Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Year's Hangover Edition Pt 1

Greetings and Happy New Year to everyone from the Third Row!

2012 was a pretty good year here, all things considered (actually got work going at a consistent pace again, the world didn't end, etc.)
...and now it's dead.  So let's commence the good natured dancing on its grave by this, the end of the year roundup.

Also, before someone asks, yes, the other holiday-related titles will be coming.  I'm going to be that unscrupulous weasel and defer to the concept of the Orthodox 'Little Christmas' on January 6th. 
Yes, it's a real thing.  If I was gonna bluff, you guys would know.
So keep an eye out on the 6th for a double-header.

In the meantime, here is the first part of the end of 2012 retrospective.

As anyone who's been here that far back (...all 5 of you) knows, I tend to mark the end of each year with a custom that many film fans tend to go with.  It's overdone, it's cliched, but it works.

That's right, it's time for the obligatory "Best of" for 2012.

Now, normally I usually just limit it to 5.  This year, however, I had a tougher time picking than usual.  So, in the interests of some variety and giving a bit more due, we're gonna go with the equally cliched top 10.  To be fair, these things stick for a reason.

Otherwise, the usual rules apply.

The cut-off period was yesterday, to make sure I still got it within the 2012 window.  Further, this list is based on what I was able to get to seeing.  Naturally, this will be an incomplete list and there are still several titles I've been meaning to see, so if something you guys might have been hoping for isn't on here, that may be why.  That's burned me before, so I've tried to remedy it as much as I can, but there are still limits to my access and time. Also, as in previous years, these aren't in any set order.  Just cause one is listed ahead of another doesn't mean I inherently find it better.  It's simply how they fell on the list.

With the various legal preambles now out of the way, let's send this sucker off!

"...did you SERIOUSLY just try to start the Forrest Gump conversation with me, lady?"

-The Master

Oddly, my initial thoughts on this movie are roughly about the same as my thoughts with Anderson's last feature.  Like There Will Be Blood, the story on this is potentially interesting on paper, but not an immediate sure-fire.  In fact, the aspect that appealed to me about the original story when I first heard about it was the controversy that arose when people drew parallel's between one of the film's characters and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.  The parallels were stated as non-intentional (though it's hard to deny the reading can be made,) but it was enough to get me interested.  Like TWBB, this is a film where the execution is what really sold it for me on several levels.  First and foremost was the main cast.  After having been in his seclusion/retirement/whatever you want to call it, Joaquin Phoenix's return for this role was the best of comebacks he could have hoped for.  Which is a bit odd to say, given the nature of his character.  As we see fairly early into the film, Freddie Quell is essentially a human train wreck - he gets into fights, he is perpetually ripped on his own homemade booze (a recipe from the 'Under the Sink' school of bartending), and loosing jobs left and right.  Phoenix plays this role with the proverbial gloves off - this isn't a Hollywood-friendly human mess, he is someone you would actively avoid being around.  This then makes his attempts to clean himself up in the later parts of the film equal parts fascinating and somewhat painful to watch - because we see his old ways don't completely leave him.  Equally worthy of praise is Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd, the curious founder of the Scientology-esque 'The Cause' that gives Quell a new lease on life.  Hoffman's take on the role is one where one can see why his followers come to him - he plays it with an odd sort of paternal air.  He feels like the warm father figure, even as you look at what he's teaching and think "...this is nuts."  Further, his dynamic with Phoenix alone is worth the price of admission.  Further building on this paternal element, he and Phoenix have a strange sort of father-son relationship, with the troubled Quell acting as a prodigal son - wanting to do well in Dodd's eyes, but still prone to his, for lack of a better term, fuck-ups.  Alongside these two, the other standout role goes to Amy Adams as Dodd's wife - acting the true believer to Quell's prodigal convert, she has a bit more of an understated role, but certainly doesn't simply sit on the sidelines and let the other two handle everything.  Her conflicting loyalties as Dodd becomes enamored with Quell give her some great moments to try and balance driven and concerned.
Besides the acting, Anderson's directing remains top-notch on this film.  While the story is a bit of an odd one to wrap around at first, like TWBB before it, the main focus of the story is less on the external events and more on the changes in the characters, in this case Quell and how The Cause effects his life.  Anderson's approach is one where, even if the narrative isn't clear, his characters are still compelling enough to keep you watching regardless, and the film itself will stay with you much longer than standard Hollywood fare.  A trip further benefitted from thanks to the cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr, creating some amazing shots at points, such as the deserts featured in the later part of the movie.  I actually kind of regret the fact I never had an opportunity to see this one in the 70mm print that was getting a limited release - a director like Anderson has an eye that really can benefit from that style.
Admittedly, this is a film which I can't guarantee is going to please everyone - like I said, the story can be a bit of a hurdle for people given how much of it's actually internalized, and well-played as he is, Freddie Quell is a tricky protagonist for some viewers to sympathize with, but I'd still at least say it's worth giving a look to see if it clicks for you or not.

Additionally, I just want to say it's a shame that Phoenix has probably deep-sixed his odds with the Academy after saying he doesn't really like the awards campaigning much.  For a role like this, I'd have been very happy to see him take it.

"See? It even says we're lost, right here on the map."

-Moonrise Kingdom

Here's where I make an embarassing confession as a film fan - prior to this, I'd only ever seen one of Wes Anderson's movies (it was Rushmore, for the record.  Been a few years, but I did enjoy it.)  So I was going into this somewhat blind.  What I got was a film that, to my pleasant surprise, was actually rather refreshing on a number of levels.  Like Rushmore, there was a certain odd quirkiness to the cast, but at the same time, it still felt believably so, rather than coming across as manufactured.  I'm going to credit a large part of this with the film's two young leads.  In their debut roles, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward both leave strong impressions with two very distinct types.  This is arguably even more impressive when one considers the nature of their storyline calls for the two running off together and falling in love (well...as much as kids their age can.)  The dynamic between them and how they get together is part of what really surprised me on the film.  It's done with a minimal touch and it's still endearing watching these two interact.  For lack of a better word, their interaction is cute without feeling gimmicky.  Anderson doesn't really play up any of the moments with excess of emotion and trusts the actors to really help get the emotion across.  Fortunately, these kids are up for the task.
Further, the rest of the cast are also used quite well - employing several well-known names, among them - Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton, and Bill Murray, Anderson gives them each strong roles while also playing, to degrees, outside of their usual roles.  In particular the two standouts here being Willis and Murray.  Willis's Captain Sharp is one of those roles that reminds that with the right role, he really is a good actor.  Here balanced as a police officer who, while he has his job to do, also wants to try and do the right thing for these two kids.  It's a role that's a curious mix of warm and awkward, and Willis plays it well.  On the other side of the spectrum, Bill Murray as Suzy's father is very much outside of the image of him we've come to expect.  As a man who's become aware his marriage has drifted and his wife is having an affair, it's a bit odd seeing Murray play a depressive side.  Which, in some ways, actually helped the role.  There were points where I genuinely felt bad for the guy based on the very deadened way Murray played him.  His acting style actually lends itself to depression bizarrely well that way.  Additionally, I just want to say, Edward Norton as a well-meaning, but somewhat oblivious scoutmaster actually worked far better than I expected it to.
The two other things I really have to commend this film for are both in the realm of the visual - first in Robert D. Yeoman's cinematography - the island this movie takes place on is a very nice location in general, and through him we really get a sense of that.  Some of the parts of the island genuinely look like they'd be great to explore just from what we see on screen.  Part of this is also thanks to the editing by Andrew Weisblum.  Alongside helping capture the appeal of the wild areas of the film, his editing on this actually helps capture the mood in some of the other areas as well - feeling different with certain parts, such as the film's opening where we follow Norton through the boy scout camp's set up, seeing it all just running in a straightforward fashion, right on schedule.  These two are also a major part of what helps Anderson's style feel like more than the gimmick that detractors dismiss it as.
The more I write on this, the more I realize I now have a backlog to go through.  But that's a matter for another time.

You know, it dawns on me now, and if someone remembers this better than I do, please correct me...
I don't rightly recall if they ever actually ordered anything here or not.  Then again, maybe Dave already covered that before we got there in the narrative.

-John Dies At the End

You know, for the first part of the year, if you'd asked me what the biggest surprise of 2012 would be, my answer would be the fact that Joss Whedon's The Avengers succeeded despite the fact that there was a good chance that the film could have been a complete trainwreck.  This would be before fall came around and Don Coscarelli dethroned him for pulling off the bigger pleasant surprise to me.  When I finally got to reading David Wong's novel on which this movie is based, I walked away from it with one question: How in the Hell were they going to get something this large and this outlandish into a film?  Even the initial teasers left me feeling very uncertain on the film, despite my feeling slightly assured by the presence of Don Coscarelli (Because if there's one thing Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep have proven, if you want a man who can handle a horror story with its own bizarre universe and set of rules, Don is more than up for the task.)  It wasn't until the red band trailer was released last month that I finally started to become optimistic.  So much so that, when the advanced rental hit OnDemand/iTunes, I caved to my curiosity and rented it within a day of its release.  From there, I was pleasantly surprised to find my suspicions weren't just laid to rest, they were savagely bludgeoned to death.
That said, I do want to confirm one thing now to anyone who's read the book - no, it isn't a complete 1:1 lift.  That's to be expected, really.  A completely faithful adaptation would require more time and money than even the A-list directors traditionally get.  Much as I love Coscarelli, he's not a director who's afforded such luxuries of time and budget.  For what he had to work with, however, he did the next best thing - while he boiled the story down, he also accomplished the much trickier act of actually keeping the book's wonderfully insane spirit intact for its transition to film.  This makes itself clear right from the very beginning - starting the film off with the book's 'riddle that will reveal the terrible secret of the universe,' Coscarelli's direction and editing start this movie on all cylinders in this sequence, moving through Wong's chain of thought with the quick smooth edits that feel like something out of an Edgar Wright movie.  It's a nice burst of energy to start the film off, and really gets things going on the right foot.
As with the first two entries, the choices in casting really help as well.  In this case, relative unknowns Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes as the film's heroes, Dave and John, both prove surprisingly well cast.  Williamson handling the trickier parts of Dave's somewhat withdrawn personality pretty smoothly, and especially when played off of Mayes's turn as the gleeful slacker John.  The two have the task of carrying the film and do so quite well, .  In the supporting cast, there are two big coups that further help.  The first goes to Paul Giamatti (who also produced) as the film's 'average joe' reporter Arnie that the movie's events are being recounted to.  Giamatti goes from casually humoring Dave to becoming increasingly more unwound and frustrated with each new reveal, and Giamatti gives the role the right level of frantic energy as Arnie discovers the world is more unhinged than he could have even previously begun to believe it.  The other being Clancy Brown as spiritualist Dr. Albert Marconi.  This in particular surprised me, given the role Marconi has in this film is an altogether different breed of animal from the way Marconi was initially written...and to be honest, that's not a bad thing here.  Under the circumstances, Brown gets the chance to play the role as an ultimately different character - a mix of somewhat loopy self-help guru with a love of theatrics and a man who, despite that goofiness, still knows more about the workings of the world than any of us will.  For all intents and purposes, I'm actually still rather impressed with how well this film held up.  As an adaptation it's admittedly a bit wanting (largely due to realizing certain elements are trimmed back, in particular the character of Amy feels a bit awkward given much of her role is excised, but just on the strength of the film it doesn't feel too problematic.)  Further, the effects are somewhat hampered by the budget, but not in any way that really detracts too much from the film.  While there is a minor sense of 'it could have been more', the fact is, it still carries on its own.  The end result is still an insanely fun movie with a wonderfully skewed sense of its story.  When this makes it into theaters later this month, I'd say it's worth tracking down.  Hell, I'm actually looking at trying to see it on a big screen just because it'd be fun to see it again in a proper theater.

As a great man once said:
"...well, THAT escalated quickly."

-Django Unchained

Oh, Tarantino.  All these years and I STILL love the Hell out of your affinity for older cinema.  Following from his previous take on World War II and revenge films, Tarantino explores a blend of vengeance, blaxploitation, and spaghetti westerns this time around.  You know, between this, Inglorious Basterds, and Death Proof, I've rather liked this direction in Tarantino's career.  While I still love the modern crime stories that made up the first part of his career, it's a lot of his more recent works that have really allowed his voice to shine through clearest.  Django is no exception to this rule, and even taking an entirely new setting, the story in terms of direction and writing is VERY much one of his own in the best sense of the word.
To anyone who's only looked at the adverts, let me just say, the marketing is a bit misleading.  Not bad at all, but definitely a bit misleading.  You still get some awesome bounty hunting adventures with Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz, and yes, they ARE awesome.  But the storyline involving DiCaprio's plantation is more its own separate story arc...and actually one that plays out in such an ultimately unexpected way I actually like that it's a separate plotline from the bounty hunting.  They're both great halves, but at the same time, I do feel like the latter is better for the fact Tarantino lets it stand as its own narrative that branches off from the bounty hunting storyline.
Alongside the overall two-fold plot, this continues to play with Tarantino's love of dialogue.  While the setting doesn't allow him to work in as much for pop cultural ruminations, he still works in some great conversations, including a downright priceless scene involving debating the logistics of Klan hoods.  It's one of those moments that can't really be summed up more than that.  It really just has to be seen/heard to be properly believed.  Alongside the dialogue, Tarantino continues to craft some memorable characters, and in his ability to cast them.  In Django himself, Jamie Foxx reminds us that he's got the skills to carry a lead role.  Through him, we get both the likable elements of Django as well as the badass element, which is especially necessary in the film's blood-soaked final act.  Alongside him, Christoph Waltz (who took the best supporting Oscar the last time he worked with Tarantino) makes a great partner as bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz.  Actually, that was a big part of what makes the first part of the movie so enjoyable - Foxx and Waltz work very well with each other, and it makes what could have just been a good set of performances into a great team.  It's also that good dynamic the two have which helps with some of the more intense parts of the movie's second half - as each has to hold the other in check when confronted with things that are, understandably, repellent.  With the second half, we also get the other standout performances of the movie.  First of these being Leonardo DiCaprio as plantation owner Calvin Candie.  This is one of those types of villain roles, you know the ones.  The kind where you can tell the actor is having a blast playing such an evil scumbag.  The benefit of these being, usually if the actor is having this much fun with the role, they're also doing a good job.  DiCaprio gives Candie a wonderfully psychotic air that makes him equal parts dangerous and entertaining to watch.  In particular there's one moment where he drops the jovial side and starts letting a darker element in that makes him genuinely feel threatening to watch.  It's no wonder people are saying he may be due for a best supporting nomination for this one.  The other major standout performer in this, playing an ultimately different role from his usual, is Samuel L. Jackson as Candie's right-hand slave, Stephen.  For an actor traditionally associated with playing take-charge types, it's surprising to see Jackson taking on the role of a bitter old man, but one still quite sharp and devoted to keeping the status quo running on the plantation.
The film admittedly does have a few minor shortcomings - as the female lead, Kerry Washington feels ultimately rather underutilized.  Admittedly, I can somewhat understand that given the setting and the story, but it's still a bit surprising to see from a Tarantino script.  Other than that, the only other major setback lies in parts of the film's pacing, in particular in the last act (which, while a blast to watch, is also rather chaotic in its starts and stops.)  Part of this may be the fact this was the first time a Tarantino film wasn't edited by the late Sally Menke, with Fred Raskin taking the reins after assisting with editing on several of Tarantino's earlier movies.  Despite these shortcomings, the film is ultimately a mix of many of the things that have marked Tarantino's career and made him standout so far - sharp dialogue, great acting, a healthy dose of love for niche cinema, memorable editing that reflects that love, and, once again, a wildly varied soundtrack that, in this case, works well despite its anachronisms.  A further reminder why I'm glad whenever he has a new film out.

"Some day, this will all be yours...
...it will look a lot better once the flood waters drain, naturally."

-Beasts of the Southern Wild

...and then we end part 1 of our list on a much calmer, but still VERY good note.  This was another film where I knew very little about what to expect going in, and in some ways, I think that really was a good way to watch this.  Building from a short film and a stage play before it, director Benh Zeitlin has put together a film that manages to be surprisingly powerful while dealing with a relatively grounded subject.
Taking place in the fictional southern community known as the Bath Tub, Zeitlin and writer Lucy Alibar use storms and melting ice caps as frame work for an ultimately internalized, and astonishingly well-acted storyline.   In this community, they choose to focus on young Hushpuppy (played by a remarkable Quvenzhan√© Wallis,) a young girl living with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry, equally strong.)  We learn fairly early on that their lives aren't quite as secure as she initially believes, Wink is unwell, and as we find later, is dying.  As this new sinks in, messages about the world becoming unwound resound to her with images of the melting ice-caps, their community flooding, and the return of prehistoric aurochs.  At the core of all of this is a single simple, but resounding message - this is a film focused on Hushpuppy and her trying to come to grips with the change that is now bearing down on her life.  It's particularly telling that the disasters and flooding don't resonate anywhere near as much with her as the idea of losing her father does.
This is where the film's biggest strength comes in - as a very young newcomer, Wallis has a big job to tackle with this role.  Luckily, she takes it on full-force.  The tough love relationship she has with her father is played well on both sides of the dynamic, and even with the two yelling at each other, we can still see the love this family has for one another.  This is part of what really helps with Wallis's performance as the movie goes on.  She doesn't simply switch gears as necessary, but rather we follow along with her as it slowly sets in that her father is dying.  This leads to one particularly wrenching moment in the later half of the film as Wink tries to get Hushpuppy to leave him - she thinks he's trying to get rid of her, but meanwhile he simply doesn't want her to have to see her father die.  The confrontation between the two is a potent scene and, yes, I'll admit it, it got to me as I saw it unfold.  It feels odd to simply write about this film to try and sell it after how much of a surprise it was for me.  It really is one that has to be seen, given how much of the movie rests on its lead and the performances.  The script itself is also good, don't get me wrong, but much of this can't entirely be done justice in text.  Further alongside the acting, I just have to say, I loved the cinematography by Ben Richardson.  The way a lot of this film is shot works well with the setting - while we have wide sweeping shots with the scenes of the overall changing world (particularly the aurochs,) much of the main story is filmed in a way that actually almost feels like a child's perspective - lower shots and the camera not staying fixed within certain shots.  It further amplifies the idea that we're seeing this story from the perspective of a child, and that's really part of what makes the story so impressive in the first place.
I really hope the speculation about Wallis getting a nomination for this movie comes to pass.  One part because she's earned it, and one part because it feels like more people need to give this movie a shot.  It's a very unique film overall, and done with enough love on several levels that it's hard not to be impressed with the final product.  Admittedly it may throw some people as its style is somewhat different, but it's still well worth at least giving it a chance.

...and wait, we're only half-done?
I forgot how long these writeups can go.  What does this mean?

That's right, I'm going to string you all along with a cliff-hanger!
Part 2 to follow tomorrow.  I promise (hey, I'm cruel enough to hit you guys with a cliffhanger, but I'm not THAT cruel!)

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