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Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Zero Dark Thrity is the new movie from Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow who has enjoyed a rich and varied career to date which will surely be swamped under the weight of opinion lumped on this picture. She is a highly adept film-maker and the aforementioned Hurt Locker might just be the finest example of a war movie since Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. Zero Dark Thirty is a different beast altogether. It is a fact-based account of the events leading up to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Its a touchy subject which is largely handled with great care and aplomb by the cast and film-makers. Thats not to say the movie is perfect, its actually far from it.
The movie is talky without being overly analytical or detailed. I learned nothing from the 157 minute runtime that i couldn't find out in 20 minutes on the web, but maybe that's the point. The word chronicle is often bounded around when talking about Zero Dark Thirty. Chronicle is defined as 'A factual written account of important or historical events in the order of their occurrence' and thats precisely what the film is and not a touch more. There is no meat offered to the viewer by way of engaging character or story development, indeed, the film is mostly an anti-cinematic experience aside from the last 20 or so minutes.
An interesting counter point is the popular 'Homeland' show which also charts a driven female CIA agent as she tracks a known and dangerous terrorist. Its true that both works have completely different end-games but it is interesting to note just how far removed the two are. Homeland is purely for entertainment purposes and Zero Dark Thirty strives to be factual and relevant. I would argue that Zero Dark Thirty could have never won over every critic and begs the question, can you really expect to make a piece of solid entertainment about tracking and killing Osama Bin Laden? The answer is no. They would have been surely lambasted for glorifying a potentially inflammatory event (please see Oliver Stone's dreadful 'World Trade Center'). Therefore, we are left with this glossy, extremely well made, pseudo-documentary which is never particularly involving or like-able.
Also with all due respect, Chastain can count herself very lucky to have just been nominated for best actress. She was surely a shoe-in for the Oscar nod for just turning up here as the film lends itself, due to its 'factual' nature, to receiving the adoration of the academy. Her performance, much like the film, barely exists but to prop up and relay the events. She cries when people die and she is cast iron in the face of a male dominated, scary world but she is barely a character in her own right. People aren't talking about Maya's dominance of the screen, they are talking about the half-truisms of the events themselves. I'm not asking for any meaningful superfluous back story or exposition but i wanted to see her out of the situation, if just for a few minutes. As an audience we need to know the characters aside from them telling us what is going to happen in the movie. Don't get me wrong, Chastain does nothing wrong here, its more a problem with the writing or maybe just with the style of movie they were trying to make here that breaks her for me. Another interesting counter-point is Ben Affleck's excellent Argo. Here we have a movie based on some pretty harrowing true events but its handled with a cinematic eye. Affleck takes some liberties with the truth in Argo but what he does make is a piece of cinema that excites the audience, involves you in the picture and the characters completely and most importantly stays with you after the fact. I felt nothing at Zero Dark Thirty's conclusion, even when watching Chastain cry, i didn't appreciate the action or care. I didn't feel anything for her character, i knew her about as well as i did Osama Bin Laden (movie equivalent of course).
I think my main problem was with the point of the whole exercise. Its a film that sits on the fence, never glorifies or revels nor does it offer any comment or insight. So what then was the point? Do we really live in a world where is it necessary to make a film about every important event in history? How is this any different to watching a fluffy news story? Do we really need attractive people on the silver screen for people to give a sh*t about whats going on in the world? I hope not.
All of that being said, Zero Dark Thirty is never an exercise in patience, it rumbles along at a steady pace and if all your looking for is a chronicle of events post 9/11 you'll find a lot to be interested in. I just cant shake the question, what was the point?
Django Unchained (2012)
A masterclass in pulp cinema.
Django Unchained isn't Tarantino's most consistent work nor is it his best, it is however, still a truly great spectacle.
The film initially focuses on Dr Schultz (Waltz) who is a skilled and charismatic bounty hunter. The good doctor soon enlists the help of a hopeless slave called Django (Foxx) who crucially can identify conclusively the men currently on Schultz's kill list. Shultz who is sympathetic to the black slaves of the deep south despite his own morally corrupt profession, soon sees the potential and merit in having Django around. Then the focus shifts as we learn that Django has been separated from his wife and the odd pair endeavour to rescue her from a plantation run by the eccentric and possibly psychotic Candie (DiCaprio).
I'll start by stating the obvious, Tarantino is a Cinephile. This often works to his advantage but every so often its a hindrance, Django represents a good case to highlight this. Django's opening two acts are very strong, focusing on character and setting, providing us with a rich and inviting world that is equal parts grim and hilarious. However, much like Tarantino's more recent efforts Inglorious Basterds and Kill Bill, Django suffers from an odd and inconsistent tone. When the film is funny, it is very funny. When it is sad, it is truly heartbreaking (see all of the numerous torture scenes). However, when the shoot-outs and action began, by and large i switched off. The violence here is campy (as are most of the performances) but there is an odd cinematic grandiosity that simply isn't present in much of the rest of the film. It is strange to focus so much on character and development to dispel it so whimsically with a series spurts and loud bangs. Its mainly the last act that is afflicted with this problem, bullets fly and blood is spilt but the films bite and feeling gets lost in the mêlée. Django himself soon becomes a caricature, he becomes the movie equivalent of what his character sets out to be at the start of the movie and this is a shame. Thus, the last 45 minutes is shade too light and throwaway, seemingly at odds with the world Tarantino painted with his first hour and 45 minutes.
The above being said the film is still masterfully crafted. Everything from the tawdry vernacular (i wont comment on the rights and wrongs use of the N word), to the costume design right through to the performances are simply sublime. Waltz, Foxx and DiCaprio are all great as the various shades of humanity on parade but its Waltz who again steals the show. His charming, effervescent musings mixed with his unwavering empathy make Schultz a force of nature from his brash entrance to his heroic exit in the film. All of the Tarantino-isms are present, the fluid use of time, witty villainous monologuing, extreme violence and an expert use of cinema language. Tarantino shuffles his deck like few can and once again shows why he is a true original. Most films struggle to nail down one mode or tone and Tarantino valiantly tries (with varying success) to juggle a plethora of moods with an intelligence and arrogance few can match. Case in point is the films tongue in cheek seriousness, even in the face of Django's vengeful retribution the film isn't afraid to jolt straight back into farce with the wink of an eye.
It might be a little long for some and it could have been wrapped up more cleanly but hey, thats just not the Tarantino way. I think a more straight forward, more succinct ending would have been more effective than the one offered here but Tarantino is much more comfortable being subversive and revelling is his ever colouful, lovingly created pastiches.
So in short, this is an often great but ultimately solid piece of cinema and yet another interesting chapter in the already bulging book of Quentin Tarantino.
This Is 40 (2012)
This is 40 is self indulgent, silly and only occasionally funny.
Just like its characters This is 40 is witless and empty. Mann and Rudd are portrayed as a loveless, incompatible couple stuck together by their bratty kids. This makes it difficult to invest in any kind of meaningful conclusion to the film. Why should they stay together? What do they have in common? Why should i care? They just seem to fixate on sex and suppressed violence. When the couple aren't swearing or talking crudely about sex, they have nothing to say and neither does the film. It struck me just how childish the whole thing is/was, the film seems to be written by and played by mindless adolescents obviously still high on saying the F word and talking about tits. A love letter to Appatows wife this surely isn't...
However, the films main problem is its just too long, scenes dither and meander which ultimately detracts from any possible cinematic weight or substance. The film also sets up some fairly large problems that it doesn't resolve, such as the kids and their attitude, are we to assume they are just f*cked up and that's it? That just because they're parents stopped having sex and watched each other shitting that they are irreparably damaged? The kids aren't ever sympathetic or sad, they're written as ungrateful brats. Also, there is no resolution to their financial woes and it seems to exist solely in a shoddy attempt to stay relevant with the current economic climate and to make the childish humour seem more grown up and meaningful. In the end, we are left to assume that they will just sell the house and everything will be fine. Fat bloody chance.
Around the 45 minute mark the film seems to want to introduce a plot but much like its ADD characters it gets ignored for the want of more cock jokes and ill conceived blow job scenes. We learn that someone is stealing from the shop that Mann's character now runs and that Rudd is a failing record company owner. It's odd then that these are the weakest moments of the film, Rudd's lifeless music industry monologue and Mann's sit down confrontations with her colleagues are as blunt as they are awkwardly conceived.
The 'people' in the movie are annoying and whiny instead of being well written and honest. It's true that you don't have to necessarily like everyone in the movies but you should at least care whether they are OK at the films conclusion. Stuff gets said by the various 'adults' but nothing ever changes or progresses, we just get the same scene over and over.
Someone said previously that Appatow is the Cassavetes of the R-rated comedy and if that were true he would surely strike a better balance between the two worlds. Rather than knocking over the proverbial stools Apatow prefers to p*ss and sh*t on them. Like previously stated the supposed rawness or honesty of the film takes the form of crude sexual references or uncomfortable admittance. Cassavettes would have at the very least given us actual character development and weight amidst his patented free-form murk.
Kevin Smith's Apatow-lite Zack and Miri is STILL the best example of this type of R-rated comedy movie despite its box office flopping. Its main difference is its embrace of cinematic convention. It isn't the work of somebody that likes brazenly painting his family life on screen, its the work of someone who enjoys other peoples films and film itself. Zack And Miri manages to be equal parts foul and likable (although i accept that its not wholly successful).
Finally, I have no doubt that there is a perfectly funny, rather astute 90min movie itching to get out of this fatty 134min sludge of a film. But then again thats precisely the point, rather than make a movie other people might enjoy, Apatow made a home movie and nobody likes watching those.
A crying shame.
Peppered with enough pointless slow mo and colourful explosions to keep most people happy Sherlock Holmes 2 is bloated and direction-less. It just about flirts with a vague and familiar plot involving an evil genius and a possible world war but never quite embraces it properly and fully. The film also manages to skip any meaningful character and story progression by virtue of a succession of languid expository sequences and monologues. Furthermore, it fails to engage or involve the audience as its overtly 'clever' central characters have to constantly remind us what is going on and more importantly, why we should care. The trick with this kind of movie is to show us the intellectual merit of our characters but to always let the audience be smarter, it has to be this way otherwise there is no connection, no cinematic symbiosis.
It is too easy to lambaste the film for not holding true to the source material, so i wont do that here but it is important to note that the film is astonishingly short on mystery or indeed, any interesting ideas. Instead we get so-called 'clever' disguises, whimsical plotting and an overwhelming sludge of absurdity more akin to that of a Tom Cruise era Mission Impossible film.
Finally, Guy Ritchie continues to be director of interest although this is not always due to the importance or success of his films. Indeed, he seems to have a few ideas up his sleeves but sadly gleams too much delight from showing us the same ones over and over again from project to project. How is the fighting between Sherlock and his faceless baddies here any different to Brad Pitt's bare knuckle forays in Snatch? Also, how long can we endure the Tarantino-lite, pseudo-intellectual rumblings of his central characters who seem intent on talking around the films hollow plotting with puffed up similes and mindless metaphors.
Anyways, this all results in the movie being a mildly watchable piece of cinematic pap.
uneven but bags of fun!
Paranorman tells the tale of Norman, who is afflicted with the strange 'power' of being able to see and talk to the dead. His local town is one full of legends and curses and with the help of a few semi-friends Norman is the only who can save it from a (not so) wicked witch.
Paranorman isn't quite a kiddie film. Sure, kids will enjoy the animation and a few of the more obvious physical jokes but the subject matter and tone of the film is a little too grown up. Lacking in Pixars fun and joviality Paranorman skirts off piste much like its well meaning but odd central character. Some kids wont get of the more subtle jokes or references (itchy weiners and the music) and i still find it strange that they made a kids film about zombies!
I had the same feeling watching Monster House a couple of years back. Much like Paranorman, Monster House is bags of fun and its message is one that i really appreciate but i felt that it didn't need to be as grimmly told.
Taken 2 (2012)
Taken was a rare movie that somehow captured the hearts and minds of the cinema masses without being particularly good. Taken 2 is much worse. Its like the grey-scale version of the first film, there is no plot, no direction and it has a amazingly juvenile script. Its hard to believe any adult human beings were involved in making this movie.
Don't get me wrong, Liam Neeson is by all accounts a good actor but I've rarely seen a performance of such disconnect and disinterest. All he does here is punch and mope. Neeson's Mills is barely a character aside from his mumbled, failed, half cocked one liners. Also, Famke Janssen presents one of the single most insultingly bad performances i've seen in modern times. I found it hard to sympathise with anyone in the film, everyone is so unlikeable and stupid. Watching Maggie Grace prance around in her knickers throwing grenades and drawing circles was also dreadfully misplaced and laughable.
There are a few non sensical, Hollywood moments too, such as sinister terrorists using flimsy plastic ties to try and hold a dangerous 'spy'. Or when Neeson drives through the American embassy blockade for no other reason than to see some bullets fly and to re-affirm the notion that he will never ever be hurt. The movie also seems to be heavily edited at choice moments of violence; this was surely to secure the coveted 12a rating helping the movie to be seen by as many adoring juveniles as possible. A good example of this is in the films rushed ending where a few kills happen without defining shots or sound-effects which was ironically more painful to watch. We have seen this trend before especially with the more enjoyable Die Hard 4 in which lines were clearly re-dubbed and violence was trimmed needlessly.
The fighting and action should be the saving grace but its difficult to follow and uneventful at best. There are so many better movies that have done this very thing much better, so why bother? It tries its hardest to look exactly like and to be as exciting as The Bourne Movies but fails miserably on both counts.
This movie is a complete and utter failure.
hit and miss.
Horror collections are always a mixed bag and VHS is no exception. The central conceit is simple and effective, a group of hideous out of control losers are tasked with stealing a solitary VHS tape from a strange house. When in the strange house they find a dead man with a serious VHS collection. The group then start to play various tapes to find the 'right' one and yep you guessed it, the segments are split by these very tapes.
The movie starts and ends with its strongest pieces. The first two sections, 'Amatuer Night' and 'Second Honeymoon' offer scares and shocks in varying ways. 'Amatuer Night' is a exercise in disgust, we start out by watching pervy men as they try witlessly to get into womens underwear although this time they pick the wrong girl (cue the thunder). There are several more 'human' shocking moments before the true horror starts, with the girl exploding supernaturally into life. Its effective without ever being truly inspired but thats the breadth of the genre in a nutshell. The shorter run time of these segments also ensures that the viewer still appreciates the 'handheld' mise en scene by the conclusion of the piece.
'Second Honeymoon' employs a much different tack and features Ti West's penchant for playing with human interaction and expectation. Here we watch as a couple fumble through a long distance trip, they seem a little off kilter and dread slowly seeps into the frame. Whilst they are asleep we witness an unnerving night time intrusion, this is easily the most effective sequence in the entire movie, our couple blissfully unaware of their danger. The segment bubbles to its shocking conclusion, leaving the audience with a myriad of questions.
The movie ends with '10/31/98' which is easily the most 'fun' segment. Here we follow another band of typical American losers as they unwittingly uncover some serious supernatural goings on behind the shiny suburban streets of middle America. Yeah sure its nothing i haven't seen a million times before and done much better (the section has more than a whiff of Suspiria about it)but its well executed and is helped by the previous two segments lack of cohesion and quality. Its also fun watching the initial 'is this a real haunted house?' act the guys pull when the first arrive in the empty, creepy house as they assume that they have stumbled onto a elaborate house party.
So onto the mid-section. 'Strange Thing Happened To Emily' is initially fun and full of promise. It is rather innovative as its all communicated through Skype, so we watch a guy as he talks to his girlfriend about her supposedly haunted house. The problem with the section is clearly the ending, it follows a much more of a 'Twilight Zone' path than the other sections and has a ball kicker of an ending. A lot of people will be taken by the gross out horror of the final reel but to me it seemed slightly odd and unsatisfying. Also, there are just too many questions and too many coincidences but then again maybe that was the point. For me, it just didn't work.
'Tuesday the 17th' is pretty appalling for a multitude of reasons. Numero uno has to be the characters, where the f*ck do these people exist? So unlikeable, so stupid and so brain numbingly one dimensional. With a central conceit which is so slight, i should at least care about these guys and gals but they were so shallow, so familiar and so stupid. Secondly, who let a 4yr old write the screenplay (if there was one?), too much of it just doesn't make sense. Like what was the point of this segment? Why did the girl go back after her initial encounter with this monster? Are these people really friends? Why was the guy/monster in the forest in the first place? Why was he wearing that lovely red bandanna? I guess there is always going to one complete hack in every deck but this short takes the biscuit. Last but not least, the direction in this piece is dreadful. Even down to the kills which should form the basis of a piece like this but they are lazily CGI'd in post production. This obviously was to try and paint over the fact that this guy has no bloody clue how to shoot a scene that doesn't involve a pair of tits. Also, what was he thinking with the killer? Why does the camera start to falter every time he is around? What a crappy narrative device, 'I know what to do! when the main plot device is on screen i'll make it so we cant see him properly cause that surely wont annoy anyone...' no thanks. It has no beats, no structure and most importantly no merit.
SO, it may not have Trick R Treats subversive streak or Tales From The Crypts ingenuity but it does have some genuinely shocking moments and for that i applaud the relevant film-makers but sadly they are too few and far between to merit repeat viewings. Average at best.
The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
subversive but unsatisfying.
A group of witless teens travel for a weekend out in the woods, only to find that they are being hunted and killed by a malevolent evil which might not be all that it seems.
It is a difficult line to tread, to both intellectually engage your audience whilst ultimately giving them what they want. Meta-horror has experienced a checkered and relatively unsuccessful life since Wes Craven re-opened the box with New Nightmare. Subsequently, we have been treated to such delights as Scream, Behind The Mask, Trick R Treat but for every (relatively) successful movie we have had to sit through dirge like 'The Cabin In The Woods'. Its a movie that seems to revel in thought of its clued in audience pointing and laughing, picking up its silly and needless references to better movies. It forgoes any weight and intensity to firmly pat its own back. Its a movie that seems to forget about the genre its poking fun at, whereas the best meta-horror (or self aware horror movies) are the ones that can equally scare and pick apart. Behind The Mask is a good example of a movie that shatters the veneer of the slasher movie whilst actually being a great slasher movie.
OK, the central premise is quite enjoyable and well conceived but the screenplay it has sprung is lifeless and uninspired. The writing is subversive and hokey to a fault for example, the scene in which the twisted hill-billy is on speaker-phone serves only to break the film entirely and is insultingly mis-placed. I liked the idea of the 'directors' changing the characters to fit the mould of a horror movie but it was done too obviously. Maybe this idea (or its execution) would have worked much better as a short film or even as a mini series. Indeed, it seems that the humour and some of the ideas are lifted straight from Whedons other creations such as Buffy and Angel. Within that format there is much more scope to be inflammatory or tonally subversive as you can just pick up the normal story arc next week (the musical episode in Buffy is perhaps the best representation of this). I think in cinema this has to be more subtle or cleverer or else you alienate your audience. By the end of the picture, i didn't care one sh*t for either character or what was going to happen to the world if the cinematic tropes weren't fulfilled, i was just praying for the curtains to roll.
It is clear then that 'The Cabin In The Woods' left me cold. It wasn't overtly funny enough nor was it innovative in its scares to warrant its tidy billing and after all is said and done, it was just another good idea chopped up and left for dead.
[Rec]³: Génesis (2012)
brave but flawed.
This is a crying shame. There were nice subtle differences between the first two films (namely the more religious, spiritual overtones of the 2nd) but this stretches the 'shake up' concept too far. The movie is tonally uneven (St. George!) and for the most part uninteresting (do we really need to see this story again?). The switch into cinema mode was momentarily exciting and inspired but it quickly gave way to horrifically mis-conceived set pieces and unlikeable bland characters. Its main problem is the subversive comedic elements which only serve to distance the film from its original intention which is surely to excite and ultimately scare. It has none of the guts and balls that made the first two so watchable, here its replaced by listless characters and hammy dialogue.
The first two are not game-changers by any stretch of the imagination but they are at the very least arresting and consistent, this is toss. avoid.
Real Steel (2011)
A rusted mess.
Just like its hero, Real Steel is all heart. Its glossy, twee, well shot but sadly all too mechanical. Just like Super 8 before it, the film suffers from an odd focus on a saccharine set of characters, who when in the midst of the fantastical dangers of the films plotting still seem all too concerned with their own social dynamics and shattered family histories.
I felt no sympathy for Hugh Jackman, who was likable and believable, as the film seems to champion the notion that sometimes we aren't good enough and that we should just give up. There seems to be a natural order at work, that the people with all the money will inevitably get what they want and that this is ultimately right. Case in point, Jackmans offspring ends up with his wealthy aunt or that Jackman's 'everyman' robot eventually loses the title fight, one or the other would have sufficed. OK, with regards to the fight, it is almost a cliché in the sports movie that our hero should take the moral victory rather than to actually win but here it would have been much more fitting given the set up. If Jackman had won the final fight he would have exercised his previous boxing demons and proved to the kid that anything is possible. As it stands, the ending is flat and depressing.
The CGI is fine but i still feel disconnected from CGI heavy action. I felt similar disconnection when watching Transformers, i don't want to watch rubbery CG robots throwing each other about, i might as well stay in and watch someone else play their Playstation.
Also, the film has an odd and uneven tone. It seems to be a kids movie that rides the ropes of a very adult genre. There are character clichés here that kids wont understand and that subsequently get lost the rich tones of the films thick veneer. The films opening 'bull fight' in retrospect seems flabby and without merit, a truer piece of cinema would have cut this and gone straight for the jugular. A useful reference point in this respect is the original Karate Kid, it follows a very familiar pattern but without all the bloat and needless melodrama. There is a rush and a zip to the Karate Kid that seems to have been lost in modern cinema especially those movies catered toward kids. Children don't need 4 scenes reiterating an emotional beat, 'REAL STEEL' could have been a really enjoyable 95 minute romp instead its limp and fatty. It is a common mistake by the Spielberg endorsed film-making crew, length seems to be a substitute for weight.
All that said, i would rather watch a well made piece of tosh than a poorly executed average movie. The cast are all fine, with Jackman continuing to impress as he juggles being handsome, likable and even menacing when needs must, its a shame he has to waste his time on toss like this.