Review: 12 Years a Slave
The last time I felt this awful watching a film was The Passion of the Christ back in 2004.
There will be a lot of discussion over whether or not 12 Years a Slave is the best film of 2012, and it’s well-deserved. Steve McQueen’s (no, not that Steve McQueen) adaptation of Solomon Northup’s acclaimed book is the most relentlessly emotionally intense film in years. The cinematography, script, acting, score — all of it is top-notch, award-quality work. I highly expect it to win at least a half dozen Oscars, probably for Best Picture, Best Actor for Chiwetel Ejiofor’s depiction of a man surviving horror at all costs, and Best Supporting Actor for Michael Fassbender’s career-defining work at the very least. While the film is worthy of nominations for its score, direction, and the cinematography, there is just no way it will beat out Gravity for those.
12 Years a Slave should be viewed by every child in grade school growing up. It is an essential insight into the reason why slavery is wrong, containing the horror that 2012′s Lincoln missed but spent the entire movie trying to abolish.
4.75/5 – harrowing and brutal, but a part of our shared history
Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
When you first watched the trailer’s for Ben Stiller’s latest directorial effort, you were likely sucked in by the fantastic indie rock music soundtrack and the promise of a personal journey one man makes to really find himself.
The film almost lives up to that promise.
That The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has a fantastic soundtrack should come as no …surprise. It’s filled with fantastic tracks by Arcade Fire, Of Monsters and Men, Junip, and José González. The cinematography is also stunning. The acting is even pretty great (at least, for Ben Stiller).
What the movie really lacks is depth. When the credits roll and you see that the film is based on a short story, that’s when you realize what doesn’t entirely work about the film — Stiller’s Mitty does go through a profound transformation through the film, and it’s just …abrupt. The entire film takes place over the course of just two weeks, making the transformation of his character less plausible than it needs, and his switch from a man who daydreams about having a life to a man who is too busy living to daydream takes virtually no time at all.
Anyone who has traveled has gone through that transformation at least in part, and when you get back home you’ve changed. But it takes some time — it’s not something that usually happens in just one or two weeks of vacation or sabbatical time. It takes time.
So what’s missing? The details are missing. Yes, going to Iceland and Greenland and witnessing a volcanic eruption and jumping out of a helicopter would be big, poignant moments in anyone’s life. But it’s the small moments when you stop to smell the roses, when you have the time to be introspective and have an epiphany, when you’ve hiked to the top of a mountain over two days just to watch the sunrise over a certain valley… that’s what’s missing. The moments that build character and change you aren’t there.
Ben Stiller is pretty solid as Mitty, but not quite at his best. There is even a moment or two that will make you think more of Zoolander than the film you’re watching. If a deeper actor with more range had the role of Mitty, it could have carried the film further.
Kristen Wiig is great in her limited role. Shirley MacLaine and Kathryn Hahn, as Witty’s mother and sister, are both fun but not particularly memorable. And Patton Oswalt, spending much of the time as a disembodied voice, is pretty fantastic in his limited role as well. Sean Penn gets to steal the crap out of the scenes he’s in, but his screen time is far too limited. In fact, if Penn was the lead, the film might have been a lot better.
The greatest failure of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is that it could have been so much more. As it is, I really enjoyed it. But it could have been a contender for Best Picture, and instead is just an above average feel good movie.
3.75/5 – good but could have been great
Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
It’s really hard to review this film because more than any other of Peter Jackson’s adaptations of Tolkien’s works, this film has had a lot of liberties taken with its story. Your feelings about whether or not these changes are good or justified will weigh heavily on your feelings about the movie.
At this point, 5 films into Jackson’s interpretation of Middle Earth, I’m becoming a lot more critical of the films. Part of the issue is that we’re watching a 3-part Hobbit trilogy after The Lord of the Rings trilogy — The Hobbit is not a long book, and it’s a children’s bedtime story. The Lord of the Rings is a mature epic. Putting the epic before the children’s story is just not the right way to go, and because we already know how it ends, the urgency and immediacy of the story in The Hobbit is suffering because of it. It’s like knowing the ending before you see it.
That aside, The Desolation of Smaug is better than An Unexpected Journey, but worse than any of the previous Lord of the Rings films. The new characters and over-the-top long action sequences are top notch but, at times, kind of boring.
But you know what? Smaug saves this film. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Smaug is the reason to see the film. Smaug is absolutely magnificent, gloriously realized, and wonderfully performed and animated. Worth the price of admission by itself.
Hopefully when There and Back Again comes out in December 2014 the trilogy comes together in a way that justifies the incredible amount of added scenes, subplots and characters. But even if it doesn’t, there is something great about getting to journey to Middle Earth each Christmas.
3.5/5 – could go up or down depending on the third film.
Disney hasn’t put out a really good film in years. Of course, that’s one of the reasons they have Pixar — but they can’t shoulder the burden of being brilliant and releasing animated films every year onto their one small(ish) studio, so they have to get off their asses to make their own films sometimes. And each time they do, what usually comes to mind is “this is not as good as [insert Pixar film name here]“
Frozen is the best Disney film since Beauty and the Beast. I hesitate to say that it is “as good as” since Beauty and the Beast isn’t just an Oscar-nominated animated film (for Best Picture no less), but was also filled with truly iconic and memorable songs. Aside from the apparently-popular “Let it Go”, Frozen‘s soundtrack just isn’t that strong. But it makes up for it by having the best protagonists in the last 20 or so years.
Both the main leads are (gasp!) women! And they aren’t just there to fall-in-love-with/talk-about/pine-over men! Finally! They’re also competent, interesting, and dynamic characters. Heck, they even break some of the traditional Disney tropes: the movie does not end with a wedding! It’s not just about the love between a couple!
Sure, they still kill off the parents early on (because every good story is about Orphans, otherwise they would have people to love/support them), and the princesses are still that tall/thin/model body type (with of course, all the non-royalty being physically less attractive), but other than that they’ve made a strong step forwards in terms of storytelling. Hopefully this is the start of a trend, and along with films like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, can prove that films with female leads can be successful.
4/5 – strong female characters = win.
Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
I was not excited to see The Hunger Games when it came out. I didn’t read the book. The film itself was simply above average. But it did have an interesting premise, and Jennifer Lawrence was pretty decent in it. It was an enjoyable slightly-above-average film.
That did not prepare me for Catching Fire, which surpasses The Hunger Games in every conceivable way, and is the first film since The Empire Strikes Back to truly outshine its predecessor. The acting is much, much better. The stakes are higher. The emotional journey is more intense. The characters grow by leaps and bounds from the previous film. The cinematography… the score… simply everything is better. All the new characters are interesting and exciting, each getting their own scenes to steal, even Jena Malone, who I generally hate in films.
Catching Fire deserves the praise it gets, and for the first time I am actually excited about where the franchise is going — and thankful that the director, Francis Lawrence, is signed on to direct the last two films as well. Here’s hoping it manages to keep up the fantastic work.
4.5/5 – a fantastic film.
If you missed Gravity in cinemas, don’t watch it on video — wait for it to play at an IMAX or for it to come back to some kind of 3D screening. The visual element of watching the film truly is that important, because more than any film I’ve seen in the last decade, Gravity is an experience.
Alfonso Curaon’s opus is the most cinematically revolutionary and daring film to come out in the last decade. He has re-written the rules in terms of what can be done visually, and created one of the most exciting, stressful, visceral thrillers in the process.
Gravity is Sandra Bullock’s film. I think there is a 99% chance she will win her second (and much more deserved) Best Actress Oscar for this film. She’s supported by the always charming George Clooney and the calming disembodied voice of Ed Harris.
But the visuals are the real character of this film. It’s hard to even find the words to describe how stunning of an achievement in cinematography this film is. If Gravity doesn’t win every single technical award at the Oscars this year along with Best Director and Best Actress, then consipracies are real and these geniuses have been robbed, because we’ll be looking back at this film 50 years from now with the same reverence as films like Citizen Kane and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
4.75/5 – losing points only for the fact that you have to see it on the biggest 3D screen possible to truly experience it.
Not quite worth full reviews:
Elysium – extremely disappointing post-District 9. Crafted superbly. Acted poorly. Not a great plot. Insane action. Sharlto Copley can do anything. 2.75/5
Despicable Me 2 – Solid sequel. Has equal parts moments of brilliance/moments that are utterly forgetful. 3/5
Fast & Furious 6 – I’m not sure how it is that this series is getting better from one film to the next, but if they keep making films like Fast 5 and now Fast 6, I’ll keep watching them. Awesomely entertaining in the most mindless way possible — and one of few action films to actually pass the Bechdel Test. Looking forward to Fast 7, especially with the antagonist introduced at the end of the film. Hopefully it can be salvaged after Paul Walker’s death. 4/5
Kick-Ass 2 – Aside from one scene where Chloe Moretz dominates her schoolmates with her awesomeness, this movie was a bad/boring/forgettable sequel. 2.5/5
Lone Survivor – Solid action/adventure film from Peter Berg, who directs solid-but-not-great action/adventure films. Great cast. Based on a true story. 3.5/5
Olympus Has Fallen - Better than the above film, if only because Antoine Fuqua is much better at filming action than Roland Emmerich. Not good enough for a sequel, but hey! It’s getting one anyways. 2.5/5
Saving Mr. Banks - Disney cliches. Tom Hank’s being Tom Hanks can’t even save this movie. If it weren’t for Emma Thompson the film wouldn’t have been watchable at all. I can’t help but feel that all the actors were obligated to be in this film. It’s just so… Disney propaganda. I’d rather just watch Mary Poppins again. 2.5/5
The Lone Ranger – Just… bad. I wanted to like this but it was just mindless and forgettable. 2/5
Escape Plan - if you watched this, it was because it has Arnie and Stallone in it. They couldn’t carry the film, it’s just bad. But it’s fun to watch. 2.75/5
The Wolverine – Hugh Jackman finally nailed it and perfectly performed James “Logan” Howlett on screen. Great movie that has a poor third act. The Director’s Cut is far superior. 4/5
Thor: The Dark World - a fun continuation of the character, and better than the first. Still — you’ll never see an award-caliber performance from this series. Entertaining. Chris Hemsworth is still a pretty, beefy man. Natalie Portman is still a hot and strangely petite woman. And Tom Hiddleston is still the best actor to come out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, equaled only by Robert Downey Jr. 3/5
We’re the Millers – Funnier than it should have been. Less memorable than it should have been as well. 2.5/5
White House Down - Great lead actors (Tatum/Foxx). Good chemistry. Too cheesy. Over-the-top pro-USA film. 2/5
Films on my “to watch” list still:
American Hustle – The cast is fantastic, the director fantastic, it’s nominated for lots of stuff.
Captain Phillips – Tom Hanks pretty much always delivers, and I’ve heard great things.
Dallas Buyers Club – Gotta see what the fuss is about Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto here.
Ender’s Game – gotta see if the adaptation of one of the best sci-fi novels of all time is any good.
Her – Keep hearing that this film is sheer brilliance. Excited to see it.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom – Idris Elba is the man.
Prisoners – Jackman, Gyllenhaal, and director Denis Villeneuve. Stoked to see it.
Rush – Ron Howard is one of the most talented living filmmakers. Of course, I’m still annoyed he’s making films not called “The Dark Tower”…
The Wolf of Wall Street – I’ll get around to this. Scorcese never fails to impress.