Friday, January 31, 2014

The Lone Ranger: Oscars and Sequels

The Lone Ranger exceeded my low expectations as much as it possibly could have without becoming a good movie. I would struggle to find the right person to recommend it to, but I'm sure they're out there somewhere. The movie is simultaneously sprawling and schizophrenic: it wants to do everything but can't quite decide on how. Some of what's here is quite good: the jokes are funny, the action is exciting, and there are even a few moments of compelling thematic development with regard to the law and the state of exception (see also: Nolan's Batman trilogy). But from there we get massive tonal shifts and sleep-inducing narrative tangents. The film wasn't exactly a flop—it made about as much at the box office as it put in—but now with the possibility of sequels and two Oscar nods on top it's worth taking a closer look at this oddball franchise reboot.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street vs. Pain & Gain (review)

Alright I'll pitch my argument quickly before you laugh at me for comparing one of the best movies of the year with one of the worst: The Wolf of Wall Street and Pain & Gain are both satirical black comedies, and the difference in their attitudes illustrates both why the controversy surrounding the former is misled and how to successfully write compelling satire. We all know Martin Scorsese makes great films and Michael Bay makes movies for teenage boys, but beyond the different levels of craftsmanship what actually sets these two movies apart? What makes one memorable and the other a flashy pile of garbage?

Not convinced? Alright, just skip down to the picture of Leo trying to get into his car. After that I start to discuss what makes Wolf great technically and how its influences highlight where it works and where it comes up short. Also I'll talk about the ending, but if you haven't seen it yet don't worry, there will be spoiler alerts.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Captain Phillips (review)

It's been a long time since I've been this far on both sides of a movie. Captain Phillips is an incredibly well-made thriller based on an incredibly problematic premise. It's also one of this year's Oscar nominations for Best Picture and so far the weakest of the 7 I've seen. As with any film "based on a true story" it has a tenuous grasp on reality, and while I tend to try to ignore these discrepancies as long as they make for a good film, in this case they provide a clue to discovering the film's ideological underpinnings. It is directed by Paul Greengrass of The Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum, and while it's probably the best work he's done so far, it was ultimately overshadowed by its regrettable political stance.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Obligatory Oscar Commentary (surprises and predictions)

Alright everybody, whether you want to read it or not I've got some things to say about the Oscar nominations. If nothing else, writing this article is meant to keep me from talking off the ears of my friends and family. So yeah, if you're here then ostensibly you'd like to hear what I have to say about the Oscar nominations. This entire discussion will bear the caveat that I realize the Oscars do not really determine what the best movie of the year was. Not only is enjoyment obviously subjective, but even if there were a way to objectively determine the technical quality of a film I doubt the "best" movie of the year would ever win much. The Oscars are obviously part of the bigger game of awards season, a cyclical event which celebrates movies which were released in December and sometimes November. That said, it is a fun game to play, so let's get to it. (Predicted winners in bold.)

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

2013: A Year at the Movies

Oscar nominations come out tomorrow, so I thought this was as good a time as any to release a preliminary ranking of last year's movies. There are a few I still hope to see in theaters (Inside Llewyn Davis please), and many more I missed and have yet to catch on home video (why do I have to wait until March for The Grandmaster?). In light of this, I will likely do another retrospective when the Oscars are over, but for now here is my ranked list of all the movies I watched from 2013. Some of them are very close (I feel almost the same amount of love for American Hustle and Side Effects) and some of them have gaps I didn't know quite how to visualize (between Europa Report and Now You See Me my feelings jump from disappointment to frustration), but for the most part I tried to break up the list into sensible chunks. So without further ado:

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Europa Report (quickie) Thriller Tuesdays?

I'm torn. Like last week's The Wild Hunt, Europa Report (2013) is hard to dislike because it has an interesting and unique story to tell in a world saturated by dumb sci-fi action movies. This story of a scientific mission to Jupiter's moon Europa is told through pseudo-found footage cinematography which works surprisingly well and is only minimally distracting. There's relatively little character development, but the solid acting and intricate plotting make it enjoyable enough. What really shines about this movie is its ability to build tension. The story flashes forwards and backwards in time repeatedly in a way which elevates the various events it foreshadows in the audience's mind. We know just enough about what's going to happen in the future to remain constantly interesting it what's happening in the present. The problem for me was that this amazing tension was ultimately hamstrung by the clumsy, pandering narrative structure. Spoilers after the break.

Monday, January 13, 2014

12 Years a Slave (review)

12 Years a Slave is the newest film from director Steve McQueen, and with Oscar season in full swing it is getting a lot of press as a likely movie not only to be nominated for Best Picture, but to possibly win the category. Before watching the movie I regarded the reasons for this cynically: sure it's probably a great film, but it's an easy pick for Best Picture because of white guilt and all that. Now that I watched it, I couldn't be more embarrassed by my cynicism. 12 Years a Slave is the most emotionally moving film I've seen this year, it's filmed and acted beautifully by its cast and crew, and it confronts the issues of racism and slavery with sensitivity and compassion. It just might be the best movie of the year. That said, I think there are perfectly justifiable reasons not to like this movie, so let's first take a look at what it is not as a backdoor into talking about what makes it so great.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The World's End (analysis)

The World's End (2013) is the final installment in Edgar Wright's Cornetto Trilogy, a series of parodic genre films. While each film contains generic elements borrowed from every category of film you could think of, each also more or less reproduces one traditional story arc (albeit with hilarious embellishments). Shaun of the Dead (2004) indicated its horror film foundation with its titular reference to Dawn of the Dead and the zombies it features, Hot Fuzz (2007) payed homage to its action film roots with recreations of scenes from Bad Boys and Point Break, and now The World's End alludes to the science fiction genre by staging a narrative involving extraterrestrial robots. One of the reasons these movies are all so enjoyable is that they're filmed at least as well as the movies they refer to (the action sequences are especially engaging and well-shot), but the reason I love this trilogy is the way it constitutes a series of love letters to the cinematic medium.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Pacific Rim (review)

Pacific Rim (2013) is the newest movie from Guillermo del Toro, the director who brought us the visually and emotionally stunning Pan's Labyrinth (2006) and the fun but silly Hellboy, and in a sense this new movie is a combination of those two things. It obviously takes inspiration from various sources, but its visual style feels unique even at a time when audiences may be growing tired of giant robot movies. It isn't the smartest movie ever, but it also doesn't need to be, and at the end of the day it rises above the bar set for its genre. Pacific Rim is exactly what you think it is—a big dumb movie with robots fighting monsters—and while it's certainly far from perfect, it might be the most mindless fun you'll have at the theater this year.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Wild Hunt (review) Thriller Mondays

I don't tend to watch independent foreign films—I go all-in for big budget science fiction—so I just want to be clear that I'm in unfamiliar territory with this one. The Wild Hunt (2009) is a low budget Canadian film, so when I tell you that I genuinely enjoyed it, I want you to know that I'm comparing it to things like Near Dark and The East. My frame of reference is Hollywood past and present. As far as I can tell, an original idea, some cool visuals, and real passion for their project helped turn what could have been a potentially laughable amateur production into an enjoyable and even interesting feature film. While it may not look as pretty, it has something in it which big budget franchises could learn from.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (review)

Let the "Smaug" pronunciation jokes commence. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) is the second installment in Peter Jackson's new Middle Earth trilogy. The story picks up basically where The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey left off: the hobbit Bilbo is traveling with the wizard Gandalf and a fellowship of relatively interchangeable dwarves to reclaim the mountain of Erebor from the evil dragon Smaug. The central plot is loosely adapted from J. R. R. Tolkien's children's book The Hobbit with a massive shift in tone to accommodate an older audience. Part two is an improvement over the slow and jumpy Unexpected Journey, but doesn't quite reach the level of quality of the Lord of the Rings series.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Best of the Best from the Previous Century

The holiday season is almost over, so I thought an easy "Top 10" style article would be a good present to myself. In retrospect, I spent more time on this stupid article than anything else I've written recently (I started before Thanksgiving), but nevertheless I'm determined to exhibit the underwhelming result. In light of the coming new year, I've decided to do the least relevant thing I could think of and make some lists of the best movies in my favorite genres from before the turn of the century (specifically the 70's, 80's and 90's). I've limited the lists to color films in the English language to avoid slipping into a coma of pretentiousness, and for the sake of variety I've limited directors to one entry in each category (so Lynch only gets one Brain Bender and Carpenter only gets one Horror). These are movies which have withstood the test of time and which anyone interested in the genre should love. Hopefully this will serve as a helpful tool for anyone looking for new old movies to watch in the new year. Or, you know, not. I'm just glad it's finally done.