Mr East Goes To The Movies: The Rest (but not the Best) of 2012

by George_East on February 20, 2013

Over Christmas and the New Year I was hoping to post full reviews of all of the films I’d seen in the last couple of months of last year but hadn’t got round to reviewing.   This was, in the end, scuppered by a combination of just not having as much time free time as I thought and the Blog breaking for two weeks at the beginning of the year.

As we are now already 7 weeks into 2013 and I’m already 3 new releases behind for this year (I have not managed to see as many new films this year so far as I would have liked), it has all become such a mammoth task that it is putting me off blogging reviews at all.  That is a bad thing, as I enjoy a spot of film blogging (watch this space for the forthcoming re-launch of the Cine-East Film Club  and my review of this year’s Berlin Film Festival too).

So what I’ve decided to do is to do short reviews of the 11 films from 2012 that I hadn’t got round to reviewing.   This will also help me marshal my thoughts for this weekend’s long awaited unveiling of my Top 10 Films of the Year for 2012 to coincide with the far less significant Oscars.

Anyho, as Marti diBergi says in This Is Spinal Tap, enough of my yakking, let’s get down to the missing film reviews.

1. Skyfall (Sam Mendes)

The latest Bond caused a huge amount of excitement when it was released back in October and was undoubtedly better than the deeply disappointing one long chase sequence that was Quantum of Solace.   Its box office was huge and many many people absolutely raved it.

I thought at the time that it wasn’t as good as the franchise revamp and Daniel Craig’s debut, Casino Royal.   Looking back on it I suspect it will be a film of diminishing returns.   There are good things – Macau and Shanghai look spectacular, Ben Wishaw makes a great ‘back to gadget basics’ computer geeky young Q – as far from exploding pens and invisible cars as you can imagine, Javier Bardem is a superbly playful villain, and some of the stuff about aging and fading powers is done rather well.   On the other hand the film is overly  obsessed with the Bond franchise’s past, has some exceptionally silly CGI (don’t talk to me about the komodo dragons),  spectacularly daft plot development and turns into a Harry Potter film at the end.

All in all a middling to goodish film.  But there again most Bond films are rubbish, so if your baseline is Bond films rather than films generally, despite all of this it may well still be in the lower ranges of the top half a dozen.

2. Alps  (Yorgos Lanthimos)

Like the country it comes from, Greek cinema is pretty fucked up at the minute. Lanthimos previously made the darkest of dark comedies, Dogtooth, about a family so paranoid about the outsideworld that they keep their children prisoner in their own house. Whether the film was a metaphor for how Greek politicians treat their citizens or whether it was a take on the Jozef Fritzl story who knows.

Like Dogtooth, Alps, also stars the fantastically blank-expressioned Aggeliki Papoulia, this time as one of a group (the titular Alps) who provide a service to the recently bereaved by acting as their deceased loved ones.    As the film progresses the boundaries between the services they are providing and the lives themselves become more and more blurred.  By the end of the film it is not even clear whether the home and day job lives of the members of Alps are real or also roles being played.

The film didn’t, for me quite have the disturbing power of Dogtooth (the only film I have seen in recent years which resulted in a member of the audience launching into a verbal tirade at the cinema staff for falsely marketing it as a comedy!) but its sheer originality is to be applauded.

3. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Behh Zeitlin)

This is a film that could have gone horribly wrong.   It stars Quvenzhane Wallis as the 6 year old Hush Puppy and Dwight Henry as her daddy, Wink.    The film is told in a folksy style from the perspective of the young girl.  This could have easily ended up being emotionally manipulative, saccharine and cheesily redemptive.

But this story of the effect of a hurricane on a mythical small island community, the Bath Tub, the wrong side of the levees that protect New Orleans is in instead moving, fascinating in the world it depicts  and the stubbornly resourceful inhabitants, and also educative in the reality of climate change.   Wallis has rightly become the youngest best actress nominee for her performance and the dying Wink is also brilliantly realised by the amateur Henry.

Mrs East’s film of 2012, as it happens.

4. Elena (Andrey Zyvaginstev)

An extraordinary film about the new Russia.     The titular Elena is the second wife of a very wealthy Russian businessman.  When the film opens, from what we see of her in his apartment she may instead be his maid or nurse.   And in fact she was once his nurse, we learn.  She looked after him when he was seriously ill in hospital and that is how they got together.

Her husband, Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) lives the life of the idly rich, spending his leisurely days at an expensive gym.  The impression we get of Elena though, is that she is not exactly sharing  this lifestyle.  She does though have a son who is not in work and who is looking to his mother to help him and his family out, by getting money from Vladimir.  The immediate issue is getting enough money to send her grandson to university, seemingly to avoid military service rather than from any desire to study.  The son and grandson spend their days playing computer games and in one disturbing seen the grandson is part of a gang who violently attacks the homeless camped out next to the shitty estate on which he lives with his parents.  The new Russia consists of the very rich, the poor and the absolutely destitute.

Elena is resourceful but quiet and unassuming.   Vladimir trusts her implicitly, even if he is not willing to help out her family.   In the absence of voluntary help, she will, like the oligarchs before her, take matters into her own hands.

The film is superbly directed by Zyvaginstev, who was also responsible for 2003’s brilliant  The Return.  Nadezhda  Markina in the title role is startling good, in perhaps for me, the female performance of the year.

5. The Master  (Paul Thomas Anderson)

The critics’ film of 2012.  I have to say, as with last year’s Tree of Life, that baffles me somewhat.  It seemed to me to be considerably over-reviewed.   The film centres on the beginnings of a religious cult, loosely based on Scientology.  Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the L Ron Hubbard figure, Lancaster Dodd, as a charismatic charlatan.  The story of the film is told through the eyes of a World War 2 navy veteran, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Pheonix), who finds himself by accident drawn into Dodd’s circle.

Dodd and Quell develop a mutually dependent relationship, though why Dodd needs Quell is never satisfactorily explained.  Quell is an overly-sexualised loner, who sees in Dodd a father figure.  The real power though is Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), who is shown writing his book and running things quietly behind the throne.

The film looks beautiful, full of lovingly realised period detail from the 1940s and 1950s.  This is impressive but on the whole (a few grand cinematic scenes aside) no more so than your average episode of Mad Men.  Both Seymour Hoffman and Phoenix in particular lapse into ACTING.  Big AWARD WINNING ACTING, which gets a little tiresome after a while.  The best thing in the film though by some way is Amy Adams, who in her understated way is utterly convincing as Peggy Dodd.  It is her performance, for me, which lifted the film above the disappointing into the realms of the good.  But a masterpiece this is not.

6.  Amour (Michael Hanneke)

In contrast to The Master, the other critically raved film of the year, Michael Hanneke’s Palm D’or winning Amour was thoroughly deserving of its reviews.  This is the third film in a row from Hanneke  (I am not counting his own American remake of Funny Games) that is worthy of the greatest of praise.  Unlike the last two films though, the disturbing surveillance thriller that was Hidden and the portents of things to come study of a German village before World War I, The White Ribbon, this is a small chamber piece.

The entire film except for one scene takes place in a Paris apartment, occupied by an elderly middle class couple, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuel Riva).  Anne used to be a piano teacher, and the opening scene (which is the exception) takes place at the recital of one of her former students.   The film follows Anne’s decline following a stroke she suffers and how her decline affects the couple and their relationship.

It has been called a film about old people dying, but in reality it is a film (as the title  tells us) about love and the strength of a bond between two people who have been together for half a century or more.  The acting performances from Tringtingant and Riva are as good as anything you are likely to see.  No ACTING here.  They are wholly believable as a couple who have been together for practically their whole lives dealing with mortality and what it means to love.  The film is not an easy watch, and is not likely to be one you will rush back to, such is its truth, pain and intensity.  It is though unmissable.

7. Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard)

In a string of films Audiard (Read My Lips, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, A Prophet) has shown himself to be one of the most compelling film makers currently working in France. His films have a rhythm and structure to them which ensure that the plot drives onwards.   They are though intelligent and interesting films, often with a focus on the dispossessed and poor, and featuring little known actors.

Rust and Bone is Audiard’s attempt to break out of the art house.   It stars French superstar, Marion Collitard as a killer whale trainer, Stephanie, at a Marine Park who loses her legs after being knocked into the water during a show.   The film explores the relationship between Stephanie and Belgian bare knuckle boxer, Ali (played by unknown, Matthias Schoenaerts).

The scenes featuring Ali (who has with him his little son) and his family are superb.  He lives with his sister, who works in a supermarket but who is caught stealing out of date produce (which is going to be dumped) and loses her job.  The reason she is caught is because of security cameras installed as part of his job by Ali.    The poor dumping on the poor, resulting in family fracture.   This part of the film had the potential to be a masterpiece, not least because Schoenarts is utterly convincing as Ali.

Marion Collitard is also good in her role as Stephanie.  The difficulty though is that it relies on absurd plot developments to tie the two halves together, with Stephanie taking over the role of Ali’s bare knuckle fight promoter, despite being a woman with no legs and this being an exclusively male world that expressly excludes women.

The film also has a spectacularly cheesy ending, which is not worthy of what comes  before or Audiard’s previous work.

8. Sightseers (Ben Wheatley)

Comedians Alice Lowe and Steve Oram co-wrote and star in this film about an English couple on a caravan holiday who go on a murder spree.  The film is genuinely  very funny, with great sight gags and it is unarguably well written.  It is though a little under-directed, and feels like an extended TV comedy show sketch.

Both Oram and in particular Lowe are excellent as the 30-something Brummie couple on a trip round some of the more obscure tourist sites of northern England, including a tram park and a pencil museum.    On the way they meet litter bugs, middle class caravan snobs, a flirtatious hen party group and Martin, the nerdy inventor of the Carapod (a mobile sleeping pod).  Virtually everyone they encounter  meets a sorry end.

9. Argo (Ben Affleck)

Ben Affleck’s film based on the true story of a CIA mission to rescue US hostages who had managed to escape the US embassy and hole up in the Canadian embassy in the US hostage crisis in Iran following the fall of the Shah in 1979, was possibly my favourite mainstream film of 2012.

The plot to get them out, involving a fake Canadian film crew making a fake sci fi film (sci fi was then all the rage thanks to the success of Star Wars) in Iran is a tense political thriller, while being lightened by great comic turns from Alan Arkin (as the foul mouthed Jewish producer of the fake film, Lester Siegel  and John Goodman (John Chambers) as the CIA point man in Hollywood.  ‘If we are going to make a fake movie, it’s gonna be a hit fake movie’.

The scenes in Iran are at times truly heart in mouth tense – there is a scene in the Souk in particular which is stomach churningly tense stuff.   The last sequence, as the film cuts between the group’s attempt to get out of Teheran airport on their Canadian passports, and the final piecing together of their identities by an army of children who are putting back together shredded documents including photos of the embassy staff, is also great cinema, if very silly (a run up the stairs by the revolutionary guard to the air traffic control tower to stop the take off, as the plane taxis down the runway, would surely have been dealt with by a simple phone call).

But as Jimmy Carter’s voice over as the final credits roll makes clear this is, at its core, a true story (even if bits of it have no doubt been exaggerated).  The Ben Affleck character, Tony Mendez, was awarded the CIA’s highest honour as a result.  The whole idea is  innately ridiculous but as Mendez says when trying to sell the plan to the suits, ‘this is the best bad idea we’ve got’.

10. Boxing Day (Bernard Rose)

This is a small film which disappeared almost as quickly as it came out.  It is a modern adaptation of a Tolstoy short story, The Master and The Man and is a morality tale of greed and man’s need for his fellow man.

Danny Huston plays a speculator in distressed properties, who borrows money from a church restoration fund (promising them riches on his dead cert investment) and flies to Colorado on Boxing Day to view the properties, which have been foreclosed.  He explains that he buys for 50% of the market value and sells quickly for 65% of market value, making an easy buck.

He is driven around by Nick (Matthew Jacobs), a British ex pat who is now a not very good limo driver.  Nick is alienated from his family and living in a hotel.  He tries to deliver a Christmas present to his child but is refused access to the house by his ex-wife.

Nick is treated with contempt by the Danny Huston character.  However, as a result of them getting lost on a snowy road and the car becoming stuck they will come to rely on each other more than they could possibly imagine would happen.

The film is an interesting two header, and oddly (with Cosmopolis and Holy Motors) the third film from 2012 very largely set inside a car.

11. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson)

Oh my is this long.   Even though the book upon which it is based is a relatively slight 200 pages long, Peter Jackson manages to string out the film for the best part of 3 hours, and what is most scary of all is that this is one of three promised parts.  Overall The Hobbit promises to be every bit as long as The Lord of The Rings, despite the latter being something like 5 times as long in book form.

An Unexpected Journey oozes padding  as a result.  It takes an hour to get Bilbo out of Bag End, the opening scene in which the dwarves arrive at his house seems to go on for the best part of forever.

There are some good things about it – the trolls, the goblin king and best of all, as with The Lord of the Rings, the appearance of Andy Serkis as Gollum is a complete change in class.    But you have to get through nearly 2 and a half hours before he appears.  2 and a half hours of mostly rubbish CGI and ponderous plotting.   I cannot say I am looking forward to part 2.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

George_East February 20, 2013 at 3:58 pm

Yeah, I do want to check that out. I have heard really mixed reports on it. My Top 10 Films of 2012 should be up on Saturday (to get in before the Oscars), and I don’t think I’ll get much chance to see it before then given work, so I guess it isn’t going to be included, whatever I think of it.

I note the Cine East request on Bond. I shall put my thinking cap on for a suitable film in the near future. Sadly our very interesting Tarantino/Reservoir Dogs discussion has been lost in the mists of the Internet as a result of the blog breaking!

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