Weekly Mini-reviews: “12 Years a Slave,” “Captain Phillips,” “Only God Forgives” & More

November 3-10, 2013

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12 Years a Slave | Steve McQueen | 2013 | ★★★

With 12 Years a Slave tried something with the topic of slaver that almost no film on the topic has ever tried: to show how brutal it really was. This gives the film some memorable harrowing moments. However, it lacks something that Schindler’s List, a film this has been compared to many times before, had in spades: emotion. I imagine that the real Solomon Northup went through all sorts of emotions in his head or in private, but McQueen apparently had no time for this, and he only focused on how he acted in front of everyone else- as someone simply going through the motions, thereby making him a rather bland character. With that said, there are moments where emotion is finally allowed to come up to the surface, and these are moments where the film touches true greatness. There also moments where McQueen taps into the artfulness of his previous work that are aesthetically beautiful and haunting. However, these great moments don’t come to often in the entire running time. Add to that Hans Zimmer’s overbearing score and some distracting celebrity casting (Brad Pitt and Paul Giamatti distract, while Paul Dano kills any momentum the movie had) and what we are left with is a merely good film based on a tragedy that should have made for a better film.

While it didn’t do much for me, I’m still glad others are loving it and it’s making people have important conversations on the topic that are very much relevant today, and for that, I respect the work put into this a lot.

After Earth | M. Night Shyamalan | 2013 |★★★

I, like many, was not looking forward to After Earth because of M. Night Shyamalan’s involvement. I stuck to him all the way through The Happening, but then The Last Airbender Happened. And then the critical reaction to this film didn’t help me give it the benefit of the doubt. But as it tends to happen, I sit down to watch something just to say that I did, and I ended up enjoying it a lot. In fact, it’s Shyamalan who makes it as good as it is. He takes a clunky script and makes it work as a visually ambitious action film set around a father-son relationship. Sure, the performances are merely serviceable (not nearly as bad as some would have you believe), but everything else, from the costumes and the production to the visual effects and score, is in fine form. It’s not great, but it’s certainly better than one critic-approved box office hit: Iron Man 3. Plus, I’m okay with any film that gives Sophie Okonedo work.

Alien: Resurrection | Jean-Pierre Jeunet | 1997 | ★★½

In a way I can sympathize with the people who abhor Alien: Resurrection since it does shit pretty badly on the mythology Alien, Aliens, and even Alien 3 built. But you know, I didn’t think it was bad. Sure, it’s not particularly good, but there’s something oddly appealing about story, particularly the crazy twist and turns that Joss Whedon came up with for the third act. And since I was really only aware of the existence of this film and had never watched one second of it or read about it, I’m still pretty amazed by how unexpected that twist in the third act was. And on a film making level it’s very much a Jeunet film and I have no problem with that. Yeah, this film really doesn’t deserve it’s reputation.

Bridget Jones’s Diary | Sharon Maguire | 2001 | ★★½

Despite only watching it a few days ago, I honestly don’t remember much about Bridget Jones’s Diary. I remember Renee Zellweger wearing skimpy outfits and flirting with Hugh Grant, and then loathing Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy, who has a bad history with Grant’s character (oh, hey, it’s Pride & Prejudice all over again!). There was also some terrible editing toward the beginning. But I had fun. But all throughout i kept wondering why Zelwegger ever did those things she did to her face.

Captain Phillips | Paul Greengrass | 2013 | ★★★½

Captain Phillips is for most of the running time an excellent, perfectly constructed thriller, the exact type that Paul Greengrass , with the exception of Green Zone, tends to make. While it no doubt takes some creative licence with it’s story, it’s very much a film with it’s feet on the ground that doesn’t want to become yet another “America fuck yeah!” political thriller like, say, Argo. But then the last 10 minutes happen, and that stretch is so amazing that it immediately cements it’s place as one of the films the year will be remembered for, and it features the best acting Tom Hanks has ever done.

Only God Forgives | Nicolas Winding Refn | 2013 | ★★

I loved Drive as much as everyone else, but Only God Forgives, the new Nicolas Winding Refn/Ryan Gosling collaboration did not work for me. It’s obviously the film they wanted to make, but there was absolutely nothing I could hang on to besides the gorgeous, neon-lit cinematography, Cliff Martinez’s score, and Kristin Scott Thomas and Vithaya Pansringarm’s work. The plot could have made for a nice film, but like I said, this is obviously the movie Refn and company wanted it to be, and I just couldn’t connect to it. Not a bad film, per say, but it just didn’t work for me.

Prayers for Bobby | Russell Mulcahy | 2009 |  ★★½

Prayers for Bobby is the first Lifetime movie I’ve ever seen, and it most certainly lived up to the moniker with it’s awful film making and careless production (with the exception of some title cards and a mention of the breakout of AIDS, you’d never know this takes place in the 1980s). Even so, I can’t say this was a wast of time as there were a couple of things that elevated it to a level that it didn’t deserve to be. The first is the ever-relevant story of a young gay man’s life shortly after he came out to his family and what happened to his mom after he jumps off a bridge due to her rejection. The second is Sigourney Weaver’s performance. She handles the transition from religious bigot to a person questioning her faith perfectly, and she recites her awful dialogue with such conviction that you can’t help but be drawn to the film. Keep this cast and give this story a proper script and a proper director (Russel Mulcahy should just stick to Teen Wolf episodes) and this could have been a nice Oscar-bait film. They way it is though, it’s fine for what it is.

The To Do List | Maggie Carey | 2013 | ★★★½

After it was over, I went to Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic to read what critics thought The To Do List, and just as I expected, the generally mixed reaction to it comes from one thing: the lack of originality in the plot. Now, I like plot a lot, but in the end, the lack of originality should not entirely be the reason to dismiss the film. One has to evaluate it on its own merits, and on that regard, this film feels like a fresh take on the “summer that changed my life” tropes. Sure, it’s very much a sex comedy, but did everyone miss it’s refreshing take on the need to be in love to have meaningful sex? Or how about how fun it is to see the sexual politics reversed and how none of the characters found her quest to become sexually experienced shamed her for it in a big way? Anyways, I loved it. I loved the deadpan film making, the committed work from all the actors (especially Aubrey Plaza and Connie Britton, who steals every scene she’s in), and  a fantastic feel for its time and setting.  My only complain is that there are way too many “hey, weren’t the 90s silly” moments, but they don’t really matter in the end.

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