Underrated - “John Carter”
Pixar titan Andrew Stanton's sci-fi epic "John Carter" was one of those movies that was doomed before it ever even opened. It was persistently plagued by bad buzz, with reports of an ever-ballooning budget and creative hot-dogging by a director more used to manipulating pixels than actual human performances, to the point that most of the reviews evaluated the production history as much as the finished film. This is terribly unfair, especially when those reports were, in all likelihood, wildly exaggerated. In a year over-stuffed with big budget product that was notable only for its anonymousness, "John Carter" is an expansive, earnest, emotive and, above all else, singularly weird, piece of full-throttle pulp entertainment. The fact that it doesn't wink or nod at the audience, that it isn't clever-in-quotes, cemented its fate – being genuine is never looked upon as an asset these days, especially when it's housed inside a $200 million labor of love based on a series of yellowed, hundred-year-old paperback novels. This is a movie with not one but two wraparound stories; a phallic dog-monster named Woola; Tim Riggins as a haunted confederate soldier; an audacious sequence that intercuts a monster massacre with a man burying his wife and child; and a climax that plays like the space opera version of the ending of "The Graduate." Stanton is nothing if not ambitious, and "John Carter" is directed like a kid who's finally able to let loose with all the toys at his disposal. It's messy, for sure, but it was a big budget spectacle that looked and felt like nothing else this year (you could practically pull the grainy sands of Mars out from underneath your fingernails). Edgar Rice Burroughs' original "John Carter" tales were so problematic that they were deemed by many to be "cursed." This still might be the case.
The response out of Cannes (where it picked up the top prize) was rapturous – Michael Haneke had crafted yet another masterpiece, this time built around two people (the genuinely legendary Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) whose love refuses to die even as one of them suffers from failing health. And when I showed up to a screening of "Amour" a couple months after its Cannes triumph I was ready to have my heart broken – to be put through the emotional wringer in a way that only Haneke can muster. But instead, "Amour" proved to be one of those movies that was easier to admire than to actually, well, love. Technically, it's brilliant – restrained and beautiful at the same time. Performance-wise, too, it's virtually unparalleled; to see actors so late in their career dazzle so thoroughly isn't just a triumph of their profession, but something close to theatrical transcendence. It's just that there is still something aloof and removed about "Amour," like watching it through a thick block of ice. The one time the movie really comes to life is a surreal moment when the movie dips into a dream-world fantasy. That's when Haneke's prowess as a filmmaker comes to the forefront, and the disturbing implications of "Amour" take on added dimensions. The rest of the movie is as impressive a piece of filmmaking as anything released this year, but one that doesn't break your heart as much as it tests your patience. Powerful? Yes. But also kind of sleepy. And please, for godsakes, get that pigeon out of here.
Underrated: "This Must be The Place"
First impressions are everything in the film world. So if you’re releasing stills that immediately seem dubious, as “This Must Be The Place” did in showing off Sean Penn as an aged, androgynous retired rocker, the initial resistance is going to be met with hostility. So too goes the knee-jerk responses at film festivals, where comedies never go over well unless they’re from an established name -- it usually helps if they’re arch and sarcastic. That’s not the case with Pablo Sorrentino’s boldly warm comedy where Penn plays a faded Robert Smith-type who has aged roughly into being a grandma. Soft-spoken to a fault, he’s unplugged himself from the outside world to an extreme extent since retiring two decades earlier. But he seeks a reconnection by learning that his distant father spent his final days seeking the Nazi who tormented him during the Holocaust. Still glammed up in cakey makeup and ruby red lipstick, he sets out on the most unlikely Nazi-hunting quest imaginable, toting along a single suitcase on wheels behind him as if it were the world’s most cumbersome boulder. Ostensibly a road movie of sorts, Penn’s wryly funny rocker remains soft-spoken as if to appear alien, greeted by locals and taken in as a gentle eccentric; one who is secretly thrilled, for the first time in his life, to be completely out of his element.
The material is there for “Argo” to be a savagely funny satire that resonates with the pulse of a political thriller. But as a director, Ben Affleck is a sure hand more than a clever one, and the true story of American citizens hidden in hostile Iranian territory remains stuck in uplifting pro-government pablum mode. It’s a procedural, one that would probably have more Oscar heat had it not been shown up by the similar, and more outwardly upsetting “Zero Dark Thirty,” which proved you can be a procedural with unabashed genre leanings and bleak moral shadings. Instead, “Argo” remains ambivalent about its Hollywood worship, casting the movie-within-a-movie’s table read as a garish collection of wannabes desperate for a piece of the “Star Wars” pie, bizarrely cross-cut with torture footage in the Middle East. Furthermore, a late-film climax that piles on every Screenwriting 101 contrivance allows suspense to be built from whether two big-time producers can cross a Hollywood backlot filming what looks like a bargain basement actioner. It’s not a problem that “Argo” openly mocks Hollywood, but rather that it’s toothless prodding, providing no insight into Tinseltown nor the relationship between the glamour of moviemaking and the actions of the government (insight ironically found in the behind-the-scenes story of how “Zero Dark Thirty” came to the screen). By the time Affleck’s “Mr. Holland’s Opus” abundance of group hugs set to swelling orchestral music overwhelms the film’s garish scenes of crowd-pleasing brown panic, “Argo” has positioned itself as one of the most insincere movies of the year.
The fiery, wholly original documentary “Beware of Mr. Baker” was a shot in the arm at this year’s SXSW. In a rather uneven year for the film conference, where Sundance darlings dominated the field, the doc about wacko drumming genius Ginger Baker was a much needed energy boost within the lineup, and it was handsomely rewarded with top documentary honors. Featuring a plethora of intimate and honest star musician interviews, as well as compelling subjects in both Baker himself and filmmaker Jay Bulger (a former boxer turned writer who swindled his way onto Baker’s compound, only to befriend the curmudgeonly recluse, a few bumps along the way notwithstanding) it’s a creatively rendered piece that fuses film form and storytelling to emcompass the the tale of this outlaw’s rollicking ride through life. That it received only a fall run at the IFC in New York seems criminal, not just because it’s a film that would appeal to so many music fans, but because it’s an example of damn great filmmaking. No Oscar shortlist? Insane. The trouble is, it’s not an “issue” film in a year of so many good ones— the riveting “How to Survive a Plague,” Eugene Jarecki’s war on drugs film “The House I Live In,” military doc “The Invisible War”— and it seems that political content outweighs aging rockers this year. Still, the level of filmmaking of “Beware of Mr. Baker” is expert (especially from a first time filmmaker). See this film, if you can, it’s been vastly overlooked in a year of top notch docs.
I could go on at length about how the appallingly conservative Randian politics of “The Dark Knight Rises” render this film the worst of the year. That hardly anyone questioned the irresponsible handling of these issues by the Brothers Nolan worries me about the way in which crazed fan boys and certain bloggers/critics alike blindly consume films that play fast and loose with representational politics without enough salient commentary to justify their free pass (other notable 2012 culprits include "Skyfall," "Django Unchained," and "Killer Joe"). But aside from my questioning why I might want to watch a whiny rich white asshole beat up a deformed former political prisoner, "The Dark Knight Rises" was just one hot damn mess. There's something uniquely enraging and simultaneously boring about the way Nolan structures the plots of his Batman films; it feels like an out of control carousel that I'm ready to get off after 90 minutes, and then it just keeps going, scene after scene of exposition, circling and cirling making little to no sense at all. The plot holes in this thing were also completely laughable from the jump: the police trapped in the sewer for three months emerging clean and ready to stomp some anarchist heads being the foremost example (of many). Matthew Modine was laughable, Gary Oldman boring and useless, Joseph Gordon-Levitt forehead-slappingly corny (nice Brooklyn accent, Joey). Anne Hathaway was pretty much the only energizing thing about this two-and-a-half-hour slog, and she was cast aside after two mildly interesting introductory scenes. Superhero movies often struggle with the stakes; they are either way too high or way too low, and the Nolan Batman trilogy is one of the worst offenders. That Nolan relied on such cheap narrative tricks like the ol' school bus full of orphaned moppets just shows what a gimmicky hack he is. And that ending... he negates any semblance of drama and gravitas he was able to drum up and just shoots himself in the foot. Fanboys should have risen up in anger at this film, and not at the critics who called it like it is. Good riddance to bad rubbish.
Underrated - “The Grey”
Joe Carnahan matures with survivalist tale “The Grey,” and delivers a film that is miles away stylistically from his prior pictures. The remaining members of an oil team post plane crash band together to outlast the unsparing wilderness and the pack of wolves tracking them. Among them is John Ottway (Liam Neeson), initially hired to protect the workers as they drilled in Alaska, and now taking up the mantle of impromptu leader, attempting to keep the peace even as animals and elements haunt the men mercilessly. Carnahan strives to marry the questions that arise from facing down death, a seemingly inevitable extinguishing of your flame, with an old-fashioned tale of survival. It’s a wonder that the philosophizing works as often as it does, theism weighed against a reality with no evidence of a higher power pulling strings to safety. Carnahan balances the thrills of a man vs. nature entry with emotional heft, especially as Ottway flashes back time and again to a few unforgettable moments with his wife. It’s his life raft and perhaps ours, as “The Grey” proves to be a memorable picture, a bracing portrayal of the will to live and the lengths we go to keep breathing.
The latest and most successful Bond outing has had goodwill heaped upon it by both critics and audiences. It’s puzzling to this journalist, since the film he saw in a packed house one Sunday morning had only mere shades of the praise granted. It’s certainly a beautiful film, with clean, large-scale action sequences and the requisite moments of Bond swagger. But beyond the technical consideration and the necessary homages, “Skyfall” falls far short of a satisfying picture. The pacing is particularly poor, with the longest Bond film to date making its length thoroughly felt, especially as Bond returns to the MI6 fold and attempts to regain his physical and emotional footing. At worst, it feels like a reboot, with foundation being laid down for future installments. When Javier Bardem’s Silva enlivens the picture a bit, he soon propels the film into a direction that seems to crib story beats from Nolan’s trilogy. Silva is a compelling protagonist but the overbearing theatricality of the performance is distracting, as is his exceptionally poor strategy for assaulting Bond at his childhood home. It’s a serviceable Bond film, though it lacks the moving romantic connection that drove “Casino Royale” and carried on through to the significantly lesser “Quantum of Solace.” Overall, the film feels devoid of any real tension, settling for an overlong collection of set pieces strung together by characters that inspire little sympathy. Occasionally enjoyable, but clearly unworthy of the near-universal acclaim that suggests a feature successful in all respects.
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