Monthly Archives: September 2012

Contraband — 4/10

CONTRABAND (2012, Baltasar Kormakur): 4/10

I like a good heist-gone-wrong movie (cf. OCEAN’S TWELVE), and sure enough almost everything goes wrong with Wahlberg & co.’s plan to smuggle counterfeit money from Panama, but rarely does a film ask so much of its audience’s disbelief to be suspended. This plot is really ludicrous. I give a lot of leeway to action movies to get away with impossible shit, but this film really tried my patience. That said, it’s another BASIC (John McTiernan’s 2003 stinker) — a bad film with an exceptionally good Giovanni Ribisi performance. Neither this movie nor BASIC are worth seeing just for Ribisi, but if you did watch either of them, you’d see just how incredible this guy is at rescuing lame material and giving a tour de force. He’s probably a bit better in BASIC (which is even a worse movie), but his scuzzy bad guy here is terrifying, hilarious, vulnerable, and somehow the most plausible thing in the film.

Ribisi’s career is one of the weirder, more inscrutable ones in Hollywood and I never know what to make of him. But the more often he does great work in not-great films (or even in good films like BOILER ROOM and COLD MOUNTAIN), I’ll consider just giving him his generation’s MVP award.

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Project X — 5/10

PROJECT X (2012, Nima Nourizadeh): 5/10

It’s hard to think of a film with less on its mind than this one, which is just an excuse to throw a huge party on screen. The premise is the entire content of the movie — high school teens throw an epic shindig. Compounding things are the pointless found-footage nature of the camerawork (it’s like CHRONICLE with tequila shots) and the girls-gone-wild fascination with seeing as many hot teenage girls naked as possible. In the world of PROJECT X, all high school kids are seemingly of the same culture — while there may be some minor antagonization, everyone pretty much likes dubstep, hip-hop, liquor, and whatnot. This high school has no nerds, no goth kids, no foreign students, no weirdos, no gays, no theater people. It’s just a mass of people applauding for the one kid who let them get fucked up and see a bunch of tits.

I give the film credit for staging some pretty wild action and covering it well enough given the format. It has Joel Silver’s and Todd Phillips’s fingerprints on it solidly. But despite a title card implying that those who “disturb the peace” are “most likely to succeed,” there isn’t any “there” there.

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Brave — 6/10

BRAVE (2012, Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman): 6/10

Another incredibly well-animated film from Pixar, which keeps doing amazing things with its visuals. Unfortunately, unlike with WALL-E or UP (and more like with CARS or THE INCREDIBLES), the script here can’t support them well enough. This isn’t much of a story, and while admirable in message (impetuous girl and overbearing mother must learn to compromise for each other while Pixar teaches bratty teens to grow up) it doesn’t have those charming supporting characters that Pixar often has (see TOY STORY 3), and it doesn’t have the crackling dialogue that we saw in films like MONSTERS, INC. Kelly Macdonald and Emma Thompson are perfectly fine as the daughter and mother, but Billy Connolly’s annoying, broad-stroked royal father is aiming right for the gutter.

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Friends With Kids — 8/10

FRIENDS WITH KIDS (2012, Jennifer Westfeldt): 8/10

The new rom-com FRIENDS WITH KIDS is so much more notable for what it isn’t than for what it is. In the first part of this new decade, male-dominated Hollywood has managed to make room for women-scripted comedies that refused to play the phony Ephron/Meyers game of manufactured, condescending emotion — and instead take a post-modern view of life as a single, urban female in 21st century USA. Lena Dunham’s GIRLS is a successful and critically acclaimed series that, despite its flaws, is endearing and watchable because of the talent in front of and behind the camera, not necessarily because of likable leads. Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumalo’s BRIDESMAIDS script reminded misogynists that women could be funny too. And Liz Meriwether’s sitcom NEW GIRL thrives off a great ensemble and a courageousness to be an equal opportunity deprecator.

So what is FRIENDS WITH KIDS? It manages to carve out an even different niche than the aforementioned projects — it’s doing something closer to what Woody Allen accomplished with ANNIE HALL and MANHATTAN (though I’m not comparing the quality; those films are masterpieces) and more recently Noah Baumbach with THE SQUID AND THE WHALE. What it’s not doing is getting mired in a self-absorbed, superficial, do-nobody-any-favors piece of misanthropy like Mindy Kaling’s rancid new show THE MINDY PROJECT (a horrid act of rom-com abasement that manages to stumble as much from incompetency as from repulsive characters and insipid writing). No, Westfeldt is doing something new — presenting a unique, individual world view from an intelligent, measured perspective and refusing to cater to expectations regardless of how closely it hews to genre conventions.

Is John Hamm’s Ben an asshole? Yes, but rather than be one-dimensional, he has humanizing moments — like his on-the-same-page private reaction in the kitchen with Wiig, and his apology at the bar to Adam Scott. Is Westfeldt neurotic and emotional? Perhaps, but not because Women Are Neurotic and Emotional; it’s because she’s put in situations that justify those reactions, and so is Scott’s Jason character. Is Megan Fox’s MJ a vacuous hottie? Hottie yes, but not one-dimensionally vacuous — she’s a real person who may behave younger and more superficially than suits Jason, but is relatable and never a pawn in the story. (And man, the fact that Fox can act must really piss off people who resent gorgeous women and rely on the assumption that they’re untalented).

The film’s premise (two lifelong platonic best friends have a baby together to avoid having to get married and then divorce the other parent) is only slightly far-fetched in today’s world, and maybe its view of parenting is overly simplistic. But this isn’t a film about parenting (the title is a linguistic joke with a double meaning) — it’s a film about connections, and what we value in a significant other. It’s not about finding someone sleepless in Seattle that you fall in love with, it’s about the years after Hoffman and Ross get off that bus at the end of THE GRADUATE. From its bitter rants to to its sweeping expressions of love, the film is loaded with achingly specific details all serving to present an accurate, identifiable vision of modern urban life.

I can’t end without praising the cast here. Adam Scott has shown his comic chops for years but here he’s asked to carry some pretty dramatic moments and rises to the challenge. His Jason is also one of the few recent rom-com guys I’ve identified with so closely that it scares me a bit. Hamm, Maya Rudolph, Wiig, and Chris O’Dowd are excellent, believable, and well-rounded supporting players. And then there’s the writer/director herself: Westfeldt gives herself a very difficult role and calibrates it perfectly. She’s sympathetic and likable without being perfect, witty without being smug, and warm without being cheesy. The film stumbles a bit in the second half trying to navigate of few of its more forced plot points, but overall this is a pleasant surprise and sure to be an underrated entry in this genre.

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Lockout — 6/10

LOCKOUT (2012, James Mather & Stephen St. Leger): 6/10

Guy Pearce stars as Jason Statham in this trashy, cheap sci-fi matinee that basically works as DIE HARD In Space but with that signature Luc Besson sense of smug misogyny and creative entertainment that leaves you both satisfied and a little dirty. Think about it for too long and it’s ridiculous, but the 90 minutes are about as breezy and enjoyable as a film this violent and pseudo-nihilistic can be. Pearce’s character gets by on a charming version of the smart-ass John McClane hero for the first 40 minutes or so, then his cocksure bravado gets a little wearisome, especially when paired with an underwhelming Maggie Grace (Shannon from LOST).

Too much exposition dumbed down for the idiots (they’re really playing to the cheap seats with this) and cheesy, half-assed special effects reduce this thing to a disposable time-killer, but it still manages to out-perform LAWLESS (by a good margin) and PROMETHEUS (barely) as Pearce’s best film of 2012, and that’s a pleasant surprise.

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The Master — 8/10

THE MASTER (2012, Paul Thomas Anderson): 8/10

Like PTA’s best films, BOOGIE NIGHTS and THERE WILL BE BLOOD, this intense, epic drama is a period piece making the most of its unique ties to American history. But like his weakest efforts (e.g. MAGNOLIA, which mixes moments of brilliance with oversized ambition and misplaced histrionics) it greets its characters’ most vulnerable moments of human emotion with a chilly, detached vision that seems to be merely pretending to understand the warmth of humanity. The film is difficult, opaque, and perhaps needs a second viewing to solve, but like Phil Hoffman says in one scene, “Hmm… food for thought.”

And what delicious food it is. Anderson has never lacked confidence behind the camera, and THE MASTER is every bit its predecessors’ equal in terms of mise-en-scene. I could watch his direction all day long, even when the narrative pace is lugubrious and the material so abstract. And a facet of his direction that could potentially be underrated is his control of actors — have Wahlberg or Reynolds ever given performances better than the ones in BOOGIE NIGHTS? Has Day-Lewis, as tremendous as he’s been in everything from IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER to GANGS OF NEW YORK, ever commanded the screen like he did in BLOOD? And in a career full of show-stopping work (including a couple towering turns in previous PTA films), Hoffman somehow manages to rise even higher as Lancaster Dodd. In close-up, his eyes hypnotize you with a gaze of calm, controlling force, and in hushed tones his speech cadence is as powerful as his bellowing rants. It’s hard to imagine any performance in 2012 that will be better — except for one, and that’s Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell. Phoenix is a miracle here: using both animal physicality and trembling dialogue to convey a wide range of soul-suffering, and I never once caught him “Acting.” This is a clinic.

But for some reason, as spellbound as I was by the performances, as well as PTA’s jaw-dropping compositions, watching THE MASTER at times felt more like labor than anything else. Having discarded regular DP Robert Elswit and editor Dylan Tichenor, both of whom lended a grace and rhythm to PTA films with their lighting and cutting, Anderson has given us a rougher experience — Malaimare’s photography is evocative, but contrasty and almost creepy at times; and Leslie Jones’s dissonant cutting rhythms are almost as elliptical as a Malick film (and no wonder: Jones was an editor on THE THIN RED LINE). Surely this denser and heavier viewing experience was intended, but I still feel a bit beaten up by PTA, like one of the many characters in his films who find themselves slapped, punched, and rubbed in the dirt (the college kid outside the limo & Dirk outside the pickup in BOOGIE NIGHTS, Eli in the oil puddle & the bowling alley in TWBB, Kevin J. O’Connor by the sidewalk bench in THE MASTER). PTA has a hell of a way to get his point across: if you can live without a Master, you’ll be the first person in the world to do it.


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Compliance — 9/10

COMPLIANCE (2012, Craig Zobel): 9/10

In a theater full of maybe 50 people at most, I counted 9 walkouts (tried not to notice, but I couldn’t help but be distracted by the disgusted, annoyed patrons expressing their displeasure at the greatness on screen). People just can’t take this shit.

Granted, it’s a very uncomfortable movie. I probably squirmed in my chair more during this film than anything I’ve seen recently, and that includes MARTYRS. It’s easy to think that one would be reaching to say this film is making a broader political statement, but that’s all I could think about. With relentless focus on the fast-food culture that’s distinctly American, the film goes to great lengths to link its small-scale story of a perverted prank caller doing intense emotional damage to a larger notion that those with authority and power use fear and threats of discipline to force gullible worker-bees into willfully behaving like lemmings. And then it presents the question of to what extent some people are victims and/or perps themselves. A lot of talk about corporate offices, managers, supervisors, etc… there’s a lot going on here.

But none of it would mean anything if I wasn’t along for the disturbing ride caused by Zobel’s masterful control of camera, editing, and direction of the performances. This is just solid filmmaking first and foremost, but the provocative look at how our psychological makeup impacts larger social constructs is what makes me want to revisit — or should I say endure — it again.


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Detention — 6/10

DETENTION (2012, Joseph Kahn): 6/10

A manic, ADD-fueled adrenaline rush, DETENTION is consistently entertaining, but its ambitions outweigh its artistic skill, and the result is a sloppy, muddled, overstuffed casserole of pop culture that simultaneously has too much and not enough to say. No stone of American entertainment from 1983 to 2011 is left unturned in Kahn’s scrambled brain, and you could probably watch this film 10 times and still catch a new reference every viewing (oh, that’s the last shot of FIGHT CLUB, oh yeah that’s Sigourney Weaver’s name in ALIENS). But is this just a list of post-ironic meta-comments, or does the film really have something to say about the impermanence of cultural trends as it relates to the tenuous solitude of being a middle class teenager? I don’t know; it doesn’t really matter. There’s still some provocative stuff here and I recommend this to movie geeks and pop culture nerds — it’s not that great, but it’s the kind of thing we should have more of.

(P.S., poker players & fans might recognize cameos from Daniel Negreanu, one of the film’s financiers, and his ex-girlfriend/poker hostess Amanda Leatherman).

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Lawless — 5/10

LAWLESS (2012, John Hillcoat): 5/10

Guy Pearce should always play the heavy. In LAWLESS, he’s cruel, careless, confident, and communicates through his voice the very definition of villain. It’s my favorite performance of his since MEMENTO. Unfortunately, he’s on screen far too little, as Hillcoat turns his camera the rest of the time towards leafless trees, sunlit dirt roads, Jessica Chastain’s wordless stare, and Shai LaBeouf — who isn’t terrible, but doesn’t really have enough burning charisma to carry this ultra-thin story. I haven’t cared so little about a Prohibition-era gangster film ever. At times this thing is so boring it makes Boardwalk Empire look like THE UNTOUCHABLES.

No amount of brothers sweating and urging each other to take moral stands is enough to convince me that it matters. I just couldn’t give a shit. Which is too bad, because there are touches here that verge on poetry — in one instance, Hillcoat drops in a gorgeous female-voiced cover of Grandaddy’s “So You’ll Aim Toward the Sky” (listen to the original here), after a surprising burst of on-screen violence, that caught me really off guard (I’d been hearing folksy bluegrass-rock and period music the whole film, then all of a sudden I’m shocked back to the year 2000, remembering one of my favorite indie rock records of all time) but works perfectly.

Unfortunately, the characters are all half-assed, leaning on the crutch of this being a true story to substantiate their worth. Nick Cave’s script fails to support some game supporting performances from Mia Wasikowska and Tom Hardy, and Gary Oldman is playing a guy who seemingly left 80% of his character on the cutting room floor. I’ve been home from the movie theater for about an hour and a half, and I’ve already forgotten most of LAWLESS. More like WEIGHTLESS, am I right?

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