PopMatters Best Films of 2012

My contribution to PopMatters' year-end wrap-up.

The Best Films of 2012

No. 4: Lincoln

In tackling one of the United States’ most iconic figures, a man who looms largest in American history, Steven Spielberg’s success is in matching Abraham Lincoln’s grandiosity with his film’s smallness. Instead of an all-encompassing biopic, Spielberg chose to focus on the final months of Lincoln’s life and his most important political success: the passage of the 13th amendment. And, while there is certainly much political theater surrounding the amendment, with flamboyant characters on both sides of the debate, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner choose to keep the showiest scenes away from the president. He has a couple of emphatic, passionate monologues, but mostly you get a sense of the man through the tiniest moments: a rambling story, a bawdy joke, a wordless and restless afternoon pacing the White House with his son while Congress debates, a sullen glance. As the 16th president, Daniel Day-Lewis is in full control of this remarkable restraint—though he’s buoyed by a supporting cast rising to meet his greatness. Like the characters in the film, with Lincoln you get the sense that everyone is striving to quietly accomplish their most important work.

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PopMatters: 2012 Film Recap

My contributions to PopMatters' 2012 film recap.
The Worst Films of 2012

No. 6: Dark Tide

Apart from a few pretty underwater scenes, there is no joy in watching Dark Tide, about a diver (Halle Berry) who swims with sharks for passion and profit. The story is uninvolving, with threads that dead-end never to be picked up again and people who make stupid choices for reasons that are never explained. The characters are spoiled—a thrill-seeking businessman coerces Berry’s character to take him on a free-dive that they both know is dangerous, and he spends the entire film throwing his weight around while she pouts about it—and spend most of their time arguing, all to serve an emotional arc that never materializes. Even the visuals become murkier and murkier, with the main characters blending into the background as an impending storm, opaque water, and people indistinguishable from either (or each other) all flood the screen. You’re better off with the sharks.

No. 8: The Devil Inside

It’s not just the fact that the theatrical version of The Devil Inside ended with a title card directing viewers to the film’s website for more information that made audiences howl with disgust. It’s bad form, to be sure, especially considering that the website hosted videos that none-too-subtly revealed further twists that would’ve been obvious had they been in the movie to begin with (and, with a running time of a mere 83 minutes, it’s not clear why those scenes weren’t included in the first place). No, it’s the very idea that The Devil Inside—an obvious and uninspired exorcism tale that treads on the same themes about faith that have been explored since The Exorcist—merited any further investigation into its surface-level plot that’s the true insult.  

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DVD Review: Taken 2

Thanks to Key & Peele, I kept thinking of this as "Tooken 2" while I was reviewing it.

'Taken 2' Dutifully Follows the Most Standard of Sequel Formulas

All of this setup is really piece-moving to allow Mills to, in his words, “Do what I do best”—meaning charging after the bad guys without any backup, and taking them down. Sometimes there’s hand-to-hand combat; sometimes he gets a gun and just starts firing. There are neat little sequences, but no surprises: Everything that follows is as you would expect. It’s not that the action is poorly handled, but it’s just good enough to get Mills from the hordes of anonymous bad guys to the slightly more important bad guys to the really bad guys. At no point does Taken 2 deviate from this goal, or work any harder or get any smarter than it needs to be.

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Daily Traveler: Itineraries Inspired by Oscar's Best Picture Nominees

Where to Vacation: Travel Inspired by the Best Picture Nominees

The Oscar nominees for Best Picture were announced this morning—and not only do they tell some pretty amazing stories, but they also showcase some pretty amazing locations. Take a cue from the silver screen and plan one of these cinematic getaways in D.C., Paris, Los Angeles, and more.

Re-Create Life in "The Bathtub" of Beasts of the Southern Wild
Destination: New Orleans, Louisiana
Beasts of the Southern Wild centers on a fictional Louisiana Bayou community that calls itself "The Bathtub." And if there's one thing that the denizens of the Bathtub like to do—for better or for worse—it's drink. Celebrate in their style by taking our New Orleans bar crawl: We have nearly 40 suggestions of where to imbibe, including Bar Tonique for Sazeracs, Tujague's for grashoppers, and Liuzza's Restaurant and Bar for good ol' cold beer. Just don't try visiting all of them in one night, or you'll be so drunk that you'll see visions of the mythical aurox coming to get you. Better get some food to go with all that liquor. Hushpuppy (Oscar-nominated Quvenzhané Wallis), the heroine of Beasts, is taught by her father to fish with her bare hands, but we suggest trying something that's seen a little more culinary attention, such as the Creole innovations at R'evolution and the tasting menu at the soon-to-open Square Root. If you'd prefer to get a little closer to the spirit of the bathtub, visit Isle de Jean Charles, a small fishing village southwest of New Orleans, where the film was shot.

Click through to see the rest of the slide show at the Condé Nast Traveler.

Photo by Matthew D White/Getty Images

DVD Review: Chernobyl Diaries


'Chernobyl Diaries' Is Like the Real Chernobyl, in That There's Nothing There

The characters, thin and stock to begin with, keep finding ways to be disappointing. Over and over, they find themselves in situations where they know they should run and find help from outside of Pripyat, but they keep getting distracted from this life-saving mission to rescue friends that have gone missing, to scream and cry about friends they find worse for the wear, or to investigate strange and scary noises coming from somewhere in the distance. Repeatedly, they muster up heroic courage to go charging—unarmed and unprepared—after a strange sound or vision, only to run away again when they discover that, yes, something unsavory was the cause.

Sure, they’re under fire from multiple threats. Before they realize that Pripyat might not be entirely abandoned, they find themselves on guard against hungry wild animals (mostly ravenous dogs but once, hilariously, a wayward bear) and the contamination that still exists in pockets in the site. (The characters carry a Geiger counter to warn them against high levels of radiation.) However, these forces pop in and out of the story at will, and they’re never used to build a feeling of mounting suspense or dread.

By the time the real boogeymen of the movie are introduced, even the location has lost its luster. The characters are lured into underground tunnels, abandoned hallways, and darkened rooms—they really could be anywhere. This is one of the few horror movies where the atmosphere is spookier and more interesting during the daytime, before any of the haunts have come into play.

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DVD Review: The Hunger Games

'The Hunger Games' Looks More Like the Past than the Future -- and Too Much Like the Present

"The book covers a lot of ground, from wealth inequality to the media’s desensitization to violence. It’s a good thing, then, that the adaptation landed in the hands of a director as confident as Gary Ross. He understands that the movie should stand for itself, as opposed to functioning as a staged reading of the novel.

The most important shift, and ultimately the most successful one, is the decision to liberate the movie from Katniss’s point of view. The movie is thankfully voiceover-free—which would’ve been a cheap, easy way to sneak in both Katniss’s reactions and Suzanne Collins’s words—and actors’ facial expressions are allowed to stand-in for pages of inner monologue. The universe of the movie unfolds without being over-explained. Ross trusts his actors’ performances to get across the information we need to know without necessarily saying it, and he trusts the audience to absorb all of the movie’s nuances without underlining every revelation and reaction."

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Film Review: Red Lights

Red Lights doesn't exactly work, but at least it fails in an interesting way.

'Red Lights': Paranormal Beliefs and Doubts

"This situation also indicates that the movie takes place in a heightened reality, if not a downright alternate one, where paranormal activities and parapsychology are of such importance that a university funds not one, but three faculty positions dedicated to researching the subject. In this world, cable news breathlessly reports on every step of a retired psychic’s comeback—which draws sellout crowds in seconds—and someone else’s doubts about him wind up on page one of the newspaper."

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DVD Review: Dark Tide

Dark Night, Dark Sea, Dark Wetsuits, 'Dark Tide'

The rest of Dark Tide picks up a year later, and clarity does not come with the passage of time. Mathieson, still saddled with guilt, has traded free-diving with sharks for a life as a safe-and-boring (and financially strapped) seal-watching tour guide. Her estranged husband and former documentarian Jeff (Olivier Martinez) returns with a proposition to make her some money and get her back in the water, taking a wealthy adrenaline junkie, Brady (Ralph Brown), and his son out to go swimming with sharks. Though Mathieson is angry with Jeff, haunted by Themba, opposed to shark tours, certain that the dive would be too dangerous for the inexperienced visitors, wary that mating season would make the sharks quick to bite, and hostile to the idea that she should give into the whims of a craven thrillseeker just for his money, she agrees to take him, anyway.

No, it doesn’t make sense. And it just gets murkier from there until the visuals of movie become as confused as the narrative, eventually devolving into an indistinguishable group of people in black wetsuits swimming on a black ocean against a black sky in a tumultuous rainstorm. Yes, that’s the climax of the movie—and it is near-impossible to follow.


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