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The Act of Killing (2012)
Oppressively redundant and over-punctuated ...
The Act of Killing is proof positive that a compelling documentary pushing two hours (or more, depending on the cut) needs more than just an intriguing concept. In this case, Western-funded Indonesian death squad members (chief amongst them, Anwar Congo) recall the splendor of participating in the systematic elimination of millions of communists in 1965-1966 by re-enacting their atrocities on camera. In so much as the victors ultimately define what do or do not constitute war crimes, the same paramilitary groups born of that era now thrive in the midst of a corrupt "democracy." That's all well and good, but how many times do we have to hear one participant or another dubiously define "gangsters" as "free men"? How many times do we have to view Congo revisit the scene of the crime to describe the method of homicide he devised to minimize blood spillage? (In both cases, I counted three, but it may have been more.) Even the surreal John Waters-esque wardrobe choices are overplayed for comic relief to diminishing returns. It's too bad that director Joshua Oppenheimer did not fully appreciate the benefit of subtlety (e.g., Congo tenderly explaining how to apologize to a baby duck with a broken leg). Instead, we get entirely too much footage of the low-hanging fruit donning meat-taped-to-the-face prosthetics and reminiscing about carnage, while juxtaposed against lingering shots of Congo pretending to have a conscience. For those of us who attended a screening at Alamo Drafthouse (Drafthouse Films distributed the documentary), the video introduction by the director telling us how we should be expected to react to the film should have been a bad sign.
Take Shelter (2011)
Most disappointing ending of the year
What I liked about this film was the subtlety. Until a gut-wrenching scene toward the end, Michael Shannon's performance is refreshingly restrained, devoid of the hysterics that often accompany films dealing with this subject matter. The socio-political aspects lurk well under the surface, and the screenwriter never hits the viewer over the head.
What I didn't like about the film was the ending. The film should have concluded with Curtis making the choice his mother could not - to put family above his psychology - and open the doors of the shelter, without either Curtis or the viewer knowing what happens next. But the film goes five minutes too long, pulling the rug out from under the viewer as Curtis' premonitions are ultimately validated. (If the Myrtle Beach sequence was intended to be "ambiguous," as some commentators suggest, it didn't work - unlike Curtis' other premonitions, his wife is the one who actually experiences the oily rain, which clearly suggests that the end of the world is in fact being experienced outside of Curtis' head.) I can appreciate an ending like that in the right movie (e.g., Bill Paxton's 'Frailty'). But THIS is not the right movie.
The Thing (2011)
Top 5 reasons why John Carpenter's The Thing is better ...
(1) Kurt Russell; (2) the creepy, minimalist soundtrack by Ennio Marcionne ('The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly'); (3) Kurt Russell; (4) not knowing the ending in advance really adds to the suspense; and (5) Kurt Russell ...
Seriously though, the 2011 prequel is fun for those who are big fans of the 1982 film - but by no means should you see the 2011 prequel BEFORE seeing the 1982 film.
I immediately watched the 1982 film after seeing the 2011 prequel, and the sets from the Norwegian camp were so well replicated. The special effects are awesome in both films, and the CGI was not overdone in the most recent installment (as is all too common in modern entries in this genre). I also like the unique touches in the 2011 prequel (e.g., how the protagonist comes up with to determine who is and who is not the thing). But the differences from the 1982 film are too few and far between, and the 2011 prequel definitely sacrifices character development for a higher body count. While the epilogue tips it's hat faithfully to the 1982 film, the actual ending feels lacking.
James Cameron stole this franchise from Ridley Scott; David Fincher is stealing it back
The original film was a well-made, claustrophobic, dark, pessimistic horror film directed by Ridley Scott. It was James Cameron whose 'Aliens' played more like an action film, complete with a happy ending - the nuclear family going on to a bright future at the end. Cameron himself and his fans looked at the opening 10 minutes - killing off the would-be husband and child of Ripley - as a slap in the face. Of course they would - Alien 3 is a claustrophobic, dark, and pessimistic - like a horror film should be. In any case, the franchise never belonged to Cameron.
SPOILER ALERT: I like Fincher's directorial point of view in this film - it is amenable to the genre. The performances first-rate as well. Even the concept of a new alien (i.e., born of a four-legged animal) was interesting. It's too bad Fincher was hampered by the producers to salvage a bad situation (as the third director, with sets built for a subsequently rejected concept, without even a complete script). Certainly, it is far better than the attempt at dark comedy in 'Alien Resurrection.' That said, the film does have some serious flaws. The CGI of the alien is a definite weak point. Then there's at least one problem with the script - particularly, why the queen alien takes so much longer to gestate than the alien that threatened the prisoners. And arguably the biggest flaw is that it really does hit many of the same beats that the first film hit.
Almost two decades later, Fincher proved to be a far more artistic director, with his own distinct voice, going on to make darker thought-provoking films of his own ('Se7en', 'Fight Club', 'The Social Network'), while Cameron went on to make big, bloated popcorn movies, with really strong special effect and really weak scripts ('Titanic', 'Avatar').
Lady in the Water (2006)
First of his films that I have found to be disappointing
I was not a big fan of M. Night Shyamalan out of the gate. In the waning months of the summer of 1999, I was far more impressed with a pre-hype showing of 'Blair Witch Project' than the somewhat predictable debut, 'The Sixth Sense.' Maybe timing is everything. Nonetheless, although 'The Sixth Sense' was hardly a disappointment, I was far, far more impressed with 'Unbreakable,' 'Signs,' and 'The Village.' In my opinion, 'The Sixth Sense' is one of those films that is completely driven by plot, with very little character. These are the types of films that often drive box office revenues and serve the viewer who simply wants to be entertained. But with each of Shyamalan's successive films, fans of 'The Sixth Sense' have become more and more disillusioned with the writer/director. For me and a lot of viewers however, his characters have become richer, and even if the plots have become sloppier and sloppier, at least the works have become more thematic.
With 'Lady in the Water', the theme is a significant one - power of storytelling, but the film itself ends up being nothing more than a relatively unaffected exercise in meta-storytelling. Shyamalan can build a wonderful plethora of characters in the first 30 minutes of the film, but he cannot inject them into the mythology he is trying to create in any convincing or meaningful way. Shyamalan has made the grave error of assuming that we will accept this mythology without him doing the hard work as director and writer. Combined with a marked increase in Shyamalan's own screen time (well beyond his signature cameo role), the film drips with hubris of the type of a talented filmmaker who has finally come to believe his own hype. I truly hope that he will come back down to earth for his next film and go back to writing and filming great stories instead of writing and filming stories about stories, neither of which are convincing.