Sunday, December 30, 2012

Early Year Roundup

Here are short reviews of every film I saw earlier this year before Argo. A review of Les Misérables to come in the next day or two.

21 Jump Street
This movie is first and foremost the single funniest movie I’ve seen in a very long time. The script co-written by Jonah Hill and Michael Bacall (who also directs) is absolutely hysterical and incredibly original. Despite the movie’s origins in the Johnny Depp-starring 80s TV show, it completely sets itself apart and pretty much becomes a spin-off in name and most basic plot only. Channing Tatum has received much praise for his comedic timing, and rightfully so, as this is the first and only movie I’ve ever seen him in where I actually liked him even a tiny amount (I loved him and haven’t seen Magic Mike). Jonah Hill is likewise hysterical, though he’s done it several times before. Both succeed in equal measure. The physical humor may be the best of its kind since A Fish Called Wanda, and this is coming from a guy who places Wanda in his top 10 of the 80s and among the top 5-10 comedies of all time. The film takes a few pages out of Scott Pilgrim’s playbook to great effect (yes, I’m referring to the laugh-until-it-hurts drug scenes). Too many other elements of the film are lacking, but that doesn’t really matter for a movie like this. The film is 5-star funny, but a 3 and a 3.5 in many other departments. 4/5

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Before I get into praising this astonishing movie, I want to say that this is my favorite film of the year thus far (11 films seen, so tons more to see), and it will be receiving 5 stars and would receive many more if possible. The film is the epitome of independent filmmaking, marking the directorial debut for Benh Zeitlin (in an astonishingly powerful and promising effort) and containing performances by exclusively nonprofessional actors. The lead, Quvanzhané Wallis (age 6 at filming and now 8 I think), playing a spunky 6-year-old named Hushpuppy, gives the single best young acting performance since Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon in 1973, and she absolutely deserves every accolade and all the recognition she is receiving. She deserves a Best Actress nomination, and I wouldn’t be disappointed if she won, even though Lawrence is my pick thus far. Dwight Henry, a café owner in New Orleans, plays Hushpuppy’s father Wink who lives with her in their poor bayou village called the Bathtub and gives an astoundingly complex and powerful performance. His deep care for his daughter and his outbursts of anger are equally believable, especially in the scenes that juxtapose them, scenes which are far more difficult. The “medicine woman” is also good. Wallis’s narration is some of the best-handled I’ve ever witnessed, so much so that the final scene gave me serious chills. Another great scene is when they’re peeling crawfish. Perhaps the most important aspect for somebody like me particularly acquainted to the region in question is just how perfectly every set-piece, every shot, every word perfectly evokes the distinct look, feel, sound, and personality of southeastern, swamp and bayou Louisiana. Ben Richardson’s cinematography is Oscar win (and at least nomination)-worthy, as is the film’s immensely powerful, joyous, and original score, co-written by Zeitlin and Dan Romer. It’ll be hard for anything else to measure up to this essentially perfect piece of filmmaking. 5/5

Moonrise Kingdom
This is another favorite of mine. Wes Anderson is a great director and an even better director with perhaps the most complete and distinctly original vision for every single film he makes in filmmaking today. I haven’t seen everything he’s made. Honestly, before Moonrise I’d only ever seen Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, a certainly inferior film to Moonrise, but a reasonably entertaining film nonetheless. Just from seeing Life Aquatic once, however, I unequivocally understand Anderson’s goals and vision. His desires a complex mix of incredible quirkiness in dialogue and plot (the most important aspect of his films and the aspect which he most certainly mastered in Moonrise); memorable characters made even more memorable by their quirks (Moonrise is filled with them); an even more quirky mix of rich, beautiful cinematography mixed with hilariously juxtaposed violent realism and childishly animated special effects. He completely succeeds where he failed in Life Aquatic. His overarching storyline is exactly as interesting as necessary. He was forced to stretch Life Aquatic’s and it suffered. Moonrise’s narrative is fabulously entertaining and engrossing, despite its short, 1.5 hour runtime. He also uses his usual trademarks, such as zooming in on a bisected living space and panning around to show different rooms, to great effect, especially because he uses them just once or twice. The ensemble is likewise fabulous, led by the two child leads, particularly the female lead, Suzy Bishop, portrayed by Kara Hayward in a great turn. Her counterpart, Sam Shakusky, is portrayed by Jared Gilman in a reasonably good performance, but nothing special. Bill Murray, a staple of Anderson movies, appears again, but in a cut-down capacity, yet providing a good turn nonetheless as Suzy’s father Walt. Tilda Swinton (Social Services), Harvey Keitel (Commander Price), and Jason Schwartzman (Cousin Ben) are likewise effective. The three best supporting performances are most certainly, in order of quality from best, Bruce Willis (Captain Sharp), Frances McDormand (Laura Bishop), and Edward Norton (Scout Master Randy Ward). Bob Balaban is also entertaining as the Narrator. Robert Yeoman’s cinematography is nomination-worthy, as is Adam Stockhausen’s production design. This wholly deserves to win Best Original Screenplay and to be nominated for Best Picture. 5/5

The Dark Knight Rises
This is certainly the weak-link in Christopher Nolan’s fabulous Batman trilogy, but that is not to say it is a bad film. It is not. It simply does not measure up to the same draw as Batman Begins (my #5 or 6 in 2005) nor does it match the effortless brilliance of The Dark Knight, my runner-up in 2008 but probably my #2 or 3 film of the last 5 years. The story is fine and all, but it just doesn’t fully take me in nearly to the extent the other two do. Perhaps it’s partially because Christian Bale wasn’t Batman for as much of his screentime, a period much shorter than I expected. Maybe it’s because Tom Hardy’s Bane, while great (I really liked his affected voice) , was nowhere near as compelling as Heath Ledger’s amazing Joker. Nolan’s direction is fine, as is his writing, which he did along with David S. Goyer and his brother, Jonathan, but they just don’t measure up. Anne Hathaway is the high point of this movie for me. I also enjoyed seeing Michael Caine in a juicier, more emotional part, a part befitting one of the greatest actors of my grandparents’ generation. Joseph Gordon-Levitt also gave quite a good performance. I always find it unfortunate that he is given and/or chooses lead parts that are in good-to-great movies, but that don’t really show off his ability to act in an intensely emotional capacity. One downside is Gary Oldman’s lack of screentime, especially given his tremendous, nomination-worthy performance in The Dark Knight (third-best supporting performance of 2008). I hated how he was relegated to the shadows here just as in Batman Begins. Nevertheless, this is a good movie, a great movie, even, though certainly not a fantastic one nor a perfect one. 4/5

The Master
I never thought I would be saying this when I saw this at the beginning of the year, but of what I’ve seen this year so far, this is by far the worst. I love Paul Thomas Anderson. He is possibly the greatest single mind in all of Hollywood. His filmography is diverse and superb: Hard Eight, a severely underrated 1996 film featuring a great performance by Philip Baker Hall; Boogie Nights, a great comedy-drama about the 70s porn industry unfairly stigmatized because of its subject; Magnolia, a magnificent, mammoth-sized film featuring some of the most interesting interlocking stories around, and boasting the greatest set of supporting male performances in 25 years (including career-best work from Tom Cruise and John C. Reilly); Punch-Drunk Love, the only reason for Adam Sandler’s existence; and There Will Be Blood, one of my top 10 films of last decade, featuring Daniel Day-Lewis being characteristically amazing. He is one of the industry’s best modern minds, and his work, up until this, shows just that. Until now. Anderson thrives and succeeds effortlessly at writing movies that give the viewer a terribly hard topic to consider, to ponder, to think about at the end of the film, but not saying what to think about it. The issue with The Master is that it never gives the viewer that monstrously difficult topic, so the viewer never gets to think about it. The film centers around Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix in a decent performance in which his eyes say a tremendous amount but his facial expressions and body movements are distracting), a disillusioned and frankly overtly odd soldier after World War II. He eventually runs into Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman in an Oscar-nomination worthy performance, though what else can be expected from one of my favorite actors working today, especially when his shorter pieces of work dwarf those of larger parts (i.e. Almost Famous and The Ides of March)), the leader of a cult whose adherents refer to him as The Master. Dodd is supported by Amy Adams in a solid performance that is Oscar-nomination worthy by virtue of its existence in this grossly weak year for both Lead and Supporting Actress performances. Dodd and the cult are clearly and pretty blatantly based upon L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, but Anderson never acknowledges these connections in any way. Instead, he dances around the subject, choosing to wow the viewer with nonsensical jabberings from Quell’s inane conscience. Let me put it this way, I walked out of the movie not knowing what to make of the film, which is different than not knowing what to think about it. There was nothing there to really think about because everything was so unfortunately jumbled and incoherent. On the brighter side, Anderson’s direction is Oscar-win worthy. (He leads my personal Best Director list by a mile. I'll be coming out with my rankings thus far in a few minutes.) The fact that he successfully crafted a film that made me have to think about why I hated it (its lack of understanding of itself and its lack of acknowledgement of its real-world-based content) says wonders about his immense talent as a director. Not only that, but his successfully brings life to a story lacking in narrative form of nearly any kind. Jonny Greenwood’s score is superb, as is Mihai Malaimare, Jr.’s cinematography. The period costuming and design work is also good. Overall, however, it just can’t save this movie from its disgustingly bad script and lack of cajones. 3/5

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
I had medium-sized hopes for this movie. I’m a sucker for the old Brits (I mean the elderly ones, not the ole British, oh they’re so funny with their fish and chips and such), and the cast of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel contains some of my absolute favorites. Maggie Smith may be my favorite female actress alive today, and she certainly is my favorite in her age bracket. Her early career work is astounding, and her late career work, though unfortunately limited to wisecracking old British high-society women, still shows definite signs of her former greatness. Judi Dench is another favorite of mine, as are Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy. After I began watching Downton Abbey and was introduced to the fantastically underrated and underseen Penelope Wilton, she became one of my favorites, too. The film also features Dev Patel of Slumdog fame and some names I had never heard of before: Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup. Interested, I saw it and got just a bit more than I was expecting, but not much. Directed competently by Shakespeare in Love director John Madden (who coaches no football, though I would assume he knows that catching the ball in the end zone is a touchdown), the film is a bit long, running just a tad over two hours, but it is still entertaining and surprisingly thought-provoking at the same time. A tale of old geezers roughing it in India isn’t really what this story is about, though Wilton’s character might have you to think so. It’s really about wanting to feel needed again, to be important to a person, to a group of people, to a cause. Judi Dench (giving a characteristically good performance) goes to India after her husband dies and decides to get a job at a call center (yes, one of those things every single tech company transfers you to in order to get your problems fixed). Maggie Smith (giving the best performance in the film) goes after she retires from her job as a nanny because she needs an inexpensive hip replacement. (She needs a better reason since she’s a racist bigot who can’t stand Asians, and that includes Indians.) Wilton and Nighy, a married couple, go because they lost their life savings helping their daughter with her failed Internet start-up. Wilkinson, a respected judge who ends up being gay decides to retire and move back to India, the land where he was born and raised. And Imrie and Pickup go because they both want to find love, Imrie to find another husband, Pickup to relive his glory days. Each wants to feel needed, and each goes about it a different way. This even stretches to Patel, whose enthusiastic hotel manager just wants to be appreciated by his mother. The film is a sometimes touching look at the problems of growing up, this time from the viewpoint of those quite a bit older than in Perks of Being a Wallflower. The film also contains some funny points, while always respecting its material appropriately. 3.5/5

1 comment:

  1. I forgot to mention that I saw The Hunger Games after its theatrical release, so I didn't review it. I would've given it a 4 or a 4.5, I'd probably have to rewatch it to make sure.