Friday, December 28, 2012

2012 in Film: The Overrated...

I wrestled with even doing an 'overrated' list this year.  First of all, the very idea of such a list is to merely tell other critics and/or the masses that they are dead-wrong for liking something, which I'd argue is very different from telling someone they're wrong for disliking something.  Second of all, the Internet has become such a vast land of film criticism that few films completely escape the wrath of critical scrutiny even if the popular consensus happens to lean in the "wrong" direction.  Nonetheless, in the end I enjoy writing about the year in film, so far be it for me to cheat myself out of some arbitrary concern for maintaining the proverbial higher ground.  So, in alphabetical order as always, let's dive right in...

Brave (review/guest essay):
Had this not been Pixar's first animated feature with a female lead, had this not been marketed within the context that Princess Merida was a kind of sword-wielding/bow-clutching warrior, the the film would have been seen for what it is: a deeply problematic character drama that ignores the icky realities at the center of its tale in order to tell an audience-reassuring mother/daughter story.  The film basically tells the same character arc as The Little Mermaid but was declared a feminist milestone because the female lead A) carried a weapon and B) didn't want to get married.  But good intentions cannot get past a story line that treats mother and daughter as equally culpable even when one party is advocating forced marriage.  Make no mistake, say what you will about 'customs of the time' or 'arranged marriage versus forced marriage', the film tells a story of a child who doesn't want to get married to (and yes, have sex with) a man she doesn't know and treats it like a minor inconvenience.  There is a clear right and wrong here, but the film absolves the father of any responsibility while basically stating that the mother (who again, wants her daughter to have sex against her will) kinda-sorta has a point and that the daughter really needs to have empathy for her dear-old mum.

The Dark Knight Rises (review/spoiler review):
Giving this film a Best Picture nomination because The Dark Knight was snubbed is like nominating Quantum of Solace to avenge Casino Royale's Oscar snub.  Make no mistake, despite some pretty terrific acting by all parties (Anne Hathaway nearly steals the movie while Michael Caine is terrific in his brief screen time), The Dark Knight Rises is truly the Godfather part III of the series.  It's needless third chapter following a rather perfect two-film rise/fall arc. It seems all-but-obvious that Chris Nolan truly didn't want to come back and was crippled by his feelings about Ledger's death and/or his own indifference toward the material (a friend commented that the film, especially the ending, is a metaphor for Nolan's need to escape the franchise to pursue his own projects).  The story is a complete mess, spending the first half of the picture setting up an arc only to send you back to square one and reset said arc.  The action is mostly uninspired and the plot feels like a cobbling of Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Rocky III.  It's not a case of nitpicking plot holes but rather that the movie lumbers for so much of its running time that you have time to pick the film apart.  The alleged political content is so arbitrary and of little consequence (it theoretically shows the underclass embracing terrorism against the upper class yet considers poverty a virtue) that it almost feels like exploitation.  I didn't expect a film as good as The Dark Knight or Batman Begins.  I merely wanted a third Batman film superior to Batman Forever.

Django Unchained (review):
There is nothing 'brave' or 'courageous' about making a film about and opposed to slavery in 2012. Take away the fact that it's a western about a slave that takes place during the height of American slavery, and this is actually a pretty generic revenge story.  The plot doesn't so much twist as unfolded in a relatively expected fashion, right up to the theoretical finale that takes place a punishing 45 minutes before the film actually ends.  It's well acted by all and it's occasionally quite entertaining, but it almost feels like Tarantino is holding back.  This the rare film that almost cries out to be more outrageous,  more confrontational, more violent, and angrier.  While still a mostly fun movie and an acting treat, Django Unchained is the rare occasion where Tarantino seems cowed by gravity of his subject matter.  There is good stuff here, especially Samuel L. Jackson's terrific third-act turn, but this is an oddly surface-level entry from someone who is capable of more.  I concede that a second viewing may bring more appreciation, but it's a telling sign of how the film doesn't quite work that I don't really feel the need to see it again anytime soon.  Tarantino is too darn talented to get a free pass purely on the strength of his actors and the shouldn't-be-shocking basic concept.

It's almost mean to pick on a film that bombed so brutally at the box office, but the amount of critical geek love showered on this relatively run-of-the-mill actioner is a clear example of 'so thirsty you'll drink the sand'.  But aside from the fact that it's a genuinely R-rated comic book adaptation, there is little to recommend beyond the violence.  While the 1995 Sly Stallone Judge Dredd may have deviated from the comic and/or suffered from too much story, this Karl Urban carnage-fest erred in the opposite direction.  The film shares a basic structure with The Raid: Redemption, but it substitutes human-level fear and panic with an invincible comic book superhero (one who technically is supposed to be more of an anti-hero at best in the first place).  It's not a complete loss, as it's the rare action film centered around drugs that acknowledges that many drug users are simply using narcotics to escape from the harsh realities of their economic devastation.  But it's a pretty generic action picture that was treated as a would-be classic purely due to its R rating.

 Flight (review):
The idea of a mid-budget ($30 million) character drama from a major studio grossing over $90 million in today's market is indeed cause for celebration, but Flight is simply not a very good character drama.  That the film is not the plane crash-centered thriller that was advertised isn't an issue.  But what cripples this noble failure is the fact that it's basically a painfully generic run-of-the-mill alcoholism drama, with nearly every cliche intact.  The picture is well acted by all (even though Washington isn't doing anything he couldn't do in his sleep) and Robert Zemeckis once again proves he is a master of his form.  But the story wobbles on whether it takes its theology seriously, while offering the would-be redemption of a high-functioning alcoholic while somewhat glamorizing cocaine (and those like the crowd-pleasing John Goodman who deal it) and ignoring the fact that, absent anything worth fighting for (he has few friends and his family has long since left him), Washington's protagonist really has no real reason to ditch the sauce.  While surely most people would be better off *not* being alcoholics, Flight offers no reason for us to be emotionally invested in this specific alcoholic and no reason for us to root for his recovery and/or redemption (a redemption, I might add, that stands to do more harm than good). 

Very simply, this is a mediocre B-level, straight-to-DVD-style action picture with a terrible performance by its lead action star.  Absent the stunt casting and the automatic prestige that Steven Soderbergh brings, this one wouldn't have registered a blip on the radar. Gina Carano is surely not an actress, and the attempts to hide her acting offer up some of the more amusing moments of the year.  But even most of the action is relatively run-of-the-mill, with only the opening and mid-film skirmishes registering a pulse.  The supporting cast (Michael Douglas, Ewan McGregor, Antonio Banderas, etc.) keeps us entertained, but let's not pretend that this is anything other than the kind of thing that usually goes straight-to-DVD.

Les Miserables (review):
I dreamed a dream that this would be... the best film of 2012!  It is hard to tell how much of this film's failings fall in the film making (extreme close-ups, an odd sense of scale, etc.) and how much is merely from seeing the source material with new eyes and ears and realizing that Les Miserables isn't among the best modern musicals after all.  The acting is so good (especially by Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman, and Eddie Redmayne), and the camera stays so close, that many of the songs become emotionally redundant.  The second and third acts fly by with barely a moment to establish time and place.  The show/film attempts to invest us in a love story that occurs in the blink of an eye, at the expense of the first act's powerful social/political critique.  Thin characterization, inappropriate comic relief, and irksome plot holes that didn't quite register on stage come to the forefront onscreen, not only hurting the film but marring the legacy of the show as well.  It may well ride box office fortune and generally positive reviews to Oscar glory, just as Chicago did ten years ago.  But then, I thought Chicago was overrated too.  Both made audiences fall for a bit of the old razzle-dazzle.

Pitch Perfect:
Well-acted by all, and with one genuinely great sequence (the mid-film riff-off is a corker), this unexpected sleeper doesn't quite gel.  The generally entertaining film suffers from massive pacing issues, the feeling that much of the film ended up on the cutting room floor, and an oddly sense of lethargy throughout.  Anna Kendrick once again shows how she can elevate sub par material and Rebel Wilson earns laughs even as too much of the humor derives from the fact that she's overweight.  But the film jumps all over the place in terms of time and continuity, acting as if nothing important has happened over multiple multi-month time-jumps, and it fails to make the major performances catch fire.  The 'team comes together to kick butt' moment, which arguably should occur around the halfway point instead arrives well into the third act, cheating us of the thrill of watching this unit as a cohesive whole and making the film feel more like a television pilot. It's no great tragedy, its box office success is a net positive, and it may well become a classic for girls' slumber parties.  But it's a missed opportunity that one last screenplay clean-up and a bit more energy could have fixed.

The Silver Linings Playbook (essay 1/essay 2):
This is a painfully contrived romantic comedy that I'd argue is getting a pass A) because it's centered around a guy and B) because it's shrouded in prestige to the point where what wouldn't pass muster as a Katherine Heigl (or even Gerald Butler) genre entry is now an Oscar contender.  Whatever good work the first act does in realistically depicting the struggles of elderly parents dealing with their mentally ill son living with them comes undone in the last two-thirds, climaxing in a ridiculous 'We have to win this dance contest or our family is doomed!' climax that feels like a rejected episode of Glee.  Robert De Niro's standard patriarchal figure is being hailed as some kind of comeback by those who only saw him in Little Fockers, Righteous Kill, and/or The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.  Jennifer Lawrence may just deserve the Oscar nomination that she'll most assuredly get, if only for convincing critics and pundits that her stock 'manic pixie dream girl' is some kind of worthwhile female character, as opposed to the token love interest (who has not a single scene not involving Cooper's lead) that she really is.  Taken outside its status as an Oscar picture, it's a mediocre romantic comedy that falls apart in the third act.  That's its being discussed as one of the year's better films shows the curve on which we grade films that come out at the right time of the year and/or have the right names attached to them.

Skyfall (review/spoiler review/essay/guest review):
Consider this one initially overrated by myself, as I too was razzle-dazzled by the gorgeous Roger Deakins cinematography and the relentlessly suspenseful chunks borrowed from The Dark Knight.  But it's a relatively B-level 007 entry dressed in shiny clothes.  This is basically the third Daniel Craig-starring "how James Bond became 007" film we've seen in a row, this time ending in a return to a status-quo that wasn't really 'normal' since 1987 at best.  It's regressive in its treatment of women, steals its themes from the Pierce Brosnan entries (especially GoldenEye), and it acts like it's the first film about cyber terrorism and post-9/11 security fears. Javier Bardem camps it up, but he's given little of interest to say and it's in the service of a painfully small evil scheme.  Sam Mendes borrows from the Chris Nolan school of intimate big-scale blockbusters even as the pieces don't quite fit.  Most importantly, James Bond is forced to defend his relevance by repeatedly failing at every single major task handed to him, a deluge of incompetence that somehow amounts to a spiritual cleansing and a reaffirmation of 007's worth in a post-9/11 world. The story doesn't make sense and thus the film doesn't quite work.

And that's it for be bitching about films that you liked.  Feel free to complain in the comments section.  Next up is the "Runner Ups of 2012", or the films that weren't the best but darn-well deserve notice.

Scott Mendelson


corysims said...

Interesting list Scott, considering three of the films you listed are going to make my top ten of the year. It's the great thing about online film criticisms/discussion.

Alas, you and I are destined to be on the polar opposite sides when it comes to the Dark Knight Rises.

I just don't see the rise, fall, and rise again arc that you've talked about before. For me, in the first half of the film, Bruce doesn't rise, at all. Hence the reason why his rise at the middle section of the film works so well for me.

As for the political text, I just don't see the controversy for the simple reason that the seeds of it were planted in Batman Begins. Having watched the trilogy straight through this past weekend, I just don't see how you can make the case that Nolan and company are being borderline exploitative when it all started in Begins. All Nolan's doing is following through...even if the timing of following through clashes with the real world politics of today.

Frankly, there's nothing wrong with this film being the Godfather III of this trilogy (Honestly, the Godfather III criticism needs to stop. Separate it from those first two pictures and what do you have...a pretty damn good picture that's a worthy follow up. It can't help the fact that he follows two bonafide cinema classics. It's still a good picture. I think Rises is a better picture than Begins.)

Still, good list Scott. I'm curious about Django. Going tonight but I haven't been feeling that picture at all since it started to get advertised. It just seems like Tarantino is stuck in the same rut and people are just let it slide because it's Tarantino.

By the way, Avengers needs to be on this list. Talk about overpraise...sheesh!

Scott Mendelson said...

For what it's worth, I don't dislike The Godfather part III, I just think it's a needless third film in a series that has a complete rise/fall cycle in the first two pictures (Don's fall and Michael's rise in part I, Don's rise and Michael's fall in part II). I actually watched the first two films mere hours before seeing The Dark Knight Rises back in July. I would argue that there is a clear difference between the 'compassionate conservatism' of Batman Begins (that the private sector has a duty to use their riches to make a better society) versus the odd 'poverty is a virtue/wealth is a vice' messaging in TDKR (IE - what other reason would their be for Bruce Wayne to be made poor before he can truly 'rise'?). Anyway, you and I are destined to disagree on The Avengers as well, alas. It frankly gets better every time I watch it.

Cass said...

Totally agree on SLP, Skyfall, Dark Knight Rises, and Django, though I think Brave wasn't rated as highly as you say here. I have to say that your Les Mis review scared me for nothing; I was floored by how great it was, I've seen the musical 5 times and read the book a while back (the book that they seemed to be adapting with the help of the score rather than being hampered by 25 years of iconic stage imagery and aesthetic choices both visual and aural). But I get that Les Mis has its divisiveness... it's just that your review scared me! :-)

corysims said...

Well, I don't think there's a sub textual reason as to why Bruce has to lose his money before he rises. I think the film states very clear why it needed to be done.

As for Avengers, it's Iron Man and the Avengers through and through. At the end of the day, Avengers should've been told through eyes of Thor and Rogers. It irks me more and more as I peek at it. I just let it wash over me.

Jacob said...

The word "overrated" has always rubbed me the wrong way.

"You know that movie that you think is so good...well here's the reason you're wrong about it"


Liam_Ho said...

Thank You Scott, you've perfectly summed up how I feel about Les Miserables. The beginning of the 2nd act just drags the movie down due to how rushed it seemed at times. As someone who had no knowledge of the source material beforehand I had no idea where this story was going until Jackman's character came back into focus at the end.

The Moviegoing Public said...

No overrated list can be complete without The Master...

Maxwell Haddad said...

I never understand the point of this type of article. Pointing out under-appreciated films? Great. Sharing little gems others may have missed? Worthwhile. Re-iterating negative feelings for films that you've already reviewed (and in many cases written multiple articles about)? Self-indulgent, and unnecessary. I don't see who this is benefitting. Hey... you told me to complain.


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