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I’m counting down all the movies released in 2012.  The ones I’ve seen, at any rate.  In what is unquestionably a timely manner.  Hey, I finished before the end of 2013.  That’s a moral victory, right?

10.  Pitch Perfect

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So, full disclosure, I was three or four beers in when I saw this movie with at least one fellow Grouch in a spur of the moment decision.  The plot services the movie fine, though it isn’t a particular highlight and, for example, the subplot of Anna Kendrick and Skylar Astin’s romance is undercooked.  But holy cow is this movie funny.  The casting is spot on, leading to the breakouts of Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson, but Anna Camp and Brittany Snow are solid in support, plus who doesn’t love Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins on commentary?  I was a little skeptical the world needed another a cappella thing about people trying to make regionals, but much credit to screenwriter Kay Cannon.  The film spawned multiple hit soundtracks and a hit single for Anna Kendrick, because of course.

9.  Lockout

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The film was written and directed by James Mather and Stephen St. Leger, but it has co-writer and producer Luc Besson’s fingerprints all over it.  Latter-day Besson movies are extremely consistent: a tough, funny leading man, a clear and economical story, action movie one-liners, a few interesting twists, and a happy ending filled with explosives.  This one is no different.  Guy Pearce is a good match for Besson, I think, and Maggie Grace has clearly shown her chops.  The only thing I’ll say about Besson is that he seemed to be successfully hitting a lot of doubles and triples lately, I wouldn’t mind him aiming for another homer.

8.  The Raid: Redemption

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The movie that made me like RoboCop less and lose Adam’s respect forever.  Though I also saw this one in theaters with him and I’m pretty sure he liked it a bunch as well.  The story structure of having all the action take place in one building and having our hero have to essentially clear floors is very compelling for a martial arts movie.  The action is confined in the sense the fighting is limited to rooms or hallways, which is a refreshing change of pace, but there are plenty of floors, so there’s lots of different action.  Writer/director Gareth Evans does a great job illustrating the fighting, I think, and allowing just enough of a story to seep through.  There was one kill, where Iko Uwais jumped backwards and impaled a guy on a doorframe that was just spectacular.

7.  The Perks of Being a Wallflower

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I had very high expectations for this one going in, to the point where it probably disappointed a little not to fall in my top five.  Which isn’t fair, I know.  And for the first, I don’t know, two-thirds of the film, I couldn’t figure out what people were talking about.  But the last third of the film was absolutely killer.  Ezra Miller is the bold highlight of a strong cast.  It is shameful the highest-profile awards and nominations he pulled down were Chlotrudis, MTV Movie, and Teen Choice (looking squarely at you, Independent Spirits).  Emma Watson was also quite good, adding surprising depth to a character that didn’t have to be so nuanced.  That said, if you’ll excuse a brief foray into objectification, Emma Watson in the Rocky Horror getup as part of the live cast during a screening fulfilled fantasies I didn’t realize I had.  Anyway, there’s a lot to like from Stephen Chbosky’s effort here, it gets surprisingly dark and poignant and touching.  Here’s hoping his next go-round doesn’t take quite so long to get there.

6.  Zero Dark Thirty

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Talked about this movie a bunch in the Oscar posts, obviously.  A very good film and if you wanted to argue it should have won the big one, I wouldn’t put up a fight.  The last chunk of the movie, the raid, was absolutely riveting, with Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal putting on a masterclass in dramatic tension.  The middle part was maybe slightly uneven, a minor quibble that makes the movie very good instead of great.  Also, needed more Kyle Chandler and Chris Pratt.

5.  Flight

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I was pretty thrilled screenwriter John Gatins received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay.  And not just because he also co-wrote Summer Catch (with Kevin Falls!) and wrote Hard Ball.  This film was taut throughout and a fantastic character study.  And of course, much credit to director Robert Zemeckis, especially for the crash scene, and Denzel Washington, who was awesome.  But it is easy to forget that the crash scene was written and Washington’s drunk hero originates from the dialogue and scenes in the script.

4.  Argo

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Wait, does this mean I agree with the Academy?  Madness!  How this movie managed to win the top prize is a well-covered topic.  And you know, I’ll grant the movie isn’t necessarily particularly ambitious or trendsetting, which I imagine is a factor for some when deciding on Oscar.  But Ben Affleck and Chris Terrio did a fantastic job crafting a movie that’s incredibly tense throughout.  They expertly wove in comic relief as a valve to temper the pressure of the tension, which led to some of the funniest moments on screen this year.  The cast was tremendous, but the name actors in nearly every role was maybe a bit off-putting.  And again, needed more Kyle Chandler.  And pretty much everyone else.

3.  Wanderlust

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I realize I’m alone here, but that’s fine, I’ll enjoy my wildly underrated Wain/Marino joints as long as they keep pumping them out.  Saw this one in theaters and felt like I was doubled over with laughter for most of the time.  The writing was hilarious, of course, but David Wain has a way of building fantastic casts comprised of a great combination of regulars (Ken Marino, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux), really funny people (Key and Peele, Kathryn Hahn), and high profile newcomers (Jennifer Aniston, Alan Alda) who all blend together to make me laugh a lot.

2.  21 Jump Street

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Saw this one in theaters and can’t remember ever laughing more.  At first glance, this movie sounds like a terrible idea, right?  A remake of a TV show people vaguely remembered, starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, written by a guy with a credit on Project X, directed by the guys whose only prior big screen credit was an animated film?  But then, you realize that should read “Oscar-nominated Jonah Hill” and that Channing Tatum is crazy talented and that Michael Bacall also co-wrote the excellent Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, and that Phil Lord and Chris Miller directed Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, which was an adaptation way better than it needed to be.  At any rate, this film was fantastic, with a stellar supporting cast that runs so deep, a relatively clever story, and a deep understanding of the genre.

1.  The Dark Knight Rises

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Yup.  And I’m one of the few people who like this movie more than the last one.  Let’s go through why.  I personally find the philosophical musings of the Nolans’s to be a superficial distraction in their films.  It felt like they got away from the pseudo-intellectual diversions, at least a little.  I’m not necessarily a huge fan of the Bechdel test or complaints about poorly-written women/minority/etc. characters.  I’m sympathetic to the cause, but I think it misses the point a little, to me the characters should be written in service of the story, and yes that often means women should be able to talk to each other about things other than boys.  But not always.  In any case, the women in the first two Batman films were badly-written and generally annoying.  The women in this one were almost decently-written and vaguely interesting, which was a significant step up.  The cast was probably the best of the trilogy, I mean, it is insane that along with all the regulars, this one added Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Matthew Modine, and Juno Temple.  Finally, and maybe most importantly, the fight scenes in the film were darn near a revelation.  The action was so visceral, nearly primal in nature.  They were simply fantastic, and made the film the best of the year.

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I know that some people crave a sense of realness from their movies.  They want characters to talk and act like real people.  They want actors to portray someone who seems like an actual person.  I’ve long made it clear that such things don’t really influence my opinion of a movie.  Well, if any movie was going to put that maxim to the test, it’d be Moneyball.

I’ll spare you my life’s story, but suffice it to say I’ve been familiar with sabermetric thought for at least a decade (thanks Ian!) and so Moneyball was perhaps the 2011 movie I was most anticipating, even if I wasn’t quite looking forward to it.  After that Soderbergh mess (an animated Bill James?!), how could Zaillan, Sorkin, and Bennett Miller make a coherent film out of the book?  Could Brad Pitt make baseball sexy?  Who on earth was going to see a movie about baseball economics?  Would I be able to handle poetic license in a story I know so well?

As it turn out the answers are: More than expected, Brad Pitt can make anything sexy, plenty of people, and maybe. Zaillan and Sorkin (although, to be honest, I didn’t really hear Sorkin’s voice in the movie, save for a line or two) ended up telling a rather  familiar story: a dashing, tolerably flawed hero teams up with his young sidekick and uses his smarts to (almost) vanquish the richer, more powerful bad guys.  The screenwriters stripped away a lot of the story of course, they had to, but they ended up with a marketable movie that still feels very faithful to the book.  Which is a rather impressive feat.

While the story may have ended up coherent, it felt far from complete.  Part of that stems from the trap into which so many adaptations fall – the compulsive need to name drop bits of the source story without enough explanation.  The well-known jean salesman line felt forced, for example.  But more than that, I’m not sure the characters were given compelling arcs.  The ancillary characters (so everyone who wasn’t Brad Pitt or Jonah Hill) flitted in and out of the film willy-nilly.  All of the players, Brad Pitt’s ex-wife and kid, the old braintrust, the A’s owner, everyone showed up for a scene or two, never to return.  Some have talked about Billy Beane as a father, but I don’t think that subplot is nearly present enough to be worth mentioning.

I suppose I’m partially upset because the film grabbed a lot of actors I like and gave them nothing to do.  Chris Pratt has a dozen lines.  Tammy Blanchard has four seconds of screen time.  I bet you didn’t even realize Nick Searcy (Timothy Olyphant’s boss on Justified) was in the film.  Philip Seymour Hoffman got a couple of scenes, I guess.

But fine, this is Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill’s story.  Or is it?  Jonah Hill is just there to look out of place and suggest players.  No character development there.  Hill was a savvy casting choice though, I think.  The character isn’t much more than highbrow comic relief.  Look at the nerd be uncomfortable around athletes!  Hill obviously can handle that with ease.

The whole time, it felt to me like Brad Pitt was doing an impression of Kyle Chander’s Coach Taylor from FNL.  A very good one, of course, since Brad Pitt is very talented.  Even if he’s constantly eating on screen.  Which I think is a function of how he tends to act with his hands, but that’s a different post.

I’ve been working on this post, off and on, for a couple of weeks now, but I don’t think I’m ever going to get it to where I want.  Because I did like movie OK, but I keep wanting to be super reactionary to the fact that it is one of the best-reviewed films of the year, which just does not make sense to me.  And so I keep struggling to see the movie that others seem to see, even though I’m not close to finding it.  Sure, I found it a little weird from a baseball perspective that they didn’t mention starting pitching.  And from econ perspective that they don’t really justify the Carlos Pena trade.  And from a modern perspective the comment about how defense doesn’t matter.  And from an Orioles/lover of baseball players as actors that there wasn’t more Royce Clayton as Miguel Tejada.

But I think I can put all that aside and say that I’m pretty convinced critics, generally speaking, are wrong on this one.  I don’t know if they were distracted by Brad Pitt or what, but this film isn’t an extremely well told story.  It is a mostly competently told one.  The team did an admirable job adapting the book, but there’s no way the screenplay should be in line for an Oscar nomination, much less be a front-runner.

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