Top Ten By Year: 1992


I’m going to get right to it since my What I’ll Remember post covers most of what I’ve gotten out of this year in film. You can find previous 1992 installments including Ten Honorable Mentions Edition, What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1992: A Personal Sampling, Voters Poll Results, and Movie Music Mix on my blog. This one’s been a long time coming. I started research for 1992 back in April!

For those unaware of my Top Ten By Year column:
I pick years that are weak for me re: quantity of films seen and/or quality of films seen in comparison to other films from that decade. I am using list-making as a motivation to see more films and revisit others in a structured and project-driven way. And I always make sure to point out that my lists are based on personal ‘favorites’ not any notion of an objective ‘best’. I’ve done 1935, 1983, 1965, 1943, and now 1992. Next I’ll be doing 1958.

Biggest Disappointments:
Swoon
Innocent Blood
In the Soup
Careful
The Story of Qiu Ju
Naked Killer
Once Upon a Crime (re-watch)

Notable Blind Spots: 
Pushing Hands, Unlawful Entry, Vacas, The Oak, La Sentinelle, L;627, Simple Men, This is My Life, The Public Eye, Boomerang, Dragon Inn, Royal Tramp, Love Field, The Wicked City, The Best Intentions, Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives, Swordsman II, For a Lost Soldier, Rebels of the Neon God

TOTAL LIST OF FILMS SEEN IN 1992: (bold indicates first-time viewings during research, italics indicates re-watches during research):
Aileen Wuornos: Selling of a Serial Killer, Aladdin, Bad Lieutenant, Baraka, Basic Instinct, Batman Returns, Beethoven, Benny’s Video, Bitter Moon, Bob Roberts, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Brother’s Keeper, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Candyman, Captain Ron, Careful, Centre Stage, Chaplin, The Crying Game, Damage, Dead Alive, Death Becomes Her, Deep Cover, Doctor Mordrid, Enchanted April, Far and Away, Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, A Few Good Men, Forever Young, Full Contact, Gas Food Lodging, Glengarry Glen Ross, Hard Boiled, A Heart in Winter, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, Honey I Blew Up the Kid, Honeymoon in Vegas, Housesitter, Howards End, Husbands and Wives, Hyenas, Innocent Blood, In the Soup, The Last of the Mohicans, A League of Their Own, Lessons of Darkness, Life and Nothing More, Light Sleeper, Little Heroes, The Living End, The Long Day Closes, Malcolm X, Man Bites Dog, Medicine Man, The Mighty Ducks, Mom and Dad Save the World, The Muppet Christmas Carol, Naked Killer, Noises Off!, Of Mice and Men, Once Upon a Crime, One False Move, Orlando, Out on a Limb, Passion Fish, Peter’s Friends, The Player, Poison Ivy, Police Story 3: Supercop, Porco Rosso, Radio Flyer, Raising Cain, Reservoir Dogs, A River Runs Through It, Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, Savage Nights, Scent of a Woman, Singles, Single White Female, Sister Act, Society, Stay Tuned, Strictly Ballroom, The Story of Qiu Ju, Swoon, A Tale of Winter, Tom and Jerry: The Movie, Toys, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Unforgiven, Universal Soldier, Wayne’s World, Where the Day Takes You, Wuthering Heights

FTV: First Time Viewing
RW: Re-watch
LTF: Long-time Favorite

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Top Honorable Mention (think of this as a tie with #10):
Howards End (Ivory) (UK) (RW)
What are other equivalents to the unique narrative bounty of Howards End? Other Merchant/Ivory productions like A Room with a View and Maurice (both impeccable in their own right) have recognizable conflicts and alliances. We know when and how to respond to what’s going on. But Howards End is different. We stand by conflicted while characters make compromises and go back on who we thought they were. Those who fall, fall hard, and those left are happy in a bittersweet sort of way. But it’s inaccurate to use the word happy. Happy and sad, light and dark aren’t exactly visible through lines here. It’s all way more complicated. All the characters besides Vanessa Redgrave, who moonlights over the proceedings as if drawing people together from beyond, are defined by their foibles. Everyone is too much ‘this’ or not enough ‘that’. It has the impeccable period design one expects from Merchant/Ivory, it made Emma Thompson a star in her own right (until then, she was Kenneth Branagh’s wife), and is a painfully human vivisection on class warfare.

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10. Centre Stage (Kwan) (Hong Kong) (RW)
For the few keeping up with these installments, my previous Honorable Mentions post refers to a film I’d been particularly struggling to find a place for–a film I’m moderately conflicted about. Well, this is the one. Centre Stage will not get out of my head. This was my second time seeing it, and it remains an elusive relic. Does this film, a biopic about doomed icon Ruan Lingyu that feels frozen in time and comes bundled up in a meta package, even work? Watching it is like going on a quest through the afterglow of the past. It’s a quest the filmmakers explicitly take part in, and they also come up short. Through the research and production process, can everyone involved reach the essence of who Ruan Lingyu was? Well, no. But that may be the point.

Doused in silky blue lights, this isn’t the past recreated, but reflected back at us, nestled between the actual footage of Ruan and present day interviews. Everything feels like it’s being acted out in an empty deserted hallway, as if life doesn’t exist outside the room that characters inhabit at any given moment. We hear the same music in a dance hall at different intervals, like an echo chamber. The characters are stuck in their parts. Maggie Cheung is stoic, passive, demure. The greatest actress of her time can’t make the greatest actress of her time a compelling figure, and yet she’s outstanding. Ahh, and the heaven sent production and costume designs. It’ll be revisited every so often, and each time I’ll go into it thinking ‘this time I’ll understand who Ruan Lingyu was’. Yet I know that won’t happen. ‘But maybe this time’ is the spell Centre Stage casts.

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9. Bitter Moon (Polanski) (France/UK/US) (FTV)
Perverse, deeply ugly, and comically absurd. At first glance Bitter Moon is just another to emerge out of the trashy kink, boundary pushing erotic thriller trend of the early-to-mid 90’s. But this is Roman Polanski, and the man has got a lot of poisonous and revealing fish to fry. Hiding behind camp and pig masks, this could be his most uncomfortably personal work. At the very least it feels like a purging. The sex relates to the endless potential of corruptible dynamics. Two couples out to sea on an ocean liner (Knife in the Water anyone?), one staid, the other extreme, have more in common than they think. Peter Coyote and Emmanuelle Seigner are the purist form of masochistic and manipulative chess game toxicity that can exist in a couple, a toxicity that Polanski posits exists in all of us on some level.

A big question, especially considering it’s what turned so many off at the time of its release; how much control does Polanski have over Bitter Moon’s tonal makeup? It’s a risky piece of work, less from risque content, and more from an unequivocally bizarre sense of self. Is this a joke? Are we in on it? Is Polanski in on it? Does it obstruct viewers from seeing the unpleasantly complicated statement at the center, or does it enable? Is this the only way to present something so dire and hopeless? I see Polanski as having far more control than he was at first credited. Seigner pouring milk all over her breasts, looking like a zombie by the way, as Peter Coyote licks her with George Michael’s “Faith” playing in the background is unequivocal evidence Bitter Moon is meant as a kind of brazenly sadistic circus. While other 90’s erotic thrillers took themselves so seriously, it must have been quite jarring to see a film that at once does not take itself as seriously, yet contains twisted barbs of resonance.

Expanded review here

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8. Glengarry Glen Ross (Foley) (US) (LTF)

“Harriet and Blah-Blah Nyborg”. “Have you made your decision for Christ?!?”. “Because I don’t like you”. “Fuck the Machine!!!”. “Will you go to lunch? Go to lunch! Will you go to lunch?”. “Fuck you–that’s my name”. “Put. That coffee. Down”. “You stupid fucking cunt”. “Your pal closes, and all that comes out of your mouth is bile. Oooh, how fucked up you are”.

The more familiar you are with Glengarry Glen Ross, which at this point is like my film equivalent of a first cousin, the more there is to get out of it. There’s a giddy anticipation that builds leading up to, well, pretty much every line delivery in this thing. It’s no secret that for all the playing at man, swearing as desperate currency, and the repetitive Mamet-isms of the actual text, this is a film erected out of top-level high-wire performances. Whether it’s Al Pacino fully enunciating and emphasizing ev-er-y sing-le syl-la-ble, bringing off-key rhythms to his Ricky Roma Rendition, or early Kevin Spacey reeling in the unmovable dryness he’d later bring to Lester Burnham, everyone is firing on all cylinders even if their characters are sure as hell going nowhere fast.

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7. Deep Cover (Duke) (US) (FTV)
Neo-noir that deals with race relations and the hypocrisy and political corruption within the War on Drugs with surprising directness. Poetically edged hard-boiled narration delivered with the low steady hum of Laurence Fishburne’s cop who grapples with right and wrong, cop or criminal, and questions where can he do the most good within a cracked system that uses his race as an asset for the higher-ups. Then bring in Jeff Goldblum’s indispensable magnetic eccentricity to his role as a slightly unhinged lawyer yuppie, self-described as having a “condescending infatuation with everything black”. Yes, he’s fighting for power and money, but most importantly for respect among the criminal minded. A very moralistically preoccupied film about choices and compromise and defining the invisible line. I thought I had past my expiration date for undercover cop stories, but Deep Cover nixed that with its ability to balance heady and charged politics with two consistently engaging leads that transcend the walking clichés we’re used to seeing.

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6. Brother’s Keeper (Berlinger/Sinofsky) (US) (FTV)
Brother’s Keeper isn’t about whether or not Delbert Ward actually killed his ailing brother Bill. It’s about the dynamics of small communities like Munnsville, NY, where the Wards are fervently supported, without question, by their fellow townspeople. They put up bail money, hold benefit dinners, and attend the trial with all the muster they have. Part of this support has to do with how iconic the Wards (three brothers total, not including the deceased) are within the community. Some kind of know them, some kind of don’t, and a few know them quite well. The populace protects the reclusive, mostly illiterate, and mentally debilitated Delbert (same goes for all three) because he is one of their own. They are, as defender, prosecutor, and populace say, ‘simple folk’. The big city versus little town friction comes into play in a major way, mostly in how the Wards were treated by the higher-ups during crucial events like interrogations and the signing of documents.

Owing great debt to the Maysles Brothers, who the film is dedicated to, we shift between life with the Wards, interviews with the townspeople, and the anticipation and resolution of the trial. Though the filmmakers are clearly fascinated with these subjects and this story in a slightly condescending way (though I really don’t know how one would avoid it), it takes a non-judgmental stance as far as the case itself. This is incredibly gripping and mysterious stuff, with more questions than answers by the end. The camera expertly observes the Wards in their environment, attempting to understand and not able to truly break through the supposed simplicity, which only lends to its power.

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5. The Player (Altman) (US) (RW)

Ever notice that The Player has more handshakes per minute than anything else you’ve ever seen? This is Robert Altman in the belly of the beast, a beast he’s well familiar with, setting up conventions and then playing into them with bite. The reason this and Bob Roberts represent Tim Robbins’s best work is because each magnifies his smug impenetrability in different ways. In The Player, we see every step the pompous ass takes into the mud bath, unable to touch the reality of his situation because he and the film define it within the confines of narrative familiarity. You can track the film’s progress by the degree Griffin’s eyes have glazed over. In Bob Roberts we can’t touch him at all. Not even the camera can get close to him. In one he’s a familiar monster, the other a faceless one. Both are primo schmoozers.

The cameos fold in on themselves, and soon we’re seeing famous people populating the background as extras (oh hey there Jack Lemmon)! This is more plot-driven than some of Altman’s work, and it has to be, because Michael Tolkin’s script grafts the narrative of old onto satire. There’s an intriguing line the director tows between the subjectivity of a man who acts in the form of plot points (that scene when he hams it up for Whoopi Goldberg and Lyle Lovett who just laugh at him is gold. You can see ‘why isn’t this working? It works in the movies!’ all over Griffin’s face) and the outside-looking-in gaze that demonstrates how precarious success is in the movie biz. With Griffin’s job in jeopardy from the start, a constant threat is maintained that drives the picture; one minute you’re in, the next you’re out.

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4. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (Lynch) (US) (RW)
The first time I saw Fire Walk with Me was a week after I’d watched the show, not something I’d necessarily recommend. I walked away from that experience sufficiently disturbed and shaken up, particularly by Sheryl Lee’s work. As a whole though it felt…overreaching. There was a new Donna to get used to, a first act that mistakes deadpan for deadness, Kyle Machlachan’s all too brief and reluctant appearance, some material that’s one step past nonsense, and a significant frequency adjustment from the show. I even remember saying after it was over, “I liked it, but it’s not my Twin Peaks”. Then I waited six years and watched it again for this list, where it sideswiped me like a “BOB” out of hell.

That gap purged me of preconceptions I had taken from the show. It dumped the residue bullshit of seeking out answers to a world that, being Lynch, is an intuitive and abstract kind of hell devoid of rules or explanation. The film simply became Laura’s story. And that’s what it is. Laura’s schizophrenic, mournful, harrowing end. It takes the iconic dead girl trope and makes her whole, beyond the realm of voiceless victim. It’s the Lynch film that is both most and least tethered to reality. By magnifying the trauma and horrors of sexual abuse (and adolescence) as an actual and inescapable hell, by purifying and heightening the emotions in play, it becomes perhaps the most consummate and visceral film on the subject. In “Twin Peaks”, “BOB” is Leland. In Fire Walk with Me, Leland is “BOB”, and it makes all the difference. The supernatural all registers as metaphor here.

Laura Palmer is real to me, and Sheryl Lee is what makes her crushingly real. If there’s a better female performance from the 90’s, I haven’t seen it. She turns herself inside out as Laura, mythic and fragile, self-destructive and strong, youthful and timeless. Laura Palmer is a victim, but there’s nothing submissive or resigned about her. She constantly breaks through the ‘victim’ archetype, and Lynch films her with admirable and melancholy reverence without ever simplifying her down to an object through which we funnel our pity. As Fire Walk with Me ended, I found myself overwhelmed with emotion. I sat and cried hard full tears for who knows how long. Laura stayed with me for days after. A week later I was driving, and I started thinking about her, and the tears came again. I can’t think of another instance of such residual impact. But I do know that Laura will always be with me, and with countless others.

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I have to pause here for a special mention to the last fifteen minutes of Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans, a sequence containing three movements as good as the medium has to offer. The climax is an elegy during the fact, tracking a procession of deaths. It approaches the mainstream climax from an atypical point of execution. Familiar content is presented with the flow of an unstoppable avalanche in slow-motion. The score has two themes competing with each other, one measured, the other bursting to get out from underneath. And then everything slows down with Alice (Jodhi May) on the cliff. Shots and moments are held a few seconds longer than they normally would be. Every glance, every gesture carries weight. Alice’s decision hits so much harder due to how peripheral her and Uncas’s (Eric Schweig) romance has been up to this point. The sidelines function of Alice and Uncas provokes a ‘wait-what-is-she-doing’ response we aren’t prepared for. All we can do is sit frozen, breathing in tandem with the score, the bass signifying the act of letting go, and wait for her to carry out her fateful decision.

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3. Husbands and Wives (Allen) (US) (RW)
It’s safe to say the Mia Farrow era of Woody Allen’s career is my era of choice. The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, and this account for my top three. It’s the messy end, an ugly piece that spoons bitter truths out of caustic penetrating humor. The faux-documentary construct illuminates the characters (and their motivations) and their inability to reconcile self-analysis with action, specifically within relationships and marriage. How well do people know themselves, and how does that correlate, or not correlate, with an ability to adapt and/or function with another person? There are different levels of self-awareness and all-too human unseemliness in Gabe (Allen), Judy (Farrow), Sally (Judy Davis), and Jack (Sydney Pollack).

Significance comes through flawed characters and ruptured editing techniques. At times we jump from moment to moment, other times we stay on someone’s face far past our comfort level. At the start it’s the neurotic Sally that seems most intolerable. By the end it’s clear she’s got the best head on her shoulders. She sort of learns from her experiences, or at least knows what she needs in a relationship, realizing that for better and worse her and the deplorable Jack (played with odiousness by Sydney Pollack) should be together. It’s not good or bad. It just…is. Nobody gets off the hook including us; every character succumbs to their worst selves at one point or another or several or many. Our varying esteem (it’s a low bar folks) for them is equated with how upfront they are about themselves to themselves. The dichotomy between this brutal form of measurement (Mia Farrow’s Judy oh-so-interestingly comes out on bottom) and the Bergman influenced dissection of the two couples is where Husbands and Wives finds its tense and mordant complexion.

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2. Batman Returns (Burton) (US) (LTF)
I was five when 1992 came along, so my top two are, unsurprisingly, formative works inextricably linked with my childhood; not in mere nostalgia, but deep personal meaning. I like to call Batman Returns a “DNA” film. It’s a phrase I use for formative features (we’ve all got a handful of ’em). They become mythologized, bigger than themselves, immeasurable in impact for the individual.

A knotty, expressionistic, and uncommonly grim superhero film fueled by the Tragic with a Capital T emotional arcs of its villains, this still stands as a risky endeavor. It doesn’t follow a cookie cutter way-to-be. There’s no house style, not a trace of anonymity or comfort. Tim Burton just does whatever the fuck he wants, favoring approach and impression over now-hip grit and the samey-spectacle that came with the advent of CGI. It gleefully eschews fan expectations and even its hero (and hell, even its story) for an imposing and deeply disturbing operatic vision that plays around with the sexual, the psychotic, and the putrefied.

It’s the best Batman film, by far, and my favorite superhero film no contest. Why? Because it isn’t even really a superhero film, and I never view it as such. It’s about the grotesquerie of the Penguin and his search for identity through ‘Oswald’. It’s about Selina Kyle’s reclamation of identity and self through mental collapse and shock. After all this time, Danny DeVito’s Penguin still makes me sick to my stomach with his gallows humor and sullied sweaty sack of a costume, oozing green and going out with a gurgle. But here’s the power of the film; a scene as inherently absurd (one of many) as a group of penguins acting as collective pallbrearers for DeVito’s corpse as they slide him into the sewer water is not only affecting, but genuinely haunting and heavy with tragedy.

And for all its many wonders (Danny Elfman’s ghostly score being at the very top of that list), it all comes down to Michelle Pfeiffier as Catwoman. Some know how much her work here means to me, and they tend to be others (because there are a lot of us)  who’ve been similarly impacted by what she does with this role, which is, well, what doesn’t she do with it? Her Selina grows to own herself at the expense of her sanity. She helps others at the expense of her ‘goodness’. She desperately tries to fill that hole inside her to no avail. The slinky dominatrix garb she makes for herself is a one-off, and by the end the rips and tears are showing the unhinged chaos and suffering underneath. There’s a gravitas to her work that reveals an escalating depth of sorrow. And she gets the last shot of the film; risen, triumphant, and ever-so-slightly nodding at her own perseverance.

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1. The Muppet Christmas Carol (Henson) (US) (LTF)
I’ve been foolishly psyching myself out in regards to writing about The Muppet Christmas Carol because from the start I’ve been treating it as an attempt to convert or convince others of its greatness. Like I have to make up for eye-rolling that may or may not occur from those who will wrongfully dismiss this as a ‘clouded by nostalgia pick’ (though I have more faith in my readers than that). Or maybe I’m just overthinking it.

But I’ve ditched the idea of treating this like a pitch. I’m not going to say much about the film because it’s all there in my heart and in my gut and it’s difficult to extrapolate on the why’s of its effect on me. It’s unbridled joy, and a truly beautiful blend of two iconic properties (The Muppets and Dickens) that services both and compromises neither. Three spirits visit Ebenezer Scrooge, but it’s the spirit of the (then) recently departed Jim Henson that looms largest over the proceedings. A moving air of gratitude blankets all. Not a mournful air, but an appreciative one, a big thank you for your creations and for your preposterous wit and heart. Paul Williams, one of my favorite people ever, graces us with songs that are by turns jolly, chilling, and full of thanks. And all of them memorable; there’s not a dud in the bunch (the cut but narratively essential “When Love is Found” notwithstanding).

Every time I watch it, which used to be many times every Christmas season but has now taken on a one-time-saved-for-last occasion, I look forward to every little bit without fail. Whether it’s fawning over cousin Fred or watching Miss Piggy’s saucy side come out as Mrs. Cratchit when downing a toast like a shot. Or the moment when an annoyed Gonzo and a mischievous Rizzo the Rat (our narrative guides) face each other in silence only for Rizzo to lean forward and lightly kiss Gonzo’s curly nose. Or the power Michael Caine (my ideal Scrooge, this is a performance that, like the rest of the film, is near and dear to me) manages to ingrain in the many reaction/shots of observance he has throughout. His arc is all there in the face. Caine considers this one of his most cherished roles. That the experience meant something to him only makes it resonate even more.

This would rank on a list of my 20 favorite films. I hate to quantify my love for something with amount of tears shed, but emotional response is an easy marker to reference. Every year close to Christmas, Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline shows a print of the film for a sold out crowd of kids and adults alike. Last year was the first time I went, marking the beginning of a new yearly tradition. I steadily cried, no exaggeration, about 75% of the runtime. They weren’t tears of joy or sadness, but tears of meaning; I’m, quite simply, moved by its open heart. And as a gal who doesn’t naturally drift towards heartwarming or uplifting lessons learned, I can say without a doubt, that somehow, someway, this film has grown to mean the world to me.

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The Ten Worst Films I Saw from 2012


Of the approximately 120 films I saw from 2012, overall I liked the vast majority of them on at least some level. Almost all of the films considered the worst of the year were not ones I saw so keep in mind the severe absence of countless possible slot-fillers. Here are the ten biggest offenders in my eyes. I tend to be more offended by the dully bad than the fascinatingly bad, so the scale is tipped towards the former and you’ll be seeing lots of ‘lifeless’ reasoning. Hence The Paperboy not being here; it may be awful but it stuck with me.

What do you think were the worst films of 2012?

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10. The Moth Diaries

Mary Harron – why and how did you go so wrong? I’m a sucker for boarding-school-for-girls films and am easy to please when it comes to them (example; last year’s Cracks). What could have been a sexy and explorative coming-of-age fable about hormones, the possessiveness of female friendships and vampires is instead dead on arrival. It offends through boredom, lifelessness and the voiceover overkill. Forgettable doesn’t begin to cover this utter dud. Sidenote: I continue to crush on Sarah Gadon.

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9. Dark Shadows

The humor has one mode, ‘weren’t the 1970′s funny?’, that proves Dark Shadows inability to commit to anything or handle its identity crisis. The jokes themselves are either corny observations or short exchanges with log-like landings that are delivered half-heartedly and take on the low energy level the pacing dictates. Worst of all, the jokes are bad. Really bad. Smith could have found genuine humor in the fish-out-of-water plot or imbued comic timing with scenarios, situations or in the dynamics between characters. The best he could do are piss-poor kind-of jokes that first and foremost do not compromise the overall non-tone. Since this is how Dark Shadows deals with each genre courting; the result is that the film has no discernible tone at all.

Full review here: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2012/10/04/review-dark-shadows-2012-burton/

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8. Snow White and the Huntsman

Impressive visuals, a campy villainous performance and excellent effects work do not a good film make. One of two revisionist Snow White adaptations in 2012, this one teases that it’ll fill in some backstory and set its sights on Charlize Theron’s evil queen. Once the plot kicks in, all potential washes away and the focus racks onto Stewart’s heroine. Ending in a self-inflated full scale battle reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, the stakes ratchet up without the audience ever feeling it. Stewart does nothing in this role. She tries to emote but it’s too wooden to register. It’s also called Snow White and the Huntsman, and it’s the most lackluster attempt at an onscreen pairing in recent memory. It’s beyond going through the motions; it’s a wispy undeveloped question mark. When they get together, it’s like a twist ending that they ever had any romantic feelings for each other at all.

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7. The Woman in the Fifth

A perfect example of artsy-gone-wrong. From the director of the excellent My Summer of Love, this unenticing incomprehensible cloud of nothing cannot drum up any intrigue for the audience. Telling a vague symbolic story means there has to be something keeping our interest whether intuition or feeling or the story-in-the-moment. This has nothing to offer or pull the viewer in so what am I supposed to get out of it?

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6. Detachment

Many of these films appear on this list because they are criminally lifeless. One thing Detachment is not is lifeless.

In Detachment, eccentric director Tony Kaye’s examination of the everyday minutiae of an urban high school, picked his form of attack–full-scale assault—and decided that was enough. He crams so much horror and extremity into every scenario he presents that the film has no room to breathe. There is a train-wreck quality that keeps this consistently watchable but not for the reasons Kaye wants. A ‘what will he throw at us next’ pull resides. He uses the guise of the school education system as a cipher for a no holds barred sustained shrill that is always pitched at 11, and unfortunately only cares about being pitched at 11.

Full review here: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2012/09/28/review-detachment-2012-kaye/

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5. Silent House

Elizabeth Olsen does a fine job here and there is a craftsmanship to the one-take found footage gimmick (though I’m sure there are hidden cuts in there somewhere). The praise ends there. By focusing with minute precision on Olsen’s unceasing terror, Silent House takes the voyeurism of horror to a pointless and shallow level without exploring the implications of its choices. This would have been thrown on the stack of forgettable horror films if not for a last act twist that felt nauseatingly exploitative. The way it handles the material does nothing to justify itself; it has a cheap and dirty feel to it with no return value.

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4. Mirror Mirror

Before going into Mirror Mirror, I heard that it closes with a Bollywood number. My immediate reaction, despite not having seen it at that point, was one of vague irritation. Lo and behold, it ended up being the only few tolerable minutes in this lifeless and obnoxious monstrosity. It is the sole occasion where it musters up any semblance of energy or feeling. As Mirror Mirror death-marched itself to the finishing line, it sunk in that I quite simply hated this film.

Perhaps Mirror Mirror’s biggest snafu is that no flicker of genuine emotion can be found; thus no stakes can be felt and no fun can be had. It creates an immense detachment. The result is to be left with one’s own boredom and aggravation.

Full Review here: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2012/07/03/review-mirror-mirror-2012-singh/

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3. ATM

I adore shitty high-concept horror films. They can be such a blast when they go oh-so-wrong, which is why I geared up to watch ATM with giddy excitement. It got bad reviews and the whole thing takes place with three young folks trapped in an ATM kiosk while someone tries to kill them. This sounds hilariously bad! But it was the other kind of bad. Like, bad bad. Ludicrous and boring to boot.

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2. Liz and Dick

Yes, I hate-watched it. Yes, it’s as atrocious as you heard. Yes, I understand this is a Lifetime Original Movie and expectations were low. No, I don’t feel like I actually watched a movie. I don’t even know what I watched. And it’s official; Lindsay Lohan cannot even deliver a simple line reading convincingly anymore. Unfortunately, she was like a high school student doing a first read-through for the Spring production. I don’t exaggerate.

godblessamerica

1. God Bless America

Atrocious. Beyond hypocritical. Full of itself. Holier than thou. Speechifying. Condescending. Had the opposite effect it was meant to. Instead of rooting for its core concerns which, before watching, had some validity for me, it made me want to watch “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” just to spite this piece of shit nonsense. Fuck. This. Movie.

Review: Dark Shadows (2012, Burton)


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When I say that Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows isn’t quite the disaster he spewed forth with Alice in Wonderland, don’t mistake that even for the faintest of praise. It’s merely a testament to just how awful his 2010 fantasy revisionist film is. While Dark Shadows shows an uptick in his visual palette, the improvements end there. Here he takes a 1960’s campy soap and transforms it into an at times excruciating misfire that is headlined by an incomprehensible script by Seth Grahame-Smith.

Tim Burton’s interest in storytelling has been, for the most part, pretty low on his priority list. He is more into atmospheric world-building that fits both his imagination and a consistent evocation of his long-standing influences. By now, he is treading muddy water, refusing to attempt creative expansion and is bogged down in increasingly unsalvagable scripts. It is clear now that Sweeney Todd was not a return to form, but evidence that he still has life in him provided he has solid material to work with. Sadly, this is now rarely the case.

There’s a reason that most reviews of recent Tim Burton fare include a by-now mandatory Burton-centric rant. The handful of his films that I will always cherish are enough for me, and many other youguns who grew up with his work, to remain masochistically loyal to him. He’s sort of like the Weezer of filmmakers in that way. Batman Returns essentially represents my childhood; it has so much added personal meaning for me that it is in many ways the Burton film that means the most to me. As a stereotypically moody adolescent I worshiped Lydia Deetz and tried to recreate her bedroom by nailing sheer fabric to the ceiling, putting up an imaginary fortress fit for an angsty queen. At 12 years old, Sleepy Hollow was the first R-rated film I saw in theaters. The day I saw Ed Wood for the first time I was 13 and I loved it so much that I watched it 4 times in a row, still the only time I have done that. And then there is the discovery that the older I got, the funnier Pee Wee’s Big Adventure became. And so that loyalty persists, despite my better judgment.

There is infinite possibility in the advent of CGI which is more often that not wasted by the absence of balance. Once Burton started working with and embracing CGI, his work lost that indefinable something. His visuals now veer towards the opposite of idiosyncratic, disabling his calling card. There was something about the concrete physicality of his worlds. What he does with shapes, sizes and structures; those marks feel largely absent. The way he used to employ effects (Large Marge anyone?) quite literally popped. CGI gives him a broader paintbrush and he uses it to showcase the wider landscapes of his worlds. But the result is a look that, beyond the often still memorable room-based production design, is transparent and flat. AKA the antithesis of his films looked like in pasttimes.

The final problem is the mutually assured destruction pairing of Burton and Johnny Depp. The two continue to bring each other down, a statement that long ago I never thought I’d have to make. Basically studios give Burton boatloads of cha-ching cha-ching to make shit adaptations of whatever the piqued interest of the year is. Then Burton ropes Depp in, pays him boatloads of cha-ching to play dress-up and create increasingly rote variations of the same bag of eccentricities. Depp used to be non-conformist, always taking chances and making interesting choices. Now he is conformist and predictable and is being paid absolutely ludicrous amounts of money for it (he’s the highest paid working actor). Somewhere along the line he stopped playing characters and we are left with bad makeup, a vaguely British over-enunciated accent and garish flailing mannerisms.

So what about Dark Shadows? Let’s start with the story. In the 1700’s, young Barnabas Collins and his family travel to Maine and make a name for themselves by successfully taking over the seafood business. He gets involved with a witch named Angelique (Eva Green), but his feelings for her are surface-level. His heart truly lies with young Josette (Bella Heathcote). When he spurns Angelique, she hypnotizes Josette into throwing herself off a cliff and turns Barnabas into a vampire in addition to chaining him in a coffin and burying him underground. This all happens in the first five minutes.

In 1972, a young woman named Victoria, who happens to look exactly like Josette, arrives in Collinsport to be a governess to young David (Gulliver McGrath). We meet the many Collins descendants and learn that Angelique still lives in the town and is the family’s main competitor in the seafood industry. At the same time, Barnabas is unearthed by construction workers and has to adjust to the 1970’s, meet his family and face Angelique.

The story consists of languorous exposition and subplots that are introduced and then dropped with no warning. Oh, and then randomly picked up again when it’s convenient. The dialogue has zero punch or wit. The pacing is akin to a hobbled man walking and the film’s identity crisis is apparent throughout. Perhaps most disconcertingly, we are never given any reason to be invested in anything, and I mean anything, onscreen. The rushed prologue tells us a lot and thinks that equals effective storytelling. Economic maybe; but effective?

There’s no throughline with the characters and no established family dynamic, and this is a film that wants to be about family; at least that is what it tells us. There are way too many characters that screenwriter Smith has no idea what to do with. They register on the most basic of levels and by the skin of their teeth at that. The actors are given no room to individualize their work. Eva Green is the only one who manages to do something with her character. The always welcome Michelle Pfieffier is one of many actors wasted. Depp is exactly what you would expect; recycled and gaudy. Helena Bonham-Carter manages to be semi-effective with a couple of later scenes. The worst of the bunch is Chloe Grace-Moretz who showcases the traits of hers I have always had a problem with; the entirety of her performance consists of an over-pronounced snarl.

An example of the unforgivably clumsy storytelling is the handling of Bella Heathcote’s Victoria, played by the kind of wide-eyed ingenue with just-so styling that Burton loves. She is introduced during the opening credits as Moody Blues “Nights in White Satin” plays, thereby automatically earning the ‘Best Scene in Dark Shadows‘ award. It turns out she is only being used as a gateway, not as a character in her own right. Once she is used to get us introduced to the wacky family, she is unceremoniously hung out to dry. The governess pretext is just that; it never remotely comes into play. She disappears for a hefty 30-40 minutes only to be jarringly reintroduced so she can out-of-nowhere express her feelings for Barnabus. And once again at the end so she can be saved.

On some level this is how the film treats every character, though none so dismissively as Victoria. A pattern of zero characterization and flung-in backstory appearing solely to justify their existence in a half-assed effort to give them something to do.

The humor has one mode, ‘weren’t the 1970’s funny?’, that proves Dark Shadows inability to commit to anything or handle its identity crisis. The jokes themselves are either corny observations or short exchanges with log-like landings that are delivered half-heartedly and take on the low energy level the pacing dictates. Worst of all, the jokes are bad. Really bad. Smith could have found genuine humor in the fish-out-of-water plot or imbued comic timing with scenarios, situations or in the dynamics between characters. The best he could do are piss-poor kind-of jokes that first and foremost do not compromise the overall non-tone. Since this is how Dark Shadows deals with each genre courting; the result is that the film has no discernible tone at all.

This lack of genre commitment means that Dark Shadows is too frightened to throw itself into anything but ‘well I guess it could count as soapy’. The original show is oft described as a campy soap. The film does not commit to camp. It commits to soap only in plot details, not tone. Nor does it commit to comedy, as discussed above, or horror. By trying to be a wispy hint of everything, we are left with not much of anything. A poorly written, indeterminately characterized not much of anything at that. Yes, the costumes and production design are notably satisfying; and that’s basically what Burton and his regular collaborators bring to the table at this point. We can only hope that Frankenweenie represents some kind of return to form, however fleeting that may be.

Review: Alice in Wonderland (2010, Burton)


Alice in Wonderland (Burton, 2010)
2/10

Tim Burton’s adaptation of the musical Sweeney Todd signaled a possible return to form for the director whose work has become intermittently successful. The 2000’s were a very uneven decade for him. Starting out with his worst film to date Planet of the Apes, then moving on to the refreshing personal work that was Big Fish and then on to the mediocre Corpse Bride and the horrid Charlie and the Chocolate Factory finally moving to the fantastic Sweeney Todd. Will this decade be better for Burton? He certainly is not getting off to a good start with Alice in Wonderland, a film in the same league of misfire as his first film of the 2000’s, Planet of the Apes.

While Burton adapting Lewis Carroll seems like a match made in heaven in concept, it isn’t when Disney is thrown into the mix along with Burton’s visually exploratory ambition missing in action. Disney, who requested that Burton direct their planned live action adaptation, takes out any elements of Carroll and instead puts in elements of other works that don’t belong in the author’s created world. The nonsense, pointlessness, narcissism, exploratory structure, satire and humor are gone. Also gone, with the decision to have Alice be 19, is the journey of a child’s acceptance into the world she is part of. This change would have been interesting if the film had replaced the themes of the original with something worthwhile. Instead Wonderland, or as it has been transformed in the film, Underland, is a place filled with purpose and seriousness with underwritten characters galore who are far too humanized and underdeveloped to justify the decision to change the basic characteristics of nearly everyone.

The main plot involves Alice played by Mia Wasikowska, now 19 with no memory of having gone to Wonderland as a young girl. On the day that she unknowingly attends her engagement party and flees a marriage proposal in front of everyone, she finds herself going own the rabbit hole once again and seeing Underland, a deadened version of Wonderland due to the Red Queen (Helena Bonham-Carter) taking over the land from her sister the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). With help from The Mad Hatter and others, Alice sets out on her task to fulfill her destiny. She is now a chosen one, with a mission to carry out which involves slaying the Jabberwocky because it is foretold in an oracle in the form of a scroll…or something.

One of the main problems with the plot, bad on nearly all counts in its execution, is that 20 minutes into the film it is revealed exactly where the climax is headed and what will take place within it. While we can safely assume that the film will end happily that does not give screenwriter Woolverton the right to insert the exact circumstances of where Alice’s journey will end. That greatly decreases story involvement right off the bat and diffuses any sustained interest. In the film, Wonderland is a place where things actually happen; where events take place followed by consequences and long term effects are felt by Wonderland’s inhabitants. This grounds the world with a purpose and tangibility which takes away Carroll’s intentions on every level. Again, doing something this critical to the author’s intention needs to be justified by the quality of the storytelling but Disney, Burton and Woolverton do nothing to justify their bastardization. Luckily though, the first 10 minutes of the film, the last 2 minutes and probably 9 minutes in the midst of the wasteland that is the rest of the film are well done. At least it starts and ends on a good note.

Surely the contrivances can be made up for by the visuals? No. Burton feels like he is sleepwalking through this endeavor. Not only is there very little creativity gone into making a unique world filled with surprises but the effects themselves are consistently self conscious and mediocre. The idea of Underland should have brought a lot of interesting concepts to the table. How do you make Wonderland look and feel broken down? Dead? Ravished and decayed? Apparently you don’t do much. The world neither popped or amazed; in fact it was boring. There should have been a level of fascinating discovery and unpredictability to the visuals but instead Underland becomes mere background. Something needs to fill the screen, right?

Add to all of this the weak characterization and the making of a truly bad film begin to emerge. The White Rabbit has gone from fidgety and impatient to….nothing. He has no character at all. The Caterpillar retains his sense of frustration and wisdom but his wisdom is placed in a context making him merely a storytelling prop. The White Queen has not one line of characterization and Anne Hathaway, severely miscast is left to theatrical mannerisms and delivery in order to infuse some sense of character into someone who on the page could be anybody. Tweedledee and Tweedledum quibble a bit and represent more indifference. The Cheshire Cat is kind of sly and clever but floats around with lines that don’t assert his character to the extent they should.

Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter is the biggest misfire of all. His Hatter is all about changing accents and mumbling his words so nobody can understand them. This performance is another bag of eccentricities and accents combined with an extreme appearance but it does not work this time. He is uninteresting to watch and annoying at times. While the concept behind humanizing him is interesting, the execution of it is wishy-washy. If the performance itself had been different, maybe this aspect of the film would have been more successful. Depp’s incomprehensible rabble is so forced and uninteresting that he buries most of the character’s intentions with his eccentricity overload. And wait till you get to his dance move because it could be the most quintessential jump the shark moment in a film in recent memory.

There were a few characters that did work. The March Hare was pure insanity with humor to boot but is used far too little. Bayard was mildly interesting and Stayne (Crispin Glover) was underwhelming but was acceptable in comparison to other characterizations the film had to offer.

The only truly successful aspect of the entire film is Helena Bonham-Carter’s performance as The Red Queen. While her lines are questionable, Bonham-Carter not only makes the dialogue work to her advantage but she actually manages to be consistently funny and entertaining, creating a very memorable character and performance. She actually creates something and works with what she is given in a way that helped her instead of drowning her in poor writing ala Hathaway. Her scenes are entertaining and her presence livens up the film every time she appears. Not only is she great but she looks fantastic managing to be the only visually satisfying character.

Mia Wasikowska carries the film as Alice. Without her, this would have been unwatchable. She does a really nice job, managing to keep the film somewhat interesting with her stunning presence. Her fabulous work on the first season of “In Treatment” revealed her as a young actress to watch and judging by her upcoming projects, she is about to make a stamp in the ingénue world.

Between the thin and contrived plot, the absence of wonder and unpredictability and visual creativity and the underwritten and uninteresting characters (outside of the Red Queen), Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is no more than a snoozefest; a visual bore surrounded by a bad script makes for a weak retelling of Carroll’s story that lacks his spirit and misses the point of the author’s lack of purpose. Maybe if this had not been a Disney film but a project that was allowed to go to dark places maybe something could have come of it. Maybe. However, the success of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, a PG film reeking of danger, paranoia and oncoming dread managed to be impressively moody and dark, rendering Alice in Wonderland’s family friendly PG rating a weak excuse for the film’s failure. Basically; go watch Jan Svankmajer’s version.