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The biggest surprise this year thus far
Take one part teen drama, add some horror, mix it up with a sniff of darker-than-black comedy and stir well. Serve warm with bloody guts on the side and you have Excision. I know that describing it that simplistic is a large detriment to this movie, because it is the biggest surprise in the horror genre this year thus far.
Excision stars AnnaLynne McCord, who some may know from the teen drama series 90210. I know, I was wary too when I found that out, but this movie proved to me that this girl has some serious acting chops. She plays the part of Pauline, a deranged teenager who is dreaming of becoming a surgeon, but is also dangerously socially awkward. Her demented nature combined with a fascination for blood and flesh is a blend that comes to a shocking climax that had me feeling physically ill. It has been a while since a horror movie did that. Pauline might be the most interesting character within the genre in years and has the potential to become the cult-equal to Carrie.
Pauline struggles with her identity at school, saying she is an outcast is the understatement of the year. Her appearance is as frightening as it is endearing. She has a bony frame, walks hunched over, with dark circles around her eyes and an acne-scarred face. McCord really sells the character. Her way of speaking and weird mannerisms further strengthen her personality. At the same time she is desperately trying to help her sick daughter, who is suffering from cystic fibrosis. At home she is dealing with an hyper-Christian mother, played by Traci Lords, and a sorry excuse for a father who seems to be the manifestation of apathy. I couldn't help to feel sorry for her, while also realising that she is a ticking time bomb of carnage, waiting to go off. This contrast is what really sells the character.
Pauline's reality is often interrupted by daydreaming scenes that give a whole new meaning to the word 'disturbed.' During these short flashes, Pauline reigns supreme as the queen of her carnal fantasies in which she indulges in bloody escapades in gory detail. These scenes go far. I wanted to turn my head away at some points (especially during a scene involving a stillborn foetus), but I couldn't stop watching. Bates' unrelenting style of directing had me hooked all the way through.
The movie ends with a shocker of a scene that rounds this movie off perfectly. After watching it I felt numb for a while, while it slowly dawned on me that I had watched something special, in ail its gruesome glory. McCord carries the film home, aided by strong co-acting by Lords. Not all the characters are as fleshed out as these two, but that hardly impacts the overall tone of the movie. This comes highly recommended for anyone who is looking for a spark of originality in a genre that often seems to break under its own clichés.
Django Unchained (2012)
Not Tarantino's worst, but definitely not his best
A movie by Quentin Tarantino is the polar opposite of a box of chocolates: for the most part, you know exactly what you're going to get. Fantastically written dialogues, larger-than-life characters, more obscure movie references than you can shake a stick at and intense violence that borders on the grotesque. These are some of the elements that characterise Tarantino's work. In this sense, Django Unchained is classic and true Tarantino, his style is unmistakably present. Largely for the better, but unfortunately, also for worse.
We meet the black slave Django (Jamie Foxx) who is set free by an enigmatic bounty hunter, named King Schultz. Schultz needs Django's help in order to bring a band of outlaws to justice and in return he pledges to help Django exact revenge on the slave traders who are responsible for Django's current state of being and free Django's wife, who they have imprisoned. The two form an odd couple, especially at the time of 1850's America, where African Americans dangle at the bottom of the social ladder and are mostly seen as inferior beings. The main storyline of Django Unchained is a classic tale of revenge, moulded to fit the Western times in which it takes place.
The acting is what stands out in this movie. Especially Christoph Waltz, who absolutely shines in the form of Dr. Schultz. His character is a proficient shooter, but preferably uses his wide vocabulary and unique use of wordplay to overcome (and baffle) his opponents in favor of shooting bullets. The stunning performance by Waltz is only matched (but rarely outdone) by Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays slave trader Calvin Candy, who is equally menacing as he is flamboyant. When these two are on screen, magic happens. Unfortunately for Foxx, that is also where it is apparent that he can't hold a candle to the aforementioned actors. He feels extremely uncomfortable in the role of Django, especially in the first half of the film.
I never found Foxx as Django to be entirely convincing and honestly, I couldn't care less about his motives to free his wife and get his revenge. His character was that bland to me. A far cry from the roaring rampage of revenge that is The Bride from the two Kill Bill movies. I also wasn't that impressed by Samuel L. Jackson as Candy's butler and right hand. It was refreshing to see him try out something new, but to me it felt like it was a Western-styled caricature of a foul- mouthed black man that Jackson has played once too many times in his career.
The first act of the movie is sheer, utter brilliance. Especially the scene in which Django and Schultz meet is an early highlight for me, followed later by an even better scene in which the velvet tongue of Schultz manages to escape certain death from a firing squad by an angry mob turns the tables in the process. This ride of cinematic splendor continues until Django manages to kill the slave traders they were after in the first place. After that, It felt to me that the movie loses every sense of direction. The next hour and a half is a collage of scenes that lack any form of cohesion and seem haphazardly strung together, just for the sake of including them in the movie.
That is not to say that the scenes near the end are all bad. In fact, often the opposite is true. I fondly remember a scene in which a band of thugs discuss their garments, or better said, the lack of functionality thereof. This scene had me laughing all the way through. It is a well-known fact that Tarantino mainly makes movies for himself and he doesn't care what other people think about them. For the sake of the viewers of his work, it is clear that he is in dire need of an editor that knows when to reel him in and decides which scenes are essential to the plot. Django Unchained is about 45 minutes too long. The film should have ended with a shoot-out that seemingly is a fitting finale, but after that, the movie just drags on for the sake of doing so, it seems.
Django Unchained is not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, I enjoyed my time watching this. I also think it is not the classic in making that many point it out to be. I doubt Tarantino takes advice from anyone, but if in some parallel universe I could give him a hint, I would tell him to re-evaluate his manner of filmmaking, before he becomes a parody of his own success.
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Deserves all the praise in the world
Rarely have I felt this good after watching a film. Silver Linings Playbook is a meticulously crafted piece of cinema that celebrates life, love and trying to find your place in the world, with all the struggles and imperfections that come along the way. The narrative is dead simple: Pat (Bradley Cooper) is trying to get his life back on track after he has been in a mental institution for 8 months. He has been sent there after he caught his wife cheating on him and assaulted the man she was sleeping with. Pat has finally returned home and has set his sight on becoming a better person and winning his ex back. All goes according to his plan, but then Tiffany comes into his life, a troubled young girl who has issues of her own. Pat soon discovers that Tiffany play an important role in his quest to find his love again.
What makes this movie so special is its cast. Everyone is phenomenal, no exceptions. Jennifer Lawrence gives the performance of a lifetime in the role of Tiffany. I was already impressed with her acting after seeing Winter's Bone in 2010, but her acting in Silver Linings Playbook solidifies her as the promise of a new generation. It has been a while since I have been this impressed by an actress in a leading role. She inhabits the character of Tiffany and makes it her own. She is a delight to look at, but her talents as an actress even outdo physical appearance. Tiffany is brutally honest, outspoken and rarely takes no for an answer. She struggles with the fact that she's bipolar and she recognises her shortcomings in Pat, who is dealing with the same mental disability. The chemistry between Pat and Tiffany is what makes this movie so great. They are not easy to identify with, but I couldn't help rooting for them from the very beginning.
Bradley Cooper is equally amazing. I must admit that I wasn't fully aware of his acting potential before this film. I always liked him, but now he's an actor that I will watch a film for. He shines in this role. The chemistry between Pat and Tiffany takes center stage, but the stellar performances by Jacki Weaver and -especially- Robert De Niro deserve credit as Pat's parents who are trying their best to take care of their son while dealing with their own issues. It's great to see De Niro perform again as the great actor that he is, it has been a while. I found his obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles and the OCD little rituals that he has come up with to be a highlight of the film.
Silver Linings Playbook is far greater than the sum of its parts. A large part of this is thanks to the superb directing by David O. Russell. He gives all the characters enough room to develop. This film is also brilliantly written, with sharp and oftentimes funny dialogue with a sense of humour that feels a little out of place at moments, but is heartfelt and genuine at the same time. Everything just works here. The lighting, the cinematography, the music, everything falls into its right place. The editing deserves another separate compliment. Silver Linings Playbook is fantastically shot, but even better put together. Longer shots trade place with fast snapshots that gives this movie a very unique sense pacing. This movie just flows. Nothing is superfluous, everything scene matters here.
It's hard for me to express how much I love this film. No movie is perfect in my view, but Silver Linings Playbook comes very, very close. Above all, this movie sends a very clear and positive message: at the end of the day she are all a bunch of nutjobs who are doing their best to make the absolute best for themselves in this life. This film reminded me once again why I love watching movies in the first place and I can see myself watching this movie time and time again and never get bored of it.
Paranormal Activity 4 (2012)
Awful, definitely the weakest link in the franchise.
I like part 3 and I though the series was back on track after the weak second installment. Guess I was wrong. It's hard to find any redeeming qualities about this film. The story is weak (if you can speak of a story at all), the main characters are annoying from the very first scene on and this movie has no really scary scenes. It mostly relies on tropes that are now trademarks of the series (things moving suspiciously in the house, loud noises, people being dragged by an unknown force) and plays it completely safe. The Xbox Kinect gimmick is interesting at first, but it is so overused during the film that it quickly becomes a marketing pull that hinges on the borderline offensive.
A waste of your time. I think I'm officially done with found footage films for a while.
Peter Jackson has done it again!
I personally think the Lord of the Rings trilogy is the epitome of film-making of the last 10 years. For three consecutive years, I turned myself in a rabid fanboy of everything LOTR, source literature included. I was delighted to find out that Peter Jackson had taken it upon himself to turn the prequel of LOTR, The Hobbit, into a new trilogy. I was a bit sceptical at first, but I have to say, Jackson has done it again. The Hobbit is a marvellous fantasy movie of epic proportions that could only have been made by Jackson and the likes.
In short, I thought The Hobbit was absolutely spectacular. Every single frame, every location and every character has been brought to life with such imagination and love for the source material. The movie looks fantastic from beginning to end. I saw it in HFR 3D and although I found the viewing experience a bit jarring at first, it grew on me very quickly and I was completely accustomed to it after an hour. Everything is smooth and the HFR effect is definitely noticeable during action scenes with a lot of panning movement from the camera. Sometimes I even forgot I was looking at a movie. The 3D was also implemented very well. Subtle at times, but engrossing when it needed to be. Viewing The Hobbit is a mesmerising experience and I was entranced all the way through. The Hobbit definitely feels different from LOTR. The focus of the story is on the 13 dwarfs, Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf who set out on a quest to reclaim a treasure that was taken from the Dwarfs by the dragon Smaug, who destroyed their hometown in the process. It is a different scale from that of LOTR, in which entire Middle Earth was at war with Sauron and the fate of every race depended on the outcome of Frodo's journey. However, The Hobbit doesn't feel any less epic. Jackson took some liberty with the source material and added characters that are only present in other Tolkien stories, or he added scenes himself completely. The story takes a lot of time to get going, but I felt that every scene needed to be in the movie and some minor pacing issues aside, the story in The Hobbit is a fantastic ride from start to finish. Seeing some characters reprise their roles from LOTR felt like welcoming an old friend.
Another compliment flies out to Howard Shore, who once again outdid himself with the composition of the soundtrack. It was nice to hear some themes make a welcome return and the new main theme is nothing short of epic and bombastic and it returned a lot of times during the movie, be it in a lot of different renditions. I found the soundtrack to be a bit less memorable than the one in LOTR, but I loved it nonetheless. It even makes for some nice listening outside of the movie. The soundtrack should be an instant buy for anyone who enjoyed the music of Shore in the LOTR films.
All in all I find it hard to fault The Hobbit in any way, shape or form. If I had to name one negative remark about the movie it would have to be that I think that the fellowship of Dwarfs could have been fleshed out better. We only really get to know Thorin Oakenshield. It is even hard to remember the names of the other 12 dwarfs, they are mostly just along for the ride. I massively enjoyed myself during the entire duration of the movie. I felt something I hadn't felt since The Retun of the King in 2003 - a sense of utter bewilderment, amazed by the things that are shown to you on screen. A feeling of adventure that marks the years of our youth. The Hobbit is an accomplishment of rare proportions and I will be there next year for The Desolation of Smaug and the year after that for There and Back Again. I absolutely can't wait.
Taken 2 (2012)
The most redundant film in years
I really enjoyed the original Taken. I thought it was a dark, gritty revenge flick with a decent plot and a great role by Liam Neeson. In fact, it felt like the movie was written for him, the character of Bryan Mills fit him like a glove. In a former life a successful spy with very specific skill set that made him a killing machine. He swore off that life to become a loving father to his estranged daughter, but he is forced to pick up his weapons one more time when his daughter is taken by East-European criminals who sell girls to brothels. The film ended on a high note and has some rememberable action scenes. The sequel however, is probably the most redundant film of the last years.
In Taken 2, the family of the gangsters from the first film are out for blood and kidnap Mills, along with his ex-wife Lennie (Famke Janssen) and daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) while they are on their vacation in Istanbul. Mills and his daughter manage to escape and focus their efforts on freeing Lennie. The plot is essentially the same as the first film. It feels like Luc Besson was forced to write a script that could be turned into a sequel machine, while being held at gunpoint by the movie studio. Taken 2 has practically no memorable scenes, like the famous telephone monologue in the first film. The movie is even funny at times (probably unintentionally so), especially when grenades are being thrown around like candy in the center of Istanbul, because that's clearly the best way to find out where someone is located.
The film also feels dumbed-down when compared to the original. Some of the scenes in the original Taken were gruesome and shocking, but the violence in the sequel is clearly lessened in order to appeal to a wider audience. The villains never feel like a real threat. Mills always manages to place his shots perfectly, while the bad guys mainly seem occupied with filling walls and cars with their bullets. In some way, Taken 2 hurts the hero's character, because the villains feel so incompetent that it makes the viewer doubt Mill's actual abilities. While the action is often pleasing to watch, you never feel like Mills stands against a real threat.
Taken 2 feels like a re-hash of the last film and it nowhere manages to trump its predecessor. The action is decently shot, but often very blandly directed. The ferocity that characterized Neeson in the first film is nowhere to be found in Taken 2. In fact, it just feels like he's along for the ride the entire time, waiting for the shooting to stop and collect his pay check. Director Olivier Megaton (insert funny remark about his last name here) is clearly banking on the success of the previous film and plays it safe all the way through. Taken 2 has decent action scenes and doesn't outstay its welcome, but it never manages to even level with the first film. The movie feels like a simple cash grab by the studio. Recommended for anyone who's is looking for a somewhat acceptable action movie to watch with friends, where little to no brain activity is required.
Red Lights (2012)
Interesting start, horrible ending
Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and her protégé Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) are two scientists who have made their work out of debunking people who call themselves paranormally gifted. They believe there is a scientific explanation for everything and try their best to essentially prove that all psychics are frauds. However, they meet their match in the form of a legendary psychic, Simon Silver (Robert DeNiro). Buckley and Matheson start a witch hunt to uncover Silver, who in turns tries his best to convince the world of his psychic powers. The premise of Red Lights is interesting, to say the least.
The story starts believable and unravels in a steady pace in the first hour of the film. There is also no shortage of tension. Effective use of lighting and clever cinematography help to create an eerie atmosphere that is present during the entire film. Director Rodrigo Cortés knows how to build suspense and character. He proved this in his earlier film Buried (2010), which revolved around a single man in a coffin who was buried alive.
However, the characters and tension all go to waste after the first half of the film, when a sudden and blunt plot twist breaks the neck of the entire film. The potential of great actors DeNiro and Weaver is completely wasted when an awful script and shoddy directing leave no room for character growth. The rest of the film lies on Murphy's shoulders, a burden much too heavy for him to bear and while his character is interesting up until the last five minutes of the film, he also falls prey to the desire of Cortés to create a second The Sixth Sense. The final part of the film features a 'great reveal' which is undoubtedly meant as a shocker to the public, but instead it falls completely flat and it even feels like a spit in the face of the viewer. It is an ending so out of left field that it sours the experience of the entire film.
Red Lights is not necessarily bad, the first half is decent with great suspense and interesting characters, but it completely fails when the director tries much to hard to shock its audience with absurd plot twists and an ending that essentially mocks the entire story itself. Sure, the films has a few impressive moments, like the opening scene and some of Silver's antics on stage, but truly unnerving moments are nowhere to be found. What's left is a film with a complete lack of sense of direction, with no respect for the potentially fantastic cast.