Friday, November 30, 2012

My Tops of 2012 - November

WRECK-IT RALPH is probably the best film about video games. The characters were lovable, the script is endless quotable, and the different animation techniques were phenomenal. One of the best of the year.

KILLER JOE was certainly an oddball. Despite a fine Matthew McConaughey, the film didn't get interesting until its controversial climax and then it just ends.

SKYFALL was quite frankly James Bond as Batman. This proved distracting to me, even if the film was really good, with exceptional cinematography and top-notch action.

A CAT IN PARIS is a cute, short animated tale. Not much else to say.

ACT OF VALOR was certainly "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare: The Motion Picture", both good and bad. I can forgive the lack of acting abilities of its cast but not the putrid script.

LINCOLN was too long-winded. Great cast, with a delightful Daniel Day Lewis and James Spader, but the speeches, monologues, soliloquies, and ice-breakers were exhausting.

SMASHED had a great Mary Elizabeth Winstead and a gamey supporting cast but its basic alcoholism tale and its drastic mood shifts from dire drama to "hilarious" indie humor made the film a flat experience.

My on-going best and worst lists will now be hidden from public view, until revealing their final cuts at the start of 2013.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Smashed - Review

I hated this film's poster. I loathed the film's trailer. How could a reportedly serious look at a couple crumbling due to their rampant alcoholism be treated as the newest LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE? Well, after seeing SMASHED, I ended up being the giant sucker. This unfortunately flat feature film by James Ponsoldt wastes an accomplished performance by its female lead to play for quirky indie laughs. Why pay attention to the lies piling up and the crushing of human souls when we can see people eat McDonald's cheeseburgers while they watch a public domain short featuring wacky hairdos?

This is a story about Kate and Charlie. They are alcoholics. Kate is an elementary school teacher while her husband Charlie is a rich little boy who stays at the house all day at his "job". Wherever they go, and even during their working hours, the two drink. Everything seems to be going fine with their habit; neither of them are falling out of love and they enjoy hanging out at bars, singing to old Nick Lowe songs. However, Kate's wavering attitude begins to buckle when she blackouts for two straight days. Her last memory of each day is a nightmarish scenario: taking crack hits with a complete stranger while driving and urinating in a public store. She wishes to stop her drinking with the help of A.A. and the encouragement of a fellow teacher/vice principal of her school. Not only does she now have to deal with her new found sobriety, she also must contend with her exasperated husband and a major lie to her boss and students that she is pregnant, in order to cover up an early vomiting incident.

This sounds like an interesting though basic tale and it should have been. It is amazingly anchored by a committed Mary Elizabeth Winstead, whose heart continues to break during Kate's lows and honest moments of clarity. She blends well with Aaron Paul as Charlie, working up a great chemistry and bonding over wine and frolicking through a broken down Santa's village. There's also the gamey supporting staff of real-life husband and wife team Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally as the vice principal and principal respectively and a cameo by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer as Kate's sponsor.

These actors craft interesting vibrations only to fall hard by the words coming out of their mouths. The "witty" humor that plagues the movie and ultimately ruins it include the greatest hits of the indies: Swearing children, drunken mothers, a happy-go-lucky music score, and hilarious slips of the tongue that stop the action and spend the rest of the scene's duration talking and analyzing about it. That last one literally kills off Offerman's character, who is given a brief lecture scene later before getting completely muted. Mullally however receives the worst of all, stuck in a crazy cat-lady position as her character embarks on showering Kate with baby parties and one to one conferences. Her dry antics are supposed to be laughed at, even though the viewer wisely knows that the bare-bones script will have this rapidly segue into a dramatic quiet scene that completely misfires. Ponsoldt seemingly wanted to showcase scenes that recall old drug exploitation films rather than have an original take, hence why you can connect the plot dots to the next disaster for Kate. All of this before a third act that just skips ahead so the film can mercifully end. A smashed ending, you might say.


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Lincoln - Review

Steven Spielberg must be very happy that his latest film will enjoy some packed houses for two months, as teachers all over the nation will sure to bring their students on a field trip to the multiplex, enjoying a good smoke break from the trials and tribulations of public service. And what a great and easy subject: the life of the 16th President of the United States of America in his last days, plus the discussion of how the 13th Amendment was adopted. Two birds with one stone for these teachers, especially since the resulting film is nothing more than a re-fried textbook told with boring pacing and decorum. LINCOLN is a satisfying movie but only as a showcase for its impressive actors. Beyond the arrogance of stuffy white politicians and the sincere speeches lies a wash of a production.

This is especially distressing considering Spielberg's own performance last year, making a one-two punch of excellent films. The audiences may have been drastically low but both THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN and WAR HORSE were exceptionally well-made works, brimming with excitement and vigor. Of the two, WAR HORSE is the likely comparison for LINCOLN: a book adaptation, world history as a backdrop, Janus Kaminski, John Williams, and Michael Kahn still being employed, etc. Yet, all you receive after sitting through two and half hours is certainly a major case of diminishing returns. The cinematography is flat; sterile shots are often bathed in an attempt to realistically replicate the period's lightning scheme, only to be constantly cloaked in darkness and a mess of greens, tans, and grays. The music is a joke; Williams has just opened his refrigerator, took out some leftovers, mixed them with other banal pieces to craft a hokey mess that is often too on-the-noise during key moments. Except for the terrible musical placement, Kahn is the only one who at least gets to show some promise, or some well necessary humor, into the proceedings with his skillfulness.

However, the problem lies directly with the script by Tony Kushner. As stated, instead of a full life story, the film focuses heavily on the President, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, as he seeks the death of both slavery and the Civil War. More attention is paid on the former action, as accepting any plea from the Confederacy first would ultimately lead to the end of any such talks of freeing black men and women. Lincoln must accomplish this arduous task all in the short window before any of the newly elected officials of the House of Representatives take their rightful seats. He, his staff, and their hired-upon cronies must flip the votes of several Democrats by any means necessary: future job propositions, moral blackmail, intimidation, or even a paid visit to their residence by the President himself. And this is not even mentioning that he also needs to keep his own Republican party in check, making concessions with those who are sympathetic to the Southern plight (Hal Holbrook's Francis Blair) and those who want the law to lead to future racial equality (Tommy Lee Jones' Thaddeus Stevens).

This sounds like a nice display of down and dirty political warfare, and it does show it on the screen. Except of course for when other subplots take over the proceedings, like Lincoln's turmoil with his wife (Sally Field) and his war-seeking son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Or for when scenes go heavily too long, usually in the form of a Lincoln story, with plenty of reaction shots of ultra-innocent, anime like eyes and wide smiles to go around. Or for when it wants to examine the lives of the other politicians. I could go on and on with how overstuffed and underwhelmed this story comes together; for every tension charged moment or funny joke, there is generic soap opera or unintelligible metaphors. The script also heavily fails at overcoming the effort to hide the "surprise" ending from the conscious viewer. I never felt like there was any such danger for Lincoln or for America. But the real tragedy is the finale; after the cathartic climax, the film just continues on with a strange set of incompatible sequences, all before one of the most weary and perplexing endings I have seen this year. I once read an article with James Marsh, the director of the absolutely stellar documentary MAN ON WIRE, who was asked why that film didn't mention the fate of the Twin Towers in the film's post-script. He stated that it would be "unfair and wrong" to mention it, considering the overall objective of the film was to tell a story that was "incredibly beautiful". Kushner and Spielberg didn't take this note when making this film.

It may stink behind the camera but up front, the acting is the movie's saving grace. From the casting stage to the film's release, all of the attention rests upon the chops of two-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis. At first, it seems that Day-Lewis isn't really doing anything spectacle or deliciously outrageous, given that he's playing a President doled in immense power during his most stressful period. Except for a few moments of powerful external roars and dark intentions, he plays the man as a high-pitched Atticus Finch, a man who lives in a world of cynicism and misery yet still wants to seek justice and peace among man. Day-Lewis expertly handles the many speeches and stories, spinning them to be real crowdpleasers, all the while making little but intriguing acting touches with his facial muscles and hands. You get the sense of why Lincoln was a great speaker and charismatic with the people, even if the viewer, and merrily one army official, may be a little tired of hearing another story in a row.

The other actors in this impressively huge ensemble all make the most of it, even if their appearances come and go with the hectic script. Any leftover awards attention has gone to Tommy Lee Jones, who is humorous as the radical Thaddeus Stevens and dispenses some of strongest rebuttals towards his spiteful opponents. I was more blissful with James Spader's role as William Bilbo, a portly braggart who puts his life on the line trying to swing the slavery votes. Ditto for David Strathairn as Chief of Staff William Seward, Lincoln's right hand man who sadly disappears or is muted halfway through. Other highlights: Lee Pace, Jackie Earle Haley, Jared Harris, and Walton Goggins. There's more to include with more detail but it might spoil some of the surprise cameos. The acting truly shines perfectly bright. Too bad the rest of the film is a jumbled up circus.


Sunday, November 4, 2012

Killer Joe - Review

Those BUG boys are at it again. Billie and Tracie have come up with another plan to adapt a play filled with delirium, alcohol, and severe amounts of violence and nudity. The boss hogs at the MPAA weren't happy with those troublemakers, so they slapped the cuffs down hard on them with a NC-17 rating. After several months pretending to be good little boys, they gave those blowhards the slip, surrendering the rating and running wild in any theaters that will accept them.

KILLER JOE is an extra crispy, Southern fried neo-noir that has more grease than meat. You sit through this William Friedkin-directed film with deliberately unlikable dumb characters and have no care for their lives. There is hardly any chance to relish the insanity, due to the slow decompressed storytelling by playwright Tracy Letts. When you are thankfully given the opportunity to do so, all bottled up in an overflowing climax, the rug is pulled and you are ordered to move on with your life.

Lifetime screw-up Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) heads to a trailer park to propose a deal to his slow-witted father (Thomas Haden Church). He was just kicked out of his mother's place after kicking her ass following revelations that she took some of his loaned-out drug supply. He needs to pay back his dealer or enjoy kissing six feet of dirt. Chris wants to hire noted dirty cop/hitman on the side Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to murder mom and collect her life insurance. When Joe's asking price and negotiations with the two lunkheads go awry, the swaggering but proper Southern gentleman counter-proposes to have Chris' messed up sister Dottie (Juno Temple) serve as a retainer until the money comes through.

The only reason to go out of your way to see this film is certainly McConaughey. He bares all, figuratively and literally, as he makes the character a whooping sensation to behold. Compared to the rest of the idiots he has to work with, all of whom are too stupid to notice they are stuck in a Billy Wilder plot, his devilish assassin/emotional manipulator is interesting and has depth. Despite being the titled character and the lead, however, McConaguhey often sits on the sidelines for more scenes of the dysfunctional redneck family. As specified earlier, there is no urge to cheer these losers on or see them succeed, despite the efforts of the actors. Once they begin to receive some harsh punishments for their crimes, the audience is treated to a mighty climax, with McConaughey menacing the hell of the peons. Without spoiling too much, let's just say that the Colonel's delicious fried chicken will never look the same. This tour-de-force gets bigger and crazier, then immediately brakes hard and stops.

That's it. Music and credits hit with a resounding thud. An odd but deliberately provoking ending, I was frankly fine with it but it sure did hellishly pissed off the other viewers, who practically laid Bigfoot-sized prints into the recently soda-soaked rug as they stormed off, returning to their life in the urban wilderness. As I walked outside my local art theater, I looked to the side and grinned from ear to ear. I completely forgot that a badly managed, obnoxiously orange KFC was next door.


Friday, November 2, 2012

Wreck-It Ralph - Review

WRECK-IT RALPH surely is the greatest film to ever feature Skrillex. First off, a song from the music industry's favorite dubstep enthusiast features into the animated feature: an extremely hectic beat-pounding pulse called "Bug Rush", which excellently matches with a sequence of sci-fi violence and goofy pratfalls. Secondly, and more importantly, the electronica composer with the weird long hair mohawk actually is featured into the plot, somehow made from computer coding to be the guest DJ to an anniversary party inside an arcade cabinet. He must have done this gig just for the money, since Skrillex lays Kool & the Gang's "Celebration" on to the turntables for the gullible backward-thinking 80's video game characters. Or, he did it to get the chance to hang out with Pac-Man over some shrimp cocktails and martinis.

This film is so full of pulling oddball surprises on to the viewer. Even when the comedy follows the kids' film road-map of cliches, such as exclamations about excrement, the jokes go into different turns of emotion responses, from anti-humor to heartfelt. It doesn't even rely on coasting by with just video game humor, though the in-jokes are fantastically hilarious for any avid gamer. The makers knew that the story needs to strike a chord beyond all of the pixels, control-sticks, and whatever famous game characters they can acquire for cameos. WRECK-IT RALPH does this, making for one of absolute best films of the year.

John C. Reilly is given the arduous task of playing a man who is doomed to forever live in the shadows instead of the spotlight. The character actor voices the titled character, a Donkey Kong-inspired goon who spends every day of his arcade life wrecking a video game tower until the player and the hero Fix-It Felix Jr. save the day with the power of a repairing hammer. After thirty years of constant plunges off rooftops, living in a garbage dump of bricks, and sucking up quarters, the bad guy does not want to be the bad guy anymore. Since respect comes from an awarded golden medal in his game, Ralph decides to jump into other games to find one. Of course, his actions bring forth many dangers, such as the hardcore one life policy once a character ventures outside their personal control boards. He tangles up all of the foreign lands he enters, causing dangerous environmental changes, all the while leaving his own game at the risk of being "unplugged" and forever destroyed.

I know I'm making a big deal explaining this simple TOY STORY-like story with highly broad terms but that's just how effective the film had on myself, filling me with uncontrollable glee and rapture. Similar to the also amazingly animated PARANORMAN, it stresses the message of acceptance and being proud of oneself instead of what others think of you. Ralph doesn't have to carry this heavyweight moral by himself, getting needed support from his sidekick Vanellope von Schweetz, the Bugs Bunny to his Elmer Fudd. This darling orphan with messy candy-sticking hair, voiced by comedian Sarah Silverman, is a glitched character in the world of "Sugar Rush", a Mario Kart racing game overflowing with sugary delights and candy citizens. She is dubbed "a mistake", a person whose existence is despised by the shallow racers due to her ability to send the arcade game into repairs if she were to participate in the racing. Both find some comfort and camaraderie within one another, while hiding away from the donut policemen and their Devil Dogs sent out by the Snagglepuss-sounding King Candy (Alan Tudyk). They are certainly the warmth of the film, which eventually escalates to a predictable but shockingly heartbreaking moment that might lead you to tears.

It's quite obvious that Reilly's performance is to be the most underrated of the film. As the endearing hobo-looking "villain", he always comes off as a charming hero-in-training, highlighted significantly in the great climax. Silverman does wonder with a performance that could have ruined the viewer's ears; Vanellope's sweet-turned-screeching voice never feels out of place, matching up with the plucky attitude the character has amid a harsh community. The ones who steal the show of course have to be the "heroes"; Jack McBrayer plays the Mario-like Felix Jr. as the generic, righteous and polite protagonist he is supposed to exude. The guy always look on the bright side of life, jumping and bouncing along, never able to feel or have a negative thought. He often plays off the reactions of Sergeant Calhoun, a tough Samus-meets-Master Chief female space warrior from a light-gun game called "Hero's Duty". Voiced by the always pleasurable Jane Lynch, she spouts out boisterous action quips ("Doomsday and Armageddon just had a baby!") while harboring "the most tragic back story ever programmed". These two have the best interplays together, including one of the funniest gags of the entire film, and were clearly the favorites of the animators.

Rich Moore, an animated television journeyman known for his work on Matt Groening-created shows, makes an excellent entrance into the world of film directing. Coupled with the script from Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston, they craft an unique take on the ever-popular "video games are real" scenario. The details are so incredibly striking, from the different animations and textures the characters have (beings from the 80's move with sprite tics, newer games have high definition models) to the set-pieces and backgrounds (the arcade connecting hub world is a surge protector turned train station, windows and food spills are pixelated) to the brief moments in the real world (attendance at the arcade is way down, unwashed dweebs hog up the big games with a roll of quarters). The worlds each have their own special designs but due to probable budget reasons, the bulk of the story takes place solely in "Sugar Rush".

I could find only a few faults with the film. There are a lot, a lot of puns in the punchlines, somehow able to actually spark laughter instead of inciting bitter anger. The problem is this love of puns backfires a major dramatic side of the picture: Throughout the film, the word "turbo" is used as slang, referring to someone who is so fueled by their immense pride that he/she will deliberately glitch out another game due to their neglect. This term is first used by M. Bison, a character from the Street Fighter games, a series that had a major sequel called Super Street Fighter II Turbo. The slight chuckle it spawned turned into slight confusion for myself when the term continued to be used seriously. This is only a super nerdy problem for the hardcore video game fans, though, as others will never have to think twice. However, everyone will notice the odd product placement; I can forgive the appearances of Mentos and Nesquik but the random stare at a Subway cup is sheer dumb. It is really bewildering that Disney needed to resort to these tactics, even though the creators work around them into the proceedings.

I have exalted WRECK-IT RALPH for so long now, I think you get that the picture is an attractive engagement for anyone. There is only a few things left to speak about: the film's music is suitable and appropriate but the encore credits song "Sugar Rush", performed by the humongous Japanese girl group AKB48, is a real hidden treat. The film comes with a Disney short called Paperman. The animation is intriguing (a combination of hand-drawn and computer) and the SCHINDLER'S LIST color scheme is fun but the cute love story is sadly better suited for a television commercial. Also, if you call yourself a true gamer, you will stay for the humorous stinger.