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 Whigjam, 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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