2013 IN REVIEW: Neither the Best, Nor the Worst Films I Saw
I apparently watched a lot more movies in 2013 than I had realized… The films below represent not the worst, not the best, but certainly not always good, but also certainly not always bad movies that I saw in and from 2013. Only films released theatrically were counted, and film festival debuts did not count. Some of these films were truly great, others were truly awful, but none of them were seen fit to be placed in “the worst,” “the best,” nor “my favorite” categories. And so, they go here. Here are some of the films I watched in 2013, in order of release!
I didn’t expect much from this movie beyond the usual scares, but this Guillermo del Toro-executive produced horror film film from Andés Muschietti is surprisingly kind of touching, incorporating elements of bedtime fairy tales with the usual dark subject matter that, as can be expected, preys upon the fears and anxieties of motherhood. Jessica Chastain only helps to raise the bar in quality for this film as the grungy lead of a rock band who is forced to take charge of two little girls, nieces to her boyfriend and victims of a father who had murdered their mother and who disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
The Last Stand
Okay, this was actually pretty fun. I mean, I made fun of it when it was airing trailers on TV, but once it finally did come out, and I decided to check it out myself, I kind of ate my words. It’s dumb, stylish fun, and it has no need to apologize for what it is, either. It’s an Arnold Schwarzenegger film, where he plays a sheriff of a small Arizona town alongside Johnny Knoxville and Lady Sif herself Jamie Alexander, and they are literally the last stand between a sinister thief on the run from the police in an expensive and incredibly fast car and headed in their direction on his way to freedom in Mexico. Then a fun gun battle. Boom. Done. Instant, satisfying entertainment. Movies like this make me understand why some people just like the 90s action films. Almost.
John Dies at the End
I didn’t particularly enjoy nor hate this bizarre film, based on a novel by Cracked.com writer Jason Pargin (aka “David Wong”). The story revolves around a drug known as “soy sauce” that can transport users across dimensions, but the drug also proves to be a gateway through which the users are being replaced by beings from… elsewhere. It’s a strange, somewhat amusing movie, and that’s really all it ever really tries to be. The two leads characters, David and John, attempt to save the universe, alongside trusty dog companion, Bark Lee. I admit, I may have to rewatch this one to really fully understand what the hell is going on, but it wasn’t boring, that was for sure.
Another day another zombie movie. And another riff on Romeo and Juliet, too. This one, based on the Isaac Marion book, stars zombie teen R and human Julie, who is the daughter of the leader of survivors who have taken refuge within a walled fortress. Because of the subject matter, you know the two are going to fall in love, despite, you know, the whole thing about R being, well… dead. I guarantee it’s one of the sweeter movies you’ll ever see about necrophilia, however, and it’s not nearly as gross as you’d imagine – the whole brain eating thing is given a tragically poignant new twist that actually adds some level of empathy to the zombies’ deathless, shambling existence. Overall, I think most will be pleasantly surprised at just how entertained they’ll be with the film, and it’s a welcome bright spot in an otherwise bleak subgenre.
To the Wonder
Disappointing mostly as a follow up to what was, in my opinion, the stunning achievement that was The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s latest film is still an incredibly beautiful looking film, the story for which is a mostly abstract tale of selfishness and selflessness as seen in the story of a couple who fall in love in Paris and move in with one another, the troubles that their relationship runs into, as well as the crisis of faith suffered by the priest at their church as he ministers to the suffering. Like The Tree of Life, To the Wonder is mostly about the feelings that are conveyed through what is seen and heard on screen, but To the Wonder’s story, which was stitched together from what was apparently a vast amount of material that saw many big name actors being excised from the final film, is not nearly as engaging, coherent, nor as ambitious as that of the boy and his family in Malick’s previous film. To the Wonder is still quite beautiful, and fans of Malick will surely want to see it. Fans of Roger Ebert’s work will also want to see this, as it was the last film he ever wrote a review of.
Oz the Great and Powerful
What a disappointment this was. The trailers had me actually very excited for what looked to be a fun, energetic adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s book series, and the special effects looked quite gorgeous, as well. The fact that this movie came out during a time when I was moving and having to pay all sorts of setup fees and such didn’t help my chances of seeing this in theatres as I had hoped to, however, and the film’s disappointing reviews made this ultimately a rental for me. And while I’m certain that the 3D experience at the theatre was nothing short of stunning (as the trailers certainly were nice to look at), I was kind of glad that I had skipped this. James Franco is rather boring here as the titular wizard, as are his costars Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, and Rachel Weisz. Mila Kunis in particular is kind of wasted in her role. And some of the effects, like the flying monkey character voiced by Zac Braff, just look terrible. All this combines to make the story also never quite gel enough to be a reason to stay. What a shame.
It’s sort of brilliant that Harmony Korine cast two Disney Channel stars, Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, in this sordid tale about a group of college girls who do whatever it takes to experience the thrills of spring break in Florida – starting with armed robbery. The film is like a nightmarish modern film version of The Garden of Earthly Delights, a observational critique on self-centered party animals who only live to have a good time. The use of Britney Spears music, from “…Baby One More Time” to “Everytime” as a signal for the girls’ loss of innocence is pretty unnerving, as they’re seduced by the allure and promise of a good time by rapper Alien (played brilliantly by James Franco). The film is meant to shock and disturb, of course, and it succeeded in its goal when people were apparently outraged by the decision to “confuse” parents into taking their kids to see a movie that was most definitely not meant for little kids, despite the presence of the Disney Channel stars. Even if the outrage was manufactured marketing, that somehow just seems so appropriate for this film.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
I love Steve Carell. So it’s really painful to see him appear in these ridiculous, high concept films that give him better opportunities to fully display his comedic skills.
I love Tina Fey. So it’s really painful to see her appear in these ridiculous, high concept films that give her better opportunities to fully display her comedic skills.
Despite some surprisingly dark (and thus surprisingly amusing) humor, The Croods was not exactly one of DreamWorks’ best efforts. The movie is packed with ugly character and creature designs that are meant to be unique but are mostly just off-putting, and its story about a brave young woman embracing the unknown adventure of a world outside her family’s comfort zone, in spite of her family’s fears, is really just a means of trying to portray yet another heroine figure to cynically market towards girls. There’s nothing inherently wrong in merchandizing, but could we please refrain from having “strong girl” equate to the Mary Sue stereotype, please? Brave did this thing far, far better.
G.I. Joe: Retaliation
After the poor performance of Battleship, Hasbro and Paramount slammed on the brakes and held back the sequel to their next toy-based film, which had already had a ton of marketing and theatre presence prior to its being delayed into 2013, which also afforded it a 3D conversion. The film is notably more stylish than the first and, visually, has a lot more appeal than the other, as well, but by jettisoning most of the major stars from the original film to focus on The Rock and two young, bland leads played by D.J. Cotrona and Adrianne Palicki, who reminded me very much of the unnecessary duo Nikki and Paulo from the TV series Lost. Sadly, these two don’t suffer the same, fan-pleasing fate as that much reviled couple, but at least we’re given a consolation prize in getting to see Bruce Willis shoot of some guns and his mouth, right?
In so many ways. Things are indeed wrong in this world in which Wrong takes place, where a man named Dolph has lost his dog and must go on a spiritual quest to reunite himself with his loyal companion. Wrong is one of the first films on this list that appeared on a previous one for my review of the films of 2013, and the bizarre premise alone was reason enough for me to queue it up on Netflix one night. It’s pretty bizarre, and, if anything, it’s much one of the most accurate film to ever depict something akin to living in the world of a dream, though it has some very amusing observations about the real life ridiculousness of some business marketing.
If this were a new release, it’d easily make it into my list of top films of the year, but since it’s technically a 1994 release, I can’t very well do that in good conscience, you know? This movie’s still fantastic, however, and even though I found the IMAX conversion less than perfect (it was incredibly grainy), the 3D conversion actually was pretty cool – both times I saw it. I already own this movie, but it was certainly amazing to see it again on the big BIG screen in a new way after nearly 20 years.
As a follow up to Shane Carruth’s incredibly highbrow indie sci-fi film about timetravel, Primer, Upstream Color almost feels like the less intelligent follow up to a classic you never did fully understand in the first place. That isn’t to say that it’s an inferior film, however. Those, like me, who found Primer to be almost unbearably cerebral will maybe find this even more strange film to be a little more tolerable. The plot revolves around a man and woman who have both been the victims of having their lives be unwillingly connected to that of pigs at the hand of a creepy scientist, who uses a parasite that links the victims to the pigs and, it seems, even to him, which he then uses as an influence on his musical compositions. It’s incredibly hard to explain the film without making sound too weird, but it would do no good to explain it away and spoil it, as well. There’s a shared experience between victims and their perpetrator and the environment that both sides inhabit that is abstractly explored in the film. Though the bizarre story premise, there’s actually a very moving and emotional experience that, for example, may resonate with victims of abuse or other traumas.
In the year 2077, earth has been abandoned by humanity after the invasion of an alien race known as the Scavengers. Only a couple humans stay behind as repairmen for the automated drones that protect the massive sea water-harvesting machines that convert the water into energy from the remaining Scavengers. Jack Harper lives a mostly pretty quiet existence with his lover Vika until an unexpected thing happens: another living human is discovered amongst the wreckage of a downed satellite. Naturally, Jack learns that the history he’s been told about the war with the alien beings isn’t exactly the truth. The film has some slick production values, coming from the guy who was responsible for the stunning look of TRON: Legacy, but the whole thing about learning what it means to be human and the surprise plot twists can be seen from miles away here, especially if you saw the previews. Performances are rather one-note, even from Tom Cruise, and, yes, the age difference between him and his supporting actresses is distracting. The movie, overall, is just very dull.
Inspirational sports movies are a dime-a-dozen these days, and it takes a great deal of skill to make one standout in the crowd. 42 has the advantage of centering its story on not just any underdog who loved a game enough to beat the odds, but perhaps the underdog of any sport, Jackie Robinson, who was the first African-American to play on a Major League Baseball team, the Brooklyn Dodgers. The movie then goes one step further by hiring competent actors, particularly Chadwick Boseman as Robinson, who finds the right air of determination, frustration, anger, and humility for his role. As a film, 42 does fall into the trap of mostly feeling a bit schmaltzy and probably could’ve done better to set itself apart with its tone – whenever an extraordinarily inspirational event happens, you bet there’s an orchestral crescendo. I’m not normally a fan of hip hop, but remember the trailers that used that Jay-Z track, “Brooklyn Go Hard”? That kind of anachronistic but resonant energy within the film would’ve been welcome, if only to further set the film apart from its peers.
It’s a Disaster
A nearly disastrous brunch party in suburbia is interrupted when off-screen terrorists set off a series of dirty bombs in the nearby city, unbeknownst to the four bickering couples who increasingly don’t know why they continue to meet up like this when nearly everyone seems to be getting sick of each other. When the news finally does reach them, naturally, they’re already so set in their petty ways, survival almost seems like a second priority. It’s an amusing premise with a cast that’s completely game for executing the dark humor of the situation, but the film does, towards the middle, take a high dive into the shallow waters of its own absurdity, as if to say, “Look how crazy these guys are!” rather than make any intelligent observations of these kinds of social gatherings. A subtler hand would’ve helped make this still-enjoyable and amusing film into a possible cult classic of dark humor.
What Maisie Knew
A little girl gets caught in the middle of a battle between her separating parents, who seem more concerned with using her as ammo against one another than they are her own wellbeing. The film is a contemporized adaptation of the 1897 Henry James novel. It’s an often heartbreaking film, as you can imagine, but it’s one that could’ve easily found itself devolving into self-important melodrama. Luckily, that isn’t the case, as every actor in the film – Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Alexander Skarsgård, Joanna Vanderham, and even Onata Aprile as the neglected little girl – puts in exceptional performances in their respective roles, and the film is artful enough to not let sappiness overwhelm the very real sadness that permeates the story. It’s not a light or necessarily happy film by any means, but it’s certainly one of the best films about the subject.
The Great Gatsby
Another holdover from 2012, The Great Gatsby was bound for mediocrity when it was kicked out of the Oscar season of the previous year and thrown into the summer blockbuster season. The latest adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, directed by Baz Luhrmann, features Luhrmann’s signature gaudy stylings and unique anachronistic musical choices (courtesy of musical executive producers Jay-Z and The Bullitts), but despite these touches and some solid performances from its all-star ensemble cast, which also sees Luhrmann reuniting with his Romeo + Juliet star Leonardo DiCaprio, this adaptation of the novel is all style with little heart, and it’s hard to feel anything for its heartbroken lead when even the movie itself seems more concerned about comparatively frivolous production values.
Frances Halladay attempts to move on with her life after her roommate and best friend moves out, an event that inspires her to pursue her own dreams, but soon proves to her just how unprepared she is to actually move on with her life, which seems to be still filled with naïve hopes and expectations for herself in her late 20s. Unable to find much work as a dancer, she moves into wherever she is welcomed. It’s not all hopeless, though, as Frances remains cheerfully open to accepting new possibilities that she knows she just may not see coming. It’s a surprisingly sweet film, one that owes a lot of its style to Woody Allen and its charm to Greta Gerwig in the lead role. Frances isn’t so much an idiot as she is someone who realizes that she has made a lot of poor decisions throughout her life, but who is more than willing to do what it takes to keep moving on.
The Hangover Part III
We were promised that the film would not be a retread of the first film’s story, as the second one was, and, for the most part, Todd Phillips’ promise was indeed met. Still, we should’ve probably clarified that that didn’t mean that he couldn’t also return to the quality of that film, as well. The Hangover was one of the more unexpected treats upon its release, a film that could have easily been nothing but bro-tastic humor about sex and drinking but was instead kind of an exciting and hilarious comedy about bachelor party collateral damage. This third film seems to pretend that the second installment wasn’t the terrible retread it was, however, and treats the resulting trilogy as one big epic adventure with a history to explore. It’s fun at times, and, as mentioned before, it manages to avoid the trap of repeating the previous movies too often, but it’s remarkably light on laughs as its story elaborates unnecessarily upon the series’ history. The first film now just seems so unnecessarily overburdened as a result.
A lot of people jokingly referred to this as a gender-swapped sequel to Fern Gully, a not entirely undue accusation, as both films involve a human being shrunk down to fairy-size and joining them in taking on a force that threatens to spread death throughout the natural world, with annoying animal sidekicks in tow. Epic isn’t nearly as bad as Fern Gully, however, and avoids that movie’s cloying message delivery. It’s familiar territory, though, and none of its heroes are especially endearing, nor are its villains even remarkably dastardly. It’s fairly pretty to look at, and some of its ideas (such as how the little people manage to escape detection) are pretty cool concepts. Just not enough to carry a whole movie.
The Kings of Summer
Three teenage boys, tired of their mundane lives, go off to live life as rugged men in the woods, vowing to live independent of society and off the land. Being a coming-of-age film, you just know that compromises are made and things don’t go nearly as well as planned. The film has them learning that, though they do have much incite to offer even the adults around them, they’ve still got some growing up to do. Going by that summary, you might be forgiven for taking this as a lazy film, but it’s humorous enough and its characters endearing enough to let the sense of familiarity be overlooked. It’s never going to be remembered as a classic, but it’s a worthy addition to the coming-of-age canon.
Skewed theology aside, I was just as surprised by how much I enjoyed this film as much as I was surprised by its existence. Seriously, for me, it seemed to come out of nowhere. Perhaps I assumed that people were just referring to The World’s End and using an erroneous name? Regardless, the concept behind this is pretty genius: actors, playing versions of themselves, are caught up in the apocalypse, realizing that they were not raptured into heaven because, frankly, they were assholes and didn’t deserve to. It’s a funny introspective look at how the celebrities regard their own fame and relationships with one another without necessarily taking the self-righteous route. It’s a filthy movie, to be sure, but it’s also pretty hilarious.
The Bling Ring
Coming out in the same year as Spring Breakers, Sofia Coppola’s film pales by comparison but is nonetheless another stylish examination of over-privileged youth who care about nothing but themselves and having a good time. The film was based on the real life story about a group of thrill-seeking California teens who broke into the homes of various celebrities, including socialites Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, and stole a wide number of memorabilia from the victims they admire. The Bling Ring isn’t nearly as artful or intelligent as Spring Breakers, but it’s entertaining in a sort of guilty pleasure sort of way, as we are able to gawk at the self-entitled nitwits, who get their fair of scorn and pity from Coppola.
Despicable Me 2
I’m not really quite sure what it is about the Despicable Me series that makes me not nearly like them as much as most people. Perhaps the silliness of the kids the still-dastardly Gru takes care of just seems a little tired to me, as someone who sees their fair share of “random” humor due to a lot of time spent on the internet. Perhaps it’s just that the wackiness of the motor-mouth Minions sways back and forth between amusing and annoying far too frantically for my tastes. I recognize most of what I see as something potentially and often genuinely amusing, but most of my attention is centered on Gru himself, who is a great character but who far too often plays the straight man to those around him when he should at least be one of the comedic highlights. The addition of Kristen Wiig as the inevitable love interest is welcome, as are the somewhat freaky mutant Minions that make their debut, but this is a series that could stand to have someone come in and smooth out some of the wackiness a bit more evenly.
Pixar’s decision to make their follow-up to the wonderful Monsters Inc. a prequel was certainly welcome, as any sequel likely would have resulted in potentially destroying the emotional resonance of the first film’s perfect ending note. Seriously, I can’t hear “Kitty!” anymore without at least subconsciously thinking of the adorable Boo. But I can certainly see why Pixar wanted to revisit Mike and Sully, and, thanks to the animated medium, we were spared the need for recasting the two leads, too, avoiding a Dumb & Dumberer situation. While not nearly on the same level as the first and not even as funny as A Bug’s Life, it’s nonetheless a fun film from a studio whose audience seriously just needs to allow for the fact that the studio can’t always deliver tearjerker, Best Picture-contender material with every film they release. University delivers some great sightgags and imaginative designs for both the monsters and their environment. The film’s ultimate message about it being okay to fail, so long as you don’t let it get you down, is also admirable and, like Brave before it, it’s certainly one of those unconventional messages that only Pixar would think of introducing to a family film.
World War Z
The zombie craze was alive and well in 2013, and World War Z was one of the bigger blockbusters of the year, which was also undoubtedly due to the fact that the film featured a globetrotting Brad Pitt as U.N. investigator Gerry Lane facing off an avalanche of zombie hordes. The film had a troubled production and notably differs from the book it takes its inspiration from in pretty much every way, to the point where it’s very nearly only World War Z in name only, but none of that mattered to audiences who threw over $202 million the studio’s way because freaking zombies everyone! Aside from some notable action sequences, such as the one in which an Israeli soldier (really the only genuinely interesting character in the film) and Mr. Pitt make their escape or the outbreak onboard a flying plane, I really didn’t care much for this. Some of the things the characters do are sometimes unintentionally comical or stupid, and the dialogue, particularly when Gerry’s family is involved, is hokey and poorly scripted. The film’s climax is also a disappointing bore. This would’ve been much better as a faux-documentary/miniseries anthology.
Along with Identity Thief, I was certain that this film was the herald of the beginning of the end of Melissa McCarthy’s popularity. Woops! I’m glad I was wrong, though, as The Heat was one of the more pleasant surprises to come out of the buddy cop action/comedy genre since the previous year’s 21 Jump Street. Sandra Bullock and McCarthy work great together as unlikely partners in crime-fighting, with Bridesmaids director Paul Feig showing he still knows how to insert and properly utilize talented women in roles and genres typically reserved for men.
White House Down
The Deep Impact to Olympus Has Fallen’s Armageddon in that it’s the superior of the two similarly-themed and yet both very flawed movies, White House Down is undoubtedly a ridiculously stupid movie, but it’s also somewhat entertaining and is the best film to come from Roland Emmerich since Independence Day. That doesn’t make it any good, but thanks to the charisma of Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx and the ridiculous action in which they partake, this isn’t the worst thing you could watch out of boredom. My main complaints are the fact that Emmerich once again takes himself and his subject matter far too seriously at times, and there’s not nearly enough silly banter traded between Tatum, playing an aspiring secret service agent, and Foxx, playing the most kickass President of the United States since Harrison Ford.
The Lone Ranger
This movie won’t win any major awards, but once I finally watched this, my feeling is that it’s been unfairly maligned as one of the worst films of the year, with people comparing it to Disney’s lifeless 2012 adaptation of John Carter. This movie, however, is benefitted by being directed by Gore Verbinski, who notably also directed the first three Pirates films, and by starring Armie Hammer in the lead role – and Hammer has far more charisma and acting ability than the immensely boring Taylor Kitsch. Johnny Depp’s Tonto is predictably deranged, but you kind of go along with it because, well, it’s Johnny Depp, and at least they give us a reason for his craziness. There are some entertaining and nicely choreographed set pieces, however, and anyone who is at least expecting some mindless modern serial adventures should find themselves entertained with this. Seriously, I don’t get the hate.
The Way Way Back
Jim Rash and Nat Faxon’s follow up to their Oscar-winning The Descendants doesn’t reach the already modest level of their first collaboration. The film tells the story of Duncan, a teenage boy who is forced to go with his mother and her often emotionally cruel boyfriend and his stuck-up daughter and then struggles to find a place where he can fit in and blow off time until he can go back home and at least be miserable in a place he’s familiar with. However, he strikes up an unexpected friendship with the guy who runs a nearby waterpark, Owen, and even has a very tenuous flirtation with the girl who lives next door, Susanna. Owen gives Duncan a job at the park, an experience that, for the first time in a while, gives Duncan purpose and happiness in life, but one that will inevitably end when he has to go back home. A lot of people liked this one, and while it’s not bad, for some reason, I didn’t exactly care for it. It’s a little too familiar and predictable, though all the actors are quite good in their roles – Liam James is perfect as the awkward Duncan, Sam Rockwell is pretty much always welcome, AnnaSophia Robb remains one of the most promising young actresses, and even Steve Carell manages to find his inner asshole as Duncan’s would-be stepfather – the film just didn’t ingratiate itself upon me.
Crystal Fairy & the Magic Cactus and 2012
A strange little film about a young American named Jamie, played by Michael Cera, who goes to Chile and makes a few friends in brothers Champa, Lel, and Pilo and a free spirited girl who calls herself Crystal Fairy, who, as you will see, has absolutely no qualms about presenting herself as is. The five companions go on a quest to find a San Pedro cactus, which is used to make a hallucinogenic drink, but while the brothers seem to take Crystal in stride, despite her eccentricities, Jamie begins to grow irritable with her digressions from the mission and her annoying habit of trying to get to know him, inside and out. Cera and Gaby Hoffman, completely free of any makeup or, uh… grooming, are remarkably suited to their roles as Jamie and Crystal, and while the film’s journey is undoubtedly a strange one, the moral, about learning to have compassion for one another despite initial impressions, is oddly poignant here.
Girl Most Likely
Kristen Wiig’s having some similar growing pains as her Bridesmaids costar Melissa McCarthy, and has been mostly filling in side character roles in other films (notably also providing the voice of Joaquin Phoenix’s brief but memorable phone sex liaison in Her this year). Girl Most Likely should probably ignored when considering Wiig’s potential as leading lady, however. It sees her playing an overbearing character named Imogene, who fakes a suicide attempt to get the attention of her ex-boyfriend but instead puts her back under the roof of her overbearing mother, alongside her mother’s enigmatic new lover, her (handicapped?) brother, and a much younger man that her mother is boarding. The film is made out to be a sad comedy about reconnecting with estranged loved ones and such, but it’s kind of a joyless, humorless film without much payoff in the end.
I’m not normally one to watch movies about exorcisms, but The Conjuring got so much press and praise, I decided to take a chance once it was released on DVD and gave it a rental. It’s a solid film, creepy and scary without being overwhelming or even cliché, and, at its heart, a story about husbands and wives and their dedication and love for one another and their families in times of crisis. Now I kind of wish I had seen this movie in theatres.
If X-Men Origins: Wolverine left a bad taste in your mouth – what with its shaky film timeline issues, awful use of Deadpool, and questionable… everything else – The Wolverine is a great palette cleanser and makes up for the mistakes of its predecessor. Basing itself on the story by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, in which Wolverine goes to Japan and is engaged to Mariko Yashida, The Wolverine expands upon the story by having Wolverine, still heartbroken by the death of Jean Grey at his hands, go to Japan to meet up with a man whose life he had saved during the bombing of Nagasaki, who is now near death and who wishes to grant Wolverine the gift of mortality in exchange for his immortality. The film turns into a chase film, with Wolverine and Mariko on the run from Yakuza gangsters, but adds a bit more danger to the proceedings by having Wolverine’s regenerative powers getting sapped out of him, which is a brilliant move on the part of the filmmakers, making you believe that Wolverine, who spends most of the time in the film unaided by other mutants, could die at any time. The sole exception is Yukio, a mutant with exceptional martial arts training who proves to be a pretty awesome partner when the time comes. The Wolverine succeeds at being a fun, action-packed spinoff, even if the ending is kind of anticlimactic.
I was first notified of this indie film’s existence by my best friend, who noted that it was available on Netflix and a solid example of what can be done with a relatively small budget, even in the traditionally big budget genre of sci-fi. It’s a faux-documentary whose main conceit is that it’s pieced together from interviews, mission logs, and surveillance of the first crew sent to Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, where they suspect they will detect the first signs of alien life. The film shows definite signs of being a low budget project, but it’s undoubtedly a passion project for all involved, too. You can’t help but admire its admiration of astronauts and the risks they take in the name of scientific advancement. If you’re at all into serious space exploration, definitely queue this one up. It’s a little slow, but I don’t think you’ll regret it. Certainly better than Apollo 18.
The Spectacular Now
A teenage romance of a less romantic and more realistic nature, the film sees class clown Sutter Keely falling in love with the sweet, bookish good girl Aimee Finecky, and yet the film isn’t necessarily just about young love and dating, but rather the bonding that comes from the two discovering that neither one comes the most ideal of homes. Sutter hasn’t seen his father in years and blames his mother for his father’s estrangement, while Aimee lives at home with a mother who can’t exactly be counted on to do pretty much anything but care for herself, to the point where Aimee is graciously doing the work her mother should be doing to keep her family alive. The Spectacular Now is borderline melodrama, but it’s genuine enough to avoid falling into that trap. The two leads are notably normal looking and not your typical Hollywood concoction of clothes, hair, and makeup, which is both jarring and refreshing. Their talent, however, is apparent, with Miles Teller in particular showing a vulnerability that his still young career has otherwise shown him to be more suited to playing annoying Steve Stifler types. Hopefully he continues down this path, rather than the other.
Neill Blomkamp’s follow up to apartheid allegory District 9 is another allegory, this time about healthcare reform and the dividing lines between privileged and unprivileged. As with his debut film, the story of Elysium follows a heavily flawed character marching against time to save himself from a physical threat only to transform mentally and spiritually in the process, though it’s nowhere nearly as well done. Still, the visceral action and solid performances from Matt Damon, Sharlto Copley, and Jodie Foster will keep even those disappointed with the film engaged.
In a World…
This was a rather good film, the directing, producting, and writing debut of star Lake Bell as Carol Solomon, a vocal coach and aspiring voiceover artist living in the shadow of her male forebears and contemporaries, particularly that of her father Sam Soto, who is set to receive a lifetime achievement award, and the rich eccentric who preys on her, Gustav Warner. The film takes its name from the famous lines spoken in countless trailers by the late Don LaFontaine, a line that has since been retired but is being revived for the next big hit film, The Amazon Games, and Carol aspires to be the first woman to speak the lines in the film’s trailer, much to the horror of her father and Gustav, who scramble to ensure that those lines’ legacy are not spoiled in the hands of an amateur. It’s an unusual premise with solid execution on the part of Lake Bell in all regards of what she put into the film, which includes some peripheral stories that give greater depth to the hows and whys of the characters’ relationships outside of their profession.
Manic, trashy, and violent. That’s the legacy left behind by the first film, and one that is continued by the second, which sees the escalation caused in the wake of Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl’s takedown of drug lord Frank D’Amico, with both heroes and villains alike partnering up and taking each other on. Unlike Kick-Ass, however, Hit-Girl is trying her hardest to leave the superhero gig behind after the death of her father, and is desperately trying to fit in with the rest of the teenage girls at her mundane high school. That is, until Frank D’Amico’s son Chris reemerges, ditching the persona of Red Mist for a moniker that’s a bit more… profane… and brings along with him an evil team bent on causing as much pain on Kick-Ass and his friends as possible. The film isn’t as fun nor as audacious as the first, but as a sequel, it’s perfectly serviceable, if a bit disappointing.
Indie films are really where it’s at if you want to see a somewhat original take on a traditional genre, such as the romantic comedy. Here, co-workers at a craft brewery, Luke and Kate – both in committed relationships but not with each other – struggle with the fact that they are both perfect for one another, and yet they must keep their feelings in check during their daily routine of brewing, drinking, and hanging out with one another. The cast is immensely likable – Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, and Ron Livingston star as the central two couples whose relationships are seemingly at the same crossroads at roughly the same time. Which direction each of them takes, however, is not necessarily the one that they likely planned on taking, and you just know that somebody’s going to be parting ways. It’s not an especially funny film, nor is it especially brilliant, but that central likability in its cast permeates throughout the rest of the film, and you don’t really want any of them to be hurt in the end, either. It’s an easy going film, enjoyable enough to relax with, which is appropriate, because it’ll also get you really in the mood for a nice craft beer.
I barely remember The Chronicles of Riddick beyond the fact that when I rented it, I was immensely bored by it and struggled to stay with it through to the end. Riddick promised a return to the minimalist form of Pitch Black, and, in that, it mostly succeeded, though not without a few missteps. The beginning of the film is a sort of brilliant survivalist tale as Riddick takes on the elements and creatures on the planet where he’s been exiled. The second portion of the film has him taking on two teams of mercenaries in an attempt to take one of their ships off planet. Riddick mostly serves as the hidden antagonist to the two rival teams from thereon out, while we get to know the two very different crews that he’s dealing with. The film is solid, if a bit tacky and misogynist (Katee Sackhoff is mostly tough girl eye candy than anything), and Vin Diesel is once again great as the film’s antihero – it’s clearly a role he loves playing, as he’s done across all mediums in which the character has appeared, and he even mortgaged his house to help out with the bloating budget constraints this film encountered.
A bit of a cross between Man on Fire and Zodiac (not just because of Jake Gyllenhaal’s involvement), the film centers on two families whose lives are torn apart when their two young daughters are kidnapped as they were walking through their neighborhood. Despite the efforts of Detective Loki, the father of one of the girls takes matters into his own hands, kidnapping and interrogating the man who he suspects did the deed, but who had been let go due to lack of evidence. Thrillers normally aren’t my thing, especially when it’s a subject such as this. They tend to fall into familiar and eye-roll-worthy contrivances that destroy my suspension of disbelief more than any other genre. But when a good one comes along, I’ve found that they can, indeed, be pretty fantastic and catalysts for some pretty great performances, as is the case here. Hugh Jackman plays the desperate father with enough conviction that you can almost understand and forgive some of the things he does in order to get back his little girl, while Gyllenhaal as Det. Loki shows that he can play tough, tired, and weary investigator types very well (note all that seemingly involuntary blinking!). Poor Paul Dano is once again relegated to the role of the creep, but he does it so very well.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2
I admittedly rented to see all the food puns. This is a wonderfully silly family film that’s entertaining enough to keep the adults amused while it’s undoubtedly going to have the little kids cracking up. The cast is great – Bill Hader, Anna Faris, James Caan, Will Forte, Kristen Schaal, Terry Crews, Andy Samberg, Benjamin Bratt, and even Neil Patrick Harris as the electronic voice of a monkey named Steve! – and the animation is beautifully cartoony in quality without any unnecessary hopes of being at all realistic. The characters and their environments are gloriously stretchy and colorful to match the script’s ridiculous premise of the previous film’s food-creating device malfunctioning and creating an island filled with living animal-food hybrids such as the cheesespider, the watermelaphant, and the ferocious tacodile supreme! I couldn’t not like this movie.
Set aside Orson Scott Card’s comments regarding the gay community, and you’ll find that this adaptation of his book is… well… it’s actually just alright. Despite the respect it seems to have for the novel (I haven’t read it myself) and the strong work of its cast of veterans and young faces, including Asa Butterfield as Ender Wiggin, the film adaptation seems to plow right over an underlying deeper purpose in the name of providing action and dropping hints at a greater mystery, which, ironically, spoiled the ending for me well ahead of time. It’s still an alright film, but as a major sci-fi release, it was a big disappointment.
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
This may be my favorite of the four Jackass films. No joke. The idea to move to a narrative-driven film that still allowed for outlandish pranks, a la Borat, was a great move on the part of the filmmakers, as it allows for the energy of the previous films and TV series to be channeled into something with a bit more purpose than the other three, which now would amount to an anthology of YouTube-worthy stunt videos. Some of the setups here, such as the strip club and the beauty pageant, are hysterical for the very reason that the reactions of those being pranked are authentic, which makes them all the better because the stunts that Johnny Knoxville as old man Irving Zisman and his costar Jackson Nicoll as Irving’s grandson Billy do are often so outrageous, you really couldn’t see such reactions anywhere else. Somehow, the movie even manages to strike an emotional chord toward the end, as the filmmakers manage to get the biker activist group Guardians of Children involved. This is just great lowbrow humor, exactly like hearing a little kid say a swear word and then knowing you shouldn’t laugh, but you do anyway.
I saw a few November films, but, believe it or not, they’re all on other lists! Nothing to see here. Move along!
Saving Mr. Banks
I don’t watch a lot of TV (most of what I watch is on Hulu), so if there was a TV spot that revealed it, I didn’t see it, but I did not know, going in, that this was going to also explore so in-depth the childhood of author P.L. Travers, author of the Mary Poppins books that Walt Disney had a longstanding desire to adapt into a film. I mean, I expected maybe a flashback during an emotional confession or something, but I wasn’t expecting such a thorough exploration. It was a pleasant surprise, then, that the film took that route, because I couldn’t for the life of me understand why people were so excited to see a movie wherein the founder of the very studio who produced the film was depicted as wooing a stubborn author to his side in adapting her books to his style of filmmaking, except only for the fact that it addressed the process that went into making one of the most beloved films of all time and allowing for a revisit of some of the film’s many wonderful songs. I fully expected a saintly Walt Disney showing her that his way was the right way and all that. I still say the film is suspect in its depiction, but I’m also relieved to report that, at the very least, it’s incredibly respectful towards Travers herself, too, showing us exactly why she was so stubborn at the thought of Disney mangling a work that meant so much to her. There are four main leads in the film, with all of them doing due service to their roles: Tom Hanks as the Walt Disney himself, the astounding Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers, Colin Farrell as Travers’ father and inspiration for the Mr. Banks character, and Annie Rose Buckley as the little girl that Travers used to be. Paul Giamatti also features as Travers’ affable chauffeur and eventual confidante. The film is a surprisingly sweet one, very well made and fair in its portrayals of both its lead subjects.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Is it just me, or are the effects in these movies getting worse? It’s as if Weta pours in all their hard work into the Hobbit films’ big effects characters (Gollum in the first, Smaug here in the second) and then neglect to make the rest of the film look nearly as convincing as what they had done with any of the now over-decade-old Lord of the Rings films. That being said, this second entry was a notable upward swing in quality from the first, with much more exciting action and plot development than what was afforded previously. At no point in the film did I ever feel like it was spinning its wheels and hoping it would get on with things already – in other words, no overlong, extraneous scenes in Rivendell telling us what we already know is going to happen. Even the addition of the new elf character, Tauriel, wasn’t unwelcome, as Peter Jackson rightfully acknowledged the lack of any female characters in the story. Smaug is a fearsome presence once we do get to him, voiced by an appropriately creepy Benedict Cumberbatch, and the returning cast gets more time to show off their characters’ unique personalities than before. Overall, a large improvement, one that I was hoping for after enduring the first. Here’s hoping Jackson can end it all on a high note this year.
Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
No comedy in the history of film has likely received as much hype as this one. The cast was all over the place promoting the film well before even production began, and there were countless merchandizing opportunities that the film took advantage of in the lead up to the film’s release. Heck, the merchandising is still going on, as there’s going to be a special edition of the Blu-Ray that will be packaged with a pair of the red underpants that Paul Rudd wore briefly in the film! (See what I did there?) The film itself is a suitable follow up to the first, escalating things in pretty much all respects, as the team moves into the 1980s and the dawn of the 24 hour cable news channels. I didn’t exactly care for the first upon seeing it, truth be told, but as time went on, and as the hype surrounding it wore off and people stopped quoting it nearly as much as they had been after its release, I found myself giving it another chance and finding that I absolutely loved it. Perhaps the hype surrounding the second had the same effect on me? I didn’t think this was as funny as the first, with a few of the jokes just falling flat, and it’s a shame that the actresses are kind of wasted in comparison to the guys, but the actors are so amusing to watch and it moves so quickly on to the next joke, it’s not like I was left with a dull moment or asking myself what happened to peripheral characters, either. It’s more Anchorman. If you liked the first, you’ll probably like the second. I liked the second off the bat, so it’s already got that going over the first in that regard!