shouting to get to Kristen Stewart's vulnerable, innocent, awkward, spectacular Snow White. Sure, the script is nonsense, but Stewart and the visuals are worth giving the film another look.

There were other films that were equally frustrating/disappointing. Sound of My Voice was more semi-intriguing, semi-irritating nonsense from Brit Marling, who prefers for her scripts to stop rather than end. The Hunger Games was ok....I was disappointed in the blah cinematography, awful direction, haphazard editing, dull art direction, and average performances.

Finally, to leave on a positive note. Chronicle is a solid film boasting great performances from a trio of promising young actors, fantastic visual effects work and a great premise with a mostly satisfying arc, all handled magnificently by director Josh Trank. Still, I like and admire more than I love it.

Oh, God, no! No, I...I didn't mean it! I LOVED IT! NOOOOOOO!!!

Which all comes out to twenty-four films. What of those sixteen others, then? They are the films that I would actively seek out to watch again; that I would introduce to someone; that I think about often. They are the films....

...that will be written about in another post. Prepare to be surprised, though. I was.