Four years ago, Neill Blomkamp scored an unexpected hit with his first feature, the science fiction/action film District 9. Carried by a manic performance by breakout star Sharlto Copley, the movie adroitly (or not so adroitly, depending on who you ask) morphed from faux documentary into shoot ‘em up, without ever losing sight of the central metaphor that made it a vicious critique of South Africa’s immigration policy. Now Blomkamp is back with Elysium, which he wrote and directed, another high-concept science fiction offering. Working with a much higher budget and actual big-name stars, Blomkamp delivers a mindless action vehicle that’s at least often visually arresting. It’s one step above most of the terrible science fiction blockbusters of the year (I’m looking at you, Oblivion and Star Trek Into Darkness), but several steps below Blomkamp’s own debut.
Elysium opens with some expository text explaining that by the end of the 21st century, our planet got so polluted and overpopulated that the rich and powerful just up and left for a space station, the eponymous Elysium, leaving the poor behind to toil away in giant factories. This is accompanied alternatively by shots of Elysium, so lush and green it looks like Naboo in the Star Wars prequels, and of a run-down Earth where all cities seem to have devolved into slums (in one of the film’s cooler shots, we see a dilapidated tower with people camping out on makeshift balconies). We then move from this global scale to a much personal one, as we’re treated to a series of flashbacks showing us how two kids, Max and Frey, met in a Los Angeles orphanage run by Spanish-speaking nuns. This sequence feels rushed and awkward, a clumsy way to provide generic backstory and heavy-handed foreshadowing (“One day I’ll take you up there,” Max tells Frey as she’s drawing a symbol she says means “Max and Frey forever” on his hand). This doesn’t prevent Blomkamp from coming back to those flashbacks throughout the movie, just in case we didn’t get it the first time around.
Finally we get to the present, or at least to 2154, when the film’s action takes place. Max (Matt Damon) is now in his 30s, and he’s just finished a 3-year stint in jail for grand theft auto. He works at the local droid plant, building the very robots that then harass him as soon as he sets foot outside his apartment. This part plays like a black comedy, with Los Angeles as some sort of fascist state ruled by robots that threaten you with jail time before offering you pills to calm your nerves, and the conversation between Max and his “probation officer” (a crude mannequin that asks at some point if Max is “being sarcasting-slash-abusive” towards it) seems like something right out of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Yet the whole thing is undermined by the fact that Max brought this all on himself, willfully antagonizing security droids when he knows full well they’d be suspicious of him to begin with. Max’s idiocy is short-lived and plot-mandated: in the ensuing scuffle, his arm gets broken, which sends him to the hospital so that he can then run into Frey (Alice Braga) and reconnect with her after years spent apart. Unfortunately, most of what happens in the film similarly does because the plot demands it, and acts of inexplicable stupidity and transparent contrivances are commonplace.
While Max is trying to convince a less-than-willing Frey to go grab coffee with him, local kingpin Spider (Wagner Moura) is busy sending illegal shuttles towards Elysium. The station’s Secretary of Defense, Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster, who gets to show off her flawless French), will have none of it, though, and she calls on psychotic agent Kruger (Copley) to shoot down the shuttles. Elysium doesn’t seem to be equipped with any defense system of its own, which seems like a pretty big oversight until you realize that Blomkamp needs to introduce Kruger as working in Los Angeles somehow; once again, plot takes precedence over logic. Delacourt’s handling of the situation is met with disapproval from Elysium’s President, so she comes up with an elaborate plan to stage a coup. Meanwhile, back at his job, Max gets accidentally (as in, by being stupid) irradiated, and when he gets told he has five days to live, he decides to find a way to go up to Elysium to use one of the station’s Med-Pods, which have been shown to be able to cure every ailment. Of course, Max soon gets himself tangled up not only in Spider’s machinations, but in Delacourt’s as well.
If that sounds a little complicated, well, it is and it isn’t. There are theoretically many players in Elysium, but in effect, the film quickly comes to revolve around Max and Kruger, while the others sit around and watch. And I mean that quite literally: Spider and Delacourt both spend a good chunk of the movie sitting in front of computer screens, watching the other two running around or shooting at each other. Frey has it even worse; the introduction makes it seem as though she’s going to be a major character, but what little screen time she has she spends either following Max around or cowering in terror from Kruger and his henchmen. (To be entirely fair, she does get to patch up a wounded Max at some point, but that’s about it.) That’s because Frey isn’t so much a character as a prop to move the plot forward. So is everyone else; Spider can be a ruthless crime lord one moment and a humanist working for the greater good the next, and Kruger can make the most baffling decisions, all based on what the story needs them to be and do at a certain point. Everything about Elysium is similarly mechanical (insert joke about Max’s goofy-looking exoskeleton if you will), meant to take you from point A to point B with little regard for things like character motivation or development. If District 9 worked, it’s because Wikus van de Merwe and Christopher Johnson were actual characters; the whole point of the movie was Wikus’s transformation from a callous bureaucrat into a more compassionate individual. But there’s no such thing at Elysium’s core.
Movies should be judged on their own right, of course, but Elysium really seems to invite the comparison to its predecessor. Not only are both science fiction actioners built around a central allegory, but whole parts of Elysium seem lifted straight from District 9. The basic story is exactly the same: guy gets irradiated/infected by something that will kill him/turn him into an alien within days and tries to find a way to save himself. Max, like Wikus, spends most of the movie motivated only by his own survival, and finds himself forced to fight a psychotic South African mercenary working for a nefarious government (Copley’s intense and creepy Kruger is one of the best things about the movie, but he’s no match for David James’s Koobus Venter). Frey and her leukemia-addled daughter even serve the same role as Christopher and his son did in District 9 by forcing the hero to reconsider his actions, but unlike the alien duo, they don’t get to actually do anything. It’s as if Blomkamp had decided to remake his own movie, replacing the characters by hollowed-out versions, and making whatever cosmetic changes are necessary to accommodate the allegory he is working with this time.
When it comes to that central allegory, Elysium has the subtlety of a sledgehammer (I mean, the rich live in a space station named after the closest thing Greek mythology had to Heaven, come on). That isn’t necessarily a problem; after all, District 9 was hardly a model of subtlety itself. What is a problem, though, is the fact that Blomkamp doesn’t seem particularly interested in what his premise has to offer beyond a basic setting for his movie, an excuse for his action scenes. Sure, having Kruger, the film’s main antagonist, be under the heel of the Elysium elites for most of the movie is a nice touch (the poor fighting the poor while the rich prosper), but that’s about as far as Elysium goes. We’re never made to understand just how that world works, what the exact consequences of Max’s actions might be. In Elysium, class inequality is a problem that can be fixed by strapping on a nifty exoskeleton and duking it out with a South African psycho, or so it seems. But as Delacourt points out early on in the movie, resources on Elysium are not infinite, and giving everyone access to it does nothing to solve that problem. By the time Matt Damon is punching Sharlto Copley in the face on a suspended bridge, though, Blomkamp seems to have long lost interest in that question, and the film’s class politics dissolve in a barrage of explosions and barely intelligible action. One man changing the world with his fists, the Hollywood way. If only it were so easy.
Warning: The following contains some minor spoilers for Pacific Rim, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Iron Man 3 (if you count a very oblique reference a spoiler).
Over the past couple weeks I’ve had what basically amounts to the same conversation with several different people who didn’t seem to have enjoyed Pacific Rim as much as I did, to put it lightly. Most of them actually seemed baffled that I could love it so much. “But the story’s so predictable!” they said. “And the characters are a bunch of clichés!” And, to a certain extent, they’re right. Pacific Rim’s story is rather straightforward and traditional, and most of its characters are broad archetypes. But my response to that is, why is that such a bad thing?
I’m not trying to be glib here. I mean it. Why is having a story whose shape you can recognize considered a weakness? Why is relying on archetypes suddenly a problem? Of course, Pacific Rim’s detractors will argue that its story is too predictable, its characters too archetypal. I’d contend that you can only reach that conclusion if you refuse to engage with the movie at all, if you only look at it at a surface level. But there’s something else. The more I think about it, the more I realize the problem is not with Pacific Rim. The problem is with modern blockbusters, and with the expectations they have created.
Do you know what other movie has a story that fits a very traditional mold and characters that are barely more than archetypes? Star Wars. You’ve got the farmhand destined to be a hero, the mysterious mentor, the princess in distress, the wisecracking mercenary who turns out to be a valuable ally, the seemingly all-powerful evil adversary, etc. (Yes, things get slightly more complex once you hit The Empire Strikes Back.) Star Wars is high fantasy in space, and it hits every tope in the book. What makes Star Wars so good, though, is the way it manages to create an entire world, to give us a glimpse into this place and make us believe it really could exist… which is exactly what Pacific Rim does, too! And it does it using the same tricks, giving people and places names that stand out, making things look striking and unique. Luke Skywalker and Stacker Pentecost. Tattooine and the Shatterdome. The Mos Eisley Cantina aliens and the kaiju. Pacific Rim is like Star Wars in many, many ways (down to the exposition-heavy dialogue and at times awkward acting).But we don’t want our blockbusters to be like Star Wars anymore.
Nope, nowadays, we want our blockbusters to be like The Dark Knight. We want our heroes to be dark and tortured, our plots to be as convoluted as possible. Don’t get me wrong, I love The Dark Knight; I just hate what it’s done to Hollywood.
Don’t believe me? Just take a look at this year’s crop of blockbusters. Everywhere you look, it’s brooding heroes and excessively complicated stories. I say complicated, not complex, because most of those stories have little in the way of complexity. Complex is hard to pull off, after all, but complicated is the next best thing, and with any luck, people won’t be able to tell the difference, especially if you re-use the same tired thematic cues everyone else is using in order to make it seem as though you’ve got something to say. We’ve been made to think that a complicated story is a smart story, and that a straightforward one is dumb. So blockbusters are packed with reveals, reversals, betrayals, and other plot twists, most of them to the point that they stop making any sense.
Take Star Trek Into Darkness, for instance. Into Darkness features not one but two villains, about half a dozen dramatic reveals, and more War on Terror imagery than The Dark Knight itself. Into Darkness is also perhaps the most stupid film I’ve seen all year. And I’ve seen Trance. The problem (or, rather, one of the many problems) with Into Darkness is that, in order to seem complex, it refuses to reveal any of its characters’ motivations for the longest time, which in turn means that the villains’ respective plans make no sense at all. (Seriously, Khan’s plan has got to be one of the dumbest I’ve ever heard.) But, hey, Khan’s a terrorist, and there’s some vague mention of drone-like weapons, too, so this must be a deep movie, right? Nope, sorry, it’s just a super dumb film trying to trick you into believing it’s not. And Into Darkness isn’t the only movie to suffer from this problem. So does Iron Man 3, an otherwise much, much better film: the Mandarin reveal works beautifully, in large part because Ben Kingsley sells it so well, but the main villain’s plan is at best vague, at worst incoherent. Even blockbusters in which the entire world isn’t at stakes (a rarity these days) aren’t immune, as The Wolverine proves. As long as it tries to be The Grey with Hugh Jackman instead of Liam Neeson, it works alright, but when it finally starts delving into the machinations that have been going on in the background, it stops making sense altogether.
Pacific Rim doesn’t suffer from this problem. Pacific Rim makes sense throughout. Sure, the science is a bit wonky, but in terms of story logic, of going from point A to point B without having to make a stop at point “everyone becomes really stupid all of a sudden,” Pacific Rim is super solid. Is the story simple? Yes, absolutely. Is it dumb? I’d argue it isn’t. Star Trek Into Darkness is dumb. Prometheus is dumb. Hell, Man of Steel is pretty fucking dumb. (Man, the whole Pa Kent thing is so irredeemably stupid.) But Pacific Rim’s story, as familiar and straightforward as it may seem, isn’t dumb. And the main reason for that is that we understand why the movie’s characters do what they do, and that those motivations actually make sense.
Which brings us to, yeah, characters. As I’ve already said, there’s no denying that Pacific Rim’s characters are, for the most part, broad archetypes. But at least they’re actual characters, with their own motivations and personalities, traits that come out in their interactions with one another. Again, that’s more than can be said about most blockbusters these days. Take Star Trek Into Darkness, again. Into Darkness has, what, perhaps two actual characters, Kirk and Spock, and I’m being generous. Everyone else can be defined in at most a sentence (Khan is evil (because he’s evil), Simon Pegg is the character Simon Pegg plays in every non-Edgar Wright movie, and Karl Urban frowns a lot) and, more importantly, they barely interact with anyone that’s not Kirk or Spock. They’re not characters so much as props standing around, which wouldn’t be that bad if Kirk and Spock had fully-fledged, vibrant personalities, but, yeah, not really. (I’d argue Spock’s only interesting because he truly feels alien, which is due more to Zachary Quinto’s performance than to the limp script he’s saddled with.) The Wolverine is even worse, in that no one but Logan seems to have any personality whatsoever. At least Logan gets some kind of character development, which is more than can be said of anyone in Into Darkness. (If it seems like I hate that movie, well, it’s because I do.)
But the characters in Pacific Rim do get to interact with one another, they get to show us why they’re the way they are, even when the way they are feels very familiar. Raleigh, who would have spent half the movie moping around after his brother’s death in any other blockbuster (man that would have sucked) serves as a catalyst; much like Jack Burton in John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, he may be the movie’s protagonist, but he’s not the hero (that would be, of course, Mako). Thanks to him, we gain access to the Mako/Pentecost relationship (still what I consider by far the best thing about the movie, and a much more interesting relationship than you’ll find in pretty much any modern blockbuster), and to the one between Hercules Hansen and his son Chuck. And while the Raleigh/Chuck sorta-rivalry may feel rehashed, here it’s not so much about the protagonist earning the respect and loyalty of an ally, but about understanding why a character is acting like a dick (because, hey, Chuck’s actually got very good reasons not to be thrilled about Raleigh and Mako piloting a Jaeger) and having him turn into, well, somewhat less of a dick. (The exchange between Pentecost, Chuck, and Herc as the first two set out to kick some kaiju ass at the end packs a surprising punch, if you accept to actually engage with those characters. Herc’s “That’s my son you’ve got there!” gets me every time.) If Raleigh’s so bland, and there’s no denying he is, it’s because Pacific Rim belongs to its secondary characters, to Stacker Pentecost and Mako Mori (again, the movie’s real hero for me), to Herc and Chuck Hansen, to Newton Geiszler and Hermann Gottlieb. And, of course, to Hannibal Chau. All archetypes, sure, but all much more real and interesting in their interactions with one another than most other blockbusters’ characters.
Because, as del Toro clearly understand, and as so many Hollywood execs seem not to, simple isn’t the same as dumb, and complicated sure as hell isn’t the same as smart.
There’s a moment in Fast & Furious 6, that featured heavily in the trailers, where Dom (Vin Diesel) jumps off the roof of a moving car to save (ex-)girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), miraculously brought back after her apparent death in the series’ fourth installment. What the trailers don’t show you, though, is the way director Justin Lin builds up to that moment. The scene takes place on a two-lane bridge, with Letty riding atop a tank in one lane and Dom driving his muscle car in the other. Between the two lanes is a large gap; if Letty falls, she’s unlikely to come back this time. As Letty climbs on top of the tank, Lin cuts to a reaction shot of Dom, who puts his car in higher gear to catch up with the tank. Letty’s going to fall, we know, but Lin drags it out, cutting from the tank to Dom’s car to the various other players in the chase and back to Dom again. And then, in one instant, it happens: Dom, a hand still on the steering wheel, climbs out the window, and just as Letty is catapulted into the air, he jumps. His aim is perfect, and we watch (in slow motion, of course) as he catches Letty in mid-air, wraps his arms around her, and twists his body around to break her fall, right before they slam into the windshield of a stalled car. At that point, just as Dom’s body comes to rest against the windshield, the entire theater I was in erupted in laughter—and applause.
The Fast & Furious franchise is all about moments like that one, big, preposterous moments that invite equally big reactions from the audience. No one understands that better than Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan, who have helmed the franchise since the third installment and know exactly how to please the fans. Dom’s motto is “ride or die,” but it might as well be “go big or go home.” And since 2011’s Fast Five, no franchise has gone more outrageously and enjoyably big than this one.
Fast Five was built on the genius idea of bringing together almost every single character in the franchise, creating a criminal superteam not unlike that of Ocean’s Eleven (except more racially diverse, and with more female members). For this installment, the team is joined by DSS agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) who spent the previous movie chasing after them but now needs their help catching an even bigger fish. The target is one Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), a former SAS operative and the leader of a gang that includes Letty, who’s trying to assemble a device that would allow him to black out all military communication in a country for 24 hours. This story, of course, is little more than an excuse for a series of set pieces each more outrageous than the last, from several races through London to a climactic sequence taking place on what has to be the longest runway in the world.
The danger with any long-running franchise is to have later installments turn into little more than a collection of nods to previous entries in the series, of in-jokes that make the new films inaccessible to anyone but die-hard fans. It’s a pitfall Fast & Furious 6 doesn’t entirely manage to avoid. The opening credits, for instance, consist of nothing but shots of the previous five movies, a sort of “previously on…” segment that will paradoxically make little sense to those who are new to the franchise. The Letty storyline also calls on stuff that happened in the previous two movies, and although Lin uses flashbacks to fill new viewers in, having prior knowledge of what happened sure helps. There’s a surprisingly large amount of backstory here, for a film whose story is mostly inconsequential.
The callbacks and in-jokes aren’t so numerous as to make the film incomprehensible for newcomers, though. Here it actually helps that the story is so simple, the characters barely more than archetypes, slight variations on their usual screen persona. Letty is the quintessential Michelle Rodriguez character, Dom’s the hotheaded badass Vin Diesel plays in almost every single one of his movies, and Dwayne Johnson is, well, Dwayne Johnson. (In what is perhaps my favorite throwaway gag of the year, his caller ID on Ludacris’s—sorry, Tej’s—phone is “Samoan Thor.”) New additions to the cast include Gina Carano, the former-MMA-champion-turned-action-star (who starred in Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant Haywire), as Hobbs’s aide Riley, and The Raid: Redemption’s Joe Talsim as one of Shaw’s henchmen. Neither has much in the way of dialogue, but needless to say, their respective fight scenes are among the best the franchise has ever had.
Fast & Furious 6, like Fast Five before it, is a modern action blockbuster done right. It’s big and loud and way, way over the top, and it’s self-aware without being self-conscious. It has Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson hamming it up and having the time of their life, Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris endlessly trading lame barbs, and Sung Kang (the breakout star of the franchise as far as I’m concerned) and Gal Gadot making googly eyes at each other and being surprisingly convincing about it. It has huge set pieces skillfully put together by a director who actually knows how to film tense action scenes that make visual sense. And above all, it has many, many big, preposterous moments that’ll make you want to cheer and clap and revel in the outrageousness of it all.
Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers tries very hard to make you believe it is a really dumb movie. This is a film, after all, whose opening sequence looks like one of those late-night Girls Gone Wild commercials, only in slow-motion and set to Skrillex. A film that has James Franco playing a rapper who moonlights as a drugs and arms dealer (and vice versa), calling himself Alien and driving a convertible with a “BALLR” license plate. No, seriously. Picture James Franco with cornrows, grills, and a huge dollar sign tattooed on his neck, speaking in a dubious accent and ending every other sentence with “y’all.” That’s how all-up-in-your-face stupid Spring Breakers is. Of course, there’s always a chance that it doth protest too much.
And in fact, after that ultra-aggressive introduction that shoves a good fifty different pairs of breasts in your face in under two minutes, Spring Breakers soon proves to be a much more contemplative movie than one might expect. We move from the beaches of Florida to some small town up north, where we meet our bored heroines. Brit (Ashley Benson), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), and pink-haired Cotty (Rachel Korine) are your stereotypical wild college girls, partying hard, smoking pot, doing the occasional line of coke. Faith (Selena Gomez) is quieter, an apparently tame churchgoing girl whose preacher looks like a somewhat less douchey version of Guy Fieri forever going on about how awesome Jesus is. All four are bored out of their minds and only dream of leaving their dull lives behind, even if only for a short while. Young people bored and dreaming of change; that’s been the basis for many a movie, and many a great one, too. It just so happens that the only thing those four can think of to get away from their boring small town and their boring lives is to get on a bus to Florida for Spring Break.
Except the girls don’t have enough money for the trip. We watch them sit around listlessly, wander the empty hallways of their dorms, go to parties where the only people there are those who didn’t manage to leave for Spring Break. Candy’s always carrying a squirt gun which she uses to squirt alcohol into her mouth (in case that wasn’t clear already, you can’t accuse this movie of being too subtle), which gives her, Brit, and Cotty the idea to rob the local fast food joint to finance their trip. Which they do. With Candy’s squirt gun, and a hammer. They brag to Faith about it afterwards, play it up as the coolest, most exciting thing they ever did. They mean it, too. Robbing a fast food restaurant so they can afford to go on Spring Break. This complete lack of ambition, even when committing crime, is kind of depressing.
So the girls get to St. Petersburg, and for a while everything’s alright. They party, they drink, they lounge in the pool. Do coke off of each others’ bodies. Until they get arrested because, well, even in Florida, coke’s illegal. (When the girls are made to stand before the judge, in the bikinis they were wearing when they got arrested, he hilariously concedes that he can’t charge them with possession, “because you didn’t have anything on your person.”) That’s when the aforementioned Alien (“Real name’s Al, but truth be told, I’m from another planet”) shows up, bails them out, and decides that he likes them so much that he wants to make them his right-hand women. Which Brit, Candy, and Cotty are more than happy to be.
In its second half, Spring Breakers has all the trappings of a crime film, including a turf war between Alien and his former best friend turned enemy, Big Arch. But it’s not a crime film, not really, not any more than the first half was really a Spring Break movie, or a female version of Project X. The same sense of being adrift with no clear purpose still permeates it all. Korine plays with the chronology, replays the same scenes over and over again, flashes forward to some detail we can’t make sense of yet, plays the same dialogue over slightly different images. “Spring Break,” Alien keeps repeating. “Spring Break forever.” Earlier, Faith complained that she couldn’t just pause life, freeze it, to live in the same moment forever. To be on Spring Break forever, as it were, and although her idea of Spring Break differs quite a bit from that of Alien, they’re expressing the same feeling, the idea that “normal” life makes no sense at all to them.
It would be easy to see Spring Breakers as an indictment of its characters’ pettiness and materialism. The film itself makes it almost too easy. When Alien invites the girls to his home, he shows them his large collection of guns, his countless baseball caps, his shorts that come in every single color. He literally makes them roll around in money, on his bed that’s not a bed, “but an art masterpiece.” “Look at my shit!” he keeps shouting. “This is the American dream!” Yet he isn’t beyond self-awareness, beyond the occasional ironic jab at himself. “I’ve got blue Kool-Aid!” he says. “I mean, look at my teeth, y’all!” And Franco sells it with a semi-goofy grin, displaying his grills.
No, Korine feels too much sympathy for his characters to be that judgmental. They’re messed up and lost and desperately looking for some form of validation, even if they’re looking in all the wrong places. “This is the most spiritual place I’ve ever seen,” Faith tells her grandmother on the phone, and she means it. How do you fill a void like that? Later, Alien sits at the piano by his pool, and at the girls’ request starts singing Britney Spears’s “Everytime”. Then Candy, Brit, and Cotty, wearing pink ski masks and armed with shotguns and assault rifles, join in. Korine films it as if it were the most profound thing in the world, and to them it is. That song, as generic as it may be (or maybe because it is so generic), actually speaks to them. Then the scene segues into a slow-motion montage of Alien and the girls attacking some of Big Arch’s henchmen, still set to the same song (with Britney actually taking over on vocals), and the whole thing is brutally stripped of all meaning. Until, at the last moment, we come back to Alien and the girls standing by the pool, singing together, watching the sun set. It’s fake and tacky, maybe, but it’s all they’ve got.
In the end, that’s what Spring Breakers is all about. “If you wanna go home, you can go home,” Alien tells Faith when she starts feeling uncomfortable around the gangster and his clique. “But then you’ll be home,” he adds. Back to square one. Back to the one place she couldn’t wait to leave. “Whenever you encounter temptation, God will offer you a way out,” the Guy Fieri preacher told her earlier, which would sound like a heavy-handed moral to the film if leaving were obviously the right decision to make. Which of course it is, from our point of view at least. From that of the girls, not so much. Spring Break can’t last forever, not even for Alien, not even for Brit and Candy, and it’s not where, as Faith believed, the girls can be “who they’re supposed to be.” Spring Breakers is pretty pessimistic about whether there is even such a place. Maybe Spring Break, even Alien’s version of it, really is the best the girls can hope for.
This has been a weird year, movie-wise, for a number of reasons. Reason number one, of course, is that I live in France, and not in America, where the past couple months have seen the release of more prestige movies than the rest of the year combined. No such luck here: December brought Life of Pi and The Hobbit (and Beasts of the Southern Wild, a good six months after its American release), but Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, Django Unchained, Cloud Atlas, The Master, and even Silver Linings Playbook will have to wait for 2013 (meanwhile, Richard Linklater’s Bernie may never be released here). That’s the way distribution’s always worked, but this year it seems that more “big” movies didn’t make it here in time for Christmas—or it might be that there were more such movies to begin with.
Another, more personal reason is that I simply didn’t care all that much for most of the “big” movies we did get (including most of the Cannes lineup). I profoundly disliked Amour (to be honest, I’ve always been ambivalent, at best, towards Haneke), had huge issues with Life of Pi and Beyond the Hills, and was largely disappointed by Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film I’d been waiting for since Sundance and which turned out to be, as Ignatiy Vishnevetsky so rightly put it, bullshit. Even Holy Motors, acclaimed by critics everywhere, failed to entirely convince me, despite having some of my favorite cinematic moments of the year (including the intermission, which would probably top my list).
Yet in spite of all that, 2012 was still a very good year for film, thanks to a baffling number of strong genre efforts. In fact, 2012 may have been the best year for genre cinema in quite some time—the past two years were very top-heavy, with brilliant movies like Attack the Block, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, or Let Me In, while this year just had so many great genre films. That, to me, more than makes up for the (relative) lack of great prestige movie, and for having to wait until January to see Jessica Chastain kicking ass and Joaquin Phoenix running around like a lunatic.
My top 10 for the year actually has 12 movies on it, because I couldn’t get myself to cut two of them, and the whole exercise is completely arbitrary anyway. The rules are the same as last year, and the year before last: any movie released for the first time in France in 2012 is eligible, except for films that were released internationally in 2011 (if you want to see what my list would look like were those films included as well, just head over to the French version of this blog (my top of 2012 list should be up tomorrow, with any luck). As usual, this is of course highly subjective, and if you disagree with my picks, you’re probably wrong. Unlike the last two years, when Breathless and A Separation respectively topped my list, 2012 didn’t have one film I felt was head and shoulders above the rest (or rather, there was one, but it was one of those 2011 holdovers), and at least all the films in my top 3 could have ended up in first place (and probably would if you asked me on any other day).
10. Robot & Frank/The Deep Blue Sea/The Grey
In Jake Schreier’s Robot & Frank, Frank Langella struggles with old age; in Terence Davies’s The Deep Blue Sea, Rachel Weisz struggles with the disappointments of life, which never turns out the way we thought it would; and in Joe Carnahan’s The Grey, Liam Neeson struggles with his own mortality and with the loss of his wife (a case of reality turning an unsurprising plot development into quite the emotional sucker punch).
Despite their differences in terms of genre and approach (one’s a science fiction film about a retired crook and a robot teaming up, another one’s a survival movie in which Liam Neeson doesn’t quite get to punch wolves in the face), all three films turn out to be unexpectedly layered and heartbreaking, thanks in large part to great performances by their lead actors and, in The Deep Blue Sea’s case, by their supporting cast as well. If you’re feeling too high on life, try watching all three right after the other, it should bring you right back down to earth.
(Also, this is relevant.)
Here’s the thing: I’m usually no Steven Soderbergh fan. I tend to dislike his ensemble pieces immensely (I hated both Traffic and Contagion, and the Ocean’s movies range from mildly annoying to unwatchable), and to like his smaller efforts only marginally better (that being said, Out of Sight’s really good). But here’s the other thing: I really, really loved the two movies he put out this year. Magic Mike was smart and fun and OMG Channing Tatum’s abs, but Haywire was just a great action movie, period (and it also had Channing Tatum, natch). Gina Carano makes for a much more convincing action heroine than pretty much any other actress, the action scenes are brutal and beautiful and shot in a way that actually makes sense, and the script has a ton of fun with meta commentary about the way action films treat women. Simple, elegant, and tough.
8. The Raid: Redemption
Speaking of action, Gareth Evans’s The Raid: Redemption (what a dumb subtitle, really) was the adrenaline rush of the year, a relentless onslaught of violence punctuated by the occasional moment of visual poetry. It doesn’t get much simpler than “a bunch of cops are trapped in a building and must fight their way out,” but Evans milks that set-up for all it’s got, staging brutal set piece after brutal set piece, culminating in a two-on-one fight that keeps going for much longer than it has any right to, yet never feels too long. The Raid: Redemption is the kind of film you come out of physically exhausted, as if it was you who’d been getting your ass kicked for two hours.
Brave, Wreck-It Ralph, and even Rise of the Guardians were all good animation films, but Chris Butler and Sam Fell’s ParaNorman was by far the best of the bunch. It starts off as a sort of comedic twist on The Sixth Sense, then turns into a PG zombie movie, before going into some genuinely dark and scary places. Like another film a little further down this list, it also has a lot of fun with archetypes and horror tropes. The best thing about ParaNorman, though, is its awesome (as in awe-inspiring) climax, an astonishing sequence of visual bravura that plays out like the most thrilling video game boss fight while keeping the emotional stakes as high as they can be.
6. Paris by Night
Philippe Lefebvre’s Paris by Night is an old-fashioned noir, reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Melville’s films, and particularly Un Flic (the film’s original title, Une Nuit, even seems to be a deliberate Melville homage). For one night, we follow Roschdy Zem, as the commander of the Paris vice unit, as he visits bars, restaurants, and nightclubs, and tries to remain a step ahead of internal affairs and of the crooks that are trying to set him up. This is a moody and surprisingly complex film, and Zem, who seems to play nothing but cops and gangsters these days, delivers a great performance as a man who knows he’s doing the wrong thing but can’t find a way to do the right one. Not a single shot is fired in Paris by Night, but there’s more tension than in almost any other film that came out this year.
5. The Cabin in the Woods
In terms of pure fun, nothing this year beat Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods. Co-written with Joss Whedon, this is a marvel of a meta horror movie and a hilarious puzzle, full of twists and turns on top of more twists, and even more turns. I don’t like using the word “clever” to describe a movie, as it often implies shallowness, but The Cabin in the Woods is one hell of a clever film. And, yes, there’s no particular profundity to it. It is what it is, but what it is is a ton of fun, and one of the tightest screenplays this side of last year’s Attack the Block. Plus, you gotta love the way Goddard embraces the mayhem of the third act (one word: unicorn).
4. Oslo, August 31
From the year’s most fun movie to the most devastating. Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31 is a merciless character study, following 34-year-old Anders, a former drug addict who just got out of rehab. Anders (another one of the year’s great performance, by Anders Danielsen Lie) wanders around Oslo, a city he used to know so well, bumping into old friends turned strangers, trying to find a reason to go on living when the world seems to have passed him by entirely. In one of the best scenes of the year, Anders sits in a coffee house and listens to people, imagining what their lives must be like. No one seems able to show Anders the same empathy and compassion. “It’ll get better. It’ll all work out,” he tells his friend Thomas. Then his smile freezes. “Except it won’t, you know.”
3. Moonrise Kingdom
Perhaps my favorite Wes Anderson movie since Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom focuses, as usual, on an assorted group of outcasts and sad sacks, from Edward Norton’s inept scout master to Bruce Willis’s sad (but not dumb) police captain. It’s the kids that steal the show, though, and Anderson perfectly captures the awkwardness of adolescence with Sam and Suzy’s clumsy attempts at replicating adult courtship, followed by a no less clumsy moment of sexual awakening. The external world, so often a threat in Anderson’s films, is eventually integrated into the kids’ world rather than the other way around, and even Tilda Swinton’s inflexible social services agent (brilliantly named just “Social Services”) eventually softens up, making Moonrise Kingdom the most open of all of Anderson’s films.
Okay, so maybe Looper, and not The Cabin in the Woods, was the most fun you could have at the movies this year. Rian Johnson’s third feature (and second starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the perfect remedy to all those mindless science fiction blockbusters, a big-budget action movie with a brain—and one hell of a big heart. Like the best time travel movies, Looper isn’t so much about time travel itself as about its moral implications, about free will and determinism (“So I changed it” has got to be one of my favorite lines of the year). It’s the kind of movie I wish I could see for the first time every time, except it’s too much fun to see just how everything fits together.
If ever there was a movie for the 99%, David Cronenberg’s adaptation of the Don DeLillo novel is it. A brutal critique of capitalism run wild, Cosmopolis is set almost entirely in a limo drifting through a Tonronto barely disguised to look like New York going through the apocalypse. Everything in the movie happens on the edges of the screen, because its hero, golden boy Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), is too bored and self-obsessed to pay attention to the world that’s coming crashing down around him—even as he’s about to come crashing down with it. The esoteric dialogue (“I don’t understand that,” Samantha Morton’s character keeps repeating in her one scene) and somewhat slow pace make it a tough sell, but Cosmopolis is nothing short of phenomenal, and once again proves that Cronenberg is one of the very best directors working today.
Honorable mentions, in alphabetical order: Anna Karenina, Argo, The Avengers, The Day He Arrives, Holy Motors, Keep the Lights On, Killer Joe, Laurence Anyways, Premium Rush, Magic Mike, Skyfall, The We and the I.
With The Taste of Money, Im Sang-soo continues the portrait of South Korea’s ultra rich he started with his 2010 remake of The Housemaid. Designed like a spiritual successor to his previous film (one line of dialogue actually connects them more clearly), The Taste of Money follows the Yoons, a wealthy family controlling one of South Korea’s biggest conglomerates. The company, like the family, is ruled by Geum-ok (Yoon Yeo-jeong), the matriarch whose father—a paralyzed, wheezing man wheeled around by his personal assistant—still has a stake in the company; if Geum-ok’s husband (Baek Yoon-sik) is nominally the chairman of the board, his job consists mostly in carrying suitcases full of money to various officials so that they don’t look too closely into the company’s shady dealings.
The film actually opens with such a transaction, as the Yoons bribe a judge so that the corruption charges against their son Chul (On Joo-wan)—the CEO of the company—are dropped. This in turn allows them to resume their dealings with Robert Altman (Darcy Paquet), a corrupt American living in South Korea. Everything seems back under control, until it transpires that Chairman Yoon is having an affair with Eva (Maui Taylor), the family’s Filipino maid.
If that sounds like the synopsis to a soap opera episode, that’s because The Taste of Money, much like The Housemaid, feels a lot like a glossy soap opera to begin with. That’s not the only similarity between the two films, either. Here, like in The Housemaid, Im Sang-soo chooses to focus on an outsider to the family: in his previous film our main character was Eun-yi, the maid who falls for her employer (notice a pattern?), while here it is Joo Young-jak (Kim Kang-woo), a young man who’s worked for the family for close to a decade as a driver and a personal assistant. Like Eun-yi, Young-jak isn’t an entirely innocent character and has ambitions of his own, but he can’t imagine just how corrupt the Yoons, and particularly Geum-ok, really are. The character of Na-mi (Kim Hyo-jin), the Yoons’ divorced daughter, is also a nod to The Housemaid, in which Na-mi was the name of the girl Eun-yi was hired to look after. (Another amusing nod is the casting of Yoon Yeo-jeong, who played the sympathetic older maid in The Housemaid, to play the monstrous Geum-ok here.)
While The Housemaid was a claustrophobic thriller set almost entirely in one house, though, The Taste of Money is a sprawling, often aimless affair. At the center of it all is Young-jak, who is, sadly, a pretty bland protagonist, whose main characteristic is to be extremely good looking. (A hilarious scene has another female employee, with whom he has just had an argument, whimper and run away as he takes his shirt off, revealing his ripped chest.) Young-jak remains a passive observer for most of the movie; instead of holding the film together, this has the effect of making it seem all the more fractured.
It doesn’t help that Im Sang-soo doesn’t seem particularly interested in the business side of his story, which quickly becomes a problem when so many scenes are devoted to Chul and Altman hashing out a vague plan to establish a slush fund, and to the consequences of their actions. The affair between Yoon and Eva is clearly more interesting to the director, and for a while he has fun letting you try to figure out everyone’s motivations. That is, until he decides to have Yoon make a long speech about the whole thing, then another, then another. Yoon loves making speeches, and he’s not alone; every other character seems determined to hit you over the head with his or her own version of the film’s theme: money corrupts, and only love redeems. Nothing groundbreaking, and certainly not something that needs to be made explicit over and over again.
That’s not to say that The Taste of Money is all bad. Much like The Housemaid, it’s often trashy fun. There’s lots of sex, lots of ridiculous secrets and over-the-top twists, a truly evil villain, and if Im Sang-soo can’t quite match the brilliance and insanity of his previous film’s finale, he sure tries. The problem, of course, is that The Taste of Money isn’t much beyond trashy fun, which becomes painfully apparent as soon as the film starts lagging even a little. Or, you know, after Yoon tells you for the third time that money’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
Kim Han-min’s War of the Arrows begins the way you would expect a film with that title to begin, i.e., with a battle. The opening sequence shows the fall of a castle in 17th-century Korea, in what seems to be the waning days of a civil war (actually the conclusion of the 1623 coup that brought King Injo to power). The lord of the castle is branded a traitor for opposing Injo’s coup and murdered in front of his children, teenage Nam-yi and his younger sister Ja-in, who nevertheless manage to escape, taking with them their father’s prized bow, and to make it to Kaesong, where their father’s best friend takes them in.
Thirteen years pass, with Nam-yi (Park Hae-il, seen perhaps most notably in Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder and The Host) becoming an extremely talented archer but a bitter and jaded young man. When he learns that his host’s son, Seo-goon (Kim Mu-yeol) intends to marry Ja-in (Moon Chae-won), he opposes the wedding, on the grounds that he and his sister are still seen as the children of a traitor and that such a marriage would bring ruin to everyone involved. Seo-goon’s father overturns Nam-yi, though, and they go forward with the wedding.
Viewers unfamiliar with Korean history might at this point expect the film to turn into a war epic, perhaps the Korean answer to John Woo’s Red Cliff. The constant talk of Nam-yi and Ja-in’s status makes it seem as though civil war is once again brewing, and it is easy to imagine Seo-goon and Nam-yi joining forces to fight King Injo and avenge Nam-yi’s father. The film’s title, of course, only reinforces such expectations. (An alternative title is Arrow, The Ultimate Weapon, which, while quite the hyperbole, might fit the film better.)
That’s not quite what happens, though. Instead Seo-goon and Ja-in’s wedding is interrupted when a Manchu army storms the castle, killing Seo-goon’s father and capturing everyone but Nam-yi, who vows to find and rescue his sister. From then the film becomes not an epic chronicling the second Manchu invasion of Korea, but an action movie that follows Nam-yi as he mows down scores of Manchu warriors in his search for his sister.
If anything, War of the Arrows is more indebted to the western than it is to the war epic. Nam-yi is the cynical gunslinger—sorry, archer—who finds a purpose in life when he thought he had none, while Seo-goon is an awkward manchild who, when forced to face his responsibilities, finds that he is actually quite the brave and competent leader. The film is also in love with the Mexican standoff and features at least half a dozen of them, including not one, but two consecutive ones during the climax. More disturbingly, the depiction of the Manchus is reminiscent of that of Indians in pre-revisionist westerns. They’re cartoonishly evil monsters who use their prisoners for target practice, trick unarmed women and children into trying to flee so that they can ride them down and kill them, and are periodically taken by fits of maniacal laughter. Only Jyuushinta (Ryoo Seung-ryong), the Manchu general and only one to understand at once the threat Nam-yi poses, seems to have some depth and not to revel in gratuitous mayhem and destruction.
War of the Arrows doesn’t tread any particularly new ground, but what it does, it does well. The action is thrilling and doesn’t generally rely on too many close-ups and quick cuts (though there is an unfortunate scene involving a CGI tiger that looks straight out of a late-‘90s made-for-TV movie), and Nam-yi’s Green Arrow-like ability with the bow makes for some impressive sequences. The film is also surprisingly funny, most of the comic relief coming in the form of slapstick and physical comedy—a memorable fight in a high-class brothel early on in the movie ends in a most unexpected manner, and at some point we’re treated to a heavily-armed Manchu warrior fleeing in terror from a lone peasant with a rake. And if there are some uncomfortable overtones of South Korean nationalism, they’re not enough to detract from just how fun the whole thing is.