La Camioneta: The Journey of One American School Bus (2012) – Mark Kendall
This movie ostensibly follows a junked out school bus from the auction block in Pennsylvania to the mean streets of Guatemala as a “camioneta,” a fancy public transport bus. Well, not ostensibly, it actually does. But what the movie is about is the people that the bus touches on that journey. The film is a surprisingly engaging movie and at only seventy-one minutes, it doesn’t wear out its welcome at all. We don’t spend a lot of time with some of the people. A good example is the bus driver who transports the bus from Pennsylvania to Guatemala. We spend about ten to fifteen minutes on the road with him, driving sixteen hours a day to get the bus back to his boss. When the bus arrives in Guatemala , it passes out of his hand and he passes out of our vision and the movie. The people we meet come across vividly and warmly; it’s seeing these individuals as real people and feeling empathy for them in their struggles that seems to be the real point of the movie. When we meet the twenty-six year-old non-college educated, seemingly very poor owner of a bus decorating business and find that he has an inexplicable passion for graphic design it’s a wonderful moment of upended expectations. The film delves into the high-crime rate and the fact that camioneta drivers are killed at a surprisingly high rate by gangs that run protection rackets. The fear of the two drivers who are going to be driving the bus we’re watching is palpable; they are never open about their fears, only briefly talking about the danger, but in their eyes and the way they walk, you can see that they do have those fears. All in all, it’s an unpretentious slice-of-life movie. It doesn’t really have anything new to say; but it does get inside the lives of the people involved with this bus and make you see things, to some degree, from their perspective. That’s an admirable thing. I wouldn’t call this a great film, despite its 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but it’s certainly an interesting and engaging one. On the whole, it definitely gets a recommendation.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) – David Lowery
This is one of those films that just keeps growing in my estimation the farther I get from it. While watching it, I was enjoying it; a three star rating seemed in the cards. Driving home from the theater, I had decided on three-and-a-half. The next day, I had upped it to four. Now, I think it’s one of the top ten I’ve seen all year. There’s nothing at all new here. Casey Affleck is a prison escapee trekking across Texas to reunite with his wife, Rooney Mara, and his four year old daughter, who he has never seen. Meanwhile, Ben Foster’s laconic police officer finds himself being more and more drawn to Mara’s character. Keith Carradine looms on the sidelines; he’s the adoptive father of Rooney Mara’s character and his one goal is to keep Affleck’s character from getting back into the lives of his daughter and granddaughter. The film is languid and incredibly atmospheric. The film seems to take place in two different lightings: it’s either a dark, dimly lit, dusty interior or an exterior bathed in the haunting orange light of a Texas sunset. The film takes place in the seventies and it has the aesthetics of a film made in the seventies. The Malick comparisons come naturally; if they aren’t entirely accurate, they’re at least somewhat apt, though Lowery is more focused on story than Malick’s ever really been. Regardless, the familiarity of the story and the characters are overcome brilliantly by the luminous direction, the spare yet poetic script and, probably most of all, the incredible, amazing performances given by the leading quartet. The performances are all subdued, restrained, very minimal, but the emotion that comes across is strong, very powerful. It’s impossible to pick a favorite; Affleck, Mara, Foster and Carradine all excel completely. These are people who keep their emotions hidden behind a rural stoicism. Affleck’s character is verbose, but rarely emotive in any other way. Mara and Foster are so silent that when they finally have a discussion about the fact that Foster is in love with Mara, neither one of them even speak the word “love.” Carradine, sadly absent from our cinemas of late, it seems, is as good as he ever was; he hasn’t lost a step. All in all, it’s a magnificent masterpiece.
World War Z (2013) – Marc Forster
I never read the book, so I don’t have the baggage that a lot of people brought to the movie. That’s probably a good thing, frankly, since it seems most of those people were disappointed or angry at how the movie reportedly ditched the book’s groundbreaking format. As it stands, I was able to appreciate the movie on its own terms. It’s a reasonably good action flick, though those going for the horror will be disappointed. Gore is mostly kept offscreen. A woman gets her hand lopped off, a guy gets a crowbar through the head, another guy shoots himself in the head, but all off screen. The film simply isn’t a horror film; it’s an action film. On those terms, it works pretty well, at least for the first two thirds of the movie. There are some great sequences here; a mass panic in the streets of Philadelphia, the surprising, darkly humorous fate of a whiz-kid scientist, a suspenseful “be very very quiet” bicycle ride through a rainstorm and, finally, a great, intense, frenetic assault on Jerusalem by the zombies. That final one in particular is a showstopper, packed with incredible visuals, like a helicopter raking its 50 cal across a horde of zombies making a mountain out of themselves in order to breach a wall. And it’s incredibly fast paced; as our heroes race at top speed through the also fleeing mob, just ahead of the charging zombies, the heart climbs into the throat. Unfortunately, the last third is pretty terrible. At that point, the pace slows considerably; all the zombies start shambling like a typical Romero zombie, instead of sprinting at attack speed like they have been. And once they slow down, you get an eyeful of the generally terrible makeup. One scene in particular finds Brad Pitt trapped on the other side of a glass door from a teeth-chattering zombie that keeps repeatedly bumping his head softly on the door. If you can keep from laughing during this scene, you’re a better man than me. And, unfortunately, this scene is the CLIMAX of the film. Too bad. The Rotten Tomatoes rating was around 66% positive, which is basically exactly right: two-thirds quite good, one third awful. A word on the cast: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, James Badge Dale, David Morse, Matthew Fox, Peter Capaldi . . . it’s a good ensemble that, unfortunately, isn’t called on to act. But a word for Daniella Kertesz who gives a very good performance as Segen, an Israeli soldier; she finds both terror and determination in the character and is the only one here giving anything approximating a real performance.
The Heat (2013) – Paul Feig
I’ve seen comedies this year that were better than this one, as in just having better characters or having surprising plot twists or whatever, but I’d have to say this is probably the funniest comedy I’ve seen all year. Melissa McCarthy is the slob streetwise cop; Sandra Bullock is the arrogant, tidy FBI agent. I mean, there’s a plot (sort of), but who the heck cares? Bullock and McCarthy have fantastic chemistry and the script is undeniably hilarious; McCarthy in particular has some really wonderful lines and, boy, does she sell them. These are roles that these ladies could play in their sleep, but they don’t. They’re both totally committed and neither one of them has any compunction at all about looking the fool. They’re both very funny performances taken on their own; as a unit, they’re even better. Of the generally funny supporting cast (except for a sadly underused Jane Curtin), Dan Bakkedahl is a real standout as a huffy DEA agent who just happens to be . . . an albino. He even gets the funniest line in the film, which I won’t spoil. Yeah, there’s some pretty non-PC stuff directed at that character. Melissa McCarthy calls him “chalk balls” at one point and that might just tell you right there whether this comedy is for you. As for me, I found it absolutely riotously funny. It starts a little slow, but give it time. By half an hour in, I was rolling on the floor.
Elysium (2013) – Neill Blomkamp
Okay, so I was jazzed for this movie. It looked like it was going to be a sort of social sci-fi and after District 9, I think few people had any serious doubts about the Blomkamp’s ability to pull such a thing off. The trailers looked stupendous with special effects dazzling even in brief glimpses. The fact that Matt Damon was going to be wearing an exoskeleton gave me some pause, but not much. Regrettably, it’s a dreadful film. The characters make no sense at all; take Sharlto Copley’s menacing enforcer, for instance. For the first two thirds of the movie, he’s just exactly that, a thug who carries out the dirty work required to keep Elysium safe from the filthy earth dwellers. There’s never any sense that he’s unhappy with his lot in life, which seems to be living on earth for decades and never taking a bath. Until suddenly, two thirds of the way through the movie, he announces that he wants to be the President of Elysium. Be sure to cushion your neck; this movie’s characterizations will assuredly give you whiplash. Jodie Foster’s character suffers a similar fate; in her final moments on screen, she reveals a character trait that had never even been hinted at before. These could have been interesting characters, even fascinating ones, if the movie had actually given them depth by revealing these traits earlier. As it stands, we have stupid character revelations that make no sense. Also not making sense is the script itself. The film is obviously trying to make some sort of statement regarding the immigration debates raging in countries all over the world. The film refers to the residents of Elysium as Legals and the earth dwellers who try to enter Elysium as Illegals. The parallels could hardly be clearer. So, what thoughtful and incisive solution does this movie posit? Make EVERYONE Legal. Give everyone access to healing/rejuvenation machines that will allow people to live decades past a normal life span . . . when the earth is already horribly overpopulated and nearly out of resources. Give everyone the “right” to live in Elysium . . . when about ninety percent of everyone is still going to have to stay on earth and work the horrific jobs we see them working in order to keep Elysium in working order. Let’s give everyone on earth legal status . . . when the police robots cannot arrest anyone who has legal status, thereby rendering the police force entirely obsolete. This kind of incredibly lazy thinking really destroys the film in the last act especially. It’s as though Blomkamp didn’t think for more than ten seconds about the ramifications of making everyone Legal. Then there are the somewhat minor things: Jodie Foster speaking in a strange, totally inconsistent and unrecognizable accent; Wagner Moura giving the worst performance I’ve seen in a major release film in a really really long time as the pivotal criminal, Spider. These things all add up to an ultimately frustrating experience. The special effects are breathtaking, however, particularly in the first half. There’s a really wonderful action sequence early on when Matt Damon and his crew attempt to hijack William Fichtner (better than the movie deserves, as usual) only to have Sharlto Copley’s enforcers show up. It’s a knock-out action sequence with eye popping visuals. A bit later, one character gets his face blown off with a shotgun, which is to say that his entire skull opens up in a huge gaping hole; have no fear: facial reconstruction machine is here and the visual of his skull, muscle and skin being reconstructed is amazing. But you’ll be able to see those on YouTube soon enough; yay for copyright violation? Maybe. Whatever. Just don’t watch this horrible movie. Ever.