Saturday, January 26, 2013

"Movie 43" Review

As the film's tagline states, "Once you see it, you can't unsee it." But boy, do I wish I could.

Movie 43 is about a crazed writer (Dennis Quaid) who pitches his movie idea to a studio executive (Greg Kinnear). The pitch is presented as a variety of comedic short films that expand across multiple plot lines, each with different characters.
I remember seeing ads for this movie and thinking they looked funny. They reminded me of something I'd probably watch in middle school. Loads of humor starring just about every famous actor working in Hollywood today. What could possibly go wrong?

As it turns out, lots. Movie 43 is skin-crawling, awkward, and just plain terrible. The humor is so disgusting and over-the-top that it's nearly impossible to laugh. I'm shocked that major players like Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Emma Stone, Gerard Butler, and Halle Berry were coaxed into doing a low-brow movie like this. It's uncharacteristic for everyone involved from the cast to its twelve directors, many of whom have solid credits to their name like Brett Ratner, Steven Brill, James Gunn, Peter Farrelly, and Steve Carr. You know things are bad when Sean William Scott and Johnny Knoxville star in a segment together, and you feel like even these two blockheads can do better.

The only scene that's really hysterical is a segment that features Jason Sudeikis as Batman and Justin Long as Robin. There are a host of other names who make appearances as superheroes, and it's a riot to see them parody such popular characters. Otherwise, Movie 43 is excruciating to watch from top to bottom. There were times where I honestly felt like walking out and asking for my money back. Hugh Jackman with a pair of testicles hanging from his chin? A masturbating cartoon cat? A naked woman used as an MP3 player? A man who has to defecate so badly that he literally explodes when struck by a car? I mean, come on, really? Oscar-caliber actors stooping to this level? It's disheartening, sad, and darn near unwatchable.
It's also the thinnest excuse of an interconnecting plot that I've ever seen. None of the characters in the segments acknowledge each other. Nobody seems to be within the same universe. There's no resolution that brings all the characters together. It's just multiple 10-15 minute short stories all strung together by a stupid plot featuring Dennis Quaid, Greg Kinnear, Common, and Seth MacFarlane. I think this marks the first time I've heard MacFarlane open his mouth and not found myself laughing hysterically. He's given nothing funny to say, and he's only in the movie for about a minute. Low humor is this man's forte, and he's got nothing to show for it in Movie 43.

Also I'd like to add that I don't really consider myself a spoken advocate of many causes, but I have a problem with the way Movie 43 objectifies women, Asians, and African Americans. The iBabe music player, an Englishman getting facial reconstructive surgery in order to look Chinese, and an offensive take on the underdog basketball team story all prove to be too much. I imagine Movie 43 feels an awful lot like looking for hay in a needle stack. Painful jabs from beginning to end with very little solace to be found. It's still early, but this film makes a strong case for the worst of 2013.

1/2 OF 4 STARS

"Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" Review

This ain't the Brothers Grimm, so forget everything you think you know about the fairy tale. 

Clearly driven by their traumatic childhood experience, the titular siblings of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters swap their breadcrumbs for the big guns as they seek to eliminate every last wart-nosed wench in the land. But as the storied "blood moon" approaches, Hansel and Gretel must face a new evil that harbors a dark secret to their past.

Sounds pretty crazy, right? And the ads looked stupid, didn't they? From the outside, this looks like another campy episode in the same vein of absurdity as last summer's Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. That would be a correct assertion. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is undeniably insane. We know it. The actors know it. And that's what makes this bodacious bloodbath so much fun.

It's by no means a "good" movie, but it's not totally "bad" either. I had little to no expectations for Hansel & Gretel, so I just went with it. I knew I wasn't paying to see Oscar material, so I just buckled in and waited to see where the ride would take me.
What I got were crazy custom weapons, gnarly creatures, and buckets of blood. I've seen these stunts before in movies like Van Helsing and the campier of last year's Lincoln adaptations. It's that same dark, foreboding, loosely-steampunk-inspired horror story that attempts to put a fresh twist on familiarity. This actually ends up making Hansel & Gretel forgettable. 

But despite this gripe, I've gotta hand it to stars Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton. They both know how crazy the concept is, and it's great to see them taking things lightly. The actors and the audience both know they're just here for the popcorn, so it's refreshing to feel like your stars might have the same feelings towards the movie as you do. Because Lord knows with a title like Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, nobody should be taking it seriously. The fun performances by Renner and Arterton, as well as Thomas Mann (the kid from Project X) keep the film from ultimately feeling like one too many of the witches' sweets.
There are also a few fun twists that come towards the film's end. The villain (Famke Janssen) brings everything full-circle, and it ends up actually being pretty deep for January popcorn fare. Even though some may just call it beef jerky, I still like a little meat with my junk food. 

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is well-cast with a humor-spiked script from writer/director Tommy Wirkola. The 3-D is decent for the fight scenes, but not totally necessary. I'd prefer to avoid being covered in wood chips and exploding body parts if that's okay. All in all I'd say this movie feels like a roller coaster that I've been on a hundred times. It's a blast while it lasts (thanks to Renner, Arterton, and some nifty action sequences), but when it's over I'm ready to move on to the next thing.

2.5 OF 4 STARS

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Office - "Customer Loyalty" (Jan. 24, 2013)


This week on The Office...

CiCi has a dance recital that Jim asks Pam to record for him. Dwight heads a "customer loyalty" initiative to try to keep Darryl from moving to Philadelphia, and Nellie attempts to stage an office-wide intervention on Jake and Erin's flirtatious relationship while also confronting her past with Toby.

The funniest moment of this week's episode features Dwight and Darryl at a fast food restaurant, with Dwight wasting a perfectly good milkshake in order to pull a YouTube-caliber prank on the drive-thru guy. But as per usual, things don't end up going Dwight's way.
Other than that, tonight isn't much of a gutbuster. The ending left me upset and terrified for the future. I'm not a fan of seeing Jim and Pam on the rocks, and for the first time in recent memory, we see a "breach of the wall" when Pam reaches out to one of the show's cameramen for solace. I'm glad to see something new, but I don't like the circumstances at all. With today's announcement that Steve Carell would NOT be returning for the series finale still hanging heavy on my heart, this Thursday was a disappointing day for this Office stalwart.

American Horror Story: Asylum - "Madness Ends" (Jan. 23, 2013)

Tonight marks the season finale of FX's freak-show American Horror Story: Asylum and the last we'll ever see of Briarcliff.

SPOILERS: The action is shifted to present day. Lana sits for an exposee on her career and rise to fame. We learn the fates of Kit, his children, and Sister Jude, and we also finally get to see the shocking confrontation between Lana and her wayward son.
This wasn't a tremendously horrifying end for the Asylum saga. I expected to see firsthand how Briarcliff eventually moved to its decrepit state. That sequence is never shown. Instead the writers opt to mention the fate of the asylum in a sneeze-and-you'll-miss-it statement from Lana during her interview. Make sure you're paying attention. Something about a storm...
I was disappointed in that regard, but there's certainly no shortage of shock value. Looks like creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk (Glee*, Nip/Tuck) saved the best for last. I didn't expect the outcome of Lana's meeting with her son (Dylan McDermott) to go as it did, but it was mind-blowing. Kit's fate is also unexpected, but it's appropriate. Fans of the series should be satisfied.

I'm eager to see what's in store for the next chapter of American Horror Story. I'm trying to think up ideas for what they could do next. The haunted house and the insane asylum are two classic horror settings that have been dispatched like a severed appendage. I'd like to see them do something in the forest, maybe taking the classic slasher or cabin-in-the-woods trope for a spin. Murphy and Falchuk could really get crazy with that. There's so much potential there to show us something we haven't seen before. If they do it right, I'd like to question my sanity and safety the next time I go hiking.

(* Yes, Glee. The creators of American Horror Story are the same minds behind the popular high school comedy-musical series. Depending what level "gleek" you are, that may not be such a surprise.)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

"Blue Valentine" Review

"You always hurt the one you love, the one you shouldn't hurt at all."

These are the first words I've ever heard sung by actor Ryan Gosling. I'd think twice about calling him the next Sinatra, but it's a charming ballad that fits like a glove in the narrative of Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine, an emotional drama that chronicles the relationship of Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) as it evolves over several years.
Blue Valentine centers primarily on the couple's rocky marriage at present but uses cross-cutting to show us their courtship. It's nonlinear and can be difficult to follow, but it's an effective way to dispense of the couple's back-story. SPOILERS: I think this method of cross-cutting also serves to enhance the story's emotional weight. Blue Valentine maintains a firm grip on the audience by showing us a young couple who are madly in love, but then switching gears to show us that same couple in a dark, empty state. It's flooring to see this change of tone between scenes, and coupled with magnificent performances from Gosling and Williams, Blue Valentine certainly packs enough melancholy punch to keep me invested.

As the fireworks crashed and the credits rolled, I found myself reflecting on the title's significance. Blue Valentine... what could it mean? I think "valentine" is obvious. The story is about a couple in love. But "blue" I think refers to the sad, decrepit state of their marriage. Blue is a color that often signifies sadness or melancholy, and I think those emotions are pervasive in this movie. So in a way, the title's kind of an oxymoron. All part of the psychological appeal.
Speaking of the color blue, Blue Valentine seems to use at least one shade of blue in every single shot. This reminds me of one of my favorite films of all time, Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing. In Lee's film, the color red is present in nearly every scene, whether it's on a wall, on someone's shirt, on a car or even on a woman's lips. Lee uses red to signify the boiling hot racial tensions in one Brooklyn neighborhood on the hottest day of the summer. I like the use of color in both films to accentuate the emotions that the directors want us to feel as viewers. It enhances the atmosphere and makes it easier to emotionally connect with the characters.

Blue Valentine thrives on its performances too. I think I enjoyed Michelle Williams better in Simon Curtis's My Week with Marilyn, but Ryan Gosling is at the top of his game here. I think this is the best I've ever seen him, with his performance in Drive a close second. The chemistry between these two is electric. They seem so natural together, making their character evolution as a couple even more fascinating.
With such strong leads, Cianfrance's Blue Valentine is a very different love story. You'll laugh a little, cry a lot, but as such a spellbinding display of human emotion, you might even be compelled to watch it again. It's currently streaming on Netflix Instant.

3.5 OF 4 STARS

Sunday, January 20, 2013

"Snow on Tha Bluff" Review

We see and hear it every day.

It's lauded in the music we listen to, the magazines we read, the websites we visit, and the television programs we watch. "Thug life" is very much a part of today's popular culture, and thanks to the Internet, it's more accessible than ever. Everyone has a favorite hip-hop artist, whether they can name five songs by that artist or not. In their music, we are bombarded with poetry that stings like a drive-by bullet, left to picture for ourselves what life is like in the 'hood. Everyone thinks they understand, but you have no idea until you experience it for yourself.

I think that's what the reality-drama film Snow on Tha Bluff tries to do; capture a few days in the life of an Atlanta drug dealer and showcase it to the world. I think the intent is to erase some of the ignorance that most of our media provide and show that "thug life" isn't all it's cracked up to be.
And for the most part, the movie succeeds. It's a portrait of life in a different societal sector that's not like any other dramatized entry out there. Snow on Tha Bluff stands out for its gritty presentation and its lead performance from real-life drug dealer Curtis Snow.

Although it's not established as such thematically, the film has the look of a recovered-footage picture, making the action seem much more authentic. (Though a case could be made for calling it "stolen-footage".) If Snow on Tha Bluff had been shot with expensive Hollywood cameras, it would've felt forced and more like a staged dramatization. As it stands, the movie has the feel it sets out to capture: an unadulterated view of ghetto life. It feels like you're an accessory to a shortlist of crimes as a member of Curtis's clique, right behind him for every armed antic, every drug deal, and every traumatic event. Snow's performance is reminiscent of Eminem's in 8 Mile. These guys don't need to be trained actors because for them, it's not an act. Their respective films chronicle events similar to ones that each man actually lived. It's a re-telling of their reality, so the performances are bone-deep. Snow's dynamic personality is what had me invested for the film's 78-minute run time.

Aside from a contrived ending that ruins any true sense of closure, Snow on Tha Bluff is a riveting film about life in one of Atlanta's most dangerous neighborhoods that thrives on a bone-deep performance from Curtis Snow and gritty camerawork that makes this a filmgoing experience with few equals. I now feel the wiser for witnessing the true story behind the superficiality of what we hear in today's music. Check it out on Netflix Instant.


Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Office - "Suit Warehouse" (Jan. 17, 2013)


This week, Darryl brings Pam along to Philadelphia where he interviews for a position at Jim's new startup. Dwight and Clark pretend to be a father-son sales team in an attempt to get the business of a family-owned suit company. Back at the office, Clark surprises everyone with a new espresso machine.

I didn't think this episode was as consistently funny as last week. I only found myself laughing out loud for the last ten or fifteen minutes, but that's not to say "Suit Warehouse" is completely devoid of things to chuckle at. The inevitable, caffeine-induced chaos that comes with the new espresso machine is an utter riot. We also get a long-awaited first look at the offices of Jim's sports marketing startup. "I dig the Facebook vibe," as Darryl puts it. "You really Zuckerberg'd the place out."

Darryl's job interview is also funny, dripping in the awkward humor that's made "The Office" a favorite. The scene made my skin crawl in the best way possible, something the show has been inconsistent on since the days of Michael Scott. I'm also anxiously awaiting the conversation between Jim and Pam regarding a move to Philly, something that's hinted at in this episode.

5 WORST FILMS of 2012

Who knew Peter Berg’s big-budget incarnation of the classic board game would start off with inklings of humor and a decent human story? The first twenty minutes lay a foundation for what could’ve been a solid blockbuster if the template was followed. Too bad that story is thrown overboard and left to drown thanks to huge, shiny special effects. A textbook display of style over substance that makes Transformers look like Citizen Kane.

The Devil Inside
There’s a reason why January is “film dump” month, and no film supports that assertion better than the god-awful Devil Inside. This found-footage horror thriller about a young woman who travels to Rome to visit her ailing mother and to study exorcism features a trailer that’s scarier than the film itself. The few cringe-worthy elements build to the most forced, dissatisfying, and just plain terrible ending of any movie I've ever seen, ruining whatever good the movie has going for it, which isn't much.

Chernobyl Diaries
Yet another venture into the found-footage horror genre is Chernobyl Diaries, about a group of thrill-seeking students who go to visit the abandoned Ukrainian city in an attempt to discover its secrets. Poor development and even worse execution turn this film into a nuclear disaster of its own. This is one of the least-scary horror movies I've seen, and it takes itself far too seriously.

Paranormal Activity 4
As a fan of the franchise, I’ll admit I was thrilled to see another sequel. I keep waiting for the mystery of the first three Paranormal Activity films to be solved and my burning questions to be answered. Is it so wrong of me to hope for some solace in part four? Evidently so. Paranormal Activity 4 answers absolutely nothing about its predecessors and seems out of place in the franchise’s narrative. It’s not even that scary. I especially love the third film for its consistent sense of dread, inventive scares, and fresh spin on the story. 4 has none of that and left me scratching my head even harder than the last installments. This film is a major derailment that I can only hope is fixed in Paranormal Activity 5.

The Campaign
This political satire starring funnymen Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis isn't nearly as funny or as edgy as it should be. The supporting cast of Jason Sudeikis, Dan Akroyd, John Lithgow, and Dylan McDermott are never given any true time to shine. They’re all forgettable, which is a testament to poor writing. You’d think a comedy about dirty congressional politics that features major players like Ferrell, Galifianakis, Akroyd, and Lithgow would be side-splitting, but The Campaign never comes close. I’ll vote for the other guy.

American Horror Story: Asylum - "Continuum" (Jan. 16, 2013)

In the last episode before next week's season finale, Kit faces yet another tragedy and catches up with an old friend who isn't who she used to be. Also, Jude finds herself in the midst of a shocking discovery when her new roommate arrives at Briarcliff.

Lots of the same crazy chills tonight, but what's cool about this week's episode is that it really plays with your head. The horror is very psychological, which is something that's always attracted me as a viewer. I loved getting all twisted when Jude meets Dr. Crump. The twist reminded me of one similar in Scorsese's "Shutter Island", which is a fantastic horror-drama film that takes place in and around a Boston mental hospital. No doubt this season's creators borrowed a page or two from that movie.
As for Kit, I really pity the fool, and if you watch this week's episode, it's easy to see why. He's dealt with such pain and hardship this season that I'm fascinated to see how they conclude his character in next week's finale. Heck, I'm excited to see how the whole thing ends for all involved. It promises to be a spine-tingling night of television, that's for sure.

Wednesday 10/9c on FX

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

"Taken 2" Review

From the outside looking in, Taken 2 is everything that's wrong with Hollywood. I've even heard stories of star Liam Neeson almost backing out of negotiations, questioning why a second film even needed to be made. He's right for thinking this way. At the end of Taken, the story seems pretty well-concluded with no setup for future sequels.
After finally seeing Taken 2, I've decided Neeson and I were both right. This is an unnecessary sequel that's nothing more than a ploy to make a few extra bucks at the box office, cashing in on once-successful properties. The film brings nothing new to the table, just a re-hash of the same thrills from its 2009 predecessor starring Liam Neeson as the butt-kicking, name-taking dad of the year.

While Taken told the thrilling story of one man's daring crusade to rescue his kidnapped daughter from traffickers in Paris, the sequel follows our hero Bryan Mills (Neeson) and his family (Famke Janssen, Maggie Grace) on a trip to Istanbul, where they are targeted by the father of one of the deceased from the first film (Rade Serbedzija). Except this time, its BRYAN who's kidnapped along with his wife Lenore (Janssen), leaving daughter Kim (Grace) to fend for herself until Bryan can catch up with her. Once she's safe, Neeson switches roles from daddy to ex-husband of the year, as he goes on a solo tear for only the film's last half hour trying to get his wife back.

Much of the action is edited in such a frenetic way, it's difficult to see Neeson kicking butt and even harder to tell what exactly is going on. Taken 2 also features a script with so many plot holes, it might as well be inscribed on Swiss cheese. One of them is the set-up at the beginning for the film's villain (Serbedzija), who turns out to be incredibly weak. In the prologue, he swears to get revenge on Mills for causing so much pain and sorrow in his Albanian village after killing the town's sons, husbands, and brothers in Taken. So the plan is to round up more of Tropoja's sons, husbands, and brothers for the slaughter? I mean, does this guy honestly think he's going to succeed against a trained killer with everything to lose? You'd think the lesson would've been learned after the first film. It's a flimsy excuse to line up more bad guys for Neeson to beat up, which is, according to the studio, "what the people want". Too bad they were so preoccupied with making the action bigger that they forgot to develop the characters or any semblance of a decent story.

Another thing that earns Taken 2 a resounding "Ehh" from me is that there's nothing new to see here. What made the first movie so great was that, for the first time, we got to see a man who's trying to live a quiet, retired life be called into action when he's suddenly faced with a parent's worst nightmare. Taken soared thanks to Liam Neeson's brooding performance, and it was this performance that made the bad-ass action so much fun to watch. The sequel just has more of the exact same. No surprises, no twists, just a display of the same chases, gunplay, and fist fights that we've all seen before.
Now there are promising elements in Taken 2 that could've made it great, but they end up squandered. These include the villain, as well as the relationship between Bryan and Lenore which appears to be smoothing out. Certainly Taken 3 will give us some sort of closure there. That's not to say a third film is necessary, but at this point, why stop now? The franchise is a cash cow, raking in a combined total of just under $600 million at the worldwide box office, according to IMDb estimates. I anticipate more of the same fluff that Taken 2 has provided: a classic ploy to wring box office value dry with more of the blockbuster escapism that audiences crave and little focus on solid scripting.


(Some of the references to the first film are actually quite clever. If a sequel to Taken really had to be made, this would be the way to try and do it. Sadly, it falls short.)

Monday, January 14, 2013

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" Review

"The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the whole universe will get busted," and "when you're a small piece of a big puzzle, you gotta fix what you can."

First-time director Benh Zeitlin crafts a beautifully original fantasy told through the eyes of young Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), a girl confronted with outstanding circumstances that ultimately teach her the ways of hope, courage, and love in the film Beasts of the Southern Wild. 
SPOILERS: The "beasts" in question could be a pack of giant, ancient, boar-like creatures called aurochs that are unleashed when the ice caps melt. (The melting of the ice caps and coincidental flooding of Hushpuppy's Louisiana Delta community is one of the outstanding circumstances in her life.) But I think the true "beasts of the southern wild" are the people of "The Bathtub", Hushpuppy's community. These are resilient, resourceful people that use whatever means they can to survive.

It's hard for me to adequately describe this film after just one viewing. I think it's one that requires multiple looks, but to essentially sum up my feelings: there's nothing out there quite like Beasts of the Southern Wild. Along with The Cabin in the Woods and Looper, this is one of the most wildly original films of 2012. It's a very grounded human drama that plays somewhat like a pseudo-documentary with its voice-overs and events that look eerily similar to what happened in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. That aspect is almost like watching a reality series from Discovery Channel. But there are elements of fantasy thrown in with the auroch creatures that make this a true genre-bender. With an estimated budget of under $2 million, a cast full of unknowns, and a rookie director, Beasts really has nothing to lose, so it's amazing how they come together to create a picture that values imagination and human spirit over studio money while still managing to be visually striking in a down-to-earth fashion. I've not seen anything like it before, and I wish more movies were made this way.

I loved all the characters, and I think the film soars thanks to a marvelous performance from young Quvenzhane Wallis. Telling a human story that's as dark as Beasts of the Southern Wild might need a bit of the edge taken off in order to be accepted by audiences, and this is done by telling it through the innocent eyes of a six-year-old girl. Hushpuppy had me rooting for her all the way. 
The film also features a wonderful turn from Dwight Henry as Hushpuppy's father Wink. He's rough around the edges and is responsible for much of the darkness in his daughter's life, but Wink has a good heart, even if it is killing him. Henry really gets into his character's skin and makes us believe he's truly been a bayou boy his whole life. 

I'd recommend Beasts of the Southern Wild to anyone looking for something different from typical Hollywood offerings. It's a fantastical celebration of the human spirit that manages to keep its feet on the ground thanks to sheer imagery as well as marvelous performances from its cast. Currently nominated for 4 Oscars.

3.5 OF 4 STARS

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Office - "Lice" (Jan. 11, 2013)

Witness the return of the end for our favorite corporate employees.

In the final season's first episode back from the holiday hiatus, Jim takes a trip to Philadelphia for a meeting with Julius Erving, a.k.a. "Dr. J", an NBA legend and important investor to Jim's new sports marketing company. Back in Scranton, Pam and the rest of the office deal with a lice outbreak while Darryl's relationship with Val takes a rocky turn.

On the whole, this one was hilarious. Probably one of the funniest episodes in recent memory. SPOILERS: Everyone's up to their usual antics when it comes to any issue the office faces. This week, it's pest control. Dwight takes things too far with a haz-mat suit and pest grenades, Erin recommends that everyone put mayonnaise in their hair to kill the bugs, and Meredith shaves her head. It's riotously funny, and it's something the writers haven't quite done before. Kudos to them for still pulling off something fresh after nine seasons.
I also love seeing Dr. J as a guest star. I honestly didn't even know the guy was still alive, let alone still balling at his private court in Philadelphia! John Krasinski is still fun as Jim, nailing that awkward cool that any fanboy would try to maintain when meeting their childhood idol.

SPOILER: I wasn't a huge fan of the Darryl-Val breakup and reconciliation. The typically warm, good-natured Darryl tells us he wants Val to break up with him because he isn't up for a long distance relationship, pending his move to Philly with Jim. It seems out of character for Darryl to be so manipulative, and it'll be interesting to see where it goes by season's end because I'm really rooting for them as a couple.

I'd also like to add I think I'm officially hopping on the Erin-Jake bandwagon. The two seem like a good fit for each other, and I like their chemistry better than Erin and Andy's.

The Reel's Top 10 Films of 2012

It was extremely difficult trying to assemble my list of the best motion pictures of 2012. This was such a great year for movies that it's hard to confine my list of favorites to just ten. Here are some honorable mentions that are great movies, but didn't quite make the cut:

Marvel's The Avengers, Wreck-It Ralph, The Cabin in the Woods, Looper, Skyfall

10. Sinister

The latest horror-thriller from director Scott Derrickson follows a true crime novelist who moves his family into the former home of his current subject.  While conducting his research, our novelist (in a captivating performance from Ethan Hawke) uncovers some dark secrets that put himself and his family on a collision course with a dangerous supernatural force. Disturbing and downright scary, Sinister is the most terrifying movie I've ever seen, with an ending that will blow you away.

9. Beasts of the Southern Wild

First-time helmer Benh Zeitlin crafts a marvelously engaging feature about a young girl named Hushpuppy and her journey of discovery within her own community after it's flooded by a raging storm and threatened by ancient creatures. Part fantasy-part human drama, Beasts is one of the most original movies of the year based on sheer poetic imagery and wonderful performances from a cast of unknowns. It values the human spirit and imagination rather than big studio money, which is strikingly fresh. More movies should be made this way.

8. Moonrise Kingdom

With a plot so simple, it's difficult to say that Wes Anderson's latest feature is the "very best of the year". But it presents itself in a way I've never quite seen before. Marvelous performances from entertainers such as Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, and Frances McDormand help move the film along briskly while showcasing the director's unique style. The use of color and cinematography is so enthralling, it's worth the price of admission just to see how those two elements come together here. Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward are also a delight as the young, wayward lovers.

7. Les Miserables

Director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) brings the timeless Broadway classic to the big screen in grand fashion. While much larger in scope and scale than his previous efforts, Hooper still manages to maintain control with his familiar vision and impeccable performances from a talented cast. Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway knocked me flat.

6. The Dark Knight Rises

The epic conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s Batman saga sees Bruce Wayne come out of retirement to don the cape and cowl once again as he responds to a terrorist who threatens to bring Gotham City to its knees. I love Tom Hardy as Bane. Trying to understand what he’s saying through that respirator is a chore, but for the first time in three movies, I actually felt like our mighty Caped Crusader might not be able to save the day. I know fans tend to put Heath Ledger’s Joker and The Dark Knight on a pedestal, but I think this one comes pretty darn close.

5. Life of Pi

The latest from director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Hulk) tells a riveting story of survival and self-discovery posed against gorgeous set pieces and eye-popping special effects. Leading man Suraj Sharma keeps us hooked and makes us believe that he really IS Pi, as he discovers what he's made of during his time at sea. The 3-D is incredible, especially if you've got a pack of flying fish or a million meerkats headed your way. The tiger is also vivid and so well-detailed, you'd swear it was real. Sharma's reactions would make you believe this is true. As far as visual style, picture Avatar meets The Jungle Book with a peppering of Rise of the Planet of the Apes thrown in. Life of Pi is an incredibly engaging feature that blew my expectations away.

4. Lincoln

Steven Spielberg’s captivating period biopic follows President Abraham Lincoln’s crusade to end the Civil War and get the Thirteenth Amendment passed to abolish slavery. Much funnier than I anticipated, Lincoln is a marvelously entertaining feature that’s sure to be a major player at the Oscars in February. Who knew there was such entertainment value surrounding the passing of a federal law?! Daniel Day-Lewis is a revelation as Lincoln.

3. Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino is at his gratuitous best once again in Django Unchained, a film about two 19th century Southern bounty hunters starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, and Leonardo DiCaprio. Classic Tarantino style is on display here (colorful characters, over-the-top violence, an interesting soundtrack, unique cinematography, and moments of side-splitting humor), but Django is one of the director's best efforts yet. All the acting performances are terrific and help make the movie as entertaining and satisfying as it is. Samuel L. Jackson steals the show with my favorite supporting performance from an actor this year.

2. Argo

Ben Affleck's dramatization of the now-declassified Iran hostage situation of the late 1970s and early 80s is a nerve-wracking nail-biter. It features little to nothing by way of onscreen violence, but captures perfectly the raw emotional tension of the six American diplomats held hostage and trying to escape from under the noses of their brutal captors. What makes the film even more engrossing is the idea of creating a big-budget science fiction film to help get the Americans out of Iran. The characters all know it's a bad idea, and one even notes that "it's the best bad idea we have", but it's a blast to get a little crash-course on filmmaking in the midst of such gripping drama. As director, Affleck makes the audience feel the same urgency and tension that's present within each character, allowing Argo to become a moviegoing experience unlike any other this year.

1. Silver Linings Playbook

To paraphrase Alynda Wheat of People Magazine, is it a "rom-com"? Is it a dramatic "treatise on mental illness"? Is it "a love note to the Philadelphia Eagles"? Yes. Silver Linings Playbook is as healthy a balance of all three as you're likely to see, making it the most endearing, fascinating, and entertaining movie of the year. A razor-sharp script and keen direction from David O. Russell (The Fighter, Three Kings) along with fine performances from Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Robert De Niro make this the feel-good movie of 2012.

"Gangster Squad" Review

Picture to yourself the good ol' days. Whaddaya see? For a certain generation, it might be the post-war glitz and glimmer of the big cities. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Las Vegas. Broadway, Times Square, Hollywoodland, The Strip. It hearkens a bygone era that lives on in the photos, stories, and artifacts left behind.
The 40s were an era dominated by organized crime, by men willing to kill for the almighty dollar and the American Dream. Men like Al Capone and Mickey Cohen.

In the film Gangster Squad, director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less) gives us a stylized account of Cohen's involvement in organized crime and the police outfit that tried to stop him in 1940s Los Angeles. The film tries it's darnedest to mimic big brother Brian De Palma's The Untouchables but doesn't quite make it on account of spotty writing from Castle scribe Will Beall.  Having said that, I still had a blast watching Gangster Squad for its colorful cast of characters, gorgeous costumes, dazzling production design, and exciting action sequences. Hardly ingredients for an instant Hollywood classic, but certainly enough for a guilty pleasure.

Sean Penn is positively electrifying as Mickey Cohen. Much like DiCaprio in Django Unchained, Penn takes what he's given and crafts a villain so foreboding, so sinister, and so much fun to watch that it's worth the price of admission just to watch him work. Cohen is one of the coolest, nastiest villains in recent memory, and I don't think any other actor could have captured the color and camp better than Sean Penn. Everyone else is just trying to keep up. Ryan Gosling is okay as Sergeant Jerry Wooters, a role that I honestly think was tailor-made for him. Josh Brolin is solid as always as Sergeant John O'Mara, head of the Gangster Squad. Think of him as the Eliot Ness of the group. Robert Patrick is also lots of fun as Officer Max Kennard, the cowboy of the police force who's shot more men than any cop in town. He's funny and makes a nice gun-slinging addition to the squad. Additionally, Anthony Mackie fares well as he always does in his role as Officer Coleman Harris.
Everyone else in the cast is squandered, which is a shame because that's loads of talent down the drain. No doubt they could've made the film even better if given more to work with. Emma Stone is dismissable as the femme fatale Grace Faraday, proving to be nothing more than the classic damsel-in-distress. Michael Pena is given little chance to shine as Officer Navidad Ramirez, the ethnic young padawan of Officer Kennard, taking a back seat to the bigger characters like Cohen, Wooters, O'Mara, and even Faraday. Giovanni Ribisi also turns in work as squad tech man Officer Conway Keeler. He's decent enough, but doesn't steal the show. With a stronger script, who knows what good these capable actors could've done for the Gangster Squad?

I mentioned before that a certain generation might recall the good ol' days with the glitz and glimmer of the big cities. Gangster Squad effectively captures that appeal in its presentation. The sets and costumes are amazing, nailing the flamboyancy of early 20th century social life right on the head. Even the film itself looks polished and glossy in the way its lit. Some might find fault with this for looking manicured and cheesy. I normally would, but in this case it works because of the setting. It's really a cool aesthetic that gives a good-looking finish to an already good-looking movie.

In addition to hiring the best production design team possible, Fleischer also crafts some nifty action sequences. Shootouts, car chases, gasoline fires, and fisticuffs might all be considered standard gangster movie fare, but the director manages to keep things from being dull and repetitive. SPOILER: One of my favorite scenes is a fist fight between Cohen and O'Mara. Understanding the context of Mickey's character is important for understanding why its so great in terms of story, but its also pretty well-choreographed. It's brutal and unrelenting, which is just fine with me.

Overall the only crime this gangster commits is inconsistent writing. But with Sean Penn's arresting performance (pun intended) and sets that bring the golden age of Los Angeles to life, Gangster Squad proves to be a colorful noire that's delightfully, if sometimes mindlessly, over-the-top. But everyone needs a diversion now and then, and I'd say this is as fun as guilty pleasures get.


"Zero Dark Thirty" Review

Remember all those teaser ads on ESPN? You know, the ones for Zero Dark Thirty, that movie about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. That movie with all the Oscar hype. Remember how action-packed and gripping those TV spots looked?

Well, on Friday morning I got up at 9am, an hour far too early to be getting ready to head out to the multiplex, but I was super psyched to see Kathryn Bigelow's latest, and it was the only time that worked for me. I loved the director's work on The Hurt Locker, so I thought a thriller inspired by the true events of the greatest manhunt in history might be a harrowing time, and a sure-fire contender for the Best Picture Oscar.

And besides, the ads looked promising, right?

Seems like they were wrong. Zero Dark Thirty failed to meet my expectations and earns my vote for the most disappointing movie of 2012.

In all fairness, it's not that it's bad. In fact, I think it's very well made from a technical perspective, and the acting is terrific. Jessica Chastain is nothing short of phenomenal, but without her, I think the film may have been unwatchable. She deserves as many awards as she can get for saving Zero Dark Thirty with her masterful performance.
SPOILERS: What ruined the film for me was its pacing and tedium. Hurt Locker scribe Mark Boal's best written line comes from Chastain when she tells the director of the CIA (James Gandolfini) that she's the "motherf***er who found this place, sir" when briefing him on the layout of Bin Laden's compound. Otherwise, the entire film is as slow and limp as a snail caught in molasses in January. Things only pick up when Seal Team Six is called into action for the film's final half-hour, depicting the siege of Bin Laden's compound with the same nerve-shredding panache that made The Hurt Locker great. Reading the articles and looking at the photos in magazines and newspapers that covered the historic events depicted in Zero Dark Thirty would have probably been just as tediously exciting, if not more so, than watching this movie. That's a nice money-saving idea, too.

I wasn't interested in the torture controversy surrounding this movie, and that didn't spoil my expectations going in. I've seen dozens of movies depicting torture, most of them far more brutal than what's shown in Zero Dark Thirty. You'd think violent scenes like this might be worthy of attention, and they are. But in this particular film, it wasn't enough to hold my interest or to get me emotionally invested. Maybe that says something about the desensitizing power of violence in the media, but that's beside the point.
Since I was unimpressed with the narrative, that task fell on the shoulders of leading lady Jessica Chastain (The Help) who I mentioned before as being the heart, soul and saving grace of Zero Dark Thirty. Most of the movie's best scenes are with her alone, quietly reacting to the pressure and circumstances of being the spearhead of the manhunt for Bin Laden. A magnificent job by the actress; one that I think is the best performance from a lead actress this year.

On the whole, Zero Dark Thirty isn't as riveting as the ads make it out to be. It's a film that I think holds lots of promise and delivers on less than it should. If not for Ms. Chastain, I think the entire film would be lost. High marks are earned for her performance. Aside from that, the movie did not live up to my expectations and is decent at best.
The best film of 2012? Not by a sniper's long shot.
For another spy thriller based on actual events that's actually thrilling, see Argo.

2.5 OF 4 STARS