Friday, January 11, 2013

The Disappointments of 2012

Not meant to be read, as always, as a "worst of" list.

(The worst movie of the year is Taken 2.)

10) Django Unchained 

Perhaps I'm measuring this by an unfair barometer. Quentin Tarantino is America's premier cinematic provocateur and one of our most vivid auteurial voices, and although this doesn't guarantee quality product, he generally creates something that merits discussion at the very least. Here, though, all I'm seeing is the same old handful of tricks scrawled out over a new historical setting. Anachronistic musical selections, often cribbed from other films? Check. Gleeful ultraviolence? Check, though it feels watery compared to the man's other films - must be that overthick fake blood, gushing lethargically with every gunshot. Like Paul Thomas Anderson with The Master, Tarantino offers us something that demonstrates a continually growing sophistication of theme and tension, but is by design constrained by disheartening adherence to tried-and-true aesthetics and structures. Django Unchained has its share of charms, but their human expressors are Tarantino's least interesting set alongside Death Proof. Kerry Washington's role is utterly pathetic. Leonardo DiCaprio is fun playing against type, but I'm not exactly sure what Tarantino saw in him that demanded his placement in the role, short of that impish grin. Christoph Waltz is reliable if not repetitive in his darkside gentility, Jamie Foxx is good, and Samuel L. Jackson is an especial standout, but Tarantino's dialogue and scenario creation are much less memorable than his self-plagiarism demands. The ideas are there and tantalizing, but it's as if he floundered in finding some way to express them while expressing himself at the same time.

9) God Bless America

This is a movie about two pieces of shit who, upon deciding that they are better than everybody else, cross the country and kill all of the lessers who don't deserve to breathe the same air as them. The movie tries to justify it by giving all of the victims dubious moral character, if you consider double parkers and people who use their cell phones in theaters worthy of death. I'm guessing that, after the critical success of World's Greatest Dad, Bobcat Goldthwait decided that he had some kind of gift for cinematic misanthropy and really just let loose. His targets include American Idol, My Super Sweet Sixteen, The Bad Girls Club, anti-gay protestors, abusive parents, and conservative pundits. Really controversial stuff. There might have been something interesting to say if the movie condemned their actions in any capacity, but this is all played without any irony, indulging in wish fulfillment fantasies without commenting substantively on them.

8) Sinister

Drinks the increasingly tepid J-horror bathwater pretty hard, right down to the horrendous lighting, presence of children of ill omen (way too many of them), and reliance on repetition. Every other scene feels as if it starts with Ethan Hawke being stirred from his slumber from a loud noise, pulling on a bulky white cardigan to avoid issues of continuity, and finding something that would rank vaguely sinister at best in his classic old film projector. Scott Derrickson's decision to give us five times the Kreepy Kids for our buck may have worked if a) The Ring and its ilk hadn't left this idea in need of a serious vacation and b) the Kids were actually Kreepy. The best they can manage is looking like they have to tell us a naughty secret. There's a raw captivating quality to the footage that Hawke finds, even if there's nonsensical out-of-nowhere screaming slapped over all the scary parts, and I like the perverse genealogy of these snuff films. Unfortunately, the crux of the drama rests on Hawke's thoroughly unsympathetic, entitled novelist, a good solid 8 on the Why Aren't You Getting Out of the House You Moron scale and whose greatest personal anxiety is the fact that he might have to write textbooks for a living if he can't finish whatever schlock he's peddling next. It's a cool concept locked in an ugly movie about annoying people and their stale ghosts.

7) Brave

Brave's mediocrity has probably been blown out of proportion by the Pixar pedigree and the fact that it skews younger than most of their recent films do. No matter which studio this slight fable came from, it would have arrived totally underwhelming; the patchwork narrative, harebrained sense of humor, and flimsy cast of supporting characters may not bother the tots, but it all adds up to a resolutely unsatisfying experience for their guardians. But these concerns are typically the province of people who have seen more than two dozen movies in their lives. Although a children's film ultimately has no obligation to satisfy the adults watching, even though it's in its best long-term interests to not be shrill or dumb, I can't imagine the broader, brighter elements of Brave resonating with youngsters the way that Toy Story or Wall-E or even Cars do. (I know it's en vogue to shit on Cars, but detractors seem unwilling to face up to the fact that kids love it.) The bowplay and swordfighting, things which might have kept young boys' attention in a film driven by a girl, are not dynamic or particularly impressive. It'll work out better for girls, who have been waiting for seventeen years for Pixar to throw them a protagonist, and the movie's two most admirable qualities are its emphasis on a mother-daughter relationship and the open refusal of the heterosexual imperative. Good on the studio for cultivating some healthy female perspectives, but they're not exactly going to keep many seven-year-olds entertained, are they?

6) John Carter 

When this was released early in the year to general critical and public disinterest, I have to admit that I was pretty crushed. I love science fiction and you don't see much of it in contemporary film, and JC's century-old lineage promised a rollicking classic adventure, so I eventually roused myself from my apathy. Unfortunately, this is "classic" science-fiction in all of the worst ways: a hero's journey spooled around Manifest Destiny (whitey arrives in a foreign land and one-ups the natives), woefully distilled politics (reds and blues are fighting each other!), passive female roles, and some really dopey alien design. The color palette is predominantly and oppressively brown, perhaps in an attempt to quell otherwise substantiated Avatar comparisons, and is livened only by some fitfully appealing CGI. Unfortunately, the most sophisticated digital animation in the world couldn't give life to the sluggish action sequences, with the only exciting hook (Carter's ability to jump really high) wearing out its welcome in the first half hour. The acting is similarly unsatisfactory, since Taylor Kitsch can't manage anything but to make John Carter an obnoxious, belligerent douchebag. This movie, in tandem with his generic face, has probably ruined his chances of Hollywood stardom, cementing his first lead role in the public consciousness as a greasy bastard who yells and punches things without cause. All of these elements align to make a braindead and thoroughly unappealing CGI orgy, like Star Wars with training wheels on. Sometimes pulp fiction from 1917 is best left unadapted, especially in a highly cynical moviegoing climate.

5) Compliance

I wasn't expecting a whole hell of a lot in the first place, but man, this movie is dumb. Not just because its subjects are a bunch of dopey fast food workers, the likes of whom it presides over in constant smug judgment. This is even worse: a shining example of thinks-it's-smart dumb that juxtaposes stringed instruments of profound anguish with a teenage girl giving a married man a blowjob because someone pretending to be a cop over the telephone was mean to her. Montages of artfully silent images, as subtle as a yellow NO painted on asphalt or two arrows going in opposite directions (to suggest resistance, see?). A pre-film title card, in letters so big that they're impossible to miss, reminding us that this was BASED ON TRUE EVENTS - because the shit we see is so incompetently and unbelievably portrayed that no one would buy into it for a second if they didn't know that it was a "true story." These all register as a palpable desperation to instill the movie with some visual life, since the majority of the narrative is people talking on the telephone in the same cramped office. And poor Ann Dowd, who gives a decent performance amidst all the inauthenticity, bought into some ill-advised Oscar hype and dropped $13,000 on her own For Your Consideration campaign. That's a car, or half an undergraduate education, flushed down the toilet; she should have had the foresight to realize that both the film and her lousy scene partners were letting her down. Compliance is desperate to be taken seriously, but its greatest virtue is its camp, a sad culmination for a premise as nightmarish as this one.

4) Lincoln

Lincoln is the sort of handsome historical porn that renders itself critic-proof through an impenetrable swath of its own importance. There's an undying film tradition of rendering the 16th President of a saint among saints, the president by which all others are measured - this phenomenon is explored here by the inimitable Eileen Jones - and this is absolutely no exception. Steven Spielberg gives into the worst of his excesses when challenged with Tony Kushner's generally uncinematic script, so he generously couches Daniel Day-Lewis in the most flattering light and the most reverent editing and the most subtle-yet-stirring music as he slogs through monologue after juicy monologue. To challenge his greatness as told by Spielberg and Company would be to fall on the side of Lincoln's opponents, relegated to eternal obscurity in the shadow of the man's looming accomplishments. And if it's starting to sound like I'm a racist or something, I'm just not too keen on having to sit through an exsanguinated, inert epic with nothing more insightful to say than "Lincoln was a great guy except when he wasn't, which was entirely with his family, but it's okay because he gave some Congressional curmudgeons the smackdown." It is entirely through DDL's efforts that anyone gave a shit about this movie at all. Can you imagine the disaster that would have ensued if Liam Neeson, who was originally cast, had gone through with it? THAT would have been one for the history books.

(what it do Gale Boetticher)

3) The Amazing Spider-Man

Welcome to the second stage of Marvel's domination of Hollywood, where the simple becomes the infantile in an attempt to expand brand awareness to the 6-12 demographic that the studio hasn't fully courted yet. As disenchanted as I was with The Avengers, Thor, and Spider-Man 3, they were at least only mechanical instead of mechanical AND drool-on-itself stupid like this movie is. In addition to being the absolute worst depiction of high school ever to be put on film, where someone with the face and build and skateboardin' swagger of the miscast Andrew Garfield repels girls with the same force that he attracts bullies, the not necessarily uninteresting Spider-man mythos is regurgitated to the point of nausea. "I'M YOUR DEAD UNCLE AND YOU ARE MY HERO PETER." The Amazing Spider-Man is nothing but an experiment in rebranding, an attempt to isolate all the elements that made the first film so successful and distill them even further in order to dip back into the pockets of the unsuspecting populace and their whiny brats. The movie has handful of salvageable parts, like Emma Stone and Garfield's chemistry, some thoughts on the nature of science that are fresh to the franchise (though I'd just recommend watching Frankenweenie if that's what you're looking for), and a series of satisfying visuals. They are nowhere near deserving of your 11 dollars, though, and definitely not of the next 22 you might feel tempted to drop on future installments. Send a message to Marvel, drunk on their own success and utterly unconcerned with quality product: don't buy into this. 

2) Prometheus

Eye candy. Full stop. Don't give it any more credit, because it sure as hell isn't asking for it. And honestly I would recommend seeing this movie, because it is a technical marvel and a true accomplishment of visual craftsmanship. For it to be nominated in only the Visual Effects Oscar category is a true travesty, especially when Lincoln picked up nods for Cinematography (?) and Production Design (???). But all of this wonder only serves to frustrate when it's treated like the wrapping paper on a sloppy, thoughtless present filled with all-purpose black goo. Ridley Scott and his cohorts had fifteen years to cook up an Alien prequel, and the best they could do was a decontextualized hodgepodge of religious babble and sci-fi carnage. With each ridiculous scene, the movie loses more and more sight of its initial thesis, until an ending that pretends that that science-versus-faith groundwork had anything to do with the hot load of alien mischief that it actually gave us. Looks pretty, talks a big game, has no substance of any kind to back it up.

1) Cloud Atlas

I really don't have any more to say about this movie, except that I waited well over a year to see it. Truth told, I could tell that it had the capacity to be a complete mess from the trailer alone, but hope springs eternal, right? Lots of good movies have garbage trailers. So it was with guarded optimism that I saw the movie and had my heart broken at every single turn. It isn't even that I hate this movie, necessarily, it's that I hate the unceasing fumbles that ultimately turned a good message into a bombastic, self-involved debacle. Cloud Atlas has reached, and will likely continue to reach, people looking for a substantive tale of humanity versus the machine, and for that I can't write it off absolutely. But did it really need to be a movie at all? Novels reach far fewer people than movies, for the most part, but I have to believe that the source material got its message across without the didacticism and the sloppiness and the action figure aesthetics and the second-hand embarrassment. The Wachowskis have a proven track record of painting revolutionary rhetoric in the broadest strokes possible, but sometimes the unfilmable is best left unfilmed, no matter your credentials.

Miscellaneous bellyaching:

2 Days in New York: A sequel to Julie Delpy's funny, charming directorial/authorial debut 2 Days in New York, this scores a few laughs but is mostly just cutesy and annoying. It's a pretty unappealing picture of New York, relationships, parenthood, black intellectuals (did you know that they have one-sided conversations with cardboard cutouts of Obama?), multihyphenate women in cinema, and digital film. I would just skip it and let whatever happy memories you have of the first movie rest, or catch it if you haven't already.

The Dark Knight Rises: Says very little that its wholly superior predecessor hadn't already, and does it in a way that stretches the limits of the dark internal logic that it's cultivated for itself. The spectacle is the main draw here, as always, but it's too top-heavy to cohere, and it's more of a showcase for Nolan's command of pacing and narrative structure than his evidently dwindling ideas about his universe.

The Master: Between this, Tarantino, and Terrence Malick's reportedly disappointing To the Wonder, I guess we can call this the year of the hemmed-in American auteurs. Creating an obtuse story about the enigmatic allure of obtuse stories is sort of masturbatory, and considering PTA is too enmeshed in the techniques that worked for him in There Will Be Blood to really make any significant strides in developing his art, The Master mostly feels like a wasted opportunity. Reads uncomfortably like the efforts of a gifted visionary basking in his own hype.

Mirror Mirror: One of the hokiest, gaudiest, hot-ass messiest movies I've ever seen. Too nauseating to live, too infernally etched upon my retinas to die, this is the kind of movie that makes me wish Hollywood didn't exist so those 85 million dollars could go toward something meaningful.

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