Thursday, January 31, 2013

At the Movies – February 2013 – Part 3: Most Anticipated Films

Must-See of the Month:

Warm Bodies (Jonathan Levine) – Horror/Romantic Comedy – Feb 1
Plot Summary: The zombie apocalypse has occurred. Zombies roam the land, as well as other worse monsters. Humans desperately fight for their survival, amidst dwindling numbers and constant attacks. But even in this vicious landscape love finds a way – R is just your typical zombie. He craves brains and walks around aimlessly. That is, however, until he sees Julie, a human girl who reinvigorates R’s heart making him slightly more human, and less zombie. Their love spreads to the other zombies, and suddenly the zombies are helping the human stave off extinction by the other things that are really bad out there. Filmmakers: Writer-director Jonathan Levine is back with his second studio film (fourth overall feature film), following up 2011’s wonderful dramedy 50/50. He is working with composers Marco Beltrami (Trouble with the Curve) and Buck Sanders (The Hurt Locker), cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (The Five-Year Engagement), and production designer Martin Whist (Super 8). Cast: The film stars Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer, and features Dave Franco, Analeigh Tipton, John Malkovich, and Rob Corddry in support. Expectations: Romantic comedy is maybe the most played out and tired genre in film right now, so it is nice to see a director try to do something fresh with it – by making a zombie movie (even if zombies are the new vampires). Warm Bodies is based on a novel by Isaac Marion. Jonathan Levine seems like the perfect fit for this film (which in most hands would probably turn out very lame and predictable – and that still may happen, Levine just brings more positive potential to it), as he seems to have mastered the ability to mix comedy and drama together with great characters (while making use of his young cast) – see 50/50. This is the must-see of February because simply put: it has the most potential to be awesome. Trailer: HereReview: Here.

Worth Checking Out:

Side Effects (Steven Soderbergh) – Thriller – Feb 8
Plot Summary: Emily Taylor anxiously awaits her husband’s release from prison, turning to prescription medication – however, now on pills things begin to get a bit out of hand. Filmmakers: Director Steven Soderbergh has been on a roll of late. His last three film have all been pretty good – Contagion, Haywire, and Magic Mike. He is also serving as the film’s cinematographer (something he often does), and he is working with composer Thomas Newman (Skyfall) and production designer Howard Cummings (who also worked on Soderbergh’s last three films). Cast: The film stars Rooney Mara (looking to have a huge 2013, as she also stars in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Her, and Terrence Malick’s yet untitled new film), and features a good supporting group with Channing Tatum, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jude Law, Vinessa Shaw, and David Costabile (who you will recognize from Breaking Bad). Expectations: Side Effects looks like a good thriller with what seems like lots of twists. Rooney Mara broke through in Hollywood with her two fantastic collaborations with David Fincher (The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), and is one of today’s great young talents. I must say that I am most looking forward to this film to see her work, but also because I have enjoyed Soderbergh’s films lately. This is probably not a must-see in theatres, but certainly worth renting if you miss it. Trailer: HereReview: Here.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

At the Movies – February 2013 – Part 2: Hollywood Films

Romance and Rom-Coms:

Safe Haven (Lasse Hallstrom) – Romance – Feb 15
Plot Summary: Katie has a dark secret that haunts her past – one that she is on the run from. Her latest place of refuge is Southport, NC. There she meets a charming widower and begins to fall for him, but to truly let him in she must confront her mysterious past (yup, it is a Nicholas Sparks story). Filmmakers: Director Lasse Hallstrom has tackled a Nicholas Sparks adaptation before with 2010’s Dear John (a film that I did like, and actually it is my favorite of the few adaptations of his work I have seen), but he is better known for his great work in drama and romance with films like My Life as a Dog, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, and Chocolat. I also enjoyed Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, which was released last year. Hallstrom is working with his same Dear John crew: composer Deborah Lurie, cinematographer Terry Stacey, and production designer Kara Lindstrom. Cast: It stars Julianne Hough and Josh Duhamel, with Cobie Smulders and David Lyons in support. Expectations: Safe Haven is more than likely going to be a throwaway generic romance drama, and one with a fairly poor cast at that. I like Julianne Hough, she has a good energy, but she is not yet a good actress (based on what I saw in Rock of Ages – one of the worst films I saw in 2012). The only reason to be somewhat optimistic about this film is director Lasse Hallstrom, who is a good fit for the story. His career is littered with poor films, yes, but it also features quite a few good films too. Anyway, this is a rental at best (or maybe a date movie if there is nothing else). Trailer: Here.

Beautiful Creatures (Richard LaGravenese) – Drama/Romance – Feb 15
Plot Summary: Lena Duchannes is a young witch in the Deep South, almost at the age of maturity. When she reaches that age her powers will be claimed for either the light or dark. Should she be claimed for the dark, and given her immense power, her kind could (and would) enslave humanity. To complicate matters, she meets a boy, Ethan Wate, who she falls for, but their relationship puts everyone in danger as her emotions seem to lead her closer to the dark side (like Luke Skywalker). Will this young love end in tragedy? Filmmakers: Writer-director Richard LaGravenese has made three prior films – two are okay and one is decent (that being Freedom Writers). He is somewhat well suited to make a romance fantasy (I guess), as his last film was P.S. I Love You (since it sort of had a supernatural element to it). He is working with first time composer Thenewno2 (apparently this is a band), cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows), and production designer Richard Sherman (Twilight: Breaking Dawn). Cast: The film stars Alice Englert and Alden Ehrenreich, and features Emmy Rossum, Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, Thomas Mann, Kyle Gallner, Zoey Deutch, and Margo Martindale in support. Expectations: Beautiful Creatures is essentially a glorified CW show – it looks and feels like that to me at least (The Secret Circle). Warner Bros. is hoping it will be the next Twilight for them (they even hired the same production designer to give it the same look and feel). It has a mediocre creative team, but a good cast, leading me to think it will likely be average at best and forgettable, but maybe the cast can elevate it. However, for Warner Bros. the quality does not really matter (look at the Twilight franchise, they are all objectively terrible films and yet all print money); all they really care about is whether or not this will connect with its intended demographic (like Twilight and The Hunger Games did, or like the CW’s The Vampire Diaries does – but at least The Hunger Games and The Vampire Diaries are actually good). Trailer: Here.

Serious Films:

Stand Up Guys (Fisher Stevens) – Crime Drama – Feb 1
Plot Summary: Val, a criminal on his last legs, is released from prison after serving a lengthy sentence, having taken the fall for his crew. His best friend and fellow criminal Doc picks him up. However, Doc has been tasked by their crime boss to kill Val. Thus, the two go out for one last night out of reminisce and to feel like young men again. Filmmakers: Stand Up Guys marks actor-turned-director Fisher Steven’s second feature film (yes, he was Ben Jabituya in Short Circuit), his first was 2002’s Just a Kiss. He is working with composer Lyle Workman (Win Win), cinematographer Michael Grady (Friends with Benefits), and production designer Maher Ahmad (Gangster Squad). Cast: Al Pacino and Christopher Walken star, with Alan Arkin co-starring. Julianna Margulies, Mark Margolis, Lucy Punch, Addison Timlin, and Katheryn Winnick feature in support. Expectations: Stand Up Guys has a great cast with Pacino, Walken, and Arkin. That might be a good enough reason alone to see it. However, Fisher Stevens is not a great director, and the buzz from its advanced screenings has been mixed. I think it looks like an okay drama, completely reliant on its actors. Is it worth renting? If you like the actors, yes. Trailer: Here.


Bullet to the Head (Walter Hill) – Action Thriller – Feb 1
Plot Summary: James Bonomo is a New Orleans hit man. Taylor Kwon is a Washington D.C. detective. What do they have in common? Both of their partners have been killed by the same man – so, they form an alliance to take down their shared enemy (because, who doesn’t like buddy movies). Filmmakers: Director Walter Hill is one of the action genre’s great filmmakers, having made Hard Times, The Driver, The Warriors (which with 48 Hrs. is my favorite of his), The Long Riders, Southern Comfort, and 48 Hrs., as well as producing the Alien franchise (I also enjoy his gangster western Last Man Standing). He is working with composer Steve Mazzaro (his debut), cinematographer Lloyd Ahem II (frequent collaborator), and production designer Toby Corbett (Running Scared). Cast: Sylvester Stallone and Sung Kang star, with Sarah Shahi, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agaje, Jason Momoa, Christian Slater, and Jon Seda in support. Expectations: Bullet to the Head is a return to classic action – i.e. mindless, violent, and cheesy but very entertaining. Walter Hill has somewhat been out of the game (his last work was on the good miniseries Broken Trail and an episode of Deadwood, and that was seven years ago), but he is one of the filmmakers that helped create the genre, as is the film’s star Stallone. It has been getting surprisingly positive buzz from its advanced screenings. If you love pure action films (like the stuff made in the 1980s and 1990s), this is probably going to work for you. Trailer: Here.

A Good Day to Die Hard (John Moore) – Action – Feb 15
Plot Summary: Die Hard 5 sees John McClane travel to Russia to visit his son Jack, who he discovers is a CIA operative on a mission to prevent a nuclear-weapons heist. Naturally, they team up (one would think that McClane would be tired of being shot at and having things explode around him – but I guess him just saying, “Okay son, you got this, I’m going back to the hotel to take a nice bath” would have made for a less exciting movie). Filmmakers: Director John Moore was seemingly hired because he has made some action films in the past. It probably does not matter that they are all somewhat bad (and also, his remake of The Omen is unwatchable). Anyway, he is working with frequent collaborators composer Marco Beltrami (he also scored Live Free or Die Hard), cinematographer Jonathan Sela, and production designer Daniel T. Dorrance. Cast: Bruce Willis stars (and is executively producing) as McClane (for those who don’t know) with Mary Elizabeth Winstead returning for a cameo as his daughter and Jai Courtney playing his son. Expectations: Does Die Hard 5 need to exist, probably not. Die Hard 4 was entertaining, and I guess it has been long enough that having a new adventure in the John McClane saga seems somewhat reasonable. This basically looks like lots of explosions, gun fire, violence, and one-liners stripped of all character and real drama (which is what made the original Die Hard great) leaving only caricatures, catch-phrases (like the stupid poster you see to your left), and mindless noise and visuals. And yet, I probably will still rent this (as I seemingly am a slave to the machine). Action fans might find something to like here, but I predict that it is not very good. Trailer: Here.

Snitch (Ric Roman Waugh) – Action Thriller – Feb 22
Plot Summary: After his son is caught up in a DEA case and could spend half his life in prison, a father makes a deal with the DEA to trade them information for his son’s release. To do this, he must implant himself undercover in the dangerous world of cartel drug dealers. Filmmakers: Writer-director Ric Roman Waugh used to be a stuntman. Now, he is on his third feature film. While neither of his films are critically applauded, average moviegoers seem to enjoy his last film Felon. He is working again with cinematographer Dana Gonzales and production designer Vincent Reynaud. New to the team is composer Antonio Pinto (City of God). Cast: Dwayne Johnson stars and is also producing (I guess he is famous enough now that he does not need his wrestling moniker ‘The Rock’ anymore on movie posters and title cards). Nadine Valazquez, Harold Perrineau, Susan Sarandon, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jon Bernthal, Barry Pepper, and Benjamin Bratt make up the supporting cast. Expectations: Snitch looks like a very generic action crime thriller – every action beat and plot point is pretty much already known before the viewer even walks into the theatre. Thus, for this to be any good, the action better be exciting and the plot and characters better be at least somewhat fresh – but really, these are things that probably will not happen and this will just be another throwaway February release. I do enjoy The Rock though (as an Attitude Era wrestling fan). Oh yeah, I almost forgot, the story is also based on true events, because that somehow makes it more interesting (only the events have been fictionalized so the scenes are not boring, specifically the action sequences). Trailer: Here.


Identity Thief (Seth Gordon) – Comedy – Feb 8
Plot Summary: Sandy is just your average guy with a family and a boring job. And, he is the victim of identity theft. However, Sandy is not going to take it lying down. He decides to go and find the person that stole his identity (who happens to be a deceptively harmless-looking woman named Diane) and bring them to justice, and by doing so expunging his own record. How hard could it be? Filmmakers: Director Seth Gordon got his career off to a great start with the documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, but then he went into feature comedies with Four Christmases (which was a failure critically and commercially). Next, he directed episodes for many of TV’s best comedies: Parks and Recreation, Community, The Office, and Modern Family. In 2011, he returned to features with the breakout hit Horrible Bosses putting him back atop the list of the genre’s most sot after directors – thus, expectations are high for Identity Thief, which seems to have the same feel as Horrible Bosses. He is working again with composer Christopher Lennertz and production designer Shepherd Frankel. New to the team is cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (Fright Night). Cast: The film stars Jason Bateman (working again with Gordon) and Melissa McCarthy. The supporting cast features Robert Patrick, Genesis Rodriguez, Amanda Peet, John Cho, Jon Favreau, Eric Stonestreet, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Jonathan Banks, Clark Duke, Morris Chestnut, Ben Falcone, and T.I. Expectations: Identity Thief looks funny, and really that is all that matters for this type of comedy (forgettable, but in the moment very entertaining). But, Jason Bateman is already overused and bland, and Melissa McCarthy’s bit is going to be tired soon enough as she is being put in everything (she is in This Is 40 which came out in December, this film, The Heat due in April, The Hangover Part III due in May, and Tammy due later this year to go along with her regular TV gig Mike & Molly). The other potential issue is that Craig Mazin wrote the script, and he is responsible for many of the worst films (let alone comedies) in recent memory (Scary Movie sequels and another awful spoof movie – and The Hangover Part II, which took something funny and made it bad). So in summary, yes it looks funny (mostly because of wacky Melissa McCarthy), but there are concerns. Trailer: Here.


Dark Skies (Scott Charles Stewart) – Sci-Fi Thriller – Feb 22
Plot Summary: A family lives in a house. Weird stuff starts happing. Inexplicably, they stay in the house and try to deal. It all comes to a head (my prediction is aliens). Filmmakers: Writer-director Scott Stewart used to do visual effects for movies, but now he makes films. His first two were Legion and Priest (I did not see Legion, but I thought Priest was awful) – this is his third. He is working with composer Joseph Bishara (Insidious), cinematographer David Boyd (The Walking Dead), and production designer Jeff Higinbotham (collaborated with Stewart on Legion). Cast: Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton star, with J.K. Simmons in support. Expectations: Dark Skies looks like an okay horror thriller. It is produced by the Paranormal Activity team, so take that as you will. For his third feature, Stewart seems to be playing it safe with a more traditional genre film, versus the grander concept stuff of his first two films (especially Priest). If you like this kind of home invasion thriller (maybe the best of which is Poltergeist) then maybe this is something to check out, but for most of us this is probably a pass. Trailer: Here.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

At the Movies – February 2013 – Part 1: Independent Films

Art-House Dramas:

Sound City (David Grohl) – Documentary – Feb 1
Plot Summary: Sound City is a recording studio in Van Nuys (Los Angeles), California, where lots and lots of classic and amazing rock albums were recorded, but now with digital recording making it so easy for artists to do things themselves the fabled studio has gone under. David Grohl and other musicians who recorded there get together to reminisce and talk about the current state of music. Filmmakers: This documentary marks the directorial debut of David Grohl, who is also producing. He is working with cinematographer Kenny Stoff. Expectations: Sound City looks like a great documentary for rock music fans and musicians interested in the behind-the-scenes stories of their favorite bands and albums and stories about analog recording, but it probably has limited interest for everyone else. Trailer: Here.

Art-House Comedies:

Plot Summary: Charles Swan III is a graphic designer. He leads an enviable life. But when his girlfriend breaks up with him, he drifts into despair. Filmmakers: This is the second feature film from writer-director Roman Coppola, whose first film is the aesthetically fantastic CQ (I am one of the five people who not only saw it in theatres, but also owns a copy). He also co-wrote The Darjeeling Limited and Moonrise Kingdom, and served as the second-unit director on a couple of his father, sister, and Wes Anderson’s films. Coppola is working with composers Liam Hayes (a famous pop artist) and Roger Neill (King of the Hill), cinematographer Nick Beal (his first feature film), and production designer Elliott Hostetter (Spring Breakers). Cast: The film stars Charlie Sheen and co-stars Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray. Katheryn Winnick, Patricia Arquette, Aubrey Plaza, Dermot Mulroney, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Angela Lindvall (who played a big role in CQ) feature in support. Expectations: A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III is going to be very polarizing and weird (certainly not for everyone). Roman Coppola is a very artistic filmmaker in much the same style as Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, but his work is much more subtle and dry dramatically. If you like their work, you will probably enjoy this film too. But, for everyone else, this is probably a rental only if you like the trailer. Personally, as a fan of CQ, I am looking forward to seeing it. Trailer: Here.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Movie of the Week – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

This week’s movie: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).

Based on Edward Albee’s play, the drama is about an aging academic couple who invites a young couple over for drinks. Fueled by alcohol, they use the young couple to play out their feelings of anguish and emotional pain towards each other.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is director Mike Nichols’s first film, launching a great career (which includes: The Graduate – which I particularly like, Angels in America, Closer, and Charlie Wilson’s War). He worked with composer Alex North, cinematographer Haskell Wexler (who won an Oscar for the film; he was one of the great D.P.s of the 1960s/1970s shooting this, In the Heat of the Night,  The Conversation, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and production designer Richard Sylbert (who also won an Oscar for the film).

It stars Elizabeth Taylor (who won an Oscar) and Richard Burton, who both give powerhouse performances – some of the best work of their respective careers. George Segal and Sandy Dennis (who also won an Oscar) feature in support, and are both very good as well.

In all the film won five Oscars and was nominated for Best Picture. At the time of its release, the subject matter was quite controversial, and it still holds its string even today (though, it is not as shocking). Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a must-see for fans of strong rich dramatic performances, as the whole film is centered around the wonderful work of Taylor and Burton.

Trailer: Here
Available on: DVD and Streaming

Thursday, January 24, 2013

A$AP Rocky – LoveLiveA$AP (2013) – Review

Review: LoveLiveA$AP is the first high profile and eagerly anticipated hip hop album of 2013, especially given the breakout success of A$AP Rocky’s first album/mixtape LiveLongA$AP and quality of the album’s singles (Goldie and Fuckin’ Problems).

The album is packed full of great featured artists (like ScHoolboy Q, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Danny Brown, Gunplay, among others) and hot producers (like Hit-Boy, T-Minus, Clams Casino, 40, Danger Mouse, Jim Jonsin, and Skrillex), but ultimately it is very top heavy. The singles are fantastic, and among the best hip hop records released in 2012. Plus, there are a few other great tracks: Long Live A$AP, PMW (All I Really Need), LVL, Jodye, and Ghetto Symphony. However, there rest of the album is underwhelming and disappointing – given the quality of LiveLongA$AP and expectations for this (his major label debut).

Musically, the album has the modern hip hop sound that has now seemingly become rather commonplace with the success (and maybe even overuse) of producers such as Hit-Boy, T-Minus, 40, and Clam Casino. That said, the beats do fit A$AP Rocky’s flow and style well and most of the best tracks come from those producers. I guess I was just hoping his album would be more sonically innovative, because that is what I expected.

A$AP Rocky does have a great flow, and lyrically he has a few interesting things to say – but there is nothing new or profound. Really, the album is at its best when the listener just zones out and lets it play in the background – which is not really a compliment, but at the same time I think that was its goal: to be something to just chill out with.

A$AP Rocky is one of the bright young talents in hip hop and there is some terrific stuff on LongLiveA$AP; it is just not on the same level as recent releases from other artists leading hip hop’s new sound as a complete album (LPs like Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, M.A.A.D. city, ScHoolboy Q’s Habits & Contradictions, or Danny Brown’s XXX, to name but a few). 3/5

Essential Tracks:
1)      Goldie – Produced by Hit-Boy
2)      Fuckin’ Problems – Produced by 40, featuring Drake, 2 Chainz & Kendrick Lamar
3)      Long Live A$AP – Produced by Jim Jonsin and Rico Love

Available on: CD and Digital Download

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Movie of the Week – The Little Foxes

This week’s movie: The Little Foxes (1941).

Set at the turn of the 20th century, the ruthless and rich Hubbard clan ravages the Deep South with their overall awfulness (taking advantage of a cheap labor force in the wake of the Civil War).

The film is one of director William Wyler’s greatest films. And that is a great compliment, as he directed The Best Years of Our Lives, Roman Holiday, Ben-Hur, and many other classics. He is on of cinema’s true auteurs (and was nominated for Best Director for the film as well, one of his twelve nominations).

 Wyler worked with composer Meredith Wilson (who did not score many films, but famously wrote The Music Man) and art director Stephen Goosson. However, the film also marked his second collaboration with cinematographer Gregg Toland (who is maybe cinema’s greatest D.P.) – they only made six films together, but their legacy has had a lasting effect of the way films are shot even today (the other five are Wuthering Heights, The Best Years of Our Lives, These Three, The Westerner, and Dead End).

The film features Bette Davis as its lead, giving one of her most iconic performances. Teresa Wright (who is one of my favorite actresses from the era – she was nominated for Oscars in her first three films, winning one), Herbert Marshall, Dan Duryea, Patricia Collinge, and Richard Carlson are good in support.

The Little Foxes is one of the best dramas from the 1940s and is a must-see for fans of films from that era (or fans of Bette Davis and William Wyler). It was nominated for nine Oscars, but did not win a single one (though, Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, and Suspicion also all did not win best picture that year so it is in good company – How Green Was My Valley did win).

Trailer: Here
Available on: DVD

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

LeapBackBlog 2012 Film Awards – Part 5: Films

Film in 2012 may not have been quite as strong overall as 2011, but right at the top there were a lot of good and very entertaining films. 2012 also featured many wonderful performances, particularly among men (many great performances that would have made my lists in past years were sadly left off). The LeapBackBlog Film Awards are comprised of what I think were the best and most interesting films, the strongest performances (taking into consideration who the actor is and what else they have done), the narrative style that drew me in (best directing), and exquisite craftsmanship (best technical achievements). But really, these are lists of my favorites from the year.

So many of us fans of Joss Whedon, who have known he was a great writer and filmmaker for years, were vindicated in 2012 with (both The Cabin in the Woods and) The Avengers. Whedon’s film that wraps up phase one of Marvel Studio’s adventures is probably the most entertaining cinematic experience of the year. It sees Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Captain America, Hawkeye, and Black Widow all team together to save Earth from an alien invasion that Loki has brought on. Whedon brings a wonderful combination of humor, drama, and character to the film – it is exciting, action packed, hilarious, and full of great character moments. It is the epitome of fun blockbuster filmmaking (and what we Whedon fans completely expected it to be).

Leave it to the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer to make the most insanely ambitious film of the year with Cloud Atlas. It features six stories across the history of man. Each story deals with human relationships and traits – love, friendship, freedom, and bravery – and each is connected in some way. The epic scale and scope of the film is staggering, and it is amazing that it even came off at all, let alone as brilliantly as it did. The troupe of actors are all asked to play multiple characters, many of which are against type (and even race and gender). What is the most impressive about the film is how well it is woven together, as it never drags or feels like it is not building towards something. In today’s cinema landscape in which blockbusters are seemingly solely remakes, rehashings, and sequels (which are mostly broad, boring generic films), Cloud Atlas is an essential epic, as it dares to be original, challenging, and adventurous.

The Dark Knight Rises was the film I was most looking forward to seeing in 2012, and it did not disappoint as it is my favorite film of the year. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy ends with grand conclusion. Taking place eight years after The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne must return as Batman to face is most physically daunting foe in Bane, who is looking to complete Ra’s al Ghul’s work and destroy Gotham City. Nolan’s narrative features the great action set pieces and genre staples to go with his deft directing to make it a superb adventure film, and satisfying finale, but it is the rich characters (and brilliant performances led by Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, and Anne Hathaway) and emotional moments that make it something more, something special. Nolan’s trilogy is the benchmark that all comic-book films will be measured against (and it is a very high bar).

Wildly violent, almost to a cartoonish level of excess, and sharply written, Django Unchained is a highly entertaining western/revenge drama. Like all Quentin Tarantino films, it is full of B-movie references, artistic filmmaking, great performances (from Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, and Leonardo DiCaprio), and spirited dialog. Django is a slave who is freed by a German bounty hunter (Dr. King Schultz) who needs his help tracking down his latest bounty. They become friends, and Schultz wants to help Django rescue his wife from a plantation in Mississippi owned by the brutal and dastardly Calvin Candie – a suicide mission. Tarantino uses his narrative to portray the South in a very unflattering manner, directly challenging the myth purported by films like Gone with the Wind – and to this endeavor, the film is quite striking and effective (without losing an ounce of entertainment).

Much like last year’s Drive, Killing Them Softly is a different take on the crime drama genre. On its surface, the narrative is that of a typical crime drama (and works on that level too) – some low level thugs knock-off a protected game, so the mob sends in a professional to kill them and retrieve the money – but Andrew Dominik uses the format for so much more. The film plays as a comment on the financial crisis that America faced in 2008 and the need of a bailout to seeming save the country from disaster. From the constant stream of financial and political news talking-heads in the background to the filming location being the dilapidated post-Katrina New Orleans and the characters being veiled stand-ins for those involved in bringing the financial markets down, Killing Them Softly seems to be a fairly exacting shot at capitalism – one that also has stunning aesthetics and brilliant performances (particularly from Brad Pitt) at is core.

As someone that generally thinks 3D is a waste of everyone’s money because it mostly just detracts from the cinema experience, Life of Pi and its use of 3D blew me away. Ang Lee uses the format not to exploit (less than knowledgeable) filmgoers for their money, but rather to heighten the beauty and the grand experience of the film’s journey. I forgot I was even watching a 3D film – that is how well it is integrated. It is a wondrous experience. The story tells the adventure of Pi, a young man who travels from India to Canada with his family along with their zoo animals, only to be the sole human survivor of a horrific storm that takes the ship. Pi finds himself adrift in a life boat with only a zebra, hyena, and Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Life of Pi is the kind of filmmaking that all epics should strive to be – it is maybe the most beautiful and fulfilling cinematic experience of the year.

The Master seems to perfectly capture the mood of the time it takes place in – the sense of loss, isolation, and disconnection of those returning from WWII mixed with the façade of force-fed family values by government and advertising (that would shape America in the early 1950s). Freddie Quell (wonderfully played by Joaquin Phoenix) is lost in society returning from the war, but he finds a place with the eccentric Lancaster Dodd (played by the equally great Philip Seymour Hoffman), a charismatic cult leader. Quell is drawn by the intrigue and grand con of Dodd and his Cause and Dodd seems to be fascinated in the wildness of Quell. Paul Thomas Anderson’s narrative is not so much a streamline story, but an experimental emotional study of Quell and his internal struggle. Anderson uses all his filmmaking tools to make the film a visceral experience, and one that is utterly compelling and fantastic (my personal love of grand genre films aside – aka my love of The Dark Knight Rises – The Master is probably the best film of 2012).

Quirky, charming, genuine, and a complete joy to watch – Moonrise Kingdom is auteur Wes Anderson’s seventh feature film. It follows two kids Suzy and Sam who run away together to camp out and explore their budding romance. Anderson’s narrative (as his films often do) feels like it takes place in an alternate reality, in which kids are full of budding potential and adults are somewhat melancholia at having never reached theirs. Aesthetically, it feels and looks just like one familiar with Anderson’s work would expect, as Anderson has a flair for aficionado directorial moments (long takes, lots of camera moves, and stylistic blocking – basically every element of every frame is specifically designed to look the way it does down to the smallest detail by Anderson). What is different, however, about Moonrise Kingdom as opposed to Anderson’s last few features is that it wins over its audience in total by the end, even those not enamored with Anderson’s unique style with its warmth and likable characters.

James Bond is a character all filmgoers know and most love. With Skyfall, director Sam Mendes welcomes the nostalgia and classic franchise elements that make James Bond great while also bringing a more modern take to the series (keeping with the trend of the Daniel Craig films). In his latest adventure, Bond finds himself facing off against maybe his most equally matched villain (well, since GoldenEye) – another MI6 agent formally shepherded by M named Silva (who is fantastically played by Javier Bardem). He knows just where to strike to hurt M and cripple MI6. Bond must takes refuge in his past to protect M. This is one of Bond’s more personal films, which benefits it greatly as the character work is strong. Mendes also does a wonderful job of making a Bond film that feels fresh, but completely embraces and brings back many of the elements of classic Bond films (it is the best of the Craig era so far).

Zero Dark Thirty is Kathryn Bigelow’s Heart of Darkness (so to speak). The film details a CIA agent’s (Maya, played by Jessica Chastain) journey into the darkness to find and ultimately kill Osama bin Laden. It is an emotionally arduous yet rewarding experience as Bigelow expertly uses suspense and tension to pull the audience in with intense moments – and it is an interesting story. As a character drama, it works very well – Chastain is brilliant as Maya, a woman who has given everything of herself to finding bin Laden. Bigelow tells the story without a political slant, rather it is more about the sacrifices that men and women have made to try and keep America safe (or simply to do their jobs and what they think is right).

Honorable Mentions (11-25):

Monday, January 21, 2013

LeapBackBlog 2012 Film Awards – Part 4: Leading Performances

Film in 2012 may not have been quite as strong overall as 2011, but right at the top there were a lot of good and very entertaining films. 2012 also featured many wonderful performances, particularly among men (many great performances that would have made my lists in past years were sadly left off). The LeapBackBlog Film Awards are comprised of what I think were the best and most interesting films, the strongest performances (taking into consideration who the actor is and what else they have done), the narrative style that drew me in (best directing), and exquisite craftsmanship (best technical achievements). But really, these are lists of my favorites from the year.

Reprising his role as Bruce Wayne/Batman for the third time, Christian Bale is again astonishing in The Dark Knight Rises (in what is easily an overlooked performance given the genre and how seamlessly and natural Bale plays the character). While in the past two films Wayne is a pillar of strength in the community, here Bale plays him as a broken man, both figuratively and literally. Even when he returns to being Batman, his heart is not really in it anymore, and Bale lets the audience see his crushed will and injured spirit while still putting on the guise of confidence and strength. This only makes his true return all the more dramatically powerful. Bale is known for his brilliant performances (films like American Psycho, Rescue Dawn, and The Fighter), and while this might not be as flashy it is equally as layered and just as strong.

Jessica Chastain had a breakout year in 2011 and has followed it up with another strong year. Playing Maya the CIA agent in the field that devotes herself totally for over a decade to finding and killing Osama bin Laden, she is brilliant in Zero Dark Thirty (and will likely win an Oscar for her work). She has the tough role of being strong even in the most emotionally crippling situations, but also must be vulnerable enough to let the audience in – and she finds the perfect balance. Chastain also captures the toll that the stress and drive takes on Maya. She has a very bright career ahead of her, as she is already among the best actress working right now.

Who knew Bradley Cooper was capable of such a good performances? Well, David O. Russell apparently. Cooper gives the best performance of his career to date in Silver Linings Playbook as Pat (which should open doors for better leading man work for him in the future and not just crappy romantic comedies). Cooper plays Pat with a mix of compassion and hostile energy. The performance seems to constantly teeter on the edge of completely exploding with nervous rage, which absolutely pulls the audience in. But, the audience also likes Pat and is behind him because they see that Pat is capable of love and really does want to get his life together. It is very strong work by Cooper (in a year with at least fifteen or so male leading performances could have made this list).  

Aside from the practical challenge of playing a character that loses both her legs below the knee, Marion Cotillard also has to play the deep depression felt by her character Stephanie in Rust and Bone. What makes the performance so compelling is Stephanie’s emotional journey back. Cotillard is phenomenal, as she perfectly captures the strength and drive of Stephanie. The audience is heartbroken and inspired all in the same dramatic arc. Cotillard is also very good in Little White Lies and The Dark Knight Rises this year.

Daniel Day-Lewis is not so much playing a character in a film as much as he seems to be channeling Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. It seems silly to say that, as I have no idea what Lincoln was actually like or how he sounded when he talked, but Day-Lewis just seems so completely lost in the character that it does not even occur to me that he is not actually Lincoln. That is what he does, he just becomes his characters, and is maybe the greatest actor working right now.

Keira Knightley just seems to excel in costume period dramas, especially when working with Joe Wright. Anna Karenina is their third collaboration together. Knightley is able to bring the extreme highs and lows of Anna’s tragic relationship with Count Vronsky to life by completely giving herself over to the role. Anna thinks she is above high society and can live outside their rules, only to pay the price and lose everything. Knightley pulls the audience in with her naïve charm and strength, and breaks their heart with her fall, filled with crazed fits of jealousy and anguish. Though she gets a lot of criticism (especially among English journalists, who often try to tear down their own), she has really emerged as one of the top actresses of her generation with continued great work.

Jennifer Lawrence had a great 2012. She starred in a huge blockbuster in The Hunger Games cementing her as one of Hollywood’s biggest young female stars (probably with Emma Stone, Kristen Stewart, and Emma Watson) and she was nominated for her second Oscar in Silver Linings Playbook. She is brilliant in the film, bringing a ton of energy and strength to the role of Tiffany, a young widow also dealing with mental issues. She is electric, making ever scene better and stealing the film (which also features great work from Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro). It is my favorite female leading performance of the year.

This Is 40 takes both a realistic and comically exaggerated look at modern relationships. At its center is a fantastic performance by Leslie Mann, who plays Debbie – a mom and wife who just wants her life to be perfect and tries to control everything around her to make it so, but this leaves her feeling frustrated, disappointed, and ultimately unhappy as things fall short of her expectations. Mann, however, is great in the film because she also can see her own flaws and wants to change, it is just difficult, which brings a very relatable aspect to her performance – the relationship troubles in the film between Debbie and Pete are almost too real for a comedy (and that is thanks to the good work by Mann and Paul Rudd).

Freddie Quell, Joaquin Phoenix’s character in The Master, is an absolute scoundrel. His destructive nature ruins and destroys any possible good that might come his way, yet his struggle to find a place in post-WWII America is utterly compelling because Phoenix brings so much to the character. He is an unpredictable train wreck and the audience cannot take their eyes off him, wanting to see what he will do next, but there is also an inner depression that allows the audience to feel for him as well. It is my favorite male leading performance of the year.

The character of Whip Whitaker in Flight is one of the more difficult roles of 2012 because the character is an unlikable protagonist. Denzel Washington is able to get the audience behind Whip by bringing his usual swagger and confidence to the character. He also plays Whip to have a deep sadness behind the confidence, which allows the audience to sympathize and care about him even after his self-destructive behavior. Washington is so good in the film that the audience roots for him to come out on top, when he clearly has a problem and needs help. It is very good work and among Washington’s best.