Friday, December 27, 2013

The Worst Movies of 2013: Man of Steel, and Other Atrocities

The greatest advantage of being an amateur movie critic rather than a professional is simple: I'm not forced to see movies that I don't actually want to see. True, I dutifully attempt to see every movie nominated for an Oscar, which occasionally induces a sense of obligation (did I really Netflix a French animated film called A Cat in Paris?), but for the most part, I watch movies because I want to, not because I'm paid to. So, until the Mr. Provis of the technology generation bestows the Manifesto with his generosity and turns this wee blog into a for-profit enterprise (note to silent benefactors: I'm still available), I can continue to avoid the truly execrable pictures that litter the multiplex each year.

As a result, I can't possibly pretend to author a list of the actual worst movies of 2013, as I exercised my discretion and passed on such supposed fiascos as The Big Wedding, Grown Ups 2, and Movie 43. I can, however, denigrate the small sampling of this year's films that I actively disliked. Given my selectivity, it's a predictably short list: As of this writing, I've seen 85 theatrical releases in 2013, and I only found the following eight to be genuinely contemptible. There's assuredly more dross out there, but for now, you'll have to settle for me warning you away from these wretched offerings. In no particular order:

Man of Steel. One popular (if anti-populist) narrative concerning the state of contemporary cinema is that movies just aren't as good as they used to be. That's utter rubbish, but Zack Snyder's ponderous Superman reboot will hardly quell the senseless clamor. In empirical terms, Man of Steel isn't all that terrible; the special effects are undeniably impressive, the production design is sleek and well-conceived, and the acting is perfectly adequate. But all of that is drowned out by Snyder's thuddingly tone-deaf sensibility, one that equates noise and explosions with verve and excitement while mistaking turgidity for solemnity. The film's second half—in which Superman hurtles into countless buildings and terrifies a multitude of innocent pedestrians—is an agonizing slog of unrelenting sound and fury. Leaden, humorless, and utterly devoid of character development or thematic nuance, Man of Steel is a toxic exemplar of how a $225 million budget, when attached to a tattered screenplay and a creatively bankrupt director, buys absolutely nothing.

Henry Cavill


A Good Day to Die Hard. What a waste. Man of Steel may have been a monumental failure, but at least it was a failure of ambition. The only ambition of A Good Day to Die Hard—the fifth installment of the now-festering franchise—appears to have been to sell a handful of tickets in Russia, where the film's action predominantly takes place. (The movie racked up 78% of its $305 million worldwide gross at the international box office, the third-highest such share among major U.S. releases, behind only Escape Plan and The Smurfs 2. Apparently, foreign audiences have yet to tire of 1980s action heroes and cartoons.) I'm hardly an obsessive disciple of the Die Hard series, but regardless of your level of affection for John McClane, his latest travails exhibit a weary, wheezing quality that's downright dispiriting. The action scenes are limp and unimaginative, the villains are rote and unmemorable, and the perfunctory attempt at character-building—in which McClane attempts to reconnect with one of his children—feels reheated from the prior episode, Live Free or Die Hard. For his part, Bruce Willis looks both bored and indestructible, perhaps because no one would dare touch him as he strolls his way through the wreckage to collect a paycheck.

A Good Day to Die Hard

The Company You Keep. Robert Redford's would-be-thriller has the skeleton of an interesting movie, one in which a seemingly decent man faces a reckoning courtesy of his past sins. But after an intriguing first reel, the movie sputters and stalls, failing both as a suspense picture and as a portrait of loss and regret. Part of that is due to Redford's own hubris: He cast himself as the lead, but at 77 years old, he looks as though he can barely climb a flight of stairs, much less outsprint a nationwide manhunt. And while he still holds the cachet to fill out his roster with an exceptionally talented cast (Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, and Richard Jenkins are just a few of the high-profile names on hand), he gives them precious little to do. Oddly, the movie's lone memorable moment occurs when an intrepid report (a reliably scrappy Shia LaBeouf) attempts to pick up a university student (the up-and-coming Brit Marling). It's a scene of seeming improvisation that infuses The Company You Keep with a spark of energy. But that spark is quickly extinguished, and all that remains is a jumble of aged movie stars, looking confused about why they're here and frustrated that they missed their nap.

Robert Redford

Only God Forgives. Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive was one of my favorite films of 2011, a virtuosic reimagining of 1980s macho action movies filtered through the new millennium's more refined aesthetic. For his follow-up, Refn borrows a number of Drive's memorable elements—extreme violence, lush photography, Ryan Gosling—and grafts them onto a narrative so stupendously idiotic that it's hard to believe it even exists. Set in Thailand, the purported plot pits Gosling (who sleepwalks through a role that's wholly devoid of personality) against a samurai-wielding detective who moonlights as a karaoke performer. That may sound alluring, but Only God Forgives is really just a loose, incoherent assemblage of grotesque executions, none of which is staged with any particular visual wit or élan. Not only is the movie loudly and profoundly stupid; worse, it's tedious. Kristin Scott Thomas provides a welcome jolt as Gosling's ferocious mother, but even she can't rescue Only God Forgives from Refn's flagrant self-indulgence. Perhaps Refn felt uncomfortable in the wake of Drive's critical acclaim and felt the need to reestablish himself as a maverick rather than a director who connects with mainstream audiences. For my part, I liked him better when he was making good movies rather than terrible ones.

Only God Forgives

At Any Price. The motivations behind At Any Price—in which Ramin Bahrani attempts to tell a sweeping tale of the plight facing the middle-American farmer in the technology age—may be honorable, but intentions can only get you so far, and Bahrani's ambition outstrips his execution. Whereas his prior feature, Goodbye Solo, was a thoughtful and intimate affair, At Any Price is bulky and sprawling, a character study of desperation that clumsily transitions into flailing melodrama. There's also a struggle between a tradition-minded patriarch (Dennis Quaid, very good) and his Nascar-obsessed son (Zac Efron, pretty bad); as with the rest of the film, this exploration of father-son conflict is far more compelling in theory than reality. (As an indication of the movie's slapdash approach to storytelling, Heather Graham shows up to sleep with both men, for no better reason than that it causes strife between the two.) At Any Price scores points for effort, but it's nonetheless a confused, muddled film that never finds sure footing. Middle America deserved better.

At Any Price

The Grandmaster. There's a certain appeal to a legendary filmmaker like Wong Kar Wai helming a kung-fu picture: the possibility of a fertile crossbreed between high-art cinema and pulpy entertainment. Sadly, The Grandmaster is a dull, sodden film that satisfies as neither art nor pulp. Wong is a supremely elegant stylist, but his fight scenes are strangely lacking in beauty, not to mention energy. He predictably takes a philosophical approach to martial arts, but Zhang Yimou charted similar territory to far superior effect in Hero and House of Flying Daggers, which managed to be cinematically stimulating as well as piously reverent. The story, meanwhile, is completely threadbare, a familiar, languorous tale of unfulfilled love that's populated by stock archetypes rather than actual characters. It's as if Wong couldn't be bothered to invest his movie with any identity, instead simply relying on his visual gifts to elevate a meandering screenplay. In this, Wong disrespects the discipline he attempts to honor.

Tong Leung

Gangster Squad. Good actors can only take a bad movie so far. No 2013 film exemplified this axiom more than Gangster Squad (though The Company You Keep came close), an ugly, pointless Untouchables wannabe that feels as though it was scripted by a violence-crazed teenager. The crack cast—which includes Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, and Anthony Mackie—is a mighty collection of Hollywood talent, but director Ruben Fleischer seems completely disinterested in utilizing their abilities. (Gosling, by the way, could stand to be a bit more choosy; after appearing in three of 2011's best films, he landed in two of this year's worst.) That's because Gangster Squad is really just a moronic revenge fable, one in which every character is either deeply noble or repulsively rotten. It can't even qualify as dumb fun, as Fleischer's Tommy-gun shootouts are as clunky and monotonous as Snyder's superhero battles in Man of Steel (if blessedly shorter). In fact, the only memorable thing about Gangster Squad is that it serves as a cautionary tale: The next time you consider seeing a movie based on its cast, research the director and screenwriter first.

Gangster Squad

Prince Avalanche. It's interesting to note that, with the exception of The Grandmaster, the preceding pictures on this list met with scorn from most critics. That's not the case with David Gordon Green's Prince Avalanche, which currently sits at 84% on Rotten Tomatoes (The Grandmaster is at 75%), suggesting that it's legitimately well-liked rather than merely tolerated. I remain baffled by the insistent praise for the film, in which Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch play a couple of nobodies tasked with hammering signage into a stretch of burned-out road. That's it. That's the movie. Green seems content to just let his two leads wander around in the wilderness, drinking and bickering and occasionally bonding, but really doing nothing in particular. Now, I generally don't demand intricate plots from movies, but I do require some sort of hook, whether it's memorable characters, snappy dialogue, evocative imagery—something. There's simply nothing compelling about the experience of watching Prince Avalanche. It's a boring movie about two boring people who do boring things. That it's set amidst the aftermath of a forest fire doesn't transform it into a profound commentary on the mundanity of everyday existence or the cyclical nature of life. It just makes us wish these two losers would hurry up and get on with their lives, so that we can get on with ours.

Prince Avalanche

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Best Movies of 2012 (Part II)

In case you missed it, you can find Part I of the Manifesto's countdown of the 16 best movies of 2012 here. And now, the final octet.

8. Silver Linings Playbook. Until he made The Fighter, David O. Russell was pretty much the last director I could have imagined helming a pure crowd-pleaser. But while that boxing flick was a sturdy enough piece of genre execution elevated by a tremendous performance from Christian Bale, it nevertheless represented a step backward for Russell, sacrificing the angularity and unpredictability of his earlier work in favor of stock characters and easy sentiment. Silver Linings Playbook doesn't shy away from uplift—it's arguably the most thrillingly happy movie of 2012—but it derives its emotional impact through a delightfully haphazard mix of screwball comedy and disturbing family drama, as well as a provocative examination of mental illness. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence make a pretty pair, but each suggests real sadness; Cooper's constant gesticulation conveys the whirlwind of thoughts assaulting his fraying mind, while Lawrence's flashing eyes and uptilted chin mask quiet vulnerability and heartache. This frenzy of feeling culminates in a landmark scene, which Russell stages with symphonic élan, in which Lawrence goes toe-to-toe with the legendary Robert De Niro (in his best form in years) and shifts her long-simmering passion into overdrive. On one level, it's just a bunch of crazy Philadelphians rehashing the Eagles. On another, it's a madcap marvel, a winning illustration of how movies can take pain and fury and desperation, mix them together, and turn them into joy.

7. Lincoln. A renowned director with a weakness for schmaltz. A legendary actor with two Oscars already on his mantle. A celebrated protagonist heralded for preserving a nation. Consider those elements when approaching Lincoln, and you'd be forgiven for expecting it to be little more than a drippy, overly solemn slice of awards bait. But while Steven Spielberg's latest tour de force bears several hallmarks of classic Academy fare—period costumes, supple camerawork, preachy themes of tolerance and forgiveness—it is also an incisive, invigorating exploration of the political process that makes for a damn good time at the movies. Tony Kushner's screenplay strikes a masterful balance of sobriety and frivolity, darting between acidic commentary and sharp humor ("It's not against the law to bribe Congressmen; they starve otherwise."). For his part, Spielberg uses his unimpeachable craft to maneuver beyond the historical titan at his project's center and reveal the man, bold and brilliant and heroic but nonetheless human. It helps, of course, that he has employed a titan of his own, as Daniel Day-Lewis flawlessly embodies our sixteenth president, conveying both his folksy charisma and his fearsome wrath. In the end, Lincoln is a warm, winning reminder that movies—especially those such as this one that combine scraggly charm with lapidary technique—retain the wondrous power to sketch the scope of history.

6. Moonrise Kingdom. Even those who resist Wes Anderson's movies—and I have often counted myself among their number—cannot deny his prodigious gifts as a filmmaker. The painstaking detail of his production design, the fastidious framing of his camerawork, and the meticulous rhythms of his editing all signify the work of an artist who operates with supreme control of his form. But his sheer mastery of the medium can also suffocate his subjects; his characters are often weird but not especially interesting, and his writing is less clever than mannered and stifling. With Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson doesn't just correct this flaw, he obliterates it. A giddy, achingly heartfelt story of two misfit dreamers finding love, it remains entirely a Wes Anderson film, with immaculate sets and spectacularly precise cinematography (even the establishing shots of a beach house double as sumptuous feats of visual poetry). The difference is that Moonrise Kingdom tethers Anderson's exacting formal rigor to his characters and their stumbling, fantastically awkward journey through adolescence, with all of its attendant confusion, toxicity, and wonder. Newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward (both terrific) aren't playing broad archetypes but real people, and their director's stylistic flourishes exist not to flaunt his own virtuosity but to heighten the purity and sweetness of their romance. Anderson's movies always delight the eye, but this is his first since 1998's Rushmore that will make your heart soar.

5. The Cabin in the Woods. As much as I enjoyed Joss Whedon's The Avengers, with its frenetic pace and zippy dialogue, I couldn't shake the feeling that Whedon—the maestro behind my favorite television show of all-time—was somehow boxed in, trapped by the commercial obligation to deliver mammoth, easily digestible entertainment to as broad an audience as possible. How else to explain a man who has previously expressed his disdain for action sequences concluding his blockbuster with a lumbering, near-interminable assault on the senses? (Compare this to Whedon's prior theatrical feature, Serenity, which marginalized action sequences in favor of character-building and offhand comedy.) Thankfully, 2012 also offered the perfect antidote to this development with The Cabin in the Woods, which Whedon co-scripted with director Drew Goddard. A sly, fearlessly inventive meta-horror-comedy, the movie is chameleonic in its genius, chastising horror fans for reveling in others' suffering while also partaking in a fair bit of revelry itself. Whedon's and Goddard's screenplay is unapologetically highbrow—it does no less than question the reason for horror movies' existence—but the writing is also immensely satisfying on a micro level, from the incessant bickering between a pair of harried puppeteers (perfectly played by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins) to the escalating bewilderment of Fran Kranz's stoner-hero. The Cabin in the Woods isn't afraid to keep viewers off-balance—its opening scene is one of the all-time great "Wait, did I walk into the wrong movie?" fakeouts—but its real pleasure derives from the knowledge that you're watching the product of men who take true pride in their craft. It's a lovingly wicked satire of movies that demonstrates why we love movies.

4. Ruby Sparks. The motion picture landscape is so crowded with existing love stories—between men and women, between movies and movie fans, between robots—that it's hard to fathom screenwriters locating new terrain. Yet in her script for Ruby Sparks, Zoe Kazan has created a jubilant love story that also eviscerates the fatigued institution of canned cinematic romance. Kazan plays the title character, an effervescent bundle of joy who's essentially the embodiment of adult male fantasy; she's a looker with a warm sense of humor, she's always in a good mood, and she cooks dinner and performs fellatio with equal enthusiasm. Of course, Ruby actually is a fantasy: She's the creation of struggling novelist Calvin (a very good, admirably unlikable Paul Dano), who somehow manifested her into the world. Not only that, but he can alter her very personality simply by entering a line of text into his typewriter. That's awfully high-concept, and in their follow-up to Little Miss Sunshine, directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris bravely mine their novelist's moral dilemma while also exploiting it for some very funny moments. The true brilliance of Ruby Sparks, however, is the gradual manner in which it chisels away at the writerly myth of notional perfection. At first, Ruby is just a construct, and her relationship with Calvin is initially depicted as a fairy tale of perpetual, impossible bliss. But as the movie grows, so too does Ruby, and that bliss corrodes into something complicated, strained, and even scary (a third-act scene in which Calvin wields his power as puppet master is both deeply disturbing and terribly sad). Real people, it turns out, are incompatible with fantasy, and while that may seem like a tautology, it took a movie of considerable audacity to prove it.

3. The Dark Knight Rises. Superhero movies may still serve as reliable studio tentpoles, but in the critical community, they're increasingly met with weary resignation. The Dark Knight Rises, however, is somehow both less and more than a superhero movie. Less, because the Caped Crusader appears in costume relatively rarely, as Bruce Wayne instead spends much of the film questioning the costs and virtues of his own purported heroism. And more, because Christopher Nolan uses the genre as a canvas on which he paints a sprawling, staggeringly ambitious portrait of societal chaos. Only in a superhero movie directed by Nolan could the villain threaten a metropolis with nuclear annihilation while simultaneously describing the nuke as "the instrument of your liberation". Tom Hardy's Bane is a mesmerizing antagonist, partly because of Hardy's spectacular performance—with his imposing stature and impeccable vocal delivery, he cuts a chillingly remorseless figure—but also because Bane's anti-government rhetoric is legitimately seductive. And in chronicling Gotham City's descent into anarchy (the rioting, the kangaroo courts, the miasma of brutality), Nolan has crafted no less than a sweeping epic of Darwinian survival.

If that sounds overly cerebral, fear not, because The Dark Knight Rises remains a Chris Nolan movie; as such, it is resolutely badass. The action sequences are dazzling (Batman's motorcycle now features a nifty did-you-see-that? rolling maneuver), the top-flight cast is fully committed (in addition to Hardy, Anne Hathaway in particular is superb, providing the primary source of pathos), and the whole thing rushes along at that inimitable Nolan pace, where every scene feels charged with electricity. So is The Dark Knight Rises a superhero movie? Not even a bit, and then some.

2. Zero Dark Thirty. Hey, remember this one? Kathryn Bigelow's dramatization of the hunt for Osama bin Laden generated swirling controversy when it was first released—depending on whom you asked, the film's merciless depiction of torture was either factually irresponsible or morally reprehensible—but it seems to have since receded from the public consciousness. Perhaps that's for the best, because it allows future viewers to focus on the movie itself, a hypnotic thriller that pounds your pulse even as it probes at your principles. As she did in The Hurt Locker, Bigelow showcases her uncanny ability to manufacture set pieces of sustained, excruciating suspense, but this time, she extends that atmosphere of ever-escalating tension to the film's overall plot. What results is a breakneck procedural that imbues the seemingly straightforward task of intelligence-gathering with colossal stakes. Yet while Zero Dark Thirty chronicles events forever etched in history, it's also about people, specifically the withering effect that utter commitment to a cause can have on one's soul. A ridiculously talented cast portray those people with absolute conviction; Jason Clarke is magnetic while Jennifer Ehle is sympathetic, to say nothing of a fearless Jessica Chastain, whose agonizing final pose bears an impossible kinship with the devastating final frame of Al Pacino in The Godfather, Part II. But this is Bigelow's vision, and it's one of absolute fidelity to a simple ethos: that victory is achieved through scrupulous technique and dogged determination. Even so, triumph comes at a cost, but Zero Dark Thirty's wrenching illustration of that very axiom—which it exemplifies in an exhausting-but-fleet two-and-a-half hours—is its own form of triumph. [For the Manifesto's full review, click here.]

1. Looper. Time-travel movies basically write themselves. Briefly establish the technology, concoct a dystopian future whose very existence hinges on certain events in the present, introduce a clashing hero and villain with diametrically opposed goals, and voilà, conflict. But the infinite possibilities of time travel can also inspire awe when channeled through a filmmaker of true ambition, and Rian Johnson is certainly that. Undeniably the creation of a profoundly committed artist, Looper is smart, daring, and wildly imaginative. (Who could forget the scene in which a man watches in horror as his own fingers disappear because his prior self is being mutilated?) But it is also compact, brisk, and almost defiantly small-scale. That's because Johnson is not only a bold and gifted writer but also a rigorously disciplined director, one who prevents the vastness of his ideas from overwhelming the intimacy of his story. And for all its mind-bending playfulness, Looper isn't really about time travel at all. (To underscore this, Johnson wryly expresses his disdain for dull, genre-mandated exposition when a character barks, "I don't want to talk about time travel, because if we start talking about it, then we're gonna be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws!") It's really an age-old tale of redemption and self-discovery, albeit one that's filtered through a bracingly contemporary aesthetic. Joseph-Gordon Levitt (whose performance in Brick, Johnson's debut feature, remains the finest of an increasingly distinguished career) proves an intriguingly flawed hero, but it's the deeply soulful performance of Emily Blunt that delivers a stunning emotional wallop.

That wallop—like Johnson's impressive, increasingly self-assured craft—should not be underestimated. Looper takes place in an alternate universe worthy of Blade Runner, one with its own invented slang and distinctive local flavor. It's a brave, challenging, incredibly confident movie. But its greatest achievement is its humility, the way it backgrounds its restless innovation in subservience to its characters and their plight: a husband seeking to avenge his wife, a mother desperate to protect her son, a lost wayfarer striving to do right. The people are what matter most in Looper, and Johnson's unwavering faith in that simple conceit elevates a gimmicky time-travel film to the level of pure tragedy. It's the kind of movie where a boy tripping down the stairs suddenly becomes an effects-driven sequence of astonishing potency, and where a would-be-climactic shootout gives way to a solemn meditation on the terrible notion of destiny. It reminds us that while the movies' greatest strength will always be their singular capacity to transport us—to create new worlds, to show us new sights, to make the impossible possible—they are never more powerful than when they bring us home.