Wednesday, January 2, 2013

New Year's Hangover Pt 2

AKA - Shut Up and Pass the Aspirin

Where we last left this entry...
...wait, why am I recapping?  Just read yesterday!

All done?  Good.  Let's go!

"You think this ratty little apartment is a miserable existence?  I'm the one who's gonna be dealing with sparkle jokes for the rest of his life!"


"Do you ever get the feeling that sometimes you don't know what's going on?"

Hearing this quote said in the film, I couldn't help but feel this is really the perfect way to sum up the impression I got from Cosmopolis.  Going in, I knew two things. One, it was directed by David Cronenberg, and two, it was a VERY divisive film.

Naturally, this meant I had to take a go at it.  The finished film was actually a bit of a strange ride, but one I felt glad that I took.  It's definitely an unusual sort of narrative for one thing.  Most of the film just follows enterprising Wall Street billionaire Eric Packer (in a pretty surprising turn by Robert Pattinson) through one day where he decides he has to go get a haircut.  It sounds bland as a summary, but the proverbial devil is in the details here.  Thanks to external elements, including a visit by the president, an anti-capialism protest, and the 'credible threat' of a possible attack, this is going to be an all day venture.  Like The Master, this movie's strength lies in how it tells the story rather than the story it tells.

This largely comes down to two individuals - Cronenberg and Pattinson.  It feels odd for me to actually be speaking well of Pattinson as an actor after the multi-year sideshow that Twilight has turned his career into, but this really feels like the movie that shows he can still potentially break out of that.  As Packer, Pattinson's performance is cold and remote, but this time it's actually by design.  As part of the much-discussed wealthy 1%, Packer is a person who ultimately seems detached from the rest of the world.  This is a point that's made even clearer within the film where many of the sequences take place within his limousine as things go on outside.  Much of his connection to the world has to clear his bodyguard, Torval (Kevin Durand) and his personal interactions feel very impersonal.  He even has his doctor perform a physical examination within his limousine on his way to the haircut that becomes the focus for much of this movie.  There's something genuinely unsettling to how cut off and sealed Pattinson plays the role, especially in the later half where his desire to become more directly involved in the world starts to break through in various, and dangerous, ways.  For some reason, the two actors I keep wanting to compare this performance with are Jeremy Irons in some of his younger roles and Christian Bale in American Psycho.  It's that sense of someone who has basically become so focused on numbers and wealth that they feel strangely detached and inhuman as a result.  With this as our focal character, the decision to have Cronenberg direct is a perfect choice.  His own rather stark look at the world in some of his films further aids in the sense of Packer's detachment.  When he invites people into his limousine to talk with them, camera shots are arranged so they're almost never in the same scenes together.  Even sex with him feels strangely mechanical and lacking in emotion.  Even when Packer finally tries to break out of his controlled world, Cronenberg and Pattinson both make his slowly returning to a more human state a very gradual process.  By the time of the final act, in which Eric confronts his would-be attacker (an actually fairly chilling role by Paul Giamatti,) he still seems to approach his life with a sort of curiosity that leads him to act on certain things a person would ordinarily never do, simply to see what it would be like.  It's an altogether pretty unusual movie, and definitely one that you'll either love or hate (just look at the internet if you don't believe me.)  For my own vote, I was very mixed on the film in the first half before I finally started to get into the sense of it in the later half...and felt fairly unsettled by the finale.  I'm not sure I'm gonna say this one's a gamechanger for Cronenberg, but I commend him for trying something different with this story, and personally I believe the results paid off.

and based on my calculations, I can now take back approximately 53% of my digs at Pattinson's acting ability thanks to this.  You're getting there, man.  You're getting there.

"It's like I told you, just cause the movie hinted at it doesn't mean you're Batman!"


One thing I really have to hand to 2012, it was a very good year for sci-fi.  Now, I'll grant it wasn't perfect, but we still had some great entries that started giving the genre some legs again.  Rian Johnson's Looper was one of the films that really broke through as far as good sci-fi story that had good mainstream accessibility.  One can certainly see why as well.  The story dabbles in some interesting science fiction ideas, but doing so without drowning in the technical aspects.  The movie establishes its rules for how its setting works, particularly with regards to the time travel aspect, fairly early and in a straightforward manner.  Further, it adheres to its own rules well while crafting a good story within them.  Also, it does the one thing science fiction by its design really needs to do more often - it explores some interesting questions beyond just the tech.
In this case, alongside the technicals (which include time travel and telekinesis becoming a sort of genetic oddity) the film plays a lot with the idea of change.  Now, normally I tend to have issue with this in time travel movies, but in this case, I actually found it worked well.  This was in part because it became less about the idea of traveling back in time to alter the past, but rather about the notion of realizing things to change the present while there's still time to do so.  It's a theme the film works with on several levels, both personal and, while not as explicitly stated, looking at the setting suggests national to degrees.  It's also one that resonates even after the film is over.
Beyond the thematic ideas, the movie in general is also quite well made.  A good mix of prosthetics (provided by Kazuhiro Tsuji) and acting on the part of lead Joseph Gordon-Levitt allow for an eery believability in playing a younger version Bruce Willis.  Additionally, his scenes with Willis, alongside the similarities are also worth watching for how the two play different aspects of the same person - Levitt's Joe is content to continue free-wheeling with drug use and killing for money, while Willis's Joe had managed to actually make a good life and is now disgusted with his younger self's casual indifference.  Alongside the 'two sides of the same coin' of the two leads, the film also features some strong supporting performances, in particular by Emily Blunt and Jeff Daniels.
Given the strong reviews and response this got, I do hope this does feed the incentive to make more sci-fi films like it in the future.  Cause it's films like this that really restore faith in the genre's future.

Even just looking at Dane DeHaan, I can't help but feel like, had Lucas only waited 10 more years, he would have been a MUCH better Anakin Skywalker.  That decade could have also been devoted to a better script as well, but that's a debate for another time.


I've said it before here, but under the circumstances, it bears repeating.  I've had a very tenuous relationship with the 'found footage' genre of film.  It can be used well in some cases, but a lot of times, it really does fall flat as gimmickry.  So the fact this one made it up here should say something for where this falls on the spectrum. 
In this case, it helps that the story it's attached to is one that could be told just as well without the addition of the camera.  In this case, however, it does also serve as a means for developing one of the major players in the story, Andrew (Dane DeHaan, in one of the best performances I've seen in a found footage movie.)  That said, the other standout with regards to this story is how it takes a rather old conceit - a group of young leads suddenly developing special powers - and finds a way to breath fresh life into it.  First and foremost, there is the fact that this story doesn't really go into classic traditional 'save the world' mold - rather, the three leads (the other two being Andrew's cousin Matt, played by Alex Russell, and popular Steve, played by Michael B. Jordan.)  On being granted powers, the three behave...exactly as three teenage boys would be expected to - it's a tool for goofing around.  Even the idea of acting for the greater good, represented in social activist student Monica (Anna Wood) is largely blown off by Matt when he's questioned about it.
Of course, as you may have guessed from the marketing, the film's shenanigans don't last long - particularly for Andrew - whose outcast status, paired with a troubling home life, eventually leads him to lash out.  It's Andrew's character that really gives the film a good justification for its found footage style.  As I mentioned above, this really does a LOT for developing him as a character cut off from others, something that's even observed by Matt and Steve at one point.  Through this we see things like his casual interactions with them, as well as, over time, Steve's attempts to help him actually open up more with people.  As a side note, these are actually some good moments for Jordan acting-wise.  He plays Steve with such an easy-going style and charisma that one can see why his character is not just popular, but well liked.  It's also thanks to the camera style that we see the darker sides of Andrew's life in a rather frank manner - most notably early on when the camera passively watches as he's beaten by his father.  It presents us with a straightforward look at this kid's life, and we can't help but see why he wants to be separate from it, and later why he starts striking back at it.  The later half of the film, where all Hell breaks loose, still manages to show some major shifts in the characters without really feeling forced, and the finale of the movie, where they manage to sidestep their format through use of security footage to cover the story, allows the film to come around to the idea it started from - a sort of altered take on the superhero origin story.
For a treatment by a first time writer and director (the writer in question, Max Landis, being the son of director John Landis,) this is a strong first offering.  Taking the style and story that had both been fairly well-worn and taking them in new directions made this one a pretty pleasant surprise.
As a nice bonus, I notice this film also laid to rest a lot of the talk about trying to make a live-action adaptation of Otomo's Akira.  Likely because after this movie, what could a straight lift do that this hadn't already covered?

In some professions, 'a case of the Mondays' is more than just a grouchy co-worker.

-The Cabin in the Woods

Yes, I'm writing on this one again after already have spoken for it in October.  I'll humor you guys and try and keep this one from just being a complete retread.  Though I do stand by one of my main points about this from the October entry - as someone who is generally rather iffy on the idea of the meta horror movie, this was a hard sell for me...and I have to hand it to Whedon and Goddard that they actually managed to win me over in spite of that skepticism on my part.  This is also among the many films this year that ultimately wound up on the receiving end of some rather misleading marketing, although in this case, word of mouth managed to largely undo the damage marketing had done.  Just on the ads, this looked like a bit of an odd, but played straight, horror film.  What I got out of it instead was actually a wonderfully insane black comedy that happened to frame itself around the idea of the inner workings of horror.  Going even beyond Scream's cheeky observations of worn cliches in the slasher genre, this was a film where those tropes HAD to happen.  They weren't simply just odd rules the killer adhered to, but rather a complex system that had to go just-so.  This conceit being such a big part of the movie was what really sunk it for me - given how much of the film concerned itself not just with the classic archetype victims, but with the people who were tasked with keeping the wheels turning behind the scenes, most notably two techs played with some grade-A cynicism by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford.
There's something strange about this movie the more I look back at it.  I mean, as a pure concept, this could have really fallen any way depending on how they approached and focused it.  Thanks to the tongue-in-cheek look at the inner workings of the genre, beyond the old 'how to survive' rules we all know (best summed up in one scene where Whitford comments on the complex proceedings asking "Remember when all you had to do was toss a girl into a volcano?",) the film gives itself a lot more stay power and the humor lasts beyond the first laugh.  While I still don't know if this will change the face of the horror genre as some have speculated it will, as a fan, I'm honestly quite happy this film finally got released after three years in holding.  For as much as it lampoons the nature of the horror genre, it also works as a horror story in its own right and pokes much of its fun out of an odd sense of love.
Plus, it has the nice advantage of not losing its quality amid of a sea of progressively weaker sequels, but that's just icing on an already very delicious cake.

...and now, the other side of the previous picture.


Another I already wrote on this year, so here's hoping I can go two-for-two and not just reheat some leftovers.  That said, to reiterate one point from that review, I'm still kind of sad Laika don't get to making many films.  Granted, that's in part because the stop-motion style they work in is a very labor-intensive process, and I wouldn't ask them to streamline that for all the world, but looking at their films it's hard not to be impressed by the amount of work they put into them.  In an age where animation is more and more becoming the realm of CGI, the fact these guys still take on a very resource-heavy process as stop-motion is VERY commendable to me - especially when used as it is in this movie.  Following up on their success with Coraline in 2009, the company really stepped up their game in terms of attention to detail on this movie - creating an entire New England town that they put an impressive amount of detail in both building and animating.  When you watch it in action and realize it was all put together by hand, it makes you want to buy the entire crew a round for their hard work.
Of course, this movie's got more going for it than just the technicals.  The story conceived of by Arianne Sutner and Stephen Stone (with a script by Chris Butler) is actually a pretty unique tale as animated films go.  Part of what really helps said story stand out is how many elements it takes that we've come to view in one light and turns them on their ear.  Based on just how the film is first presented, one expects a straight up curse and zombie-fighting movie as the main plotline.  As it plays out however, we find that, like the film's protagonist Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee in a great voiceover role,) things are definitely not as they first seem.  While there are a lot of good laughs along the way, especially thanks to the supporting cast (in particular Norman's friend Neil and resident bully Alvin, played by Tucker Albrizzi and Christopher Mintz-Plasse respectively,) the film also has a surprisingly mature streak in its story arise in the second half.  I want to clarify what I mean on this point - while not giving too much away, when I say mature, I don't mean in the sense of just shocking subject matter, though there IS a pretty dark reveal, but rather in the fact the film gets into some rather serious looks at just what fear can drive people to.  This is done in such a way that, while handled seriously, is still fairly OK to show young audiences (though it is a bit heavy when it first sinks in.)  It's the kind of angle you don't see animated films really take on here that often, and it made seeing it done here a pretty big plus. It's also one of the more accurate depictions of bullying in recent memory, and taking that into account, the message of the film resonates without being preachy.
I'm still a bit disappointed this film didn't get more love at the box office when it came out this fall, between a great cast, a fairly fresh and at times funny story, and some phenomenal developments in stop motion all resulted in a film that deserved far more than it got.  Hopefully time will come around on this one.

....aaaaaand that makes 10.  Whew.
What can I say?  It was a pretty good year here, without even factoring in the runners up.
...which, to string you guys along further, will be part of the next entry to come.  Alongside them, several of my other miscellaneous thoughts that didn't make it into full size articles, either from lack of full play, or just not getting an opportunity to full form will rear their head in:
2012 Hangover Edition - The Deleted Scenes (Now With More Nudity!*)

*NOTE - Nudity Not Guaranteed -- Legal Dept.

Till then!

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