My Take by Jim Carl - January 2, 2013
My editor informs me that I'm stuck in the 70s and 80s. She says this as if it's a bad thing. I'll admit, those are indeed my favorite decades for movies. In her honor---and also so she'll stop tugging at my pantsleeve about being a repetitive old fart, for pity's sake---I've made it my 2013 New Year's Resolution to watch a handful of movies every quarter that I would otherwise have no interest whatsoever in seeing. I hope this makes her and her empire of cats very happy.
The only rule is that they must be commercial movies released within the last 2-3 years. When making the selections, I picked a few movies whose trailers originally appealled to me, but which I never watched, for one reason or another. The subject matter of others simply didn't appeal to me. At least one or two are movies that were highly-regarded by critics. Others were eaten alive. You know what I'm talking about. Sometimes, it's hard to summon the will to watch the latest Judi Dench/Adam Sandler/David Spade romantic mash-up, especially when there's a repeat of The Blues Brothers or Spacecamp playing on AMC. More and more as I grow older, I'm finding myself getting dangerously close to watching only those movies that are familiar to me.
Instead of another repeat viewing of A Christmas Story or The Towering Inferno this holiday season, I instead scoured through the movie listings to find films that I'd previously passed on. I'm not counting movies such as Skyfall which are currently playing in theatres, and which I would have watched anyways. It's also not fair to pick low-budget horror or genre films from my Netflix queue. It can be argued that if I've selected them for my queue, then an interest in watching them pre-exists. No, to be fair to this resolution, I have to dig deeper and pick movies whose very titles summon images of boiled vegetables and my grandmother's Pot Roast In a Bag. (In West Texas, anything that could be cooked in a bag at 450F was considered high cuisine.) Movies like Ted and This Means War; the ones whose mere existence I mocked and whose commercial successes later floored me. The purpose of this experiment is to (hopefully) discover some modern-day gems among all the Hollywood debris. It's hard to give some movies a fair chance, especially ones which you've targeted to hate before having seen a single frame of footage, but that's what I'm attempting to do here. As I watch some of these films, I'm hoping to find a new generation of actors and directors to admire. Maybe a few new ones to hate. I'm also hoping to add some more-modern titles to my repertory of favorite movies, and not just those which are already familiar to me. In other words, this is a sincere attempt to be relevant.
With that, I jump blindly into the abyss. The movies are listed in alphabetical order below for the sake of simplicity. And to my dear editor, Elisabeth Branigan, I want to state for the record that you are entirely to blame for any blowback this otherwise universally-beloved blog may receive.
THE ADVENTURES OF TIN TIN (2011)
Considering this was directed by Steven Spielberg, Tin Tin was a minor disappointment. I found the main adventure to be a bit boring. You've seen one high-speed chase involving a dog in a sidecar, you've seen them all. Consider this: I watched Tin Tin less than a week ago but I am at a loss for words at this moment to recall what happened in this movie, and that's not a good sign. In fact sitting here, I am hard-pressed to remember a single scene or a bit of dialogue. I am not exaggerating. It's a bad omen when one of the most-accomplished directors of our time makes a movie, and the only thing that comes to mind is that it involved a little white dog, and I had to think hard to remember even that detail. It was animated with that weird motion-capture process that makes everyone look like a zombie.
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011)
Unfortunately, this was everything I dreaded from its trailer. It's a very slight Agatha Christie mystery that takes an inexplicably brutal amount of time getting started and lots and lots of jibber-jabber about how cold everyone feels. This material does not require three hours to tell. At best, there's a 90-minute story here. Daniel Craig is dependable, as always, and remains one of my favorite current actors, but I couldn't understand what purpose the girl with the dragon tattoo brought to the story except that the script required a hygenically-challenged uber-goth heroine to liven up the humdrum plotline. I know this film is part of a planned trilogy, and that it's a remake of a Swedish movie of the same title, but based on what I saw in this one, I have no interest in seeing future installments if the girl is going to be in them. I'm also kinda glad that I didn't bother with the Swedish versions. I have not disliked a character so much since Jar Jar Binks. I would have cut the girl from the script and focused entirely on Craig's investigation which, although not terribly exciting, still had more to offer than all those pointless rape-revenge scenes. In fact, I would have cut the entire first hour of the movie and started the film with Daniel Craig meeting Christopher Plummer's character at the mansion. I consider myself a good viewer, but try as hard as I could, I didn't swallow the explanation about the missing girl at the end of this movie. It renders everyone involved into fools. No joke: I kept pausing the movie to see how much time remained before it would end. For some bizarre reason, this reminded me of Gosford Park, another well-reviewed mystery beloved by the nursing home crowd that left me feeling underwhelmed.
MIRROR, MIRROR (2012)
I remember thinking this looked like harmless fluff when the trailer appeared in theatres earlier this year. Here's a comedic retelling of the Snow White story that so earnestly wants to be a modern-day The Princess Bride but the script isn't as wicked as it needs to be. Curiously, I thought Julia Roberts was miscast as the evil stepmother. She never quite stepped on the gas, if you know what I mean, and some of her line readings were downright wrong. Was there not a producer on-set with enough confidence to tell her that she was misreading her best lines? Ms. Roberts seemed wholly uncommitted to playing a villain, not to mention uncomfortable. Armie Hammer, on the other hand, was quite game to make fun of himself in the Prince Charming role. This kid could have a career as a comedic actor if he wants. I could see where the filmmakers were going with this material, but the overall effect was more akin to watching an expensive high school production of a Fractured Fairy Tale starring the local football team and cheerleading squad. Not quite a disaster, but it should have been much better considering the talent involved. The wonderful Mare Winningham was wasted in a thankless role.
NEW YEAR'S EVE (2011)
I usually avoid movies like this one for obvious reasons but, for my art, I decided to drink the grape Kool-Aid. As a result, I got severe indigestion but at least I didn't die. Have no doubt, this is a mushy all-star rice pudding injected with artificially-flavored lemon. I have no idea why good actors like Michelle Pfeiffer, Hilary Swank, Robert De Niro, and Hector Elizondo appear in silly feel-good movies like this one, except that the production must have been filming just down the street from their apartments and there was no traffic. There are entire scenes here that do not so much strain credulity as strangle it with bare hands. Watching this woeful tale about harried New Yorkers awaiting that big glittering ball to drop, I kept thinking how much more interesting the movie might be if director Gary Marshall simply added footage of a meteor about to slam into the Big Apple. The thought of Ryan Seacrest getting squashed by a chunk of radioactive debris from outer space was more entertaining than anything that happens in this film. Imagine one of those 70s disaster movies if you took away the disaster and simply left the boring backstories of the doomed characters. That's exactly what we have here. With a little bit of tinkering, this could be recut and re-distributed as Deep Impact 2. Let's face it, it couldn't be any worse.
To me, Oliver Stone hasn't been relevant for about the past two decades. The movies he's made since his early 90's heydays of JFK and Nixon have been mostly ignored. Based on his track record alone, I decided to give Savages a shot, no matter that the subject matter had as much appeal to me as last Thanksgiving's leftover pumpkin pie. Here's a disjointed but never-boring mess from Mr. Stone that was surprisingly better than I had anticipated considering that the main characters are pot dealers. As I've mentioned, I don't like movies about anti-heroes, but this one had some good scenes. I especially liked Selma Hayak's character as the villainess. I had a pleasant-enough time watching her and John Travolta, seasoned pros that they are, effortlessly stealing entire scenes from their younger, less experienced co-stars. Taylor Kitsch is an actor unknown to me, but if he keeps working in movies like this one, he may someday become a good supporting player. Too bad the ending of this movie is a gimmick that makes absolutely no sense in the context of this picture. Who's point of view are we supposed to be watching? God's? Still, kudos are in order whenever a movie about drug dealers doesn't make me regret watching it in the first place.
THE SITTER (2011)
I can now rejoice. With 363 days still left, I have discovered the worst film I will probably see in 2013. I can relax and focus on more important things in my life. I had never seen a Jonah Hill movie, and based on the material in this one, I never want to see another. His kind of humor is not for me. Before the movie started, I naturally assumed the picture would be a montage of crudely-drawn photos of Mr. Hill defectating on national monuments, accompanied by detailed maps of where to buy the cheapest cocaine in West Hollywood. I was not disappointed. I am so very, very sick of this type of foul-mouthed shock comedy. The nicest thing I can write about The Sitter is that at 81 minutes, it's mercifully short. And yes, I did watch the thing in its entirety. At some point, my mind shut down. I could no longer process the idiotic plot but simply stared at the screen, like a catatonic absorbing color patterns while searching for signs of intelligent life in the universe. If the f-word did not exist, the script for this movie would run 2 pages. If illegal drugs were non-existent, its plot would not advance so much as self-destruct. It is an 81-minute study of a child abuser who has been given a movie camera to film his transgressions. Compared to this vile mess, Ted belongs on the National Film Registry. Whereas Ted at least had the distraction of a talking teddy bear, this Jonah Hill vehicle has the potty words and vulgarities coming from the mouths of children. None of the characters, not even the kids, are likeable. It pangs me a great deal to report that this is a supposed update of 1987's Adventures in Babysitting. I believe that comedic material can be mined from almost any subject matter, even the taboo ones. I am not above a well-told stupid joke. But the material here is painfully not funny, it's offensive. Mr. Hill should be exiled from Hollywood. It makes me very, very sad to read on BoxOfficeMojo that this movie grossed $30 million at the domestic box office.
STRAW DOGS (2011)
I've never seen Sam Peckinpah's 1971 original, but I have read a lot of articles over the years about its importance. I dunno, but the whole argument about man's inhumanity against man is tiring enough to watch in The Walking Dead, much less a two hour examination starring James Marsden and Kate Bosworth. This stuff was controversial forty years ago alongside A Clockwork Orange and Deliverance, and I don't see the need for a remake of this material in 2012. Once again, the movie was pretty much what I expected, nothing more or less. I grew fidgety during the middle stretch involving religion and Friday night high school football games. I was grateful that director Rod Lurie commissioned an actual score for the film rather than rely on a bunch of same-sounding rap songs. Having been raised in West Texas, I can say that the film was pretty accurate in its depiction of small-town Southern life. I suppose it's fascinating if you're a stranger to this mentality, but seeing it depicted here tests the patience of those who've lived it. Having said that, this is a good movie. It's well-made, insightful, and has some teriffic performances. There are even a few scenes that I admired for their sheer beauty. It's a rare movie that has something to say, even if the story its telling is as familiar as a merry-go-round. It's doubtful I will ever watch this movie again, however, and I suppose it says something that I have no interest in visiting the original. But as a timekiller, I've seen a lot worse.
Of all the movies on this list, Ted was the one I had the least interest in watching. Its premise was off-putting to me. Unfortunately, my pre-assumed suspicions were correct. Vulgar and crass, I saw no reason for this alleged comedy to be R-rated, except the script believes that an F-bomb dropping teddy bear is hilarious. It is not. It is merely a hook on which to hang funny scenes, of which this movie had mercilessly few. I smiled from time to time, but never once laughed out loud. Is it just me? Since when has sarcasm become a substitute for wit? I had an uncomfortable time watching this picture. It's a prime example of everything I find offensive about the current cycle of Hollywood comedies. On the one hand, there was a sweetly sentimental children's story that mostly worked. Its message about best friends growing older and relying less on each other was lifted directly from (and more poignantly-handled in) 1980's The Fox and the Hound. On the other, there were scenes of such foul-mouthed crudeness that the kids from South Park would surely cringe in shame. There is a scene involving human feces that is so disgusting and so unnecessary that the movie never recovered for me. If ever a film screamed to be recut to a PG rating, this is the one. Ted is unnecessarily foul and unfunny. It should have never been made.
THIS MEANS WAR (2012)
The names of Michael Bay and McG are enough to send any true movie-lover into grand mal seizures. Here's a harmless True Lies wannabe that brings absolutely nothing original to the Walking-Calmly-Away-From-A-Fireball genre except that the three main stars photograph remarkably well. To be fair, this was nothing more or less than what I had expected after the opening credits. It's a loud and expensive Hollywood action flick without a brain in its admitedly pretty little head. It helps a great deal that Chris Pine, Reese Witherspoon, and Tom Hardy are such appealling actors. With a better script, the three of them could have made a film that was at least on par with the inspired goofiness of Mr. and Mrs. Smith. On some dumb fundamental level, I enjoy watching pretty people run from explosions, and McG has made something better than the dreadful Charlie's Angels 2: Full Throttle. Unlike The Adventures of Tin Tin, I can at least remember certain scenes from this movie, as illogical as they were, like that ending where Ms. Witherspoon stands in the direct path of an overturning, flaming SUV while trying to decide whether to jump to the left or the right. I'll admit that I only watched this movie because it starred Tom Hardy (See Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy below.)
TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011)
Despite some fantastic reviews and being based on a novel I admire, I skipped Tinker when it appeared in theatres last January. The story sounded impossibly dry and very British. And yet, here's a fascinating character study that rewards its audience for being intelligent. This may very well be my favorite movie of the past 12 months and the reason why I'm conducting this experiment in the first place. It should be near impossible to steal scenes from old pros like Gary Oldman, Toby Leonard, and Colin Firth, but a young British actor named Tom Hardy did just that in this movie. I actually leaned forward on my couch whenever he appeared on the screen. The plot of this movie was every bit as convoluted as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo but, unlike that overblown folly, this one never lost my interest. There are only two gunshots fired and not a high-speed chase anywhere in sight, but that makes no matter. Two hours of a bunch of old British actors sitting around talking about espionage and moles has never been so exciting. It amazes me that John Hurt has looked about 76 years old for his entire career.
A VERY HAROLD AND KUMAR 3D CHRISTMAS (2011)
In all honesty, my roommate picked this movie for me. Trust me when I write that sentence so you won't think a little less of me. Still, this movie blindsided me. It was everything that Ted and The Sitter wanted to be but weren't: funny, inspired, and naughty. I wasn't a fan of Harold and Kumar's previous adventures, and it stuns me a little to admit that I've seen them, but this one had scenes that made me laugh harder than anything I've seen this year. Honestly, my expectations were so low that they probably worked toward the film's advantage. This may very well be one of my favorite holiday movies since 1989's Christmas Vacation. Yes, there are scenes here of such vulgarity and low-browness that audiences should rightly be offended. Most of them involve a very-game Danny Trejo and a hilariously self-deprecating Neil Patrick Harris. But unlike Ted, this one doesn't set a children's story inside a whorehouse. It's that rare film that makes no apologies for enjoying itself at a strip club.