Tag: 2012

Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

zero dark thirty

Seen: At the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square.

Based on true events (although some of their information seems questionable), Zero Dark Thirty traces the search for Osama bin Laden after the tragic events of September, 11, 2001. Beginning in 2003 a young CIA agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain) joins the team in Pakistan, and over the years she becomes obsessed with finding a man known as “Abu Ahmed”, believed to be bin Laden’s personal courier and therefore the key to finding the al-Qaeda leader himself. She tracks down various leads and participates (though somewhat reluctantly) in interrogations involving torture. Her search culminates in a raid on a fortified mansion believed to be bin Laden’s residence.

Kathryn Bigelow may be known for making overlong films, but damn can she pack in the tension and thrills between all the talkie bits. Zero Dark Thirty builds gradually, thoughtfully, spilling state secrets all over the place until we are brought to the payoff we all knew was coming. Maya is a serious character, single-minded in her search for reasons unknown (was she personally affected by 9/11?) but likely because this is the only mission she’s ever known (she was recruited by the CIA out of high school). I liked that her gender is never touched upon, only her youth. Chastain is extremely strong in the lead, conveying Maya’s intensity and passion, as well as her moral quandary regarding the use of torture- she does it because she feels she has to, but gets no pleasure out of it. And it’s ugly and hard to watch when it happens, just as it should be. Bigelow is neither condoning nor condemning torture, she’s just presenting it as a cold, grisly fact.

The attention to detail is actually too close, unfortunately, making the story wear thin at parts as we are shown more interrogations and false leads and side-plots than really necessary. It’s not that it was boring, just that I felt several scenes were unnecessary, and it’s a more noticeable flaw in a film this long. Of course Bigelow’s slow, focused approach is appreciated in the climactic raid on bin Laden’s house, as the tension mounts and we wait to see what we know must be coming but still somehow have doubts about. Yes at times the movie is too hurrah-hurrah-America, because this is a one-sided approach to telling this story, but maintaining focus on Maya and her remarkable drive gives it a personal, multi-layered interest that kept me engaged throughout.

Just one final note, about the cast: Daaaaaaamn this cast is crazy! Every five seconds there was a new, unexpected person, often just for a minute. Chris Pratt, Harold Perrineau, Kyle Chandler, Mark Duplass, Mark Strong, James Gandolfini, Joel Edgerton, John Barrowman! Whaaat? And best of all Jennifer Ehle! Doing a pretty bad Southern accent but who cares! Actually there are a lot of British/Australian actors playing Americans here, which was interesting for me since I was listening for accents everywhere.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: At a few points I was reminded of Argo, probably because it’s the most recent movie I’ve seen about a CIA mission in the Middle East, but also because both films are filled with recognizable actors in bit parts and it’s like a fun game to spot them all as the movies progress.

Movie Review: Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012)

universal-soldier-day-of-reckoning
Seen: At the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge.

Ok. A douchey British guy known only as John (Scott Adkins) watches his family get super murdered and is thrown into a coma. When he wakes up he’s got amnesia and doesn’t remember much about who he is, except for the traumatic events just before was knocked out. An FBI investigator is trying to find his attacker, a crazed killer named Luc Deveraux (Van Damme), and hopes John can help track him down. But John has other worries as he tries to reclaim his memories, especially since some huge dude (Andrei Arlovski) keeps trying to kill him for no apparent reason. Eventually it all comes together, sort of, mainly involving Deveraux’s underground super-soldier army that he’s been brainwashing for a while with the aid of fellow UniSol Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren).

This movie had been on my radar for a while, but I guess I still wasn’t really sure what to expect. I had heard it tantalizingly compared to David Lynch and David Cronenberg, and am forever psyched to see Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme do their thing. I’d seen the first and fourth Universal Soldier movies, missed the fifth, and hoped for more of the same, but more intense I guess. But. Whew. I don’t know what’s going on here, really. This is a pretty weird movie. It’s dark as fuck, with several scenes more reminiscent of an experimental horror (hence the Lynch/Cronenberg comparisons, I assume) and the story is as rambling as it is intriguing. Because I spent most of the movie confused, I was engaged as I tried to figure out what was happening. Honestly, there are a couple of Lost-level bombs going on here. And Apocalypse Now-esque developments.

The fight scenes are awesome and truly gory, with Scott Adkins taking one hell of a beating for two hours. My main issue is that Van Damme and Lundgren were barely in this movie, and I. Want. Them. Adkins looks exactly like Ben Affleck, which is distracting, and his character sucks. Like, super sucks. And yet he’s on screen 75% of the time, so it was difficult to really care about the film overall. I was interested in the story, but not the protagonist, so that makes it only partially worth it, to be honest. Plus at times it was downright hard to watch, I felt a little queasy afterwards, possibly from all the intense strobe light visions.

Day of Reckoning is definitely daring, and I applaud Hyams and crew for taking the UniSol series in such a strange and unexpected direction. It just didn’t quite work for me, and definitely didn’t have enough of Van Damme and Lundgren doing their thing!

3.5/5

Pair This Movie With: Um I guess the aforementioned other Universal Soldier movies are ok. Alternatively there are definitely Apocalypse Now connections.

Top Five: Favorite Movies of 2012

2012-headerObviously I’ve been a bit slow this year with my year-end listing, but well the past few months have been terrible, and the whole year sort of feels like a loss since I spent most of it super stressed from my first year of grad school. I’ve missed a lot of 2012 releases but I’ve been trying to make up for it this month, and while there are still a couple I’m missing (most notably Holy Motors and Cosmopolis), I feel like I can do some sort of list for myself, as has become my custom. I think I’ve said it before but just to reiterate, I’m never a person to declare something “best”, I think all taste is subjective so all I can do is list my personal favorites- movies I want to watch again and again, ones that affected me on an emotional level, and ones I found most memorable. For this reason my lists typically don’t have the prestige-type films that I often see on other lists, but hey, I haven’t seen most of them this year anyway!

Overall I didn’t watch as many movies as last year, and generally fell off in blogging due to school and personal issues. But maybe this year will suck less. WHO KNOWS. At least I made a lot of pretty artwork in 2012. Oh yes. Anyway, list is below, all titles link to my original reviews, some of which are at 366 Weird Movies so don’t be confused. There were some pretty good movies this year, as usual, but I was most excited about all the great animated fare.

The Avengers
The most fun I had at the movies in a good long while, I saw this 3 times in a theater, which is rare for me. It’s just everything I want in a superhero movie- exciting, action-packed, funny, and perfectly character-driven. AND THERE’S A KICKASS LADY WHAAAAT. OH WAIT TWO OF THEM. And everyone is perfect, basically. I know it’s not actually breaking the mold of a typical superhero flick, but it definitely stretched it. And gosh darn it’s just so FUN, I wanted to instantly re-watch it the second it was over. Certainly the mark of a successful movie?

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Beautiful, dreamlike visuals, an effective musical score, inventive storytelling, and a truly impressive performance by young star Quvenzhané Wallis; I consider this film a memorable and unique experience. It’s definitely an interesting step for fantasy/science-fiction filmmaking, and I really hope Wallis has a long career ahead of her (unless she decides to become a dentist, which I believe is her goal).

For a Good Time, Call…
I feel like this is the main one that won’t be on many other End-of-Year lists, but I just really loved it. It’s light-hearted and really funny, and left me with a huge smile on my face and a hankering for girl bands. The parodying of romantic comedies through the framework of a female friendship is strangely brilliant, and the two leads are super charming. Plus it’s raunchy but not in a self-satisfied way, you know?

Haywire
Dude. Gina Carano. The most kickass lady I’ve ever seen, probably? This movie is so rad, it’s just all fighting and running and spy mysteries and an unknown Carano kicking the shit out of all these attractive Hollywood hunks. It’s a solid action/thriller without being too stupid. I loved it! Thanks Steven Soderbergh!

ParaNorman
This is the main movie I’ve found myself recommending to people this year, because I think that on the surface it does not look as amazing as it truly is. This is not some Tim Burton knockoff, this is a superbly animated, surprisingly progressive family-friendly horror-comedy. I loved the Salem Witch Trial-inspired story, the seriously fantastic visuals, the horror movie references, and especially the deft handling of character- most of them are first presented as stiff stereotypes but their personalities are presented as layered and unexpected. It’s just a great, great movie. And funny!

Honorable Mentions
Beauty is Embarrassing
Cabin in the Woods
Looper
Sound of Noise
The Pirates! Band of Misfits

And I need to give a special shout-out to Manborg, which was on my 2011 list because I saw it at Toronto After Dark and absolutely adored it, but it got more play in 2012 so I think some are considering it 2012? No matter its year, it’s amazing and I just want to laud it some more. Laud laud laud.

Weirdest Movie: I’d probably say Beyond the Black Rainbow? Grungy 80s-style thriller with an ambiguous plot and super trippy imagery, plus a haunting synth soundtrack. Yeah. Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie must run a close second though.

Worst Movie: Hmm V/H/S, probably? It’s an anthology, and I liked two of them but the others were all awful or just boring. Disappointments of 2012 (as in, movies I wanted to be better) include Lockout, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, The Expendables 2, and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.

Some Numbers: 270 total movies seen. 156 new-to-me movies. 60 seen in a theater. 43 movies from 2012 as of this writing (meaning I saw a few in 2013). The first movie I watched was (appropriately) The Apartment and the last was Premium Rush.

See you later, 2012. I hope 2013 doesn’t suck as much as you did. (Not in terms of movies, I mean IRL. Movies were pretty solid.)

Movie Review: Django Unchained (2012)

django
Seen: At the Kendall Square Landmark Cinema in Cambridge.

So this is what everyone’s been talking about, huh? After reading several articles about it and having multiple real-life friends want to discuss it with me, I figured I should finally see Tarantino’s latest revisionist period piece, Django Unchained. Jamie Foxx stars as the titular Django, a freed slave who teams up with chatty German bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). After brutally destroying three sadistic overseers who were wanted for murder, the two plot to rescue Django’s still-enslaved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a malicious plantation owner whose delusions of highbrow pretension make him easy to manipulate.

Ok so yes a lot of people have a lot of problems with this movie, and I can understand why. I am not qualified to go into the various nuances regarding race and Hollywood and exploitation and whatnot, though many other well-informed writers already have. But I do have a few things to say, I guess. My main concerns/questions regarding racism/sexism in this movie stem from wondering about Tarantino’s intentions, and his awareness of his fanbase. On the surface, the premise of an ex-slave avenging the shit out of some asshole white slaveholders seems like an easy thing to support. And I’m sure that’s how a lot of viewers might see this movie. You can either read a lot of subtext and details in the script and characters, or take it at face value. I’m afraid too many people might be doing the latter, especially since I’ve heard many reports of audiences laughing at things that aren’t particularly funny. I just can’t say how much Tarantino meant to be funny or one-dimensional- is he fully to blame, or is it partially his audience? Of course for many viewers and commentators, the biggest issue is that this type of story had to be told by a white filmmaker, since black filmmakers would likely meet a lot of resistance if trying to do this through a studio.

This movie does reinforce certain stereotypes- the stoic, macho black man, the damsel in distress, the complacent slave/Uncle Remus, the white savior- and in some ways it can get a pass because of its obvious foundation in exploitation and western genres. Some of these are archetypes known to those types of movies, and I guess no one’s walking into a 60’s western expecting strong female characters (unless it’s True Grit!). But you know what? This isn’t 1960’s-70’s grindhouse. This is 2012, and I would like to think that Tarantino might have learned a little bit about character development in his many years of filmmaking. I couldn’t stand Kerry Washington’s put-upon Broomhilda, whose sole purpose is to be shown in many scenes of torture or pretty, silent visions, acting only as a goal for Django to reach, a trophy to be reclaimed. I know this isn’t her story but jesus, SOME agency or even personality would have been nice, all I know about her is she can speak German and she’s got a badass husband.

It’s the white savior stereotype that stuck out to me the most, primarily because I really enjoyed Christoph Waltz’s performance as King Schultz. He’s funny and endearing and he gets most of the best dialogue. He also represents another angle of racism in 19th-century America (and beyond), in which even those who are anti-slavery did not view black men and women as equals, but something more akin to children. Schultz considers Django his friend and partner, but also frequently speaks down to him, never fully trusting his intelligence and often acting like he is some sort of unskilled teenager when he’s at least in his 30s. He claims to be against slavery, yet still uses its laws in his favor when he needs Django’s help, and upon setting him free he “feels responsible for his well-being” or something to that effect. Their relationship is interesting, and I’d like to think that had it been given more time Schultz would have eventually realized that despite his good intentions he was acting like a condescending jerk- I really wanted Django to call him on it at some point but he never did. And so again I must wonder, how much of this somewhat subtle racism is intentional in Tarantino’s writing? And how much is picked up by casual viewers? Schultz is definitely meant to be a good guy, and hey, I rooted for him, but I hope everyone realizes that his type of character is also part of the problem.

Ok jeez I promised myself I wouldn’t get too rambly and yet here I am, sorry. Anyway. Django Unchained has a lot of things to recommend it despite its other issues. I loved the visuals- the bright colors, detailed costumes, and sprawling landscapes. The eclectic soundtrack is excellent, pulling from different periods and genres to aptly match Tarantino’s many references and inspirations. The cast is great, clearly, with Waltz stealing the show but Foxx, DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson all getting in some fantastic scenes. It’s funny too, including a ridiculous bit concerning the precursor to the KKK that reduces them to utter fools. I didn’t mind the gory violence since it was pretty stylized, suitable to the overall grindhouse vibe, and there are some fun and memorable action scenes. The only part that grossed me out was DiCaprio wiping his bloody hand all over Kerry Washington’s face, since I knew it was real blood and I could only mentally weep for Washington’s many difficult experiences while working on this film. The movie as a whole is waaaaay too long, but hey, that’s kind of Tarantino’s thing, so I can’t say I was surprised. Just… antsy.

ONE final thing that bothered me, then I’ll let you go. There’s some comment about Django being that “One N-word in 10,000”, like he’s the ONE who could liberate himself and take revenge on his oppressors. I know it was meant to just be a good line at the end of the film, but it struck something with me. It sounds to me like Django considers himself the only slave strong-willed enough to take action, to save the princess, to kill the bad guy. Are the other unnamed 9,999 slaves so unwilling, so unmotivated, so unable? Pretty sure that’s not true, and its this reductionist view of the time period that rightly angers a lot of the film’s critics. Taking a very serious, traumatic moment in this country’s history and presenting it through the showy, simplified lens of a spaghetti western just doesn’t quite work the way Tarantino wants it to, even if the good guy wins in the end. There’s too much you’re forced to ignore.

3.5/5

Pair This Movie With: There were a few points where I was reminded of Blazing Saddles, and I think that’d be an ok pairing. Alternatively, the concept of a fast-talking white bounty hunter teaming up with an intimidating black bounty hunter reminded me of The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr, especially since Lord Bowler (played by Julius Carry) is my favorite character on that show. Or hey, if you want to learn a little bit about real blaxploitation and black filmmakers, check out the absolutely amazing Baadasssss!

Movie Review: Bernie (2012)

bernie

Seen: On our projector set-up, streamed from netflix instant.

A polite, effusive, intelligent assistant funeral director, Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) is beloved by all in the small city of Carthage, Texas. He is very socially active in the community, especially in church and theater, but it is his unlikely friendship with wealthy, surly widow Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine) that eventually immortalizes him. The questions surrounding their relationship (at times manipulatively romantic, at others bordering on indentured servitude) are explored, as are the strange events surrounding Marjorie’s (premeditated?) death at the hands of Bernie himself. Told in a semi-documentary style, their tale is elaborated upon by actual denizens of Carthage through interviews, with key players depicted by actors.

Quirky and a little bit weird, Bernie is a fun and somewhat sad slice-of-life offering from Richard Linklater, whose films I’ve realized I’ve never reviewed on this site since I guess I watched several of his movies before starting a blog. Oh well. I loved the half-documentary, half-acted style of filmmaking, fusing fact and fiction and a whole lot of supposition. Jack Black is fantastic, funny and kooky and warm, with this slight hint of pent-up frustration that really does make you wonder, even though by the end you’re with everyone in the town and you want to believe him to be a good guy. He even gets to sing a bunch, and after seeing his rendition of “Seventy-Six Trombones” I’m convinced a Jack Black-starring Music Man is an excellent idea. MacLaine and McConaughey give great supporting performances, but their roles are limited. Also what the hell did they do to McConaughey’s hair? Seriously, he looks like shit and it’s unnerving. Is his hair the source of his power or something?

The story is a bit meandering, which I understand makes it more realistic since real life doesn’t follow the standard points of a fictional narrative, but it does make the movie drag at certain parts. But overall it’s charming for its earnest characterization, innovative stylization, and unexpected plot developments. Though I don’t know how much he adhered to the known facts of the story, Linklater seems intent on delivering some semblance of honesty and objectivity when representing this town and its inhabitants- at least I hope that’s true.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: The sensationalist real-life story and questionable events made me think of Tabloid, the memorable 20120 documentary from Errol Morris.