31 December 2012

End of 2012 Round-Up

While the 2012 catch-up has been going well, I haven't had time to see absolutely everything, and give it the usual review treatment. Before we get into all of that end of the year review stuff, with 2013 just around the corner, I thought I'd do a post with a number of short reviews of films that I haven't covered yet, including Cosmopolis, DetentionJack Reacher, Safety Not Guaranteed and Sound Of My Voice.

I know that by this point of the year, I should probably be ready with a list of the best and worst of the year, but you can always come back tomorrow for that. Minor spoiler- none of these films are on either of those lists, so here goes with reviewing them...

Of all of the 2012 films that were principally set in a limousine, going on surreal detours through a city over the course of one day, Cosmopolis was definitely the one that didn't have Leos Carax's name before the title. But David Cronenberg's film, about a young billionaire's odyssey for a haircut in the midst of social upheaval and personal ruin, was even more divisive than Holy Motors, and it's not hard to see why.

Our protagonist, Eric Packer, played by Robert Pattinson, has a medical check-up every day, despite being young and fighting fit. This hypochondriac tendency also involves a prostate exam, which is particularly apt for a film that seems to be giving itself a prostate exam, and bringing its head precariously close to its own arse. What makes it watchable is that it somehow maintains that balance, of existentially staring into the abyss of its own bottom, without tipping over into tedium or nauseous self-reflection.

The highlight is indubitably Matthieu Amalric's cameo- if only his villain in Quantum of Solace had been so ingenious- but there's still other stuff to engage with, amongst the philosophy and hedonism that Cronenberg indulges in the character of Packer. Pattinson is actually better than you've ever seen him here, and seems to be headed in the right direction- although this isn't a classic, he's bound to strike gold soon if he keeps picking unorthodox roles like these. Cosmopolis is no Holy Motors, but then really, what is?

Cosmopolis is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Joseph Kahn's Detention is just as odd, but a hell of a lot more enjoyable on the whole. While The Cabin in the Woods took precise shots at the state of the modern horror genre, Kahn goes after slasher horror, high school movies, science fiction and time travel movies all at once, and comes shockingly close to nailing all four at once. It takes real skill to take something as meticulous as this turns out, and scramble it to where the first half hour is utterly anarchic and nonsensical, right before everything escalates even further, and have it remain intact by the time the credits roll.

Denied a release until star Josh Hutcherson's success in The Hunger Games granted it a limited release in the US, and a straight-to-DVD release in the UK, the film has lashings of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and two school-based TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Community- and when have the big studios ever known what to do with those? Kahn's film isn't as consistently on form as either of those, but there are a lot of laughs in this quickfire comedy- the nearest thing I can compare it to, in terms of scale and delivery, is those Friedberg and Seltzer movies, like Epic Movie, et al, except it actually works, and it's actually funny.

It's not going to trouble The Cabin in the Woods on anyone's best of the year lists, but Kahn also has something to say about his targets, and he's said it in the strangest, most engaging way that he can think of, regardless of commercial appeal. Detention is also quite a bit smarter than the hipsterism it derides, which is always a plus, and not even the presence of Dane Cook, the antithesis of all things funny, can bring down a film with a wickedly funny and complex script, and a cast of bright young things, which is worth seeking out.

Detention is now available on DVD.

Lee Child's Jack Reacher is a blond, 6'5 superman on the page, which has somehow manifested itself on screen as another enjoyable expression of Tom Cruise's epic short man syndrome. Jack Reacher is specifically based on Child's novel One Shot, in which an old enemy of the titular investigator asks for his help after being accused of killing five people in a terrible public shooting, and Reacher soon discovers that all is not what it seems.

Without having read the books, it seems to me that Cruise exudes the confidence required by the character. Neither Chris Hemsworth or Alexander Skarsgard, the closest physical matches to Reacher as described, can trump him for pure charisma, and he clearly relishes the opportunity to act, as well as just doing all of his own stunts. Christopher McQuarrie pulls triple duties as writer, director and editor, and succeeds in all three with his typical panache. He finds better uses for the character, and for the source material, than to simply have Cruise threaten people as he does in the trailer. That said, Cruise gets one of his best ever lines of dialogue in a scene just like that.

A strong supporting cast includes Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins and David Oyelowo, with surprising and engaging turns from Robert Duvall, and Werner Herzog as the film's villain. Herzog's character is, in essence, a Bond villain, and McQuarrie clearly know that well enough to use him sparingly, with the greatest effect, while henchman Jai Courtney gets more screentime. Jack Reacher is an often intense, sometimes funny action thriller with an engaging mystery, that should well and truly put Tom Cruise back on the map as a leading man- in a year when the Bourne series seriously disappointed, this series might be ready to take its place.

Jack Reacher is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

Safety Not Guaranteed has been winning a lot of hearts and minds, with its mumbly production value and its sweet script, but for one reason or another, I haven't been as bowled over as everyone else. Based on a real classified ad in an American magazine, a journalist gets his editor to pay for a trip back to his hometown, under the pretext of investigating a bizarre request for a time-travelling companion. He takes two interns, Darius and Arnau along with him, and basically makes them do all the work. But the work leads Darius to Kenneth, the charismatic loner who placed the ad, and a bigger story than she could've imagined.

There are shades of Doctor Who to the premise, and in general, there's a lot to like in this one. The burgeoning friendship between Darius and Kenneth, beautifully played by Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass, is hugely endearing, but I also loved the way that the journalist character, Jake Johnson's Jeff, played out. Jeff's trying to time travel his own way, by chasing after his high school crush. Perhaps the main problem with Safety Not Guaranteed is that I was more engaged in this storyline, than in the main one, in which the possibility of actual time travel looms large.

There are a few neat twists along the way, particularly towards the end, and the ambiguity that seems prized by modern low-budget movies doesn't go unresolved, which makes a nice change. The mystery of Kenneth's character is preserved long enough to be enjoyable, but by the time it gets to the end, which serves as a nice exhibition of director Colin Trevorrow's affection for 1980s blockbuster cinema, I didn't feel as engaged as I was earlier on. Safety Not Guaranteed is a good film, certainly, but I was unable to fall in love with it as so many others have.

Safety Not Guaranteed is now playing in selected cinemas nationwide, and will be released on DVD and Blu-ray in 2013.

Having mentioned ambiguity and time travel, Sound Of My Voice leans very heavily on uncertainty. Peter and Lorna are a filmmaking couple who attempt to infiltrate and expose a cult centred around Maggie, a woman who claims she has come back to the present from the year 2054. Peter is ardently opposed to the cult mentality at the outset, but Lorna can only watch as he is gradually pulled in by Maggie's personality. While I'm about to say some stuff that could also be true of Another Earth, a film I liked a lot more than this latest effort from Brit Marling, there are big holes in this one.

It's been an unfortunate tendency for films of this kind to go out with unqualified ambiguity, not so much leaving a film open for interpretation as simply providing reasonable doubt of one perception and then cutting to the credits. Sound Of My Voice is 85 minutes long, and it's difficult to shake the feeling that there wasn't enough in here to sustain a feature. It feels unfinished, which is a shame, because it has an intriguing premise and a couple of great performances from Marling, who also co-wrote the script, as Maggie, and Christopher Denham as Peter.

Marling and co-writer/director Zal Batmanglij said in an interview that the story could continue, but only sounded as certain as to say "we'd love to continue it as a trilogy, or on TV or whatever it is." That would explain the open ending to this one, but when that continuation may never come, Sound Of My Voice makes for frustrating and beguiling viewing.

Sound Of My Voice is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

There's still plenty of films I wanted to see and didn't get around to- Berberian Sound Studio, The Imposter, Amour, Your Sister's Sister, Trouble With The Curve- and perhaps these will be reviewed in the New Year. However, if you're not too hungover tomorrow, you can read about the best and worst of what I did see then.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and between now and the end of the year, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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