Usually November is a huge movie-watching month for me thanks to maxing out on AFI Fest (last year I think I saw upwards of 15-20 films at the festival), but I cut back significantly this year, skipping midnights and not planning more than two programs per day, which also included a number of shorts programs. So I only ended up with six features from the fest, which was a much more manageable number for me this year. I’ve largely used the same brief reviews I posted earlier on Row Three (some slightly condensed, but not much), but you can also read rundowns of the shorts programs over there if you’re so inclined. Then I was typically late getting all this together, and since I watched relatively few films in December as well, decided to throw those into the same post.
What I Loved
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
I saw the 2D version, in 24fps, and I’m glad I did, so I wouldn’t be distracted/thinking about tech things instead of the story itself. I really enjoyed the film, at least as much if not more than the LOTR films. I was worried about the length, given the snappiness of the book, and they’re definitely giving it a more epic feeling than the novel, but it works. The added and adapted stuff from the LOTR appendices fits well, and ties the story closer to LOTR in nice ways, while still keeping some of the lighter, more humorous tone of The Hobbit. The pacing is much better than I expected, with only a bit of padding/repetitiveness toward the beginning causing me any doubts at all. (NOTE: We went back to see the 48fps version later, and I don’t want to get into here, but you can see my reaction specifically to the technical aspects on Letterboxd.)
2012 USA/New Zealand. Director: Peter Jackson. Starring: Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Stephen Fry, Hugo Weaving.
Seen December 15 at The Rave.
Any new Tarantino movie is automatically near the top of my anticipated list, and this one was no different. It didn’t disappoint. With Christoph Waltz in his meatiest role since, well, Inglourious Bastards, as a bounty hunter joining forces with freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) to take down some bounty targets and eventually get Django’s wife back, it’s a Southern-style spaghetti western revenge tale that was bound to tickle my fancy. Everyone is having gleeful fun with this, right down to Leonardo diCaprio’s slimy Southern aristocrat. Tarantino doesn’t shy away from the subject either, with some brutality is sometimes quite difficult to watch (though there’s plenty of the cool kind of violence as well), and just wait until you see what role he’s got for Samuel L. Jackson. The whole cast gives it their all, whether heroes or villains, and though there’s plenty of Tarantino’s signature dialogue and scene-making, it also moves rather faster and seems less self-indulgent on the script side than often is the case. I don’t think it’s the masterpiece that Inglourious Bastards is, but it’s a whole lot of fun, and there’s no arguing that.
2012 USA. Director: Quentin Tarantino. Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo diCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson.
Seen December 26 at The Rave.
I was a pretty big fan of Quentin Dupieux’s previous film Rubber, and I may have loved Wrong even more, with its full-blown absurdity bolstered by an ever-so-slightly more substantial story. Dolph Springer wakes up one morning to find his beloved dog missing, an event that sends his already spiraling life even more out of control. Other things he’s dealing with: his workplace is constantly raining (yes, inside the office), his coworkers seem very intent that he doesnâ€™t belong there, his neighbor and seemingly only friend leaves suddenly on a driving trip to find himself or something, the girl at the pizza place seems to have developed an obsession with him, and whatâ€™s more, the palm tree in his backyard has mysteriously turned into a pine tree. â€œThere shouldnâ€™t be a pine tree here. It doesnâ€™t make sense.â€ No, it doesnâ€™t, and neither does anything else in the film â€“ except, as true absurdity should, it sort of does, right down to the eventually-revealed reason for the dogâ€™s disappearance. Everything in the film is wrong, from obvious things like it raining indoors and trees randomly changing types to the ways people interact with each other. Itâ€™s a perfect storm of the awkward and nonsensical, and thanks to the deadpan script and actorsâ€™ perfect timing throughout, itâ€™s absolutely hilarious even as you feel bad for these people who canâ€™t quite manage to get along in any way that even resembles normalcy. Itâ€™s definitely getting my vote for funniest film Iâ€™ve seen this year, and I think itâ€™s safe to say that Dupieux is perfectly tapped into my sense of humor.
2012 France. Director: Quentin Dupieux. Starring: Jack Plotnick, Eric Judor, Alexis Dziena, Steve Little, William Fichtner, Regan Burns, Mark Burnham.
Seen November 2 at AFI Fest, Chinese Theatres.
I went into this knowing next to nothing about the story of Anna Karenina except that it’s about a scandalous affair in 19th century Russia, and Anna’s fate. I’ve never been particularly interested in the story before, as it sounded dreary and depressing (i.e., stereotypically Russian), but I’ve loved every Joe Wright film I’ve seen, and I’ve seen them all except The Soloist. I figured it would at least be a spectacle worth seeing, and I was sure right about that. Between the sets, costumes, score, and camerawork, I was mesmerized for the entire film. I have no idea how close it is to the novel – I hear people complaining that Wright left Tolstoy behind in making the film, but you know what? I don’t care. This is a gorgeous movie that manages to get across its points about a decadent society and its focus on appearances, the contrast between selfish and selfless love, and the gender inequality of the time while never failing to be visually sumptuous. I was worried about the conceit of having everything on a single set, but it worked completely for me – the long takes sometimes taking us from one place to a completely different place without ever cutting are virtuosic and when the film DOES take a break from the stage-bound set, it’s for good thematic reasons. To me, this is possibly Wright’s best adaptation, because it doesn’t feel so stiflingly bound to the book as Atonement, but rather takes flight with Wright’s imagination, and that’s what I want to see in an adaptation – the director’s vision of what the source material could be cinematically.
2012 UK. Director: Joe Wright. Starring: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Domhnall Gleeson, Matthew Macfadyen, Alicia Vikander, Kelly Macdonald, Olivia Williams, Emily Watson, Michelle Dockery.
Seen November 18 at Arclight Hollywood.
I think I may be enough biased towards this story and music that it would’ve been hard for Tom Hooper to screw it up to the point where I wouldn’t like it. I mean, the version I’ve seen the most is the Royal Albert Hall concert version which isn’t even staged, and it still affects me greatly. But the good news is that Hooper didn’t actually screw it up at all. It’s easy to nitpick if you want (they cut out parts of songs and moved them around; they filmed in intense close-up and shallow focus most of the time; not all the singers are as good as the Broadway counterparts, etc etc etc.), but I’d rather not. Russell Crowe is the weak link voice-wise, and it’s noticeable on his two solos, but he’s actually quite good when interacting with the rest of the cast, even while singing. Amanda Seyfried managed to make me care more about Cosette than I ever have before. Anne Hathaway and Eddie Redmayne ran off with the film, making the most of Hooper’s closeups to put pure raw emotion on screen. Samantha Barks brought the same humanity and expansiveness to Eponine that she did on Broadway. The shooting style is aggressively close-up, but intentionally so – it focuses in on the pain of these people, and their joys, and when a wide shot is needed, Hooper uses them. I was fully moved and taken with the story yet again, and I was quite satisfied.
2012 USA. Director: Tom Hooper. Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter.
Seen December 29 at The Rave.
I’d heard that Drive (one of my favorite films of 2011) called back to this film especially among its 1970s and 1980s influences, and that’s absolutely true. The character of The Driver is pretty similar – laconic guy who’s an amazing getaway driver but has to get his hands dirty when a job turns out to be a set-up – plus the opening sequence of Drive is clearly modeled on the opening sequence here. The Driver doesn’t have near the stylistic overload that Drive does, but that’s okay – the aesthetics of this film work for it. Most of the car chases (which are fantastic – it’s amazing to me this film isn’t always mentioned in the company of Bullitt, The French Connection, Ronin, etc., when talking about great car chase movies) are done without music, it’s got a pretty toned down visual style, and pretty straight-forward character dynamics. But yeah, it all works, does what it sets out to do, and is quite satisfying.
1978 USA. Director: Walter Hill. Starring: Ryan O’Neal, Isabelle Adjani, Bruce Dern.
Seen December 9 at home.
In Another Country
The last three AFI Fests have all included films from South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo, and itâ€™s a trend I certainly hope continues, because though heâ€™s virtually unknown here aside from avid festival-goers, his films are consistently delightful and refreshing. In Another Country has a framing device of a young Korean girl writing three versions of a story, each involving a Frenchwoman (Isabelle Huppert) visiting the same Korean seaside town; each time sheâ€™s a slightly different character in different circumstances, but with many similar experiences. Hongâ€™s previous film The Day He Arrives was also interested in repetition with variation, but In Another Country feels more finished and polished than that film did. Itâ€™s also more broadly funny, with Hong exploiting the language barrier for all its worth (all the characters speak English with each other, as neither French nor Korean is a shared language), but never cheaply or meanly. Itâ€™s an utterly charming film that uses character interactions and conversations to drive its ever-so-slight plot (or plots), and Hongâ€™s mastery of conversation-driven scripting is second-to-none. Also, having Huppert on board is never a bad thing. She brings a slight melancholy to her three characters, each of whom is in Korea for a different but not necessarily happy reason, and inquiring curiosity about the folk around her. Even though weâ€™re only with each one of her characters for about twenty minutes, itâ€™s impossible not to be drawn right into her story each time. Meanwhile, the Korean actor who plays the lifeguard matches her in charisma, his upbeat cheerfulness and interest in her overcoming the linguistic and cultural barriers between them. Not a whole lot happens in the film beyond a lot of eating, drinking, and conversation, but itâ€™s never less than enthralling.
2012 South Korea. Director: Hong Sang-Soo. Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Kwon Hye Hyo, Jung Yu Mi, So-ri Moon, Moon Sung Keun.
Seen November 4 at AFI Fest, Chinese Theatres.
One Week (1920; rewatched December 25) – Popped this one in to check the transfer on the Buster Keaton Blu-ray set my wonderful husband gave me for Christmas, and it looks gorgeous. Also, the film is hilarious, with Keaton and his new bride trying to set up a proto-Ikea do-it-yourself house.
Shadow of a Doubt (1942; rewatched December 31) – Of all the films in the Hitchcock Blu-ray set, this is the one I most wanted Jonathan to watch, so we did on the last night of the year. Still great, and the crisp B&W fairly pops out of the screen on Blu-ray.
A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992; rewatched December 25) – One of my all-time favorite Christmas movies, and I haven’t had the chance to watch it in a few years, so we made sure to make time for it this Christmas.