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Film Review – Zero Dark Thirty
02/10/13 at 12:36 AM by Jonathan Bautts
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
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Film Review: Sound City
01/25/13 at 10:03 AM by Jonathan Bautts
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
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Best Of 2012 – Film
01/25/13 at 02:14 AM by Jonathan Bautts
01. The Avengers
02. Skyfall
03. The Cabin In The Woods
04. Silver Linings Playbook
05. Zero Dark Thirty
06. Looper
07. Argo
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
15. Lincoln
16. Safety Not Guaranteed
17. Friends With Kids
18. Seven Psychopaths
19. The Master
20. The Raid: Redemption
21. Hope Springs
22. Prometheus
23. Bernie
24. The Amazing Spider-Man
25. Flight
26. Dredd
27. Jack Reacher
28. The Bourne Legacy
29. John Carter
30. The Hunger Games
31. 21 Jump Street
32. Lawless
33. Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World
34. Men In Black III
35. Sinister

Jeff, Who Lives At Home
Life Of Pi
People Like Us
The Pirates! Band Of Misfits
Wreck-It Ralph

Les Misérables
The Raven
Snow White & The Huntsman
This Is 40
Wrath Of The Titans
Tags: best of, 2012, film
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Best Of 2012 – Music
01/24/13 at 04:47 PM by Jonathan Bautts
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
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Film Review - The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
01/21/13 at 09:42 PM by Jonathan Bautts
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
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Film Review: The Impossible
01/17/13 at 12:54 AM by Jonathan Bautts
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
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Film Review: Gangster Squad
01/15/13 at 11:06 PM by Jonathan Bautts
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
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Film Review: Django Unchained
01/12/13 at 12:59 AM by Jonathan Bautts
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
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Film Review: Les Misérables
01/09/13 at 11:07 PM by Jonathan Bautts
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
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Film Review: Life of Pi
12/07/12 at 05:04 PM by Jonathan Bautts
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
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Film Review: Silver Linings Playbook
11/27/12 at 02:43 AM by Jonathan Bautts
No matter how hard you might resist it’s impossible not to fall head over heels for Silver Linings Playbook, as it’s likely to be the most charming film about mental illness you’re likely to come across. In dealing with such a tricky and sensitive subject matter, it balances the line between comedy and drama, never fully committing to one tone over the other for any long stretch. Thankfully, writer-director David Russell, still fresh from his career resurrection 2010’s the Fighter provided, masterfully blends the two together in the greatest outing of his career.

Certainly the writing is a strong suit, yet Silver Linings’ greatest asset is its casting, and boy do they deliver. Hands down, this is the best-acted film of the year. Bradley Cooper, who I’ve never thought highly of and feared he was gravely miscast when the project was first announced, is nothing short of a revelation. For once, he’s not douchey, instead bringing to light the honest conflict of a man trying to stay on the positive side of a midlife crisis amid frequent outbursts brought on by a bipolar disorder. It’s a career-redefining performance.

On the other side is Jennifer Lawrence, who unlike Cooper I’ve always been impressed by her acting ability, and once again she raises the bar to a new personal height. She’s just as mentally unstable as Cooper’s character, the two really are quite the perfect match despite the age difference, combining the backbone that earned her an Oscar nomination for Winter’s Bone with a sharp talker wit and haughty, take-no-prisoners attitude, the likes of which she hasn’t really shown before. Both are locks for plenty of awards attention, and Lawrence has a decent shot at Best Actress.

Then, as if proving Cooper is actually a legitimate actor wasn’t enough, Russell does more of the unthinkable – gets the least annoying performance of Chris Tucker’s career, also his first non Rush Hour role in over a decade, and an emotionally resonant turn from Robert De Niro, easily his best and most serious work in probably just as long. The rest of the supporting players are fantastic as well, and like I said there’s not a weak link in the bunch.

I suppose at its core Silver Linings Playbook could be considered a romantic comedy, as the feel good ending seemingly betrays. However, hardly any of it plays out or seems to live in the trappings of said genre, and the touching moments it does have all feel deservedly earned. The way it captures the different relationships and issues between the characters, giving you people to genuinely root for and care about in a non-sappy way, is an accomplishment that cannot be understated, which is why it’s already garnered an incredible reaction amongst the film world. It won the prestigious People’s Choice Award at Toronto, an honor recent Best Picture winners Slumdog Millionaire and the King’s Speech also took home, and is without a doubt one of 2012’s absolute finest offerings. I, for one, will be cheering for Oscar gold come awards night.
Tags: film review, silver linings playbook
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Ranking Spielberg
11/26/12 at 02:19 PM by Jonathan Bautts
After seeing Lincoln recently I got to thinking where it fits in among the now 28 films Steven Spielberg has directed, which these days happens every time he releases a new film. (Spoiler alert: it's almost exactly in the middle.) Since I have a compulsory habit of formulating lists and hadn't done one on him in a while, I decided to oblige. Spielberg is someone I've pretty much had a lifelong love affair with after witnessing Raiders many, many years ago, while Saving Private Ryan is my third favorite film of all time and my pick for best film not associated with a franchise, but he has churned out quite a few duds over the years as well. Still, no other person in modern history has made a bigger global impact on pop culture, on what has now been across a nearly 40-year period. I'd like to think for the better, I'm sure many would argue the contrary, yet one thing is for certain - it's doubtful anyone will wield this type of influence again.

01. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
02. Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)/ Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (1989)
04. Schindler’s List (1993)
05. E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982)
06. Minority Report (2002)
07. Jurassic Park (1993)
08. Jaws (1975)
09. Munich (2005)
10. War Of The Worlds (2005)
11. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
12. The Adventures Of Tintin (2011)
13. Lincoln (2012)
14. Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)
15. The Terminal (2004)
16. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
17. Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (2008)
18. Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (1984)
19. Amistad (1997)
20. The Color Purple (1985)
21. War Horse (2011)
22. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
23. Empire Of The Sun (1987)
24. Hook (1991)
25. The Sugarland Express (1974)
26. Duel (1971)
27. 1941 (1979)
28. Always (1989)
Tags: steven spielberg
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Film Review: Lincoln
11/25/12 at 12:28 AM by Jonathan Bautts
Centering a picture on arguably the most beloved figure in American history is no easy task, even for the most celebrated director of our time, Steven Spielberg. To his credit, then, he wisely enlists Daniel Day-Lewis as his collaborator to bring the larger-than-life Abraham Lincoln to life, and on that front the results are nothing short of spectacular. Towards the end of his life, Lincoln was under about as much pressure as you could humanly imagine, and Day-Lewis makes you feel it. Day-Lewis is a once in a generation talent who is famously known for completely immersing himself in his characters for months at a time, and his physical transformation as Lincoln is astonishing. His body seemingly creaks and aches under each movement, his demeanor deathly grave when he’s not sharing his knack for storytelling. Much attention has been made over his voice, which is higher pitched than usually has been portrayed but more historically accurate, and Day-Lewis simply makes it another extension of the character we immediately believe. Really, the film could have consisted entirely of Lincoln in a room talking and it would have been a triumph.

So with half the battle already won, Spielberg than goes ahead and proceeds to enlist one of the strongest acting rosters assembled in recent years, just because he’s Spielberg and he can. This isn’t to say it’s automatically the best-acted film of the year, because it’s not. The script is so jam-packed with characters hardly any are given ample time to be developed, so he wisely leans on them to do the heavy lifting and come across with strong personalities in short amounts of time. Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn and James Spader are easy standouts but others are shamefully underutilized, including Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s son, Robert. The film clearly is most adept at political maneuvering than Lincoln’s personal life, which outside of his relationship with his youngest son leaves much to be desired, and we’re never sure which side of his wife’s we’re supposed to be on.

Now Spielberg’s past forays into historical dramas have been decidedly mixed. Last year’s War Horse was his worst outing in more than a decade, while I remember Amistad, his previous film Lincoln most closely resembles, being very underwhelming. Lincoln is easily stronger than both but it does have its dry spells, especially in its first half where it takes quite a while to get going, yet unlike those two it has a well-timed sense of humor to continually fall back on, an unexpected bonus. In addition, it offers some eerie parallels to the modern American political landscape, and while we obviously are not on the brink of a civil war, despite those nut-job secession petitions going around online after Obama’s reelection, much of the rhetoric has remained largely unchanged.

Spielberg also keeps many of his past tendencies more subdued in Lincoln, which was a smart move and makes the overall picture stronger. However, while it might not be as emotionally calculated as some often find his films to be, an unintended side effect is it’s not as exciting as we’re used to him delivering, either. Sure, everyone already knows the major plot points, but the same case can be made for Munich or this year’s Argo, and that didn’t stop them. Either way, he definitely butchered the ending, which he had set up beautifully to end with Lincoln walking down a hallway, late for his date at the fated theatre, only to extend things another five minutes and squander almost all of the intended impact.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Civil War era ever since I was a little kid, while I’ve been a Spielberg devote just as long. Lincoln has all the ingredients for a modern classic, and there’s little question Day-Lewis deserves his third Oscar for his work here, but as a passion project Spielberg has spent a decade developing, Lincoln never can measure up to his best work, no matter how hard it wants to.
Tags: film review, lincoln
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Film Review: Skyfall
11/23/12 at 01:07 PM by Jonathan Bautts
Skyfall is not only the strongest installment in James Bond's storied 50-year history, it's also one of the finest films of 2012. I've been saying for years the best way to take a franchise to the next level is get Oscar-caliber talent involved, and Skyfall certainly fits that bill to a T. Sam Mendes, who burst onto the directing scene at the turn of the century with one of the most striking one-two punch debuts in cinema history, was a bold choice to helm a Bond film. He's never done an action picture before, and though there was some action stuff in Road To Perdition and Jarhead, none of it suggested he would be a good fit for a big-budget extravaganza. However, as someone to lead Bond further down the road Casino Royale started, which strived after a grounded and character-based tone, he was a logical continuation and one the franchise needed to take that next step.

Skyfall does deliver the action goods as well as any Bond adventure to come before it, so it hasn't gotten all artsy for those who may have been worrying. There's fun homages to the Bond of yesteryear, as well as characters such as Q and Moneypenny presented in new light for the first time in the Craig era. There's arguably one of the most memorable villains Bond has yet battled, brought to life with particular gusto and relish by the masterful Javier Bardem. Bardem makes such an impression from his introduction, an amazing static shot of him walking towards the camera delivering a monologue about cannibalistic rats, you're instantly in awe. He's almost like an exaggerated Julian Assange but combined with a helping of the Joker. In fact, it shares several interesting parallels with the Dark Knight, as both men are beaten down and battered, almost to the point of no return, before reaching down deep and pulling off a miraculous resurrection. If you want to dig deeper you can even read it as a kind of meta commentary on the Bond mythos itself, which finds itself now quite antiquated from the modern age.

Skyfall's biggest weapon isn't Bond, though, it's Roger Deakins, one of the greatest DPs on the planet. From beginning to end Skyfall sparkles and pops, especially in IMAX, and you won't see a more beautifully shot film this year. In particular, there's a sequence in Shangai set in a glass skyscraper that is absolutely gorgeous. The amount of time and care it took to set up shots and have it be an integral part of the storytelling is obvious, and it works wonders. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention Adele's theme song, one of the best in Bond's history, and Judi Dench, who delivers a phenomenal performance that takes M to places the character has never gone before.

Skyfall isn't perfect, but as a Bond film it's pretty dang close. Really, I only have a few slight story nitpicks here and there, nothing major, and it would have been nice to see the sex slave character fleshed out a bit more. I know a lot of people had issues with the ending, which slows things down for an old-school western style shootout, but I thought it worked fine and helped close things out on a more intimate level. Just as Casino Royale raised the bar on what a Bond film could be a handful of years ago, Mendes calls and raises it further with Skyfall, once again proving amazing things happen when you have A-grade talent both in front of and behind the camera, no matter the setting.
Tags: film review, skyfall
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Film Review: Flight
11/23/12 at 01:05 PM by Jonathan Bautts
Flight is a tricky film to pinpoint because it's both better than you would think and yet not as good as it should have been at the same time. The real reason it works at all is due to the greatness of Denzel Washington. Flight is one of his strongest performances of the past decade, possibly even his best work since 2001's Training Day. Denzel is always at his best in darker roles and here he makes the character's downward spiral believable and the battle with addiction feel authentic, not overplaying things in a film where subtlety is not in its natural vocabulary (more on that in a moment).

Much ado has also been made over Flight as it marks Robert Zemeckis' first foray into live action since Cast Away back in 2000, and for the most part he hasn't skipped a beat. The plane sequence is one of the most harrowing scenes of its kind we've seen on screen before, while he gets some truly great work from his deep cast. Quick shout out to James Badge Dale, who has rarely been mentioned in reviews but is absolutely fantastic in his one scene.

Really everything is clear skies, Flight even flirts with being A-grade material, until its final half hour that is and the metaphorical plane starts to go down. That bad pun pretty much sums up just how little subtlety there actually is. It quickly goes south with a sequence seemingly lifted from some other movie, way too lightly played and unrealistic for this film, and then the themes are continually spelled out for you with the grace of a jackhammer. Denzel even has one of those speeches everyone hates in which the point of the entire movie is summed up in one neat little monologue for those who weren't following along.

Contrast Flight with how Shame plays out from last year, in my opinion one of the most powerful and emotionally draining films about addiction ever made, and the difference is mind boggling. Flight comes across as so much clunkier and its message so overtly explicit it almost dims Denzel's masterful work somewhat. Now I understand Flight is a big-budget Hollywood production with an A-list star and an A-list director, so it's natural to not have as much creative license and leeway, and it is commendable for what it does with the pieces it has. Without a doubt it's a far more interesting take on Sullenberger's heroic landing than just being, "Oh, it's the movie with the one scene where the plane flies upside down." However, I've never been a big Zemeckis fan, and the ending serves a stark reminder why. All I could do was shake my head and wonder what might have been.
Tags: film review, flight
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