Monthly Archives: November 2012

Safe — 4/10

SAFE (2012, Boaz Yakin): 4/10

I’ve given up trying to figure out Yakin, the guy who started his career off with FRESH, a monumentally fascinating indie about a Yojimbo-like chess prodigy in the mean streets of New York getting revenge against the drug dealers who accidentally killed a 12 year-old girl on a basketball court. (That basketball court scene haunts me to this day, and was — along with Jean de Segonzac’s photography on HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET — a key influence on my student film). Then he went on to do stuff like the saccharin sports triumph REMEMBER THE TITANS, and was a screenwriter on PRINCE OF PERSIA and DIRTY DANCING: HAVANA NIGHTS.

Now he has directed (and written) SAFE, a brutal exploitation thriller that matter-of-factly explores such racist stereotypes as Asians-who-are-good-at-math and Russians-who-are-bald-and-wear-gold-chains-and-are-gangsters. Jason Statham plays some sort of ex-super-agent trained killer-turned-cage-fighter who decides to respond to the murder of his pregnant wife by killing nearly every human being in Manhattan. The violence on display here is overtly nihilistic, without a hint of whimsy or humor to the tone serving to undercut the seriousness of death. The script is uproariously stupid, but Yakin doesn’t care about that at all — he wanted to make another New York movie, and there’s a lot about Manhattan in this film. Not that it amounts to anything, but NYC is a character far more interesting than Mei, the young Chinese abductee at the center of Statham’s rampage, and also one of the worst child actresses to grace the screen in some time. Catherine Chan could rival Rafe Spall for Worst Performance of 2012.

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Life of Pi — 5/10

LIFE OF PI (2012, Ang Lee): 5/10

Is there anything more smug than religious piety? The flooding bath of spirituality and faith that drown LIFE OF PI would be enough to make any remotely cynical viewer gag, but fortunately the material has been placed in the hands of Ang Lee, who proved with CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON that he could use CGI to make beautiful imagery and not just comic book noise, and with THE ICE STORM and BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN that he could tell a story with humanity and just the right amount of sad tenderness.

It’s these qualities that save LIFE OF PI from being sugary dreck, though Lee’s gifts as a storyteller are also accompanied by his sentimental streak and fear of offending — those aspects that helped to sink such efforts as LUST, CAUTION and HULK. So the end result of this family fable is a great-looking, briskly told story with a message that makes you more nauseated than a rocking life boat.

[Plus, I really like cats, and the Bengal tiger in this is awesome — not just because of expertly-done CGI, but through his behaviors and subtle personality. Too bad the fable-ness of the thing even calls the cat’s existence into question. And when a movie is far more convinced that God exists than a cat, I’m going to have some problems with it.]

P.S. Rafe Spall as the writer gives one of the worst performances in a major feature film I’ve seen all year. It’s remarkably terrible.

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Silver Linings Playbook — 5/10

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012, David O. Russell): 5/10

Russell is such a frustrating guy sometimes. There are so many good things to say about this film, yet it’s not very good at all. I just think that because the guy is so diverse in his subject matter, his directing style is less about the material than himself. Whether he’s doing an Iraq war film with THREE KINGS, a frantic farce a la FLIRTING WITH DISASTER (still my favorite of his movies), or a boxing drama with THE FIGHTER, he lends it the same tone — restlessly moving camera, manic with energy and combustible with drama. But here, that tone is so at odds with the story — or at least it should be.

If he can do a great comedy and a serviceable sports redemption drama, then why doesn’t he just go for a straightforward love story? If he did, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK might have worked. Instead, he ratchets up the thing with shrill, piercing scene after shrill, piercing scene. And it’s all so that he can finally arrive at the great Moral of the Story: that love cures bi-polar disorder. Blech.

Yet despite how wrong-headed it is, I love to watch his camera move, and I love that he keeps putting these two leads on roads together for their big conversations. They’re not on sofas or on telephones — he has them either running (literally), or on streets with motion — a lot of day exteriors. And the one sit-down chat they have, a diner scene that ends in another explosion, is made up almost exclusively of two super tight over-the-shoulders beautifully framed and extremely well acted (especially by J-Law, looking as radiant as ever here). So it isn’t like Russell can’t direct — he just can’t modulate. And here he gets great performances, even from Robert DeNiro, now banished to holiday family films, wacky comedies, and shitty thrillers ever since he stopped working with Scorsese — this is some of his best work in ages. And the climactic dance competition scene and its fallout work like gangbusters — but unfortunately, the fact that those sequences are so good just underscores why the rest of it is frustratingly wrong: just play it by the book, David, and calm the fuck down, and you’ve got a great little movie on your hands. Shame, really. (But the crowd ate it up, so this should be a hit).

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Damsels In Distress — 6/10

DAMSELS IN DISTRESS (2012, Whit Stillman): 6/10

I’ve heard this is a love-it-or-hate-it movie, but I did neither. I didn’t find the characters grating or annoying, but I also wasn’t laughing every second. There are a lot of very clever jokes here, and Stillman’s dialogue is the star. But some of the performances fall flat and the story just meanders around, poking a few different places to find conflict and drama. It’s a bit of a whimsical, sparkling water glass of a movie, but I kinda dug it. It’s been too long since I’ve seen BARCELONA or THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO, but I remember them adding up to more. I did recently re-watch METROPOLITAN and now I think that’s his weakest film. So… grain of salt, etc.

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Holy Motors — 7/10

HOLY MOTORS (2012, Leos Carax): 7/10

WTF is this I mean I don’t even.

To borrow a line from the wacky cemetery photographer, “Beauty. Beauty! Beauty! Weird. Weird! Weird! So weird! SO WEIRD!”

But yeah anyway — Lavant is amazing, and the “Interval” with the street accordion band is one of my favorite scenes of the year. I just have no clue what to make of this.

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Skyfall — 7/10

SKYFALL (2012, Sam Mendes): 7/10

From so many Coen Brothers films to THE HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG and THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD and THE VILLAGE, cinematographer Roger Deakins has had a hard-on for silhouettes. Just as we can associate hot white top lights as a signature of Bob Richardson, and overexposed sunlight-through-windows as that of Janusz Kaminski, we can now say the King of Silhouette is Deakins. What he does from scene to scene here, using Daniel Craig’s barrel-chested, rugby-shaped figure as a darkened shadow — aided and blocked by the visually gifted ROAD TO PERDITION director Sam Mendes (whose best film, AWAY WE GO, couldn’t be further from a Bond film if it tried) — is a marvel. It’s like they turned Bond into Batman played by Jason Bourne.

And it’s really the visuals that take this film out of average territory and turn it into a solidly good action movie. There are still several typical Bond-movie staples: the globetrotting (Istanbul, Shanghai, Macau, Scotland, etc.), the doomed hot babe (though Berenice Marlohe gets barely a few minutes of screen time), the Aston Martin, the martini (using a visual and a quick “that’s good” line from Bond to indicate it’s shaken and not stirred), and of course M, Q, and Moneypenny. But of course they’re updated and twisted for the modern era in ways fans of the franchise may appreciate (I wouldn’t really know — I’m not really that big a fan of these movies and have only really enjoyed a handful; and not the ones other people seem to like). And there’s a top shelf villain: Javier Bardem is the most gleeful and seductive bad guy since Christopher Walken in A VIEW TO A KILL. But it just looks cool, and thanks to a serviceable script, a nice pace, and impressive effects, the movie overcomes whatever silly plot holes it has to deliver an entertaining popcorn flick with a healthy dose of darkness for 2012.

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Lincoln — 4/10

LINCOLN (2012, Steven Spielberg): 4/10

LINCOLN is Spielberg at his worst and his most crassly manipulative, but I’m sure audiences are just going to lap this up. It cajoles, seduces, and congratulates all of us in the theater for understanding that slavery is bad, and that all men are created equal. (And gets in a few har-har jokes at how ridiculous it seemed to 19th century politicians that women would ever get to vote). If you need to be reminded that Lincoln passed the 13th Amendment, or that he ended the Civil War, or that he fought for the rights of black Americans, this is the film for you!

For the rest of us, this dry, pompous, pious, dusty shoebox of a movie is a thudding bore. Occasionally it takes a break from men drinking tea, smoking cigars, and measuring their mutton chops against each other to get in a few jolts of sopping wet humor — partly in the form of sick burns delivered by the heroes of the film (Lincoln gets several, Mary Todd gets a good one in, and the rest of the time in the form of Tommy Lee Jones’s lovable old scamp Thaddeus Stevens). Jones is terrific, but the script just serves up his opponents as softballs for him to swat away like Ty Cobb.

When the film isn’t letting its Good Guys oh-snap-no-he-didn’t verbally smackdown the evil racist Congressmen, it follows around Honest Abe as he leans against desks, unleashing one corny anecdote after another. I can see an SNL sketch forming already, where time is of the essence but Lincoln is around, so everyone has to wait while he spins an old yarn with a moralistic punchline. It’s a shame that the character is so absurd, because Daniel Day-Lewis plays him to perfection. He’s one of the world’s best actors and deserves all the praise he’ll get come awards season. But although he carries the weight of the world on his tall, lean shoulders, and knows how to calm nerves with a sly joke, this president is forced by Spielberg to serve as a Holy Savior with Human Struggles, a figure more than a man.

And all the while, Spielberg uses the hoariest of cinematic tools to hammer his points home. In one outrageously over-the-top scene, Abe and Mary argue over whether to allow their son to fight in the Civil War. Behind Abe is a window revealing a relentless lightning storm (because all arguments in movies happen during thunderstorms, while all romantic scenes happen in sunlight), the audio popping in thunder strikes with each fierce point — and behind Mary is a raging fire in the fireplace, its flames licking the screen to prop up Mom’s fury. It’s another example of Spielberg having so little faith in his audience that not only are we forced to listen to preachy lecture after preachy lecture on ideas that are already obvious, but he supports these messages with ham-fisted┬ádirection. He might as well have shot the film in black-and-white and left only Lincoln colored in red, white, and blue.

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