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Four years out, John Powell’s ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ is already a stone cold classic

how to train your dragon score john powell review

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a solid if not particularly groundbreaking sequel. But then again, neither is the original. How to Train Your Dragon‘s story isn’t all that exciting, and anyone taking notes can probably sketch out its trajectory. Bumbling teen Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) bends over backwards (and then more than breaks a leg) convincing the hostile vikings of Berk that their age-old enemy in dragons really aren’t so bad.

Hiccup’s father Stoick (Gerard Butler) is the most vocal of his detractors and in hindsight, their father-son tension feels a touch overplayed in a Hollywood landscape filled with strained paternal relationships. But in adapting Cressida Cowell’s novels, directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders aren’t trying to break ground. In fact, their modest aims hit most of their marks. The action is solid, voice actors (including a wonderfully bubbly turn from Craig Ferguson) put in strong performances, and Roger Deakins’ sallow coloration soaks Berk in ancient, fictional tradition. To make a reaching analogy of the enterprise, watching How to Train Your Dragon is a lot like eating a chicken pot pie. You know exactly what you’re in for and you’ll enjoy it anyway.

Having a killer orchestra serenading your dining experience certainly helps. Just four years out from its release, John Powell’s score is already a classic piece of film music. It’s one of the most dynamic pieces of traditional film scoring ever and among the best scores of the past 20 years period. (Judging from ClassicFM’s annual poll, I’m not alone on this either. h/t to Films on Wax.) The animation’s worn-in feeling embellishes a believable fantasy world, but Powell’s music ushers us into it. “This is Berk” sways like a lullaby to the sleeping village only to startle its folk awake with a dragon attack. Its rousing call to arms is one part chaos, one part regimen with a unison motive that Powell imbues with Eastern modalities. The film might feel self-serious in this moment were it not for its constant reliance on humor and digression, and Powell follows suit by dissolving into a mushy, ooey, gooey flourish mid-track, a tongue-in-cheek reference to Hiccup’s crush on tomboy Astrid (America Ferrera) and a likely allusion to Tchaikovksy’s Romeo and Juliet Overture.

Powell’s work is much more than clever quips and musical nods, too, delivering the emotive backbone in Dragon‘s plotting. A slow, minor theme plays as Hiccup silently stews over whether to kill or save Toothless, a downed and injured dragon of the rare Night Fury variation. Later, “Forbidden Friendship” includes a performance in and of itself, setting forth the building blocks for Hiccup and Toothless’ relationship without the need for dialogue. A gentle fountain of bells simmer with a cool curiosity before the entire track bubbles upward to the momentum of propulsive strings, wistful flute, and an angelic choir. By the end of its four minutes, Hiccup and Toothless have become unlikely (and uneasy) friends, and the final resting notes feel like a revelation.

Maybe because this is one, and one told entirely through music. It isn’t that outlandish to suggest that a complete score, when paired with an audio-free cut, might make for a better How to Train Your Dragon. Don’t believe me?

Like “Forbidden Friendship,” “Test Drive” telegraphs a young boy and his dragon’s growing bond — this time, to a stronger, more evocative height. A grand, brass-heavy pronouncement widens as Toothless spreads his wings, at once realizing the possibilities of this pair as well as the possibilities of Cowell’s world. As an action sequence, Hiccup and Toothless’ “Test Drive” functions as a moment of trial-and-error, and Powell’s music is there for every bump and blunder along the way. Flurries of woodwinds and strings ricochet as the two graze skyward stones, and a tornado of trumpet-led brass follows the plummeting spin of a mid-flight mishap. Rewatching the sequence with sound effects and voices reveals very small additions to the stakes at hand, and Powell’s music makes the indirect case they’re wholly unnecessary.

Hiccup and Toothless more than survive their trial run, but Powell’s alchemy of wonderment and danger doesn’t dilute the latter ingredient for family-friendly animation. In “Ready the Ships,” viking ships mobilize to find the fabled dragons’ nest. A low Isengardian boom plays with bagpipes and Dragon‘s main theme is saddened but no less bold. Later, when Stoick’s fleet arrives to claim the crown jewel in their bloodlusting conquest, trickling notes signal the crumbling mountainside lair and the trickling fear that something isn’t right. (They’re right to fear on account of “giant freaking dragon.”)

Powell is constantly returning to and embellishing his themes, too. “The Kill Ring” pushes clusters around Dragon‘s main theme, and “Battling the Green Death” calls back to a familiar downward movement as Toothless plummets to the bottom of the sea. This busy-ness might become jumbled in lesser hands, but Powell doesn’t trade in strict character motives, and his shirking character themes in favor of an adaptable emotional language makes How to Train Your Dragon feel united, an extension of Hiccup’s worldview that we ought to share our world and understand things beyond ourselves.

How to Train Your Dragon‘s score maintains an insatiable momentum, even above the narrative’s own lulls. The music feels like it’s constantly building to something, and when the title card finally hits before the end credits, we’ve only just arrived.

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Departures

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I’ve tried to keep this space as a depository for scattered thoughts on cinema, but I recently had the honor of being asked to write my grandfather’s eulogy. I thought I would share it. 

Dear Grandpa:

The rest of the family asked me to speak this morning. I’m so honored. I’m also a little intimidated. The past 25 years have been a humbling experience for me. After all, I am named after you. I’ve found a connection to you through that, but it’s been a daunting task to walk in your shadow, let alone to summarize the life you lead.

Thankfully, I’ve collected a few memories from everyone, memories that were politely, but firmly suggested in that special Klein family way.

Mary recalled the night Grandma threw you a surprise birthday party. How Grandma convinced you to pick up Mary and Tom for a night of bowling. Back at the house, partygoers had arrived in secret. When you returned, Grandma needed a reason for everyone to come back inside, so she told you the furnace was broken, the same furnace you’d just fixed. So back into the house you came, huffing and cursing before a hushed audience of friends and family, all hiding in the other room.

You taught my father David, also named after you, how to throw a baseball. You taught him how to plant a garden. You’d let him stay up late on Saturday nights as a kid. Sometimes you’d watch Gunsmoke. Sometimes, you’d even let him light your cigarette. We didn’t repeat that tradition. You didn’t have a fancy education or a cozy office job, but if one were to look up “good father” in the dictionary, you’d find neither of those listed under the definition. At least that’s how my father described you, as only he can with his dry sense of humor. He says you gave him that, too.

Janet insisted I include, well, just about everything. She remembered how you brought the kids into the adult world in your own special way. You’d sit them on your lap while backing out of the driveway or let them pick out one sugary cereal in the breakfast aisle. After Sunday’s morning masses had ended, you and Janet totaled up the contents of the collection baskets together.

Michael talked about fishing. Lots of fishing. You bought a 6 horsepower motor and took the kids pan fishing. And then there was the ice fishing. Michael would listen as you and Bozo would talk about the good ‘ole days. Everybody would sit, and everybody would fish. He and Janette would take you out to the casino, and Grandma would stay up worrying over how much midnight oil you’d burn and how much money you’d lose. Did I mention the fishing?

Grandma only requested that I include a little humor. But your 63 years of marriage is an astonishing accomplishment. Not that you would boast about it – or boast about anything, really. You were a family man. You understood that dedication wasn’t limited to fighting for your country. Dedication meant standing by the ones you loved. You weren’t afraid to help change diapers or put supper on the stove when it was needed, to take the kids grocery shopping on Friday nights. You were a pillar of solidarity, of firm principles, faith in God, and hard work. You took pride in self-sufficiency, in preaching the value of a hard-earned buck. And you passed these values on to your children, who did their best to pass them on to their own. Trust me on that last part.

The rest of the family asked me to speak this morning, to share fond memories. But truthfully, a lot of these memories aren’t mine. I remember going fishing with you as a kid — or at least catching the goldfish-sized object that was at the end of my line. And I never got too excited over gambling, but I loved the focused look on your face as you went to town on your scratch-offs.

I remember the exact spot in our driveway where you would park the Buick for birthday parties. It’s the same spot in that great picture of you craning out the driver’s side window to give my sister a kiss. You’re making one of those goofy pouty kisses, too, the kind a toddler makes when she’s too young to know what she’s doing and too innocent to care. It’s a great picture.

I remember sitting and watching the Twins games with you. If a call at first base were crummy enough, maybe you’d grumble a “dammit” under your breath. You were the most loyal fan I’d ever met. You’d watch them day or night, win or lose — and boy, did they know how to lose.

I remember marveling at your intelligence, at how you could conjure names and dates out of thin air. In later grades, I remember questioning whether my public education would’ve been better spent with you and a pile of crossword puzzles. Attempts to finish the remaining clues in the Friday edition of The New York Times put an end to that. 14-Across: Latin phrase “to be in over one’s head.”

I remember playing Cootie and building houses of cards on the carpet of your porch, where you’d sit in your chair and put on a selection from one of your dozens of classical albums. You even let me take some home. I was so excited. I still have the Best of Edvard Grieg lying around somewhere. Those CDs shaped my own musical tastes, until you and Grandma helped pay for several of my own instruments. Your generosity toward your grandchildren truly knew no bounds. I know, because they don’t print coupons for saxophones in the Sunday paper. You gave me the gift of music, and your only request for reimbursement came in bringing some of your hard-nosed dedication to my own practicing – and perhaps bringing you a living room recital here and there. You’d nod your head in silent approval, sit back, and if I was doing an okay job, you’d crack a smile. That was you.

The rest of the family asked me to speak this morning, but I’d like end with someone else’s words. They’re a few lines from Louis L’amour, one of your old standbys. I chose them, not because it’s expected in these kinds of things, but because I admire their humility, their simplicity – and because, at some point, you probably read these exact same words.

“There will come a time when you believe everything is finished; that will be the beginning.”

With love,

David

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‘We’ll write a Weekly Recap and wait for this whole thing to blow over.’

I’m a bit late on this one, but considering I revisited Shaun of the Dead last week, let’s just say I was channeling my inner Ed, eh?

8/21: Europa Report (2013)

Europa Report

Prometheus failed, in part, because its sensationalist tendencies took away from the genuine thrill of bald discovery. Few films in recent memory have burst with such wonder and fear of the unknown (and in equal measure) than the first 25 minutes of Ridley Scott’s science fiction odyssey. At the very least, Europa Report maintains that commitment to scientific discovery through the end.

When a team of scientists and engineers embark on a mission to probe the ice of Jupiter’s moon, Europa, for signs of life, things don’t exactly go according to plan. Equipment breaks, crew members die off, and yes, even hints of intelligent life are teased. Europa Report’s cast of semi-familiar faces is like a retread of European-turned-American villain types: Sharlto Copley’s emotionally distraught engineer; Mykael Nyqvist’s stony chief engineer; Anamaria Marinca’s headstrong pilot. Expect to see these faces cast as the next generic euro trash baddie in a summer blockbuster near you. This is a talented cast, but a film so committed to scientific discovery leaves little in the way of characterization or cohesive pacing.

Or stylistic consistency, for that matter. Found footage seems like another thing to do now in contemporary populist cinema, like post-credit stingers or Zack Hemsey imitations. Much like my problems with Chronicle — I guess I’m bringing up a lot of dislikes here — Europa Report wants to have its found footage cake and eat it, too, conveniently shifting not just out of the onboard dash cams and helmet feeds but switching to full-on cinematic string-pulling with rises in the score, abrupt cuts for tension, even expressionist uses of distortion and feedback. Far be it from me to define “how” anything should or shouldn’t be used, but where’s the sense in found footage where there’s a line between diegesis and “reality?”

For what it’s worth, Embeth Davitz, Dan Fogler, and Isaiah Whitlock Jr. all comprise a shuttle planning team that would probably make for a more interesting film. 

8/22: Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

Smiles of a Summer Night

As Roger Ebert notes in his revisiting of Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 screwball comedySmiles of a Summer Night is an extremely autobiographical picture for the director — if not directly than very indirectly so. He writes:

Adultery was the great subject of many of Ingmar Bergman’s films and much of his life. He was married five times, and not very faithfully…

Perhaps it only speaks volumes of my own familiarity with Bergman, but this sharply written, quick-witted romantic comedy took me by surprise. Yes, Bergman’s construction and visual acuity isn’t as tight and assured as it would become in his later masterpieces; Bergman employs at least one tracking shot on the unfaithul Gunnar Björnstrand that seems uncharacteristically sloppy. What’s truly remarkable here is how the stereotype of Bergman’s sour interiority (at least as it exists in my mind’s eye) is still on display in such light material. Smiles’ penultimate dinner sequence, in which Eva Dahlbeck and Margit Carlqvist plot to swap lovers, sees its director find his way to heightened reality and dark psychology in a purely visual manner, with slow tracks in and expressions cloaked in chiaroscuro. Knowing, in hindsight, that Bergman’s masterworks The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries would both come but two years later now seems both impressively humbling and completely expected from such a limber auteur.

8/23: The Producers (1968)

producers

The UW Cinematheque and WUD Film wrapped their Ebert tribute series this summer with one of the late critic’s favorites. To crib, once again, from the critic:

The movie was like a bomb going off inside the audience’s sense of propriety. There is such rapacity in its heroes, such gleeful fraud, such greed, such lust, such a willingness to compromise every principle, that we cave in and go along.

I must agree with Mr. Ebert here. Beyond The Producers’ amorality, I was taken by its pure subversiveness. Mel Brooks’ ability to completely and utterly undermine any kind of value system whatsoever never feels like this musical comedy is biting the hand that feeds it. Instead, it’s making an absolute glutton of itself, chowing down while winking at us all the while.

8/24: Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Shaun of the Dead

George Romero obviously popularized the notion of “zombie flick as sociocultural critique.” While Edgar Wright’s feature length debut isn’t as revelatory as a Night of the Living Dead, Shaun of the Dead borrows from Romero’s tropes while incorporating a rom-com sensibility in its escalation of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s dead-end “zombification.”

Frost’s pot-smoking, Time Splitters 2-playing fuckup of a roomie is clearly more far gone, but Pegg’s Shaun is headed down a similar path should he fail to change his ways. In its self-actualization of the latter and sacrifice of the former, Shaun of the Dead reunites its unlikely hero with his girlfriend (Kate Ashfield) and chains a zombified Ed to a game system in the shed. Perhaps some of us really are better off with our unsavory friends dead and buried. Erm, metaphorically speaking of course.

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Va Va Vroom: ‘Death Proof’ Isn’t Tarantino’s Worst Movie

Quentin Tarantino Death Proof girls Kurt Russell end

Last week, IndieWire’s Matt Singer wrote a pretty swell piece on Death Proofspecifically that it doesn’t deserve its label as Quentin Tarantino’s “worst film”:

At the time of “Grindhouse”‘s release, most of these overt nods to the bygone era of exploitation cinema were seen as little more than gimmicks. Just five years later, “Death Proof”‘s aged look feels far more poignant. With digital projection the new industry standard, it’s now a farewell not just to an obscure footnote in the history of cinematic exhibition, but to an entire century of celluloid filmmaking technology. All of Quentin Tarantino’s movies are stuffed with the love of movies, but “Death Proof” is the one most stuffed with the love of film, the tactile, physical medium that became the dominant art form of the twentieth century but was still anything but death-proof.

Until yesterday I thought Singer had merely given an interesting but contrarian take on the less interesting “Grindhouse” entry. How could a film this small, this gimmicky — even for a Tarantino picture — be anything but a disappointing sidestep in the director’s filmography?

As shown in Inglourious Basterds and most recently Django Unchained, Tarantino’s penchant for name-dropping flower child era actresses and TV shows your dad’s probably never even heard of has lent itself to the stories he’s telling. For all of its countless strengths, Pulp Fiction’s pop cultural obsessions occasionally veer into character devices. “Fox Force Five” makes for great conversation between Mia and Vincent, but does it help a fantastic film in any real way? Singer nails it on the head when writes about Death Proof’s heart-on-sleeve “love of film.” Its main title, “The Last Race” is a Jack Nitzsche composition ripped straight from the MST3K-worthy Village of the Giants — i.e. the cheesy low budget double features Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez were paying tribute to. The second group of girls (Zoe Bell and Tracie Thoms among them) and of course the creepily charming “Stuntman” Mike (Kurt Russell) profess their fondness for the days of cult car cinema, for the days of Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry and a time when the letters “CGI” stood for nothing more than a weird acronym from a Star Trek episode. 

Tarantino flaunts his obvious disdain for digital filmmaking — as always, Death Proof was shot on film stock, and this time by the director himself —  and his passion for old school production.

Apart from a single wire, there is no fakery at work when Stuntman Mike tries to ram Zoe Bell off the hood of that Challenger. And it’s also no coincidence that Bell, credited as “herself,” is the one doing the stunts, having served as Daryl Hannah’s double on Kill Bill. Tarantino shows us the old way of doing things, and it’s arguably better. Dangerous and terrifying, but better. So when Stuntman Mike jokes to Rose McGowan about being dumb enough to fall down some stairs and get paid for it, it comes from a real appreciation for practical effects and the crazy people who destroy their bodies to aid in the illusion.

And boy is Stuntman Mike crazy. When he surprises the first set of girls and recites Jungle Julia’s poem for “Butterfly” (Vanessa Ferlito), Ferlito acquiesces to the lap dance, but not out of obligation. Nor from the threat of being deemed too “chickenshit.” Ferlito makes it clear Mike’s car scares the shit out of her, yet she can’t resist falling for his bad boy charms all the same. It’s a devastating “be careful what you wish for” finger wag then when Stuntman Mike’s car tire permanently tattoos Ferlito’s face. Bad boys are bad for a reason.

Jungle Julia Butterfly Death Proof car

Then again, the world has plenty of bad girls, too. Death Proof’s genius comes in its inversion of gender stereotypes, and as Tarantino transitions out of the grainy, scratched celluloid with a black and white gas station sequence, it’s clear this new batch of girls — the aforementioned Bell and Thoms, Rosario Dawson, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead — ain’t chickenshit. Dawson voices her heavy disdain for a slutty Daryl Hannah “stand-in fucker” she used to date. (see?) Tracy Thoms is plenty upfront about ramming the Challenger up Mike’s “bitch” ass. Oh and the girls are plenty resourceful and conniving, often to dickish lengths; when they leave Winstead as collateral for their fateful joyride, they play right to its owner’s sexual obsessions. These are strong, self-assured women, to be feared as much as ogled over.

That applies to both groups of girls, really. Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier) has all the self-assuredness and swagger of Eli Roth, in his conviction that a “fucking bitch will drink anything” if he supplies the booze. As Poitier and her gal pals show, this might be true, but the one difference is they’re going to do what they want regardless of how many Jaeger shots a guy buys. And in comparison to Roth and Michael Bacall’s bar stool scheming, Poitier’s hair swingin’ and foot tappin’ are just a different brand of bravado. Ferlito places a moratorium on make-out length with her new hook up “Nate” and even has him dote on her hair mid-rainstorm, and Jordan Ladd’s Shanna will absolutely correct you if you call her “Shawna.” None of which should exclude the planned “girls only” cabin trip. In Death Proof, women can be sexy (see: foot promotion, accentuated butts in booty shorts), but they can also play with the big boys. In fact, the big boys seem kinda dumb.

iMDb is far from any definitive resource, but its easy voting system is a cheap use of populist criticism. So why exactly does Death Proof earn a respectable but uncharacteristic rating for its director? If I may be so bold, when compared to the excess of Kill Bill, the style of Pulp Fiction or the grungy cool of Reservoir Dogs, Death Proof feels smaller, less overt — and perhaps by that token, less stereotypically “Tarantino.” But behind the artificially scratchy celluloid and Sally Menke’s brilliant, bipolar editing there’s a wonderful takedown of male machismo, not to mention a sly jab at how that often comes packaged and sealed inside of gearhead culture.

Yes, Nitzsche’s “Last Race” does play over Death Proof’s opening titles, but Tarantino’s not adapting the song as an omen of Stuntman Mike’s fuel-injected rampage. No. There’s a rage that’s been building in these girls, and Nitzsche’s song is its clarion call.

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2012 in Film: Just Another Asshole’s Year End List

I don’t pay to see a lot of “bad” movies.

That means that out of an average year, if Tyler Perry’s Good Deeds isn’t already on my radar, I’m probably not coughing up seven bucks to see it.

Because I’m not a “critic” — yeah, in multiple senses of the word — a Top X List doesn’t really feel fair, especially since the worst film I actually paid to see this year was probably Snow White and the Huntsman. 

What I can do is weigh my own expectations against the finished product. What was a surprise in 2012? What was a total letdown?

So yes, embedded somewhere in this post are “best of” and “worst of” lists. As a disclaimer, there are some blind spots in my list. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t come ’round these here parts for another week, and Holy Motors screened in the city of Madison exactly once from what I can surmise. I haven’t seen Lay Mizzzzz or Anna Karenina or Michael Haneke’s Amour. And I’ll save you Whedonites some time: there is no Cabin in the Woods on this list. *drops mic*

— A Few Notes 

IMAX film reel

1. It doesn’t take some idiot with WordPress to point out the obvious: superhero movies still pwn the shit out of Hollywood. Joss Whedon’s snappy action extravaganza The Avengers was the domestic B.O. king this year, taking in over $623 million. More to the point, all three major comic book releases this summer easily broke the top box office charts (#2 The Dark Knight Rises: $448 million; #6 The Amazing Spider-man: $262 million). Back in the spring, film sites ripped (now former) Walt Disney Studios President Rich Ross for poorly marketing the financially disappointing John Carter. In my opinion? Andrew Stanton shoulda just thrown a cape on him. BILLIONS O’ DOLLARS.

2. The internet has changed film journalism (arguably for the worse) and induced round-the-clock rumor-mongering and list making. Where ten years ago, a top story might be the critical disappointment over The Phantom Menace, now it’s “Ten Potential Directors We’d Like to See Direct Episode VII.” The internet hasn’t just expanded platforms for the critics, though; it’s also unleashed the wrath of the fanboy. First with The Dark Knight Rises and more recently with early criticism against the first Hobbit, rabid fans likely foaming at the mouth have taken to sites like Rotten Tomatoes and lashed out at negative reviews. Expect this to continue if not increase altogether. And then prepare for the worst.

3. Even with Monsters University on next year’s slate, look for continued challenges to the iron-fisted reign of Herr Pixar on the peaceful peasant lands of children’s animation. While Brave still pleased most critics and took a decent chunk at the box office, it’s a stretch to compare it to the likes of other recent successes like Wall-E, Up, or Toy Story 3. Dreamworks and Disney released Rise of the Guardians and the excellent Wreck-It Ralph respectively, and while I wasn’t hot on it, Focus Features and Laika (of Coraline fame) garnered plenty of buzz with ParaNorman. 

4. For film scores, Hans Zimmer and Adele are obvious winners. The latter came out with one of the best Bond themes, and while most 007 songs suffer from being pop cultural artifacts of their respective time, Adele’s more timeless old school qualities have me thinking “Skyfall” will go down as more Shirley Bassey and less Madonna. Zimmer’s Dark Knight Rises score also felt like an appropriate conclusion to Nolan’s story. Bane and Catwoman both got some pretty unique themes, but Zimmer also brought back ideas he and his former collaborator first introduced way back in Batman Begins. While Rises’ score clearly suffered from the absence of Howard’s gentler moments, Zimmer’s knack for epic bombast in tracks like “Rise” and “Imagine the Fire” is unparalleled. Or to put it another way: BWOOOOOOOM.

5. On the flip side, Howard Shore let me down. In his original Lord of the Rings scores, he’d developed such an iconic and varied musical language for Tolkien’s mythology. Thus far, his work on The Hobbit has been a bummer. Shore adds variations of themes we all know and love, but there’s very little creative expansion, and it frankly comes off as tired and lazy. The “Hobbit theme,” while clearly riffing on that of the Fellowship’s, is undeniably catchy in its many forms and remains a standout. If only the rest of the score didn’t bank on its predecessor as a crutch — or cause head-scratching comparisons to be made. What does a goblin chase in the Misty Mountains have to do with the Bridge of Kazad-dum? They both have… stairs? Yeah, I don’t know either.

6. What about formats? Will 2013 see even more overpriced tickets for 3D conversions? Or will Apple realize the ultimate in consumer home theater systems so we never have to leave our padded apartments ever again? One thing’s for sure: IMAX is coming back. HARD. Star Trek Into Darkness, Oz: The Great and Powerful, Pacific Rim, Ender’s Game, and Iron Man 3 are just a handful of releases next year slated to go big. Is it another easy way to make more money? Sure. But studios may also be finally catching on to the fact that a lot of people couldn’t give two shits about patchy 3D conversion. And hey, maybe we’ll end up getting a Will Ferrell buddy comedy in IMAX. America could really use one of those.

— Biggest Letdowns —

3. The Dark Knight Rises

Dark Knight Rises Best of worst of 2012 Batman

Seriously? You? What’s next, asshole? Mexican food had an “underwhelming” third quarter?

First of all, unless the secret brain-washing ingredients Taco Bell throws in its Grade F meat start convincing America it’s the best thing ever, Mexican food will always be great.

And I did like this Batman movie. How couldn’t I? Hathaway kicked ass. Tom Hardy’s Bane was this bizarre, lucha libre Darth Vader. It gave us “Light it up” and “What a lovely, lovely voice.” It gave us a BANE SOUNDBOARD. And that ending with Joseph Robin-Levitt was about as perfect of a conclusion to the series as anything I could’ve masturbated to.

Rises has a metric ton of cool ideas: Bane’s mask is a literal inversion of Batman’s; not to mention he actually breaks the Bat; a huge battle in the streets of Gotham; a plot about some nuclear reactor that actually felt like a comic book movie telling a “comic book” story; Talia and Ra’s al Ghul have the exact same deaths. The Nolans even reverse the standard hero-villain relationship. This time, the bad guys are the idealists with a sweeping plan to change the world, and the hero is just one pissed off dude, hellbent on getting his revenge. It’s slight and a little genius.

But even after five months of thinking and two separate screenings — one in glorious IMAX, no less — I can’t help but shake this feeling of letdown. This was probably inevitable. As fun as it is to cover our mouths and purr “Do you feel in chaaaahhge?” Bane is no Joker. And if you had to narrow down a single element to The Dark Knight’s success, it would probably be Heath Ledger, for better or worse. Not to mention that any way you slice it, Rises’ script has a lot of problems. There’s weird pacing and a strangely elastic sense of time, and Christopher Nolan’s glib handling of specifics felt almost abbreviated this time around.

Still, this marks my fourth paragraph on a film that I’m calling a “letdown.” Not too shabby, eh? Plus, I already know I’ll be buying any future releases of a Dark Knight Rises Twelve-Disc Triple Awesome Collector’s Deluxe with Bacon Edition, whenever that comes out on Blu-Ray.

2. Lincoln 

Best films 2012 Worst of Lincoln Spielberg

Maybe it was the cram-packed movie theater on a Saturday afternoon that did me in. Maybe the white-haired crankiness that comes with a weekend matinee rubbed off on me too much. But the headaches are a’comin just thinking about Lincoln’s wordy pompousness.

Daniel Day-Lewis is the mad notes. For TEH ALWAYS. If Tom Cruise is Hollywood’s best actor at showing you how hard he worksDDL works just as hard and then does something more substantial than Jack Reacher with that same “I’m totally sleeping in an abandoned jail” level of dedication. Thank Christ Liam Neeson’s resurrection probably kept him off this project. Had he stayed on as planned, one of Lincoln’s few strengths would’ve been lost to another boring, deep-voiced one-note interpretation of an already mythologized President.

And speaking of mythologizing, what exactly are Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner trying for here? The writing in Lincoln often feels like it’s fighting to up the impact of the President’s life. No, no I want to begin with a couple of black Union soldiers reciting lines back to Abe from the Gettysburg Address. And make that shit verbatim, dammit. 

Granted, Kushner limited to white back-patting in adapting Doris Kearns-Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, but this sobering perspective on exactly how sweeping change is made in this country was a little too sobering, and too anesthetic. Lincoln is overblown, flowery and self-indulgent in the worst ways, from that absurd Gettysburg recitation to an unnecessary stretching of the President’s assassination. Spielberg shows the bullying, the bribery, the paper-pushing behind the Fourteenth Amendment, and then squats all over the collective effort with a saccharine eulogy. Lincoln wants to have its moldy, bearded seed cake and eat it, too. With all due respect, Mr. President, fat chance.

1. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit Unexpected Journey 2012 best of worst film year Gollum Riddles

If you listen closely while watching Peter Jackson’s first Hobbit film (of three!),  in the background you can hear Warner Bros. execs setting aflame their wads of $20 bills, which they presumably use to light larger wads of $100 bills which they then use to light the finest cigars in all the Southfarthing.

Skeptical as I am with this trilogy biznass, I can imagine where each film would begin and end. An Unexpected Journey wrapped up the goblins and the bits with Gollum; The Desolation of Smaug will look to showcase the Desolation of Smaug; and There and Back Again has gotta have the Battle of the Five Armies somewhere in it. The problem with this plan is that you can already see the seams from the cutting and re-arranging of Tolkien’s context. Never mind that An Unexpected Journey seems convinced a story about dragon’s gold is just as epic as the end of Middle-earth. Even with the extra tidbits from Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and the dearly departed Guillermo del Toro, the story feels run down, like butter scraped over too much bread.

Where was the fun from Tolkien’s children’s story? Where was the whimsy? An Unexpected Journey’s moments of “adventure” only occur when characters literally say the word aloud. Maybe I’m just too naive. From a fiscal standpoint, why wouldn’t studios stretch this out to three movies? Or five? Hell, let’s make it an even thirteen. One for each dwarf.

— Biggest Surprises —

5. The Grey

The Grey Liam Neeson Joe Carnahan wolves Best of 2012

One of the problems with year end lists, beyond the arbitrary ranking of subjective opinions, is that certain “kinds” of films get left in the cold. Films where Liam Neeson fights off a pack of CGI wolves get ignored alongside the films where Liam Neeson blathers on about a CGI kraken. (Kraken! Kraken! Kraken!) Frankly, that’s not very fair to Joe Carnahan.

Disguising itself as Taken It 2 Tha Wolves, The Grey is smart and stripped-down with an actual head on its shoulders. Neeson plays an Alaskan oil worker whose sole job is to protect his drilling team from getting torn apart by wild wolves. When the team’s plane crashes in the middle of fucking nowhere, The Grey gets cold and callous real fast.

While it’s easy to point out the stock character tropes at play — Neeson’s the badass, Dermot Mulroney’s the coward, Frank Grillo’s the hothead — each man feels fleshed out. That goes double for Neeson, who’s embellished with a two-pronged biography that’s as tragic as it is poetic. Once more into the fray, into the last good fight I’ll ever know. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day…

Carnahan is better known for his showier fare in Smokin Aces or The A-Team, but his co-writing credit with Ian MacKenzie Jeffers shows he’s fully capable of crafting a smart, even moving action film that defies conventions and expectations.

4. Seven Psychopaths

Seven Psychopaths Sam Rockwell Best of 2012 film tent

Martin McDonagh’s first film In Bruges was a darkly comic look at the lives (and inevitable downfalls) of career hitmen. In Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh returns to that same interest, with an even wilder bent and a more raucous sense of humor. From his days as a playwright, McDonagh has had an undeniable knack for witty dialogue, whether it’s the snappy back-and-forth between Colin Farrell’s screenwriter and Sam Rockwell’s serial dognapper or a smart-assed sitdown with Woody Harrelson’s unhinged gangster and Christopher Walken, latter who’s rarely been better.

Taking meta-textual cues from the likes of Pulp Fiction and Charlie Kaufman’s headscratchers, Seven Psychopaths is a bloody dissection of not just the gangster film but our broader interests in pop culture and how violence plays into those obsessions.

And to alter a famous bit of graffiti, if I may:

CLAPTON ROCKWELL IS GOD

 3. Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas Ben Whishaw Best of 2012

Okay, here’s the thing. I totally get the hate for Cloud Atlas. There’s a good chance its idealistic musings on love and human connections and their broader effects through time are too “hippie bullshit” for some. That’s completely fair.

But I couldn’t help admire a film that has this big of a heart and so brazenly wears it on its sleeve. To steal from myself:

The more important, less infuriating question is ‘Why does Cloud Atlas work?’ The short answer is the editing, or more appropriately, the acid-laced, crotch-flaming juggling act Tykwer and the Wachowskis pull off. It’s not always perfect; you can definitely see some of the seams out of the gate, and Cloud Atlas’ first opening minutes take some getting used to. You wanted to learn more about our intrepid homosexual composer? Sorry, bru but you’ll have to wait until space Halle Berry helps Tom Hanks kill nuclear fallout savages first! That sounds exaggerated, but it can be very close to the truth. Thankfully, this is seven total minutes out of a nearly three hour movie, and the deftness of knowing which plot threads to turn to (and when to do so) is a real testament to the filmmaker trio. To put this into context: buy six 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzles, dump ‘em together and then show me the best parts of each completed picture all within a single finished product. Or you know, just kill yourself now.

Yes, a great deal of Cloud Atlas’ makeup looked really fucking terrible. But from the infinite cross-cutting over numerous stories to co-director Tom Tykwer’s collaborative composition with Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek, this is a group effort that’s as moving as it is impressive. Cloud Atlas is the trippiest, craziest class presentation you’ve ever had to sit through in college. A+ for effort

2. Django Unchained

Django Unchained Jamie Foxx gun 2012 in film best of

Truth be told, Django wasn’t even on my radar until the flipping opening credits started up. That’s how little I was excited for Tarantino’s latest. And truthfully, I’m curious what didn’t make me so curious, because oh what a movie this is.

There’s been a lot of love for Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom this year, and for good reason. While I’d argue Anderson’s never really moved past his obsessions with dysfunctional communities and the mechanics of the nuclear family, Moonrise Kingdom’s focus on an innocent love story between two young adults feels more appropriate for its director’s spritely palette and awkward conversations — at least more than anything he’s done since The Royal Tenenbaums. Django Unchained, with its endless references and vintage aesthetic, is perfectly tailored right down to Tarantino’s story.

Remember that scene in Reservoir Dogs where Tim Roth has to recite a fake drug story to convince the other chaps he’s legit? From his early career on, Tarantino’s been fascinated by the “hows” and “whys” of films within other films, and that moment in Reservoir Dogs is a superb look at the actor’s role. Well Django is all about theatricality and performing for an audience, too. It’s also a deft commentary on the slippery ethical slope of American business. And it of course functions as a slick, modern take on the blaxploitation revenge picture. Any way you slice it, it’s damn cool, baby.

1. Kill List

2012 Best of film Kill List Ben Wheatley

Before you angrily type comments of “refund!” and “hack!” below, I would hope the quality of this writing has reminded  you all that this site has no paywall. So I owe you all nothing. NOTHING! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA

Kill List was by far 2012’s biggest surprise. Sure, The Master and Compliance were tighter, better made films, and there’s a strong chance you don’t even know what the fuck I’m talking about. But if you had to ask what film has stayed in my mind more than any other I saw this year? Kill List wins out. And frankly it’s not even close.

Director Ben Wheatley plays with horror, suspense, and crime in ways I have never seen before, and arguably with a more severe genre-bending penchant than Drew Goddard’s excellent Cabin in the Woods. Suspense turns to dread with impeccable sound mixing. Unflinching depictions of violence submerge you in the inner suffocation of Neil Maskell’s soldier-turned-hitman — a hammer to the head in Kill List doesn’t cut away like another film might. Forget those contrived pull quotes calling this a “gut punch” or a “white-knuckle thrill ride.” Kill List will destroy your soul, slowly and subtly, until it finally tips its hand. By then it’s far too late.

Of course now that I’ve talked it up this much, it can only really be a letdown right? Now I just look like an asshole. I guess even as the years change, some things still stay the same. See you in 2013.

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I’m worried about ‘The Hobbit’

Capture

So I’m concerned.

No it’s not because of those early reviews that have come out this week. I won’t even link to them cuz I don’t wanna know. (Come midnight, I’M GOING IN AS FRESH AS A BABY’S BOTTOM.) I’m also trying to ignore this Radagast the Binks hubbub. I’m not even worried about Warner Bros’ move to a trilogy. (Which actually makes sense to me: Goblin King/Gollum, Smaug, Battle of the Five Armies. Three story arcs, three films. What’s not to get? You see how far gone my Peter Jackson Stockholm Syndrome is? Please help me.)

do have a problem, though: Where the bigatures at?

For the uninitiated, Weta Workshop once lovingly referred to their miniature models as “bigatures” on the Extended Edition “Appendices.” And even if you didn’t notice them, they were all over the place, from Lothlorien to the tower of Barad-dur to some stupid tree trunk you probably never thought twice about. But Weta thought twice about it. Probably three or four times. In fact, Weta’s miniatures were so goddamned detailed you could push the camera in real tight for scrutiny and they’d hold up. They often had to do just that, so the miniatures naturally became larger in size. Hence: BIGATURES.

The bigatures were awesome. They required a painstaking attention to detail and an intricacy in production. Of course in an industry where efficiency is king, it’s easy to see why miniatures units are a dying breed. Practical models take too much damn time to make, and they can be costly if you screw up. Still, Peter Jackson and his production team continued to champion practical model-making well into 2005 with their vision for the underrated King Kong. I was convinced that no matter what happened, I could depend on these guys to find innovative new ways to blend two separate effects schools.

Imagine my surprise then when I read in a Collider.com interview that The Hobbit wouldn’t be using any bigatures:

“The technology that advanced the most, in the last 10 or 12 years, is really the fact that we did a lot of miniature shooting on The Lord of the Rings. All of the big architectural structures of Middle-earth were really miniatures, some of them quite large. But you’re limited to what you can do with a miniature. You literally have to have a big camera that has to sweep past it, so you can’t get too close to it and the detail doesn’t hold up too well if you do. This time around there are no miniatures. It’s all done with CGI.

Wait what?

“The detail doesn’t hold up?”

But- but all those great times we had… Those Elven houses looked so lovingly worn. Even Skull Island was awesome. And what about Minas Tirith? You can’t forget Minas Tirith. Why are you doing this to us? I AM A FAN WITH A SKEWED SENSE OF ENTITLEMENT, DAMMIT.

For lack of a darker phrase in the Black Speech, I felt something die in me after reading that. I mean, don’t we already know where CG special effects can take storytelling? Jump back to 2002 and compare Episode II’s full CGI Arena Battle” to the massive Helm’s Deep finale in Two Towers, a sequence that pairs digital effects with, yes, bigatures.

Is this even a fair fight? Notice the long take, where instead of cutting from the charge the camera pushes in on the Rohirrim as they bash Massive-generated Uruk-hai. They really wanted that level of detail to hold up to scrutiny, and the final image is so wonderfully blended that a decade after it remains awe-inspiring.

It also looks much better than Obi-Wan and Padme fighting on the surface of Planet Toy Story. It’s clear which effects Industrial Light and Magic focused on in Episode II. The Geonosians (read: those flying armadillo bugs) still look great. Their texturing is rich and the body motions are as lifelike as Smeagol’s classic faltering gait. But if I told you this scene was shot against green screen (it was), would you believe me? There’s no blending between the fore- and backgrounds. It sorta just looks like actors in front of computer graphics.

To really beat this Star Wars nail into the ground, one of the many problems with the Prequels is that nothing looked usedIt was this sterile, pristine universe that just happened to have millions of creatures occupying it on a particular day. A New Hope was charming precisely because the Rebel Base was a dump, because the Falcon was a piece of junk. And despite CGI’s many, many strengths, it still has a hard time fooling the human eye. It’s tough to remove that Corsucant sheen and make a world seem lived in.

I’ve long believed that as opposed to the “CGI vs. practical” dichotomy — an oversimplification of industrial innovation, quality, and let’s face it, moneymaking — the best cinematic results are achieved by combining the old ways with the new. I’ve also believed that good ‘ole PJ was a herald of the classical modes of Hollywood production, that for every Scorsese or Fincher there was always a Jackson or Nolan to balance the scales. Digital filmmaking is the future, and the future is now, but sometimes the old ways are best.

With three major studios backing The Hobbit films, Peter Jackson would never come out and say this, but this full shift to CGI models seems like a money issue. Securing distribution and production rights for the story were already a pain in the ass. Toss in a labor strike, MGM’s bankruptcy, and the Director’s Kansas City Shuffle and it wouldn’t at all surprise me if Warners gave PJ the ix nay on the igaturesbay. (Stockholm Syndrome and my repugnant brand of cynicism are a deadly combo — ‘Maker’s Mark/Excedrin PM’ deadly.)

But maybe it was PJ who wanted to do away with bigatures. After all, the guy behind Episode II was irrevocably changed by the studio system, too. Perhaps a decade+ of working in Hollywood slimmed Peter Jackson’s waistline and his patience for budgeting.  There’s also the strong possibility that these computer-generated models really do look fantastic, and that I’m just a big idiot. (Considering my prediction that Rise of the Guardians would make BANK, there’s a strong possibility.)

It’s not as if Weta Digital cleaned house and hired a bunch of lazy scabs to take over. I’ve little doubt The Hobbit’s production team is as fond of the source material as I am. I just can’t shake the feeling that getting rid of those bigatures meant getting rid of something else, too. Call me old fashioned.

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The Spy Who Saw No Color: We Don’t Need a Black James Bond

Did I get your attention? Good.

The net was all aflame this week after film bloggers exaggerated a few comments from the current Bond man, Daniel Craig. Craig made some offhand remarks that he wanted Skyfall to be his last 007 appearance.

Naturally, internet speculation has blown this thing out of all proportion. Traitor! Screw that guy! I’m totally boycotting this jerk right after I see that Skyfarm one in IMAX ohmigod. If sticking up for the man hasn’t yet been equated to a Klan rally, allow me to introduce a little objectivity and suggest maybe the guy’s not completely evil? If Craig blasted taking the role to begin with or had he stumbled onto Conan’s couch and started spilling Wild Turkey all over Andy Richter gurgling I never needed that Bond crap to be famoussssss, I’d be picketing for a much deserved nut shot, too. Not the case. My guess is that the guy is grateful for the role putting him on the map, but he’d probably prefer to take on new projects, like say that Golden Compass sequel everyone’s always talking about or a movie about stealing priceless artwork from Nazis. 

Hey, I tried.

What those more read, better written film blogs tend to resort to — after all the manufactured hubbub dies down — is a mad blogging rush to fill what everyone now perceives to be a gigantic gaping hole in the 007 role. We’re talking ‘5 Actors Who Could Play James Bond’ lists. And lots. Michael Fassbender’s been thrown out more than once and in at least one awkward fan trailer. But more often than not, the numero uno name has been Idris Elba. And more often than not, this suggestion gets framed like Wouldn’t it be crazy if a black guy played James Bond??? Imagine the fury! Heck, I had a brief conversation with Grantland’s Jonah Keri on this very thing. Very brief, very Twitter.

Ignoring Mr Keri’s miraculously quick concept of studio productivity (another two in five years might be a bit much), he raises a larger point. Why Idris Elba? Why all those ‘Here Are Some Suave British Black Dudes?’ We don’t need a black James Bond. We just need a great actor.

Let me get something out of the way. If the only reason you’re screaming IDRIS ELBA IDRIS ELBA is so that we can finally have a black Bond for the sake of having a ‘black Bond’, you’re a terrible person. Your motivations are fueled by skin color. Stop please, because you’re speaking from the same messed up ass backwards ideology as those who claim Bond can only be white. And since the Bond canon hasn’t been consistent since 1969, thems dudes are all wrong, dawg.

If you hadn’t noticed, Daniel Craig and that George Lazenby dude look nothing alike. Both were James Bond. Sean Connery hails from Edinburgh, Scotland while Roger Moore is straight outta London. Both Bond. SPECTRE Archvillain Ernst Stavro Blofeld has been played by seven different actors. Seven. How uncomfortable is that shit? James Bond hasn’t been consistent since You Only Live Twice. So please, enough with the “James Bond isn’t…” arguments. They’re all wrong.

So you might be saying, Exactly! This is exactly why we can have a black James Bond. Not so fast. Yes, James Bond is a flexible character whose mythology spans countries, people, events, and decades — which is a nice way of saying it’s really goddamn convoluted. James Bond can be anything, but the motivation needs to be right. If we’re casting Idris Elba because he’s black, not only is that ill-intentioned, but isn’t it kind of insulting to him? Hey dude. Loved you on The Wire. Will you be our black guy? 

A studio could absolutely have a black James Bond. You find some way to make a gay Bond work, I’m all in. Go nuts. Make a Lady Bond — a Jamie Bond. Or maybe it would be Jaymee Bond. The X-rated parody. Whaddup, Evan Stone?!  So long as there’s a solid story and your motivations aren’t terrible, you’re golden… eye. Sorry.

On the other hand, when you have no story and are just making controversial casting choices, you’re no longer making a movie; you’re trying to piss people off. Screw you for trying to do that. Should Daniel Craig forego his commitment to two more Bond films, I have two requirements for whomever wants to take over: 1) They should be passionate about the role and 2) they should be a good actor. Here’s where I once again come back to Idris Elba. The guy’s a great actor. And if that’s your reasoning, bring it. I’m there.

Again, we don’t need a black James Bond. We just need a solid actor. You fucking racists.

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