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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Wes's Worst Films of 2012

It comes to that time of year to look back upon the best and worst films of 2012, a highly subjective list that varies considerably from critic to critic. Here is my list and a few comments, most of them will come as no surprise that Eddie Murphy, Tyler Perry and Adam Sandler, among others, would make the list, but in this case, they're all very deserving. The list is in no particular order.

Madea's Witness Protection, Alex Cross
Tyler Perry makes the list twice this year in two different forms, as his Madea character and as police detective Alex Cross, first made famous by Morgan Freeman. He's not Morgan Freeman, and Madea, still a hit with audiences, is still not that funny.

A Thousand Words 
Eddie Murphy makes the list again, in a comedy that sat on the shelf for several years, where it should've stayed. Didn't take a thousand words to understand how bad this was.

That's My Boy
True, this profane Adam Sandler comedy wasn't as bad as "Jack and Jill," which isn't saying much but it was still pretty awful, and its awful box-office perhaps signaled that audiences are growing wearing of this crap. A word of warning for 2013: "Grown Ups 2."

One for the Money
You have to go all the way back to January 2012 for this dog, a lame Katherine Heigl comedy that left theaters pretty quickly. Heigl proves that she's still among the most annoying of actresses, and should've never left "Grey's Anatomy."

John Carter, Battleship
If you're name was Taylor Kitsch in 2012, then you were associated with two of the biggest flops of the year. First came "John Carter," based on an Edgar Rice Burroughs story, who must've rolled over in his grave several times after this. Next up was "Battleship," which proves that movies based on board games are rarely a good idea. While both films tanked in the U.S., they made decent money overseas, but not enough to still be considered huge flops.

Project X 
This cheap, lame teen party comedy was an early spring $100 million hit but was so incredibly loathsome it put a bad name for lost footage films, which became the rage in 2012.

This Robert Pattinson movie, directed by David Cronenberg, was slow, boring, borderline incomprehensible and unwatchable. And that's being nice.

Paranormal Activity 4 
The most unnecessary, money-grabbing horror sequel since "Saw" ended its run. Please put this out our misery. No more.


Wes's Best Films of 2012

It comes to that time of year to look back upon the best and worst films of 2012, a highly subjective list that varies considerably from critic to critic. Here is my list and brief comments for each. At the time I made my list, there were a few films I hadn't yet seen, including "Zero Dark Thirty," "The Impossible" and "Amour," any of which could make this list. After I see those films in January, this list will likely change, so here it is, for now. This is in no particular order.

Steven Spielberg's film about the final months of Abraham Lincoln's life was a showcase for some of the year's best performances, including Daniel Day-Lewis, amazing in the title role, Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field, all of whom will receive loads of accolades for their strong turns. A slightly overlong, talky political film, it's a must-see for history buffs.

Silver Linings Playbook
The romantic dramedy of the year, with amazing turns from Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert DeNiro, among others, about two flawed individuals who discover they're perfect for each other. Personally, my favorite film of the year.

Life of Pi
Based on the novel of the same name, this story is much more about just a boy and his adventure with a tiger, but a spiritual very personal discovery of self-worth and value. Director Ang Lee makes near-perfect use of 3D in one of the most handsomely filmed movies of the year.

Les Miserables
The big-screen adaptation of the beloved musical isn't perfect (Russell Crowe I'm talking to you), but it's a deeply satisfying, enthralling and often beautiful take on Victor Hugo's story. A must-see for fans of the musical, who will also fall in love with this version and yes, Anne Hathaway is a shoo-in for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

Though Daniel Day-Lewis is amazing as Abraham Lincoln, I feel that Denzel Washington's tour-de-force turn as an alcoholic pilot in Robert Zemeckis' dark tale is not only the year's most searing, it's among Washington's career-best.

James Bond was back for the first time in several years in one of the best Bond films ever, an action-packed one that also delves into Bond's backstory. Daniel Craig proves he's still a great choice as Bond, particularly in the stunning opening action sequence, and Javier Bardem is one of the creepiest Bond villains ever.

The Sessions
This charming yet unsentimental indie film based on the true story of Mark O'Brien, who enlisted the help of a sex therapist to help him lose his virginity. As O'Brien, John Hawkes is endearing and engaging, while the most memorable turn goes to Helen Hunt, in an emotionally and physically baring performance.

Ben Affleck's third outing as director and a fact-based drama set during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 was thrilling, engaging and has one of the year's most heart-stopping finales. Continues to demonstrate that Affleck is a much better director than he is an actor.

Zero Dark Thirty
The year's most powerful, intense drama again comes from "The Hurt Locker's" Kathryn Bigelow. Focusing on the decade-long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, it's mesmerizing and superbly acted by Jessica Chastain, a front-runner for the Best Actress Oscar. The final 20 minutes are among the most breathtakingly intense seen this year.

Beasts of the Southern Wild
This original, depressing but powerful indie film features an astonishingly natural, assured breakout performance from 6-year old newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis.

Honorable Mentions:
The Dark Knight Rises, Looper, Bully, The Avengers, Wreck It Ralph, Django Unchained, Pitch Perfect, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, The Intouchables, Cabin in the Woods, The Perks of Being a Wildflower, Jiro Dreams of Sushi and The Master.


Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Parental Guidance - C

Rated PG, 105 minutes

Crystal, Midler go through the motions in maudlin "Parental Guidance"

Billy Crystal and Bette Midler
What do you do when you star in a movie with an Oscar-winner and a multi-talented Grammy winner? Give yourself all the best lines and scenes, of course, which is what veteran comedian and perennial Oscar host Billy Crystal does in the mildly enjoyable yet forgettable family comedy "Parental Guidance," which turns very sentimental in its final act. Old school grandfather baseball announcer Artie (Crystal), who's accustomed to calling the shots, meets his match when he and his eager-to-please wife Diane (Grammy-winner Bette Midler) agree to babysit their three grandkids when their type-A helicopter parents (Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei, Tom Everett Scott) go away for work. Crystal and Midler are good for a few laughs, but this episodic, maudlin and very thin comedy could've easily played as a cable TV movie, with a weak script, direction and cookie-cutter characters. Crystal, who also produced the film, can throw out one-liners with the best of them, though it's seems like a typical Crystal schticky stand-up routine. "Parental Guidance," directed by Andy Fickman, has a setup that is too easy, too predictable and sheds too many tears in its finale; still Crystal and Midler have decent chemistry as the parents who don't want to become "the other grandparents." Tomei, adept at both comedy and drama, is clearly secondary to the leads here in a take-the-money-and-run type of performance. "Parental Guidance," for what it's worth, is good, clean family fun with a few good lines but otherwise a forgettable comedy film.

Wes's Grade: C

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Les Miserables - B+

Rated PG-13, 160 minutes

Beautiful, epic "Les Miserables" hits all the right notes

Anne Hathaway
The big question the epic musical "Les Miserables" sets to answer is not just about love and war but "do you hear the people sing?" Yes, yes and yes would be the answer to Tom Hooper's ("The King's Speech") enthralling, entertaining and often beautiful film. Some of it lacks intimacy and not all of it works perfectly, but fans of the musical will be pleased. Set against the backdrop of the 19th-century French Revolution, "Les Misérables" story is a familiar especially to those who know Victor Hugo's epic novel or the award-winning Broadway musical. Hugh Jackman is ex-prisoner Jean Valjean, hunted for decades by the ruthless policeman Javert (Russell Crowe) after he breaks parole. When Valjean agrees to care for factory worker Fantine's (Anne Hathaway) young daughter, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), their lives change forever. "Les Miserables" is a grand and grandly entertaining musical that's set to garner many accolades, including one for Hathaway's stunning, emotional (and very supporting, she's only in the film's first act) turn as Fantine. Her delivery of "I Dreamed a Dream" will please fans of the musical and may put memories of Susan Boyle out your head. Jackman's strong turn as Valjean is one of the film's highlights, though the real question may be: can Russell Crowe sing? Yes and no. Yes, he has a serviceably thin voice that's the weakest of the leads and while passable, is the film's biggest flaw. Relative unknowns Eddie Redmayne and Suzanne Barks are also memorable as Marius and Eponine, respectively, with Barks delivering a nice version of the classic "On My Own." Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter prance around nicely as the comic relief, the Thenadier's, providing some laughs from the film's general downbeat undertone. The sets are exquisite and the music, sung by the actors on set, adds realism and a certain exuberancy not found with other musicals; the barricade, which has so much power onstage, seems smallish here until the final scene. On the downside, there's so much grandeur to "Les Miserables," well-handled by Hooper, that some of the intimacy is lost and it comes across as a little distant. Hooper does make one significant change from the musical in that there is minimal spoken dialogue, which sometimes works in the film's favor. Overall, "Les Miserables" is an entertaining, handsome and award-worthy effort that fans of the musical should see.

Wes's Grade: B+

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Django Unchained - B

Rated R, 165 minutes

Tarantino's violent "Django Unchained" casts a hypnotic, retro vibe

Jamie Foxx
The vastly entertaining new drama "Django Unchained" is part spaghetti western, part Civil War and all of it unmistakably bears Quentin Tarantino's violent sometimes heavy hand. Overlong, over-the-top yet completely watchable, "Django Unchained," inspired by the 1967 spaghetti western "Django" starring Franco Nero (who cameos here), it's graphically violent but so mesmerizing you won't be looking away. Set in the deep south two years before the Civil War, slave Django (Jamie Foxx) finds himself paired with German bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who is after the murderous Brittle brothers. Django himself has a purpose in helping Schultz, to find his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), whom he has been separated from. They discover she's at the infamous Candyland Plantation, run by the brutal Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), overseen by Candie's right-hand man and servant George (Samuel L. Jackson), and the two must risk their lives to rescue her. Directed and written by Tarantino, the film is a hypnotic, blatantly violent and enjoyable tribute to spaghetti westerns with some retro 1970's blaxploitation thrown in for good measure; it's "Mandingo" or "Roots" as seen through the eyes of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood. It's too long, too talky and often heavy handed with a saggy second act that picks up to the considerably bloody over-the-top but fun finale that's well executed by Tarantino. Oscar-winners Waltz and Foxx ground the film well, a serviceable, unconventional pairing that works for that reason; the underused Washington of the TV show "Scandal" (and who played Foxx's wife in "Ray") is a lovely centerpiece. DiCaprio and Jackson chew up the scenery but their presence gives the film some life about midway through; DiCaprio's overacting is normally annoying, but here he's used well, while Jackson nearly steals the film with some of the best lines. Watch for the aforementioned Nero in a cameo, not to mention a large, eclectic cast who also appear briefly, including Tarantino himself, Dennis Christopher, Bruce Dern, Jonah Hill, Don Johnson, Amber Tamblyn and even "Dukes of Hazzard" star Tom Wopat (yes, you read that right). The heavy, graphic violence is typical of Tarantino, though most will object to the treatment of slavery (one racial epithet is used quite frequently), and the combo of the two may not make this film for everyone. Even with that, "Django Unchained," which part "Bonanza" and part "Taxi Driver," is one of the year's most enjoyable films and a treat especially for Tarantino fans.

Wes's Grade: B

Rust and Bone - B

Rated R, 118 minutes
In French with English subtitles

Cotillard shines in gritty but romantic tale of "Rust and Bone"

Marion Cotillard
The French film "Rust and Bone" is a moving, well-acted character study that could've easily been another movie-of-the-week about people overcoming disabilities. A struggling, lonely single father named Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) helps a beautiful whale trainer named Stephanie (Cotillard) recover her will to live following a terrible accident that leaves her confined to a wheelchair. Stephanie's spirit broken by the same tragedy that took her legs, she gradually finds the courage to go on living trough transcendent moments spent with Ali -- a man with precious little pity, but an enormous love of life. "Rust and Bone" is a gritty, rough but tactile drama with fine performances. The story, written and directed by acclaimed French director Jacques Audiard ("A Prophet") and based on a short story by Craig Davidson, is a little too familiar and is a little patchy in places but it's an otherwise unsentimental look at an unconventional romance. The leads also share warm chemistry; memorable is rugged Belgian actor Schoenaerts, who is solid as a flawed but sensitive individual, and especially by Oscar-winner Cotillard (seen in the blockbuster "The Dark Knight Rises"), who with the help of a little CGI, believably conveys the emotions and life of a disabled person who hasn't forget how to love. The last act is a little muddled and the ending is a little too pat, but its otherwise a satisfying tale with some gritty moments, especially as Ali begins his fighting career. The  is certainly worth a look, especially for Cotillard, who's nominated for a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild (SAG) award for her strong turn.

Wes's Grade: B

Thursday, December 20, 2012

This is 40 - C+

Rated R, 134 minutes

Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann
Likable but overlong “This is 40” shows the best and worst of Apatow
Apparently Judd Apatow has a lot to say about growing, evidenced in his engaging but overlong new comedy “This is 40,” a spinoff sequel from a couple you first saw in Apatow’s 2007 film “Knocked Up.” That couple, Pete (Paul Rudd), a music promoter, and Debbie (Leslie Mann, Apatow’s wife), a boutique owner, struggle with the financial pressures and stresses of growing older and raising two girls, Sadie and Charlotte (Maude and Iris Apatow, Apatow’s real-life children). Directed and written by Apatow, this is a true family affair, both personally and professionally, with Apatow’s immediate family appearing and many of his usual players, including Jason Segel, Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd, Robert Smigel and Annie Mumolo, who co-wrote “Bridesmaids” with Kristen Wiig. “This is 40” plays to Apatow’s comic strengths, namely his sharp writing and dialogue and his ability to mix personal and creative paths. On the downside, it’s uneven, sometimes shrill and at about 40 (sorry no pun intended) minutes too long, much too overextended for what it really is: a coming of age film for those past 40. With too many subplots and characters to keep track of and a middle act that meanders, Apatow could find value in finding ways to shut up or turn it off.  Still, the cast performs well, with Mann and Rudd both capable, likable actors who ground the film well.  John Lithgow and Albert Brooks are fun as the fathers, Megan Fox and Charlene Yi as boutique employees, and McCarthy is memorable in a good but overdone bit as a disgruntled parent. Those around this age should appreciate most of it, and “This is 40” provides some entertaining, if not, profane moments for couples and parents.  Would’ve been much more enjoyable if Apatow would learn how to tighten up the plot, because for a comedy such this, 2 hours and 14 minutes is simply too long and too redundant.

Wes’s Grade: C+

Jack Reacher - C+

Rated PG-13, 130 minutes

Cruise's back in the mildly enjoyable yet rote thriller "Jack Reacher"

Tom Cruise and Robert Duvall
If you're a Tom Cruise fan, you'll likely enjoy his new thriller "Jack Reacher." If you're not, you will likely tolerate it. Slow-moving but peppered with a handful of fun moments, it's a pretty standard whodunit that mostly just goes through some familiar paces. After a sniper kills five people in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, police arrest a man named James Barr (Joseph Sikora), a former Army sharpshooter, who asks them to contact Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise), a drifter and former Army Military Police officer. Working as an investigator for Barr's defense attorney (Rosamund Pike), Reacher unravels a case involving a hired killer and a Russian known only as "the zec" (Werner Herzog). Mildly entertaining with a little grit thrown in, "Jack Reacher" is a disappointing effort, but not for the reasons you might think. Directed by Christopher McQuarrie ("Valykrie")  and faithfully based on the novel "One Shot" by Lee Child, the 5'7 Cruise is an odd casting choice for Reacher, who in Child's book is a physically imposing, tall ex-military figure. Cruise's small stature actually makes Reacher more squirrely and he handles the fight scenes adeptly, but the cookie-cutter, overly familiar plot and characters gives it a well-worn feel, not to mention the film has some pacing problems, particularly in its draggy second act. The most memorable actor in "Jack Reacher" is not Cruise but the crusty presence of Oscar-winner Duvall as a shooting-range owner, who shows up late in the film and essentially walks off with the best lines and scenes; it's also nice seeing acclaimed director Herzog as the villain, albeit an oddly milquetoast one. "Jack Reacher" isn't a terrible movie but a very familiar one you've seen before many times, and without Duvall, this would be a big time waster.

Wes's Grade: C+

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Guilt Trip - C

Rated PG-13, 95 minutes

Rogen, Striesand in the sweet but formulaic "Guilt Trip"

Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand
Many movies such as "Field of Dreams" have explored the relationship between father and son. The charming but unoriginal new comedy "The Guilt Trip" explores the relationship between mother and son. Stars Seth Rogen and Barbara Striesand have solid chemistry, but the story from Dan Fogelman ("Cars," "Tangled") is cookie-cutter formulaic. The story is about an inventor (Rogen) who invites his mother (Streisand) on a cross-country trip as he tries to sell his new product while also reuniting her with a lost love. The forgettable yet engaging "The Guilt Trip" is often entertaining and fun, and it should leave you with a smile, if not anything else. The stars are going through the paces, though at age 70, Striesand still can command the screen as well as she always has, even if the role of an annoying, kindhearted Jewish mama is as foolproof as they come. The set up is also too easy and predictable, making this part buddy-buddy road comedy and part family vacation movie; a handful of mildly funny gags and throwaway lines doesn't add up to much. "The Guilt Trip" could've benefited from a stronger director (Anne Fletcher, of "Step Up" directs) and a script that is so lazy you can see where it's going far before these characters reach their destination. You may want to check out the mediocre, mosdestly entertaining "The Guilt Trip" to see Striesand and a less-annoying but still smart-alecky Rogen go through their paces, but otherwise this is one to skip.

Wes's Grade: C

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - B+

Rated PG-13, 166 minutes

"Hobbit" is overlong yet dazzling, especially for "Rings" fans

Martin Freeman as hobbit Bilbo Baggins
I'll fully admit I've never really cared much what happens in Middle-earth. I haven't read J.R.R. Tolkien's "Hobbit" or "Lord of the Rings" books, so I am not fully vested in this new film series; while I clearly admired both Tolkien and filmmaker Peter Jackson's big screen adaptations, I wasn't as eagerly anticipating this as some have been. With that in mind, I still enjoyed Jackson's entertaining, charming but sometimes slow new film "The Hobbit," based on Tolkien's beloved books, which act as a prequel to "The Lord of the Rings" series, taking place sixty years before the events in those books. "The Hobbit" follows hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), who is hired by wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) to follow thirteen dwarfs across Middle-earth to reclaim Lonely Mountain from Smaug the Dragon. Dazzling, entertaining and too long especially for us non-Tolkien's fans; it's a little slow-going, especially in the first act, but it picks up midway though. The first-rate, often spectactular film should pick up plenty of technical accolades for its precise, detailed sets, music and photography; much will be said about the 48-frames per second process that Jackson uses for the film; it gives the film much more clarity and a vivid 3D portrait that will surely please fans of all ages. Jackson will be to Tolkien's books what George Lucas was to "Star Wars" in that this will be what he will always be remembered for, and Jackson has two more "Hobbit" films planned for release (and already concurrently filmed much like the "Lord of the Rings" series was), with an ending that clearly leaves it open for more. With Andy Serkis back as Gollum in motion catpure along with McKellan, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm and Elijah Wood reprising their "Rings" characters, this has a familiar, well-worn feel to it that seems more of the same, and much like I felt about "The Lord of the Rings," it goes on much too long,  but Tolkien fans will clearly be impressed and pleased. This is a must see if your a fan of "The Lord of the Rings" series yet should be enjoyable for even non-fans.

Wes's Grade: B+

Hyde Park on the Hudson - C+

Rated R, 95 minutes

Murray's great as FDR, but "Hyde Park" just skims the surface

Bill Murray and Laura Linney
The charming new drama "Hyde Park on the Hudson" is based on the diaries of Margaret Stuckley, a sixth cousin, confidante and eventual mistress of U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. "Hyde Park" is a well-acted yet slight film that doesn't do such an iconic historical figure real justice. Set in June 1939 just before the outbreak of World War II, FDR (Bill Murray) and First Lady Eleanor (Olivia Williams) are preparing to host the King and Queen of England (Samuel West and Olivia Coleman) for a first-ever visit to the U.S. at their upstate New York home to give their support for the impending war. As the occasion unravels, FDR become closer to Stuckley, also known as Daisy (Laura Linney), who begins to realize the nature of her relationship with him. Directed by Roger Michell ("Notting Hill"), "Hyde Park on the Hudson" is an effusive, well-acted but empty film that doesn't fully explore the relationships it outlines. The chief highlight of "Hyde Park" is the remarkable performance of FDR by Murray, who doesn't give an exact impersonation but perfectly captures FDR's spirit as an engaging old man who didn't let his infirmities truly disable him. Linney is also good as Stuckley, though her overbearing, unnecessary narration throughout the film is one of the film's biggest flaws, not to mention the fact it gives considerable screen time to the King and Queen (well-played by British actors West and Coleman in roles also played by Colin Firth and Helena Bonham-Carter in "The King's Speech"). The film is really about Stuckley and FDR, yet the film never fully explores their relationship, just where it stood in light of FDR's complex political and personal life. Murray, who's nominated for a Golden Globe for this role, is the best reason to see the likable but unsatisfying "Hyde Park on the Hudson." 

Wes's Grade: C+

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Playing for Keeps - C-

Rated PG-13, 105 minutes

Flat, unfunny “Playing for Keeps” is not a keeper

Gerard Butler
The tiresome new rom com “Playing for Keeps” is a mediocre, thin Gerard Butler vehicle only good to cash in on Butler’s charm. Butler is a former professional soccer player named George Dryer now down on his luck and trying to redeem himself by coaching his son’s soccer team. However, he finds himself in more trouble when he’s unable to resist some of the soccer moms (Judy Greer, Uma Thurman and Catherine Zeta-Jones), even though he still has feelings for his ex (Jessica Biel).  The vapid, unmemorable “Playing for Keeps” has handful of mildly amusing moments can’t overcome the flat script, direction and predictable plotting, in spite of an admittedly charming cast. Of the soccer moms, character actress Greer (“The Descendants”) is the most fun, but the lovely Thurman and Zeta-Jones, not to mention Dennis Quaid, seem woefully misdirected by Gabrielle Muchino (“The Pursuit of Happyness”), and Biel seems to be in another movie entirely. If they had better material and a better director, the charming, lovely actors might be able to make it work, but the large majority of it falls flat and unfunny, then a sentimental subplot involving sons and dads doesn’t help things either. “Playing for Keeps” comes in time for the holiday season but is far from being the perfect gift. This is for the charming Butler’s fan base only, who may be growing weary of seeing him in these cookie-cutter films.
Wes’s Grade: C-