Maniac (2012) – Franck Khalfoun
I was already interested in this film when I heard Elijah Wood was going to be playing a serial killer. When I then heard that Khalfoun had decided to shoot the movie entirely in POV, I knew I had to be there. The movie, which I saw in an unrated edition, is graphically violent and incredibly disturbing. And, honestly, here’s hoping it doesn’t get trimmed to get an R; to make the murders less horrifying would be to declaw the movie and render it pointless. And besides Evil Dead was far gorier. The movie takes place in a stark, dark, gloomy city that seems perpetually under heavy rain clouds and filled with the reflections of lights off of dark, wet pavement. The POV stuff works incredibly well in some of the movies more visceral sections. The opening, in which Wood stalks and kills a girl in her darkened apartment building, is a masterpiece of slow burn tension building that climaxes in one of the most shocking deaths I’ve ever seen on film. A later sequence that begins in a subway car is nightmarish and brutal. The score is fantastic, a grim, unrelenting torrent of dissonant synths and low, tolling sounds; it’s by a fellow who goes only by the name Rob. Here’s hoping we hear more from this mysterious fellow. Wood’s performance, communicated mostly via voice over and the sound of his heavy breathing, is magnificent. In the moments when we see him in a mirror or in a reflection in glass or metal we see a figure at once frightening and pathetic. Wood’s diminutive size is used to wonderful effect in some scenes; a late confrontation in a men’s room brings home very powerfully just how tiny and pathetic this young man is, serial killer or not. The film goes off the rails in the last five minutes or so with an ending that I thought was . . . unnecessary, shall we say? But the film is a gripping, horrifying experience. Not for the faint of heart. People have walked out, including the film critic for the Guardian who only lasted fifteen minutes; in my screening, a couple who looked to be in their early twenties held on through two grisly murders . . . and then Wood pulled a large wooden trunk out of somewhere and they bolted. I mean, bolted; they literally ran. Yeah, not the best date movie, you guys. Me, I didn’t walk out; I don’t think I could have moved at all, actually.
Stories We Tell (2012) – Sarah Polley
This film is my introduction to Sarah Polley, who got raves for her debut directorial effort, Away from Her, an apparently devastating look at aging and dementia (written and directed when she was in her mid-twenties). If this film is any indication, I’m going to have to go watch everything else she’s ever done. It seems that, for Polley’s whole life, it has been a sort of familial joke that she was the product of an extra-marital affair. She, alone of her siblings, bears no resemblance whatsoever to her dad and then around the time she must have been conceived, her mother, Diane, was away from home doing a play in the big city. Polley decides to investigate those claims and the result is this charming, beguiling, ultimately revelatory documentary. Polley is an engaging presence and the film is a wonderful hodge-podge of talking head interviews, weirdo montages and re-edited home movie footage. The film has an undeniable atmosphere and the deeper we get into the story, the more the people seem to come to life, from Polley’s pretentious father and vivacious mother to the various “suspects” Polley grills about possibly being her father. No spoilers here (and avoid even IMDB, which has a major spoiler in the cast list for the movie), but three quarters of the way through the movie, there’s a twist I genuinely did not see coming. The twist genuinely left me reeling for the rest of the film and as I walked out of the theater I knew I’d been in the hands of a master of filmmaking; I was utterly discombobulated and unsure of how to feel about the film I’d just seen. This film defines ambiguous and was one of the most wonderful theatrical experiences I’ve had this year. Go see this wonderful, melancholy, joyous, surprising, charming movie as soon as possible. Yeah, it’s going to get an Oscar nomination.
Much Ado about Nothing (2012) – Joss Whedon
I went into this movie hoping very much to like it, but, I’ll be honest, I didn’t expect it to be anywhere near as good as the 1993 Branagh version, which is one of my favorite Shakespearean films of all time. Well, the joke’s on me; this elegant little flick is at least as good as Branagh’s and I actually think it’s probably a bit better. Color me surprised. In elegant, classy black and white, Shakespeare’s timeless story unfolds; the ensemble is more than up to the task of capturing the snap and sparkle of Shakespeare’s dialogues. It’s one of the best ensembles I’ve seen in a very long time. Amy Acker and Alexis Denisoff kill as Beatrice and Benedick; Clark Gregg and Reed Diamond are wonderful paternal figures; Fran Kranz, so brilliant as the Fool in The Cabin in the Woods, is given the play’s toughest role, Claudio, and excels. In small parts, Ricki Lindhome is wonderfully petulant as a gender-flipped Conrade and Nathan Fillion captures Dogberry’s pompous foolishness to perfection. It’s certainly the best Shakespearean film in a very, very long time, probably since 1998’s Hamlet, unless something is slipping my mind. This is a treat for lovers of the bard and a perfect gateway drug for those who either don’t know him or think they dislike him. This is a movie for all those who have hated Shakespeare since high school English ruined him. Prepare to be converted.
Hannah Arendt (2012) – Margarethe von Trotta
Hannah Arendt isn’t a typical biopic; it captures a frenetic, high stress period in the life of the German-Jewish writer-philosopher. It picks up as she prepares to leave her home in New York in order to cover the Adolf Eichmann trial in Israel; her articles, published in the New Yorker are scandalous, particularly once they’re published in book form, under the title The Banality of Evil. Arendt must then defend both her ideas and her life as the negative press threatens to twist the one and overwhelm the other. This isn’t a particularly easy movie to watch; dramatically, it’s frankly pretty inert. About half an hour in, I wasn’t thinking about walking out, but the only reason I wasn’t is because I never walk out, if you catch my drift. Some of the performances are not so hot; even Barbara Sukowa in the title role can’t nail some of the more emotional moments. But this isn’t really a film about overt emotionalism or about dramatic flourishes; it’s a film about pure ideas and it really explores Arendt’s ideas about the nature of evil with great impact. The ideas are still troubling and compelling and when Arendt goes into a lengthy speech about her ideas at the climax of the film, I couldn’t help but feel that somehow what Arendt said in the sixties was incredibly prescient. In today’s world of religious zealots and international terrorist organizations, it feels like what she has to say about the link between evil and the everyday, between evil and the simplicity of the routine, has never been more important. At the end of the day, the film was a compelling experience and I was genuinely moved emotionally by the import and power of the ideas, even if the personal drama wasn’t ever really compelling at all. I left the film deeply troubled, wrestling again with the nature of evil in this world. Ultimately, I think that’s what the filmmakers wanted. Arendt herself probably wouldn’t have cared about the personal stuff either; but the film brings her ideas to a level where they’re accessible to a mass audience and reiterates that the ideas are important, not to say critical. Arendt would probably be agreeable to that, at least, and so am I.
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) – J.J. Abrams
Abrams delivers again, with a cracking good sequel to his previous reboot of the ST franchise. This one manages to raise the emotional stakes a good deal over the first film. The main weakness, possibly the only weakness, of the original film was Eric Bana’s soulless turn as Nero; this film amps up the villainous element quite a bit with Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan Noonien Singh. His performance is totally still and menacing, a compelling and interesting villain to go up against the compelling and interesting heroes. The carryover cast remains excellent; special praise to Pine, Quinto and the consistently brilliant Urban. The film uses the growing tension caused by the Klingon threat to great effect, leading up to a wonderful reveal of our first Klingon in this new series; can’t wait to see where THAT goes. And Leonard Nimoy gets a brief cameo as Spock and it’s a chilling and wonderful and perfectly executed moment to see Quinto’s Spock quiz Nimoy’s on whether he’s heard of anyone by the name of Khan. Nimoy’s performance in this brief scene elevates the film all by itself. A moving moment between Kirk and Spock near the climax hits every note it needs to as it underlines the way in which Kirk and Spock are becoming more whole individuals through their friendship. It’s a perfect, touching moment that, of course, idiots on the internet blew up over. Screw them; it’s a great moment. All in all, a wonderful follow-up to a wonderful original. This’ll probably turn out to be the best of the 2013 summer blockbusters. And bring on number three. NOW.