Friday, May 31, 2013

Catching Up With 2012: Movies

The thirteen films mentioned here each had at least one theatrical screening in the Milwaukee area in 2012, although I only caught up with them in the early months of this year. 

Anna Karenina (Joe Wright, UK, 129 min.)
Director Joe Wright brought a welcome stylistic flamboyance to the usually stuffy period drama genre with his adaptations of Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007), but those films seem like mere warm-ups for his wildly extravagant new take on Anna Karenina.  Anna (Keira Knightley) and those in her social circle behave as if life is a stage, so Wright cleverly frames the story by showing that the actors playing the roles are literally on a stage, with occasional appearances by stagehands moving props in front of obviously artificial backgrounds.  The director’s stylistic conceit is interesting, and certainly makes the film a notable formal exercise, but the deliberate abstraction also distances the viewer from the story’s emotional content, to the point that key character motivations – including even Anna’s extra-marital passions - often seem inexplicable.  B-

Casa de mi Padre (Matt Piedmont, USA, 84 min.)
This straight-faced, Spanish-language parody of Mexican melodramas finds Will Ferrell playing a young man who must save his father’s ranch from drug lords, with the incongruity of the star’s age and race in this context being pretty much the whole joke.  The movie’s sheer level of commitment to its one-note premise is impressive, but it probably would’ve worked better as a five-minute Funny or Die short than it does as a feature-length film.  C

Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman, USA, 99 min.)
Whit Stillman’s return to filmmaking after an extended absence (his last directorial credit had been for 1998’s The Last Days of Disco) is certainly distinctive.  Unfortunately it doesn’t have much to offer beyond novelty.  A group of preppy college students (headed by Greta Gerwig) lead a crusade to “rescue” other people on campus from slovenliness, poor hygiene, and depression.  The inversion of usual college movie priorities (with the snobs rather than the slobs being the protagonists this time around) is unique, but it doesn’t seem that Stillman is even attempting to make any sort of point with it.  C

The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson, New Zealand, 169 min.)
Peter Jackson has caught a lot of flak for splitting up J.R.R. Tolkien’s slim novel over three films, but it’s clear from part one that his devotion to capturing every minor element of the book (and imagining events that happen in between chapters) is less a cynical cash grab than a product of his passion for the text.  But by vividly imagining every battle that is mentioned in passing in Tolkien’s writing, Jackson loses the light comic feel of the novel and replaces it with a much less charming and more generic epic fantasy tone.  Ironically, the emphasis on action contradicts the book’s brains-over-brawn message, as even Bilbo Baggins (played well by Martin Freeman) turns into a standard sword-wielding hero during the many drawn-out melees.  This is still an above-average blockbuster film, but it’s hard to get too excited for the next two installments knowing that Gollum’s one scene from the book has already been realized.  C+

Killer Joe (William Friedkin, USA, 102 min.)
I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie as delighted with its own perversity as Killer Joe.  The second warped collaboration between playwright Tracy Letts (adapting his own play) and director William Friedkin – they’d previously worked together on 2006’s memorable Bug – is an aggressively scuzzy redneck variation on standard noir tropes, with the classy suggestiveness of classics like Double Indemnity (1946) replaced with colorful profanity, graphic violence, and what has to be the oddest sexual assault in narrative cinema since the tree rape in The Evil Dead (1981).  Killer Joe may be hard to justify morally, but there’s no denying the skill with which Letts and Friedkin simultaneously amp up the tension of the plotting and the insane raunchiness of the content, and Matthew McConaughey’s sinister portrayal of the titular hitman is one of the best performances of recent years.  B

Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik, USA, 97 min.)
It isn’t hard to see why mainstream audiences (and many critics) rejected Andrew Dominik’s follow-up to 2007’s highly regarded The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.  While the heist-gone-wrong plot is thoroughly straightforward, the movie consists almost entirely of strange digressions set against a somewhat overstated political backdrop (the action is set around the time of the 2008 U.S. presidential election).  Fortunately the rambling narrative allows for plenty of colorful dialogue delivered by a top-notch cast (James Gandolfini is particularly amusing as a highly ornery washed-up contract killer), and the unsubtle social commentary leads to a hilariously cynical abrupt ending.  The film is riveting almost in spite of its heist movie mechanics.  B

Klown (Mikkel Norgaard, Denmark, 89 min.)
Somehow this raunchy Danish comedy (touted in some publications as that nation’s answer to The Hangover franchise) has gained a cult following despite being utterly devoid of wit, charm, or interesting filmmaking.  A nerdy man (Frank Hvam) brings his girlfriend’s young nephew (Marcuz Jess Peterson) along on a decadent canoe trip with his friends in a misguided attempt to prove his potential parenting skills, leading to all types of misunderstandings as he has to keep an eye on the child while also attempting to enjoy the hedonism that his friends have planned.  The resulting humor never rises above the level of someone sticking their finger in another person’s rectum, and the tone of the film is mean-spirited beyond the misogyny expected of its subgenre.  A scene where the hapless hero is denied access to a high-class orgy might be the most tone deaf attempt at comedy in cinema history, but it’s scarcely less funny than anything else that happens in this piece of shit.  F

Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, USA, 110 min.)
The world of male strip clubs has rarely provided a backdrop for movies, so Magic Mike certainly had a good chance at being an interesting, unique film.  Reid Carolin’s script (drawn partially from the real life experiences of star Channing Tatum, who briefly worked in the trade) suggests several different potentially interesting routes into the story.  At various points the film comes off as a sort of backstage musical (with elaborate dance scenes taking the place of songs), a realistic look at a strange world that few people know about, or an allegory about America’s current economic problems.  But the film never really commits to any one point of view, and ultimately spends too much time focusing on the most generic and least interesting aspects of its story – one upstart stripper’s (Alex Pettyfer) descent into drug addiction, and his sister’s (Olivia Munn) budding romance with Tatum.  Aside from some electrifying moments of ridiculously athletic dancing, Tatum remains a wooden performer even when ostensibly playing a version of his younger self.  C

The Man with the Iron Fists (Rza, USA, 96 min.)
It was inevitable that Wu-Tang Clan mastermind Rza would eventually make a kung-fu film of his own, but it’s a shame that his obvious enthusiasm for (and deep knowledge of) the genre didn’t translate to a more enjoyable viewing experience than this sloppy pastiche.  D

The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield, USA, 100 min.)
Lauren Greenfield’s richly entertaining documentary follows a billionaire couple who are forced to deal with the American economic recession after their real estate empire collapses.  At the start of the film the family is constructing an outrageously expensive mansion modeled after Versailles, but by the end of the film their current (and already enormous) household, no longer looked after by a large maid staff, is an unruly trash pile full of discarded purchases, dog shit, and dead, forgotten pets.  Early on, when Greenfield’s camera is focusing primarily on the family’s ex-beauty queen matriarch, the film threatens to become a slightly classier variation on a Real Housewives-style reality show, but the proceedings becomes more and more morbidly engrossing as the family’s illusions about their wealth dissolve and they are increasingly forced to adapt to the circumstances of everyday life.  B

Samsara (Ron Fricke, USA, 102 min.)
Cinematographer Ron Fricke was apparently so heavily influenced by his contributions to the popular New Age documentary Koyaanisqatsi (1982) that he’s spent his entire subsequent career as a director remaking it, with diminishing returns.  His latest film features a lot of extraordinary visuals, but gets too caught up in earnestly making clumsy social statements to really capitalize on its beauty.  Sped-up images of animals at slaughterhouses lead to shots of people at mall food courts stuffing food into their mouths; shots of sex dolls precede an image of a geisha crying a single tear.  The film only embraces its surreal potential in an uncharacteristically disturbing sequence where a mime in an office building covers his face with clay and then spastically rips it apart.  C

Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh, UK, 110 min.)
Meta fiction can seem lazy and obnoxious in the wrong hands, but writer-director Martin McDonagh’s script for Seven Psychopaths is clever and entertaining enough to feel fresh.  It helps that the absurd story, involving two dogknappers (Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken) and their screenwriter friend (Colin Farrell) who get in over their heads when they kidnap a violent mobster’s (Woody Harrelson) shih tzu, is gripping in its own right, but the way that McDonagh’s dialogue allows the characters to comment on the film’s action without realizing that they are doing so provides a frequently witty extra layer of enjoyment.  There are still limitations to the approach – one character comments that the female characters in Farrell’s scripts are poorly developed as if McDonagh thought that this would excuse the one-dimensional female characterizations in his own film – but overall this is one of the more fun, smartly structured, and well-cast comedies in recent memory.  B

Sinister (Scott Derrickson, USA, 110 min.)
Writer/director Scott Derrickson’s low-key horror film is composed entirely of generic elements (faded “home video” footage, dead-eyed children, a kid whose drawings depict the ghosts that only she can see), but it’s reasonably effective all the same, with a solid lead performance by an overqualified Ethan Hawke.  C+

1 comment:

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