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No Escape

Thoroughly in one ear and out the other.
Directed by John Erick Dowdle, whose previous credits include the likes of Devil and As Above, So Below (Now there's a track record that gives faith), this film seemed to come virtually out of nowhere with little advertising even a week before its release, perhaps making one fear that its distributor, The Weinstein Company, don't have much confidence in it. So it's with a heavy heart that I can say that there's a reason for that.

Admittedly, there's quite a bit of the film that has potential. With social outburst and riots at escalating tensions, the relevance of the topic does open it up to interesting commentary. I think I like the ideas of the film more than I do the execution, which doesn't give them the necessary expansion that they deserve. Overly simplifying its topics and barely even scratching the surface with them, such as its nondescript setting and the hardly touched upon backhanded business practices that generate much of the film's events, the film for the most part eschews more interesting material in favor of more direct focus on the lead family, struggling to survive a conflict that they barely understand. That also affects the crowds of locals, most of which are painted as easy villains with completely one note characterizations, rather than the film convincingly humanize them like a superior film like Captain Phillips would.

However, even as a simple survival thriller, the film is still not a success. Given Dowdle's roots in suspense and horror, I can absolutely see why he would be drawn to a project like this, and he does make some admittedly creative decisions, even if they make no sense upon reflection. An opening scene shot mostly in one continuous take gives the film roots reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock, complete with a 60's style title card, but barely registers or fits in with the rest of the film that follows. Other choices that hinder his movie are a reliance on numerous slow-motion shots that often contribute unintentional hilarity to the experience. The overall ambiance and attention to detail can sometimes be impressive, in some instances not so subtly reminding me of The Last of Us, but without much substance to it, it all appears as flash without real meat.

The more family centric elements are where most of Dowdle's attention is devoted, but they fail to generate much suspense given that, over the course of the film, we come to learn very little things about them. Most of their "development" is dedicated to throwaway lines that, once again, the film barely expands upon, saddling a talented cast with weak material. Back story aside, developments later in the story, in which they become more animalistic and deadly in their means of survival, hardly get much exposure or reflection, though to give some of them away would spoil a bit. There's also an attempt to liven the mood around them with brief comic relief, with some of it being effective, but others can become more ridiculous than alleviating, including one bit character obsessed with Kenny Rogers, as well as the rooftop scene in the trailers with Owen Wilson chattering about getting his daughter a dog before hurling her to the adjacent rooftop mid-sentence. Some decisions don't even need comedic roots to be utterly stupid, including one scene where that same daughter is forced to urinate in her own pants while the family hides in some rubble. I'm not kidding.

With the sloppy material at their hands, the actors are then forced to somehow make it work, with some being successful enough. Owen Wilson wouldn't seem like the ideal man to play a role like this, but I find him likable and engaging enough for much of the film. He puts a lot more effort into this paper thin character than it perhaps deserves, and does have his emotions and heart in the right place. It makes me curious to see him in more dramatic fare. Lake Bell is less impressive as his wife, but still contributes some serviceable work. That's more than I can say for Pierce Brosnan. At first, this does seem like a refreshing change of pace from the Bond-Lite style performance he's specialized in since Die Another Day, but his alcoholic CIA operative is a mostly phoned in performance, appearing obnoxiously comical in the first act and completely disappearing until being shoehorned into the film's final stretches.

Mostly, the film is just plain boring. It's thoroughly in one ear and out the other the moment you step out of the theater. It's shocking just how little the film ultimately impacts you. With all that said, do I think it's a bad film? Yes. Is it among the worst of the year? Not even close. It's more stale and forgettable than outright offensive as some of the worst movies I've watched this year. There are at least some decent things about it, and things I want to like about it, but a project like this needed more capable hands.

Jupiter Ascending

A misfire in every sense of the word.
There really are no directors like The Wachowski's, and ever since their surprise smash hit with The Matrix, the good will towards their names never seem to stop. It's actually surprising considering how the two are always able to secure elaborate mega-budgets, and yet a lot of their movies, original in concept but out of control and utterly strange in execution, feel like wastes of those budgets. That said, even when their movies are terrible, they don't strike out as much as they create fascinating misfires that can be enjoyed in their own right. Their track record is flimsy, but I'd say their only total failure is The Matrix Revolutions.

As for Jupiter Ascending, I feel genuinely terrible for criticizing it, as I respect the vision here. This is an ode to every epic space opera the filmmakers have ever loved, and it's clear a lot of painstaking detail has gone into it. There's some admitted creativity with how the two are always trying to pull the rug out from the viewer, but it does so at the cost of coherence. The film feels like a two hour compilation of a full season TV show, dropping numerous plot threads and characters just as quickly as they're established, and serve little to no actual purpose to the main narrative. It also seems designed as an alternative to the string of Young Adult novel adaptations, but ironically ends up becoming exactly like one of those movies, simplifying the characters, skimping out on necessary exposition, and leaving this entire universe to operate on whatever logic it feels like at the time.

On top of that, it's burdened with some of the worst acting I've seen this year. As Channing Tatum is forced to play straight faced and charmless and Eddie Redmayne consistently mumbles in monotone whispers, they're both forced to pick up the slack for Mila Kunis' passive and needy damsel in distress. By the time a major action set piece between enemy ships finally takes place 25 minutes through, this film has genuinely given me no reason to care.

That said, it's a film whose craft can be admired where the story can't be. The visual effects are beautiful, the sound is creative (even if that random dog barking gun effect is annoying), and Michael Giacchino pays glorious tribute to every classic Sci-Fi score he's ever loved. Outside of those bright spots, though, this is another interesting misfire from the directing duo, but a bad movie by any other name is still a bad movie.

Escape from Tomorrow

What the hell?
You ever wonder what it would be like if Terrence Malick vacationed in Walt Disney World, drank moonshine and had an acid flashback while on It's A Small World, and then immediately afterwards stared at Spaceship Earth while a bunch of kids ran by? That's pretty much this film.

I like the idea of the film fine, and it's cool to see all the little areas in Walt Disney World that I know so well (I may have been in this film and not even known it), but the film gets lost in its own thematic context. Is it's message that our instabilities will follow us even in so-called safe havens? Is it a pandemic allegory? Is it a sexuality parable? Not that it can't be all of those, but I don't think even the movie knows what it's talking about.

Beyond that, the film is positively horrendous, with laughable attempts at psychological terror and ambiguity, unbearable dialogue and acting, groan inducing imagery (Don't make me mention the Siemens "semen"), amateurish photography and editing (which I do still understand given the film's shooting circumstances), appalling special effects, ear grating music choices, and structuring so incompetent, it can't even keep its own locations straight. If the movie is taking place in Disney World, WHY ARE YOU ALSO JUMPING TO DISNEYLAND FOOTAGE?! I could spend hours picking apart the geographical errors alone, but that's secondary at this point. Escape From Tomorrow is a classic example that it doesn't matter how original your story is if the actual execution (which should matter above all else) is awful.

Video Games: The Movie

Quite the disappointment.
On the one hand, I love the film's concepts fine. Video games are an incredible medium (one that outshines even cinema) with such fascinating history behind them, and the evolution of the gaming business and community on screen is quite wonderful. It says something about what a great artform it is that it brings so many people from different walks of life together, and even goes so far as to create lasting friendships and marriages. We may not realize, but sometimes, those seemingly insignificant connections we have create all the difference in the world.

However, that's the extant of the film's great qualities, and the overall film is not as interesting, or too engaging to the uninitiated. The film is built firmly on nostalgia and fond recognizability, especially during frequent and awkward montages, and something like that can't sustain an entire film. It wants to show us a comprehensive history of video gaming culture, but suffers from disjointed time jumps, and the fact that the film constantly throws interesting facts at us, yet seldom does it ever expand on them. It practically rushes through the crash of 1983 in maybe three minutes, and glosses over evolutions like the early rise of third-party developers and the indie gaming scene (Although, Indie Game: The Movie provides a much more expansive detailing of that very subject). There's so much potential in this film that it sadly never realizes. I realize there has to be a point where you have to make tough choices of what to show, but it really does just fall into an "Aren't video games great" showcase.

If you're looking for a nostalgic kickback, you should enjoy yourself fine, but if you want a much more comprehensive rundown of video gaming history, you'd be better suited reading various books, or watching Machinima's "All Your History Are Belong To Us" series of YouTube videos.

A Most Wanted Man

A masterful swan song for Philip Seymour Hoffman.
One thing I love about John Le Carre adaptations is how they manage to take such deceptively mundane situations, and manage to wring so much suspense out of them. The movie goes through so many unexpected twists, and creates such a wonderful slow-burn of events that will keep you locked to the screen.

If there's any one complaint I have, it's that the acting ranges from fantastic, to Rachel McAdams. I'm sorry, but she is just awful in this film. Her accent frequently slips (German, American, German, British, American, etc.), she doesn't command much presence, and she is just miscast and out of place altogether. I could see someone like Diane Kruger in this role, but not Rachel frigging McAdams. She feels especially out of place when placed alongside a titan like Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Speaking of which, Hoffman is just as controlled and chameleon-like as he has ever been. One thing I especially love about his performance is how subtle, yet commanding it's played. He rarely raises his voice, he has no "Oscar clip" moments, he plays it quietly, and yet you still believe that this one man possess incredible authority, and never lets his composure break unless by design. In many ways, it's a classic example of an internal struggle. The very last scene of the film where you see his expression, defeated and guilt- ridden, is one of the most powerful scenes I've seen this year. It's a shame Hoffman never got to continue giving more performances of this caliber, and he surely showed no signs of slowing down up to his tragic passing. If nothing else, we can still be glad that he left us with one of his finest works.

The Counselor

Another blunder for Ridley Scott.
I admire Ridley Scott as much as the next guy. He's great with actors and he's a great visual artist, but if there's one vice he suffers from, it's this. Scott has a penchant for picking bad scripts to film. He's *always* been wildly inconsistent with that, not merely in his last ten years, and in plenty of non-negligible cases, has had to go so far as to use his direction to mask the flaws of the writing. This was especially the case for films like Hannibal, 1492, Legend, A Good Year, and the notorious plot holes of Prometheus. I respect him for always trying to stretch his versatility, but his scripts don't do his strengths justice, and his last decade alone has been even patchier than Tim Burton's.

The reason I say that is because The Counselor is yet another example of this. I know Cormac McCarthy is a great author (in fact, he wrote my favorite book, No Country for Old Men), but what makes him great in literature doesn't make him so in cinema. His script feels like it was originally meant for a book but trimmed for the screen, and it shows. The film expects us to immediately accept the reality of the situation, shorting us on crucial details behind the relationships of characters, something that even the awkward exposition can't fix. These characters are so middlingly established that I simply can't care about them. Another indication that it was meant for the page is that the script is incredibly busy and needlessly convoluted. It feels like several different movies are going on at once with nothing tying them together, and full of elements that go absolutely nowhere. As a book, this could be easily expanded upon and you could get away with this kind of busy structure, but in film, it's talky, dull, and loaded with redundancy (We get it, Cormac, actions have consequences). That even extends into the visuals with repeated imagery of cheetahs, no doubt to foreshadow the hungry predators about to descend upon the unwary prey of main characters... SYMBOLISM!

Ridley Scott is trying his best to wrangle it all together, but no matter how hard he tries, he just can't generate any suspense from this film, and one of the only good scenes is setting up the wire on the road, because it's one of the few moments with no unneeded dialogue. There's too few of those tense moments present in the film, and despite the best efforts of the cast members, great actors can only elevate bad material so much (none dumber and more horrendous than Cameron Diaz screwing a car), and it makes for yet another blunder for Scott.

Lo imposible

Very emotional, visceral, and intense, this one hits hard.
Based on true events, The Impossible centers on a family on vacation in Thailand, whose lives are affected after they're all separated by the tsunami that struck the land in December of 2004. Through the eyes of this family, we're witness to all the devastation and heartbreak surrounding this catastrophe, all gritty to the point that makes it hard to watch at points, although some of that may be the shaky cam as well. The whole cast is great, Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor specifically giving some of the best performances of their careers, pouring out so much sincere emotion. On a visceral level, on an emotional level, it hits HARD. Not only does it hit, it practically delivers a punch to the gut. If you can stomach the bloody material, you owe it to yourself to see this undervalued gem.

**** / *****

The Imposter

The main figure of this movie is very fascinating.
Constantly unsettling, but impossible to switch off once started, The Imposter is a slow burning, but intense documentary that looks into the case of Nicholas Barclay, who went missing in 1994, but was thought to have been found in 1997, unbeknownst to many that he was someone else entirely. The Imposter sets itself apart with the presentation of interviews with reenactments interspersed, both a fascinating and distracting stylistic approach. Still, the strength of the subject material is all so gripping, slowly evolving from simple stolen identity to conspiracy mystery. Specifically, the main subject (whose real name I won't reveal) is a fascinating person. Whether or not anything that he says is actually true, he is a very interesting individual. It's the kind of documentary that makes you question so called "facts".

**** / *****


It's formulaic, but sincere.
Inspired by a true story, The Intouchables follows the friendship between a rich man paralyzed from the neck down, and the man who aids him in his daily life.

The story itself is not overly special, and it's been done better many times before, but the movie rises above the mostly standard quality thanks mainly to the rich chemistry between the two lead actors. Their interactions are strong, humorous, and sincere, much to the film's benefit. It's a feel good movie, and just as enjoyable as a feel good movie can be.

**** / *****


Barely taps into why Hitchcock is so interesting in the first place.
With credits full of the most enviable thrillers of all time, it's no wonder why Alfred Hitchcock has always been seen as the master of suspense. In Sacha Gervasi's Hitchcock, we see the man facing troubles with his wife Alma. At the same time, he's in action shooting his now oft regarded best film, Psycho.

Hitchcock is fairly enjoyable, but pretty average. One of the two main flaws is that the movie lacks rhythm, and the other is how dry and almost passive it comes across. The movie's attempts at comic relief miss a whole lot more than they hit. What's even more disappointing is how flat Hitch, himself, is, barely tapping into what should be a fascinating personality. While Anthony Hopkins is good, it's ironic that Hitchcock should be overshadowed by his own wife, played by the wonderful Helen Mirren. The makeup designed by Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero (both of The Walking Dead fame) is one of the few excellent qualities in this movie.

**1/2 / *****

In film nist

Simple, but oh so fascinating.
You may or may not know the recent struggles of Iranian film maker Jafar Panahi. In 2010, he was arrested for alleged propaganda against the Islamic Republic, set to serve a prison sentence for six years, and banned from contributing to any movie for 20 years.

Strictly speaking, This is Not a Film isn't legal. The film was shot entirely by him and friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb. Chronicling a day in the life of Panahi, the film is a strong, bold, witty commentary on oppression of creativity and freedom of speech. There's not terribly much of a narrative, considering the simple presentation, but that doesn't make the footage any less powerful in Panahi's self-expression. It's even bolder considering it was smuggled out of the country through a hidden flash drive. Simple, yet oh so entertaining.

**** / *****

Life of Pi

A mess of a narrative, but a beauty of visual art.
Often considered a book to be ultimately unfilmable, Ang Lee faced a struggle in adapting Life of Pi. Was he successful? Well, anyway, the movie follows young Pi Patel, the lone survivor of a ship sinking, trapped for a long time on a lifeboat with a Bengal Tiger as his companion. The film highlights some weighty and thought provoking issues of faith and religion, taking a bold road rarely seen in family films. It does sound like something that would work well in the script's favor, but then I have to back up and remind myself that the narrative is uneven, diminishing the emotional impact that should be felt, and the narration and present day sequences overstay their welcome.

To be fair, for a movie that spends half the time on a boat with only a young boy and tiger on screen, Life of Pi is still a decent movie to watch. No one can accuse Ang Lee of not knowing what he wanted this film to be, for his direction is the movie's strongest point. Lee is the proper example of a director fully confidant and in control of his own vision, so I do respect the film more than I actually liked it. If nothing else, we can all marvel at the visual aspects, which are quite enchanting, if at times a wee bit too obvious.

*** / *****

En kongelig affære

Strong, superbly acted, and actually quite smart drama.
Denmark's recent nominee for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film didn't really have me too eager to see it. Before watching it, I would have mistakenly written it off as just another stuffy and self-important costume drama, but after seeing it, that would have been a disservice. Granted, it is a bit stuffy, and they could have picked up the pace, but this is still quite the elegant, competently filmed and produced period piece set within 18th century Denmark, in which the queen is involved in a love triangle with the king and a doctor, while the king is fighting for new laws of liberation in the country. For these roles, there are a group of such strong performances, none more hard hitting than that of breakout star Alicia Vikander, who is far and away the movie's standout quality.

**** / *****


Very good examination. I just wish it were stronger.
With Bully, director Lee Hirsch gets down to the uneasy topic of bullying in high schools. The movie follows several students, as well as the families of these students, who go through this routine of suffering from verbal and emotional abuse, physical contact, and even so far as bigotry because of same sex preferences. Those kids who don't have the strength to shake it off or stand up for themselves have simply accepted it as an everyday occurrence, bring weapons in defense of themselves, or have gone so far as to kill themselves, seeing no other way out.

Bullying is an important issue that a lot of people acknowledge, but few seem to genuinely take action against. While it doesn't get down to the issue of why bullying is around, there's no denying that the footage here is powerful, and that it bears a ring of truth. The movie points fingers at teachers and officials sweeping the issue under the rug, a lack of consistent ethics and guidelines, as well as intolerance for those with differences, and it doesn't shy away from these, at least not enough to criticize it for.

All in all, Bully is a film that should be mandatory viewing for all schools. I'm not saying it isn't an unpleasant issue, but it shouldn't be ignored. It should be talked about, strongly so in fact. And it shouldn't even stop there. Take action, start support groups, help a friend in need, and talk to that friend so that friend doesn't feel alone, because no child should have to feel like there's no way out.


**** / *****

Silver Linings Playbook

Led by David O. Russell's strong writing and direction, Silver Linings Playbook is a powerfully acted, meaningful little movie.
In 2010, director David O. Russell ended his six year absence, and returned to the big screen with his knock-out hit (No pun intended) The Fighter, which managed a grand total of seven Oscar nominations, including wins for actors Christian Bale and Melissa Leo. Flash forward two years later, and his next movie is up for a whopping eight nominations, also setting a record as one of the only movies to ever have nominations in all four acting categories. That movie is Silver Linings Playbook. I've been anticipating this one for months, ever since it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Let me just say it didn't disappoint.

Inspired by Matthew Quick's book, Silver Linings Playbook follows Pat Solitano Jr. (Bradley Cooper), a man released from a stay in a mental institution after catching his wife cheating on him, and beating her lover to near death. He's staying with his caring and worrisome mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver), and his obsessive compulsive Eagles fan father (Robert De Niro). Pat is hopeful, despite a restraining order, that he'll be able to reconcile his marriage, and that's only one of the problems that are running around in his mind.

As bad as Pat's problems are, he's got nothing on Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a recently widowed woman with whom Pat finds a kindred spirit. Tiffany strikes up a deal. If pat will compete in a dance competition alongside Tiffany, she'll deliver a letter to his wife explaining about his current situation.

Much like our central character, the movie is understandably prone to certain mood swings, balancing out between personal drama and laces of dark humor. This is a very personal movie for Russell, known for his own history of off screen controversy. The ease with the dramatic pace of this movie, the issues of familial turmoil, our main character's quest to reconstruct his life, the well timed wit, and a whole slew of fascinating characters is only part of what's done excellently by Russell, who drew upon his own experiences and that of his own son in writing the script. The mental issues are met properly, but through Russell's eyes, we also get to witness the vices of many of the other characters here, which ensure that the movie never gets boring.

Just as strong as he is a writer, Russell's direction is as fantastic as always. If there's one thing that can be said of the man, even in his weaker entries, he's always had a knack for extracting terrific performances out of all of his actors. The lead character on paper is only as good as his actor, and Bradley Cooper expresses every believable ache out of Pat Jr. Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver are typically strong as his parents, while Chris Tucker works with a nice little comic relief role.

But I know who you all really want to ask me about: Jennifer. Lawrence. I can say absolutely nothing about her that hasn't already been said. She steals this movie, serving as that perfect match for Cooper. The best parts of this movie are when we get to see the irresistible chemistry between these two, and Lawrence sells them all convincingly. This is such a peculiar, but very warm, sincere, and charming performance. One of her strengths is how well she conveys Tiffany's emotion, but at certain times, she'll even play it up to convey several at one time. She has one specific scene in a diner that left me unsure of how to feel towards her. Pitying, tickled, intimidated, uncomfortable? It's not common when I find a performance like that that makes me feel so many different things all at once. Lawrence is far and away one of the best performances of the year!

As such, Silver Linings Playbook is one of the best movies of the year, allowing O. Russell to stretch his legs with a challenge, and unqualified success. It's a sweet and meaningful little movie that should resonate deeply with many a member of its audience. Now if only Ernest Hemingway would stop triggering such negative reactions...

***** / *****

Les Misérables

Both flawed and beautiful like the musical, the film adaptation of Les Mis is every bit as good as can be hoped for.
27 years ago, Les Miserables began running performances in London and Broadway to significant acclaim and massive staying power. Written by Claude Michel-Schonberg, Alain Boublil, and Herbert Kretzmer, and based on Victor Hugo's classic novel, it is often considered to be the greatest musical of all time. You can see why adapting it to the screen would be a challenge of unheard expectations, and director Tom Hooper was who would eventually lead it there. In many ways, it's considerably different from the stage show itself, but is it for worse or for better?

Les Miserables chronicles the life of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man released on parole after nineteen years of imprisonment. After being taken in by a kindly priest, and treated with kindness that he'd never known before, he vows to change his ways by creating an honest life for himself. He has not gone by the name of Valjean for eight years. This does not go unnoticed, as he is relentlessly pursued by his former warden, Javert (Russell Crowe). It isn't until later, after Valjean makes a vow to the dying Fantine (Anne Hathaway), that Javert is on to Valjean, swearing to send him back to prison.

Fantine is the epitome of all the heartbreak that is to follow within Les Miserables. Some would argue that her only massively great moment is her rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream", but there's more to it than that. This is such an emotional and moving portrayal, unselfish, and unflinching. She may not be in it for very long, but she leaves a lasting impression, and even if it did all come down to that one scene, so what? That one scene is enough. I thought I knew the song pretty well, but listening to Hathaway sing, I suddenly heard it in a brand new light. All the devastation and the sorrow come out in such a big way that I can't picture the person watching it without being moved. Hathaway's just that good.

After Fantine succumbs to her illness, Valjean fulfills his vow to care for her daughter Cosette, taking her from the custody of the greedy town Innkeepers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). Nine years later, a student rebellion against the oppressive law of Paris is beginning. One of the fighters is Marius (Eddie Redmayne). By chance, Valjean is in town at that time, along with the grown Cosette (Amanda Seyfried). When Marius sees Cosette, it's love at first sight, but what Marius doesn't see is that his friend Eponine (Samantha Barks), is deeply in love with him, and is saddened that Marius does not return those feelings.

For a story with as many complicated subplots as Les Miserables, it's a miracle that this movie turned out to be as coherent as it is. Since the film is a musical, the songs allow the film to get across more information than conventional dialogue. As for the singing, I applaud the decision to go for all live singing. By allowing the actors to perform the songs live for every take, the film adds much more realism to the situation, allowing the actors to focus more on their performance rather than keeping match with pre-recorded music. Unlike the musical, it doesn't necessarily sound "pretty". The singing here is much more gritty than what you'd hear out of the Broadway show, and that's what makes the songs so effective to the grim tone.

As for the rest of the talent, I must mention Hugh Jackman, finally given the role that he deserves. Blending his strong physique with his incredible singing voice, he's finally putting all his acting chops front and center, letting emotion pour from this character in a career best performance. Amanda Seyfried is serviceable as Cosette. Eddie Redmayne elevates Marius above the rushed standards of the stage version, and Samantha Barks hits hard in her rendition of "On My Own". Cohen and Carter provide much of the riotous comic relief amidst the bleak nature of the rest of the film. Even Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role of Valjean in 1985, gets to make an appearance. As for Russell Crowe, his voice may not be great, but no one's voice here sounds "pretty", so that's fine. Pretty monotone, but Javert has always called for a bit of monotone. I won't criticize him for his singing voice, but I will criticize his performance for bordering too close to robotic.

As for Hooper's direction, I think criticism of his direction is blown considerably out of proportion, but none of it is without reason. He chooses some very odd and distracting aesthetic and pacing choices, and the close ups of the actors don't do the fabulous sets and costumes much favors, but I think the close ups do their job wonderfully. He may not have a unique visual voice, but his direction of the actors is strong. By using his close ups, he captures every ache and every passion. Hooper's direction is successful in that one regard.

Les Miserables is about as good a film adaptation of a classic musical as possible. Even if you don't like the movie, you can see that everyone involved were proud of what they were doing, and that they so wanted this to be good. It's flawed, but beautiful, much like the musical it was based on. The musical took so many elements and wove them all together into one of the rare products that deserves to be labeled with the word "masterpiece". The movie doesn't quite reach that same level of excellence, but for something so sweeping and beautiful, it's as good a movie as anyone can hope for it to be.

****1/2 / *****

Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow's stellar direction, Jessica Chastain's superb performance, and wonderful technical design = The best of 2012.
It's been three years since Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to ever win a Best Director Oscar for 2009's much acclaimed The Hurt Locker. While I really liked that film, I was never a huge fan of it. I preferred Inglourious Basterds and Avatar, so sue me. So when it was announced that Zero Dark Thirty would be her follow up, I wasn't too excited... up until these last few months, where I was suddenly becoming hyped for it. Not only did it meet my expectations, it exceeded them. It's taken me almost a year of searching and about seventy movies to get to this point. Unless I find a movie from the very few I have left to see that overtakes this one, we're probably looking at the very best 2012 has to offer.

The film chronicles the decade spanning manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, the vicious mastermind behind the bombings of 9/11, and the leader of the Al Qaeda organization, until he finally met his end at the hands of SEAL Team Six on May 1st, 2011. In the middle of all that, the audience observes the procedural happenings from the view of the task force charged with finding him. One of which is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a dedicated but also obsessive CIA officer.

What I love about Zero Dark Thirty is that it fine tunes and perfects every stumble that The Hurt Locker suffered from. Screenwriter Mark Boal's episodic presentation is much more smooth and flowing, and is given more humanity than its predecessor. The movie not only holds our attention, it refuses to let go. It opens up fascinating views of morality, and it gives us a very interesting bunch of characters who never feel boring, all of which go well along with the looming suspense the film builds up.

The biggest strength of The Hurt Locker was Kathryn Bigelow's ability to build tension and unpredictability to any given individual moment, and here, she proves just as capable. A simple look over the shoulder, a sudden movement, and even a change in vocal pitch can do wonders in the way she directs her actors. She rallies together impressive actors like Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, and Jennifer Ehle. Of every one of them, Jessica Chastain is the unquestionable queen of the castle. After a banner year in 2011, she delivers a stunning lead performance, tough and steely when need be, but also fragile and conflicted at other times to keep Maya from feeling one note, and make her a believable character. She commands every scene with a fiery intensity, but also adds in a charisma that wasn't called for, but was most welcome. I feel pretty confident in calling it the performance of the year.

As for Bigelow's crafts people, these guys all bring their A game, and they know well how to enhance the tension throughout. Whether it happen on the visual side, or even on the aural side; from the shaky and involving camera work by Greig Fraser, to the claustrophobic settings of Jeremy Hindle's production design, or from the startling booms and unsettling silence of Paul Ottosson's sound design, to the brooding pulse rhythms of Alexandre Desplat's musical score. Ultimately, the editing is the technical star. William Goldenberg, already having struck a home run with Argo this same exact year, is just as on the nose alongside Dylan Tichenor here. These two, as well as Bigelow, set the proper, but not always fast pace to this movie. It takes its time to set things up, but as a result, that entire final hour is a masterful example of film making. The raid on the compound, in particular, is a suspenseful sequence where every element comes together in the best way, where each moment had me biting my nails in anticipation. Bigelow's direction is brilliant. Recently, the film was nominated for five Academy Awards, but none of those belonged to Bigelow herself for her direction. For them to drop the ball like this is an embarrassment, and nothing short of the snub of the year.

As enthusiastic as I may be, not everyone will like this movie nearly as much, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't see why. Regardless of that fact, I'd still recommend this movie to anyone. Something as fascinating as this movie deserves to be seen at least once. I know I've given multiple movies this year my highest possible rating, but many of those films do have noticeable faults, and they'd be closer to 9.5 out of ten on a numerical scale. Zero Dark Thirty is the only 2012 movie to earn a well deserved perfect rating of 10/10 from me. Bring on the rewatches!

***** / *****


Lifted almost singlehandedly by Denzel Washington's strong performance.
Robert Zemeckis has got to have one of the oddest careers in Hollywood. Known for his much respected live action films like Forrest Gump and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, he's spent the last twelve years specializing in films entirely made through motion capture. He makes his return to live action with Flight, a movie that centers on an airplane pilot under investigation after a drastic plane accident, where he saved the lives of 96 people on board, but was discovered to have alcohol in his system at the time of the flight. This guy's got to be the best drunk driver ever...

Flight is the kind of movie that doesn't get to be made often, and Zemeckis intends to treat it in the best way he can. This is certainly his most stylistically restrained film yet, as he wants to place more focus on the writing. Screenwriter John Gatins was inspired to write this film due to his own history of addiction, and he confronts these issues head on. He also takes time to examine the balance between what happens as a result of the hands of God, and what happens as a result of man's hand, but not always very well. The narrative and pacing still have their uneven tendencies...

...but when you get down to it, this is an actor's showcase. The main role is perfect for Denzel Washington, who has unfortunately spent the last few years in sub-par action films. Here, he's allowed to release his full talents. His character can be sympathized with just as much as he can be detested. Washington never overplays or underplays one or the other. Both elements work hand in hand to excellent effect. Credit should also go to co-star Kelly Reilly, wonderful in a sympathetic role that works well with Washington's more unpredictable nature, and that's what really makes this movie take flight.

***1/2 / *****

De rouille et d'os

Occasionally slow, but lifted by the strength of its two lead performances.
I've already noted several times before how much I was anticipating this movie, so I won't bore anyone with the details. I'll just get down to why I thought this movie was so great, which it is. It's Jacques Audiard's follow up to the excellent A Prophet from 2009. It's a love story that centers on the lives of a killer whale trainer who has lost both of her legs in an accident, and a man who helps her, a man living with his sister while he tries to raise his son.

The love between these two is a very gradual one that takes a lot of time to develop. Sometimes it does feel too obvious, but the realistic light this movie paints itself in is certainly to be admired. Audiard writes the movie in such a delicate and thoughtful way, and he gets the best out of his cast and craftspeople as a director. Indeed, the two leads are what totally make this movie. Matthias Schoenaerts is very good, and believably fragile. Marion Cotillard gets the best role she's had since La Vie En Rose, rescuing her career from middling supporting performances in American cinema. Hers is raw, heartbreaking, and her presence is just so commanding and charming. All of her scenes in the movie are the most phenomenal moments.

****1/2 / *****

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

It's overlong, but it's still true to the spirit of what made Middle Earth so enchanting in the first place.
It's been nine years since Peter Jackson ended his epic retelling of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings saga, which in its lifetime garnered billions of dollars in worldwide gross, and won a combined total of 17 Academy Awards, including Best Picture for Return of the King. The whole trilogy is a collective success that is one of the few cinematic achievements that I would ever consider as perfect. Flash forward to the present day, and we now take a trip back to Middle Earth with The Hobbit, the prequel to the trilogy. Originally slated to be split into two sections and directed by Guillermo Del Toro, Jackson later took the helm, and decided to split the book into a trilogy like that of The Lord of the Rings. While this may sound quite excessive, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey mostly justifies the viewing experience. Mostly...

Set sixty years prior to The Fellowship of the Ring, An Unexpected Journey sees a much younger Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, excellently filling the shoes of Ian Holm) in his life in the Shire. He is approached by the grey wizard Gandalf (Played once more by the terrific Ian McKellen) on aiding him and a band of thirteen dwarfs on a quest to their home on the lonely mountain, where they plan to reclaim it from the treasure obsessed dragon Smaug. Bilbo is understandably apprehensive to go on the perilous travel, but the adventurous spirit proves too hard to resist, and the band of fifteen begin their long journey. Only took 'em forty minutes to get to that point.

I can certainly echo the sentiment that this movie is excessive in both its content and length, clocking in at about 2 hours and 45 minutes. In the movie's defense, I can't recall a single moment where I was ever bored. Sure, the overload of material does keep the movie from reaching the massive heights of its predecessor, but this is a project that deserves to be judged on its own strengths rather than those based on comparison. The movie still stays true to the spirit of what made Middle Earth such an engrossing world in the first place. Those who criticize the movie for being a bit more weighty in tone than it needs to be may have a point, but I think that helps in keeping consistency with the tones of the previous films.

If one thing can be made sure of, Jackson clearly hasn't lost a step when it comes to visual splendor. He rallies together the same talented craft crew that he worked with before, including DP Andrew Lesnie, Production Designer Dan Hennah, Makeup Designer Richard Taylor, Composer Howard Shore, and Visual Effects Supervisor Joe Letteri. All of these people perform their work to the highest caliber possible, hardly ever missing a beat during the epic set pieces, dazzling environments and towns, and the sweeping views of the terrain. Nine years later, and Middle Earth is still as enchanting as it ever was.

I haven't even gotten into the talent that goes in front of the camera. I've already mentioned how good Freeman and McKellen are. The Dwarfs are all quite entertaining, some more than others, even though they mostly blend together. If you're looking for some more veteran cast members besides McKellen, you'll find them as well, including the likes of Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, and Hugo Weaving. Even Gollum, played to perfection once more by Andy Serkis, gets to make an appearance. What more can I say about him that hasn't already been said. He shows up in what is without doubt the best scene in the whole movie. A sequence where he and Bilbo engage in a high stakes game of riddles, all set within the dimly lit catacombs of his lair. The foreboding sound and creepy imagery all work wonderfully in raising the tension of the situation.

Not everyone will enjoy The Hobbit, however. It asks a lot of patience, perhaps more than it should be, and I feel that something with a slightly simpler script and trimmed running time would have allowed it to be the amazing prequel it deserved to be. Judging it by what it is, though, there wasn't much detriment to my enjoyment of this movie. Besides, it's unfair to judge only a portion of a full movie, much in the same way of the original Lord of the Rings films. I'll gladly tune in to the next two chapters yet to be released.

**** / *****

Django Unchained

It's pure Tarantino. And if that's what you love, then you're bound to have a blast here.
Equally loved and hated for his indulgent stylistics, Quentin Tarantino is the proper definition of an auteur. Often regarded for classics like Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds, and Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino specializes in a unique visual identity, and his signature long conversations that showcase his writing. I can only speak for myself, but no one writes dialogue better than he does. After flirting with spaghetti western undertones in Basterds, it seemed only obvious that his next would be a full on, gritty western. However, the question still remained: Would it translate well to the screen? Let's put it this way. If you're not a fan of his style, this won't change your mind. If you are a fan, you'll probably have a blast with Django Unchained.

We open in the 1850's, where German dentist turned bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) purchases the freedom of a slave named Django (Jame Foxx). Schultz teaches Django - the D is silent – the ways of bounty hunting, and the two ride into various towns killing wanted criminals. In exchange for helping him with this job, Schultz offers to help Django find his missing wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who is currently in the possession of the unpredictable land and slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

If you've seen any of Tarantino's other films, you know what you can expect here. He is very indulgent in his own stylistics, supplying the movie with over the top humor, anachronistic music, and a slight air of silliness to it. Needless to say, it's not perfect... but, that's why I love it so much. The movie's imperfections are its charms, and even if I have a few nit-picks, criticizing Tarantino for indulgence would be like criticizing the winter for being cold. I adore the direction he was going for this movie, and the overall tone and technical prowess offers much to be admired.

As always, Tarantino's writing is the highlight. Once again, he uses his extended conversations well, building up the tension of each one to hold one's attention. You can never predict when a character may go flying off the handle, and what that may entail. Tense, character rich, and gritty, the movie also fully delves into the issues of racism with uncompromising detail. Tarantino also finds a way to mix in well placed humor, with an argument over white hoods that made me ache with laughter. The movie is pretty long, about 2 and three quarter hours, but it's surprisingly easy to sit through until it's over. It's certainly one of the most entertaining movies I've watched all year.

The cast is equally impressive, all selling the traits and personalities of their characters. Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz are both impressive, cool, and share an easy chemistry, Waltz in particular selling much needed comic relief. Samuel L. Jackson, a Tarantino staple, gets to steal the scene as Calvin Candie's seedy and suspicious right hand man Stephen. Then we get down to Leonardo DiCaprio. For a long time, DiCaprio has been an actor who really seemed to take himself too seriously when it came to roles. Here, he gives probably his best performance since The Aviator. It's so much fun seeing him play such a delightfully wicked and viciously comical villain, providing him with the dramatic break that was perfect for him. He's chewing the scenery, and having a blast with it.

Like I said, this is not a perfect film, but it is pure Tarantino. Those who love that will eat it up, while others may not get too into it. The fact still remains that Django Unchained is constantly entertaining, varying on the eye of the beholder, of course. One of the year's best. Adult supervision is required...

***** / *****

Killer Joe

The trailer trash feature is both hard to watch, and too hard not to watch.
William Friedkin's never shied away from grisly issues. Why start now? The Trailer trash Killer Joe is probably everything you'd expect it to be. The game cast assembled is quite the assortment of talent. Matthew McConaughey, in particular, shines through with a subtle, darkly comic, and quietly terrifying performance that blows any of his other credits out of the water. Characters have to be careful with what they say or do around him, never knowing what may send him flying off the handle.

Still, not everything works. The violence of the third act goes over the top, even in context. Also, and I'm sorry, but Juno Temple did nothing for me in this movie. Still, if you can stomach the material, it should be a good watch.

**** / *****

Katy Perry: Part of Me

It's all just a way cash in, but we do get to see a very likable side of Katy Perry.
Yeah, I actually took the time to watch this. It's exactly what you would expect. It's simply another touring concert movie to cash in on the success of a modern icon, but at least we do get to see why people look up to Katy Perry in such a way. Is it her music? Okay, but lots of artists have good music. Is it her fashion? I don't think that's it either. I think people look up to Perry because her personality is just so likable, and she's faced relatable issues and real life problems, all of that leading to where she is now. Maybe the movie makes her a little too likable, but you can see exactly why she's considered such a role model, and any fan of her music (guilty) will enjoy hearing the live performances of her songs.

*** / *****

The Invisible War

A scathing, provoking, and even infuriating documentary, it puts your emotions through a workout.
Kirby Dick's The Invisible War is an unsettling and scathing examination of sexual assault within branches of the US military (the Army, Marines, Air Force, etc.) that dives into its topics with various levels of emotional involvement. The interviews of the victims are raw, unfiltered, and unflinching, and are, indeed, very tragic. To also see the corruption and lengths to cover up and distract from the truth – such as unintentionally hilarious commercials advising about assault in the army – is practically infuriating. Kirby Dick makes for a strong interviewer, nailing his topics, letting the victims speak their mind, and leaving the guilty parties shaking in their boots, trying and failing miserably to lie through their teeth. Emotions will be put to a workout.

****1/2 out of *****


This is Tim Burton's weakest stop motion movie yet.
Tim Burton has made some truly great stop motion films in his life. I adore The Nightmare Before Christmas (even though he didn't actually direct it), and I love Corpse Bride, and I really wanted to like Frankenweenie. I'd say the first half is much better than the second half. The first half is what the movie really should be like overall. It's focusing so much on the relationship between a boy and his dog, and building on the emotion of such a relatable thing. It also manages to sneak in Burton's signature macabre stamp, including a hilarious rant by Martin Landau's character.

However, the second half takes a turn for the worst. The script turns out to be more black and white than the actual photography, it's rushed, it's underdeveloped, and Burton indulges a wee bit too much in the classic horror movie references. At the very least, Burton's visual eye has not been lost. The stop motion animation and the stunning black and white camera work are just pure eye candy. For all my problems, and I do have plenty, it's not all that bad, and it shows that Burton still has talent in him. He's just misusing it.

*** / *****

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