3 January 2013
I’ve learned plenty this year. Two wheels are better than four in the inner city. I actually quite like martinis. Cheese. But the thing which will stick with me from 2012 is this: The less you know about a movie before you go in, the better.
And it is partly for this reason that Argo was one of my favourite films of 2012. There were plenty of expectations that could have ruined this movie for me. Knowing the outcome of the plot for one (googling "Iranian Hostage Crisis" would have been a quick ticket to disappointment), or the actors (I have very mixed feelings about Ben Affleck), or some particularly good reviews. Instead, I sat along for the ride and enjoyed it immensely.
The mixture of news footage and the Super-8 filter gives a real sense of the period, and although some of the hostages are a bit 1D (and I’m not talking tight red pants and windswept hairstyles on teenagers) and the handheld camera was giving me motion sickness for the first 15 minutes, you actually really care what happens here.
The tension is masterfully managed right up till the end (although the movie jumped the shark a bit for me when even the clutch in the getaway car stuck. SERIOUSLY, JUST LET THEM GET OUT ALREADY JESUS!) Also, the John Goodman/Alan Arkin double act adds some great comic relief especially in the opening half. And any movie that makes you reconsider your opinion of Ben Affleck as both an actor and director is saying something. Even if (or especially because) he didn’t set it in Boston. Easily in the top 3.
Steven Soderbergh’s films often come in for criticism as being all style no substance. But I’m not convinced that’s a bad thing, considering just how good his style is. Especially when it’s a movie about male strippers.
This movie is undeniably fun and is worth more than the sum of its parts. Those parts are smoking hot though, which definitely helps. Alex Pettyfer (possibly my biggest Hollywood crush) plays the quiet kid who trips and falls and ends up as a stripper, Channing Tatum is the popping and locking roof tiler/entrepreneur who strips for extra coin and Matthew McConaughey (whose acting normally reminds me of a male Sarah Jessica Parker, but more country and with even less range) has a lot of fun as the strip club owner who also strips. As does pretty much everyone in this movie (both strips and has fun); there are more scantily clad buff dudes here than at Stereosonic.
But stripping aside, it’s a solid film. What starts off as a kind of bizarre sports movie (rookie kid enters new team and finds success through practice, discipline, montages) descends into a darkness that makes you question why you were valorising these guys in the first place (hint: it’s because they’re hot).
It pushes the whole American Dream subtext thing in a way that is way too obvious and it didn’t quite work as a study of post-GFC America in the way I think it intended to be. But it looks pretty, it pushes the right buttons, the ending is great and it’s six-pack central. Best watched with friends while hollering and hooting (stuffing dollar bills in the DVD player optional).
The third film from writer/director Rian Johnson, Looper marks the breakthrough for a director whose previous films (Brick, The Brothers Bloom), I liked just as much but which combined grossed about 10 times less.
This story of time travelling gangsters has a lot to recommend it. One, by making the cool concept central, but not essential (Bruce Willis wisely tells the younger version of himself at one point “I don't want to talk about time-travel shit”), it avoids falling into the ‘great concept, shit execution’ trap that In Time did last year. This is a movie that has time-travel in it, but isn’t just about it.
Two, the future is perfectly rendered. Not dystopic, not euphoric, but utterly recognizable. We haven’t fixed climate change, we just cover our old gas guzzlers in solar panels. Digital money is out and gold/silver bars are back in. The more things change…
Three, it’s well shot and, even if I still can’t get my head around Joseph Gordon Levitt being a hard-arse and not a heartbroken puppy in love with Zooey Deschanel, very well acted.
Some bits of the revenge plot were a bit hackneyed I guess, the direction it takes near the end is a bit OTT and bad guys really need to learn to aim, but it stays true to that great central theme of gangster movies throughout history — the dark side of the American Dream — and tells a complex tale about the difference, or lack thereof, one person can make to the society of which they are a part.
Found footage is, like, so hot right now. Brought to the mainstream by The Blair Witch Project and seen more recently in awesome movies like Cloverfield, Catfish and Justin Bieber’s "Beauty and a Beat" videoclip, the hand-held camera aesthetic gets a social media revamp in The Chronicle, a movie about three school students who get super powers after they go down a hole and, of course, record the whole thing for your viewing pleasure (and for all their friends on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, Instagram, whatever the kids use these days).
I love this genre so I loved this movie. It combines some of the best bits of monster movies with a decently nuanced high school drama about your classic outsider trying to fit in. At 84 minutes, it’s short but sweet and although sometimes it dips into cliché, the bells and whistles of the camera work and editing make it interesting enough to keep you engaged. At its best, it reflects the changes that social media and mobile phones have wrought on the already complex dynamics of high schools (something that classics like Easy A and Mean Girls get right) and maybe even has a message about bullying that could connect with the students of today (beware the nerd scorned/spawned). Oh, and cool explosions! Cool.
We all disagree about movies. It’s only human and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. But every now and then a certain movie comes along that leaves you so out of step with mainstream opinion that it makes you question if you are, in the words of Mugatu, “taking crazy pills here.” The Avengers was one of those films.
I hated The Avengers and in my righteous anger I’m blaming you. Before you indignantly howl at your computer screen, I only say this because my expectations were so astronomically high following the “OMG TOTES AMAZEBALLS” social media gushing that preceded this movie that the fairly paint-by-numbers plot just couldn’t live up to the hype.
People loved the affable S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson, reacted viscerally to his death and found his post-mortem revenge deeply satisfying. I found the plot device trite and the character about as interesting as wallpaper. People loved the teamwork of five superheroes working together, whereas I just questioned why the demi-god and the almost invincible giant green thing didn’t just do all the work while the spandex-wearing WW2 hangover, the spandex-wearing archer and the spandex-wearing sexy spy didn’t just chill out back at base (with the spandex wearing spaceship people). I found no dramatic tension in dropping a demigod out of a plane (if I was him, I would have jumped…) and Black Widow had about as much depth of character as Malibu Stacey.
Yes, I loved Tony Stark/Iron Man, but I would have preferred an Iron Man 3 rather than the contrived, “will they, won’t they (of course they will),” superhero mash-up movie I got. Yes, I love Joss Wheedon but the studio strictures got in the way here.
I will admit the last action scene was amazing though and the movie was almost worth the price of entry based entirely on the Hulk and Iron Man’s banter, and this:
I just didn’t like it as much as everyone else and now have to be “that guy” at parties, which just makes me angrier. And you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry…
2 January 2013
First off, apologies to the movies I didn’t get around to seeing this year. My ideal list of 10 American movies might have also included Killing Me Softly, Dredd (not kidding, it sounded really good!), Arbitage, Ruby Sparks and Cosmopolis. But the chips fell this way…
Next up, the tricky issue of what constitutes a 2012 film. I’ve left some movies off this list despite how much I enjoyed them. The Artist, for example, a unique and wonderful film, won the 2011 Academy Award for Best Picture and so was hard to justify it making a 2012 list, even though it was released in Australia this year. Same sort of goes for The Muppets movie, a highly enjoyable romp that crossed the Trans-Pacific release date line.
Last but not least, movies which could technically be called American but aren’t really. Most obvious here is Skyfall, a co-production, but one which is about as American as warm beer and Manchester United. Sherlock Holmes similarly has American lineage but its inclusion would probably have our old friend Arthur Conan Doyle spinning in his proverbial grave (in the unlikely event that his somehow sentient corpse cared about this humble reviewers opinion).
And so with those caveats and others, in no particular order, good, bad and ugly, I present to you The 2012 Movies of the Year!
The Hunger Games
Now I don’t normally go in for this kind of thing — this thing being the highly-popular-young-adult-book-franchise-made-into-a-movie thing — but when there are game shows involved, I will make an exception. And although it doesn’t quite live up to my favourite game show named after a movie, I have to admit, the Hunger Games was awesome.
I’ve never read the books, so coming at it from a fresh perspective, I loved the set-up and the execution (excuse the pun). The Battle Royale comparisons are obvious, albeit entirely misplaced, as this is a movie much more about your traditional ‘finding your place in the world’ teen tale rather than a bloody satire on population control and high school interaction. But those little bits of satire like Stanley Tucci’s faaaaaaabulous game show host and the ‘made-for-TV’ narratives he embodies work well in the context of a genuinely suspenseful movie.
It never quite rivals The Condemned in action sequences or The Goblet of Fire (book not movie) in terms of kids-trapped-in-a-game-show excitement, and the whole “my superpower is being able to lift heavy bags of flour” thing is pretty stoopid. But it does what it says on the box, and from what I’ve heard has something for fans and noobs alike. Oh and Lenny Kravitz and Woody Harrelson are in it. So it is a deserving box office smash, unlike…
Ah Ridley. You’ve given us so much greatness over the years, whether it be your '80s breakouts in Alien and Blade Runner, your romper stompers like Gladiator and Black Hawk Down or your quiet hits like Thelma and Louise or Matchstick Men. Which sadly brings me to…
Prometheus. So much shit thrown at the wall here that, really, it only works as a spectacle. The set-pieces are great and filled with that mixture of suspense, horror and grim determination that made Alien a classic (the scene where Noomi Rapace extracts the alien from herself is one of the top three scenes of the year). David is a great character (and Michael Fassbender’s performance a hauntingly good one) but even Idris Elba can’t save his one-dimensional ship captain from being smashed on the rocks of cliché.
“Why?” is the watchword of Prometheus. Where do we come from, what’s it all about, what drives us? But rather than offering possible answers, the movie just leaves you asking “why did he bother?” Why, why, why indeed. Six out of ten at best.
The Dark Knight Rises
Christopher Nolan, what the hell?! As ‘kind of a big deal’ of a director, I thought you would know the first rule of trilogies: the first one is the best, the second one is average and the third one looks amazing by comparison! But no, you had to go and make one, if not the, best action thriller of all time with The Dark Knight. And then he had to rise.
Don’t get me wrong I did quite enjoy Nolan’s third Batman movie. The first action sequence, even if you don’t know what the flip is going on, was certainly exhilarating, and the whole underground terrorism thing, despite the sometimes troubled Occupy parallels, was very cool. As was the exploding stadium scene — if you hadn’t seen the trailer a million times.
But it just wasn’t as good as the second one, and that was a fatal flaw. After the personality of The Joker and Harvey Two Face, Bane just couldn’t hold the stage, especially with his silly mask and voice. Marion Cotillard is a welcome addition to any movie, this being no Inexception, but her transformation to villain at the end was all too sudden to really engender any interest.
Catwoman, aka Anne Hathaway, steals the show, and some of the banter between her and the bat man himself strikes the perfect corny/edgy balance that makes good action films great. Nolan still has plenty of tricks up his sleeve and the whole thing rolls pretty well. The length felt weird but it certainly packed plenty in.
But yet again, high expectations got in the way for me here (as you’ll see is my story of 2012). It’s a solid 8, but I wanted more from Nolan, who has made some of my favourite films of all time. Although I’m sad to lose Bale’s Batman, I also kinda wished he’d never risen. Bah humbug.
So although this movie premiered at Sundance nearly two years ago, its late theatrical release here has seen it squeeze on to the 2012 list (it was only widely released in the US in October 2011 so whatevs). Also, in an election era/fiscal cliff climate it feels important to put in what can only be described as the Wall Street of the 21st century. (If they hadn’t already remade Wall Street in the 21st century, of course…)
Margin Call is a very play-like piece with the action centring on one company’s actions, from bottom (or middleish) to top, on the day the global financial crisis wiped a gazillion dollars off the market. Everything hinges on conversations, with long takes in boardroom meetings, small asides on the streets, and chance meetings between characters all playing into a complex web of people trapped in some pretty heavy economic rationalism. As such, the big presence of stage and screen actors like Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons and to a lesser extent Paul Bettany, gives the whole thing a gravitas essential to keep you engaged.
It didn’t make me angry about it all like Inside Job in 2010 did, but it does make you think and it’s a good conversation starter. That said, seeing it on the big screen added little and you couldn’t help but thinking it lacked something in the visuals, maybe owing to the fact that it was director J.C. Chandor’s first shot at the big time. Good first effort though and more than worth a watch considering the imminent fiscal cliff and the knock-ons it could have.
I love Wes Anderson. And you either love Wes Anderson or you don’t, right? I disagree. And I think Moonrise Kingdom proves it.
My top film of 2012, this is a wonderfully told, beautifully shot tale of young love on the run. It is one of his most accessible films, something his latest trajectory of Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr Fox and now Moonrise Kingdom shows may be a larger trend for the director. I saw this with an Anderson skeptic and she loved it. I would show you the trailer to show you what I mean but instead I’ll show you some meta material from the movie that captures the offbeat aesthetic pretty well.
So as you can see the cast is amazing — featuring Bill “Fucking” Murray, who I love, Tilda Swinton, Ed Norton, Frances McDormand, Bruce Willis and a whole bunch of child actors who bring a real freshness to the whole thing, including a mini Lana Del Rey in '60s dresses (which are stunning by the way) and a baby Jason Schwartzmann (as opposed to the normal version, who is also in it).
It's set up perfectly as a kids’ daydream, something the casting feeds in to. Of course Swinton is the evil social services employee. Bruce Willis as the cop, duh! But there is so much more going on with the characters, not to mention the intricate set design, sharp cinematography and great costumes that you feel like you want to rewind to the start and watch it all over again as soon as it finished.
There was so little I didn’t like in this movie and I’m sure others found bits either indulgent or boring but I just didn’t. Like Willis and Swinton’s characters, it’s meant to be. Just like a scoop of your favourite ice cream, it’s sweet, familiar and just complex enough to leave you wanting more. Go back for seconds, I say.
Read part two of The 2012 Movies of the Year here.
27 February 2012
Billy Crystal (Photo: New York TImes)
"Nothing can take the sting out of the world's economic situation like watching millionaires present themselves with golden statues."
If there was ever any doubt that the Oscars ceremony operates on a semi-fictional level of timeless glitz and glamour, it was put to rest with this line from Billy Crystal’s opening monologue. The show this year had that old-school feel of familiarity that suggested you leave your troubles at the door and travel back to a simpler, golden age — no doubt in reaction to the dismal performance of young pair James Franco and Anne Hathaway last year. After being defrosted from deep-freeze (he last hosted the ceremony in 2004), Crystal did his (ir)regular schtick, including an opening montage, song, and “what the audience is thinking” gags.
All the requisite parts were there, of course, but I must admit, after a few years of pairs hosting, and before that, the booming Broadway presence of Hugh Jackman, Crystal felt a little lonely up there. The opening montage had some highlights, including Crystal as a live-action Tin Tin and getting a manpash from George Clooney. But in other ways, Oscar showed his age. Getting Justin Bieber on for the “18-24 demographic” was funny but not too many 24 year olds would admit to being true Beliebers. And in a year in which The Help picked up a few nominations, having a blackface gag seems a bit 1960s Mississippi for mine.
The opening monologue lacked something as well. Not fat jokes, lame puns based on movie titles, and outdated references to pop culture (plenty of those to go around!). But something. Probably Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, whose twitter exchange was probably my favourite part of the night.
Alecbaldwin - I think Newt Gingrich should host.
SteveMartinToGo - I swear, if I don’t win an Oscar this year, it will be like every other year.
alecbaldwin - I think @SteveMartinToGo should host. And he should be paired with a middle-aged, washed up movie actor on a TV sitcom. #notetotheacademy
SteveMartinToGo - But @alecbaldwin, you wash up so well!
And much more.
The presenters were at their usual variable best/worst. Emma Stone was the perfect foil to the perennially funny Ben Stiller, getting in a good jibe about his ridiculous Avatar outfit from two years ago, as was Gwyneth Paltrow bringing the free-wheeling Robert Downey Jr into line. A brief Tebowing by the Downey Jr was also a nice wink to the kids. But Cameron Diaz and J.Lo were hot and boring, and the Miss Piggy/Kermit bit had none of the charm of the wonderful Muppets movie of last year (probably because it didn’t have the Swedish Chef!)
And it’s probably better if we don’t talk about the montages. (So many montages.) Except that they broke the simple rule for all good awards shows: No Adam Sandler.
But what about the awards, I hear you say!
Well, for the American film industry’s night of nights, it was about as American as apfel strudel. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo scooped the pool for technical awards, winning five, and The Descendants got the consolation prize of Best Adapted Screenplay (thank god, seeing as it deserved Best Picture about as much as Ghost did in 1990), but apart from that there was quite a foreign flavour. The Artist, a French film, won five, including Best Director, Best Actor and, unsurprisingly, Best Film. Best Editing went to an Australian, Kirk Baxter, along with American Angus Wall for the remake of Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Merryl Streep picked up Best Actress for her wonderful turn as British PM Margret Thatcher in the fairly good Iron Lady. And our very-almost-own Bret McKenzie from Flight of the Conchords fame won Best Song for "Man or Muppet" (an absolute must watch!).
But more than anything this year, the Oscars looked old and white. Eighty-two year old Christopher Plummer and Woody Allen both walked away with awards, but with the exception of standing ovation winner and Best Supporting Actress Octavia Spencer from The Help, the only young or multicultural things about the ceremony were Bieber and black-face. And a standing ovation doth not an inclusive awards ceremony make…
So tonight’s winners? Cirque de Soleil’s amazing acrobats and the charming odes to Old Hollywood that were Hugo and The Artist. Maybe we can say that in tough times, politically and economically, the Oscars are an excuse for some of that old-school glitz and glamour fun to be played out on a big stage for everyone to gawk, moan, and chat about. But it’s hard not to see the wonderful Viola Davis overlooked, and say that another winner tonight was a healthy dose of Hollywood conservatism. Which may make the increasingly outdated Academy the biggest loser. (Not a fat joke, don’t worry Jonah!)
To end on a movie metaphor, I think the Academy Awards need a gritty reboot à la James Bond or Batman. Maybe not quite Dark Knight, but maybe Quantum of Solace. Otherwise they might end up like Roger Moore — old, white and increasingly irrelevant.
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