Movie Reviews
Friday , September 22 2017

2012 Films

(based on non-festival, theatrical U.S. release date)

The Amazing Spider-Man.  For only his second feature, director Marc Webb ((500) Days of Summer (2009)) was tagged to reboot Marvel’s biggest franchise just five years after the last installment of Sam Raimi’s trilogy, leading to the inevitable question (read: pre-criticism) – Is The Amazing Spider-Man really necessary?  Do Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone represent upgrades from Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst?  Is the Rhys Ifan’s Lizard a more compelling villain than Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin?  I imagine one could go through a checklist of 20 elements and probably end up with a roughly even distribution of “better” or “worse” between Spider-Man (2002) and this new incarnation.  But even judging this movie on its own merits, the intermittent use of bullet-time slo-mo only serves to punctuate (ironically enough) the distinct feeling that the entire proceeding simply moves too fast – from perfunctory character development to plot points that zip from point A to M to Z.  All that said, the last 10 minutes of the film left me with a glimmer of hope for Webb’s future.  (Grade: C)

American Reunion.  The fourth film in the franchise is just more of the same 12 years later with an entertaining (if not predictable) “twist” for an end.  (Grade: C)

Amour.  (Grade: B+)

Argo.  (Grade: B-)

The Avengers.  Yes, if “quality” had any relationship to ticket sales, this film would not be the fourth highest grossing film of all-time.  Yes, the CGI is cartoonish.  Yes, the villain is about as goofy and lame as they come.  But all that said, this movie was a pleasant surprise – super-happy summer fun-time from writer/director Joss Whedon, who has the benefit of mixing it up with four superheroes – even if each one is not interesting enough successfully carry their own narrative.  (Grade: B-)

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey.  This documentary of Kevin Clash’s rise as a puppeteer is engaging enough, albeit not particularly enlightening.  Are we supposed to be shocked or moved that Clash is an African-American?  And how should we view it in light of the recent litigation?  (Grade: B-)

Bernie.  Peppered with commentary of both fictional and real-life inhabitants of Carthage, Texas – a device that unfortunately gives the film a cheap feel, this biopic of the sympathetic murderer, Bernie Tiede, is buttressed by Jack Black’s best performance ever.  (Grade: B)

Beware of Mr. Baker.  Truth be told, I couldn’t resist the title.  But this sunset of life profile of an individual (Ginger Baker) who had one extraordinary talent, but virtually no emotional intelligence, is particularly well balanced in terms of breadth, depth, and tone.  (Grade: B)

Bullhead.   Although the main character (a brute hampered by a uniquely tragic childhood injury) is certainly intriguing, the script pushes a plot that ends up being a bit too thin.  Still, the endgame is one of the best-shot sequences of any film this year.  With this debut feature film (and Belgium’s 2011 nomination for an Oscar), Michael Roskam has certainly established himself as one of Europe’s most exciting new directors.  (Grade: B)

The Cabin in the Woods.  Although perhaps too meta for its own good, the film had me until the CGI-fest in the third act.  (Grade: B-)

Chronicle.  I can imagine the calculus of the major studio that conceived this film (found footage genre + superhero genre = box office gold!).  The high points of the performances come from the three leads aping episodes of Jackass; otherwise, they are just awful.  The execution of the idea that this is all unfolding on a home video camera become so strained that it becomes unintentionally humorous.  (Grade: D+)

Cloud Atlas.  (Grade: A)

The Comedy.  Oh, I get it.  (It’s an anti-comedy!  A commentary on the contemporary culture of self-indulgence!)  I just found it mind-numbingly dull.  (Grade: D+)

Compliance.  (Grade: B)

Coriolanus.  In consideration of the casting, I was hoping for Richard III (1995).  As it turns out, the low-budget aesthetic becomes too distracting at times, and there are good reasons Richard III is a more well-known play than Corionalus.   (Grade: C+)

Cosmopolis.  To be sure, I appreciate directors like David Cronenberg taking chances, and this socio-political commentary is certainly one of his most bizarre.  But I suspect that the highly stylized dialogue in this adaptation of the 2003 Don DeLillo novel definitely works far better on the page than it does on the screen.  (Grade: C)

Damsels in Distress.  I will give director Whit Stillman an “A” for effort in creating such a unique little world of young college women; but I also have to give him a “C-” for going nowhere interesting with it.   (Grade: B-)

Dark Horse.  As with director Todd Solondz last few movies, the first 20 minutes start with promise of another Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) or Happiness (1998), but it fades dramatically from there.  Like all of his output over the last decade, Dark Horse has all of the dark Solondz concept, but none of the passion.  That said, Donna Murphy gets my vote for best supporting actress of the year, and it is too bad that hardly any of the foreign press or Academy members will notice the film.  (Grade: C)

The Dark Knight Rises.  (Grade: A-)

The Deep Blue Sea.  Based on a 1952 Terence Rattigan play set in post-WWII England,  at times I felt like I was actually watching a play being performed in 1952.  And director Terence Davies’ on-the-nose musical interludes add nothing to the staid presentation and the stoic performances in this story of a woman who refuses to accept that love should be passionless, played ever so passionlessly.  (Grade: C)

The Dictator.  The newest (and most overtly political) character piece of Sacha Baron Cohen – more a narrative film than his breakthrough Borat (2006) – definitely has some funny moments, but in the final analysis, it is time for Cohen to adopt a new approach to comedic filmmaking.  (Grade: C+)

Django Unchained.  (Grade: C+)

The Five-Year Engagement.  The setup is ripe for our time – a couple who puts their marriage on hold for the sake of career, including moves across the country.  Unfortunately, the movie ultimately suffers from a second act that drags along way to slowly.  (Grade: B)

Flight.  The return of director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future (1985), Cast Away (2000)) to live action filmmaking includes some stunning visuals, clever editing, and an Oscar-baiting performance by Denzel Washington (who has never been so out of shape); but on the other side of ledger, there is the off-tone comic relief by John Goodman (the second this year after Argo), a script that takes too serious (or perhaps too cynical) a misstep in terms of legal machinations, and an epic runing time not justified by its relatively superficial treatment of addiction.  (Grade: B-)

Frankweenie.  (Grade: B+)

Friends with Kids.  As a 40+ year-old without kids, the film had a certain appeal and represented a refreshing change from the barrage of this-is-what-happens-when-you-have-children tropes that dominate TV and the movies these days (e.g., American Reunion).  It’s too bad about the third act though.   (Grade: B-)

God Bless America.  Being a fan of the unbridled cynicism of writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait’s second feature, World’s Greatest Dad (2009), I was looking forward to his third film being my Best Guilty Pleasure of 2012.  But as much as I appreciate the subversive use of tone, the satire of the modern American media is just too on the nose.  And as nice as it is to see Joel Murray (Fred from Mad Men) in a feature role, Tara Lynne Barr – his foil in this socio-political take on Bonnie and Clyde – is just not up to the task.  (Grade: C-)

Haywire.  Steven Soderbergh’s direction in this by-the-numbers spy thriller is superb, and the fight scene in a hotel room (involving Michael Fassbender) is one of the best of the year.  Still, as refreshing as it is to have a female physical presence as physically convincing as former American Gladiator Gina Marano in this particular genre, there are too many instances (e.g., the opening scene in the diner) where she is clearly out of her league.  (Grade:  C+)

Headhunters.  Norway’s latest entry into the thriller genre is one of the best of the year, even if the character arcs stumble a bit.  I wonder who will be making the American remake.  (Grade: B)

Hitchcock.  (Grade: C+)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.  Does a 310-page book need a trilogy spanning 8 1/2 hours?  Probably not.  And as expected, the first installment of most recent film adaptation of The Hobbit lacks the narrative gravity of The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), even if it does share the same plot-cheat of an ending.  All I want to know is how many of these do I have to watch to actually see Smaug?  (Grade: C)

Holy Motors.  The setup: A professional actor performs in nine sequences set throughout modern Paris.  Writer/director Leos Carax’s carnival ride – festooned with artifacts from the history of cinema – will be analyzed for years to come and is certainly destined for cult status.  For the record, Carax has offered his own interpretation; but with respect to this particular film, I am not inclined to trust it.  Rather than looking through this haystack for a coherent theme, I am content to simply appreciate all of the little politart moments (e.g., the model’s dress refashioned into a burka) budding from a tour de force by Denis Lavant that straddles the world of cinema and theatre as effectively as any performance I have ever seen.  And from this year’s crop of high profile art films, I have come to this conclusion:  If I have to take a crazy limo ride, I prefer Paris to New York.  (Grade:  Ungradable)

The Hunger Games.  Despite the solid performances in this latest franchise – with source material more philosophically engaging than the norm for its demographic (female teen), the film is hampered by lazy and choppy editing during the scenes of action/violence (no doubt an attempt to keep the rating marketable) and visuals of the future dystopia that comes across as unconvincingly cheap (not too far off from the similarly plotted The Running Man (1987)).  (Grade: C+)

The Impossible.  It is difficult not to characterize this Spanish-produced film about a Spanish family ripped apart in the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 as “Oscar bait” when you have three A-list actors born in the British isles playing the lead roles (Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, and Tom Holland).  Certainly director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage (2007)) creates what may be the most harrowing first 30 minutes of any film released this year.  But as is a common problem with many based-on-a-true-story movies, the dramatic experience of the film suffers from all of the pre-screening press that leaves the viewer knowing in advance exactly how this is all going to end.  (Grade: C+)

The Imposter.   Although the real life crime story is compelling enough to carry the film, Nicholas Barclay’s crossing of the line between documentary and narrative conventions proves to be gimmicky.  (Grade: B-)

Jeff, Who Lives at Home.  Aided by an excellent cast, mumblecore alumni Jay and Mark Duplass turn in one of the best and most unlikely feel-good films of the year.  (Grade: B)

Jiro Dreams of Sushi.  The character is compelling enough on its surface – a world-class chef who has spent 75 years devoted to creating the perfect sushi.   Unfortunately, this documentary – shot as delicately as the culinary subject matter is assembled – only touches upon the more interesting aspects of the story (the fate of his younger and older sons and their pursuit of the same dream).  What is more disturbing is that the narrative leaves out entire an entire relevant segment of his life – his wife (and perhaps, other children) – in such a manner that the director does even seem to be aware of it.  (Grade: C+)

The Kid With a Bike.   For me, the most recent wave of neo-neo-neorealist indie films walk a fine line between compelling (e.g., Wendy and Lucy (2008)) and not-so-compelling.  In my ledger, this portrayal plight of a not-so-sympathetic pre-teen by the lauded French filmmakers – Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne – falls into the latter.  I respectfully offer this word of advice:  (re-)watch The 400 Blows (1959) instead.  (Grade: C+)

Killer Joe.  It’s been a while since we’ve been reminded that Matthew MacConaughy could actually act, but the entire cast (aside from Emile Hirsch) shine in this white trash pscyho-drama and second collaboration by director William Friedkn and playwright Tracy Letts.  The drumstick scene alone is worth the price of admission (and the hour of debate afterward with your spouse).  (Grade: A-)

Killing Them Softly.  (Grade: B)

A Late QuartetA Late Quartet is essentially a soap opera about the break up of the band – but in this case, the “band” is a string quartet that’s been fused together by 25 years of artistic synergy, and the dramatic machinations are supplied by Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener, Mark Ivanir, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Although there’s nothing particularly revelatory here, I found myself inextricably drawn in for the duration.  (Grade: B)

Lawless.  There is a lot to appreciate about this film – it is well-acted by one of the best ensembles of the year, and it is competently directed (John Hilcoat), and it has one of the most interesting soundtracks I have heard in a while.  And yet, this adaptation of the abolition-era novel The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant left me wanting.  (Grade: B-)

Les Misérables.  (Grade: B-)

Lincoln.  Notwithstanding the inspired subtled performance of Daniel Day-Lewis as the U.S. President in the waning months of the Civil War, the purpose of the film seems to be lost.  Is it an earnest civics lesson?  Is it a three-dimensional portrait of a historical figure?  It succeeds on neither score.  And director Stephen Spielberg seems to be betting the movie’s mainstream success on a plethora of it’s-so-currently-topical plot moments and a John Williams’ score that is so sentimental that you would swear you had heard it before.  (Grade: C+)

The Loneliest Planet.  A young traveling couple (Gael Garcia Bernal, Hani Furstenberg) with plans to marry in a few months take a hiking trip with a local guide (Bidzina Gujabidze) through the relatively unremarkable terrain of the mountains of Georgia (as in former Soviet, not former Confederacy).  Sometimes they talk along the way, and when they do, it’s pretty banal; most of the time they do not.  Something happens in the middle of the film – unconvincingly portrayed by Bernal – that tests the trust of the couple.  They return to hiking, now (refreshingly for the viewer) engulfed in the silent treatment.  And that’s pretty much it.  This is minimialist filmmaking at its worst.  As one critic has aptly described director Julia Loktev’s oppressively slow-paced film – refusing to reveal information or emotion tends to backfire, and what is intended to be elusive turns out to be evasive.  (Grade: D-)

Looper.  (Grade: A-)

Magic Mike.  If you are expecting to see a male stripper companion piece to director Steven Soderbergh’s character study of an escort in The Girlfriend Experience (2009), you will be sadly disappointed. The writing and the performances are pretty uncompelling all the way around.  While there seems to be buzz surrounding Matthew McConaughey’s supporting turn as club owner Dallas, all I could hear was the same old same old – right down to the drawling “alright, alright, alright” (Dazed and Confused (1993)).  The only reason to see this film is Channing Tatum’s awesome moves.  (Grade: D+)

Margaret [Extended Cut].  (Grade: A)

The Master.  (Grade: B+)

Moonrise Kingdom. (Grade: A+)

One for the Money.  Based on one of the most popular pulp fiction characters to emerge in the 1990s (Stephanie Plum), this would-be franchise starter – curiously stuffed with A-list actors – has the screenplay and all of production value of a 1990s network TV pilot.  It is shockingly bad.  (Grade: F)

Oslo, August 31st.  This beautifully shot, stark, Norwegian film traces a “recovered” addict’s first day back out into the world following rehab.  While there is a sequence of the main character eavesdropping in a café that could be an effective short film all by itself, ultimately I was left feeling a wee bit emotionally manipulated (not unlike Ratcatcher (1999)).  (Grade: B-)

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.  What could you do with two hours, thirty-seven minutes?  Think hard.  Because it occurred to me from the rambling hyper-analyses of the reviews and blogs discussing this highly lauded Turkish film that a viewer must bring a whole lot of interpretive desire into this proceeding to actually engage with it.  Spoiler alert:  The title could not be more ironic – nothing much happens, and no questions are really answered (assuming that you even care about the questions in the first place).  So before you dig in, you had better count on really appreciating the hours of “atmosphere.”  I did not.  In fact, with such a decidedly anticlimactic ending to such a long uneventful film, I get the distinct feeling that the filmmakers were actually mocking the viewer.  (Grade: D+)

Polisse.  Although the ending is likely to provoke varying reactions, this episodic take on a Child Protection Unit (CPU) of the Paris police department is three parts harrowing, one part comic relief, and one of the best foreign language films of the year.  (Grade: B+)

Premium Rush.  2012 MVP Joseph-Gordon Levitt’s least likely film to get noticed is wonderfully kinetic if not lacking in originality.  (Grade: C+)

Price Check.  Parker Posey being Parker Posey. Amy Schumer being neurotic. An interesting start with some real potential in exploring how we all sell out in life. That feeling of a potential Office Space (1999).  Or even a Clockwatchers (1997).  So deliciously 90s … But then there’s the casting of Eric Mabius as a character who used to be cool.  And the second act.  And the third act.  (Grade: C-)

Prometheus.  (Grade: B)

Promised Land.  Although this is clearly one of director Gus Van Zandt’s cashing-a-paycheck films, there is a bit more than the typical “message movie” that the trailer sells, and there is a clever little twist in the casting (featuring screenwriters Matt Damon and John Krasinski, as well as Frances McDormand, and Rosemarie DeWitt).  (Grade: B-)

The Queen of Versailles.  Spanning from 2008 to 2010, this film documents the recent not-quite-a-fall of time-share mogul David Seigel – a master of selling product that people cannot afford, whose once-trophy bride, Jackie, cannot stop spending on things they can no longer afford.   One reviewer described this documentary as evoking equal parts schadenfreude and compassion, but whether originally intended or not, the balance falls well toward former.  Any other aspects of the documentary (i.e., a broader applicability of the evils of a consumption-based lifestyle to every American) are fleeting, and the only compassion I could muster was for: (1) the animals literally neglected to death by the family because of a reduction in their home staff from 19 to four; and (2) the eight children who are wholly ill-equipped for reality outside the mansion.  Still, in what surely had to have been Jackie’s angling for a reality show, the filmmakers take advantage of a surprising amount of access.  (Grade: B-)

Ruby Sparks.  One could certainly argue that the setup of this romantic-comedy (a male writer literally creates his perfect woman from the page) has all of the predictable socio-sexual concept you might expect from the debut screenplay by a female 20-something grad student.  But here’s the thing – it works.  (Grade: B)

Rust and Bone.  (Grade: A-)

Safety Not Guaranteed.  With most of its funniest scene already included in the trailer, the endgame and the ultimate character arcs ultimately betray the film’s refreshingly quirky set up.  (Grade: B-)

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.  The setup (the end of the world) has potential to make for an unlikely comedy, but the payoff is everything you come expect from a mainstream Hollywood dramedy.  (Grade: C)

The Sessions.  As great as it is to see John Hawkes spread his wings and rise from the backwoods typecasting (Winter’s Bone (2009), Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)),The Sessions never rises above the quality of a Lifetime movie-of-the-week with its prevailing sentimentality and on-the-nose plot parallels (e.g., William H. Macy’s celibate priest as the narrative receptacle, the conversation between the caretaker and the hotel clerk).  Lots of people talking frankly about sex, along with a lot of gratuitous nudity from a 48 year-old actress (Helen Hunt), does not change the fact that the narrative is steeped in very traditional and outmoded notions about the relationship between sex and love (e.g., as Hunt’s sex therapist inexplicably swoons out of her professional demeanor).  (Grade: C+)

Seven Psychopaths.  (Grade: B+)

Silver Linings Playbook.  (Grade: A-)

Skyfall.  (Grade: B-)

Sound of My Voice.  Instances of truly strong American indie films are becoming rarer and rarer.  The writing and the performances – particularly in the scenes between the unlikely cult leader (Brit Marling) and the would be documentarians (Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius) – certainly exceed last year’s visually flashier cult film, Martha Marcy May Marlene.  (Grade: B)

Snow White and the Huntsman.  Yes, the script bears all the hallmarks of all that is evil in the world of mainstream filmmaking these days, as the screenwriters struggle way too hard to change the tone of this traditional story from its Disney manifestations to its “roots.”  But the film is not without some merit – namely, the ability of Charlize Theron to rise above the script, even if for just a few delicious moments.  And I actually kind of like the casting of Kristen Stewart.  (Grade: C)

Take This WaltzThis second film by actor-turned-director Sarah Polley is not only refreshingly honest in its contemplation of infidelity, but it is also one of the best looking films I have seen all year.  However, Polley’s script tends to hit the same notes too many times – such as all the cutesies between wife, Margot (Michelle Williams), and husband, Lou (Seth Rogan).  The running time feels much longer than its 116 minutes.  And the casting of the three main characters (including Luke Kirby as the extramarital love interest) does not generate the chemistry that it really needs.  (Grade: B)

Ted.  As a fan of Seth MacFarlane, I fully expected irreverent brand of humor and the middlebrow commentary on American consumerism.  But the Hollywood ending – even if it does have a twisted little hiccup – is disappointing.  (Grade: C+)

Total Recall.  Consisting of little more than a series of exhausting chases, this is one film [spoiler alert] that actually would have been better if it had all been a dream at the end.  (Grade: D+)

This Is 40.  (Grade: B)

Your Sister ‘s Sister.  I always come to Sundance bait and Mumblecore with a bit of cynicism.  But director Lynne Shelton really created an environment for Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt, and especially Rosemarie DeWitt, to shine in this mini-melodrama.  How much of it was improvised?  Who cares.  (Grade: B+)

Wanderlust.   Although I can appreciate the attempt to tap into the economic and social malaise of the modern American, the script is full of tropes we have seen umpteen times, and even the performances from reliable actors become painful to watch (e.g., Paul Rudd talking to himself in the mirror). (Grade: C-)

Whores’ Glory.  While Whores’ Glory is an affecting enough documentary (chronicling the day-to-day lives of three prostitutes in Thailand, Bangladesh, and Mexico), it is not particularly revelatory.  In fact, the final segment only seems to confirm exactly what most people in the West would imagine of a Mexican street prostitute (strung-out and lost).  And maybe that’s the point.  (Grade: C+)

Zero Dark Thirty. (Grade: B)

 

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