In the middle of the christmas hoopla, I found a surprisingly large amount of time for movies. At 30 films seen, December is probably my most intense month of the year cinematically speaking. Surprising indeed. There was a lot of good stuff, and little that was outright bad, so it’s a good slew of movies to close out the year with.
American Reunion (Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg, 2012)
Well, it’s better than the last four straight-to-DVD American Pie films. Not that that’s saying much. The nostalgia factor is what makes American Reunion work, in two ways. First, by having the audience remember the first parts of the series, and then by having a fondness for the old times be a centerpiece of the plot as well. It’s a good thing this is handled effectively, because the actual humor is often derivative, and while there are certainly some laughs to be had here, they don’t always hit the mark. If this is the end of the series, it’s a respectable way to close the doors, at least. Except there’s reportedly another film being planned, so I guess not. God damn it.
The Grey (Joe Carnahan, 2011)
What a terrific survival film. All the visceral elements were extraordinarily well done. I felt the plane crash. I felt the snow. I felt the cold water. And then there’s the wolves, who are as menacing as any movie monster I’ve seen in recent memory (except maybe the shark in Jaws.) Add in the spiritual elements of the story, and you have one great awesome package of a film. I mean, hell, it made me spontaneously applaud in my couch. That never happens.
Silent Night (Steven C. Miller, 2012)
Malcolm McDowell is really funny here in an Alan Rickman Sheriff of Nottingham way, where it seems like he’s not even part of the same movie as everyone else. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is weak humdrum slasher stuff. Skip this one.
Harry Brown (Daniel Barber, 2009)
Gran Torino‘s story in Attack the Block‘s setting, only with the violence ramped way up and with Michael Caine in the lead. This is certainly to oversimplify things, obviously, but it should give you some idea of what the film’s about. While the subject of a retiree turning vigilante is a field ripe for social commentary, there’s nothing done along these lines. No, this is a bloody revenge thriller through and through, and as such, it works really well. Caine is great, and it’s a treat to see him in a lead role these days.
P2 (Franck Khalfoun, 2007)
Fairly decent horror-thriller set in a parking garage, where a woman (Rachel Nichols in a highly distracting low-cut dress) is hunted by a disturbed security guard (Wes Bentley, who you may know as the filmer of paper bags in American Beauty). One think I liked about this film is that while there are scenes that are really damn violent and gruesome, it’s not something that infects the entire film. It retains its effect because it’s used sparingly. P2 is not a very atmospheric film, but it has moments of tension for sure, and it’s reasonably entertaining on average. I find it amusing that Bentley was arguably creepier in American Beauty, though.
Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011)
What’s not to love here? Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain are terrific, the cinematography is gorgeous, the story is rich and effortlessly deals with a multitude of elements, the score is wonderful, etcetera etcetera etcetera. Just a damn fine movie that really had me reeling towards the end. Surely one of its year’s best.
First Snow (Mark Fergus, 2006)
Movies about fate and free will have been done plenty of times. Here is another in a long line of them that tells a story that, while not bad, certainly has that “been there, done that” feeling. The problem is that the journey to the good scenes are slow and boring. This film could have used a greater sense of urgency to it. Only recommended for Guy Pearce completionists.
On the Road (Walter Salles, 2012)
No, I haven’t read the book. Yes, I did like the movie. It looks and sounds great, doing an effective job of enveloping you in its world and its era. Sam Riley and Kristen Stewart are good, and the supporting parts are peppered with familiar names and faces, but if you’re an actingphiliac, it’s Garrett Hedlund you should watch the film for. What potent screen presence he displays here, always attracting one’s attention whenever he’s in view. Sure, the part of Dean is written to be this way, but it still requires the right actor to pull it off, and Hedlund does just that.
Big Trouble in Little China (John Carpenter, 1986)
I watched this one with a friend late at night with some degree of alcohol in my blood stream. Barring time travelling back in time to the 80s themselves, I’m convinced this might be the optimal way of watching this film. I laughed. I enjoyed myself. Sounds good enough for a passing grade. Don’t ask me what the film is about, though.
Blues Brothers 2000 (John Landis, 1998)
I did not have very high hopes for this one. The Blues Brothers has been a favorite movie of mine ever since childhood, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say that this sequel is in the same league as the 1980 movie. Well, it isn’t. There are good things about it; the song numbers are decent, there’s an impressive gathering of blues legends, and John Goodman wisely does things to make his character his own rather than coming off like a John Belushi replacement. Still, the faults of the movie are vastly bigger than the positives. The biggest offense is that the majority of scenes seem to be here just because they did something similar in the original, rather than sticking to the established characters and crafting a new story around them. The humor feels ancient, the action is lackluster, and there’s no ending. It’s not a good sign when you get the feeling that the soundtrack is likely better than the movie.
Fast Five (Justin Lin, 2011)
It’s always a bother to put a score to a film that isn’t of consistent quality from beginning to end. Like this one. For the most part, this is a decent action/heist flick: reasonably entertaining, but without ever really popping out in any way to make it truly memorable. Until that jaw-dropping scene with the vault, that is. That was some awesome stuff. Still, on average, this film doesn’t do enough to earn a very high score. It’s entertaining enough, but the story takes itself too seriously, and Vin Diesel just doesn’t do it for me – and putting him next to The Rock is definitely not the way to make him seem cooler.
Indie Game: The Movie (Lisanne Pajot & James Swirsky, 2012)
Captivating documentary about four different indie game developers and their struggles with development, publicity, the law, fame, and more. It offers plenty of smiles and frowns of concern, and the people here are the memorable type. Informative and fun to watch, especially if you have an interest in the subject. I do.
Sleeping Beauty (Julia Leigh, 2011)
Kind of beautiful in a sterile way, but pretty much impenetrable. Now, am I talking about the movie, or about Emily Browning‘s character? Dun dun dunnnnn!
Kon-Tiki (Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg, 2012)
Norway’s submission for the Foreign Language Oscar this year is a thrilling adventure, with production values at the level you might expect from a Hollywood film. Plenty of “ooh” and “aah” moments, while still making room for both heart and humor. Good stuff here. Well done, Norway.
The Trip (Michael Winterbottom, 2010)
I was a big fan of Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, the previous collaboration between Winterbottom, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. This one offers more along the same lines of humor, even if the format is a bit more straight-forward faux-documentary style. I love how the humor keeps building onto and reverting back on itself, like all the impression bits that just pile up as the film moves along. Funny stuff, in an occasionally melancholic British kind of way. Warning: don’t watch while hungry.
Take This Waltz (Sarah Polley, 2011)
If there’s something positive to take away from my experience with this film, it’s that it proves that I don’t automatically like a film even when it’s supposedly right up my alley. I can be discerning, apparently. I fully expected this one to be to my liking, but this was not the case. I liked some of the bigger ideas it touched upon about marriage and infidelity, and there are certain scenes that are quite beautiful – the anniversary dinner and the amusement park ride, for instance. The primary problem here is that I just don’t buy into these characters. I don’t believe them, I don’t believe in their lives, and I rarely believe in their interactions with one another. I also find it unfair to Seth Rogen to put him in a majorly serious film like this and even give him a big scene to show what he can do as an actor, and then just chop it up with editing and intrusive testicle humor. How bothersome. How disappointing.
Heckler (Michael Addis, 2007)
I thought this was going to be a documentary about heckling during stand-up comedy routines. It was, but only for the first 20 minutes or so. After that, the film shifted gears and became about criticism at large. What effects do critics have on performers and artists? How do performers respond? Does anyone have a right to be a critic? There are interesting points being made here, and a good job is made at keeping the discussion fresh throughout with new interview subjects and angles to the material, but the numerous parts with Jamie Kennedy confronting people who didn’t like his movie Son of the Mask accomplish little, and they drag the film down a bit. As long as you know what you’re getting into though, Heckler makes for a fun and occasionally thought-provoking watch.
Good Will Hunting (Gus Van Sant, 1997)
Moving, entertaining, well-acted, and with great dialogue. This one lived up to expectations. Acting-wise, I was particularly impressed with Minnie Driver and Robin Williams, although the cast is uniformly strong.
Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979)
I’ve always had the feeling that there was a Woody Allen film out there that I would really love. Manhattan turned out to be it. Just like he did with later efforts Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris, he here manages to make me want to travel the world to see the places he captures on film. New York, like many cities, looks gorgeous in black and white. And then there’s the story, and the characters. It’s all very romantic, but in a smart way, where we can see the folly of the people yet understand why they do the things they do. It’s because of love. Love love love, whatever that might be, or whatever the characters think it might be. Oh, and it’s also pretty damn funny.
Tucker and Dale vs Evil (Eli Craig, 2010)
Judged solely on its originality, this movie would be a 5/5. Tucker and Dale vs Evil doesn’t so much poke fun at the slasher genre as it flips it on its head and turns it into a comedy of misunderstanding. Pitting college kids and hillbillies against one another with both sides thinking the other is messed up is a great premise. It’s pulled off pretty well too, with some nice laughs and performances that find the right note to stick to. Even so, the film does drag a bit in the middle portion, when the basic idea has been established and they’re just treading ground while waiting for the final act to kick in. Don’t let this stop you from checking out the film, though. Fresh thinking should be rewarded.
A Good Old Fashioned Orgy (Alex Gregory & Peter Huyck, 2011)
For a sex comedy, this is surprisingly well written and executed. The jokes rarely feel forced, instead springing naturally from the characters and situations. What really makes the movie work is the chemistry present between the cast members. This is key because it means you can buy them as being friends with one another, and once you do that, the rest of what transpires takes on actual emotional importance. A pleasant surprise.
The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield, 2012)
Never underestimate “luck” as a component of a great documentary. What started out as a piece on a wealthy Florida businessman’s plans to build the largest home in the US turned into something quite different when the recession struck. Now he and his family have to lower their standards of living, and it’s compelling stuff all the way through. At first I was kind of dumbstruck at the excess of it all, then it was like a mix between schadenfreude and pity when they started losing money. It’s no riches-to-rags story, as the family is still wealthier than most, but even that makes for nice food for thoughts: it’s easy to scoff at them for “only” being able to employ three housekeepers, but isn’t there always people worse off than oneself too somewhere? Adjustment is always adjustment. Except for maybe Senna, this is the best documentary I’ve seen all year.
War, Inc. (Joshua Seftel, 2008)
A spiritual sequel to Grosse Pointe Blank that reunites John Cusack, Joan Cusack and Dan Aykroyd in similar characters. This is nowhere near as good as that earlier film was, though. Its satirizing of American warmongering is lazy and ineffective, and there’s little wit to the dialogue. Joan Cusack is pretty funny in her small supporting role, and Hilary Duff is occasionally impressive as a Middle Eastern pop starlet, but they’re not enough to carry the movie.
The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)
For a film made 30 years ago, this one has some really impressive special effects going on. Some scenes will stick with me, I’m pretty sure. Amidst all the blood and body horror, the story is also quite elegantly structured. What I found myself missing here was characterization. This isn’t the kind of movie that demands multi-layered characters as such, but I do want at least something to differentiate Bearded Guy A from Bearded Guy B personality-wise. As it is, they all felt interchangeable. In the end, this certainly doesn’t keep the film from being both tense and entertaining, but I can’t shake the feeling that it could have been stronger.
Bug (William Friedkin, 2006)
There is one part of this psychological paranoia thriller where Ashley Judd puzzles together a conspiracy theory, coaxed along by Michael Shannon. The back-and-forth goes on for quite some time, way longer than what the plot strictly demands. This part is actually key, because this is where I realize just how great the two actors are in this film. The way they maintain their super intense chemistry and convey that these characters truly believe the preposterous things they’re saying is awe-inspiring. The rest of the movie is cool too, mixing claustrophobia with physical discomfort to really get under your skin – pun intended. I was surprised at how much I liked this one.
Four Rooms (Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez & Quentin Tarantino, 1995)
An anthology film worth seeing for the Rodriguez and Tarantino segments, both of which are quite funny in their own director-specific ways. The parts by the two lesser-known directors are unfortunately weak, lacking in intrigue, entertainment and pay-off. Tim Roth‘s highly animated performance as the bellhop across the whole thing is certainly… something.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson, 2012)
Not as good as any of the Lord of the Rings films. Let’s just get that out of the way right at the start. This is still a decent little adventure flick, with some cool action scenes and nice environments. Andy Serkis as Gollum is the easy highlight character-wise, just as he was in that other trilogy. However, this film is also overcrowded, bloated, and with questionable story decisions. I’m still not sure whether I like the whole 48 fps thing or not. There were times when it really helped spruce up the action, but also scenes where it made the backgrounds feel very much like stage sets. No idea yet whether I’ll go see the sequels in theater or wait for DVD releases.
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey (Constance Marks, 2011)
A pleasant feel-good documentary that doesn’t so much falter in any way as it just fails to truly excel. Kevin Clash‘s story is a nice one, but not particularly enlightening or unique. Maybe the fact that Elmo is a bit of a non-entity here in Sweden makes for less incentive for me to care about this. I have never had any degree of attachment to Elmo. In that sense, I did learn stuff from this film that I didn’t know before. I just suspect that I could have gone through life without knowing it and been just as happy. Being Elmo makes for a brief and fun watch, though.
Deadgirl (Marcel Sarmiento & Gadi Harel, 2008)
Some movies are harder to rate than others. This is one such movie. I want to give it a 1/5. It’s filthy and ugly. It takes a tactless approach to a disturbing subject matter. The dialogue is poor, and it’s shoddily filmed. The acting is bland. There’s a lot to dislike about this film. Despite all this, it is somewhat interesting in the questions it puts forth about empathy and human nature, and the premise is certainly a unique one. It is with great reluctance I give this one a score of 2/5. There. I hope I’ll never have to talk or think about this movie ever again.
Easy Money (Daniel Espinosa, 2010)
There are things about the proceedings in this Swedish crime thriller that, when I think about them, seem somewhat routine. The movie does a really good job of making me invested in the characters and their fates to keep me from noticing in the moment, though. This is a slick and sensible look at one man’s descent into a world of crime, and two other men trying to find a way out of it. The ending is unsatisfyingly ambiguous, unfortunately, but it doesn’t diminish what came before it.