Sunday, December 30, 2012

My Year at the Movies 2012: Highlights

This year I went to the movies 91 times to see 83 different films in theaters on Cape Cod as well as in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. Here are some of the highlights from those big screen experiences.

1. Prometheus

Every year needs a sci-fi event, and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus came the closest. Yes, the film has flaws, but it’s my favorite movie of the year. Why? Because I’ve always been fascinated by the Alien saga, and this film provides a worthy introduction to those creature features, with the strengths of Fassbender’s performance as a free-thinking android; Ridley Scott’s flair for memorable visuals; and the always gripping med-pod scene, in which a machine does an emergency caesarian on Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) in order to extract one of those nasty beasties that love to incubate inside nice warm human bodies.

2. Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell in The Master

The film as a whole may wander back to where it began, but Phoenix’s solidly quirky performance as Freddie Quell grounds the film in the kind of quality filmmaking we expect from Anderson. Within this year's body of films full of characters from novels, musicals, or previous films, the character of Freddie Quell is the best original creation of the year.

3. Kara Hayward as Suzy in Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson delivers a whimsical, thoroughly enchanting entertainment about the innocent young love on the run from disapproving adults and an impending storm. Some moments don’t quite work as well as others, but the performances of Gilman and Hayward as the oddball young lovers are always spot on in the emotions they evoke. Suzy, the free-spirited but tightly oppressed rebel who runs away from home with her young admirer, Sam, is the film’s most touching creation, her delivery toneless but her depth always there. Suzy is my favorite film character of the year.

4. The USS Missouri in Battleship

Admittedly, it’s kind of embarrassing to say that one of my favorite films of the year is produced by Hasbro, maker of the game from which this film gets its title and its main premise, but Battleship turned out to be one of the most entertaining action movies of the year. On DVD, I found myself watching it repeatedly and preferring it, as an action movie, to The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall. I'd much rather watch Battleship again than revisit The Avengers or The Amazing Spider-Man. Those films have too much flitting CGI going on; Battleship focuses narrowly on a single ship pitted against alien watercraft. The film has rousing action and lots of sci-fi aliens and contraptions for sci-fi geeks, but it also has the great moment when the old World War II battleship steams round Diamond Head to do battle with the big bad alien machine. Boom!

5. The Words: A Story Within a Story Within a Story

Yeah, it’s got Bradley Cooper, but this film was my favorite story of the year; it combines what plays like an autobiographical Hemingway short story set in post-WWII Paris within the story of a struggling present-day writer (Cooper) within the story of a successful novelist (Dennis Quaid) speaking about his latest bestseller and coming on to a young admirer (Olivia Wilde – a plus for any movie). The film portrays the publishing world realistically and has one of the best scenes depicting the act of writing since Yuri penned poetry in his frozen study in Doctor Zhivago.

6. The Multiple Lives of Cloud Atlas.

Read the book. It’s better. But I applaud this imaginative film for its creative ambition, and much of it works with thought-provoking drama. Tom Hanks and the use of a core of performers in hyperbolic makeup are regrettable choices, but the film delivers much to look at and lots of suspense achieved by masterful editing between stories that range in time from the 1850s to a distant post-apocalyptic future.

7. Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln in Lincoln

Day-Lewis does a wonderful job of portraying Lincoln as folksy spinner of yarns, tender-hearted father, and shrewd politician, in a film made uneven and not always dramatic due to its focus on endless House debates and political rivalry. The film is definitely about Lincoln when Day-Lewis is on screen, but the film as a whole should be called The Thirteenth Amendment: A History Lesson.

8. The Cold and Grey: The Grey

Liam Neeson stars in a suspenseful, raw outdoor adventure that plays like an updated Jack London short story: survivors of an airplane crash are tracked and taken down one by one by a pack of wolves. Suitably, the film makes you feel cold, and the terror of the wolves builds throughout the film. In one great image, the vapor rises in the night air from the mouths of many howling wolves. In another memorable image, Neeson, wet and freezing, gets ready for a hand-to-claw finish-fight with the wolf pack leader.

9. Horse Fall in Anna Karenina

In this visually splendid but ultimately flat depiction of Anna’s illicit passion, Joe Wright presents the story as a stage drama – sometimes as a play within a play – and the calamitous horse race in which Vronsky and horse plummet from stage to audience is a dramatically shocking moment.

10. Edgar Rice Burroughs's Star Wars: John Carter

I've always loved the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs - a collection of three of his Barsoom (Mars) novels was one of the first paperbacks I owned - and I'm a sucker for adventure. This movie has battles on land and in the air; four-armed alien desert tribesmen; savage monsters and faithful creatures; a brawny sword-wielding hero and a ravishing sword-wielding maiden. Just like Star Wars! Hey, and if Burroughs wrote his books in the early 1900s, I wonder where Lucas got some of his ideas!

11. The Best On Demand: The Hunter

Though I saw 80 2012 movies in theaters this year, there were some I saw On Demand because there was no hope of their coming to Cape Cod: The Hunter, Bel Ami, Arbitrage, The Bay, The Loneliest Planet, and Deadfall.

Of these films, The Hunter stands out for its unique story: a contract mercenary is hired by a drug corporation to hunt down the last remaining Tasmanian tiger. More than that, it stands out for the most memorable cinematography of the year: raw, moody images of Tasmanian wilderness that looks like the terrain of an alien planet. But it's real! No CGI!

12. The Best of 2011 Late Releases: Coriolanus (2011)

This tremendously gripping and relentlessly bloody adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy features wonderful performances by Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Jessica Chastain, and Vanessa Redgrave, who steals the show whenever she is on screen. Set in a war-torn circa 1990s Balkans state, the film seamlessly stages Shakespeare's lines as CNN news reports; it's amazing how the lines fit! And the drama of Coriolanus's excessive pride and his betrayal of his country is riveting.

13. A Few Trusty Little Movies:

Finally, amidst the onslaught of bloated CGI super-hero movies, amidst a familiar sea of sequels, prequels, and remakes, a number of littler films stood out by delivering original stories and solid entertainment. We can all pay tribute to the modest films that came through for each of us personally amidst the dreck. For me, some of those films were Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, for the touching chemistry between Steve Carell and Keira Knightley; Safety Not Guaranteed for its bizarre story and the affecting relationship that grows between Darius (Aubrey Plaza), a wannabe journalist, and Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a regretful loner building a time machine in order to make up for the past; and Chasing Mavericks for its exhilarating surfing scenes and its tremendous cinematography of massive waves off Half Moon Bay, California.

Note: The above image is the Landmark E Street Cinema in Washington, D.C., where, over the past eight years, I have seen many movies during my yearly visit to D.C. to take in the sights and see movies with my nephew, Jason Bellamy, a moviegoer whose passion for seeing movies in theaters equals my own incurable obsession for the widescreen cinematic image; a Terrence Malick fan willing to meet me in New York City to see The Tree of Life on opening weekend - twice; an accomplished and perceptive film observer and writer; and a prolific correspondent and fun-loving friend who keeps me seeing the wonder even during the hardest of times.

14. Here is a list of the movies I saw this year in theaters, most of them 2012 releases, some of them 2011 releases, a couple of them 3D re-releases:

The Devil Within, Contraband, Red Tails, The Grey, Man on a Ledge, The Lady in Black, Chronicle, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, A Separation, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, Act of Valor, The Secret Life of Arrietty, We Need to Talk About Kevin, John Carter, Silent House, The Hunger Games, Wrath of the Titans, 21 Jump Street, Titanic, The Cabin in the Woods, Lockout, Coriolanus, The Lucky One, The Deep Blue Sea, Chimpanzee, The Raven, The Avengers, Dark Shadows, Battleship, Chernobyl Diaries, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Snow White and the Huntsman, Prometheus, Moonrise Kingdom, Brave, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Your Sister’s Sister, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Safety Not Guaranteed, Katy Perry: Part of Me, The Amazing Spider-Man, To Rome with Love, The Dark Knight Rises, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Total Recall, Hope Springs, The Bourne Legacy, Premium Rush, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, Take This Waltz, Lawless, The Possession, Killer Joe, The Words, The Master, End of Watch, Looper, Frankenweenie, Taken 2, Argo, Sinister, The Eye of the Storm, Paranormal Activity 4, Cloud Atlas, Flight, Chasing Mavericks, Skyfall, Pitch Perfect, Lincoln, Breaking Dawn Part 2, Red Dawn, Life of Pi, Anna Karenina, Killing Them Softly, The Sessions, Playing for Keeps, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Jack Reacher, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, This Is 40

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Tarantino Goes South: Django Unchained

When Quentin Tarantino opens his new film, Django Unchained, with a shot of the Alabama Hills badlands emblazoned with the lurid red letting of the main title, immediately reminiscent of the many Westerns filmed in that very location, notably the Randolph Scott Westerns of Budd Boetticher, I felt a thrill of anticipation, wondering where Tarantino might be taking us this time as he blends two late 60s, early 70s genres: the less innocent Westerns influenced by Sam Peckinpah and the outrageously violent, racially charged Blaxploitation flick. Tarantino’s Southern/Western/Blaxploitation film is, appropriately, a revenge tale in which Dr. King (I get it, Quentin) Schultz, a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) and Django, a liberated slave (Jamie Foxx) work together as bounty hunters and later set out to rescue Django’s enslaved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from bondage.

Although slow and sometimes ponderous, the film’s episodic, picaresque first half works fairly well. Schultz frees Django, uses him to track down wanted men, eludes and obliterates a posse of hooded racists in a momentarily spectacular mock up of The Birth of a Nation, and transforms his bitter protégé into a bounty hunter in a snowy scene reminiscent of Little Big Man and Jeremiah Johnson.

Already overwrought in its depiction of violence accented by exploding slabs of flesh and geysers of blood, the film goes South in its second half in more ways than one. In Mississippi, Schultz and Django meet Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), trainer of gladiatorial “Mandingo” fighters (so called in an allusion to the 1975 Southern plantation film Mandingo) and the owner of Broomhilda. At times engaging, as mesmerizing as a swamp snake, Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Candie quickly wears thin in this long, latter part of the film that features one long dialogue after another. If you see a table, characters sit around it and lengthy dialogue ensues, but it is dialogue that is rarely engaging and never builds tension as Tarantino so masterfully did in Inglourious Basterds. For the most part, Waltz drives the film in his role as the articulate German bounty hunter, a clever redemptive twist on his Jew hunter role in Basterds, but it is a long film to carry. Eventually Waltz’s performance weakens under the load, and the endless dialogue sags like a slave-catching bloodhound’s drooping jowls.

This half of the Django Unchained is the lurid slavery half, with grainy footage appropriate to a low-budget 70s film. A runaway slave is torn apart by dogs. We see whippings and brandings. We see slaves shackled with bits and collars. In the film’s most serious moment, we see a naked Broomhilda released from a hot box and carted away in a wheelbarrow. Yes, as Quentin shows us, slavery was horrendous, but any gravity Tarantino achieves is swallowed up by heavy-handed, self-indulgent ridiculousness. And if the film starts to wobble when Schultz and Django meet up with Candie, it falls flat on its face when Tarantino appears on screen in a jarringly bad cameo as an inept slave catcher who gets blown to bits, as though Tarantino realizes subconsciously that he deserves such a fate.

I don’t care how Tarantino alludes to other films, and his own films, how he toys with genres and boldly depicts the horror of slavery and interjects his little jokes. I get the ironic twists (Samuel L. Jackson as a white-haired Uncle Tom). Ultimately, however, it all adds up to one of the worst films of the year, a bloated bag of ineffectual performances and uninteresting writing.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

"The play's the thing": Joe Wright's Anna Karenina

Shakespeare certainly liked to draw attention to his own stagecraft. O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend/ The brightest heaven of invention.” He saw the theater as an apt little world that paralleled everything going on in the larger world outside. All the world’s a stage/ And all the men and women merely players. The stage was always a useful metaphor. When we are born, we cry that we are come/ To this great stage of fools. Cleverly, he uses a play within a play to dramatize the conflicts in Hamlet. The play’s the thing/ Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.

Nifty, but I wonder if Shakespeare’s critics got on his back for drawing too much attention to his own devices. Not likely. Nothing seems to get in the way of Shakespeare’s drama, which is not always true of Joe Wright’s staging of Anna Karenina, in which most of the scenes are enacted upon actual stages.

When Wright’s conceit works, it works well. In my favorite cut, Anna’s son plays with his trains on a huge diorama of a snowy countryside, and as the train (electric trains in the 1870s?) moves along the tracks, it becomes the train that Anna is riding on. Here, the train compartment is an obvious staging with windows painted with ice, but the toy train has established the scene’s realism. This is also a wonderful transition, and a nostalgic allusion to all those old films that employed model trains in place of real ones.

The staging of the grand ball as a scene in a play is initially thrilling, though it goes on for too long. We quickly get the smoldering passion between Anna (Keira Knightley) and Count Alexei Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). They achieve a lot of that just with their eyes, and the ritualistic hand and arm movements quickly lose their effect. Less would have been more in this episode. More dramatically effective is the horse race in which the audience on one stage watches the horse race on another stage. When Vronsky’s horse falls from the track into the audience, It is transformed from a claustrophobic tableau into the film’s most shocking image.

At other times, especially in his manipulation of his extras, Wright lets his staging get in the way. At first, the strictly choreographed office workers stamping documents establish an ominous Kafkaesque bureaucracy, but when this goes on too long, the choreography becomes silly. Silly, too, is the servant who walks a full circle around Oblonsky (Matthew Mcfadyen) each time he hands him what he needs. Meaning can be construed in all of this, but at times I felt I wanted more of Anna and Vronsky, definitely more of Keira Knightley, whose talent for being radiant, desirable, and full of hot passion reminded me of Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago, especially when Knightley wears the ubiquitous fur hat and collar all Russian beauties wear.

I was not always dazzled by Wright’s staging of Anna Karenina, but I enjoyed many moments. The story is slow to start – too much Oblonsky in the beginning – and the ending could have been more dramatic. The staging is interesting, though when Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) takes us out into the sprawling Russian countryside, I found myself wishing the film had employed more exteriors to counterbalance the claustrophobia of the interiors in which characters enact their dramas amidst backstage pulleys and props. To be fair, however, it is easy to see how the cluttered interiors are appropriate to a story about what goes on in the confines of urban Russian society as well as within the confines of Anna's heart.

In the film’s impressive final image, Levin’s rural Russia is framed as a backdrop on a stage in a theater sprouting wheat. I’m not sure what it means, but it’s a nice image. Perhaps it means that Levin’s Russia is the real Russia, and Russian high society is “a great stage of fools.” Similarly, Anna Karenina provides moments of drama and clever imagery, but some of this gets smothered by the confines of the device.