Sunday, February 24, 2013

Brian's Best and Worst of 2012

This is not an end-of-the-year list.  I forfeited that right when I didn't make this at the end of 2012.  I never get the chance to see all the biggest movies of the year in time for the end of the year anyway, so I am continuing my annual tradition of posting my own "best of" just before the Oscars.  That is not because the Oscars (don't call them Academy Awards this year!) are the end-all, be-all of movie awards.  They're just the biggest, and nothing good ever comes out in January or February, so it's okay to still focus on the previous year's releases.

I'm not a Top Ten sorta guy, though.  These are just my personal and highly subjective choices for the best and worst of the year.

What was considered for this list? Obviously, the movies of 2012 that I have already reviewed up to this point.  I do cram in a lot of movies right before the Oscars, too, and am suffering a backlog of recent reviews.  Here's what I watched before coming out with this list:
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  Alex CrossThe Amazing Spider-ManAmourArgoATMThe Avengers.  Battleship.  Beasts of the Southern Wild.  Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  The Bourne Legacy.  Brave.  The Cabin in the Woods.  Coriolanus.  The Dark Knight Rises.  The Devil Inside.  Django UnchainedDreddDrew Peterson: UntouchableThe Expendables 2FDR: American Badass.  Flight.  The FP.  Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.  Goon.  The Grey.  HaywireThe Hobbit: An Unexpected JourneyThe Hunger Games.  Iron Sky.  John CarterLawlessLes Miserables.  Life of Pi.  Lincoln.  Lockout.  Looper.  Moonrise Kingdom.  Nazis at the Center of the Earth.  Prometheus.  The Raven.  Red Tails.  Resident Evil: RetributionSeven PsychopathsSilent House.  Silver Linings Playbook.  SkyfallTotal Recall (2012)Underworld: Awakening.  V/H/S.  The Woman in Black.  Zero Dark Thirty.

Best Bit Character
While Michael Fassbender's charming/bad-ass turn in Haywire shouldn't be ignored --- he would make a good 007 if we were in the market for a new one --- nothing amused me as much as Jason Schwartzman in Moonrise Kingdom.  A lot of actors (okay, maybe not Bill Murray) merely play "dry" when working with Wes Anderson, but Schwartzman embraces the dry humor with just enough excitement to make him stand out, even in the most star-studded cast.
This needs to be a mass-produced Halloween costume


Worst Supporting Actress
There were some pretty good possibilities in this category in 2012.  Catherine Dent was noticeably bad in the noticeably bad Drew Peterson: Untouchable.  Perhaps one of the lovely ladies from Battleship?  No, I'm going to have to go with Bingbing Li in Resident Evil: Retribution.  She was so bad that all of her dialogue was redubbed.  In a Resident Evil movie, a franchise famous for not giving a crap about acting or coherence.  Ouch.
But hey, she can do...this.  That's something.

Best Supporting Actress
Look, I know that Anne Hathaway is going to win everything for Les Miserables.  And maybe she should; she was good in a I'm-singing-at-the-camera sort of way.  That's not my style, though.  That's why my favorite this year was Judi Dench in Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  It's been a while since I've seen Dench play anything but a cold-hearted bureaucrat, and it was a pleasure to watch her in a warm, relatable role.  Definitely the best part of a quality ensemble cast.
Promo for M: Lost in Delhi

Worst Supporting Actor
This was a tough one.  I seriously hated a lot of supporting actors this year.  50% of the enormous cast from V/H/S were annoying douchebags.  The Ionut Grama was annoying in the truly awful The Devil Inside.  And how about Frank Grillo as the jackass who bitches about everything and fixes nothing in The Grey?  All are compelling choices, but I have to go with someone who has been irritating me for most of the year: Rafe Spall as the world's stupidest biologist in Prometheus.
You see a creepy alien and you smile and get close?  Death is too good for you, sir.

Best Supporting Actor
There were a lot of supporting actor roles that I loved from the past year: Javier Bardem in Skyfall, Sam Rockwell in Seven Psychopaths, Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises, Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln, CGI Hulk from The Avengers, Michael Fassbender in Prometheus, etc.  The runner-up is definitely Fran Kranz as the best stoner in movie history in Cabin in the Woods.  As good as all those guys were this year, I can't overlook just how much I enjoyed Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained.  Is the role similar to his character from Inglorious Basterds?  To an extent, although I would argue switching the good/bad dynamic makes it different enough.  I just can't get over Waltz speaking Tarantino's dialogue, though --- they're so damn good together!
You're welcome.  Next round's on you.

Worst Actress
I'm going to go with the tough-as-nails Gina Coreno in Haywire for this one.  What makes her worse than any of the lead actresses wearing tight leather and shooting stuff this year?  Coreno had some amazing fight scenes in Haywire, but the movie didn't work because she gave an awful performance, even with the benefit of a good director.  If she was even halfway competent, she would have been on my shortlist for Best Actress.  THAT's how bad she is.
Example: I'm pretty sure this scene was supposed to be all dialogue

Best Actress
This one was easy.  Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games Silver Linings Playbook.  She carried that movie, and she wasn't even the main character.  She was funny, had levels and development, and showed some heart?  Come on!  What's not to love?  Besides, what are the other choices this year?  Jessica Chastain?  Ugh.  Pass.  This is the second time I've given this completely nonexistent and useless award to Lawrence, and it's getting to the point where I might actually watch movies because I have faith in the starring actress.  That's a big deal.
I like the scenes where Bradley Cooper is blurred best

Worst Actor
For as many bad movies as I watched this year, there were not many lead acting roles that I absolutely hated.  Sure, Rob Lowe was hilariously bad in his SNL-sketch-gone-horribly-wrong portrayal of a Chicagoan in Drew Peterson: Untouchable, but at least Lowe outperformed the material.  Taylor Kitsch --- who isn't really a bad actor --- played a role that emphasized all of his shortcomings in Battleship.  When your character is frequently described as being smart or talented, you should probably not come off as a complete moron, even when defeating board game-obsessed aliens.
That had better be your agent on the phone

Best Actor
This was a rough year for outstanding lead actor roles.  Of the nine Best Picture Oscar nods, only three of the films had Best Actor nominations!  I think 2012 was far stronger in the Supporting Actor category than the Lead Actor one.  Yes, Denzel Washington was terrific in Flight.  But the character and actor I would choose to watch or listen to again would be Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln.  I've always liked Lincoln as a historical figure, but Day-Lewis was perfectly cunning and warm; he commanded the screen with a soft voice, stooped posture, and anecdotes where other actors would have gone in a completely different direction.  Making America's (arguably) most legendary President into a human again was rather impressive.
The President apparently disagrees.  Or smells a fart.

Best Director
This is less about who was the best and more about what directors I liked that didn't have huge flaws in their finished products. I love Quentin Tarantino, but Django Unchained needed a damn editor. Cabin in the Woods was great, but Drew Goddard managed to make a great horror movie that was missing scares.  Competence narrows down the field considerably.  While Ben Affleck did a great job with the humor and pacing of Argo, I'm going to go with Sam Mendes and Skyfall.  He made a James Bond movie that was actually a legitimate film!  I don't like it because I'm comparing it to Bond movies --- I like it because it's awesome!  This is the first time anyone has tried to make a James Bond flick with character development, good cinematography and very good acting, and he was still able to film some great action sequences.  Mendes' work is sorely underrated on Skyfall.  Any decent director can make a prestige picture look good; making a series known for corny action and one-liners into an actually good movie in far more difficult.

Worst Director
There are movies that never had a chance of being good, and then there are the blockbusters that failed, in large part due to their direction.  Peter Berg took a stupid concept and did a terrible job with it, and Battleship was the nauseating result.  Timur Bekmambetov did a decent job with his cast, but pieced together a soulless abomination that sucked harder than any Twilight movie: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  The absolute worst direction this year, though, had to be Rob Cohen's work in Alex Cross.  He made a police procedural that was less competent than a third-rate CSI knockoff AND the acting wasn't great AND the editing was occasionally incoherent.  Stick to Vin Diesel movies, Mr. Cohen.

Biggest Disappointment
There were a lot of choices this year, primarily with sequels and reboots, but the one that stuck to me was Prometheus.  It's not bad, but it is intentionally obtuse and refuses to deliver on anything that its shared universe with the Aliens franchise has to offer.  Again, it isn't awful, but I was expecting a hell of a lot more.
These guys?  Seriously --- fuck these guys.

Biggest Surprise 
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the year was me not noticing Joseph Gordon-Levitt's makeup while I was watching Looper, but as far as feature films go, Dredd is the winner.  It should have been bad.  It's a remake of a crappy movie, and it has a lead actor who specializes in not emoting.  And yet, Dredd managed to get its core concept just right.  I was hoping for a movie so-good-it's-bad, but ended up genuinely enjoying it.
...because this is totally sweet

Bottom 5 Movies
5. Iron Sky - How do you screw up a movie about Nazis living on the dark side of the Moon?  By assuming that the concept was funny enough to last for an entire movie.  This one had promise, but then dropped the ball when it tried to be clever, funny, or serious.  So, yeah, it sucks.
Above: my reaction
4. Battleship - I still have trouble understanding how this made it past the conceptual stage.  A board game about stealth transformed into an alien invasion action movie?  The guy who came up with that concept must have balls the size of Death Stars.  Battleship must have run an "obnoxious actors wanted" ad in Variety, too, because the supporting cast is about two peanuts shy of being 100% crap.
John Carter vs. Master Chief?
3. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter - I like the source material and the director, and yet this turned out to be an unholy mess.  I am okay with the chocie to not play this concept for laughs.  I am not okay with it feeling like it was 2/3 exposition, 1/3 Abraham Lincoln running on top of a herd of stampeding animals.  Be funny or be darkly awesome.  Anything else is failure.
Get it?  The bad guy's using the horse as a pommel --- you know what?  Screw this movie.
2. The Devil Inside - Possession horror movies are oftentimes terrible.  With the advent of the found-footage horror sub-genre, possession movies have gotten a little worse.  The Devil Inside has a lame concept, irrational characters, and poor direction; none of those earmark it for being hate-worthy.  What separates it from the pack is its ending.  This is the worst film ending I have seen since the director's cut of The Butterfly Effect.  I only wish The Devil Inside strangled Ashton Kutcher, too.
This for ninety minutes would have made for a better film
1. ATM - This is the single dumbest concept for a film I have seen in a long time --- and I watched FDR: American Badass and Nazis From the Center of the Earth this year.  There are no redeeming qualities with this film, and then it gave me a nosebleed by inferring that the villain --- who had the most unbelievably idiotic victims I have ever seen on film --- was some sort of criminal mastermind.  Crap...I'm bleeding out my eyes now, just thinking about it.
They're looking at the world's largest bottle of scotch, AKA what you need to get through this movie

Top 10 Movies:
10. Lincoln - I absolutely love Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones in this film.  My biggest concern was how it would handle the whole "vampire hunter" angle, but I think Spielberg addressed the issue subtly.
9. Seven Psychopaths - Not a perfect movie by any means, but I adore the dialogue and I thought the supporting cast was stellar.  There are not many scripts that give Sam Rockwell license to be as crazy as he can be, but he was so odd that Christopher Walken looked...well, not normal, but sane by comparison.
8. Looper - I was concerned when this movie was being advertised.  Not only did it have a weird time travel concept at its core, but it contended that the Future Mob had sole control over time travel.  Add that to the incomprehensible choice to cover Joseph Gordon-Levitt's face in silly putty to look absolutely nothing like a young Bruce Willis, and this looked like a movie destined for the "mock" pile.  Looper surprised me, though.  It made some interesting and tough choices with its characters and delivered a movie intriguing enough for me to stop focusing on JGL's makeup.
Clever fan poster found on the Looper tumblr
7. Beasts of the Southern Wild - When you take semi-Artsy direction and some of the rawest acting talent around, you run a chance of creating something truly special.  This was easily the Academy Award-nominated film that I connected to best on an emotional level, and I am so disassociated with these characters that I cannot believe I live in the same country where it was shot.  And the editing and post-production work needed to make 6 year-old Quvenzhan√© Wallis this great was beyond impressive.

6. Argo - It is difficult to make a movie about a historical event suspenseful.  It's almost as hard to pace it well.  Ben Affleck managed to do both, and he still balanced it with humor.
This guy says he was in Argo.  I don't recall, but it's an awesome pic
5. The Dark Knight Rises - A fitting end to Christopher Nolan's trilogy, this was everything needed to thematically bring Batman's story to a close.  Bane was not quite as classic as Heath Ledger's Joker, but Tom Hardy was good enough to make me forget about the Joker while I was watching --- and that is damn impressive.  If this had more Batman and less Bruce Wayne, it might have been perfect.  It will tide me over until the next reboot (I'm calling 2017 right now).
4. The Cabin in the Woods - This was such a fantastic homage to the horror genre that I can overlook the fact that it is not scary in the least bit.  A smart script that goes in directions that you would not guess from the promos and a great script make this a personal favorite.
This movie also finally gives stoners their own action hero
3. The Avengers - I'm a huge fan of the Marvel super hero movies, so the one where all the heroes team up and are directed by Joss Whedon, with a script he co-wrote?  Yeah, this was a no-brainer.  What makes it special, though, are the unexpectedly great moments, like when Hulk smashes Loki.  More of this, please.
Do you have this poster?  It was free w/purchase of the Blu-Ray.  FYI.
2. Skyfall - This is easily the best James Bond movie since Connery got bored with the role.  It has the best direction and cinematography of any Bond movie, and the best villain in decades.  This is the James Bond movie to show to people who (somehow) don't like James Bond.
Fan art poster taken from here
1. Django Unchained- Yes, it could have been better with thirty minutes less run-time, but Django scratched so many itches that this year's film crop failed to.  It was gory as hell, it had Tarantino's famously foul humor, and universally good acting.  There were a few movies about slavery in 2012, but this was the film that was fun to watch and I will come back to time and time again.  Bless your enormous chin (which houses your ego), Quentin Tarantino!
Sorry.  This was better than any Django posters I could find

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Argo

So what's the big deal about Argo?  Aside from the fact that it sounds like something a pirate might say, I mean.  Argo is one of those movies that wears its "based on a true story" claim as a badge of honor.  There are two types of movies that push claims like that: movies that want to be capital "I" Important and movies that are so unbelievable that they have to legitimize themselves by pointing out that the unbelievable sometimes actually happens.  Which is Argo?  A little from column A, a little from column B.

When the American embassy in Iran was invaded in 1979, there were six embassy employees that managed to sneak out and avoid being part of the Iran hostage crisis.  They weren't able to leave the country, though.  Every Westerner (or, I guess, anybody looking American) was closely monitored and security in and out of the country was multiplied.  The six escapees managed to find shelter with the Canadian ambassador (), but they couldn't go anywhere or do anything, or else they would risk becoming hostages and probably being executed.  To make matters worse, circumstances (or the plot) dictate that the escapees have to leave soon or not at all.  That's where Tony Mendez () comes in.  When all other half-baked, dumb-ass ideas for getting those people out of Iran appear doomed for failure, Tony comes up with something ambitious and outlandish --- although it is still a pretty awful idea.
These are the faces of men smelling shitty ideas
Tony wants to pass these six people off as part of a film crew, because everyone knows that Hollywood is full of complete jackasses who eat up stupid ideas, like filming a movie in we-have-American-hostages-era Iran.  Like all cover stories and identities, this needs to be able to pass the sniff test in case anybody doubts their claims.  That means that Tony needs to create a fake movie.
"Should we make a Reindeer Games or Gigli joke?"
To do that, he needs help from some Hollywood types ( and ) to convince Hollywood that a terrible science fiction movie called "Argo" (that should be filmed in Iran) is actually in production.  If they can convince Hollywood, they should be able to convince Iranian militants, right?  Once all that is done, all they have to do is confidently sneak six Americans out of the country while lying their asses off.  Piece of cake.
"Hello, do you have any unmonitored or under-guarded ways out of this lovely country?"

Argo is definitely the work of an ensemble cast.  Ben Affleck is on all the posters and gets the majority of the acclaim for this movie, thanks to his direction, but there are no star roles here.  is good and understated as a CIA operative that specializes in getting people out of bad places.  While he is the main character, the star of this movie is the plot, so all of the actors are basically playing character roles.  This is probably my favorite movie role to date, if only because he had multiple dimensions.  was clearly having fun lampooning Hollywood, but the best supporting actor in this cast was definitely , who...well, I guess he did more or less the same thing as Goodman, but crankier.  They were both fun to watch and helped balance out the rest of the film, especially with their "Argo fuck yourself" bit.  The rest of the cast was made up of recognizable actors in uncomplicated or tiny roles.  , , , , , , , and all lent their presence to this movie more than any particular acting skills.
Look at this crap.  They haven't even memorized their lines!
It is nice to see Chandler getting work in high-profile movies, but he (and Bryan Cranston) needs meatier roles to show off his talent.  Of the six not-hostages, was the only one that actually developed as the movie progressed.  Of course, that was because he was the obstinate jerk character, but I still thought McNairy was pretty good.

Argo is the third movie directed by Ben Affleck, and the first one set outside of Boston.  This is also his first attempt at something that isn't a crime story.  Affleck's biggest impact on Argo is the sense of urgency.  The pacing in this movie is excellent, especially in the second half.  That is remarkable, considering that this is, at its core, a movie about people waiting to go to the airport.
THRILLS ABOUND!
It's hard to gauge how well Affleck directs the actors, since this movie is so plot-driven.  I guess he was fine in that regard, since everyone played their parts decently.  The other aspect of the film that I was impressed with was the production design.  Granted, it can't be that hard to re-create 1979 in Hollywood, but the side-by-side comparisons between the real-life people and places and the stuff in the movie was eerily accurate.  Attention to detail is important in all movies, but realizing just how much effort went into duplicating every single thing on the screen made me wonder what little things I took for granted in this film.
The actual magazine ad for "Argo" in the Hollywood Reporter

Argo is a tense, funny, and generally entertaining film that has a little more gravitas because it is based on true events.  How accurate is this movie?  With a few minutes of research, I would say "fairly," with most of the liberties being taken for pacing reasons.   I've seen and heard a few comments about the subject matter of Argo (with the least nutty objection coming from Daniel Tosh), and I see their point.  Why make a movie about the six people who were not held hostage and tortured?  Probably because the US and Canada didn't team up to fake a goofy movie as a means to sneak out the 50-odd hostages.  Argo is a good movie, and is one of the better true-life adaptations I have seen in a while.  It is missing performances that will draw me back to it, but I am now fully on board with Ben Affleck (the director). 

If you're interested in the back story on this script, it appears that comic book legend Jack Kirby did a number of concept drawings for the movie-that-never-was.  Cool stuff.

Django Unchained

I made a deal with my wife this year, in regards to what movies we would see in the theater.  You see, we've attended a Best Picture marathon at our local movieplex for the past few years, cramming nine movies into two days, and we've always had a few that we were re-watching.  That's fine when you're at home, in the mood for a particular flick.  It's draining when you're in hour 8 of a marathon.  As such, we made a deal to not see anything in theaters that we thought would be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  For my wife, that meant putting off a viewing of Argo.  For myself, it meant postponing the gory joy of Quentin Tarantino's latest film.  It was a mature choice, I suppose, but I was so happy to finally scratch my Django itch this past weekend.

The Django Unchained trailer really covers the basics.  Like so many other Tarantino movies --- Kill Bill, especially --- the premise is fairly simple.  A bounty hunter in pre-American Civil War times, Dr. King Schultz (), enlists a slave, Django () to help him out on a bounty assignment.  As it turns out, Django is a natural when it comes to killing people.  What a happy coincidence!  Working with Schultz allows Django to earn his freedom, but his ultimate goal is to find his wife.  He doesn't know who owns her, but Schultz agrees to help his new friend find his lost love.  Of course, there are some twists and turns down that road, usually involving racist white people and gore, but that sums things up pretty nicely.
Okay, there are bad black guys, too.  It's a complex film.

It's a good thing that I feel silly summarizing the plot in detail, because I have a lot to say about everything else in Django Unchained.  While I have some concerns about Tarantino's writing and direction, the man has a knack for getting great work from his actors.  I honestly think this is my favorite performance by --- of course, if you don't count Ray or Collateral, there's not much competition.  He was understated at times, but was able to rise to whatever level of silliness or violence the script demanded.
Violence and a silly suit --- in the same scene!  Levels!
His character was a little light on depth, though.  That may be because this movie --- which is definitely about Django's journey --- was dominated by .  Do you remember those awkward, slightly philosophical monologues that Uma Thurman sometimes delivered in Kill Bill?  Waltz takes that same sort of material and makes it magical.  I don't know if it is his voice or his natural charm, but Waltz is the best thing to happen to Tarantino's movies since Sam Jackson.  I was also impressed by 's heel turn as the primary villain. 
He doesn't need the hammer here.  With that grin, even flowers would look threatening
I've always liked DiCaprio, but his role selection over the past few years has bored me.  Playing a character with no regard for human life was a nice change of pace, and he was convincingly nasty.  was also (unsurprisingly) good as DiCaprio's right-hand slave.  Jackson swims through his profanity-laced dialogue, but what makes his performance stand out are the moments that he spends one-on-one with other characters.  Look at his face:
That is not the look of a slave.  That is the look of an evil bastard who loves to manipulate, and that is why this was a standout role for Jackson.  Like most Tarantino movies, the cast is substantially large, but those four are the major players.  was fine as Django's wife, but her role was reactionary, so it was hard to like much about her.  Don Johnson had a better part, as one of the many racist white people that needed killing, but it's not like he had to do much in his role.  Walton Goggins made a welcome appearance as a henchman.  Goggins is quickly becoming one of my favorite villains, thanks to his work in Justified, but his caveman-brow and so-laid-back-it's-sinister Southern drawl make him a scene-stealer regardless of his medium.  Here, he played tough very well (as expected) and gave a truly fantastic frightened howl (less expected).  I'm not exactly sure why James Remar had a dual role, since his characters were never revealed to be brothers, but it's nice to see him get back to his bad guy roots, instead of all this bland authority figure crap he's been putting out lately.  The rest of the cast was essentially a series of cameos.  The ones that paid off fairly well were Jonah Hill, M.C. Gainey, and Bruce Dern; none of them did anything special, but they played their familiar parts well enough.  The rest were surprisingly brief.  Amber Tamblyn looked out a window, Franco Nero was there to pass on the legend (he was the original Django), and Ato Essandoh died poorly.
And then there is the hillbilly family, which consisted of Tom Savini, Robert Carradine, Zoe Bell, and Ted "Jesus Christ Superstar" Neeley, among others.  I don't know if they had a line between them.  Of course, Quentin Tarantino had to cast himself in a small role.  While his Australian accent was horrible, his character's fate was hilarious, so I'm counting this as one of his better bit roles.

Quentin Tarantino wrote and directed Django Unchained, and it is definitely a Quentin Tarantino movie.  If you don't already like his fast-talking and (occasionally) brutally gory films, Django will not change your mind.  Similarly, if you're already on board with Tarantino, I can't imagine Django disappointing.  In terms of dialogue, there are more than enough actors here that are capable of delivering QT's lines well.  Pairing Waltz and Jackson in the same film --- even though they didn't interact much --- was a lot of fun to watch, because you can tell that their dialogue was written specifically for them.
"What can I say?  I'm his muse."
Tarantino always has a strong vision of what he wants from each scene, and that is true in Django Unchained.  The story was nothing special --- it's a Spaghetti Western with racism --- but the script and the performances made it extremely entertaining.

Since this is a Western and a Quentin Tarantino film, I should probably take a moment to address the level of gore and violence in Django Unchained.   Simply put, it is awesome and abundant. 
...and this is only a small taste of the exploding blood packs in this film
I love the fact that Tarantino is sticking to actual fake blood, instead of adding CGI blood in post-production.  QT is currently the leader in fake blood usage in modern films, and the ridiculous excess of it always makes me smile.  To put it another way: if you don't like gore, this is not the movie for you.
To put it another way, *slowly licks Leo's hand*
The gunfighting is done well, and there are plenty of shootout scenes --- particularly toward the end.  More important than the quantity is the quality.  These scenes are violent, and they occasionally have repercussions (although not really).  I also have to admit that Foxx and Waltz looked pretty damn cool most of the time, which is about 60% of any good Western.
This still alone is better than American Outlaws

There are three problems I have with Django Unchained.  The first is that the movie is too damn long.  Tarantino loves to hear himself talk, so I suppose it is no surprise that he can't seem to cut out much from his films.  That's not a huge problem, but this story could have been twenty or thirty minutes shorter and still been awesome.
He could have cut the scenes where they shopped for drapes, for example
My next issue was how well Tarantino built up a large cast of villains and then dispatched most of them with little more than an afterthought.  The most obvious example of this was the hillbilly family; the cast was noteworthy and Sam Jackson built them up like the damn bogeymen for slaves (which would seem to make them extra-extra-scary), but the payoff never came.  You can make the same argument about almost all of the slavers in this film, but that was the instance that bothered me the most.  The most irritating aspect of this film is convoluted plan to retrieve Django's wife.  The script went to great pains to justify this roundabout attack, but the direct approach ("Hello, can I buy your slave?") seems too reasonable to have been dismissed as something not worth trying.

Are any of those issues critical flaws?  Not for me, although the last one still bothers me, even days after watching it.  Django Unchained does so many things right that its missteps barely matter.  And I haven't even mentioned the amazing soundtrack!  Ennio Morricone.  Western.  'Nuff said.  I went into this with extremely high expectations, and I loved every minute of it.  The violence was ample, the dialogue was funny and clever, and the villains (especially Sam Jackson) had depth.  It's not perfect, but I find the imperfections pleasantly interesting. 

Here's the song from the opening credits, which also happens to have been the song from the original Franco Nero Django:

Monday, February 18, 2013

Amour

Amour tells a story that is universal and easily understood and sympathized with by any audience.  However, the audience that actually wants to watch Amour is decidedly more specific.  I'm not referring to the fact that, by being a French language film, most Americans won't want to watch it (which, sadly, is true).  I'm not referencing the disdain the general public has for "artsy" films, either --- although Amour is certainly a result of a filmmaker who wanted to make a Film with a capital "F".  No, despite its universal themes and uncomplicated story structure, the reason Amour is (in America, anyway) destined for a niche audience is because of its unflinching gaze into old age and death.  That's not a spoiler.  This, however, is a pretty piss-poor trailer:
If the trailer was simply the old man sitting silently for two minutes, that would give you a better ideas of what Amour has in store.
Old Age: The Movie

Amour opens with some firemen breaking down a door in an apartment building and immediately covering their noses and reacting to a stench.  Behind a locked bedroom door --- which has had all the cracks around it taped, for some reason --- they find an elderly woman's dead body, surrounded by dead flowers.  The film then flashes back to an audience at a piano concert.  The camera doesn't focus on anyone in particular, but my eyes were drawn to an older couple.  What attracted my attention to them?  I don't really know; the only thing they did that was special was stand up to let someone else get to their seat.  So, aside from noticing that they're not jerks, I don't know exactly what drew me to them.  The concert begins, and the camera does not switch from this shot of the audience.  When that scene ends, we are introduced to Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), the older couple from the concert audience.  They're a cute old couple, the type that seem to have been together forever.  The next morning, at breakfast, Anne drifts off while she is eating.  It's not a matter of concentration, either; Georges talks to her, touches her face, and dabs her forehead and neck with a damp rag, but she does not respond.
He even tried the "pull a quarter out of her ear" trick.  Nothing.
And then Anne snaps out of it, with no recollection of the previous few minutes.  This was a stroke.  Anne hates hospitals, but Georges insists on calling their doctor.  An operation is required, and it does not solve the problem.  Anne is soon paralyzed on one side and requires Georges' constant attention.
This may look creepy in a still shot, but Anne is doing donuts, which is awesome
There is no silver lining to Anne's situation.  She is going downhill, and both she and Georges know it.  Anne makes him promise not to take her to a hospital or hospice, no matter her condition, so it all just becomes a waiting game.  A watching and waiting game, where the end comes as no surprise.

The acting in Amour is excellent.  Emmanuelle Riva has received acclaim for her sadly realistic portrayal of someone helplessly and unflinchingly approaching death, and with good reason.  It is tough to watch her onscreen because it feels so real and is so sad.  I was actually more impressed by Jean-Louis Trintignant, though.  His role is definitely the more passive of the two (which is odd, considering that his does not involve paralysis), but the camera is on him almost the entire film.  This movie is more about him watching Anne die than it is about Anne dying, and Trintignant was depressingly convincing.  Realizing that helped me make sense of the audience scene from the beginning of the film; we're watching them watch someone else, which prepares us for our role in the rest of the movie.  The only other actor worth mentioning is Isabelle Huppert, who played Georges and Anne's daughter.  She was fine, but her purpose was to approach the situation from another angle, not to add much to the overall story.  I did find her bit about listening to her parents making love a little creepy, but that may simply be because I ***vomit explodes out of my eye sockets from contemplating my own conception***
"You listened to us...?  No wonder spanking didn't bother you!"

wrote and directed Amour.  This isn't the first time I've heard of Haneke, but this is the first of his films I've sat down to watch.  Haneke has a firm grasp on cinematography, and he makes a lot of interesting choices throughout the film --- the camera placement and choice in cuts offer enough subtext to gratify a film class for several weeks.  Haneke also deserves credit for getting such remarkable performances from his cast.  He also makes the brave choice to let the audience figure out what the characters are thinking instead of spelling it out.  This is a slowly paced film, as the main premise would suggest, but Haneke also managed to insert a surprisingly effective scary moment and a few sprinkles of humor here and there.  From a technical standpoint, Amour had excellent direction.

That doesn't mean that I actually like Amour, though.  It had great acting and direction, true.  But for a movie to be this far from enjoyable, I needed to feel more.  And I was never that invested in Anne or Georges.
Don't look shocked.
I was expecting Amour to be a great big ball of artsy pain, but I was surprised at how little I felt when the movie ended.  Was I a little uncomfortable?  Absolutely.  But did I tear up?  Not at all.  And that's bizarre, given the fact that this is the old age equivalent of a snuff film.  I'm an easy mark for characters that have under-appreciated devotion, too, and while I understood Georges' pain, I was never connected to it.  It's almost like the artistic statement being made via the cinematography (we are an audience watching an audience) separated me from the tragedy, so I was emotionally divorced from the culmination of the plot.  I saw this in the theater, and the response from the audience was muted at the end.  I looked around and saw nothing but dry eyes, so this isn't just a weird Brian Thing.  I appreciate the craftsmanship that went into Amour, but I think it was a missed opportunity for a truly touching film.  Oh, and for the record, this movie is the absolute worst advertisement for old age ever.  I've never taken too much stock in the "live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse" life plan, but Amour makes that look like a wise choice.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I need to look into how to find some hookers and blow...and --- let's be honest --- probably research ways to dispose of the bodies of prostitutes.

If you have seen the movie, then you'll appreciate this: the mouth-breathing idiots sitting next to me in the theater (who liked to discuss not-at-all-confusing plot points out loud) actually said this when Georges is having his nightmare: "Uh-oh...somebody's in the apartment!"  Really?  Really???  The movie about old people dying is suddenly going to turn into a hostage movie a third of the way in?  I heard them discussing the plot summary before the movie began, and yet they still mistook this European subtitled drama for The Strangers.
"I just dreamed that someone confused this for a horror movie!"

Here's a clip of what I've had running through my head while writing this reveiw.  I had never actually heard this version, from The Caddy ever before, so I was shocked when it hit 1:29.  Someone should have shot that poor animal and put it out of its misery.