2012 has been hectic for me. Us, I should say. Last month, my wife finally fulfilled a long-time dream to open her own dessert venue, Sweet Dee's Bakeshop, and business is booming. I've been doing my best to keep up with this blog, my Twitter feed, her business's Twitter feed and Facebook account, as well as Sweet Dee's new blog (starting next month). Aside from that, with her time being taken up by all the responsibilities a start-up entails, I've had to step it up in terms of caring for our two young children. Busy.
The cinema stops for no one, though. In theatres, summer arrived with the box office records smashed by The Avengers, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. It's one of only a fraction of the amount of films I usually write about here. It doesn't mean I haven't been keeping up with this year's films. (Well, maybe less so with indie or foreign movies because of how difficult it is to get to the local art houses in my few spare moments.) I've just been choosy with what I decide to write about. But with the two kids going to summer camp full-time next month, and my wife and I settling into a kind of groove with the new shop, I hope to see the pace pick up on this blog for the rest of the year.
Consider this (and maybe one more follow-up) a post in which I catch up and jot down some thoughts on some of these other films I wasn't too moved to write about immediately.
Overhyped and a bit too clever for its own good, The Cabin in the Woods is still a diverting deconstruction of the latest spate of torture porn films crossed with a tribute to more traditional horror fare. Using the predictable Final Girl archetype (along with that of the Jock, the Brain, and the Slut) as a way into a humorous exegesis of "what's wrong with scary movies today," the film works best when it stays with those four characters instead of when it cuts to a top secret facility that seems to be engineering the sadistic murders of the youths for some grand conspiratorial reason. Then the misguided metaphors fly fast and loose. Of course, if it's meta then one wouldn't be wrong to suspect Avengers director Joss Whedon is involved with it somehow. He produced and co-wrote the film (which has languished on the shelf for nearly 3 years) with a former staff writer of his on TV's Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Drew Goddard (in his directorial debut). An appealing central performance by Kristen Connolly makes the movie worth watching, but you can wait for the DVD.
Since the main character never interacts with unassuming (or ignorant) real-life citizens, The Dictator is nowhere near as cringe-inducing as Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles' previous films. But the movie, largely patterned after Coming to America if Muammar Gaddafi were the central character, is still pretty funny. The Dictator throws Cohen's Admiral General Hafez Aladeen into a predictable series of fish-out-of-water situations, making fun not only of its central character but of those he runs into as well (played by a succession of famous faces like Anna Faris, Megan Fox and John C. Reilly). Cohen doesn't really avoid being as topical as one expects from his previous movies. But the priority has shifted a bit from skewering his targets with pointed jokes to the crafting of those barbs for maximum laughs. For instance, Aladeen is a despot whose grip over the small Middle-eastern country of Wadiya is so all-encompassing, he even changes thirteen words in the Wadiyan dictionary—including both the words "positive" and "negative"—to "Aladeen." This leads to some confusion in one hilarious digression, when a Wadiyan doctor delivers some news to his patient.
Doctor: Do you want the Aladeen news or the Aladeen news?This regression to traditional set-up/punchline comedy isn't a bad thing, as the thinness of the setup precludes any extended riffs similar to those in Bruno or Borat. However, The Dictator's "just make'em laugh" spirit is somewhat of a step down from the (uncomfortable) truth-telling of Cohen's more satirical pictures. Not necessarily a misstep for Cohen, The Dictator requires his fans to make a mental adjustment in order to derive the most enjoyment.
Patient: (tense) The Aladeen news?
Doctor: (blankly) You're HIV-Aladeen.
Speaking of adjustments, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, a sequel by the hyperactive team of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (Crank), is a marked improvement on its dull predecessor... which might be damning with faint praise. Though the Ghost Rider himself is visually iconic, the problem is that the Marvel Comics antihero appeals to such a specific taste. You have to sort of be into horror, choppers, BDSM or some combination of all of these. Softpedaling some of the more outré elements for a general audience doesn't help the film, for example. Especially since the unsubtle Neveldine/Taylor are the last guys one associates with the word "softpedal." So the movie has a curious, schizoid feeling to it. Some breathtaking imagery abounds in a story hamstrung by its conventionality. Nicolas Cage's nuttiness becomes more unsettling than in the first film because here his performance was actually motion-captured for the CGI Ghost Rider. But it never reaches the intoxicating heights of his turn in the similarly themed Drive Angry. Disappointing for a box office release, Spirit of Vengeance does show some potential for gaining a cult following on DVD.
Mixed martial arts star Gina Carano has a bit of a following herself, and Haywire plays like a vehicle designed to showcase her slightly above average range as a action movie hero. Of course, it has the added benefit of being directed by Steven Soderbergh, here reunited with Kafka and The Limey screenwriter Lem Dobbs. Like in their previous collaborations, Haywire's focus is tightly on its central character in a splintered narrative. Where Kafka was jumbled up psychologically and The Limey chronologically, Haywire dislocates the viewer geographically, if only for moments at a time, with a story that efficiently cuts between various locales in Europe and America. As a dramatic actress, Carano is a great MMA fighter. But Soderbergh's camera loves the muscular beauty. And the director surrounds her with some of the best male actors available—Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas, Michael Fassbender, Ewan MacGregor and Bill Paxton—all of whom are game in offering strong support to a novice movie star clearly on the rise.
Another movie featuring a female action hero was this spring's big hit. Based on the first of a series of young adult novels by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games stars Jennifer Lawrence as the ill-named Katniss Everdeen. Though anyone even casually familiar with science fiction has seen this arena-style competition played out before (Rollerball, The Running Man, Star Trek's "Arena"), The Hunger Games is a genre retread that has one major thing going for it. It is far more interesting and coherent than its YA rival, the execrable Twilight. Unfortunately, that isn't sufficient for it to rise above its quite apparent flaws. Poorly paced by director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit), The Hunger Games spends about 20 minutes too long establishing it's familiar premise (see Rollerball, The Running Man, Star Trek's "Arena"). Jennifer Lawrence continues to be the most appealing young cypher inexplicably lauded by both critics and fans.
Spare yet stirring, The Hunter is a fascinating character study showcasing Willem Dafoe as a man hired to capture a marsupial long thought extinct, the Tasmanian Tiger. He stays with the presumed widow (Frances O'Connor) and children of a man missing in the wilderness since he ventured out on the same mission before him. The hunter soon gets caught between environmentalists, suspicious townspeople (led by Sam Neill) and the rapacious company which hopes to harvest organic samples from the endangered animal. It's an interesting premise which pays off powerfully at the end as Dafoe's hunter resolves his personal feelings about his line of work in light of all the violence he has brought to the lives and surroundings of those he's affected.
Strangely enough, it's just such an unusually poignant finale that bolsters the otherwise unnecessary Men in Black III, an obvious stab at cashing in for Sony Pictures in a year full of other sequels spawned to prop up its struggling parent company. Director Barry Sonnenfeld, who once seemed like a clever protégé of the Coen Brothers, now only seems like a sort of Sam Raimi-lite, using his oddball aesthetic perspective in only the safest of commercial films. As Agent J, Will Smith seems to be sleepwalking through most of the movie, a franchise fatigue pitfall Tommy Lee Jones wisely avoids by minimizing his part as Agent K to an extended cameo. That doesn't keep Josh Brolin from giving it his all as he pays tribute to his No Country For Old Men co-star playing a groovier, '60s-era Agent K. Brolin's performance is no mere act of mimicry. He transforms into K almost through pure enjoyment at the chance to "be" Tommy Lee Jones. Jemaine Clement's turn as the villain is only charming insofar as the actor is. For real depth look to Michael Stuhlbarg's whimsical Griffin, an alien with the ability to see any and every potential alternate timeline as if they were branches on a tree.
Just out on DVD, Red Tails is the long deferred dream project by Star Wars creator George Lucas. And in many ways it shows. It's noble that the once ignored African American Tuskegee Airmen of World War II finally get a movie centered on their exploits. It's laudable that it is written by John Ridley (U-Turn), scored by Terence Blanchard (25th Hour) and directed by Anthony Hemingway (Treme), all African Americans, and that it features a promising cast of young black men. But as is characteristic of most of Lucas's latter-day output, an inordinate amount of capital is spent on special effects spotlighting the admittedly beautiful fighter planes instead of applied to giving the superficial script some depth. Sure, one could argue that the point of the film is to graft the corny camaraderie and dialogue of '40s-era war movies onto a film featuring an all-black cast. After all, African American actors of that period certainly didn't get the opportunity to play in those type of films. But the truth is such irreverence also undercuts the very real effects racism had on these heroes and is designed to make their story more palatable to mainstream audiences.
Wrath of the Titans is a quickie sequel to 2010's Clash of the Titans remake. Counter to how most critics felt about it, I don't think Wrath is as interesting as its antecedent. That's not to say I'm one guy railing against the critical cognoscenti in regards to the film of the year. It's an argument of degrees. Most reviews characterized Wrath like this (I paraphrase): "Better than the first, which isn't saying much." I on the other hand would probably flip it and say the first one's a tiny bit better... but that's not saying a whole heck of a lot. It gets points for featuring one of the actual Titans of myth, Kronos (pictured above). But Edgar Ramirez (Carlos) is wasted as the god of war, Ares, as are Ralph Fiennes and Liam Neeson, once again playing Hades and Zeus, respectively. With all of these gods strolling around our mortal coil and getting their asses handed to them by the movie's big baddie, a little of the mythological magic is lost. Only Bill Nighy, offering a quirky take on ugly Hephaestus manages to skate past any misgivings. Otherwise, the movie is a pastiche of Greek mythology's greatest hits (Minotaurs, flying horses, etc.) that sacrifices coherence for spectacle and does a disservice to the enduring stories which have fueled much of the heroic tales which have followed.