Aneesh Chaganty

Archive for January, 2013|Monthly archive page

The Last Stand | MAD Review

In Uncategorized on January 21, 2013 at 6:46 PM

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The Last Stand 

(2013, US, d. Kim Ji-Woon)

Kim Ji-Woon’s first foray into Hollywood storytelling is The Last Stand, a shoot-em-up story about ex-LAPD-narcotics-officer-turned-small-town-sheriff Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Owens, after discovering that a fugitive is on the run from LA to the Mexican border in a high-speed vehicle, decides to stop him in a stand-off in the small town of Sommerton, Arizona.

Director Kim Ji-Woon has a very impressive resume, featuring one of my favorite films of the last decade (The Good, The Bad, and the Weird) and a variety of other acclaimed ones (I Saw the Devil, A Tale of Two Sisters). But the problem with foreigners making American films that are so innately American is that there’s very little to culturally ground the story. I’m not saying there aren’t positives to the endeavor. In fact, Ji-Woon, like many of his South Korean filmmaker peers, is able to tell stories from unique perspectives and deftly carry unique tones throughout a movie.

The problem is that The Last Stand is a modern-day western. And there is nothing about this film that suggests any sort of basis in American culture, whatsoever. Despite its protagonist (who’s walked straight out of a John Wayne film), it’s setting (a small desert town in Arizona), it’s antagonists (Mexicans), its conflict (escaped prisoners), and its method to overcome its obstacles (a plethora of weapons), this film couldn’t feel more foreign than it does.

First off, we have Peter Stormare playing Burrell, a Southern construction owner/gangster. Stormare is Swedish and for the duration of his speaking lines in the entire film, I was wondering what the hell is accent was supposed to be.

Secondly, there was no honesty in its portrayal of Somerset. It almost felt like we were watching a town through a museum glass. It had all the right parts, it looked the right way, and it was set in the right place, but there was something foreign and inanimate that swept over it all.

Oh yeah, and then there’s Schwarzenegger as the Sheriff. His first leading role since Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Schwarzenegger is at his best or worst here (depending on how you look at it). In a sure to be Razzie-nominated (if not Razzie-winning) performance of 2014, the ex-California governor botches every line, every piece of action, and every briefly emotional moment and turns it into something of an amusing spectacle. A train-wreck of sorts, that the audience watches over and over and over again with every new line.

Granted, it’s not like the script itself deserves much credit either. Honestly, I couldn’t imagine that writer Andrew Knauer (writer of the Slamdance indie hit “Ghost Team One”) took any longer than 2 hours to think of the entire plot of The Last Stand. Even if you take its heroes out of the equation, every other character was so poorly written, audience members in the theater were looking at me and asking me to lower my laughter during the dramatic scenes. That’s how bad it wasI won’t even get into the recycled set-pieces (But seriously: the entire premise of the film is based off the existence of a Corvette that can not only travel above 190 miles/hour but also, miraculously, never needs gas??!?).

Forest Whitaker has never been worse. Neither has Luiz Guzman. Even Johnny Knoxville, who I can’t stand, deserves better material than what he’s given here: a sort of fictional version of the idiot he plays in the Jackass series.

The most uninspired, unoriginal, bland, repetitive, and mindless piece of “entertainment” of 2013, The Last Stand is a sad blotch on an incredible director’s filmography.

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Broken City | MAD Review

In Uncategorized on January 19, 2013 at 8:24 PM

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Broken City

(2013, US, d. Allen Hughes)

Somewhere deep down under this film was a very good idea for a motion picture. It must have been the idea that got the likes of Russell Crowe, Mark Wahlberg, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jeffrey Wright and Kyle Chandler attached to Broken City, because I’ll tell you one thing: the script sure didn’t.

Broken City tells the story of Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg), a New York police officer forced to hand over his badge after a controversial shooting. However, New York City Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe) believes Taggart, despite the situation, to be a hero so he keeps him out of prison. Now, seven years later, Taggart manages a private detective agency in the same city. Guess who comes back knocking on his door.

A week away from the mayoral elections, Hostetler believes his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is sleeping with the opponent’s campaign manager (Kyle Chandler) and hires Taggart to follow up on those hunches. Pretty soon, what started out like a simple case turns into chaos – nothing is as it seems and everyone is clearly hiding something.

A film noir craftily adapted for modern times by director Allen Hughes, Broken City falls apart not in the production, but in the writing. Newcomer writer Brian Tucker can never establish whether he wants to write a thought-provoking, adult drama or just a script that hits every plot point and marketable piece of material to appease any executive it’s read by.

There are moments when this film really works. The concept behind it is intriguing and the dilemmas the plot raises are more than enough to carry a film. Why then did Tucker feel the need to permeate the script with dialogue straight out of a Schwarzenegger flick? There were moments when all 7 members in the matinee audience cracked up and I’ll tell you something: it wasn’t because Tucker was being clever.

Another question is: “Why didn’t Hughes recognize the blatant flaws in the material?”. He already had the plot and the rich performances he needed (keep in mind, only great actors can make terrible, recycled lines come to life). It’s not that hard to snip away at the moments that don’t work. And there were a lot.

On top of everything else are the wasted subplots. I remember being partially invested in the story of Taggart and his actress-girlfriend, played by Natalie Martinez, but it’s just wasted space on paper that feels far longer than the 120 pages it must have consumed.

 In fact, if anyone was really paying attention to the material, they would have tried to explore the dilemma that is brought into the light in only the last 10 pages. If the rest of the movie were about that, it would have been far more interesting.

Broken City is a failed attempt to bandage a poorly-written story with crafty direction, strong performances (even thought it does feature a Russell Crowe who looks like he accepted the job offer in a tanning booth and reported straight to set), and a slick score straight out of The Social Network (the film was co-composed by Atticus Ross). It’s hard to watch a movie with such potential fall apart. But hey, at least the title will always serve as a great pun.

Gangster Squad | MAD Review

In Uncategorized on January 13, 2013 at 7:47 PM

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Gangster Squad

(2013, US, d. Ruben Fleisher)

Winter break is over and I’m back to the movie reviews!

Kicking off the new year in film is the star-studded action-pic Gangster Squad. A film as much about Los Angeles as it is about its characters, Gangster Squad is another addition to the plethora of films that tackle the subject of the city during the 40’s and 50’s. Every few years, another filmmaker decides to take a swing at the raucous, violent, sex, drug, and gang culture of post-WWII Los Angeles. And while plenty of films have gotten it right (BugsyLA Confidential, The Black Dahlia, Mulholland Falls), Gangster Squad doesn’t.

Coming out of the movie, I was struck by just how lucky the filmmakers were able to assemble the incredibly talented cast they did. Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Anthony Mackie, Nick Nolte, Michael Peña, and a horribly miscast Emma Stone give their all to the material that is never able to rise above the tropes and conventions of every film noir picture that precedes it. Even Sean Penn channels his best inner villian as Mickey Cohen, the cruel New York gangster who’s come to take over LA. 

Taking a page out of the “Tarantino Revisionist History Book”, Gangster Squad tells the story of how an undercover crime squad of misfit police officers is able to bring down Cohen and his organization. Of course, this is not what actually happened but for the duration of the film “Based on a True Story” holds its fair weight. In reality, Cohen – like Al Capone – was arrested for tax evasion.

The biggest problem with the film is that it’s never able to figure out whether it wants to pay homage to film noirs or actually be one. The dialogue and characters, for one, are straight out of black and white films. We have the tough cop with a baby on the way (Sergeant John O’Mara, played by Josh Brolin), the sleazy cop brought to action by the death of an innocent shoe-shiner (Sergeant Jerry Wooters, played by Ryan Gosling), the gun-slinger hero cop (Detective Max Kennard, played by Robert Patrick), and a femme fatale that’s playing both sides (Grace Farraday, played by Emma Stone).

On the other side, Ruben Fleisher’s camera never accepts the world written on the page, but tries to infuse a 21st century light in every camera swing, dolly, and pan. You can point to the heavy-handed dialogue, the naivety, the slick feel of the film, and even the violence as its downfall, but it’s the film’s schizophrenic tone that’s the real barrier between a good time and a mediocre one.

A talented up and coming director who’s helmed some worthy material (Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less), Fleisher is never able to make a positive mark here. Every other element of the film would have worked if Fleisher had a stronger grasp of the tone of the film. In fact, the moments that really worked in Gangster Squad were the ones when he wasn’t trying to perform a balancing act. He was just being original with the material. 

Gangster Squad is a fun, action-packed and violent time-killer. But if you’re looking for something with a little more depth (and far better uses of incredible actors), check out L.A. Confidential

The MAD Challenge’s Top Films of 2012

In Uncategorized on January 1, 2013 at 2:54 AM

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Hey Readers!

First off, thank you for reading this. At every year’s end (this is my 5th time but first time on this website), I put together a list of what I consider to be the best films of the year. It’s actually one of my favorite things to do all year because I get to finally share a list I’ve been making since the first day of January.

2012 was an incredible year for American films. I don’t say this every year but if you look at the last 4 years, you’ll notice there’s hasn’t been this many good films on a large theatrical release at once since 2008. In fact, this awards season will be the most contenious – arguably – in a decade. Apart from a few real visionary directors, almost every major filmmaker released a film this year – which is rare and almost every one of those films was worth seeing.

The first section contains a description of the movies (in descending order) of the top 10 films of the year. It was extremely difficult making this list. Most of these films have cycled through every 1-10 position and it was all debated endlessly. The movies that got the 2nd, 3rd, or even 5th spots could have easily changed – but I do think this list represents a wholistic perspective.

The list after the Top Ten is an “Honorable Mention” (in alphabetical order). These are the films that came really, really close to making the Top 10, but didn’t.

The same goes for the third list – “The Best of the Rest”. These are the remaining stand-out films of the year. It’s a sort of runner-up list but don’t think these movies are any worse than the ones on the main lists. Some of these films will blow your mind away. Just keep yourselves open and give them a shot.

Finally, I end with two other categories: “The Most Disappointing Films of the Year” and, to be fair, “The Films I’ve Yet To See”.

Enjoy! And I hope you continue to check this site out in 2013!

The MAD Challenge’s Top 10 Films of the Year (Among Other Lists) 

10. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (d. John Madden) – The most pleasant surprise of the year comes disguised as a British movie about old people, when in reality, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is actually…well, it still is a British movie about old people – but it’s a very moving one. Most of the credit here goes to a very solid screenplay and an even better cast. Featuring the likes of Tom Wilkinson, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Bill Nighy – Hotel tells the story of a group of senior citizens who all decide to “outsource” their retirement to the less expensive and exotic country of India (Fox Searchlight). By chance, they all end up staying at the same hotel. On paper, though a strong story, it doesn’t sound like this would be anything to write home about, but the elements all come together perfectly here. And I’m a very strong critic when it comes to foreign films that portray India. Funny and heartwarming, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a must-rent.

9. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (d. Stephen Chbosky) – A film I really believe every teenager should be required to see, Perks is one of the most relevant and impactful films of the year. Treated with extreme sensitivity and honesty, Perks is really the result of the careful eye of director Stephen Chbosky. Easily surpassing the wannabe Hollywood coming-of-age stories, Perks of Being a Wallflower treats high school novelty, highs and lows, loneliness, depression, and pain the way it should be treated. Its result is an inspiring and universal tale we can all relate to.

8. The Impossible (d. J.A. Bayona) – It’s very rare that I weep during films. It’s even rarer that I admit I have. The Impossible is one of those films that really lives up to the promise of its trailer: It’s a film about the human spirit set against the most terrifying times. The Impossible chronicles the lives of 5 English family members (led by an incredible Naomi Watts, an underrated Ewan McGregor, and featuring a powerhouse debut from the young Tom Holland) vacationing in Thailand when a deadly tsunami hits the coast. This true survival story quickly overcomes a stitled beginning to become one of the most touching, breathtaking, and emotional films of the year. Grounded in strong thematic awareness, The Impossible is lensed beautifully and never lets the disaster sequences (which are terrifying) overshadow the heart of the piece.

7. Anna Karenina (d. Joe Wright) – Despite mediocre reviews and an average box office run, this fresh revisitation of the Russian tragedy is worth the price of admission. One of my favorite filmmakers of our generation, Joe Wright (Atonement, Hanna) and (godsend) cinematographer Seamus McGarvey infuse the world of St. Petersburg and Moscow with such rich color, movement, and interpretation, it’s very easy to be swept away by the melodrama in the piece. The story of Anna Karenina sounds like a bore – like an out-of-touch movie by a filmmaker who’s become far too emotionally irrelevant. But I promise you: the film is anything but. Relevant and moving, Anna Karenina also features a captivating performance by Keira Knightley.

6. Life of Pi (d. Ang Lee) –  As a huge fan of the potential of 3D, I was impressed to find Life of Pi a beautiful symbiosis between technology and storytelling. A film that’s able to use 3D as a means to tell its story and to convey the emotional arc of the chraracter at its core, Life of Pi is a very commendable adaptation of what you’d think to be an impossible book to adapt. Life of Pi is split into two parts: the first chronicles Pi’s upbringing and his religious enlightment; the second places that newly formed character into the most dire of circumstances: survival in the middle of the Pacific ocean. Though I still think the book is better, it’s a rare feat for an adaptation to be this good and to feel this original and honest. Ang Lee’s sensitivites lend a powerful hand to a film that, despite a huge budget and massive scale, never forgets what it’s really about.

5. The Imposter (d. Bart Layton) – One of the strangest and most horrifying true crime stories is the tale of Nicholas Barclay (or Frédéric Bourdin, depending on how you’d like to look at it) captured in the chilling “documentary” The Imposter. By putting the genre of documentary in quotations, I don’t mean to insinuate the story isn’t true, but it’s one of the most unique formats a documentary has ever adopted. And in doing so, the film completely feels like fiction narrative. To give any of the plot away would really be unwise or downright unbelievable. The trailer itself will give you chills; but the experience of watching the movie was unlike anything I’ve experienced because I had nothing to relate it to. The most original film of the year, The Imposter is a must-see for any fans of thrillers, horror films or action movies. Maybe even toss in absurdist comedies, too.

4. Silver Linings Playbook (d. David O. Russell) – Russell’s strongest addition to an impressive filmography, Silver Linings Playbook is a meticulously chronicled story of recovery set against the backdrop of a very dynamic group of characters. Though it could be dismissed as a feel-good romantic comedy, Playbook is anything but that. Bradley Cooper gives his best performance to date as Pat Soltano – a man who’s lost his job, his house, his wife, and for some time, even his sanity – and Jennifer Lawrence (in what I predict to be an Oscar winning performance) is really able to capture nuances in a very troubled woman. Bolstered by an even more impressive supporting cast (and featuring the best Robert DeNiro performance in 12 years), Silver Linings Playbook is uplifting, powerful, but most of all: painfully honest.

3. Zero Dark Thirty (d. Kathryn Bigelow) – Zero Dark Thirty is one of the most intense movie-going experiences I’ve ever had. It’s ability to objectively portray not only a seriously complex issue but also a morally ambiguous one was incredible and its discerning camera never shies away from exposing a harsh reality, even if it’s about the American people (one big difference between it and Argo – another action film based on a real life political event). The film is about catching Osama bin Laden. It begins on September 11th, 2001 and ends on May 2nd, 2011 – the day after bin Laden was killed.  It follows Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA operative working in the Middle East with the sole task of capturing bin Laden. The film’s timeframe perfectly captures its most basic emotion: frustration. For ten years, Maya follows lead after lead, name after name, and investigation after investigation – searching for the tiniest lead to bin Laden. But nothing works out. And for 2 and half hours, the audience is as frustrated as Maya. This is not an insult – it’s an incredible feat for Bigelow to achieve while keeping audiences as gripped as ever. I was enthralled. Every single person watching this movie knows what happens at the end, but the film is crafted so well, it doesn’t matter. We still fear for 2 whole hours. But the only thing that’s better than the first 2 hours of the film are the last 30 minutes, which showcase the true potential of American power. It felt real. It felt visceral. I had goosebumps the whole time. A gripping procedural anchored by a powerhouse and subtle performance by Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty is intense, risky, relevant, and moving.

2. Argo (d. Ben Afleck) – Argo has a lot in common with Zero Dark Thirty and it was a tough decision ranking them, but as a fan of films that balance popcorn entertainment with serious thought, I had to put this first. Argo is based on the recently declassified true story of how Hollywood and the CIA partnered together to rescue six Americans in Tehran during the height of the Iranian hostage crisis. A finely-tuned script brought to life under the careful eye of director Ben Afleck, Argo is filled to the brim with high tension, action, and even humor. And though I would have loved to see someone other than Afleck in the lead role (it always seemed like Afleck cared more about directing the film than paying attention to his character), an exciting ensemble and rich story easily subdues any qualms about the story, or its blatant pro-American stance. The most emotionally accessible film to a mainstream audience, Argo blends history with the right amount of excitement, originality, and adrenaline to produce the most enjoyable ride of the year.

1. Django Unchained (d. Quentin Tarantino) – Once a year, you watch a film in theaters that reminds you of watching movies as a kid. It reminds you of movies in which every plot twist was treated with surprise, every swear word made us flinch, every tear touched our heart, and when every gun shot quickened our heart beat. It reminds us of what movies could do. That’s what watching Django Unchalned felt like. The film tells the story of a freed-slave-turned-bounty-hunter named Django (played by Jamie Foxx) as he begins a journey to rescue his enslaved wife, Bromhilda (Kerry Washington), with the help of fellow bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Part western and part blaxploitation, Django walks a fine line between reality and fiction. And much as he did with Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino uses the historical setting, in this case: the pre-Civil War period, as a backdrop to explore themes of vengeance, subservience, and survival of the fittest. Django Unchained is a wholly original film – and another masterpiece (albeit a highly controversial one) from Quentin Tarantino. Much like his other films, it borrows from a hundred before it, but is still able to create something new and gripping. Django Unchained is clever, hilarious, and horrifying – often at the same time. It’s the perfect blend of high style and confident storytelling and Tarantino’s signature, and developed maturity, is inscribed deep in every frame.

 Honorable Mention (In Alphabetical Order):

The Avengers (d. Joss Whedon), Chronicle (d. Josh Trank), End of Watch (d. David Ayer), Hope Springs (d. David Frankel), Hyde Park on Hudson (d. Roger Michell), The Master (d. Paul Thomas Anderson), Paranorman (d. Chris Butler, Sam Fell), Safety Not Guaranteed (d. Colin Trevorrow), Skyfall (d. Sam Mendes), Wreck-it-Ralph (d. Rich Moore)

The Best of the Rest (In Alphabetical Order): 

21 Jump Street, Arbitrage, Bernie, Cabin in the Woods, The Dark Knight Rises, Flight, Goon, The Grey, Hitchcock, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Hunger Games, The Intouchables, Jeff Who Lives at Home, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Killing Them Softly, Les Misérables, Lawless, Moonrise Kingdom, Promised Land, Rust and Bone, Sound of My Voice, Your Sister’s Sister

The Most Disappointing Films of the Year (In Alphabetical Order): 

Beasts of the Southern Wild, Brave, Lincoln, Magic Mike, Prometheus, Rise of the Guardians, Seven Psychopaths, This is 40

Please Note: This is not a list of the worst films of the year. This is a list of the films with actual artistic credibility that severely underwhelmed.

Movies I Have Yet to See (In Alphabetical Order):

Amour, Bully, Cloud Atlas, The Deep Blue Sea, Frankenweenie, How to Survive a Plague, Holy Motors, The Hunt, Indie Game: The Movie, Keep The Lights On, Killer Joe, Middle of Nowhere, The Paperboy, Quartet, The Raid: Redemption, Robot & Frank, Savages, Searching for Sugar Man