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Seven Psychopaths (2012)
An Ambitious, If Flawed, Gala of Self-Critique
Gleefully dark comedy with a habitual tendency to go meta. That's actually a central point of the plot, which revolves around Colin Farrell's tail-chasing efforts to compose the film's screenplay whilst in the midst of it. We dance around this issue for a bit in the first hour, but once embraced it leads to a number of sharp, bitterly funny conversations and revelations that really help the film stand out as something different. Its jaded, desensitized approach to gruesome violence can be unsettling, but something tells me that's kind of the point. For that matter, so are the simple, shallow characters that pepper the perimeter and the story's rambling, uncertain climax. Farrell is constantly bookended by his cohorts, Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken, who portray two glaringly colorful characters but don't really bring a lot of depth or flavor to the mix. They're each painted with a single stroke, which could again be construed as part of the film's message... but at some point it's natural to question how many times it can fall back on that ready-made excuse. Funny, black hearted and world-weary, but it feels like too much attention is paid to the undercurrents in lieu of the ocean.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
Raw, Troubling History Lesson That's Worth Seeing Once
A heavy, powerful watch if not in any way an enjoyable one. Similar to Schindler's List in a way, in that it's important material that's well-acted and deeply moving, but also very tough to get through in places. That comparison isn't completely fair, of course. Though Chiwetel Ejiofor serves well in the leading role and Lupita Nyong'o is memorable (if one-note) in support, there is no Liam Neeson-level central performance in this picture and the cast very quickly falls into camps of good and evil with little middle ground. Michael Fassbender fares best as the deeply troubled alcoholic slave-owner Epps, but he's present largely to be despised and as such his character lacks a thorough inspection. The other name actors, shoehorned in as bit roles, only serve to distract. We can slap an Amish beard on Brad Pitt and throw him onto a plantation, but it's still Brad Pitt in those suspenders and there's no getting around that. Well shot and expertly directed, it hammers predictably on the same point from start to finish. This is meaningful, often chilling work, but not something I'm going to feel compelled to revisit in the very near future.
Funny, Witty and Unabashedly Violent, This is Horror With a Thumping, Oozing, Compassionate Heart Right on Its Sleeve
An aspiring successor to Shaun of the Dead that really gets what made the original work so well. Alternatingly charming, hilarious, shocking and suspenseful, it would be tough to pinpoint a particular genre for this film, were it not so thoroughly overrun by swarms of high-speed, viscera-vomiting, man-eating corpses. Blessed with a strong, versatile cast, appropriately overdone special effects and a wicked, black sense of humor that rolled right up my alley, this is much more than just another throwaway monster movie. Loads of fun to watch, for the first time or the fiftieth time, it can also brag one of the greatest surprise cameos in modern memory. Strongly recommended, although you'll need a well-trained stomach because the gore is pervasive.
The Campaign (2012)
Over-Scripted, Underachieving Satire That's Less Than the Sum of its Parts
Another tick in the long line of silly, themed Will Ferrell vehicles, this doesn't quite reach the heights of Anchorman, Talladega Nights or Old School, but fits comfortably on the second tier alongside Step Brothers and Blades of Glory. It's a steady rotation of softballs for Ferrell and co-star Zach Galifianakis, who tackle a political atmosphere ripe for satire with all the nuance of a six-foot dildo draped in the American flag. For what it's worth, most of the gags seem more heavily scripted than I'd expect from these two, so the few scenes that do allow some room for improvisation are, as expected, the best in the film. The comedians' giant personalities mesh nicely as the picture rolls on, but their relationship doesn't revolve around the kind of relentless give-and-take typified by the similar dual leads in Step Brothers. Ferrell's all-in as the scumbag lifetime politician, sleazy in ways that haven't even been defined in the English language, but Galifianakis is actually worth rooting for as his soft-spoken upstart challenger. Of course, it wouldn't have legs if he didn't get his hands dirty at some point, and his gentle nature makes it all the more rewarding when he finally gives in to his baser instincts and fires back in kind. Funny and thin, but you probably already knew that.
Chernobyl Diaries (2012)
A Wilted Concept That's All Too Familiar, Despite the Fresh Scenery
Thrill-seeking tourists embark on an "extreme sightseeing" trek inside Pripyat, a long-abandoned suburb overlooking the ruins of Chernobyl. As appropriately spooky locales go, there's no denying the originality and authenticity of this one. We've all probably seen photo galleries of the city floating around the internet, and if there's a creepier place on the planet, I haven't been notified. In addition to being disturbing in dozens of ways, Pripyat is also monumentally photogenic, which makes it all the more disappointing that it's been wasted on a generic, by-the-numbers taste of scream fodder such as this. Poorly acted (if I'm being generous), with a series of random, unrelated threats that may have been picked straight from a grab bag of overdone horror movie clichés, the vast majority of the action is fueled by small bands of survivors shuffling through the darkness in search of comrades they already know to be dead meat. Surely they're down here, at the bottom of the latest in a long line of steep, grimy industrial staircases!
A Rip-Roaring Crush of Emotions, Gravity Doesn't Let Up Until the Credits Crawl
A fascinating blend of opposing extremes, Gravity is gripping and white-knuckle intense from the word go, but also unexpectedly intimate as a character study. Many of its successes are due to an excellent application of sound design, which flutters from loud, echoey destruction to the sudden stillness of panicked breathing amidst the silence of a total vacuum. Outstanding visual effects up the ante a few more notches, expertly visualizing the helpless chaos of a rapidly-compounding disaster in low orbit in a way that's both picturesque and graphically terrifying. That the rules and environments are all so foreign and unfamiliar only makes it easier for the viewing audience to forget that so much of what we're seeing is CG. The underlying moral is more than a little blunt, and a few laws might get bent along the way, but to zero in on those is to ignore the focus of the ride itself. A cinematic roller coaster in the truest sense of the word, it's one of the most physically suspenseful experiences I've ever sat through.
In a World... (2013)
Light, Casual Humor That Doesn't Live Up to the Concept
The daughter of a well known voice-over artist (Lake Bell) tries to crack the family business, facing tough competition from her father (Fred Melamed) and his egotistical a-hole of a protégé (Ken Marino). Despite a wealth of great comedians scattered about the cast it's not all that funny, even when a few short scenes seem to exist solely to lob softballs. The flirty romance that develops between leading lady Bell (who also directs) and bashful everyman Demetri Martin is sweet and real, but only serves as a brief distraction from the ponderous central storyline. A cute concept that fails to blossom into anything of special substance.
High Plains Drifter (1973)
Black-Hearted and Vengeful, Clint's Later-Era Drifter is Tough to Watch
Clint Eastwood stars and directs in this shameless Leone homage from the early '70s. Eastwood's unnamed horse-mounted strangers have never been the friendliest characters in the west, but in this instance he takes things to a whole new level. He's quick with guns of several varieties, mowing down three rowdy bar patrons and raping a bystander in the film's uncomfortable opening scene, then settling in to take the surviving villagers for all they're worth when he's hired for protection. As it turns out, the village has a few dirty secrets of its own, and its leaders soon resort to a wide variety of veiled threats and bumbling backstabs to keep them quiet. That leaves absolutely no one in the clear as a moral compass, even the twisted preacher, and the film soon settles in to spinning lazy circles like a rudderless ship. Misogynistic, mean-spirited and narrow, it's not a whole lot of fun to watch beyond a few sporadic action shots and one or two well-placed puns. A far cry from the unspoken atmosphere, dense moral grey area and thick, palpable character of the Spaghetti Westerns that made Clint's name in the mid '60s.
Suspense, Action, Humor and Panache; Mixed and Mingled, Like So Many Ingredients in a Good Martini
The Bond franchise finds its long-term footing in this third installment, striking a masterful balance between larger-than-life characters, silly overindulgence and skilled espionage work - a tricky combination that doesn't usually work. Where Dr. No and From Russia With Love were deathly serious, concentrating heavily on suspense, Goldfinger is far less afraid to kick back and have a little fun when the opportunity arises. There's definitely a healthy dose of the 1960s at play here, from the fashions on display to the attitudes of those wearing them, but in almost every single instance that results in a stronger, more vibrant cast. Despite their appallingly silly names, Oddjob, Pussy Galore and even Goldfinger himself are thoroughly deep, interesting, remarkable characters with a lot going on beneath the surface. The exploration of each villain's unique nooks and crannies, paired with an intensely curvy, unpredictable plot and the unmistakable presence of Bond himself, provides more fuel than any film could reasonably require. Quick in wit and in pace, it covers a lot of ground with admirable efficiency, leaves us with two fistfuls of memorable moments, and raises the stakes to staggering heights. It's no wonder this is the standard by which all other Bonds are judged.
In Baseball Terms, This Would Be an Infield Single
Jackie Robinson as a superhuman archetype, standing up to fierce racism and intentional beanballs with the same level of quiet resolve and solemn dignity. It's the sort of movie that writes itself, for better and (more commonly) for worse: one dramatic figure stands against the perils of an acidic hive mind and slowly turns the tide. On the very few occasions where we see cracks in Robinson's veneer, the film is intensely interesting. That's the real draw, to me, how a fiery man struggled to tame his very loud emotions in the pursuit of an insurmountably lofty, important ideal. 42 only gives us a brief taste, sadly, choosing instead to invest its time in tired, overplayed vignettes (hey, it turns out southerners were resistant to integration) and a thin, after-school-special grade performance from its cast. Harrison Ford is a lot of fun as the brash, cocksure executive Branch Rickey, who chose to integrate MLB on his own volition, but he's so makeup caked and under-inspected that it's tough to see the role as more than just a particularly eccentric joyride. Mildly effective, with a few dashes of quality spice, it whiffed on the potential to be so much more.