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Monday, December 31, 2012

The Best (and Worst) Movies of 2012 Awards: Part 1 - The Bad

I still have a few reviews to get to, but first, a look back at 2012 in film. I have decided to take a slightly different approach to last year and will be looking at some of the year's best and most noteworthy films through an awards format - albeit one that suits my needs, rather than the other way around. 

As always, the only films that qualify are those released to South African cinemas in 2012 so, sorry my trans-Atlantic readers, no Lincoln, Argo or The Perks of Being a Wallflower here.

For a list of all films released in SA in 2012, check out this link.

On with the show with 2012's worst films...

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Master

I sense another Tree of Life review coming up...


The Master is, on a purely technical level, a masterpiece. It's a sharply dialogued, well crafted tale about the twisted co-dependent relationship between a cult leader (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and one of his most fanatical disciples (Joaquin Phoenix) that features at least two truly exceptional performances, an unforgettable soundtrack courtesy of Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood and the kind of cinematography where each and every frame could easily be featured in an art gallery.

That doesn't mean I liked it, though.

Mind you, that's hardly surprising considering that it's written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, a filmmaker who puts the "challenging" in challenging filmmaking. You know you're dealing with someone who isn't afraid to alienate his audience when a biting look at life in the porn industry is by far his most accessible work. Even within critical circles, his films are often extremely divisive; being revered as modern day masterworks by some, anti-narrative exercises in self-indulgence by others.

Personally, I've always been very ambivalent about Anderson. His films are, without fail, triumphs on a technical level, but they often feel self-important (Magnolia), even obnoxious (Punch Drunk Love) and they seldom boast the most involving of narratives. At their best though, they do invoke a certain visceral reaction - none more so than There Will Be Blood where its potentially uninvolving and frustrating storytelling is negated by the indelible impression of its overall tone and resonance.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Life of Pi

So this is a very big week for films with a number of major and/ or worthwhile releases coming out. Lets starts then, with the biggest and best of them...


Like most seemingly unfilmable novels, Yann Martel's excellent, if occasionally slightly tedious, Life of Pi is heavy on theme and character and heavier still on subtext. Yes, the basic plot of a young boy surviving for weeks on a small lifeboat with only a vicious tiger for company is hardly uncinematic, but as anyone who has read the novel can tell you, Life of Pi isn't really about the plot at all.

It is above all else a story steeped in symbolism and largely plays out as a fairly brilliant metaphor for humanity's need for storytelling and for religious/ spiritual belief, as well as the way the two are interdependent on one another. It's also a novel steeped in ambiguity and while you can argue for days whether it's ultimately pro- or anti-religion or -  no, that would be telling (insert final revelation of the book here), it's a novel that is much more interested in the questions that its ambiguity raises than in any definite answers.

Even with the rather generous 127 minutes afforded it, how could any film possibly capture so thematically and sub-textually rich a text, while still doing justice to the surface plot that in and of itself might need some sprucing up to truly work as a solid adventure film?
 


Well, here's the truly spectacular thing about Ang Lee's movie adaptation: not only does it absolutely do justice to the novel, it improves on it in many ways. Lee maintains all of the novel's symbolic and thematic richness and at the same time vastly improves on the surface story by making full use of all the advantages film offers as a medium.  Ang Lee has had a fairly spotty career to date, with triumphs like Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon being slightly undermined by disappointing (if well intentioned) fare like The Hulk and Taking Woodstock, but Life of Pi is a powerful reminder of just how good he is when firing on all cylinders.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Looper

Ignore the hogwash about Looper being this decade's Matrix... everyone knows it's this decade's Terminator (minus the robots and the Arnie and in reverse, but otherwise...)!


Taking its cue from Austin Powers, there's a scene in the middle of Looper where the central character tells his younger self that "I'm not going to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it, we're going be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws," which serves as both one of the film's few truly funny moments and as a smart warning to its audience. Like all time travel movies - especially the great ones, oddly enough - it's better to simply go along with the story the film is trying to tell than to do your head in trying to work out the intricacies of its take on traversing the limits of space and time.

And actually, to be fair, Looper's internal logic might not make a lick of sense, but it is at least consistently nonsensical. It makes no sense that changes made in the present should affect the future in "real-time" or that it ignores the "butterfly effect", though only up to a point, but the film remains true to its own non-logic to the bitter end. More importantly, massive lapses in logic or no, the film's success has less to do with how it implements this very familiar sci-fi trick, so much as in how it uses it to tell a truly engaging story. 

Interestingly, Looper is actually a film very much of two halves. The first half of the film introduces us to the idea of "Loopers", a group of criminals who earn their pay by murdering people who are sent back to their time period from 30 years in the future, just after the advent of time travel. It's introduced as a fairly efficient way for criminal organizations in the future to get rid of the bodies of those they want murdered, but the true drive of the first half of the film comes from Loopers in the present murdering their future selves - a process that is smartly called "closing the Loop."

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Pitch Perfect


This film couldn't possibly be as bad as its awful tagline, can it? "Get pitch slapped?" Yeesh!

Pitch Perfect is the kind of genre film that adamantly refuses to stray so much as an inch from its well worn formula - and, you know what, it's all the better for it. 

Here we have a musical comedy about Beca, an "alternative", goth-type freshman who, through some typically silly machinations, begrudgingly joins an all-girl acapella group who are in desperate need of a new sound and a new attitude. Absolutely no points to anyone who can guess what happens next. 

Pitch Perfect is predictable and formulaic to the point that it feels like an old song for which you already know all the words, but like the best old standards, its familiarity is comforting, rather than irritating. It's a film that knows what it is and knows that its audience knows what it is and takes it from there.   

It is, admittedly, a film that would work better for fans of the kind of overly-smooth, potentially auto-tuned (I still can't get a definite answer on that) acapella whose pop sensibility stretches back no further than a decade. The acapella singing and the intricate choreography are undoubtedly very well done, but I couldn't help but wish they had been applied to more worthwhile songs. Give a listen to Petra Haden's ingenious one-woman, all acapella version of The Who's classic 1967 album, The Who Sell Out, to see how well this sort of thing can be applied to something that isn't the most boring and banal of pop songs. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Separation

Quickly going back to last week's releases, here is something for you art cinema fans to check out: the winner of this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.


Considering how draconian Iranian censorship is, it's a true pleasure and something of a very pleasant surprise to see a film from that country as artistically uncompromised as Asghar Farhadi's A Separation clearly is. Brilliantly circumventing the Iranian authorities and creating a truly universal humanist tale in the process, Farhadi's humble morality play - a deserving winner at the 2012 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film and a smash critical hit - keeps its head in the game by being staunchly apolitical, concentrating instead on its characters and the way they react to an increasingly morally dubious situation.

Most of the publicity for the film focuses on the dilemma that the film's central couple faces: to leave Iran and provide a better life for their young son or to stay and take care of his Alzheimer-ridden father, but this is barely a launching pad for the far more complex situation that unfolds as a result of their inability to find a compromise to their difficult situation.

A Separation is hardly a plot-driven film, but since the film's publicity has shied away from the intricacies of the couple's situation and the moral mess in which they find themselves, I will leave that for you to find out for yourselves, but for so small a film, it certainly doesn't back away from exploring some fairly weighty issues - not least of which, the multi-faceted nature of the seemingly simple idea of personal responsibility.

This is a film that will make you think, providing no easy answers and offering no pat solutions. Most importantly, the film's intellectual ambitions are easily matched by a strong emotional core and complex, all too human characters. None of the characters in the film are entirely likable, but they are all sympathetic: their motivations and personalities are so expertly drawn that, by film's end, they are all equally deserving of your scorn and your understanding.

The film also boasts some very strong performances, a tight script and thriller-like pacing, but its greatest triumph is just how involving it is on both intellectual and emotional levels. It's a quiet film with an unassuming title that nonetheless has entirely earned the heaps of positive attention it has received (along with winning an Oscar, A Separation is also the best reviewed film of 2011, scoring a damn-near perfect score of 95/100 on Metacritic) and is a must see for anyone with even a passing interest in intelligent, compassionate cinema.


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

It's the Hobbit. What more needs to be said?

As a special bonus for readers of this blog though, I have also included a review of the new technology that has been used in the filming and, in some cinemas, projecting of The Hobbit that - spoiler warning - has me longing for the days when crappy 3D was the worst of my problem. 

For my tech-free review of the film, check out Channel 24.  



What it's about

Set sixty years before the events of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey tells the story of Bilbo Baggins' first encounter with Gandalf The Grey as the two join forces with a group of dwarves to reclaim the dwarves' home from the dragon Smaug.

What we thought

Before diving into the film itself, there is a certain technical detail associated with, and adding to the hype of, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey that has to be dealt with first. Admittedly, most screens in South Africa are not equipped for this “radical technological revolution” but, considering that it represents what may well be the start of a new trend for cinema, it desperately needs addressing.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first feature film to ever be shot and projected at 48 frames per second, which is double the industry standard of 24 frames per second. This might sound like the sort of thing that only hardcore film geeks would care about, but it vastly changes the way the film looks. According to the hype, this “revolutionary” way of filming and projecting a film vastly increases the quality of the picture, while apparently solving the “clipping” problem that comes with rapid motion in 3D films.

And, to be fair, the picture is a bit clearer – too bad it comes at such a high price. The reason I need to spend so long on this subject before getting onto the film itself is because, regardless of what I think of this return to Middle Earth itself, seeing The Hobbit in 48 frames per second was one of the most unpleasant viewing experiences I have ever had in a cinema.

It wasn't enough that I was stuck having to wear those stupid glasses for nearly three hours for some of the most pointless and barely used 3D I've had to endure this year, the thoroughly unnatural, super-fast frame rate ensured that my irritation quickly ballooned into a full-blown headache. I literally had to leave the cinema for a few minutes just to clear my head. Not only do many of the scenes, particularly ones that focus on only one or two characters, play out like they're moving in 1.5 time, the increased frame rate gives the whole film a look of artificiality and makes it look far less proficiently made than it actually is.

With that out of the way then, onto the film itself.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Rise of the Guardians

Tis the season... Or is it?

Also up at Channel 24


What it's about

Santa Clause, The Sandman, The Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy enlist the aid of Jack Frost to stop The Boogie Man from taking over children's dreams.

What we thought

Despite its beloved – and not so beloved - children's characters, Rise of the Guardians is basically an animated superhero film; a League of Extraordinary Fables, if you will.

The Santa Clause in this film isn't just an old man giving out presents, but is an old Cossack with a pair of Katanas and a kick ass attitude and there's nothing cuddly about this Australian-accented and boomerang-wielding Easter Bunny. Sandman and Tooth Fairy are less radically changed, but they have super powers anyway so it wasn't that much of a leap to turn them into full on super heroes, while Jack Frost is an outsider with icy superpowers and a hero's journey that desperately needs to be fulfilled. And there's nothing at all about the Boogie Man that isn't straight up, cackling supervillainy at its most comic-book-inspired.

Despite the presence of old Saint Nick, we are clearly dealing with a film that is more about cashing in on the recent superhero craze than in having anything at all to do with the Yuletide season of its release – indeed, most of the action takes place during Easter. The problem is, though, that it's one thing for Rise of the Guardians to position itself as a Christmas movie in a year when the seasonal offerings look even worse than usual, but it's quite another for it to ostensibly go head to head with such superior superhero fare as The Dark Knight Rises and, more crucially, The Avengers.

November roundup

Fell behind again so here's some quickie reviews of a bunch of films that came out over the last month.


The Odd Life of Timothy Green. A bit of an oddity, this. It's effectively a simple fairy tale about a couple who suddenly find themselves the parents of a young boy after burying all their wishes for a child in a box in their backyard, but it's one without much point or, more damningly, much magic. It has a nice performance from Jennifer Garner and it's a sweet enough tale but it's not one that will leave much of an impression. (5/10)

The Possession. Effectively a Jewish version of The Exorcist in that the demon in question, the dibbuk, comes straight out of Jewish lore and it features a supporting turn from Hassidic reggae-hip-hopper Matisyahu. As a Jewish guy who spent his teenage years in the 90s as an avid X-Files fan, I've long been intrigued by the supernatural forces presented in Judaism - even if I've never been convinced that they literally exist. With all this said though, The Possession in only a passable horror film that is far too close to the infinitely superior Exorcist to stand up as anything but a perfectly competent but cheap clone. (6/10)

Footnote. Speaking of Jewish-themed films that never fully explore their Jewishness, this Israeli film about a rivalry between father and son Talmudic scholars works well as a family drama with strong performances and an emotionally charged script, but lacks the individual flare that might have come about had it more fully exploited its rather unique context. (7/10)