What took you so long, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris? It's been six years since the duo's debut feature, Little Miss Sunshine, defined an entire period and style of independent comedy, but the wait is finally over, and the wait was worth it. Paul Dano stars as Calvin Weir-Fields, a young scribe who wrote a phenomenally popular and praised first novel, and has suffered from crippling writer's block ever since. He finds inspiration in writing a character named Ruby Sparks, his dream lady from head to toe who, through metaphysical mysteries never seriously explored, suddenly appears in his apartment in flesh-and-blood form. A take-down/meditation on the manic-pixie-dream-girl arch-type, RS is a contemplative film about the dangers of molding others to your liking, but its also a honey-sweet romance with humor and pathos to spare. Heart, laughter, growth, and warmth, no gaudy yellow van required.
Safety Not Guaranteed
Sometimes it's not about how much you bite off, but how you chew it. Colin Trevorrow's feature directorial debut is perfect proof, a flick of minimal size and scope that possesses massive stores of empathy, contemplation, and outsider perspective. Aubrey Plaza stars as Darius, an intern at a Seattle newspaper with a quite the idea for a feature: respond to a Craigslist ad about time travel, meet the writer, and see what this loon (Mark Duplass) is all about. Despite the film's modest budget and independent ambience, these are classic Hollywood troupes, ones that Safety embraces fully, perfectly guiding the audience through its sweet little tale. Plaza and Duplass are great on their own and even better in tandem, their budding romance fueling one of 2012's primary modest delights.
Were you surprised by how awesome Looper turned out to be? You shouldn't have been, if you've been paying attention to the early career of Rian Johnson, that is. The indie maestro has already tackled a seedy, twisty noir (Brick) and a goofy caper comedy (The Brothers Bloom) with considerable aplomb, and in Looper, he's made his biggest, most visceral and kinetic movie to date. The sci-fi brain-scrambler stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis as the very same man, the latter shot back in time by a futuristic mob bent on getting rid of him, the former tasked with the execution. This juicy conceit is truly just the tip of the iceberg, the flick reinventing itself about every 15 minutes, keeping eyes glued to the screen with intricate plotting and stylish visuals. It's a blast.
Pressure, much? No 2012 film carried around as much pre-release weight on its shoulders as The Avengers, the cinematic culmination to four years and five films worth of build-up, tasked with cramming a myriad of iconic characters into one single narrative. So how does such a gargantuan offering manage to navigate these choppy waters, and come out one of the most brisk and blithe summer tent poles in recent memory? Ship captain (see:writer/director) Joss Whedon, that patron saint of all things snappy, nerdy, and fun, strikes a near-perfect balance between the characters, each massive personality allowed ample time to make an impression. The actors are great, the effects are out-standing, a handful of laugh-out-loud moments are tucked in here and there for good measure; this is smorgasbord entertainment, a pip to watch from first frame to last.
Prometheus and I have come a long way since that puzzling, confounding initial viewing. Ridley Scott's much ballyhooed return to the Alien universe is a big, unwieldy, challenging film that left myself and others cold on the first go-around, spending the walk from auditorium to car in a state of silent befuddlement. No, my repeat viewing did not pave over the many plot holes from which the movie suffers, nor did it answer the towering pile of questions that writer Damon Lindelof constantly provokes; it helped me let go, and just enjoy what is truly one hell of a ride. Scott's interstellar fright-fest stars Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green as a pair of geologists who set to the stars with the intention of literally meeting their maker, but when their ship finally lands on this prospective heaven, all hell breaks loose. Mood, tone, and world-building have always been Scott trademarks, never more so than here, that icy blue aesthetic sending shivers down spines, stunningly captured by ace cinematographer Dariusz Wolski. Prometheus ain't perfect, but its an absolute technical marvel, and if a sequel ever does arrive the quell my many curiosities, I'll be the first in line to see it.
When he's not busy being one of the biggest and goofiest comedy actors on the planet, Steve Carell possesses quite the melancholy streak. Beginning with his blues-addled turn in Little Miss Sunshine, the thespian has made many detours into depression and defeat (Dan in Real Life, Date Night, Crazy Stupid Love), but none so unique and affecting as this. Opening with the news that a meteor is set to destroy the planet in two weeks time, Carell's Dodge finds himself wholly alone, and sets out to tie up a few loose ends. Writer/director Lorene Scafaria knows this doesn't sound like much of a premise for a comedy, so she doesn't try to squeeze it into one, zeroing in on the harsh truths of end times while allowing Carell space to emote and perform. Despite a the presence of a peppy Keira Knightley and a light smattering of jokes, World is a downer through-and-through, but a downer steeped in a powerful mood and aura, possessing precious, glimmering moments of thoughtfulness and truth.
With Magic Mike, Steven Soderberg has his cake, and eats it, too. His male stripper movie stars Alex Pettyfer as a youngster who, somewhat unwittingly, becomes the protégé of the film's titular beef cake (Channing Tatum) a talented and confident performer with eyes on his future. As with everything Soderberg touches, the craft here is top-notch, the golden glow that often illuminates his frame perfectly befitting the film's decadent textures and locations. What's more, the auteur manages to make a cautionary tale that refuses to ignore the fun in sin, punishing it with a mere slap of the wrist, as opposed to the damnation tactics that many of his more morally rigorous contemporaries might have employed. Smart, entertaining, brilliantly stitched, and chuck-full of topless Tatum. Everybody wins.
The Hunger Games
Bold statement time: It is my firm belief that The Hunger Games works much better on screen than on page. Go ahead, I can take it. Where Suzanne Collins' best-selling novel, the story of a dystopian future where in a batch of younger citizens are forced to compete in a highly televised fight to the death, laid out a tasty initial conceit, Gary Ross' film takes it to the next level. On page, we experience things exclusively through the lens of Katniss Everdeen. On screen however, the story is allowed to stretch out a bit, showing you the world Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) inhabits, applying ample size and spectacle to the proceedings. Those who compare this to a Twilight movie make a flimsy likening indeed; Everdeen has more spunk and agency than 20 Bella Swans, and where the love-triange in Stephanie Meyer's saga was the real meat-and-taters of the story, The Hunger Games turns that mountain into a molehill, focusing in on its fully-drawn protagonist, and the daunting task at hand. THG isn't just going through the motions: It's a genuinely big movie, exciting, engrossing, and wholly deserving of its many inevitable sequels.
Arbitrage is defined by dictionary.com as, "The simultaneous purchase and sale of the same securities, commodities, or foreign exchange in different markets to profit from unequal prices." If just reading that explanation bores you or eggs on a headache, feel free to give Arbitrage a pass. Richard Gere headlines as Robert Miller, a rich, powerful, and emotionally guarded business man enduring what simply has to be the very worst week of his life. The word applies to Nicholas Jarecki's directorial debut on a multitude of levels, as Miller wheels and deals his way out of and into one troubled situation after another. It's a tricky narrative, one that requires the fullest of attention, but rewards with careful viewership with lovely subtleties and rich, full-bodied characterizations. The antithesis of the, 'check-your-brain-in-at-the-door,' dreck that gets piled on us every summer, Arbitrage requires both focus and leg work, a mental workout wrapped inside of a propulsive mystery.
Casa De Mi Padre
A knowingly crass spanish-language send-up to Latin American Telenovelas... starring Will Ferrell? It's a concept that turned heads upon arrival, but what makes Matt Piedmont's directorial debut the most outrageous laugh-fest of the lunacy that he applies with reckless abandon. From goofy and damn catchy musical numbers to rampant, unexpected violence, to glaringly awful animatronics, to blatantly painted backgrounds, Casa is an absolute masterclass in how to make a good bad movie, and represents Ferrell's most hilarious and memorable turn in recent memory. Tasked with protecting his family's name when his brother's (Diego Luna) shady dealings to catch up with him, Ferrell employs everything from glorious over-enunciation of his non-native tongue, to a nudity that Seinfeld would have described as, 'bad naked.' Dirty, dunderheaded and ludicrous: In other words, one of the best movies of 2012.
Sarah Polley's movies aren't exactly the type to take a date to; she's fascinated with the cause, process, and effect of relationship decay. Where her previous film, Away From Her, used age and illness to tear its lead lovers apart, Take This Waltz employs lust and the natural allure of the unknown. Margot (Michelle Williams) and Lou (Seth Rogen) are a happily (if boringly) married couple tested by an intrusive presence: a handsome, rugged artist (Luke Kirby) determined to bed Margot, and getting closer by the day. Polley's Toronto setting has a sort of intangible magic to it, every color saturated beyond belief, the temperature and humidity rising whenever an object of affection draws near, conveying infatuation as an unrealistic but delicious Candyland. Take This Waltz might be beautiful to look at, but it sure isn't easy, observing the temporal nature of love and affection with an unwavering eye, rattling around in the brain for days with the searing power of truth.
Remember when Ben Affleck was the laughing stock of Hollywood? Yeah, neither do I. The actor-turned-director's career seemed to have flamed out way back in 2004, when a particularly stinky string of bombs, including Daredevil, Gigli, and Jersey Girl, was capped off with the much maligned and completely ignored Surviving Christmas. But where Gone Baby Gone and The Town helped him pull something of a professional 180, Argo takes any remaining negative pages in the Affleck book, covers them in white-out, rips them out, and then burns the damn things, just for good measure. Big Ben stars as Tony Mendez, an exfiltration expert tasked with rescuing six American hostages form the mid-revolution Iran of the early 1980's. The method he arrives at is far too loopy and intricate to explain in this little blip, but suffice to say, Argo is a page turner of a movie, alternating between slow-burning anticipation and screw-turning sequences that make sweaty palms grip armrests tightly. No disrespect to his solid earlier work behind the camera, but Argo is a huge maturational leap for Affleck, recasting the star of Paycheck as one of Hollywood's top-shelf talents. Never say never.
One of my favorite film critics, The Chicago Tribune's Michael Philips, described The Master as, "the year's supreme discombobulator," and he couldn't be more spot-on. The story of an animalistic WWII vet (Joaquin Phoenix) and his attempts to be reformed by the smooth-talking leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of a cult-like movement called, 'The Cause,' is unrepentantly strange, and deliberately esoteric. It's also possibly the most carefully, mesmerizingly crafted film of the year, boasting of terrific acting, another other-wordly Johnny Greenwood score, Mihai Malaimare Jr.'s hypnotic camera work, and Phoenix's crown jewel of a performance. It's not exactly a light and bubbly affair, and I'm still working my way through its many mysteries and eccentricities, but I simply can't wait for my next trip down the gorgeous, terrifying, and entrancing rabbit hole that is The Master.
Freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Mid-August sunshine. The warm embrace of a loved one. Kitten and puppies. These things and others are all nestled delightfully in the pit of your stomach from the first to the last frame of Moonrise Kingdom. The breezy, nostalgic coming-of-age tale stars acting newbies Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward as Sam and Suzy, a couple of pre-teen misfits who decide to elope together, and are cluelessly pursued by the likes of Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Francis McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Bill Murray. The more that his detractors trash on writer/director Wes Anderson's signature twee feel, the more comfortable he becomes employing it, here marrying it more perfectly with the story at hand than ever before. MK is a precious little morsel, filled with color, laughter, and French New Wave style, sumptuously detailing the highs and lows of first love. One of 2012's chief cinematic joys, and further proof that Anderson can stay safely within his wheelhouse and still surprise and delight.
Killing Them Softly
The last time that Brad Pitt teamed up with writer/director Andrew Dominik, it resulted in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a brilliant film that might just be the biggest flop of the superstar's career. The movie took in just under four million dollars, not exactly an amount I'd say no to if someone wanted to hand it to me, but consider this: his other big screen appearance that year, the already-forgotten Ocean's Thirteen, grabbed 117 mil, or, more stunningly, 29.25 times the amount raked in by Jesse James. Somehow, the two found each other once more for Killing Them Softly, and while the wallets of big wig studio execs are likely crying foul (the film's gross topped out at 15 Million), movie fans everywhere have reason to celebrate. Pitt stars as Jackie Cogan, a hit man tasked with eliminating a couple of low lives in 2008 New Orleans, but forced to first trudge through a swamp of corporate regulations and jargon to get there. KTS is more black comedy than mobster thriller, creating a world were wise-guys are greatly outnumbered by nincompoops scared into action by the looming financial crisis. Killing is that rarest of things: a movie that actually should have been longer, and explored its themes and ideas more fully, but it's a rush while on screen. Dirty, thought-provoking, exciting, funny, and stylish as all get-out, this is a gangster movie unlike any I've ever seen.
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