Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Queen of Versailles — 6/10

THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES (2012, Lauren Greenfield): 6/10

Not a very well-put-together documentary, but one which exposes quite a bit about the lifestyles of the obscenely wealthy. At times Greenfield’s editing techniques are cheap and scolding (like holding on a character laughing and smiling blankly after saying something Greenfield thinks is dumb; or including a guy saying “Tell me when you’re ready” to the crew and then introducing himself), but then again there’s a lot to scold about materialistic fatcats complaining about going from billionaire status to millionaire status. It’s a good idea — using this specific story to shed light on what the 2008 financial crisis meant as a whole to the American economy and its families — but one which I wish was executed better and with a little more taste.

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The Impossible — 5/10

THE IMPOSSIBLE (2012, Juan Antonio Bayona): 5/10

A few jolts and creepy scares aside, I wasn’t all that engaged — or so I thought — watching THE ORPHANAGE, J.A. Bayona’s directorial debut. It had something to do with his lack of narrative skills, I think. But by the end, I was struck by a powerful melancholy feeling, a sustained sadness about a mother losing her son. It tapped into a fear of familial loss by using the horror genre to explore it. Nifty move, and I figured that if Bayona ever honed his storytelling skills, he might be the next Spielberg/Shyamalan/whatever.

Unfortunately, he’s gone backwards for his sophomore slumpfest. Several gorgeous images flicker on screen, and Bayona sure knows how to tug on a heartstring, but those tugs are crassly manipulative — at one point he uses a horror-movie score (shrieking, discordant strings) to tell us how scary a character’s illness is. He once again goes for the mother-losing-her-son fears, but this time sets it in a context that’s morally dubious at best: using a natural disaster that claimed the lives of countless thousands to show how a few white tourists got some cuts and bruises. And if this is based on a true story, why change the family’s nationality from Spanish to British? So they can speak in English and appeal to more audiences? Meh.

Bayona’s rhythms are instinctually sharp and he can certainly craft a suspense sequence (special attention should be paid to the sound effects editing in this film — it’s miraculous), but he really needs characters and dialogue to back him up. None of the dialogue here rings true at all; it’s way too movie-ish. And who gives a shit about this particular family, whose 20 minutes of establishing makes us want to leave them and find someone else to care about. Thankfully, the film is rescued to mediocrity by three extremely fine performances — most impressive of all is Tom Holland, a young boy asked to deliver countless scenes of harrowing fear, courageous resolve, and heartfelt emotion. Naomi Watts is reliably strong as Maria, and Ewan McGregor has a scene (where he finally attains a cell phone with which he can call home) that is so wrenching I couldn’t help but get choked up; it was the first and maybe only time in the film I was so genuinely moved that I felt like I was watching a real person, and not a cloying, awards-baiting work of schmaltz.

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Django Unchained — 8/10

DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012, Quentin Tarantino): 8/10

It’s end-of-year catchup time, and I’ve been watching a ton of movies, as the 11 of you reading this know if you’ve kept up with my flurry of posts lately. And I’ve started watching even more than I’ve written about because I didn’t finish a few (e.g. THE TURIN HORSE, the first 30 minutes of which I found beautiful and potentially devastating, but plodding and depressing and grueling to endure). Furthermore, Michael Haneke’s AMOUR tops my list as the best of the bunch — and it’s a slow, relentless march towards decay, death, and nothingness.

Well, there’s only so many more AMOURs and TURIN HORSEs a man can take before he blows his brains out, and my antidote came just in time — and who better to bring the medicine than Quentin Fucking Tarantino. Here’s a guy who’s never made anything close to a bad film, and two of them (KILL BILL & PULP FICTION) are singular, timeless masterpieces. So why am I not surprised that DJANGO UNCHAINED came as an adrenaline surge of entertainment — rip-roaring, howlingly funny, seductively visual, and primally satisfying.

Critics of the film will say, okay yeah — but it’s all surface pleasure, and there’s no “there” there. First of all, you can probably say that about a few other QT films (even the best ones like KILL BILL) but even still, superficial does not mean disposable. Secondly, I would disagree regardless — there is some “there” there, it’s just broad and jagged, much like the whip-scarred shoulders of the opening image: a slave marching in step, something that can boil our blood with moral outrage instantly.

So what’s the “there?” Take the progression of the two leads in this film and follow the shift in focus, shift in power, and ultimate importance. In the first act, the white guy is the protagonist — Schultz teaches Django this and that and is the instrument of the quiet, subservient Django’s every move. In the second act, Django picks up steam and confidence, and soon becomes Schultz’s equal — both in screen time and story dominance, and almost in dialogue as well. In the third act, Django the protege surpasses Schultz the master, and becomes the archetypal hero, reducing Schultz to a mere bystander (or worse) in his mythical journey through hellfire to rescue his princess.

Tarantino has used the progression of Django’s power to mirror the black man in American culture, as overt racism has dissipated and allowed blacks to achieve every bit the importance whitey has. Take the NFL — in the ’50s and ’60s, blacks were predominantly defenders and rare skill position players. In the ’80s, black QBs like Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham were anomalies. Now, the likes of Brady, Brees, and Rodgers have met their equals in Vick, RG III, and Wilson. This is thanks to the end of anti-black-QB prejudice by owners and coaches. (Speaking of which, the black head coach has also become less and less of a rarity). Should we get into the fact that the leader of our country, the most powerful political position in the free world, is black? Didn’t think so. I’m not saying QT is comparing Django to Obama; I’m saying by showing us the huge arc of power-grabbing this lead character occupies, he’s able to cause the audience to consider the sheer horror that slavery (in not too distant a past in this country) really was, and how far we can come when people are allowed the freedom to pursue. This is something Kushner and Spielberg’s LINCOLN was telling us (over and over again), but it’s something Tarantino is showing us.

(Added: wanted to say something about the over-the-top repeated use of the N-word here; something tells me QT is of the mind that if you repeat a word often enough it loses its meaning — and I think he wants to de-thorn the slur. But I can’t be sure, really).

Record scratch. On to the filmmaking.

There’s a reason Tarantino has used so many cover songs on his soundtracks (think of the Blue Swede version of “Hooked On a Feelin'” or the Bedlam version of “Magic Carpet Ride” in RESERVOIR DOGS, or the Urge Overkill version of “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” in PULP FICTION); he likes when some newer artist does a take on older, established classics. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Well, Tarantino makes cover movies. Whether he’s overtly remaking CITY ON FIRE like with DOGS, or paying homage to stuff like SEX & FURY and comic books with KILL BILL and VANISHING POINT with DEATH PROOF, Tarantino takes cinema’s past and reinvents it with his unique, wildly original eye and ear. (Yes, an artist can be original even when they’re covering something). Here, he’s covering Spaghetti Westerns, blaxploitation films, and even his own INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. So I don’t mind the familiarity (he uses just the right amount of snap-zooms and Leone cues; enough to remind us what he’s doing, but not so often we’re sick of it). As long as it works, and holy shit does it.

Robert Richardson, one of the best DPs alive, almost outdoes himself here — capturing John Fordian vistas of the wide shots as well as the hot-lighted shootout reminiscent of the House of Blue Leaves bloodbath. The soundtrack is as lively as ever, and although QT must miss the exacting editorial touch of his late collaborator Sally Menke, the pacing of this thing — even at 165 minutes — is still sharp. Then there’s the performances — as sensational and revelatory as Christoph Waltz was in BASTERDS, he’s nearly as amazing here. Jamie Foxx is strong and fascinating when he’s quiet and observing, but heroic and likable when the guns blaze. It takes a while to adjust to what DiCaprio is doing as the heavy, but from the way he holds his cigarette holder (choking up on it like a pencil) to the way his voice cracks when he shouts, Calvin Candie is a juicy villain, cartoonish and one-dimensional, but perfectly detestable. It may be a limitation of the exploitation genre to refuse to draw shadings in characters like Candie, but it didn’t bother me because of DiCaprio’s extraordinary talent.

Finally, there’s Sam Jackson. A Tarantino regular, his appearance here is both unsettling in its anachronism and absolutely perfect in its depiction. In the character of Stephen, QT implies there’s something even more vicious and tragic about the blacks who kept slavery humming than the whites. And nobody relishes Tarantino dialogue like Jackson. It’s a treat for the ears. Unfortunately, Kerry Washington is supremely ineffective as the object of Django’s affections. In a nearly wordless role, she’s there to act as an object to be rescued, but doesn’t get to express the passion necessary to get invested. (Aside from a jokey bang-against-the-wall between DeNiro and Fonda in JACKIE BROWN and some uncomfortable rape scenes, Tarantino simply does not do sex scenes — the most chemistry and love to come from his pen was directed by Tony Scott in TRUE ROMANCE). I don’t mind the lack of a Beatrix (turning this 19th century slave revenge tale into one of feminist power would be fairly absurd), but he needed to either re-cast Broomhilda or give Washington something more identifiable to do.

And let’s just not speak about Tarantino’s own role as an Australian. Seriously.

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Red Lights — 3/10

RED LIGHTS (2012, Rodrigo Cortes): 3/10

So yeah, this isn’t BURIED. Turns out the last person in the world who should be writing Rodrigo Cortes films is Rodrigo Cortes.

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This Is 40 — 7/10

THIS IS 40 (2012, Judd Apatow): 7/10

Cheeky bastard — Apatow has solved his career-long, movie-crippling problem of not knowing how to handle the third act… and he’s done it by not having a first or second act either. Brilliant! So yes, this movie is meandering and shapeless, and just sort of goes and goes until it stops, but it’s a lot of fun to live with these characters speaking these lines. There are so many great moments in the dialogue, a lot of them containing Apatow’s signature of using overly specific references as a means of insulting someone. And it’s hard to find more likable leads than Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann. Add to that a sensational supporting turn from Albert Brooks (dare I say better than his work as a heavy in DRIVE) and you’ve got a winner, warts and all.

One more thing — after her work in FRIENDS WITH KIDS and now this, Megan Fox is proving to be a real actress. It kind of shames me into realizing I was practicing a bit of reverse prejudice by assuming super hot women can’t act (though I’m not alone in this), but it’s clear Fox is good, and she may never really get the credit she deserves.

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Jack Reacher — 7/10

JACK REACHER (2012, Christopher McQuarrie): 7/10

Oh, how I’ve waited so long to type that name Christopher McQuarrie in parentheses. It’s been twelve long years since his directorial debut THE WAY OF THE GUN, one of the best crime thrillers of all time and a top 10 of its decade. I had hoped that film would kick-start a long career of high-art indies from CMcQ, but instead its poor reception (though in the last few years it seems more people have discovered or come around on it) seems to have driven him back to screenwriting (not a bad fallback considering he won an Oscar for THE USUAL SUSPECTS). And even better, he has been writing for Tom Cruise — having scripted VALKYRIE and done an uncredited full rewrite of GHOST PROTOCOL (changing the focus completely from a Jeremy Renner-centered plot to an Ethan Hunt-driven one).

So it makes sense Cruise would hire McQuarrie to write and direct the first in a wannabe franchise based on Lee Child’s novels about a merciless ex-soldier drifter. Unfortunately, these commercial prospects seem to have tied CMcQ’s hands just a bit, as he isn’t quite as free here to make a challenging, discriminating art film. Flashes of his genius are apparent here and there — such as in one bravura shot where Cruise is convincing Rosamund Pike (who is way out of her depth and disappointingly ineffective as a second fiddle, non-love-interest sidekick) that her client is innocent: With two 90-degree-angled windows reflecting Cruise, he marches towards her so that three images of Reacher triangulate upon her with imposing force. (I also don’t want to sell short veteran DP Caleb Deschanel’s work in this shot and on this film overall — it looks fantastic, even if a bit outdated on purpose).

McQuarrie’s dialogue is characteristically witty, giving the film a fairly jaunty spirit as it weaves a hard-hitting tale of violence and revenge. I just wish it had the ambition and scope of CMcQ’s debut; something to make it stand out more. Another drawback is Cruise’s performance — for some reason, despite being one of the most popular, bankable, and consistent movie stars in the world for almost 30 years, the guy’s acting talent has long been underrated. (See my ROCK OF AGES review for a more thorough defense). So I hold the guy to high standards, and this time around he’s a bit too one-note and fails to make his titular asshole even remotely likable. Reacher’s job seems to be twofold: to investigate a crime and bring the baddies to justice, as well as to be as much of a dick as possible to anyone in his way. He’s a bully without showing any vulnerability or fear.

Still, it’s nice to see Cruise get a DAYS OF THUNDER reunion with Robert Duvall, and the action scenes (a mid-film car chase and a climactic shootout/raid are high points) are slickly filmed and edited with an edge. There’s enough here to recommend as an above average time-killer, but if anyone was expecting something close to GUN’s jaw-dropping expertise, they should temper those hopes quickly. Maybe the problem is that this film is begging for a sequel, where GUN was destined to be one of a kind.

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Savages — 3/10

SAVAGES (2012, Oliver Stone): 3/10

This is one of the best times I’ve had laughing at a terrible movie in a long time. Not since Simon West’s CON AIR has an action film been so risible, and West didn’t even take his film nearly as seriously as Stone takes this. Blake Lively was good in THE TOWN and even on the guilty pleasure GOSSIP GIRL, but she’s horrific here; annoying, pampered, bratty, and self-important. She’s the center of a polyamorous triad with King of Flops Taylor Kitsch (dude, fire your agent) and KICK ASS’s Aaron Taylor-Johnson (who you know is sensitive because of his ponytail), whose weed-dealing business runs head into a Mexican drug cartel so dangerous you wonder why they don’t make more money selling coke. Especially because Stone’s bloated shit-fest feels like a relic from the late-’80s or mid-’90s (and not in a good way).

The dialogue is full of howlers (When Lively has sex with an Iraq vet, she says “I have orgasms, and he has war-gasms;” “Ben is a Buddhist, and Chon is a Baddhist;” and “My mom has been married so often I’m part of a 12-stepdad program”), and the never-evending cast of heavyweights take turns chewing nonexistent scenery (like Travolta constantly slurping on fast food, Del Toro doing a Danny Trejo impression, and Demian Bichir wishing he was back on WEEDS). Only Salma Hayek turns in a strong performance here, coming across as an authentic cartel leader with some dimension, but she’s drowning in the script’s ridiculous turns. Shea Whigham, who is almost always the best thing about any movie he’s in (whether it’s a damn good film like TIGERLAND or crap like BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS), is quite effective in one early scene as well, but he plays his part so seriously that the mood is set up for heavy stakes and drama. Then Stone spends the rest of the movie mishandling the drama and removing any and all interest.

Maybe the late Tony Scott could have brought some life to this destined-for-$1.99-bin trash, but that would have involved bringing on new writers and re-casting the film with a far more talented trio of leads. As it is, this is still an extremely entertaining watch — for all the wrong reasons.

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Amour — 9/10

AMOUR (2012, Michael Haneke): 9/10

Writing this review with tear-stained cheeks, it’s hard to focus on anything other than the emotional power of Haneke’s cold, ruthless filmmaking style applied to an achingly humanistic tale of unconditional love. There are endless things to analyze and explore here, and a better critic could really dive into the way Haneke frames shots; the architecture of the house, the people within the doorframes, the off-screen audio and space, etc… He really is one of the world’s greatest living directors. Shot for shot, cut for cut, I can’t think of anyone with greater mastery of the medium — DePalma, Scorsese, and Zhang notwithstanding.  But despite all of those tools that serve this story and treat the material with such respect, the lingering memory I have is just how brutally bowled over I was. This is a crushing, punishingly sad movie, and the tears are not those of triumph, warmth, and sentiment* — they are a chilly acknowledgment of the truth of Georges’s line to Huppert: “Things are going to go steadily downhill, and then it’ll be over.”

* I guess I should admit that one of the times I was moved to tears (yes, there were several) was sort of a lovely moment — early in the film Georges tells Anne a story and she says, “You never told me that story before!” and he replies “I have lots of stories I never told you.” Then much later on in a key scene, he tells her one of those stories, and the context of it is just… there’s really no other response but to dwindle into a blubbering mess, and submit to whatever it is Haneke keeps doing to me. This is probably the best film of 2012, and one that I hope I never endure again for fear that one day I will live its reality.

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The Campaign — 5/10

THE CAMPAIGN (2012, Jay Roach): 5/10

A few decent laughs, but the actual 2012 Republican presidential primary had much funnier jokes.

Roach’s other 2012 political film (GAME CHANGE) was equally mediocre but stung a bit more specifically. And the character of Mrs. Yao, the Asian woman forced to do over-the-top racist Negro and Hispanic voices tipped the scales in the negative for me. And in the end credits, did they really do another Dylan Mc-Dermot Mulroney joke? Sigh.

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Zero Dark Thirty — 8/10

ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012, Kathryn Bigelow): 8/10

I went into it afraid it could be more journalism than cinema, but make no mistake — this is very cinematic, even if that cinema was discovered at Dylan Tichenor’s editing bay. This is the fastest 157 minutes I’ve seen since THE DARK KNIGHT RISES if not faster, thanks in large part to Bigelow’s vision of a relentless pursuit by a doggedly determined Intelligence Agent. Jessica Chastain’s Maya absolutely will not stop until Osama bin Laden is dead, and her fiery passion is something at which her male superiors often chuckle behind her back. (The casual sexism of the military is subtext here, including one moment where James Gandolfini asks a colleague what he thinks of Maya, and he replies “She’s smart,” with the “for a girl” qualifier implied. Gandolfini replies “We’re all smart.” Boom.)

I don’t think a film that obsessively follows a procedure is necessarily good or bad — it depends on how that procedure is executed. In ZDT’s case, Boal’s detail-oriented screenplay does a nice job taking us from A to Z without too much confusion, but just enough surprises. Unlike THE HURT LOCKER, which suffered from wheel-spinning monotony and lack of narrative urgency (and it ended just as it was starting to tell a story), ZDT has a clear set of stakes and an endgame, creating singular tension despite the historical knowledge of the outcome.

Maya is the only character who gets fleshed out to any detail, though even she is still a bit of a cipher (something “Boalgelow” no doubt are intending, since her character has done “nothing” but hunt Osama for 10 years — allowing her to have no friends and fewer boyfriends). Characters enter and leave the story as their importance to the Osama manhunt rises and falls, including Jason Clarke’s expert waterboarder Dan and Kyle Chandler’s Joseph, who we know is a bureaucratic office chief because of his lame combover and stuffy tie.

Then again this film isn’t really concerned with the human element as much as it is the process of violence — because this is a war film. The war is the war on terror, but like any good war film, ZDT makes an effort to show the war’s casualties. And in this case, it’s the moral slipperiness of the methods of battle. While Obama is on TV assuring the people that America doesn’t torture people (and, now that Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have been shut down, perhaps that’s over), we’ve witnessed several scenes of punishing torture. And we’ve also seen that it’s no fun for either party; it’s not like the torturers have a shot of tequila with each face punch. When acts of terror like 9/11 are committed, and we enter the war on terror, it leads to a certain decay on both sides. We do unconscionable things worthy of no civilized person. We shove other humans into boxes and watch them soil themselves. We kill parents in front of their children and high-five about it. And Boalgelow are not glorifying this nor condemning it — it’s what it is, and it’s the casualty of this war. Whether it works or not (and the greatest bit of intel from a detainee actually happens by bluffing him, and having him deliver that info while sitting in fresh air eating a nice meal, as opposed to when he’s silent after being waterboarded — implying the efficacy of torture is questionable anyway), it’s what we’ve succumbed to in order to win. Nobody is a better person after fighting; it’s how you live with yourself afterwards, if you survive it.

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It’s Such a Beautiful Day — 8/10

IT’S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY (2012, Don Hertzfeldt): 8/10

For those who don’t know, this is a 60-minute “feature” made up of a trilogy of animated shorts produced over the last 6 years by animator Hertzfeldt. It surrounds the life of Bill, an Everyman in San Francisco diagnosed with brain cancer — an event that causes him to reevaulate life, death, and the meaning of existence. The power of this examination comes in the form of Hertzfeldt’s narration, which is a dry reporting of facts that, in their journalistic simplicity, manage to editorialize by the nature of their juxtaposition and information. We learn of the bullshit slogan on the t-shirt of a passerby; Bill’s encounter with a hardware store clerk (with a skin condition) who helps Bill attain a battery for his wall clock; and “That hand keeps dropping things.”

The accumulation of these facts (told to us in a Wes Anderson-style monotone), without dialogue or dressing, serves up an existentialist thesis much like Charlie Kaufman’s masterpiece SYNECDOCHE, N.Y. In this small, intimate story of a man’s daily struggle in modern urban society, themes are as big and profound as anything gets — the universe, life and death, mortality and immortality, dreams and reality, memories and imaginations. It will probably take another viewing or two to get the most out of it, but this is a pretty compelling watch. Crudely poetic, darkly funny, and melancholy throughout.

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Take This Waltz — 8/10

TAKE THIS WALTZ (2012, Sarah Polley): 8/10


There’s a line late in the film when the neighbor, visiting the protagonists’ house for a party, says to the husband: “Good luck with the chicken.” The husband is an author of cookbooks, and his latest venture is called “Tastes Like Chicken,” so he blithely assumes that’s what the neighbor means. But we know more. Michelle Williams’s Margot character has spent an hour of the film displaying various degrees of fear (and talking about them endlessly) and lack of courage, so it’s clear that the chicken in this line is Margot.

I can see how some viewers may think that line — and a number of other Oh-A-Double-Meaning! bits of dialogue — turns the film into an overscripted piece of indie pretentiousness, but it totally won me over. A slow burn without an explosion, TAKE THIS WALTZ positions Polley as the Canadian Hou Hsiao-hsien. For a while you think you’re watching MILLENNIUM MAMBO set in Toronto. The visuals are gorgeous — precise compositions, bold color choices, and delicate lighting — and the acting exquisite. Williams is just ridiculously good here — this performance is the stuff dreams are made of, and I dare say she’s the equivalent of Joaquin Phoenix in THE MASTER for the year’s single best acting turn. I’ve appreciated her before, not only in Dawson’s Creek but in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, THE BAXTER, BLUE VALENTINE, MEEK’S CUTOFF, and others, but this is the best she’s ever been. It’s a quietly powerful turn, saying as much with the droop of an eyebrow or the curl of a lip as with her dialogue.

If there’s a flaw in this film it’s with the neighbor character, Daniel, played by Luke Kirby. He seems the most like a two-dimensional figure in place of a real person, serving mostly to push along Margot’s story. Who are his friends? Family? What interests does he have besides his artwork? He does nothing but jog around with a rickshaw and wait for Margot to leave her house so they can hang out. He’s too much of a cipher, but luckily we have Seth Rogen’s perfectly modulated Lou as a counter: he’s a nice guy without having any passion, a decent husband without being great. A bit complacent, but charming nonetheless.

But this movie belongs to Williams, and to Polley — whose camera knows just how to relax and discover, using great music cues (’80s pop has never been so haunting or resonant) and pregnant pauses and cuts. Margot may be a chicken, but Sarah Polley is unfailingly brave.

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V/H/S — 5/10

V/H/S (2012, anthology): 5/10

I’ve snidely joked that I wish most found-footage movies would have actually lost their footage (in a fire), and for the most part, V/H/S once again tries to grind the genre into the ground. Look, things can be scary without having to shoot them like inept, drunk camcorder dads. I see how many of the segments in this omnibus horror anthology make a comment about voyeurism and documenting, but that can also be done without the found-footage gimmick (cf. Michael Haneke’s HIDDEN).

An early piece about three sexist douchebags getting attacked by a monster is intriguing for its nightmarish developments, but the camerawork serves to undermine the terror as opposed to heightening it. Ti West, who had previously made a couple features I wish had been shorts, finally gets to exercise his skills in a 15-minute film — so for a while it’s the best thing he’s ever done. But then a silly twist ending sort of ruins what had been a master class in suspense. The only other segment of note is the final one, which gets points for sheer batshit WTF-ness — and the found-footage gimmick doesn’t even get in the way. It even out-BLAIR WITCH-es BLAIR WITCH in terms of running through a haunted house with nothing but a camera light.

Horror is one of the most cinematic genres there is, mostly because of how the tools of editing, framing, and audio can be used for shock effect. So why are so many horror films choosing to only utilize those tools in the limiting gimmick of found-footage? It’s time to show this entire generation of directors John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN. Let’s get back to basics.

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Dark Horse — 7/10

DARK HORSE (2012, Todd Solondz): 7/10

As witty and achingly humanistic as Solondz can get, which makes for a pretty good experience. I can see why people can’t get on his wavelength, but nobody is a sharper observer of middle class Jewish minutiae than Solondz — the painfully awkward traffic small talk between two sets of parents is something I’ve endured countless times. Great performance from Donna Murphy in a difficult, mostly fantasy-based role, and Jordan Gelber is better when he’s playing cocky than angsty. At times this feels like a slightly defanged HAPPINESS, but thanks to a strangely touching finale, this is yet another strong entry in Solondz’s one-of-a-kind filmography.

 

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Rust and Bone — 7/10

RUST AND BONE (2012, Jacques Audiard): 7/10

A huge step down in intensity from A PROPHET, but not necessarily a step down in quality. With some rather sweet and quiet touches, Audiard tells an unconventional love story here that for a long time really has no direction. We’re not sure where it’s going or why, and it’s never clear if there will be or even needs to be any kind of resolution. It does go a little bit Hollywood in the last 15 minutes, but throughout the film Audiard’s camera allows for two very strong performances from Matthias Schoenaerts (try spelling that without looking it up) and Marion Cotillard. Major props also go to the special effects, which are the very definition of not showy — they only serve to further the story and you can barely tell they’re there. Those are the best kind of effects, of course.

[I’m intentionally leaving any plot details blank in case you don’t know what it’s about — if you’re interested, just see it without reading anything about the premise; there aren’t any twists or anything, but it’s better if you’re unaware of the first act plot development].

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Your Sister’s Sister — 6/10

YOUR SISTER’S SISTER (2012, Lynn Shelton): 6/10

Pretty much every review on Metacritic said the same thing when this came out 6 months ago, and they’re right. The first two acts are quite strong — sharply realized dialogue, realistically funny hanging out, and some mystery under the surface. But then all the emoting happens, and everything turns conventional, slightly contrived, and skittish about really following dangerous directions. Emily Blunt had quite the 2012 with this, THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT, and LOOPER, so let’s see her take on a starring role worthy of her talents.

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Wreck It Ralph — 6/10

WRECK-IT RALPH (2012, Rich Moore): 6/10

Cute enough, and sizzling with pop culture creativity and ’80s/’90s nerd references — something to be expected from Moore, one of the guys behind The Simpsons and Futurama. But it just sort of fades away when you leave the theater, disintegrating like the cotton candy that overstuffs the entire fat middle section of this film. Reilly and Silverman put in some good voice work and I giggled at a few of the one-liner zingers, but stretches of it are just so zany and manic and geared 100% towards children that my attention was wavering and my patience growing thin.

I want to bring some special attention to PAPERMAN, the John Lasseter-produced short that played before the feature. Now this is something else — as close to perfect as short films get; forget that it’s animated. The visuals, the storytelling, the whimsy, and the romance — it’s just amazing. I could watch 15 hours of dialogue-free animated shorts if they were all as good as this (and the beginning of WALL*E), and if PAPERMAN doesn’t win the Oscar for animated short, then I will race to watch the one that does because it would have to be a masterpiece to top this.

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Killing Them Softly — 9/10

KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2012, Andrew Dominik): 9/10

Leave it to an Australian to make the quintessential American political picture of the year. Fusing some pointed messages about the economic collapse of 2008 with notions of the current urban landscape as the Old West where justice comes in the form of a bullet and the morgue, Dominik’s hard-boiled film noir is one of the best movies of the year. The plot is basically a short story (though it’s based on a 1974 novel) — and coming in at about 95 minutes, the film is too (including some detours for lengthy conversations that go nowhere but are delightful to listen to) — and a simple tale of a corporation stamping down on the peasants who dared revolt against it.

In this case, the corporation is an organized mob run by “them” (as the always reliable Richard Jenkins refers to it) and the revolting peasants are barely-a-step-above-homeless junkies (played marvelously by ARGO’s Scoot McNairy and ANIMAL KINGDOM’s Ben Mendelsohn) who decide to knock off an underground card game. Not for nothing — that card room robbery, which dominates the first 20 minutes or so of the movie, is such an outstanding piece of sustained tension and minimalist cinema that I was convinced this film might be a true masterpiece (it doesn’t quite sustain that level of brilliance, but that sequence alone — one of the best scenes in any 2012 film — is nearly enough to call this thing great).

Then Brad Pitt enters as an independent contracter hired to find out who pulled off the robbery and serve up retribution. It leads to bringing in yet another freelance killer (James Gandolfini, reuniting with TRUE ROMANCE co-star Pitt in some conversations that don’t revolve around bongs or the Safari Motel Inn, but are even more uproariously funny) and then the madness starts. All throughout, we’re treated to TV screens and radios documenting Obama’s victory over McCain, though in Dominik’s America, change is hopeless: this is still a land of individualism and raw capitalism, and the poor have no choice (despite Pitt convincing McNairy otherwise).

I could go on about the parallels between economic policy and the gangster plot, but the film does the job through cinema and great writing — but don’t make the mistake of thinking this is too much of a talky piece. Dialogue-heavy though it is, there are gracefully majestic displays of filmmaking here; the drive-by shooting of one victim in particular is indelible and beautiful in its unsparing violence and lyricism. The violence here isn’t fetishized or glamorized, but it is visually stunning — and incredibly graphic. When brains are blown out, they’re Blown. Out. When people are punched, the audio mix punches you back. Like with his previous look at American history with THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, Dominik’s film is gritty and profound, funny and sad. And above all, it’s visceral — both in its pointed message and pure cinematic pleasures.

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Vamps — 3/10

VAMPS (2012, Amy Heckerling): 3/10

I wish I could give points for likability, and support a movie I wanted to be good. But alas, aside from a sweet final 5 minutes, VAMPS is pretty terrible. Heckerling’s reunion with Alicia Silverstone makes CLUELESS look like DR. STRANGELOVE in the comedy department — it’s a tired, annoyed, limp sitcom with huge gusts of wind and crickets where the laughs should be. It’s hard to list all the places this thing goes wrong — Justin Kirk’s horrible Ukrainian accent, Malcolm McDowell looking senile, Sigourney Weaver pretending that apathy equals comedy, Wallace Shawn and Kristen Johnson randomly having a British son who can’t act, the constant lectures about cell phones and texting, etc… that latter point is so schoolmarmish that Heckerling comes off like a crotchety old woman making fun of technology with the kind of sincerity Justin Theroux was mocking in his hilarious speech in WANDERLUST.

Krysten Ritter’s coquettish charms are put to better use in APT. 23, not to mention BREAKING BAD, but here she’s stranded with dialogue that lacks any sting or freshness (ably resisting to say the dialogue in a vampire movie “lacks bite,” though that’s the kind of shitty joke that would make the cut in this movie). And the special effects and revisionist vampire ideologies are both better done on TV shows like TRUE BLOOD, not that that’s saying much. The spirit is there, but it looks like Heckerling just shot her own first draft and everyone sat around waiting for the DP to overlight the set so they could do one or two takes and then move on with their lives. The editing is so slack and empty that any comedy that might have existed is ruined with lugubrious pacing. This is the kind of movie where Justin Kirk says something mildly outrageous and they cut to Richard Lewis for a reaction/joke and he just goes, “Yeah.” I wish Heckerling had the gumption to make a film that the final moments rise to (earnest emotion, nostalgia, and lyrical sadness) but instead she delivered a processed cheese slice that wouldn’t even get picked up as an ABC midseason replacement.

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