Man of Steel (2013) – Zack Snyder
Let’s get the pertinent details out of the way first so you can leave without listening to all my rambling if you want. Bottom Line: The last forty-five minutes of this movie is so good that I recommend everyone go see it, despite the fact that the first hour and a half is almost unremittingly dreadful. Now, to dig in a bit. The screenplay is awful, pretentious, ponderous, pontificating. It’s packed with lines that are absolutely awful and grating. Russell Crowe can’t even save himself from this horrendous script; his repeated appearances as Jor-El, fount of all exposition and poetic bloviation, had me rolling my eyes by the second time he did it. At one point, the exposition he is required to give covers, literally, TEN THOUSAND YEARS of Kryptonian history. I mean, seriously? And if a thespian like Crowe can’t save himself from the dreadful script, should we talk about how well Amy Adams and Henry Cavill do? No, we really shouldn’t. The laughable moments just keep piling up; a young Clark Kent reading Plato; Richard Schiff’s completely horrendous technobabble character (“He’s flooding the atmosphere with particulates!”); the way that Clark goes into the cave to put on the Superman costume with a scruffy beard and re-emerges clean shaven (so there was a RAZOR in a CAVE in the ARCTIC? And, um, even if there was, WHY would you suddenly decide to shave after having a beard for years?) But the action sequences, once they come, boast maybe the best special effects I’ve ever seen. The physics of the action sequences are incredible. The way the characters and the environments interact is a step up as far as I can tell from what I’ve seen before. Everything in the fight scenes has weight and behaves in accordance with the laws of physics; I’ve never seen such beautiful debris clouds. A fight between Superman and two of Zod’s henchmen in Smallville is the best action sequence in . . . five years? Maybe. Of the parts of the movie when people aren’t getting hammered into buildings, I’ll say there’s really only one good thing: Kevin Costner’s aching, profoundly beautiful performance as Jonathan Kent. For fully an hour and a half, he’s the only thing in the movie that’s ANY good at all. But go anyway; that last bit will blow your mind.
Fill the Void (2012) – Rama Burshtein
This devastating Israeli film takes place in the modern world, but in a community steadfastly withdrawn from it, a family of Orthodox Jews. Into this community comes horrible tragedy; the eldest daughter, Esther, dies in childbirth. The slow ripples of this event spread throughout the family in a devastating, heartbreaking way. Ultimately, Esther’s mother, Rivka, driven nearly mad by grief, terrified that Yochay, Esther’s widower, will take the child away from them when he remarries, hatches a horrible scheme. Yochay will marry Esther’s eighteen year old sister, Shira. The film is a somber affair, muted and understated in its style and its script and its acting. The emotions are kept just under the surface, but the deep pain of these characters can’t help but be seen, even when kept beneath the surface. The ensemble cast is magnificent. Hadas Yaron is natural and heart-breaking as Shira; Irit Sheleg gives a powerhouse performance as Rivka. Yiftach Klein finds layers and depth in his turn as Yochay. And Hila Freldman gives maybe the very best performance in the entire film in a small, almost tiny, role as one of Shira’s cousin, a woman approaching middle age, increasingly bitter because she has never been able to marry, thanks to the strictures of the Orthodox community. If this quietly powerful, emotionally devastating movie isn’t nominated for Best Foreign Film at the next Oscars, I’ll be flabbergasted and more than a little angry. It’s a four star movie all the way; don’t allow this one to slip away from you. Track it down and see it immediately.
The Conjuring (2013) – James Wan
Let’s start off with the most pertinent information. This movie is gripping and deeply terrifying. I stand up and say that the first forty-five minutes of this film, which is a slow, unrelentingly suspenseful tension building first act, is the most sustained period of pure fright I’ve ever seen in a horror film. Wan’s direction is slow, methodical and quiet; he lets the tension crank tighter and tighter until it’s nearly unbearable. I often have the experience, in horror films, of having to fight the desire to look away from the screen; this is the first time I have ever had to fight the desire to run out of the theater. I’m being entirely literal. Just before the explosive shock that finally releases all the tension of that first act, my body literally went into flight mode and I had to grip the arms of my chair convulsively to keep from dashing out of the theater. The remaining two thirds are less frightening, but still effective. This is mainly due to the wonderful performances, particularly from Lili Taylor as the mother of the haunted family. By the climax, the movie has made us genuinely care about this family. We are desperately invested , not just in their survival, but in their happiness. This is a superlative horror movie of the quality one rarely sees anymore. It’s a really, really wonderful, cathartic experience of terror, probably the best horror film since The Last Exorcism. For pure fright, it’s even better than that masterful one. Regardless of comparisons, it’s just an astoundingly great movie.
The To Do List (2013) – Maggie Carey
This film had a lot of potential. Aubrey Plaza stars as Brandy Klark, over-achiever extraordinaire and high school graduate. She fears going away to college and revealing the one area of her life where she doesn’t excel: sex. She’s a virgin, you see, but with the help of her incredibly bitchy older sister, played by Rachel Bilson (best thing in the movie, by my lights), she makes a list of things to accomplish over the summer. Getting surprisingly good reviews, the movie promised a somewhat more character driven version of a raunchy comedy. Throw in Bill Hader in a large supporting role and cameos by Andy Samberg and Jack McBrayer and you’d think it couldn’t miss. Unfortunately, it’s dreadful, currently the worst movie I’ve seen all year. I chuckled maybe twice; that’s about it. Plaza tries but somehow her nerdy turn just doesn’t sit right; I’m actually kind of baffled at why she’s so unfunny, but she definitely is unfunny. Bill Hader is a bit better; Rachel Bilson was responsible for the very few pleasurable scenes – her high strung character is an occasionally fun twist on a classic stereotype. I think I was most disturbed by the absolute lack of anything approaching boundary pushing raunch. There’s a painful sequence of Brandy manually pleasuring one of her friends in a theater and the best joke they can come up with is that it’s kind of loud and the woman in the next row gets annoyed. Seriously? Yes, we hit quite a few big sexual moments, but when you consider that There’s Something About Mary came out in 1998, you can’t help but wonder who thought any of this was actually raunchy. Fifteen years after the hair gel scene, you’re going to have to do substantially more than have Brandy catch her parents having sex in a van to shock me. I’m sorry, you just are. Heck, Diner had a “is she going to touch it?” theater scene too and that one was funny, clever and genuinely surprising. And that movie came out over thirty years ago! In a post Sacha Baron Cohen world, you’re gonna have to step it up a little bit to get explosive, shocked laughs of the kind I bellowed in the theater watching Bruno. Incredibly dull, not at all funny, in no serious way raunchy . . . what a shame. It’s my worst movie of the year so far and also my biggest disappointment, as in the worst movie I had actual hopes for. I kinda bet it keeps both of those titles all the way through the end of the year.
A Band Called Death (2012) – Mark Christopher Covino, Jeff Howlett
This compelling documentary is ostensibly the story about a punk band out of Detroit, Michigan, in the late seventies. Their story isn’t so strange for the first bit: they record a single and release it without getting any big success, but a record label expresses interest; they record an entire LP, but the record label asks for too many changes, so the uncompromising band takes the masters and leaves. The single sinks into obscurity and the band is forgotten. The twists come later as the band’s music is rediscovered and taken to a wide audience almost by pure chance. The film, though, is really about family and faith. The three black brothers who formed the punk band in an upstairs bedroom of their parents’ house are all wonderful characters. The brother that is the driving force behind the band dies, far too young and before the rediscovery of the band, of cancer, but he runs through the movie as a force to be reckoned with. It is the relationship of the two surviving brothers to each other and to the brother that has died that forms the heart of the film. The film has something to say about faith as well, via the abiding assurance of the cancer stricken brother that, after his death, the band would see a rediscovery, which, of course, they did. And, of course, there’s the unfailing march of time, which changes the brothers immeasurably, but leaves the music untouched; our frailty in life versus the strength and power of enduring art aren’t new themes, but the film expresses them beautifully. And, yeah, the music? It really is great. More than just music lovers will love this film.