Thursday, December 27, 2012

2012 in Film: The Underrated and/or Unfairly Scorned...

Now we continue our 'the films of 2012' lists with another favorite, the Underrated!  And as always, this list won't just be good films that were labeled as 'bad', but also mediocre films that got unfairly pounded, or genuinely bad films that nonetheless deserved credit for one element or another.  If I do decide to compile an overrated list (still not sure, honestly), there is a good chance that many of the films on that list will still be better than many on this list, but I hope dear readers can understand the potential contradiction.  All of the films below are either worth seeing, either because they are in fact good or because they are bad but containing elements of note or are bad in interesting and/or entertaining ways. As always, the following are in alphabetical order.

Act of Valor:
Yes the film may well be a live-action adaptation of a Call of Duty-type video game.  And yes the film may be some kind of insidious 'Enlist today!' propaganda.  But viewed away from the politics, it's a relatively entertaining and thoroughly 'different' action picture. It's unapologetically R-rated, which is a plus right there.  While the real-life Navy Seals who play 'themselves' may not be the best actors, they are surely no worse than Gina Carino who is now an official action star thanks to Steven Soderbergh's Haywire.  But when the plot merely needs them to 'do what they do' in relatively authentic detail, the film crackles with genuine excitement even as we're rolling our eyes at the cliche-filled narrative (they don't just have to rescue a covert operative from terrorists, they have to rescue an obscenely attractive female covert operative from terrorists!).  I could do without the "tearjerking" finale and on-the-nose final narration, but otherwise Act of Valor is an entertaining B-movie action picture that at least feels authentic and separates itself from the pack just enough to be worthwhile.

Gone (review):
I'm not sure if this Amanda Seyfried potboiler is some kind of meta-commentary on serial killer thrillers and their inherent cliches.   But if this film is merely unintentionally incompetent, then it is easily the most enjoyable and most entertaining bad film of the year.  We get Amanda Seyfried, hopefully giving an intentionally bad performance as an alleged former kidnapping victim, which adds credibility to the whole 'the police don't believe me!' plot thread (since we don't believe her either).  We get the usual 'hot girl threatened by serial murder' minus all the normal grotesque details or really any violence associated with the genre.  We get Wes Bentley looking like The Joker and acting hilariously creepy while functioning as (spoiler...?) the worst red herring since Roger Rees showed up looking like an aged Hugh Jackman in The Prestige.  We get a film where every male character has 'rapey eyes' and/or pruriently interested in Seyfried (not that I blame them), and we get a final revelation that is so out-of-the-ordinary for this genre that it's almost groundbreaking.  Most importantly, for better or worse, the film absolutely barrels along from the start, refusing to pause for subplots or character development, proceeding from one investigatory scene to another with an impressively relentless energy.  Gone may be terrible, but I'd never tell anyone not to see it.

Good Deeds/Madea's Witness Protection:
It was a relatively disappointing year for Tyler Perry.  On one hand, Madea's Witness Protection became his second-biggest grosser yet, even as his other two attempts to stretch (Good Deeds and the to-be discussed on a different list Alex Cross) basically tanked by Perry standards.  Good Deeds was Perry's attempt at a straight social drama and while it fell victim to his usual 'one extreme or the other' tendencies (Perry can't just be a successful businessman, but a mega-rich CEO who inherited his family's enterprise), it at least gets points for actually telling a story that is explicitly about income inequality, just *before* the 99% movement, and the relative social injustice that comes about as a result.  More importantly, the film is one of the rare economic melodramas, along with The Company Men, to not try to blame the whole current recession on evil corporate con men. Madea's Witness Protection travels over the same territory, telling a story of 'regular' people screwed over by a corporate corruption (arguably hewing closer to the above-mentioned 'evil Bernie Madoff' model).  I could do without the broader Madea material (and you can tell Perry relishes the opportunity to just act without the costume), but there is decent material here, such as a strong scene between Perry and Eugene Levy as they try to undo the financial damage that has been done, or the idea of otherwise good people being punished because they did what society tells them to do (IE - invest their savings in seemingly successful commodities).  Once again I'd argue that Perry could be a fine dramatic filmmaker if he could just trust his audiences just a little more.         

Madagascar: Europe's Most Wanted (review):
Dreamworks makes this stuff look easy.  The visual delight found in this third (and surprisingly close-ended) installment of the long-running 'zoo animals get lost in the wild' animated series deserves mention.  As does the series's atypical focus on character neuroses as opposed to external threats that usually pepper such animated adventures.  The film contains the best animated action sequence of the year (a first act chase that would make James Cameron proud) and a continuing refusal to dumb down its explicitly adult narrative for the youngest viewers.  Oh sure we get the usual celebrity voices and the periodic pop culture reference (although damn if Katy Perry's "Firework" isn't used effectively here), but beneath all of that is a story about several adult animals dealing with very relatable adult 'human' problems.  I've often referred to the series as a Jewish animated franchise, for its focus on internal psychosis instead of external peril and, periodic threats from Frances McDormand's hilariously murderous zoo keeper notwithstanding, the third film continues that worthwhile trend.  This stuff looks easy, but a quick glance at the likes of Ice Age: Continental Drift and Rise of the Guardians shows you it's not.       

Men In Black 3 (review):
By all rights this should have been a disaster.  The budget was out-of-control, the script was basically rewritten mid-production, and no one seemed to want to be there (exclusive behind-the-scenes footage).  But, miracles of miracles, Men In Black 3 isn't just good but the best film of the series, a warmhearted and clever science-fiction comedy that keeps its focus firmly rooted in character relationships.  Many critics who came prepared to hate the film blindly tore it apart anyway, with the standard 'Josh Brolin as a young Tommy Lee Jones' is the only funny part!' criticism, which just shows they weren't paying attention.  Josh Brolin as a young Agent K isn't funny at all, and that's what makes his performance and much of the movie work as well as it does.  Nobody phones it in this time (not even Jones, filling his minimal screen-time with a lifetime of pain and regret) and the time-travel shtick actually works, even if some of the plot turns don't make 100% logical sense.  Most importantly, the film doesn't let its budget determine its scale, as the film remains the rare blockbuster franchise that doesn't go for the biggest and most elaborate action set-pieces but instead puts its story and its comedy first. In a year when so many would-be blockbusters failed to deliver, Men In Black 3 was just a darn good movie.

One For the Money:
Another film that has absolutely no business being counted as 'one of the year's worst films'.  Had this starred someone less universally despised among the critical community than Katherine Heigl, it likely would have been seen for what it is: A harmless mediocrity that is (according to those who know) pretty faithful in tone and spirit to the literary series on which it is based.  If you like the books, you'll probably like the movie.  There is, I've long argued, a critical curve when it comes to discussing female-driven genre fare.  As such One For the Money couldn't just be written off as a would-be franchise starter that is too lightweight and inconsequential to matter.  Oh no, it had to be tarred and feathered as among the year's biggest travesties.  It's an agreeable time waster if you like anyone in it (among them Daniel Sunjata,  John Leguizamo,  and Sherri Shepherd) or want a very light genre entry while you fold the laundry.  Faint praise to be sure, but there are far worse movies this year that deserved your scorn.

The Paperboy (review):
Lee Daniels's follow-up to Precious is not a success, as it wanders around for much of its narrative without a clear sense of purpose.  But dear lord is the acting fantastic in this picture!  Nicole Kidman is justifiably gaining awards traction for her against-type turn as a sex/companion-starved southern belle who becomes pen-pals with a convicted murderer (a wildly against type and rarely better John Cusack) in the 1960s 'Deep South'.  It's refreshing when a great performance still gets noticed even if the movie does not, but every single performance in this trashy bit of southern gothic film noir shines, from Zack Efron to Matthew McConaughy, to Macy Gray (note - Lee Daniels can wring terrific performances out of musicians).  If I wasn't crazy about the film overall, I also took umbridge at the many critics who seemed to take 'Oh my, the vapors!' offense at the various moments of frank sexuality and gruesome violence, as if such a thing had no place in modern cinema (the outrage over a scene involving a jelly fish made the critical community look like first-graders).  The Paperboy is not a good movie, but it proves that Lee Daniels is a terrific director of actors and it's an unqualified acting treat.

Red Tails (review):
I'm pretty sure I saw a different film than most of the critics last January. The film I saw had terrific and surprisingly intense action sequences, shot and edited for clarity and crafted with a certain physical plausibility that made them all the more engaging.  I saw a film that avoided melodramatic speeches and generic feel-good moments, even allowing major dramatic beats to go without music.  I saw a film where the main racist character (Bryan Cranston) received no comeuppance.  I saw a film where the characters all had a natural and relaxed conversational chemistry.  Most importantly, I saw a relatively entertaining 1950s B-movie throwback that allowed minorities to tell their own history from their own point-of-view in a big-budget action picture while treating such a novel concept like it was no big deal.  By the way, the idea that the film should be written off because it felt like a B-movie from 1957 is funny in a year where we gave the Best Picture Oscar to a B-movie from 1927.We get it, you hated the Star Wars prequels and George Lucas is the devil.   George Lucas put his money ($57 million of it) where his mouth is and the pundit community still can't forgive him for Jar Jar Binks. It's time to let go of your hate, people.

A Thousand Words:
Here is a strange beast: A relatively laughless comedy that actually works pretty well as a straight drama.  The first and third acts, which focus on Eddie Murphy's long-held bitterness at his father and his inability to even put himself in a position to make the same mistakes, are surprisingly strong.  The characters (Murphy, Cliff Curtis, Kerry Washington) generally act like adults and the film doesn't go for the usual 'he just needs to spend less time at work and more time with family' plot that so many such films (many fronted by Murphy) have taken  over the years.  Once the film gets into its central gimmick, that Murphy will apparently die once he utters his next thousand words, the film grinds to a halt for the middle section full of laugh-free sequences where Murphy strains to be silent in scenes where communication is demanded.  But the film ends well and is anchored by surprisingly touching scenes between Murphy and Ruby Dee as his Alzheimer's-stricken mother.  Is A Thousand Words a good movie?  No, it's not, but it surely is not among the worst films of the year.  It is a frustrating film, too somber for the kids yet too juvenile for adults, that nonetheless has just enough that works to make it all the sadder that the enterprise is a failure.

The Three Stooges:
Here is an odd situation.  The Farrelly Bros' The Three Stooges is a film that received mostly terrible reviews and did only okay at the box office.  To be honest, I didn't think much of it either.  So why in the world is it on this list?  Because, come what may, it is absolutely faithful to the spirit of the original Three Stooges shorts that I remember from my younger days.  And you know what?  I didn't think much of those either, even as a wee lad.  They weren't my cup of tea and thus neither was this film, even if I found the film less painful than I expected.  But so many reviews I read treated the picture as some kind of affront to an impeachable comic legacy and/or one of the signs of the now come-and-gone Apocalypse.  This was similar to how critics were shocked and appalled by Michael Mann's Miami Vice back in 2006, completely assured in their completely false belief that the original show was something along the lines of the 1960s Batman show.  This is a Three Stooges movie through-and-through.  If you liked the original stuff, you'll probably like this.  And if you didn't like the original stuff, what in the world are you doing seeing a film called The Three Stooges?   

Wrath of the Titans (review):
Come what may, Jonathan Liebesman's sequel is vastly superior to Louis Leterrier's limp and claustrophobic and lifeless first film from 2010.  It's arguably as good as a movie called Wrath of the Titans can be expected to be, with decent acting, terrific special effects, and 3D every bit as good as Clash of the Titans was bad.  I wish the film had a bit more action, especially in the second act, but there is great stuff here, including a third act action beat for Ralph Fiennes and Liam Neeson (both having much more fun here than the last time), to make this an unjustly maligned piece of Saturday afternoon pulp.  Alas, it suffered a classic case of 'Tomb Raider Trap' at the box office (where a superior sequel to a lackluster original bombs because audiences feel once bitten, twice shy), but it's absolutely worth your time if you're so inclined to want to see a movie called Wrath of the Titans in the first place.

And that's a wrap for part II of the 2012 movies of the year essay.  Join us next time for part III, which is going to be the always "controversial" Overrated of 2012 list.  Which films did you feel got a bum rap this year?  As always, share below.

Scott Mendelson


candicedfrederick said...

wow..this is a bold list

corysims said...

No shit, it's a bold list. I liked the Wrath of the Titans mention. I think the Dark Knight Rises needs to be on this list of the "unfairly scorned". I know it'll be on Scott's most disappointed list but I think time is going to be massively kind to Nolan's final chapter.

Right now, it's everyone's whipping boy and I can't figure out why...


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