10 Honorable Mention Films from 2012

20. The Five-Year Engagement

I lost patience toward the middle when it took some really stupid decision-making to prolong the engagement to five years, but even when it stretched credibility, the movie never stopped being funny or having Jason Segel in it. It wins points for both of those things.

19. John Carter

Nowhere near the mess that lots of people claim it was; just not as spectacular as it should have been for the talent involved. It’s a fun, scifi escape with a couple of legitimately great moments; we just all hoped for so much more.

18. The Amazing Spider-Man

“Expectations” are a recurring theme on my honorable mentions list this year. I didn’t have high ones for The Amazing Spider-Man and like most people, I questioned the fundamental existence of the project. It was made for purely cynical, We Have to Do This or Lose the License reasons.

But though it contains some highly unnecessary rehashing of the Sam Raimi material, it also found some new things to do with its tone and the central relationships. It’s worthwhile for Peter and Gwen alone.

17. ParaNorman

I love the theme in ParaNorman about being your own person and not letting other people define you. Also: the animation is amazing. I wasn’t totally in love with the character designs though, and since that’s what I was looking at for most of the film, that’s what keeps it out of my Top 10.

16. The Hunger Games

I’m disappointed that this isn’t in my Top 10 for the year, either. I totally thought it would be, but during the second viewing I found myself getting bored. I kept myself entertained by focusing on Jennifer Lawrence’s wonderful performance, which communicated very well the horror of Katniss’ situation. Without her internal monologue though, it was hard to get what I wanted from her moral struggle over how to act in the arena.

Still looking forward to Catching Fire, but I’m more detachedly curious about it than wildly enthusiastic like I was for this one.

15. Underworld: Awakening

In a year that brought a disappointing entry in the Resident Evil movies, I’m thrilled that we got a worthy film in my other favorite horror/scifi adventure series starring a woman. Awakening pretty much punts and launches a Bold New Direction for Underworld, but it’s a good direction with some likable, new characters and I enjoyed it very much.

14. 21 Jump Street

I want to say that this is so much better than a movie based on an all-but-forgotten TV show has the right to be, but even though that’s true, it’s not really fair to suggest that that’s all 21 Jump Street has going for it. It’s just a very funny movie, period. That it gets a small part of that humor from pointing out and making fun of its sordid roots is just frosting for the cake. I’d probably rate it higher if not for the skeevy romance between Jonah Hill’s character and a high school student.

13. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted

Listen: After the horrible piece of derivative crap that Madagascar 2 was, I’m as surprised as anyone to find Madagascar 3 on this list. In fact, I didn’t want to see it at all when it was announced. It wasn’t until it got a 79% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes that I had to see what the heck was going on with this thing. To my surprise, it was hilarious and – more importantly – original. It also pretty much wrapped up the saga with a nice bow on top, so I don’t expect to be interested in a Madagascar 4, but never say never.

12. Haywire

No, Gina Carano is not a great actress. And the plot of Haywire is nothing new. But the movie makes up for both of those things with heart and authenticity. I wrote a full review of it, so I’ll point you there for more thoughts, but it really was one of my favorite movie experiences of the year.

11. Moonrise Kingdom

This was my first Wes Anderson film since Rushmore, which I never quite forgave for stealing Bill Murray away from movies like Groundhog Day and The Man Who Knew Too Little. Seeing Moonrise Kingdom makes me want to find out what I’ve been missing. It’s a small movie, but a lovely one, and makes great use of its setting and awesome cast.

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10 Movies I Could Take or Leave in 2012

If you’re just now tuning in, I’m counting down the 43 movies I saw in the theater last year. The bottom of the barrel was in this post, so we pick up with Number 30 this week: the part of the list where I found things in each movie to like and dislike, in more or less equal amounts.

30. The Bourne Legacy

I was more eager for this than I should have been. I hoped it would be a decent placeholder for the series until Matt Damon found a reason to come back, but it was a tired plot with very low stakes. Nice performances from Jeremy Renner and Rachel Wiesz, but they didn’t have much to work with except for a couple of really effective action pieces.

29. Man on a Ledge

Another thriller in which the excellent cast is wasted on a generic, predictable script. Genesis Rodriguez steals the movie and brings Jamie Bell along with her though. I want another, better movie about just the two of them.

28. The Woman in Black

An effective, spooky movie with a welcome performance by Daniel Radcliffe. That ending though… It’s designed to clear the road for Woman in Black 2, but is so cynical and obvious about it that it not only kills my interest in a sequel, it also makes this one un-rewatchable for me.

27. Men in Black 3

I’m not a fan of the Men in Black movies. They’re disposable entertainment that I tend to forget about as soon as I leave the theater. This one actually stuck with me, but I haven’t made up my mind about if that was for the right reason or not. The movie’s point is unclear, but whatever it is, it makes it in a memorable way.

And Josh Brolin is super entertaining as Young Tommy Lee Jones.

26. Hotel Transylvania

I would’ve liked it a lot more if Dracula didn’t sound like Adam Sandler doing a Lugosi accent. I mean, that’s exactly what’s going on, but I wish it wasn’t so distracting. Other than that, it’s a funny movie with some amusing interpretations of classic monsters.

25. The Expendables 2

The first one was pretty miserable, but they got me back to the theater by adding Chuck Norris to the mix and promising to expand the roles of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis. There were still some huge, ridiculous plot holes, but I loved the finale as everyone used their best moves (and best lines) to show each other up. What it has over the first one is “fun.”

24. Flight

Not the movie I expected. I thought it was going to be more of a legal drama, but not being that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. Taken on its own terms, Flight is a powerful, effective film about addiction and the lengths people go to deny it and cover it up. I liked it a lot for that and enjoyed being surprised by it, but it’s a difficult movie to watch and I can’t imagine I’ll ever want to see it again.

23. Argo

Nice thriller with some laugh out loud moments, some harrowing ones, and a couple of great, touching ones when reluctant participants in the escape plan decide to commit to it. Unfortunately, the script goes to great lengths to ramp up the tension in unbelievable and cheesy ways that kept reminding me this couldn’t be how it actually happened.

22. Prometheus

I already wrote a long post about this one, but short version: There are some truly great and fascinating ideas in this visually stunning movie. It’s just too bad that they’re executed so very, very sloppily.

21. Brave

I just rewatched Brave the other night and liked it better than I did the first time. I don’t know if I liked it well enough to move it out of this section of my list, but maybe. I’m certainly not as disappointed this time.

The biggest thing is that I was able to spot the moment where Merida and her mom resolve their conflict. It was right where it was supposed to be, but the first time around I missed an important, but subtle line of dialogue and some equally vital body language. Turns out, the point of the movie really is about compromise and the bravery it takes to do that when you haven’t yet exhausted all the stubborn tantrum-throwing you’d planned on doing. It’s a much sneakier message than I was prepared for, but I liked it more for that. Maybe next time, I’ll like it even better.

13 Movies I Hated in 2012

Since I’m basically counting down to my Top 10 at the end of the month, here’s the bottom of the list, in order from most hated to least.

43. Wrath of the Titans

I wasn’t going to see this after learning my lesson with the Clash of the Titans remake, but my son loves Greek mythology and enjoyed Clash, so he was looking forward to it and we went. He’s ten and enjoyed it, but it taught me that when Sam Worthington says he’s only going to do a sequel because they fixed all the problems with the first one: Do Not Believe Him.

42. Safe House

No surprises in this movie and I so did not care what happened to anyone in it.

41. Dark Shadows

Should’ve been called Wasted Talent. I love pretty much everyone in this movie, but it was a boring, nonsensical mess.

40. Taken 2

There was one point in Taken 2 where I thought they might have found something interesting to do with these characters. After the events of Taken, I can understand why Liam Neeson and Maggie Grace’s characters may have turned a little dysfunctional with Neeson’s being overprotective and Grace not really sure whether she appreciates that or not. That would’ve been a cool dynamic to explore, especially if Grace then had to turn around and save Neeson somehow, but it was dropped in favor of simply remaking the first one.

39. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Great premise, but it was a mistake to try to fold in Lincoln’s entire life. The adventures of Young Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter would have been enough. Skipping ahead and telling a whole, second story of Old Lincoln was too much. Plus, these vampires really aren’t that interesting.

38. Resident Evil: Retribution

I’m a big, big fan of the Resident Evil movies, but this was a horrible entry. It does very little to advance the series’ overarching plot, but it’s also weak even as a standalone movie. It sets up a mission, explains what the heroes have to do to complete that mission, then shows them doing it. Yawn.

Also, it introduces some smart, badass, new characters, then has them do extremely dumb and weak things just to prolong the drama.

37. American Reunion

This was my first American Pie movie, so I had no nostalgic attachment to it. Mostly I just wanted to see what everyone’s been talking about all these years and watch Alyson Hannigan and Seann William Scott in these roles that they became famous for. Unfortunately, it was more gross and creepy than funny.

36. Wanderlust

This was actually funny, but I have a problem with adultery’s being introduced to push a plot along without dealing with the emotional fallout from it. I know it’s my own hang-up, but I’ve seen cheating seriously screw up too many of my friends’ marriages. There are always repercussions and it feels cheap to me when cheaters are let off the hook too easily. By all means, have some adultery in your movie. Just deal with it honestly when you do.

35. Seven Psychopaths

I wanted a fun, Guy Ritchie-esque crime movie, not a deconstruction of that genre with nothing new or interesting to say about it. There are some fun – even great – performances (Walken!), but even then I felt ripped off by how little Olga Kurylenko is in it.

34. Battleship

I was seriously surprised that this isn’t my most hated movie of the year, but there was some genuinely fun, pulpy adventure in between all the cynical, stupid predictability.

33. This Means War

More fun that it deserved to be, mostly because all three stars are so likable. But it’s an implausible story, both in how Chris Pine and Tom Hardy use government resources, and in the decision Reese Witherspoon makes at the end.

32. Snow White and the Huntsman

I might would have liked this more except that it was supposed to be the good Snow White movie this year and it sucked in comparison to the utterly lovable Mirror Mirror. Singing dwarves work for The Hobbit, but they’re laughable here. Kristen Stewart looks as sleepy and bored as ever and there is NO WORLD in which she’s fairer than Charlize Theron.

Still, Theron does a fantastic job and I love the motivations the film gives her character. And Chris Hemsworth is always cool.

31. Total Recall

I’m not a huge fan of the original, so I wasn’t opposed to the idea of remaking it, but this version commits a multitude of sins. It tries to update the plot, but leaves gaping holes in the process and doesn’t present some key scenes as effectively as the original.

You know what covers a multitude of sins though? Kate Beckinsale kicking ass. Which she totally does all over this movie.

Black Dragons (1942)

Who’s in it?: Bela Lugosi; Joan Barclay (The Corpse Vanishes); George Pembroke (Invisible Ghost); Clayton Moore (The Lone Ranger)

What’s it about?: One by one, Lugosi kills off a secret cabal of U.S. fifth columnists during WWII. Clayton Moore investigates the murders.

How is it?: It’s not a horror movie, but gets into the 50 Horror Classics collection simply for having Lugosi in it. Most of the film is an interesting spy thriller. Lugosi moves into the home of one of the columnists (Pembroke) and uses it as his base of operations while he murders the others, leaving their bodies on the steps of the Japanese embassy with Japanese daggers in their hands. Barclay plays Pembroke’s niece, who also lives in Pembroke’s house and seems more interested in Lugosi’s character than she is in Moore’s G-Man who has the hots for her.

Unfortunately, the movie drives completely off the rails in the last few minutes as Lugosi’s motivations are revealed. SPOILER: He’s actually a former Nazi plastic surgeon who transformed Japanese spies (the titular Black Dragons) into U.S. industrialists so that they could become the fifth columnists. They betrayed him though and locked him in prison, but just HAPPENED to put him in a cell with a guy who looks exactly like Lugosi and was being released the next day. No bonus points for figuring out how Lugosi escaped. The movie was doing so well up to that point and would have been Good if only it hadn’t tried for a shocking revelation.

Rating: Okay.

LXB | Avengers, but with spies, but without Steed and Peel

For nerds of a certain age, there can be some confusion around the name Avengers. Most people are going to think of the Marvel superheroes, but there’s still a dedicated group of fans for whom the name automatically brings to mind Patrick Macnee in a bowler and Diana Rigg in a catsuit. I neither blame nor pity them. Those are excellent things to spring to mind under any circumstances. But when I say “spy Avengers,” that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about my response to this week’s assignment from the League of Extraordinary Bloggers. Inspired by the Joss Whedon movie, Brian asks:

What pop culture heroes or stories would make for the ultimate crossover?

My mind immediately went to that March Madness bracket we did with all the action heroes. How cool would it be to do The Expendables the way we all want to see it done? Not with new characters, but with Stallone actually playing John Rambo and with Bruce Willis playing John McClane. Clint Eastwood could still play a threatening Dirty Harry. Maybe Schwarzenegger could bring back Dutch from Predator. That would be something to see.

But as I kept adding in characters from that bracket, I grew less pleased with the result. Snake Plissken and Indiana Jones wouldn’t work without a time travel angle that would take over the whole movie. It also makes my head hurt to figure out a plot in which cops, spies, and soldiers all have something to do and can interact with each other for an entire film. So I decided to pick one genre and expand on it.

I picked spies partly because Bond and Bourne did so well in the bracket, but mostly because a) it’s my favorite of those three genres, b) it’s easy to add women to the cast, and c) there have been a ton of spy movies lately. That last one is important because it means that it’s much easier to believe that these characters are all active and available to team up. With Rambo and Dutch, we’d have to spend the entire first act explaining why they’re still (or back) in the game.

I already revealed them in the header image, but my ultimate spy team would be a 50-50 male/female mix: James Bond, Natasha Romanoff, Evelyn Salt, Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt, and Hanna. I stopped it at six to keep it manageable (and limited myself to movie characters), but there’s plenty of room for additional characters in cameos or whatnot: Mallory Kane, Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, or any of the surviving cast of Red. Maybe not Maxwell Smart, but Anne Hathaway as Agent 99? Heck yeah. You could even throw in some TV spies for fun: Michael Westen, Jack Bauer, Annie Walker, or Carrie Mathison, for example.

What do you think? Would you pay good money to see that? What would your ultimate movie crossover be?

CONTEST | U-DECIDE LXB’s March Madness: Bond vs Bourne

For the first three weeks of March, we’re going to answer the question, one match at a time, of who would win if 12 movie tough guys were airdropped into an abandoned city and only one could escape.

I promise I didn’t realize this ahead of time, but I’m thrilled that it came down to these two. Looking back at the list of contestants, it always had to.

I’ve got thoughts on how this would go, but I think it’ll be more fun if everyone chimes in. It’s been ages since I’ve run a contest, but let’s try one. Simply vote in the comments field with who you think would win: Bond or Bourne. Or, if you prefer, tweet your answer to me @michaelmaycomix. I’d love to hear the rationale for your choice as well, but that’s not necessary to win. Deadline is midnight CST, Monday, March 26.

Sometime on Tuesday, I’ll compile all the entries into one list, pick one at random, and that person will win a spy-pack that includes Matt Kindt’s Super Spy: The Lost Dossiers graphic novel and one of my favorite films from last year, Hanna on DVD. I’ll announce the winner of the contest, the winner of the March Madness battle, and my own thoughts about Bond vs Bourne at the same time.

So get to voting!

Haywire (2012)

I don’t need to talk about spoilers to recommend Haywire. Its awesomeness isn’t in its plot twists. In fact, the plot is one of the weaknesses of the film – that and Gina Carano’s acting – but neither of those things hurt the movie in a significant way. If you’re a fan of ‘60s and ‘70s action movies, you’re going to be just fine with Haywire. Likewise if you enjoyed Hanna or Drive or other artful takes on the action genre. Carano’s a new actor with some learning to do, but she’s better than most of the army of other action stars I’ve been giving passes to my whole life. And while the plot may not be anything new or unique, the way it unfolds in the movie – and especially the way Steven Soderbergh shoots it – is. The film is simultaneously familiar and fascinatingly different from anything I’ve seen before.

You find out the plot in the first few minutes of the movie. Mallory Kane (Carano) is a contract soldier on the run after a mission went wrong. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know the scene in the diner where she talks to a colleague named Aaron (Channing Tatum) about coming in. She’s not sure if she can trust him, so she only mentions a few details: Barcelona, Dublin, and someone named Paul. If you’ve seen the trailer, you also know how that conversation ends. The film then flashes back to the mission to connect those details with each other, but doesn’t yet reveal what went wrong because Kane’s not sure of that herself. The rest of the movie is her figuring it out, which I loved watching her do.

The revelations aren’t stunning; they’re actually pretty easy to figure out. Everything makes perfect sense at the end, but there’s no moment where I went, “Oh! I didn’t see that coming!” And though I liked Kane, I never felt like the stakes were all that high for her. That may be because Carano couldn’t give me a reason or maybe it was problem with the script, but while I loved watching her work and wanted her to succeed, I never felt emotionally invested. That’s a criticism I can give to most action movies; it’s just that as great as the rest of Haywire is, I wanted that part to be great too.

What’s great about the film starts with Mallory Kane. Gina Carano has a perfect look. I don’t mean that she’s attractive (though she is); I mean that she looks like a real person and not a movie star. I love Angelina Jolie action movies, but I can’t lose myself in them. I’m always aware that I’m watching Angelina Jolie. In Haywire, I was just watching Mallory Kane. I’m sure that has a lot to do with this being Carano’s first film, but it also has to do with her body type and just the way she carries herself. She feels authentic.

In fact, “authentic” is a word I thought of a lot as I watched this movie. As cliché as the plot can be, Soderbergh brings it to life and makes it genuine. The fight scenes are brutal and awesomely choreographed, but more important than that, they play out with no music and minimal sound effects. When Carano punches someone (or just as often, someone punches her), it sounds like someone’s really getting hit. I didn’t feel like I was watching a fight scene in a movie; I felt like I was in a diner or hotel room watching two people try to kill each other.

Soderbergh does other things like that too. When Carano hijacks a car and its owner, Soderbergh puts the camera in the back seat for a continuous shot of Carano’s driving. Looking over the actors’ shoulders at the dashboard and the road ahead, I could practically smell the newness of the car. There’s also a great foot chase where the camera stays in front of Carano, focused on her as she runs and breathes. I’ve never noticed an action star’s breathing before, but I’ve done enough running to know that breathing is an important part of it. That detail adds so much to making that scene sincere. As do Carano’s actions in another scene in which she’s being chased. Most action heroes always know what they’re going to do next, but Carano occasionally has to stop and look around her to figure out her next move. She had me looking around too, wondering what she was going to do next.

And of course it’s especially nice to see Haywire star a woman and to treat her so well. Mallory Kane is a sexual character, but she’s never sexualized. And she’s not just a man recast as a woman. I’m thinking especially of her relationship with her dad (Bill Paxton) and how that feels like a real father-daughter relationship, but there are other points in the movie where she’s particularly feminine. But then she’ll command a mission or there’ll be a fight and she’s as tough as any man.

I admit to some discomfort watching her get beat up, especially when her male opponents hit first. The old playground rule, “Boys don’t hit girls” kept popping into my head, but I’m not the only one. In the film, a male assassin looks uneasy as he accepts a contract on Kane. “I’ve never done a woman before.”

The person hiring him delivers my favorite line from the movie. “You shouldn’t think of her as a woman,” he says. “No, that would be a mistake.” It’s not that she’s at all masculine; it’s that if you think of women as people with an inherent need for protection and gentle handling, you’ve got the wrong idea about Mallory Kane.