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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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