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|Film Review – Gravity
|It’s been a long seven-year wait since Alfonso Cuarón’s last film, the masterful Children of Men, so needless to say there was a lot of excitement for Gravity among the film community, especially considering Curaón has spent the last four plus years working tirelessly on it. However, I found the marketing of Gravity to be a letdown, with the CG standing out as quite corny in places, so was prepared to be a little disappointed going in. Thankfully, within the first few minutes those fears were quickly put to rest because, when taken in context on the big screen, the effects are nothing short of spellbinding.|
With Gravity, Curaón has created a visual feast the likes of which have not been seen before. From the opening 17-minute shot, you immediately get the sense you’re watching something special unfold. I have no idea how they made it (I can’t wait to watch the extras!), but he renders space as realistic as anyone could possibly expect in a Hollywood production. I have little doubt it’s the closest most people will ever come to actually being there or experiencing a zero-g environment. It’s the closest I personally ever want to get, that’s for sure.
All is for naught, however, if there aren’t good characters or a good story. Sure, the story is as simple as it gets, and it only consists of two characters, but it’s always compelling and resonates on an emotional level. In a role several other A-list actresses passed on, looking foolish for them now, Sandra Bullock turns in the strongest work of her career, one in which will position her in the center of Oscar talk once again.
I’ve never been a huge Bullock fan, but here she’s stripped of all charm or awkward attempts at humor and is simply fighting for survival, and she is magnificent. Even when the back story involving her son is brought into focus, which, let’s face it, was fairly manipulative and made the film’s themes blatantly obvious, she still makes it play and have it feel real.
George Clooney, as the other character, doesn’t have as much heavy lifting to do, but does exactly what is called for. He makes a few wisecracks to alleviate some of the tension, gets Bullock to where she needs to be (in more ways than one), and then brings it home with one of my favorite scenes towards the end.
Gravity has a few minor faults, but none I would call serious or major. The dialogue, which has been called out by many, I didn’t have much of a problem with. I can understand why it has gotten under fire, and can’t deny the film likely would have improved if it had been even more silent than it was, but two other things stood out to me more.
Gravity does a stellar job at avoiding clichés, but there’s one whopper of a scene where it fully embraces one of the oldest in the book midway through. You’ll know it when you see it. It could easily have been switched out for something less predictable, and it became all the more bothersome when I found out afterwards it wasn’t even scientifically accurate in the slightest. Oh, well.
The other quibble I have with is the ending, which I thought would have greatly benefited from some ambiguity, in much the same way Children of Men would have. It was a little too Hollywoodized for my tastes, which I’m sure a lot of people appreciated as a release after going through such an unconventionally rendered experience, but imagine the gut-punch it would have packed if it ended two minutes earlier.
Still, those complaints are essentially nitpicks when taken with the grand scale of things. Gravity is one of 2013’s finest achievements and will likely be looked back as one of the special effects pioneers of our day. It’s also on pace to becoming the most financially successful avant garde film ever made and a global phenomenon, which is equally as impressive. Curaón is one of the great visionaries of our time, and it’s a joy to watch the rest of the world finally catch on.
|Tags: film review, gravity
|Interview – The Joy Formidable
|Frontwoman Ritzy Bryan talks about the scientific concept behind the band’s sophomore album Wolf’s Law, recording in Maine during the dead of winter, and the balancing act between their live show and studio recordings.|
"[Wolf's Law] is this scientific term and theory, like you described, of bones being able to adapt to different types of stresses. We’re always interested by language and imagery in language. Like many things do, it seemed to have a relevance to the tracks we were starting to write, the album we were starting to make."
|Tags: the joy formidable, interivew
|Interview – Anberlin
|Guitarist Christian McAlhaney discusses Anberlin’s latest album Vital, major label troubles, the past and future of Acceptance, and reuniting with producer Aaron Sprinkle.|
"I can probably say that this will be our last record on Universal. It was great, but major labels are always struggling. They’re polishing the brass on the Titanic. We had a good run, for sure, but there was always the risk of getting the major label rigmarole. It’s always about the profit. It’s always about the top dollar and what’s happening now, which is why every label is signing a bunch of bands that sound like Mumford & Sons. We released a super heavy rock record, but whatever. They’ve been good to us and breathed some good life into our career."
|Tags: anberlin, interview, Christian McAlhaney
|Interview – fun.
|Guitarist Jack Antonoff talks about the band’s big Grammy night, playing larger venues, the status of Steel Train and what’s next for fun.|
"There’s a lot of stuff we’ve done this year and we’ve gotten really good at just shutting off. There’s some things that are too big to even think about, and you get to the point in your head where all you can think about while you’re up there is when you used to do really small shows. Now it’s the Grammys, but it’s still the same thing. The environment is the same. It’s the same emotions. I play guitar the same way, Nate sings the same way, so it’s really important in those moments to treat it no different than like playing a club show."
|Tags: fun., interview
|Film Review – Side Effects
|Stephen Soderbergh has been contemplating early retirement for a few years and now, according to him, Side Effects will be his final theatrical release, at least for the time being. He has a film that will air on HBO later this year, and then after that, he’s moving on to the next phase of his life. If Side Effects does indeed go down as his swan song, he goes out on a high and striking note.|
Tapping into his inner Hitchcock and Polanski, Side Effects is Soderbergh’s version of a creepy psychological thriller. It starts out as a vicious, almost PSA-esque attack on the dangers of pharmaceuticals before morphing into something completely different 45 minutes in. Our society has become far too overly dependent on trying to prescribe its way out of problems, and Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns take that concept to its extreme conclusion in unexpected ways.
Needless to say, there are plot twists aplenty, which are quite effective at keeping you on your heels, so go in as cold as possible. At some point a certain level of disbelief becomes required by necessity, as is often the case with stories of this nature, but the groundwork laid is strong enough to fall back onto without much of a hiccup. A good deal of that is due to the brilliant casting of Rooney Mara, who previously was the opening scene-stealer in Social Network and underwent the impressive transformation as the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. She does another 180 here, suffering under an intense depression cloud with deeper demons bubbling beneath the surface. Mara has established herself as one of the most talented young actresses of her generation, and it’s obvious to anyone paying attention she’s going to have a very long and prosperous career.
Jude Law is the other main piece of the puzzle and responds with some of the best work he’s done in a while. He’s able to play both sides of the aisle, as his character seems to be a good guy at times and a bad one at others, and that gray becomes key when his life and career quickly unravel and he starts to lose it. The supporting cast of Channing Tatum and Catherine Zeta Jones, among others, all contribute important, and memorable, aspects to the story.
Side Effects is a definite step up from Soderbergh’s last two efforts, Haywire and Magic Mike, both of which left plenty to be desired, and joins Contagion as his best work since the early 2000s. It’s masterfully shot and put together, clearly demonstrating he’s still at the top of his game with a lot left in the tank. There stands a good chance he will get the itch to direct again and be back at it in a few years, but you never know. This could very well be it. Anything is possible, as Side Effects makes abundantly clear, and if he is done, his 25-year, one-of-a-kind career won’t soon be forgotten.
|Tags: film review, side effects
|Film Review – Zero Dark Thirty
|Without a doubt 2012’s most controversial film was Zero Dark Thirty, especially if you were a member of Congress. Torture has become one of the moral issues of our time, one that everybody has a strong opinion on, therefore it was only natural something touching on it so directly would generate a heatedly split response. Months before it was even released there was a debate over whether or not classified information had been leaked to the filmmakers, and then of course there were the huge questions over whether the film was pro-torture and the manner it portrayed torture in helping to get bin Laden. The controversy turned out to be something of a double-edged sword – it contributed to it becoming an unexpected box office smash, but the ruckus also likely cost it a shot at several prestigious (and well-deserved) awards, as Kathryn Bigelow’s snub for Best Director can attest to. Above all, though, it got people talking, a tradeoff the filmmakers are likely content with.|
Zero Dark Thirty is immaculately constructed by Oscar-winning scribe, and former journalist, Mark Boal, which was no easy task. He had to boil down a decade-long manhunt into 150 minutes, plus rewrite the whole thing when bin Laden was killed halfway through preproduction, and it all works seamlessly like a charm. It’s not hard to follow nor does it feel overstuffed, yet at the same time it’s very thorough and never feels shortchanged, either. It’s a tricky balance to walk but Boal manages to get it just right.
The acting is another big reason why Zero Dark Thirty is as good as it is. Jessica Chastain gives one of 2012’s most compelling performances, in my opinion a Best Actress worthy one. The 10-year hunt ends up consuming her to the point of obsession, and Chastain nails the transformative steely resolve and determination to a T. Bigelow also enlists a long line of excellent character actors to make even the small roles worth paying attention to, one of the perks of having just won Best Picture and Director.
Which, as we all remember, happened three years ago when the Hurt Locker famously beat out Avatar, but Bigelow and company weren’t content sitting back and decided to one-up themselves with the follow-up. This time it’s on a larger scale, a lot more storyline threads are at play, it’s more complex thematically and less of an action picture. But that isn’t to say it’s not exciting or dull, and being that everyone already knows the ending, was an obvious concern going in. Rest assured, the bin Laden raid is one of the most arresting sequences in recent memory. Kudos to Bigelow for shooting it in what feels like real time and keeping Hollywood bombast out of it.
As for its depiction of torture, I found it to be about as accurate as can be expected for a non-documentary. The facts are our nation did many terrible things in the wake of 9/11, and Zero Dark Thirty never shies away from the ugly. Does it make torture out to be more successful than it was in real life? Perhaps, but it also shows how unreliable the information obtained using enhanced interrogation can be and that sometimes good old-fashioned detective skills are the best bet. Truth is, the real life issue of torture is far from clear-cut and cannot be summed up in a simple paragraph. There are countess articles that delve into the accuracy and message of Zero Dark Thirty in greater detail than I am able, so read a few and make up your own mind. I would recommend starting with The Atlantic’s excellent “Zero Dark Thirty Is Not Pro-Torture” and go from there.
Whatever your thoughts on torture are, whatever you felt Zero Dark Thirty was or wasn’t advocating, there is no denying it is a striking and well-made piece of filmmaking. Ultimately, it tries to be as ambiguous and apolitical as possible to force viewers themselves to wrestle with the consequences of using torture, both the positive and negative, because persuasive arguments can be made on either side. Bigelow even fittingly chooses to end by lingering on an unanswered question as if to say the debate is far from over and now left up to us to decide the final outcome. Art is supposed to be provocative, and few did it better in 2012 than Zero Dark Thirty.
|Tags: zero dark thirty, film review
|Film Review: Sound City
|Sound City was a popular Los Angeles recording studio that rose to prominence in the 70s, sagged a bit in the 80s and went on to enjoy a resurgence in the mid-90s. It was a trashy building that no one was particularly fond of, but inside featured one of the premiere Neve soundboards in the world, which is where the real magic happened. The studio closed in 2011 due to financial difficulties, but thankfully Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl decided to buy the board for his home studio and make a documentary about its storied legacy.|
The beginning portion of Sound City focuses on its early roots, those running the studio and the first artists to record there. Fun fact: the board originally cost $75,000, a boatload of money at the time and twice as much as the owner had paid for his house. We see snippets of Neil Young cutting After the Gold Rush, as well as Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled breakthrough, Tom Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes and Rick Springfield’s Working Class Dog. Some of the history can be a bit dry, and being this was years before my time I’m only halfway aware of all the names tossed around, but Grohl keeps things moving at a steady clip so it remains interesting. Plus, it’s pretty cool hearing about how it took Petty and the Heartbreakers 150 takes to get “Refugee” right and how Springfield’s dog was awkwardly in between the legs of his guitarist when they were cutting “Jessie’s Girl.”
Then we get to the 80s, where the digital revolution is starting to materialize with the advent of computers and the compact disc. Sound City begins to struggle as a result and is in danger of closing, but then in 1991 a band few had heard of decided to record an album there that would go on to change the face of music. As we all know, this band was Nirvana and the album turned out to be Nevermind. Being how this is one of my favorite albums from the 90s, this is when things really started to take off for me. Obviously, Grohl was there himself for all this, so we hear firsthand from him about the 16 days Nirvana spent recording the album and anecdotes like how he had to play to a click track for the first time ever on “Lithium.” His enthusiasm is infectious, and he says numerous time he literally owes his career to Sound City and the board. We then move on to see the likes of Rage Against the Machine, Johnny Cash, Queens of the Stone Age and Nine Inch Nails working in the ensuing years at the studio.
But with Pro Tools and the digital age becoming ever more pervasive and cheaper, easier alternatives, Sound City just wasn’t cost effective anymore and it was only a matter of time before it, like most classic recording studios, was forced under. As previously mentioned, Grohl buys the board and then decides to invite several artists over to cut an album at his studio like they used to do back in the day at Sound City. Similarly as in the Foo Fighters documentary Back and Forth, which spent the last half hour focusing on the making of the band’s current album Wasting Light, Grohl spends a half hour on the making of the Sound City Players album, which will be out in March. We see Grohl and the Foos jamming with Stevie Nicks, Springfield, Josh Homme, Trent Reznor and finally Paul McCartney. For fans of the aforementioned, it’s a neat chance to get an up close look at them in action and hashing things out on the spot.
For a first feature, Sound City is a solid accomplishment for Grohl, whose previous directing experience consisted of only a handful of Foo Fighters music videos. It’s competently edited together and well shot, while it’s never immediately obvious the idea originally was envisioned as just a YouTube short. At one point in the film, Grohl broaches the question, “In this age of technology, where you can simulate or manipulate anything, how do we retain that human element? How do we keep music to sound like people?” At its core, this is what he feels the story of Sound City encompasses, and probably why he felt so compelled to turn it into a movie in the first place. It’s unfortunate, then, he never allows himself the opportunity to delve too deeply into the subject, especially as we all know from the Grammys a few years back he is clearly opinionated on the matter. But that’s really a whole other can of worms for a different feature-length documentary, while Sound City turns out to be more content with simply rehashing the good old days. So instead we get to see many respected and well-loved artists reminisce and recount stories of days gone by, and in the end that’s more than entertainment enough.
|Tags: film review, sound city
|Best Of 2012 – Film
|01. The Avengers|
03. The Cabin In The Woods
04. Silver Linings Playbook
05. Zero Dark Thirty
08. The Dark Knight Rises
09. The Grey
10. Beasts Of The Southern Wild
11. Django Unchained
12. Moonrise Kingdom
13. The Impossible
14. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
16. Safety Not Guaranteed
17. Friends With Kids
18. Seven Psychopaths
19. The Master
20. The Raid: Redemption
21. Hope Springs
24. The Amazing Spider-Man
27. Jack Reacher
28. The Bourne Legacy
29. John Carter
30. The Hunger Games
31. 21 Jump Street
33. Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World
34. Men In Black III
Jeff, Who Lives At Home
Life Of Pi
People Like Us
The Pirates! Band Of Misfits
WORST I DARED TO SEE
Snow White & The Huntsman
This Is 40
Wrath Of The Titans
|Tags: best of, 2012, film
|Best Of 2012 – Music
01. Anberlin – Vital
02. John Mayer – Born And Raised
03. fun. – Some Nights
04. Linkin Park – Living Things
05. Lovedrug – Wild Blood
06. The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten
07. Yellowcard – Southern Air
08. Mumford & Sons – Babel
09. House Of Heroes – Cold Hard Want
10. Motion City Soundtrack – Go
11. Walk The Moon – Walk The Moon
12. Anchor & Braille – The Quiet Life
13. The Killers – Battle Born
14. Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball
15. The Shins – Port Of Morrow
16. Deftones – Koi No Yokan
17. Taylor Swift – Red
18. Snow Patrol – Fallen Empires
19. Imagine Dragons – Night Visions
20. Gary Clark Jr. – Blak And Blu
21. Silversun Pickups – Neck Of The Woods
22. Regina Spektor – What We Saw From The Cheap Seats
23. Keane – Strangeland
24. Of Monsters And Men – My Head Is An Animal
25. The Classic Crime – Phoenix
26. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – The Heist
27. mewithoutYou – Ten Stories
28. Jack White – Blunderbuss
29. Circa Survive – Violent Waves
30. Greg Laswell – Landline
31. Maroon 5 – Overexposed
32. The Fray – Scars & Stories
33. Paper Route – The Peace Of Wild Things
34. Matchbox Twenty – North
35. Good Old War – Come Back As Rain
36. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
37. Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream
38. Ingrid Michaelson – Human Again
39. Glen Hansard – Rhythm And Repose
40. Kimbra – Vows
41. Say Anything – Anarchy, My Dear
42. Soundgarden – King Animal
43. Benjamin Gibbard – Former Lives
44. P.O.S – We Don’t Even Live Here
45. Lifehouse – Almeria
46. Bad Books – II
47. Santigold – Master Of My Make-Believe
48. The All-American Rejects – Kids In The Street
49. Passion Pit – Gossamer
50. Further Seems Forever – Penny Black
01. Blink-182 – Dogs Eating Dogs
02. Sara Bareilles – Once Upon A Time
03. The Modern Post – Grace Alone
04. Eisley – Deep Space
05. John Mayer – The Complete 2012 Performances Collection
06. Churchill – Change
07. Citizens – Already/Not Yet
08. ††† – EP ††
09. Anthony Raneri – New Cathedrals
10. Vocal Few – She’ll Be Right
11. Bayside – Covers: Volume 1
12. Lovedrug – Sessions
13. Katy B – Danger
14. Youngblood Hawke – Youngblood Hawke
15. Mark Rose – The Sound Of A Turnaround
All Time Low – Don’t Panic
Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel…
The Avett Brothers – The Carpenter
The Beach Boys – That’s Why God Made The Radio
Big Boi – Vicious Lies And Dangerous Rumors
Bloc Party – Four
B.o.B – Strange Clouds
Civil Twilight – Holy Weather
Counting Crows – Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation)
The Early November – In Currents
Eve 6 – Speak In Code
Every Time I Die – Ex Lives
Lupe Fiasco – Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1
Foxy Shazam – The Church Of Rock And Roll
Anthony Green – Beautiful Things
Green Day – ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, ¡Tres!
Grizzly Bear – Shields
Hit The Lights – Invicta
Carly Rae Jepsen – Kiss
Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
Lazerbeak – Lava Bangers
Lecrae – Gravity
Bruno Mars – Unorthodox Jukebox
Meiko – The Bright Side
Metric – Synthetica
Minus The Bear – Infinity Overhead
Jason Mraz – Love Is A Four Letter Word
Muse – The 2nd Law
MxPx – Plans Within Plans
Nada Surf – The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy
Papa Roach – The Connection
P.O.D. – Murdered Love
Project 86 – Wait For The Siren
Joshua Radin – Underwater
The Rocket Summer – Life Will Write The Words
Rodrigo Y Gabriela – Area 52
Shinedown – Amaryllis
Sigur Rós – Valtari
Stone Sour – House Of Gold & Bones: Part 1
Sucré – A Minor Bird
The Temper Trap – The Temper Trap
Tremonti – All I Was
Two Door Cinema Club – Beacon
|Tags: best of, 2012, music
|Film Review - The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
|I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on opening night, of course, which has given me a month to let the film simmer and plenty of time to reflect upon. Turns out that’s not a positive thing, however, because the more I think about this first Hobbit film, the more glaringly problematic it becomes and the less I like it. Perhaps most tellingly of all, I can’t shake the feeling Peter Jackson has made a major mistake, or rather several.|
Lord of the Rings is neck and neck with Star Wars as my favorite film of all time and the books are my favorite books of all time. I am a huge Middle Earth junkie, needless to say, and have been greatly anticipating the Hobbit’s cinematic adaptation. Things got off to a rollicking good start in April 2008 when Guillermo del Toro was brought on board to direct. In my mind, he is a superior director to Jackson in almost every area, along with being in my top five favorite directors, and I was very much looking forward to what new and different things he would bring to the table.
Alas, it was not meant to be, as the Hobbit was stuck in development hell over MGM’s bankruptcy woes for years and thus could never be greenlit. This forced del Toro, one of the busiest guys in all of Hollywood, to eventually leave the project in May 2010 because he couldn’t afford to waste more time on something that was going nowhere. In hindsight, this turned out to be an ominous omen of what was to come. Strike one.
Then after filming was complete, Jackson got the bright idea to stretch the Hobbit into a three-part trilogy, which as we all know is only 300 pages in length. Originally envisioned as a two-parter, which would still have been somewhat of a stretch but one I was willing to accept and could definitely have seen working, this new vision pretty much damned the Hobbit before it was released, especially considering how Jackson and company never scripted it that way to begin with. Strike two.
And what do you know? As a pure stand-alone entity, An Unexpected Journey is an outright mess. I can only imagine the reaction from someone who is either unfamiliar with Lord of the Rings or not a fan of the trilogy to begin with. For starters, it’s far too long and has more pacing issues than any of the Lord of the Rings films, all of which were even longer. This is shocking because since they didn’t have enough good material to split it up in the first place, one could have logically deduced these three new films would end up shorter and more manageable as a result, but no. Doubly shocking is there’s still an extended version to come with 20 more minutes. Shudder.
Instead, almost everything Jackson has added to the film that wasn’t in the original novel, from either Tolkien’s other writings or stuff he made up himself, feels superfluously out of place. There’s several tangents that contribute nothing to the story and only slow things down or make the story unfocused, whether it be the Necromancer stuff, anything involving Radagast, Orc villains or a pointless mountain pass journey.
Everything involving Azog, a newly created Orc chief framed as Thorin’s personal archenemy, is laughably terrible. There’s a reason Tolkien didn’t have something like that in the Hobbit in the first place because it doesn’t work! Speaking of not working, Jackson must have been watching the Star Wars prequels recently because he decided to throw in a bunch of cartoonish stuff and juvenile attempts at humor, which lo and behold fails as well. Chief offense is Radagast, who absolutely has no business being in the theatrical version. You could literally edit him out of the entire film and not miss a single beat.
Finally, Jackson got the equally novel epiphany to shoot in 48 fps, which has backfired on him in a big way. The reaction has been almost universally panned and harsh from the first time he screened footage at CinemaCon. It was so bad I didn’t dare venture to see it in that format myself, lest I risk tarnishing Middle Earth for myself, and I almost guarantee the lukewarm reviews would have been much kinder if it had only been shown in the traditional 24 frames.
Despite all these narrative deficiencies and cartoonish elements, the Hobbit does do a lot of things well. It still feels like Middle Earth, for one, which is an accomplishment in and of itself, and it was very welcome to set foot in the beloved land once again. The performances are solid, too. Martin Freeman as the new Bilbo fits right in, though despite being the title character he isn’t given much substantial to do. Richard Armitage as Thorin is the only other new character to stand out in a good way, as unfortunately most of his dwarf brethren blend together and have trouble differentiating themselves. It was nice to see a few familiar faces as well, namely Ian McKellen, wonderful as always as Gandalf, yet the unequivocal highlight was Andy Serkis’ return as Gollum. The game of riddles between him and Bilbo is by far the best thing in An Unexpected Journey. Those 15 minutes are a brilliant delight in every way and the only scene that feels like it could hold its own to the best from Lord of the Rings.
While the Hobbit as a whole is competently told, it’s the flaws that stick out the most and serve a stark contrast to its award-winning predecessors. As previously mentioned, it doesn’t really work as a stand-alone film, something I felt like the other Rings actually could do, especially the Hobbit’s narrative cousin, Fellowship. However, it does a decent job at setting the stage for what is to come, so in hindsight if the next two films turn out to be amazing, it will be much easier to pardon An Unexpected Journey’s faults. Yet I feel like the odds are against Jackson this time, especially when almost everything he added to the first one were the weakest parts, and in the end I just don’t think the Hobbit functions best as its own trilogy. I would love to be proven wrong, but this Hobbit project has seemingly been doomed from the start. At this point, the strikeout might be inevitable.
|Tags: film review, the hobbit, an unexpected journey
|Film Review: The Impossible
|The will to survive and the bond of family are two very familiar themes in storytelling, and it’s true the Impossible is not breaking any new thematic ground. But framed against the horrors of the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia in 2004, it’s a powerful and personal story that won’t soon be forgotten.|
The one scene that everyone immediately calls out is of the tsunami itself, which is as realistic a tsunami/flood scene as has been portrayed in film. It’s both terrifying and exhilarating, a remarkably realistic feat for something operating on a somewhat limited budget of $45 million or so. It is shot and framed well, while most of the water effects seem to have been done practically, which feels like you’re put right in the middle of it all.
The other aspect that stands out is the performances, particularly those of Naomi Watts and Tom Holland. Over the past decade, Watts has established herself as one of the premiere dramatic actresses working today, and she deservedly earned her second Oscar nomination for her work here. I doubt any other character in 2012 had to go through as many trying circumstances, as she’s either in various stages of excruciating pain or literally trying to stave off death for most of her screen time. It’s a gutsy role that is both physically demanding and emotionally draining, and we feel it through her every breath.
Holland plays her eldest son of three, in his early teens, and he joins Beasts of the Southern Wild’s Quvenzhané Wallis as the year’s most revelatory discovery. He capably holds his own against his more experienced costars, and this type of material is no easy task, regardless of age. Meanwhile, he evokes remarkable pathos in the moments when he has to act on his own, perfectly walking the scared-brave tightrope everyone in the film is undertaking on some level.
Now the first half of Impossible is near flawless. Following the tsunami we stick with Watts and Holland basically in real time as they try to find safety and medical attention. There’s no score, and it’s a riveting piece of pure filmmaking. However, an hour in it starts cross-cutting between the other half of the family, which consists of Ewan McGregor and their two youngest sons, and the raw intensity gradually begins to fade until it becomes more traditionally movie like. That’s not necessarily an outright bad thing, but the second half writing is the weakest element by far.
It should come as no surprise there’s some kind of reunion that takes place, and the scenes immediately preceding it definitely are exaggerated narratively. The sequence still works because we’ve become so invested in these characters, but in the back of your mind you know what you’re seeing is fairly ridiculous and manipulative. I’m not sure how you would fix the problem, because almost any ending you pick would feel “impossible” to a certain extent, but it remains a particular flaw nevertheless. I’m curious how the direction they went with compares to what happened in real life.
Speaking of real life, the last thing I found interesting is how the nationality of the actual family was switched from Spanish to British. I don’t know if there’s an underlying studio reason for that, or if they simply jumped at the chance to get actors of Watts and McGregor’s caliber, but considering how almost all of the principle crew is Spanish to begin with, it struck me as slightly odd and out of place.
The Impossible is just the second film from director Juan Antonio Bayona, who started out on 2007’s above-average horror film The Orphanage, yet you never would have guessed it because he already seems like a seasoned pro. I have no idea what the man’s future ambitions are but I can definitely see him helming a huge Hollywood blockbuster in the near future. The Impossible is a wonderful accomplishment and something to be proud of, a moving testament to one family’s love in the face of some of the worst life can throw your way.
|Tags: the impossible, film review
|Film Review: Gangster Squad
|It’s no secret I have been looking forward to Gangster Squad for some time. It boasts a fantastic cast, with one of my favorite actors (Gosling) and actresses (Stone), while I’m a huge sucker for period gangster-noir films. L.A. Confidential and Chinatown are two of my all-time faves, and I was hoping Gangster Squad could be this decade’s updated version. But when the reviews began trickling in, they were less than kind, to say the least, and frankly I don’t quite understand why all the hate.|
Yes, it’s derivate of several much greater films and unoriginal, but the same can be said for a good chunk of what Hollywood churns out these days. Plus, don’t forget back in the 30s there was a new gangster flick released literally every week, so originality isn’t exactly this genre’s forte. Gangster Squad has other issues as well. The bookend narration is terrible, the closing action set piece laughably nonsensical, it’s overly stylized and uses too much slowmo, and the script that was buzzed about for years is light on character depth and very pulpy. In hindsight, it makes sense why so many A-list directors passed it over before Ruben Fleisher, who has now used up most of the goodwill generated from his Zombieland debut, landed the gig.
Still, for all its faults, Gangster Squad remains a capable piece of entertainment. Fleisher did his best contribution by landing a near dream-list cast, and even though it’s far from their best stuff, it keeps things respectable and never dull. Even though, as previously mentioned, the story is entirely all too familiar, the majority of key ingredients are included and the marks hit at least somewhat accurately. It will never be mistaken for a classic, but for fans of the genre, it’s hard not to walk away at least halfway satisfied.
|Tags: gangster squad, film review
|Film Review: Django Unchained
|Django Unchained is about as quality as we’ve come to expect from Quentin Tarantino over the last 20 years. It’s not quite on the same level as his last film, the near-masterpiece Inglorious Basterds, but it’s roughly in the same ballpark, especially as they’re both period pieces reinterpreting history in a way. It’s not as groundbreaking or unconventional as past efforts, or narratively as creative, but more of his version of a straightforward spaghetti, exploitative western, and viewed from that front, it works best.|
The obvious highlight is the acting, which is pretty noteworthy across the board. There’s no doubt left Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson were born to act in Tarantino films. Walt may not have top billing but his character is more complex and easily surpasses Jamie Foxx’s Django, and the film suffers whenever he’s not on screen, especially during the end. Leonardo DiCaprio is a delicious scene-stealer in a rare villainous turn, but the real villain is Jackson, and he delivers a wicked, darkly comedic performance about as strong of work as he’s ever done.
Now Foxx does an adequate job as the title character and is nothing to shrug off, it’s just the writing barely bothers to develop him or give him something substantial to do. Despite this being “his” story, he’s essentially relegated to the sidelines until he busts out on his killing rampage for the finale. The relationship with his wife, which is supposed to be the crucial crux of the story, fails to hit home on an emotional level. We know we’re supposed to care about it because the story says so, but the plot is so stuffed with characters and tangents, it shortchanges a good chunk of the dramatic impact.
The other main criticism, besides the editing needing to be tightened up, is Tarantino doesn’t seem to push himself as much as he could or should have. By putting racism and slavery front and center, and by portraying them to such an extreme extent, he had an opportunity to dig deep and really say something, but instead he seemed content with merely cracking a few jokes and never deviating much from basic blaxploitation, which he’s already shown to be quite capable of handling. At this point, we more or less know the basics of what we’re going to get from Tarantino, and however weird and demented a sandbox it may be, he ultimately plays it too safe and never expands upon said sandbox.
As it stands now, Django Unchained will go down as the most financially successful film of Tarantino’s and one of his most acclaimed. Without a doubt, it’s a well-made, well-acted and overall entertaining film, but it’s missing those moments of brilliance that have made Tarantino a star and one of the most talked about directors on the planet. There’s nothing as memorable as cutting off an ear, or the Ezekiel vengeance speech, or the mall swichteroo, or the Crazy 88’s bloodbath, or the tavern standoff. Because in the end, as good as Django may be, it’s hard not to walk away wanting a little bit more.
|Tags: django unchained, film review
|Film Review: Les Misérables
|Les Misérables is the epitome of everything I hate about the musical genre, chiefly being it takes twice as long to say half as much in a wholly ridiculous and unconvincing fashion. The constant singing and bombast rob it of whatever genuine emotion or drama it was striving after. It’s mind-numbingly boring while being wildly disjointed. Basically, it embodies poor and lackluster storytelling, plain and simple.|
I knew next to nothing about the Les Mis story going in, and believe it or not, I was more or less on board for the first 40 minutes or so. I love Hugh Jackman and felt he got things off to a solid start. Anne Hathaway was great as well, although I felt her now almost guaranteed-an-Oscar performance did not live up to the hype. But then Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are introduced as zany, slapstick characters, which feels like it’s directly culled from their roles in the superior Sweeney Todd but feels woefully out of place in this movie, and it’s all downhill from there.
It just goes on. And on. And on. With no more Hathaway, and Jackman not as convincing as he was in the beginning, things unravel disastrously. Several awkward time jumps take place, new characters are introduced, some pointless and never-explained revolution occurs, but by that time I’ve become so numb to the whole thing I just want it to end. Russell Crowe doesn’t do anyone any favors, either, showing how he’s a shell of his prime years by being locked into the same grim expression the entire time, no matter the scene.
Now I will applaud Tom Hooper for utilizing live singing. I’ve always been a big proponent for films doing this more often, have never understood why they don’t, and I think it pays off. It certainly works better than some of his other directorial choices and shot selection. I will also applaud the production design and costume work, which sets a grimy and realistic tone, even if the singing and some of the ridiculous plot points immediately takes you back out again.
Les Mis is one of the most apathetic experiences I’ve ever had in a theater. I’m sure the original Victor Hugo book is good, because there are some promising story elements at play, but the manner in which the deluge of operatic singing is portrayed and how repetitive the storytelling becomes wore me down to no end. I was as thankful as can be when it was over.
|Tags: Les Misérables, film review
|Film Review: Life of Pi
|Early on, Life of Pi makes the bold, and if you think about it rather arrogant, claim this is a story that will make you believe in God. Yet once it’s over, it has almost the opposite effect, and will likely leave any rational filmgoer more confused than anything. Certainly, I don’t see it being used as an evangelical tool to convert atheists any time soon.|
First, however, I suppose I should preface this by admitting I was almost preconditioned to not like the film going in. In my mind Ang Lee is the most overrated director in my lifetime, and the discussion is not even close. He seems like a nice and smart enough fellow from the interviews I’ve seen, I just personally don’t care for any of his work, even outright hating some of it (cough, Crouching Tiger, cough), and have never understood why critics are so eager to eat his stuff up at every turn. That said, Life of Pi is easily the strongest film of his I’ve seen, and the problem with it ultimately lies in its source material and not his faults as a director, although he isn’t entirely off the hook, either.
With that out of the way, yes, Life of Pi looks amazing, as everyone and their mom seem to be quick to mention. It has some of the best 3D work ever put to screen, rivaling that of Avatar, as there’s several stunningly beautiful sequences involving water and some of the most realistic CG animals money can buy. It also features a fine central performance from Suraj Sharma in his first acting role, who proves to be quite the find. When you think about it, most of the time he’s either by himself playing off of imaginary things or in front of a green screen, a difficulty for any actor, much less someone making his debut, and he handles it like a veteran. The always-reliable Irrfan Khan does fine work as the adult Pi as well.
Pacing has always been a major issue in nearly every film Lee has done, and when a little over half your movie is a boy and a tiger stuck together in a boat, obviously there’s going to be some issues to overcome. It’s not as bad as it could have been, but it definitely grows monotonous after awhile. But pacing isn’t the main problem this time, instead it’s Pi’s theology and muddled message.
For starters, the defining characteristic of Pi when he is first introduced as a young boy is how he cherry picks from every religion he comes across, in this case Hinduism, Catholicism and Islam. I’m not going to open this can of worms other than to say that at their core those three religions are not compatible in any way, shape or form, and any true follower of one would never claim to also follow the other two. Whatever, it was showing how naïve Pi was in his youth, as his father points out one night over dinner, I get it, but then it’s basically discarded for the remainder of the picture until it’s rashly tried to be tied back in at the end. It all comes across very awkward, while never progressing beyond a rudimentary stage. I don’t know why Hollywood loves to fall back on this kind of vague universalism, (oh look at us, we’re so postmodern!), but it’s starting to become a lazy crutch. By not taking a firm stand on anything, you really end up saying nothing at all.
In keeping with that theme, we learn at the end Pi’s fantastical journey, which Lee has dutifully shown us, most likely never factually occurred, but was instead merely an element Pi concocted to help him deal with the harshness of what really went down on the boat, never mind how neither of his stories seems all that plausible in the first place. But the movie zips right along to culminate with him saying it doesn’t matter which one is true, only which one you personally choose to believe in, and that is the same with God. Say what?
I understand the using an altered form of reality as a coping mechanism it was attempting, which was more dramatically convincing in Pan’s Labyrinth, and finding inherent truth in storytelling, even among greatly exaggerated tales, a la the excellent Big Fish. Yet these conclusions come across much too hastily and underdeveloped when revealed in the climatic hospital scene, and it is no help when Sharma chooses that moment to turn in his least effective acting in the entire film. No matter what interpretation you have, it just feels clumsily handled and way out of left field, akin to resembling a thrift shop version of Robert Shaw’s famous Jaws monologue. For someone as cynical as myself, who always thought Pi’s boat ride was far fetched to begin with but didn’t buy into the “real” explanation either, I was really left scratching my head. (You’re telling me he actually survived 227 days in that boat. As Gob Bluth would say, “Come on!!”)
The most unexpected and interesting part of Pi has easily been seeing the wide variety of readings people have taken away from it, and after only a single week I’ve already thought about it more than most films from 2012, so on that level it can be considered a great success. I’ve even come to accept and somewhat make peace with the ending, or at least more than I did when walking out of the theater, centering around the idea of Pi being a postmodern version of Pascal’s Wager, where if you have a 50/50 choice between a “fantastical” explanation (God, religion) and a natural reality (neither), you have nothing to lose and theoretically everything to gain with believing the former to be true. If it makes you feel better and allows you to make sense of life more easily, well, then hooray for you.
Now as previously alluded, it never clarifies what its big metaphor actually represents, instead indirectly implying one story is as good as any other because no matter what the ship still sinks. All roads lead to Rome, theologically speaking. Above all, it reminded me of the hollowness of Lost’s finale more than anything else, and we all know how well that went over. Or, maybe in a Losteque twist, they were really trying to suggest Pi’s worldview, or any belief in God for that matter, is as irrational as the number his nickname derives from and nothing more than a child’s parable. Either way, I just wish there was a more compelling argument presented on screen, and maybe there is in the book, because the story has the basis for a meaty subjective vs. objective truth discussion and why it is we do believe in the things we do. Yet as something that repeatedly states its primary thesis to be a story that will make you believe in God, it falls woefully incomplete and inadequate.
Now you might be thinking, “Well, of course there isn’t a lot of depth to Life of Pi, it is based on a children’s novel after all,” but any such argument is disqualified for something being positioned as a genuine awards contender and coming from a previous Best Director winner. For instance, it shares many passing similarities to last year’s Hugo, (both were released at the same time of year, are based on children’s books, feature acclaimed directors tackling 3D for the first time, etc.), yet with his Scorsese was able to tap into a legitimately profound portrait on the power of storytelling while grounding it in a fulfilling emotional core.
Sure, Ang Lee did the best with what he had to work with, and Life of Pi is a well-made effort, which is the highest complement I’ve paid the filmmaker before. In the end, though, its lasting impact will likely be all about the visuals and not the substance, or lack thereof. It might be directly attributable to the original source, it might not be, but when all is said and done it was Lee’s decision to turn it into a $120 million film in the first place, and thus the final result falls squarely on his shoulders.
|Tags: film review, life of pi