Aneesh Chaganty

Posts Tagged ‘MAD Challenge’

Redbox Giveaway 2 | MAD Promotion

In Uncategorized on March 21, 2013 at 8:39 PM

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Hey folks! 

I’m back with another Redbox giveaway. This time, however, it involves more than just emailing me!

Redbox has created – in the spirit of March Madness – a movie competition bracket. Click on the following link to participate: https://www.facebook.com/redbox/app_608913499135489

 

It’s pretty simple: just vote on your favorite movies and see how your picks do. If you complete your bracket, you get a code for a free rental. It’s a Facebook game, so you’ll have to log in.

For terms and conditions of the challenge, click here. Otherwise, enjoy the game!

Aneesh

 

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The Incredible Burt Wonderstone | MAD Review

In Uncategorized on March 21, 2013 at 8:08 PM

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The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

(2013, US, d. Don Scardino)

As geeky as it is to admit, magic tricks have always been a low-key passion of mine. With the right trick, the audience is left with the unique feeling of having just witnessed something paranormal while their minds struggle to find a rational explanation for those events. It’s a feeling of awe and wonder – both for the spectator and the magician.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone gets off on the right foot. For a second there, it actually convinces you that, at its core, the story is about capturing that magic. In the opening frame, we’re introduced to the elementary-school version of the title character (Mason Cook) as he runs away from bullies. It’s Burt’s birthday, and just like everyone at school, even his mother can’t make time for him. But in her place, Ms. Wonderstone leaves a present that will change Burt’s life forever: a magic kit created by the world-famous magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin).

Soon after, Wonderstone is enveloped in the world of magic. At school, he is finally able to make his first friend: Anton Marvelton (played by Luke Vanek, one of the strangest-looking but amusing child actors to grace the screen in awhile). As Anton and Burt become best friends and more and more obsessed with magic, the film transitions to years later – where an adult Wonderstone and Marvelton (Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi, respectively) awe an audience at their Las Vegas show.

Soon, we discover that the magic, however, has long worn off. Wonderstone and Marvelton are barely on speaking terms and Burt seems to have traded any fascination he had with magic for a masochistic, and agressive personality. Meanwhile, their age-old act is threatened when “street magician” and self-proclaimed “brain rapist” Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) enters the scene of Vegas magic shows. Sounds funny, right? Keep reading.

Wonderstone is eventually cast out of his gig, and begins the inevitable, formulaic journey of reconnecting with what made him love magic in the first place and appreciating those around him to finally stage his comeback.

It’s a role that screams “Carell”. Carell’s wonderful chemistry of aggression and egocentrism, knack for comedic timing, and intuition for character seems like the perfect ingredients for Wonderstone. But for some reason, Carell is the first one to misstep. Here, he feels stilted. His eyes wildly motion to the audience, trying to let the us know how much he doesn’t want to be in this movie and how much he knows it’s gonna suck. Unfortunately for the example, whether Carell had fully committed or not doesn’t change how mediocre this film was bound to turn out.

Sloppy editing, a formulaic script devoid of any heart, and uninspired direction work closely together to defeat the talents of its incredible cast. Even Olivia Wilde, who does nothing for the story but serve as eye candy and an easy screenwriting tool, couldn’t get my attention off how much better this film could have been. But boy, does she serve as eye candy!

Apart from the refreshing soundtrack (most of which was just taken from Spotify’s Top 100), Jim Carrey provides the only honest moments of comic relief. Though his scenes are few and sparse, Carrey steals the show with every line he’s given. Steve Gray, like Wonderstone, seems written for Carrey. But unlike Carell, Carrey is able to make it work – even whilst winking to the audience, acknowledging his own preposterousness.

At the end of the day, what disappoints me the most is that The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is built on promising and unique foundations, but consciously tries to sabotage itself by rearranging its pieces into something that would fit the structure of a Hollywood film.

Unfortunately, unless you’re looking for some sparse laughs, the trick to this film is looking elsewhere.

Stoker | MAD Review

In Uncategorized on March 11, 2013 at 6:11 AM

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Stoker

(2013, US, d. Park Chan-wook)

I’ve been crazy about this movie ever since it was first announced Chan-wook would be making his first foray into Hollywood storytelling. Chan-wook, in my opinion, is one of the premier storytellers in the film industry, no matter the language of origin. His ability to tell B-stories and provide them shots of originality, adrenaline, and emotion is unparalleled  My only fear was that pretty soon, everyone would be on the Park Chan-wook bandwagon that I had been for so long.

Well, at least I know that won’t happen for awhile.

The biggest problem with Stoker is that it feels pointless. With such a rich, Hitchcockian premise, there were so many directions this movie could have effectively traveled, but this is not one of them. It almost feels as if Chan-wook is collapsing under the pressure of having to create an incredible, English-language debut film. Instead of focusing on his storytelling talents, Chan-wook seems more intent on creating endless tones of melancholy and characters that never feel like they’re doing anything but putting on a sour face and hiding a deep, dark secret.

Stoker begins during the funeral of a man we’re told is the father of high-schooler India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska). The last name is obviously derived from that of Bram Stoker, the novelist of Dracula. However, Stoker isn’t about vampires. Though there probably would be more exciting things to watch on the screen had there been a few of those in the movie. But back to the story.

After the funeral, India is introduced to someone she’s never met. She’s told this is her father’s brother: Charlie (played subtly by a very creepy Matthew Goode). As Uncle Charlie shows no plans of leaving the Stoker house anytime soon, India begins to discover more and more about Charlie’s past and current intentions, none of which bode well for the future of the family…and the safety of the townsfolk. 

Stoker spends a lot of time showering in the mood of its images. Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung masterfully crafts images of emotion, tone, and symbolism, but as any good film can show, it takes masterful editing – both by the editor and every storyteller along the way – to piece those images into something greater than the sum of its parts. Stoker really never flies above that sum. It’s perfectly content to be what it is – refusing to ask the deeper questions about character and motivation.

Debut-writer Wentworth Miller (TV folk will remember him as the lead star of Fox’s Prison Break) crafts a tale very similar to that of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. And while there are many signs that point to Miller’s potential as a writer, this film will ever only be a minor debut of his.

Nicole Kidman, Jacki Weaver, and Dermot Mulroney (in the smallest of roles) all try their best, but again, because of the film’s poor direction, everyone (including the usually better Wasikowska and Goode) come off as caricatures. 

Finally, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that I’ve seen this film before. Somewhere. And then I realized: these are the films I used to make when I was in early high school, before I knew what I was doing and when I thought gruesome deaths and slow introductions to characters who had sadistic pleasure with intense violence were the most interesting things to make a movie about.

Trust me. It’s not easy being this honest, especially since Chan-wook has always been the filmmaker I’ve aspired to become like. I can’t fault the guy for making a mistake. I just hope he learns from it and moves on. The world can only handle a movie like this once in a blue moon.

Wait…that’s a werewolf reference. Whatever. 

 

Snitch | MAD Review

In Uncategorized on March 9, 2013 at 5:14 PM

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Snitch

(2013, US, d. Ric Roman Waugh)

Sometimes, even January-release action movies have a way of surprising you. Take Snitch. From every poster, teaser, spot, or interview, Snitch comes off like a poor man’s version of last year’s Contraband. The ads feature a ripped Dwayne Johnson kicking ass, explosions, one-liners, and a “father save son” plot line that’s been recycled by Hollywood studios for years.

But then you actually see the movie, and all the trouble you went through of having to convince your friends to go to it because it was the only halfway-decent flick playing in theaters (sorry, Identity Thief) goes away. To be honest, I was a huge fan of this film, mostly because it was nothing like what I expected to be, and partly because it was actually kinda good.

Snitch tells the story of John Matthews (Dwayne Johnson), a divorced construction company owner, who learns in the beginning of the film that his son, Jason (Rafi Gavron) has been arrested. A brief opening scene has already introduced us to Jason and has given the details of his arrest: Jason nervously agrees to a favor – hold some drugs for a friend for a day until that friend can pick it up. When Jason receives the package, it turns out to have a DEA tracker placed on it, and pretty soon law enforcement has surrounded his house. Though Jason has never dealt drugs, his friend – who it turns out was already arrested at the time he made the request – was the one who set him up, in order to reduce his own sentence.

Jason, however, doesn’t want to turn anyone else in for a shorter sentence. So it’s pretty much praying at this point that Jason receives the minimum sentence he can, which is 10 years. When Matthews comes into the picture, we can see the guilt he carries with him on his face. He was never there for Jason growing up and hasn’t ever been, either. Matthews decides to do something about it.

Using his own connections, Matthews tracks down US Attorney Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon), a Congressional candidate running on a platform of strict anti-drug enforcement. Keeghan confides in him that, while there is nothing Jason can do now to reduce his sentence, if Matthews were to give information leading to the arrest of a higher drug dealer on the food chain, she could reduce Jason’s sentence to only a year. With the ghost backing of the DEA, Matthews begins to get into the world of drug trafficking.

By now, I’m hooked into the film. But it really wasn’t because of the content of it, but rather they way Waugh was executing it. Quiet, tense, and subtle, Snitch never allows its characters to drown underneath the heavy-handed plot or action. Rather, Waugh feels perfectly comfortable in letting performances evolve, breathe, and just marinate for 30 minutes before even introducing an element of action.

Minor spoiler: there’s one action scene in this entire film and it’s probably the most realistic vehicular derby scene I’ve witnessed in a very long time. The entire movie builds to it, and in any other movie, the scale of that kind of scene would be diminished so much, it would probably be placed in the opening 15 minutes of the movie. But in a movie like Snitch (believe me: I can’t believe I’m praising this movie, considering how bad I thought it was gonna be), it’d done right.

But it’s because Waugh pays close attention to his actors, to the tone, and to the material he clearly cares about (Waugh co-wrote the screenplay with Revolutionary Road scribe Justin Haythe), that he is able to transform this mainstream January release into an issue driven picture. 

This is the first time I’ve been able to call Dwayne Johnson an actor. He was subtle, carried the emotional weight of every scene on his shoulders, and listened to the actors and dialogue around him. But it’s not just Johnson that proved to be an exception. Film newcomer Jon Bernthal (from AMC’s The Walking Dead) turns in a power-house performance as a construction worked forced back into the drug business. What begins as a minor sub-plot and screenplay convenience to get Johnson a connection into the drug world turns into a complex and emotionally developed sub-plot, and it was probably the best surprise of the entire film. Barry Pepper, Susan Sarandon, and Michael Kenneth Williams all turn in fine supporting performances as well.

But at the end of the day, Snitch goes to Waugh’s credit. It’s hard to take something even studios see as a mindless, January release and turn it into a film of interest, real-life issue, genuine emotion, tension, and complex thematic content. And that’s exactly what he does here.

A Good Day to Die Hard | MAD Review

In Uncategorized on February 17, 2013 at 12:46 AM

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A Good Day to Die Hard

(2013, US, d. John Moore)

Brisk, action-packed and more enjoyable than its predecessor, A Good Day to Die Hard marks a surprisingly forward step for the franchise, even though it continues to milk the audience’s love for the original. 

Sure, it removes a lot of the self-conscious humor regarding it’s often over-the-top and flamboyant action scenes that its predecessor possessed. But what it loses in that department, it makes up for in the story of John McClane (Bruce Willis) and his son Jack (newcomer Jai Courtney). 

A Good Day to Die Hard begins as McClane’s son is arrested in Moscow for an assassination of a high power figure. Back in America, John McClane hears about his son’s whereabouts and sets off to Mother Russia to help him out. Little does he know how much crap he’s about to get involved in. Just as he’s about to get dropped off by his daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead of Live Free or Die Hard fame), at the airport, Lucy looks to John. “Try not to make an even bigger mess of things”, she says. John looks over at her, smiles, and gets out the car. Here we go again. 

A lot of people have a lot of problems with this film, and maybe it was because I was so conscious of them that they didn’t bother me as much. The previous Die Hard film almost knew it was a movie and never missed a moment to poke fun at itself. Most people expected the same thing out of this movie and were disappointed by the result. I, however, enjoyed the fact that it took itself a little more seriously, even considering the fact that its plot was no less outrageous or overly complicated. 

You have to hand it over to the filmmakers. If they see any sign of the franchise coming to a close, it’s not visible on the screen. Rather, this looks and feels like a series they plan on keeping alive, even if it involves injecting high amounts of generic adrenaline into the set pieces and into its aging star. But speaking of Bruce Willis, this is the role he’s meant to play. Even if every other action hero he portrays in other films seems similar, John McClane is where those characters draw their inspiration from. Straight from the original film.

What makes A Good Day to Die Hard so appealing was that it felt like the reboot that Live Free or Die Hard should’ve been (I’m getting tired of these sentence titles, too). It pays homage to the original film in many, many ways and has fun subverting itself as well.

Like the original film, this new installment sees New York City cop McClane on the journey to a foreign land to enjoy what should be an interesting vacation. Like the original film, McClane finds himself on a mission to reconnect with a member of his family. And like the original film, our “antagonist” (though it really is hard to identify a single antagonist with this film) is quirky and sympathetic. Granted, it is impossible to reach the levels of genius Alan Rickman easily did with Hans Gruber in the first Die Hard.

Maybe it was the presence of a long-missed sentimentality that got me. After all, no Die Hard since the original really felt like the family-affirming affair that they should’ve been. Maybe it was the breath of fresh air with the inventive, explosive, and engaging action sequences that so contrasted the cliched and formulaic ones of recent (SEE: Parker). But that’s another disagreement I have with critics.

But mostly, I think the film just surprised me. Surprised me with its legitimacy. Surprised me with the fact that I got over how much of a “bad guy” Courtney looks like and accepted him as the “hero” of the story and potential successor to the franchise. Surprised me with its envelope-pushing and interesting action extravagances.

Even if it was forced, there was an emotional core to this film. Regardless of its theatrics, A Good Day to Die Hard is exactly what it aims to be: fun at the movie theaters. And if you look at the palette of “fun” movies of late, you’ll realize it’s actually a harder feat to pull off than you’d think.

 

Side Effects | MAD Review

In Uncategorized on February 9, 2013 at 11:34 PM

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Side Effects

(2013, US, d. Steven Soderbergh)

The best film I’ve seen in 2013 so far, Side Effects is a confident and unsettling thriller fueled by complex and unhinged performances from its lead actors.

Side Effects is one of those films that works best the less you know about it. And as much as I enjoy people reading my reviews, this will be a rare instance where knowing even a little bit about the plot may actually lessen the experience you get out of it. I’m certainly glad I stayed away from others’ reviews of the film. But there’s my warning. Continue with your own discretion.

Side Effects tells the story of Emily Taylor (played by Rooney Mara), whose husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is recently released from prison on charges of insider trading. It’s difficult to pin point what exactly is tearing at Emily, but it’s clear to see that something is. And it’s doing so quite heavily.

When Martin returns to the real world and embraces his wife outside the prison gates, we are introduced to Emily at the happiest we will ever see her. Even if it’s just for a few minutes in the film, it’s a touching moment. From then on, things start to get a little weird.

Emily suffers from – what I presume to be – an extreme case of depression. We’re never told where exactly this depression comes from – whether it’s something that’s always been inside her – but the audience assumes it’s catalyzed by the years she’s been alone and without her husband. And though a few of my friends questioned whether that depression would realistically live on after her husband returned, I had no trouble believing her behaviors. This is due partly to my own intense experiences regarding the illness and partly to Mara’s earth-shatteringly impressive performance.

Mara, singlehandedly, anchors the film whilst portraying an unstable character we love to hate and hate to love. In its 105 minute running time, she’s able to take the audience on a carousel of emotions that include, but are not limited to: hate, love, pity, shock, fear, more fear, empathy, sympathy, bewilderment, sadness, and a chronic questioning of the truth. Whatever that may be.

Side Effects is an effective film that borrows a lot from Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanksi (particularly from the paranoia instilled in every frame of Rosemary’s Baby). However, it’s really the assured direction from Steven Soderbergh that gets the movie soaring. A fearless independent filmmaker, Soderbergh is never afraid to experiment with his shots, sound designs, narrative structures, editing styles, and even musical accompaniments to create the pervasive sense of unease, fear, and mystery that surrounds this film. In a way, it’s the perfect story to end his career with.

I’ll glaze over the plot that gets us there, but once we are introduced to psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (a nice return to form by Jude Law) and Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the movie puts the pedal to the metal and never lets go. Based on a screenplay by Scott Z. Burns, Side Effects takes more turns than any film I’ve seen in the past year. Seriously, I couldn’t count the number of times this film employed paradigm shifts and switched protagonists if I tried. We’d be here a lot longer if I even attempted to tell you how many plot twists there were.

But best of all, Side Effects makes you think. An adult thriller that doesn’t let the audience off the hook until it’s closing moments, Steven Soderbergh’s directorial “swan song” (as sad as it may be for the moment, I have a feeling he’ll be back at it in a few years) is one movie that’s worth the price of admission. Right now.

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.

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