The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson, 2012) – It seemed like with every passing bit of news regarding technological advancements, the lengthening of the story, and various other controversies, Peter Jackson’s return to the works of J.R.R. Tolkein wasn’t quite the same slam dunk it would have been several years ago when he wrapped up the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It was still a massive financial success, but it seemed like everyone – even if they haven’t seen the film – has something positive or negative to say about it. In short, it’s like every other film ever made, but magnified to an almost fever inducing degree. The start of the prequel cycle to Jackson’s finished series, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has some storytelling, it’s still a faithful and fun telling of what was always lighter Tolkien material to begin with. It’s also easier to forgive the almost TV movie-like sheen the film had as a result of the 48-frames-per-second 3D shooting process when viewed on Blu-Ray.
Heading back 60 years before the battle for Middle Earth truly began in full force, a younger Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) becomes the odd-Hobbit-out when he’s essentially forced into going on an adventure by the great wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan). He’s asked to tag along with a band of dwarves – led by the hirsute Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) – to act as a thief in hopes of reclaiming their former mountain home that’s become ruled by blood thirsty orcs.
Covering maybe only a third of Tolkien’s original source material to spread the film across three epically long movies (Journey’s 170 minute running time is roughly how long it takes most people to read the entire novel), there’s a lot of tangential material from the author’s works and some slightly made up stuff thrown in for good measure, but probably the best thing that can be said about the script (which still faintly bears some of the playfulness and darkness of original writer Guillermo del Toro despite getting worked over by Jackson and Fran Walsh) is that it all makes sense now. The pacing of the film overall isn’t very different from Jackson’s other works, and there’s a lot more fleshing out of characters that was only briefly talked of previously.
Much of the film really doesn’t even deal with Bilbo expressly after the set up. Freeman is fine, and we get to see his mental tussling with Gollum (returning Andy Serkis, who also serves as Second Unit Director here), but Jackson often has to find ways to remind the viewer that it’s a Hobbit film after leaving the comfort of The Shire. Instead, the film does a great job on focusing primarily on Thorin’s quest to regain his homeland and birthright, and the difficulties faced by dwarves. Freeman’s great as the younger version of Ian Holm’s older Bilbo, but he only gets the opening and closing of this entry to shine. Armitage, on the other hand, gets to deliver a solid portrayal of a gruff and conflicted warrior on a quest, even if his character seems to just be written as a shorthand surrogate for Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn character.
With a lighter touch than the constant impending dread of the first film, Jackson and company have to work harder to keep seasoned viewers and fans interested while not potentially alienating newcomers. The action moves at a fairly good clip following a somewhat drawn out opening that introduces some characters that don’t really require introductions, and the running time isn’t much of an issue overall. There’s also an appealing “let’s get the band back together” vibe that shines through nicely with appearances from some familiar faces.
Unencumbered on 2D Blu-Ray by comparisons that the film looks too crisp and moves too fast for the viewer to believe they are watching a film (the 3D version was unavailable for review at the time this story was filed), it looks slightly better at home than it did on the big screen. The lag some viewers might have experienced watching it in a theatre is gone almost entirely and the colours of the film burn as warmly as a fireplace instead of dimly behind dark coloured 3D glasses. The sound mix is a bit of step back from the theatrical exhibition, but when is it not. It still sounds just fine through a great set of speakers. The extras package, however, really stinks, especially for those expecting LOTR: Extended Edition styled, all encompassing package. Aside from about 5 minutes talking about everyone going back to New Zealand, all that remains are the same two hours of production diaries that were previously already available on the internet, which still maddeningly try to keep mysterious production elements to a film you have likely already seen. The disc also came with an access code to view the trailer for the second instalment, The Desolation of Smaug this past weekend, and from what we could see more of the same can be expected, which for true fans certainly isn’t a bad thing at all.
Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012) – One day Steven Spielberg was going to make a movie about Abraham Lincoln. That much was clear. He’d been circling a project about the president for years, with the likes of Tom Hanks and Liam Neeson previously rumored to be putting on one of the most famous hats in history. It almost seemed anticlimactic when it happened, with the prospect of seeing Daniel Day Lewis unexpectedly take the role offering the only real excitement. When Spielberg’s Lincoln finally arrived, it was both exactly the movie you’d expect and something surprisingly different. The sweet sentiment and heroic presentation of a common everyday man who became a political icon is there, but thankfully it wasn’t a sweeping life story following honest Abe from infant to assassination. No, it was a more concentrated presentation of the president, focusing on few important weeks in his life leading up to the end of the civil was that dealt more with backdoor politics than heroics and histrionics. Spielberg being Spielberg we still get the perfectly framed, icon-making visuals and operatic swells of emotion. However, the more contained biography was a far from conventional and an intriguing way to go, delivering a Lincoln movie that hits more than just the expected beats.
The first thing that must be addressed is the incredible Oscar-winning portrayal of Lincoln by Daniel Day Lewis. The star’s chameleon-like skill at disappearing into characters is well documented, but this one goes above and beyond the call of duty. Adopting a unique and soft Midwestern drawl (most likely cribbed from many disparaging articles about the president at the time) and moving like a quiet ghost in a massive physical frame, Lewis disappears into the role like few others. He becomes Lincoln, creating a warm soul as thoughtful and deliberate in how he deals with his family as how he runs the country. It’s one of the actor’s finest performances by far and one that easily trumps what either Neeson or Hanks could have brought to the table. There’s no Daniel Plainview grandstanding (as wonderful as that was); it’s a performance comprised of soft spoken statements and quiet gestures, yet there’s not a moment when you don’t know exactly what Lewis is thinking. The rest of the cast must act in Lewis’ considerable shadow, but do it well. The standouts are Tommy Lee Jones and James Spader, who are perfectly cast to type as a snarling smartass politician and sleazy lobbyist respectively and each delivers their finest performance in years. Only Sally Field seems out of her depth as Lincoln’s wife. While everyone else commits to method naturalism like Lewis, Field is broadly theatrical. She’s fine, but with everyone else playing subtle, her loud work is even more grating.
It’s easy to see why Spielberg never toned down Field though. Lincoln is Spielberg’s second attempt to create a modern John Ford movie after War Horse and her acting style fits into that mode even if no one else does. Spielberg long admired Ford and even met him in the 70s, but only now seems committed to resurrecting his style from the past. Like War Horse, Lincoln is told in swooping cameras and grand vistas that are larger than life and the story moves in the more traditional, measured, even literary pace of old Hollywood. This time the trick works far better though. While War Horse proved the grand melodrama of the past just didn’t play properly anymore, Lincoln at least forces those visual rhythms onto a more contemporary narrative structure. The result still feels old fashioned and will alienate many viewers for that very reason, but at least the core of the material is more grounded and relatable. Like all Spielberg movies since Schindler’s List, the director finds a perfect, natural ending point and then keeps the movie chugging along for no real reason. But at least we’re used to that now and it works far better in an Oscar-bait drama than a summer blockbuster.
The award-sweeping film unsurprisingly gets a prestige Blu-ray treatment. Janusz Kaminski’s smoky, sepia cinematography is exquisitely rendered in HD and with Spielberg being one of the greatest visual storytellers to ever pick up a movie camera, the added depth and detail helps immeasurably. The audio mix is equally strong. Sure, it’s not a sound effects heavy piece like Saving Private Ryan that gives speakers a workout, but the sound design and John Williams’ score are quite evocative and are treated well by the lossless sound mix. In terms of special features…well, that’s where things get complicated.
After being spoiled with the Tintin and War Horse discs, we’ve gone back to the double dip Spielberg home video formula. You can either get a normal priced Blu-Ray or an overpriced special edition. I only had access to the former and all that comes with it are a fluffy 9-minute doc on the origins of the production and a 4-minute piece on the shooting locations. They’re fine little docs for what they are, but offer very little insight into the film. Presumably the 4-disc edition with roughly 80 minutes worth of behind the scenes docs is fascinating, but it was unavailable for review. You can’t really say that Lincoln instantly qualifies as one of Spielberg’s finest outings. It’s simply too quiet for that and doesn’t allow him to indulge in his natural skill with spectacle. Other filmmakers could have made this film quite well. Yet, Spielberg is a master and Abe Lincoln is a man who he had to make a movie about. So even if Lincoln is not the filmmaker’s finest achievement, Spielberg’s B-game is still better than more directors in their prime. I just hope Spielberg has a few chases and explosions planned for his next outing behind the camera. He can make movies as emotionally resonant as Lincoln that still qualify as bubblegum blockbusters and that’s a skill in short supply these days. (Phil Brown)
Les Miserables (Tom Hooper, 2012) – There are few musicals that can claim to have the same kind of cultural resonance as Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel of pain and suffering set just before the French Revolution in 1815 that literally translated means misery in no uncertain terms. It’s not the kind of feel good song and dance showstopper that audiences normally gravitate towards, but producer Cameron Mackintosh’s gamble hot on the heels of his success with more genteel fare like Cats and My Fair Lady more than paid off as the show became the second highest grossing musical in history and it won 8 of the 12 Tony awards it was nominated for in 1987.
Produced by Mackintosh and acting more of a straightforward porting of Schönberg and Boublil’s work than has ever been previously attempted in the cinematic realm, this year’s big screen adaptation of Les Misérables seems like an interesting gambit on its own, and one that pays off quite nicely overall thanks to excellent music recorded live on set to give a sense of grittiness to the material, well crafted performances, and an actual theatrical feel, despite director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) often finding himself in way over his head when it comes to pulling this film off on a technical level.
Prisoner 24601, a.k.a. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), has been released from prison after a length incarceration for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s dying child. On the inside, his life was made a living hell in labour camps by the duty borne Javert (Russell Crowe), but after reinventing himself, Valjean begins living a secret life as a respected business man. His cover gets blown, however, after his foreman fires a helpless woman (Anne Hathaway) who then has to resort to prostitution to help save her sick and dying child. Vlajean makes a pledge to raise the child as his own, making his identity known to Javert in the process forcing him and his now older ward, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), into a lifetime on the run and in seclusion.
One thing that becomes apparent from the outset is that the theatrical background of Tom Hooper never fully translates to the big screen, and what this production desperately needed was a director of photography that could have stood up to him a bit more in terms of editorial and framing decisions. On a stage, everyone can see action all at once around them, but Hooper in a somewhat misguided but not altogether irrational decision designed to preserve the almost verite nature of the often single camera handheld intimacy of the production shoots as if everything were a still photograph. Any one shot of Les Misérables would look just fine on its own in an art gallery without motion or context, but in a vibrant musical with as fast a pace as this one it becomes sometimes overwhelmingly distracting.
To describe more adequately what I’m trying to get at, picture your computer screen as a movie screen and just pretend that this review is something really interesting that you want to read. Now shrink the size of the window to about a quarter of the size and place it in one corner of the screen. Then get rid of all the shortcuts on your desktop and your wallpaper entirely and just leave it blank. Then try reading what it was you wanted to read. Your eye will immediately revert to looking at the blank background in most cases, and you’ll get distracted because you know that behind this review there used to be something else, but now there’s nothing and you can’t for the life of you figure out why you are looking at it in the first place. Besides that fact that movies done almost entirely in steadicam are next to impossible to edit perfectly, you’ll wonder why during certain numbers in the film that the glorious sets aren’t put to full use. It can be chalked up to a brutalist aesthetic, but it’s the wrong choice overall for a musical of any kind. It’s the one gamble here that pays off the least dividends.
The rest of the film’s set up proves to be incredibly solid, however, and for all his faults Hooper does know how to use actors to the best of his ability. Jackman breaks out of the more showy musical roles on Broadway to make his Valjean a broken and conflicted man who keeps a calm head and his own paranoia about being discovered buried deep for the sake of those around him. He has the voice and presence needed for the role, but he also fully understands that theatre and film are not the same, adjusting accordingly so he’s not always playing to the cheap seats.
On the other side of the law, Crowe’s Javert might prove to be a bit of a craw in the sides of some viewers because he’s not the greatest singer in the world. Despite being the frontman for a band in real life, Crowe wisely uses more of his acting muscles here. As someone who adheres so closely to the book that he’s become emotionally and morally stunted, his voice is one that shouldn’t ever convey joy. Crowe does this quite well, giving Javert a real “take it or leave it attitude” that give the film the biggest dose of realism it gets.
The justifiably lauded performance by Anne Hathaway, however, comes hinged to almost a single heartfelt rendition of the musical’s iconic “I Dreamed a Dream,” but the sequence comes marred by Hooper’s decision to shoot largely around Hathaway for large portions rather than closing in on her or even bothering to put her in the centre of a frame unless she’s expressly moving through it. It’s a massive testament to her acting abilities that she still steals the first half of the film away from her higher billed counterparts despite Hooper kind of doing wrong by her.
If anything the second half of the film, which bombastically sets up the barricades for a showdown between the oppressed French commoners and the military, gets saved by an old face from a theatrical staging of the musical and oddly enough by Hooper finally settling into a bit of a groove and getting things more right than wrong.
The young idealist Marius (Eddie Redmayne, who gets the part if not necessarily having the voice to sell it) falls for the now older Cosette. Not only did Valjean have to duck Javert and a pair of pimps-slash-swindlers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter doing decent work as comedic relief), but now he’s being thrust back into the fight for what it right by virtue of it being at his doorstep. Marius’ affections towards Cosette come at the dismay of the young Eponine, played by British cast member Samantha Barks.
Despite having her role be the one most dramatically changed between the musical and the film seemingly due to time constraints, Barks gets arguably the biggest emotional number of the second half and she nails it nicely. It’s a nice mirror image to Hathaway’s somewhat similar performance if she’s given considerably less to work with in this adaptation. It’s a nice little supporting role that helps give the more action oriented half of the film some nice dramatic weight.
Hooper also effectively ramps things up quite nicely for the climactic finale. He’s still not the greatest visual stylist, but he handles frenetic action far better once the battles and fights begin to take centre stage. He’s a director built for motion – hence his decision to shoot handheld a lot in the first place – and this half of the film doesn’t give him a chance to really rest on quiet moments that he tends to overthing. The finale of Les Misérables is more like what the film should have been the entire time, meaning it’s pretty great, but it had the potential to be outstanding. Nonetheless, it’s certainly no slouch in the entertainment department.
The Blu-Ray looks as good as a Tom Hooper film would probably look, and in his commentary track here, he does his admirable best describing the changes he made to the show and the visual style he was trying to go for. The 7.1 lossless DTD-HD audio track is the real deal, making the film rattle and shake in largely the same way it did in theatres. There’s an okay hour long, multi-part making of documentary and about ten minutes of talking about Hugo’s source material.
Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012) – With the already highly lauded and talked about Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow delivers the best film of her career – a directorial effort very unjustly looked over by the Academy Awards – and the most even handed look at modern warfare ever made. While some might say that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are hedging their bets when it comes to the more hot button details of their topic, almost any argument made either in favour or against the film because the specific moral quandaries are the heart of the matter are immaterial. While it’s probably not entirely factual (and what in this type of movie could be, really?), Bigelow’s “take it or leave it” response carefully deflects cries of jingoism and liberal malarkey with equal parts zeal and thoughfulness. It’s an exploration into an abyss from which there’s no easy entry and no escape once someone finds it all around them. There are no margins. The margins have been erased.
While it has more than three chapters to it’s decade spanning story, the film can almost more easily be defined as a triptych that explores the efforts to track down Osama bin Laden in the days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Ominously and briefly starting over a black screen to set the stage while a black box recording from a doomed plane plays, Bigelow and Boal shift their focus to a year later and immediately into the world of the controversial American detainee system of torture and capture. A government cipher named Maya (Jessica Chastain) has been brought into the world of an operative (Jason Clarke) that’s been on the ground in the Middle East for a while and wants out himself. While she never performs the torture, seeing the interrogations is a sadly necessary adjunct to her new job.
In easily the most controversial section of the film, Bigelow gets the nasty stuff out in the open before anything else, forcing the audience into a morally ambiguous stance. She’s not condoning or condemning in any way. She’s forcing the viewer to think about how they actually feel about what they are seeing. Do the two wrongs make a right? Is there necessarily anything to be gained through the same kind of fear? Where is the line? There aren’t any answers, but a whole load of questions proposed that most films and filmmakers wouldn’t have the stomach to ask without offering up a half-hearted explanation in either direction. It’s blunt force filmmaking at its finest.
Following the shuttering of the detainee program, the film shifts into its second act looking at the bureaucracy and the consequences of human error back in Washington as Maya attempts to make sense of everything and follow up on a seemingly impossible lead to track down. Her attempts to get her superiors (Kyle Chandler and Mark Strong as a stooges constantly on the chopping block, James Gandolfini as a head of state, and Clark now finding himself with a cushy desk job) to listen never go the way she wants to, and through some extremely great character development, Bigelow and Boal make what should have been the driest section of the film its most entertaining and emotionally satisfying.
Through clever pacing and smart dialogue, the creative team helps make a nearly three hour film fly by faster than any other lengthy film from the past year. It’s also the section where Chastain firmly asserts herself as an Oscar frontrunner in one of the year’s best lead performances. Instead of merely being about a mission, the film becomes a character study into the awakening of a previously ill defined character. Not much is ever said about Maya’s background and the bits and pieces that come up make her about as mysterious as a pre-Skyfall James Bond was. When she arrives overseas, she’s sheepish and questioning what she’s doing. As her job goes on, she still maintains the same social tendencies as a normal person, but her mousier ways begin to give in to a sense of righteousness that further underlines the film’s admittedly ambiguous stance. Chastain wears the stress on her face and in her mannerisms, but she never really changes who she is until the film’s final third. Rarely do such personal journeys have the time and space to flourish and grow, but it’s wonderful to see filmmakers willing to give this much space to such an excellent leading performance.
In the final section, Bigelow gives the narrative ending to the story by restaging the takedown of bin Laden following a lengthy bureaucratic battle, and while this section of the film suffers from almost hewing too closely to the same playbook Boal created with Black Hawk Down, it makes sense that Maya’s ascension to moving a bunch of pawns around a board in reality rather than trying to make progress in a boardroom has become the ultimate commentary on the state of modern warfare. In the only firm and controversial stance that the film takes, the efforts of one person vastly outweigh the ideas of everyone else who disagreed. The actual extraction offers some visceral thrills and good supporting performances from the likes of Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt, but the real heart of the otherwise mechanical segment comes from knowing that there’s one person watching and monitoring every move that could have their life ruined if they’re wrong.
It all builds to the most all around satisfying ending to a film from last year. It’s a quiet note of ambiguity and uneasy catharsis. The day has been done, but the war isn’t over. Where is there to go from this point? It’s not something that can easily be answered but the final shots of Zero Dark Thirty linger long after the credits roll, asking a question that’s impossible to answer, nor does it particularly need to be. Such is the self prophesizing nature of warfare.
The Blu-Ray looks and sounds impeccable, but the sprinkling of special features is a bit of a joke, especially considering that only four minutes are spent talking about the actual story behind the film. There’s a look at the SEAL team training for some of the cast, Chastain’s performance, and the shooting of the film’s climax, but there’s so much more that can be talked about and the features package is infinitely more frustrating than anything in the film itself. One would think this film could have gotten a much better package than this. It deserves so much better, and hopefully it will get it in the future.
This Is 40 (Judd Apatow, 2012) – After cracking the formula for box office success with The 40 Year Old Virgin, Judd Apatow has made a point of becoming increasingly personal and introspective with his blockbuster comedies. Knocked Up was broad with a heart, while Funny People slid into the land of autobiography in an overambitious, but at least intriguing flick. Now we have This Is 40, and it feels like his most nakedly confessional flick to date. The movie is essentially about Apatow’s family and even stars his wife and children (Paul Rudd steps into Judd’s role, which I suppose is a good thing). Apatow already cast his family in both Knocked Up (for which This Is 40 is somewhat of a sequel) and Funny People, but his new flick puts them at center stage.
The movie is pretty well devoid of an easily marketable comedy premise and is designed to be a delicately observational piece, albeit one with spread eagle hemorrhoid gags. Apatow is clearly a major talent beyond being a studio ATM machine and he’s bravely and awkwardly allowed audiences to watch him grow as an artist in major Hollywood comedies. This Is 40 is an admirable attempt at personal filmmaking that stumbles in the final third and never quite recovers. Apatow has undeniably delivered something uncomfortably personal, but he hasn’t quite matured out of conventional screenplay structure as a writer just yet, making the movie somewhat of a disappointment. It’s still far more intriguing and even daring than most Hollywood comedies of this scale and at least he’s trying to grow. There’s no reason why he can’t get there eventually.
The first half of This Is 40 plays out in a surprisingly leisurely way, unencumbered by narrative demands. Apatow’s camera merely observes his central family and the folks hovering around their lives in an intimate way. Scenes like Mann lying to two assistants and a gynaecologist about her age or Rudd scarfing down secret cupcakes are broadly funny, but also ring true. It feels like Apatow opened up his diary and invited a Hollywood crew to film the results. The performances out of the central family are just as natural as they are hilarious. The entire cast is clearly improvising up a storm, but like a Robert Altman movie, the goal isn’t so much to top each other with one liners, but to create a realistic banter within a small hermetically sealed world. Apatow mixes comedy and middle age melancholy well, with Mann in particularly delivering a wonderful performance with as much dramatic weight as laughs. There’s something so candid and truthful about the first half of the flick that positions it as one of Apatow’s best…and then the wheels come off.
As the long comedy inches towards its conclusion, Apatow seems to lose his nerve and piles on narrative threads that are all awkwardly resolved over the course of a never-ending birthday party. As much as the filmmaker wants to move away from the mainstream, the writing instincts her learned through years of working in TV and the studio system won’t go away. He wants to create a movie that meanders in characterization before pulling together for a conventionally written conclusion where all of the plot threads and emotional beats peak, connect, and wrap up in a satisfyingly crowd pleasing way. Unfortunately those are two very different schools of filmmaking being jammed together and they don’t blend comfortably. It’ll be an interesting combination if Apatow can ever fully pull it off, but This Is 40 is not that movie.
Now, as frustrating as it can be to watch This Is 40 sputter and spit its way to the finish line, it’s not a movie that can be easily written off either. That first hour is fantastic and whatever Apatow’s weaknesses as a storyteller might be, he’s clearly still a master of creating laughs and working with actors. Everyone in the film no matter how small the part gets at least one moment to make the audience keel over. Judd’s veterans like Rudd, Mann, the Apatow youngsters, Jason Segel, Charlyne Yi, and Melissa McCarthy all do their thing and bring the house down while newcomers like the great Albert Brooks, Lena Dunham, Chris O’Dowd, and even Megan Fox steal just as many scenes. The movie is never starved of funny, it’s just the poignancy that Apatow seeks that suffers. When he simply lets life observations play out, the film is touching, but when he blatantly goes after the heartstrings in the final third, the movie feels manipulative. The fact he’s even trying for more than laughs instantly makes him an interesting Hollywood comedy voice, but Judd Apatow needs to become a bit more adventurous as a writer before he can deliver the bitter/comedy experience he’s so desperately striving for. On the plus side, This Is 40 is at least far more focused that Funny People, so Judd’s on his way even if his lasted movie is less successful than his last ambitious misfire.
Like all Judd Apatow joints, This Is 40 is treated well on Blu-Ray. The transfer is gorgeous allowing all of the lifestyle porn production design to look just as pretty as a catalogue. The special feature section is where the disc really shines though. There’s an unrated cut that adds a few extra filthy gags, as well as about an hour of deleted and extended scenes (all of which fall into the successful comedic side of the film as opposed to awkward stabs at melancholia, making them a pleasure to watch). Next up is an hour long doc about the film’s production that’s just as candid and funny as you’d expect. Weirdly many sections of the doc are dedicated to funny deleted scenes rather than what’s actually in the movie, which says a lot about what worked best in the production. Then there are the usual outtakes and line-o-rama improv montages which offer sugar-high giggles, especially the section dedicated entirely to Albert Brooks’ extra jokes (he’s got one pedophilia gag so good that you’ll curse Apatow for cutting it). Then there’s a fake commercial for Jason Segal’s physical trainer business, a 20-minute doc on Graham Parker, a 13-minute piece on the Apatow kids, almost 40-minutes of deleted musical performances, a 44-minute radio interview with Judd, a partridge, a pear tree, and best of all 10 minutes of Robert Smigel giving the cast the Triumph The Insult Comic Dog treatment (which is worth watching to see Megan Fox almost cry alone). It’s easily the most extensive special feature package any film released in 2012 received. Too bad the movie didn’t live up to the extras.
One day I’m certain that Judd Apatow will create a big screen equivalent of his sad/funny TV masterpiece Freaks And Geeks and in the meantime, at least it’s interesting to watch him try and find a balance between R-rated studio comedies and personal statements. An Apatow near-miss is still better than an Adam Sandler home run after all. (Phil Brown)
Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik, 2012) – Andrew Dominik’s follow up to the quietly contemplative and thematically subtle The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a nasty, brutish piece of Tarantino styled nasty entertainment trapped in a somewhat overbearing thesis statement about the dire nature of the American economy. Killing Them Softly is a stunning looking and sounding picture with some great performances and directorial panache to spare, but it becomes a bit of slog once the film’s bursts of ultraviolence run aground of the constant, unsubtle economic badgering. It wants to have its grand looking cake and devour it with pitchforks and chainsaws, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining to watch during the best of moments.
Set against the ever present backdrop of the 2008 US presidential election and the accompanying economic mortgage crisis, a pair of ne’er do wells and low level crooks (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) are tasked with knocking over an underground poker game with mob ties. Since the same game had been robbed years prior by its own runner (Ray Liotta) the repercussions and suspicions would be minimal. A local fixer (Richard Jenkins) calls the duos bluff and calls in a smart, ruthless hitman (Brad Pitt) to suss out the truth.
To get the negative out of the way early in much the same way that Dominik acclimates the audience to the tone of the film, the economic text of the film definitely overpowers and almost incorrectly underlines the sleazy underbelly of the film. It can’t even be called subtext since everything comes laid out on the table right from the film’s jarring (but well edited) Barak Obama narrated opening credits. When a man backs away from a poker table holding a room full of people at gunpoint, one can hear George Bush ask almost rehtorically “How did we get to this point?” The talk of America as a business, hitmen having a hard time finding work, and the mob succumbing to buraucracy are fine in small doses, but Dominik runs even the pulpiest and most viscerally thrilling scenes almost off the rails with his posturing. It’s not that his viewpoints are ill informed, but they can be cloying, heavy handed, and unnecessary most of the time, even when taking into consideration that most of his characters are vaguely right wing and would probably be the types to constantly have the droning TV news cycle on in the background of every sequence.
If Dominik swings and hits a foul tip when it comes to social commentary, though, he does strike pretty hard when it comes to making a film about posturing tough guys. The unease one feels in the presence of these characters feels spot on thanks to careful calculation. None of them are particularly likable save for the almost soulful performance given by Liotta as a man forced to pay for his sins way after he committed them. Pitt tones down his slicked back heavy to a menacing low-key performance of a man who seems to have more clarity than morality. Jenikins is fine as always as the skittish bagman who never leaves his car, and James Gandolfini gets to be as nasty as he wants to be as a hired thug turned alcoholic trainwreck brought in to assist on a difficult element of the hit. As the not-so-dynamic duo at the heart of the heist, McNairy gets a pretty standard role of a man in over his head down pat, while Mendelsohn attacks his role as a greasy heroin addict with aplomb.
Through his use of garbage filled lots (clearly in New Orleans and not in the original Boston setting of author George Higgin’s source material, Coogan’s Trade) and almost rythmic usage of sound effects and editing to create almost a symphony of ultraviolence, Dominik says far more as a stylist than as a commentator. That’s the biggest dischord within Killing Them Softly. It doesn’t do anything softly, when it could have used maybe just a little less.
The Blu-Ray preserves the stylish visuals and sound design of the film’s theatrical exhibition splendidly, but the features are almost expectedly light. Just four deleted scenes and an EPK style behind the scenes look.
Mars et Avril (Martin Villeneuve, 2012) – Adapting his own graphic novels set in a futuristic version of Montreal, designer and first time director Martin Villeneuve (brother of Incendies and Polytechnique director Denis, who serves as a “script consultant” here) tries to reach the heady heights of Terry Gilliam or Ridley Scott in their prime, but he can barely come close to Luc Besson territory here with a plodding and uppity sci-fi epic. It’s a film that’s perfectly content spinning its wheels with empty philosophical platitudes instead of telling a compelling story with good characters at the heart of it.
Grafting a dramatic love triangle onto a very loose reading of famed 17th century mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler’s Harmonices Mundi – the theory that music comes from the intrinsic design of the universe itself – it’s a messy tale of a 35 year old manufacturer of outlandish instruments designed on the bodies of female models and actual celestial bodies (played by Paul Ahmarani) and a 75-year old virginal and well renowned musician (Jacques Languirand) competing for the affections of a disaffected young photographer named Avril (Caroline Dhavernas). After a mishap with a teleporter accidentally sends Avril to become one of the first people on Mars (possibly), the elder man sets out on a quest to bring his love back to him, while the younger man slowly attempts to fight off his own latent jealousy and envy towards his co-worker of many years.
Villeneuve’s visual acumen – which is excellent considering it’s a Canadian production shot in a limited amount of time and largely in front of a green screen – or the talented cast (particularly Dhavernas and Languirand) aren’t the problem. The script is just far too slapped together and lightweight to either be engaging or to highlight the film’s steampunk influenced visual style. These are graphic novel characters and people from photo essays in the worst sense: they are simply sketches and nothing more. So much more energy is expounded establishing the film’s theoretical background and universe that these characters are simply archetypical disaffected artists searching for meaning in their humdrum lives. They aren’t likable people, but instead the kind of highfalutin, sarcastic sounding boards that only a frustrated artist could come up with in the first place. They don’t speak like characters using dialogue. They speak using the parlance of the people who made the film.
The concept of Mars as a theoretical construct or even a state of mind is tantalizingly dangled in front of the viewer, as is the intriguing notion of literally begin able to play music in alignment with the heavens, but until the overly rushed climax it’s all shuttled to the side for a dreadfully half baked love story where Ahmarani’s character seems to have been largely left on the cutting room floor or in an earlier unused draft of the script. There’s some interesting stuff in play, but at only 90 minutes in length it feels like the heart has been taken out of it.
The DVD includes French-only special features, including several looks at the behind the scenes crafting of the film, and it’s not at all shocking why a film that looks this great would want to accentuate the positive. It’s just a shame about how hollow it truly is.