ARGO (2012, Ben Affleck): 8/10
About as ruthlessly efficient a plot machine as I’ve seen in a while. Affleck keeps this thing lean and briskly paced — it doesn’t lag and it doesn’t dwell. The drawbacks to this method are that characterization is sacrificed across the board (though in some cases that’s a good thing — we don’t need to see yet another domestic argument between a spy and his wife over how much he works, how he’s not home enough, how he’s not there for the kid, etc.; just a single shot of an unanswered phone tells us everything) and the themes are a bit underdeveloped — this is a fairly shallow movie given the subject matter. But the benefits are that these two hours pass in what seems like 45 minutes thanks to keenly placed plants-and-payoffs, and terrific supporting turns by the likes of Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, Kyle Chandler, and John Goodman. This is Affleck’s best film to date: astute period detail, gorgeous Rodrigo Prieto photography (what else is new for the genius behind the camera for 25th HOUR and BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN), and above all else — it’s damn entertaining.
SINISTER (2012, Scott Derrickson): 5/10
Telegraphs its ending a bit, but that doesn’t cut too much into how creepy it is. A lot of pretty good chills in this, mostly in the second half, but so much of it is just horribly clunky exposition. Doesn’t do much with the formula (didn’t we just see this in INSIDIOUS?) and has all the stock elements — person warning residents of newly haunted house to leave, kooky professor with knowledge of the occult, late-night trips to the attic, doors slamming closed, nobody-believes-protagonist scenes, etc. Really this is as derivative as it gets, but marginally saved by not only the few solid shocks, but also by Ethan Hawke’s lead performance. The guy’s simply a good actor and his best moments here are pleading with his wife to understand his compulsions. “You put our children’s lives at risk!” “At risk of what, more paintings?!?!” Nice to see him keep expanding his range beyond Richard Linklater films (in which he is also terrific — BEFORE SUNRISE may be his best film), and when you think back on his lengthy career, can imagine a Hawke film festival with half a dozen beauties (e.g. GREAT EXPECTATIONS, ALIVE, GATTACA, DEAD POETS SOCIETY, A MIGNIGHT CLEAR, etc.). Anyway, no new ground broken with SINISTER, and some painfully forced storytelling, but it has a sense of humor and you could do worse for a Halloween-season horror movie.
GOD BLESS AMERICA (2012, Bobcat Goldthwait): 2/10
What the fuck is going on with this piece of shit? I don’t even know where to begin. I guess the overall idea is that this is pure ineptitude from start to finish. It accomplishes nothing, says nothing, and leaves a lot of dead bodies to show for it. Goldthwait has always been a comic with plenty of rage inside him, but something happened with this effort wherein the anger consumed him to the point where he was left hopelessly incompetent — he comes across like a pathetic, ineffectual whiner here, so behind the times, so out of touch, so ignorant, so closed-minded, and somehow so self-satisfied, that the only way he can make a peep is by attempting to shock people. The only thing shocking is how thunderingly boring this movie is.
What is it? If it’s a satire, why isn’t it funny? If it’s a parody, where is the spin or the twist? For example, the scene where Joel Murray is buying guns in a hotel room is an obvious allusion to TAXI DRIVER, but why? It just re-creates the scene, but without a punchline or angle on it. It’s just a much worse written and directed version of the scene, even going so far as to end it the same way (after the gun sale, the salesman tries to push drugs, which our antihero turns down). It doesn’t do anything with BONNIE & CLYDE, or with THE KING OF COMEDY, or any number of movies its floundering mess of ideas is eagerly hoping to crib from. It tries to make a grand statement about American Idol being the soul-sucking demon of pop culture, encouraging kicking people when they’re down — but it doesn’t even construct a logical or humorous version of the show. It’s just a dull, lifeless, ugly, mess of a movie with zero energy or intelligence. And let’s not even mention poor Tara Lynn Barr’s shrill performance. The quicker this abortion is forgotten, the better her chances of having a career when she grows up and learns how to act.
THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT (2012, Nicholas Stoller): 7/10
There’s a trend I’ve noticed in sitcoms lately where the showrunners are doing a better job of having the characters be funny people within the universe of the show itself, rather than just be funny to an audience due to cluelessness, misunderstandings, or quirks. Although steeped in post-modernism, “Seinfeld” was a show that gave its characters hilarious lines, but rarely were the characters laughing. George was in a constant state of neurotic panic despite the fact that everything he said made the viewer crack up. Kramer was in a constant state of oblivious idiocy, and barely cracked a self-aware smile. But these days, with shows like “New Girl” and “Happy Endings,” not only is the dialogue funny — but the characters laugh at each other’s wit, not just their foibles. (Note: I’m not saying this makes them better. “Seinfeld” is miles ahead of “New Girl” in terms of quality, so far).
Where am I going with this? I like how this trend is seeping into romantic comedies too. The recent stable of Judd Apatow-bred writers, directors, and actors has churned out a bunch of films where the characters were funny to each other and made self-aware jokes rather than lines that only punched the viewer. I include in that group Jason Segel (who got his start in Apatow’s and Paul Feig’s show “Freaks and Geeks”) and director Nicholas Stoller, who wrote this film (and FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL) with the same kind of care. Segel and his co-star, Emily Blunt, are really charming leads here — they make each other laugh and it’s infectious. It’s hard not to like them, and that instant sympathy provides adequate grounds to care during their formulaic ups and downs as a couple. (See also FRIENDS WITH KIDS, an even more successful portrayal of funny people in a slightly more serious film).
Otherwise, THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT is not exactly write-home-about-it filmmaking. In fact, Stoller’s direction is quite poor. Several bizarre edits are necessary just to cover a conversation, slapped together with white-out and scotch tape. (I’m giving the editors the benefit of the doubt here, assuming that they did the best job they could with the shitty coverage they were given). Outside of THE DICTATOR, this is the least skilled technical production I’ve seen this year from a mainstream Hollywood film. But thankfully the likability of the leads and the wit of the screenplay is what dominates this experience and makes it yet another 2012 romcom I can shamelessly recommend.
[Side note to fans of the deliriously talented Alison Brie from “Community” and “Mad Men” — she’s quite good here too, but her British accent is terrible; be warned].