Lawless. Directed by John Hillcoat. I remember when there was a lot of buzz and anticipation surrounding the long-delayed release of this 1930s-set bootlegging story. The movie really did not deserve the hype. Maybe it’s my fault for not being a big fan of Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy. I felt zero chemistry between Hardy and leading lady Jessica Chastain (whom I have yet to love in any role, though I look forward to the new film Zero Dark Thirty). I was also disappointed by the way other good actors – Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska, Noah Taylor – are wasted. Jason Clarke doesn’t have too much to do either. I was, however, impressed by a young actor named Dane DeHaan. He’s pretty good as LaBeouf’s moonshine-making friend. (DeHaan also pops up in the first scene of Lincoln as “Second White Soldier.”) I suppose Guy Pearce does a creditable job as a nutcase, the obsessive and creepy Chicago lawman Charlie Rakes, but the effect comes not from the writing but from Pearce’s physical transformation: too-wide hair part, shaved eyebrows, high-pitched voice and immaculate suits. (There’s a good review of his performance here.) Ultimately, though, the film isn’t worth your time.
Lincoln. Directed by Steven Spielberg. I must start out by saying that this is by no means a perfect film – and clocking in at two and a half hours, it demands the viewer to pay attention to dozens of characters and plot points – but it is an engrossing narrative with strong writing and heartfelt performances. Daniel Day-Lewis steps into the role of Abraham Lincoln in such a way that Lincoln is humanized, no longer held at a distance as a mythical figure. Sally Field is excellent, better than she’s been in years, as wife Mary Todd Lincoln. The most notable supporting actor is Tommy Lee Jones, who has much of the best dialogue as tireless anti-slavery activist and politician Thaddeus Stevens, but I would also like to give a shout-out to David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward. Strathairn knows how to make acting look effortless, a quality which is often lacking in thespians. The entire cast benefits from Tony Kushner’s praiseworthy screenplay; when I saw the film at the Museum of the Moving Image, Kushner was on hand to talk about his Lincoln experience alongside historian Harold Holzer, so that was cool. John Williams’ score, on the other hand, feels like stock dramatic material so I hope it doesn’t get an Oscar nomination (even though it probably will anyway).
Lockout. Directed by James Mather and Stephen St. Leger. Poor Guy Pearce. He tries so hard to take on a diverse array of roles, but in this case, he should have resisted the (somewhat dubious) temptation. Many reviewers have compared Lockout unfavorably to Escape from New York, but since I haven’t seen Escape, at least that does not factor into my dislike. Lockout seems to amble along without any discernible screenplay, although that seems to aid Pearce’s improv-esque dialogue and wisecracker character. Maggie Grace (aka Shannon from the show “Lost”) is likeable but bland as the damsel in distress. Vincent Regan and Joseph Gilgun play the main baddies, hampered by unintelligible Scottish accents. Additionally, the film suffers from being forced into a PG-13 rating, meaning that potentially more impactful – and interesting – violence was cut out. Blessedly, the film only runs for 95 minutes, so it’s over before too much damage is done.
Skyfall. Directed by Sam Mendes. The year is not yet over, but for the nonce, Skyfall is my favorite film of 2012. I saw it in IMAX and it was the most fulfilling moviegoing experience I could have asked for. The film gets at the core of how Ian Fleming wrote James Bond: a world-weary spy battling alcoholism. (That’s what I remember from reading Goldfinger, anyhow.) He’s not nearly as witty or seductively debonair as the illusion created by Sean Connery and some of his successors. Daniel Craig imbues the role with a sense of realism; you really feel Bond’s pain when he can’t complete MI6’s chin-up test. Judi Dench has her best showcase ever as M, showing the beating heart beneath her tough exterior. There’s excellent support from Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw (as the new Q) and Albert Finney. The Bond girls played by Naomie Harris and Bérénice Marlohe don’t have the best lines to work with but they acquit themselves nicely. Finally we come to the Bond villain, Silva, portrayed by Javier Bardem. Described by one reviewer as “grotesque yet irresistible,” Bardem breathes life into what could have been just another Anton Chigurh. The first encounter between Silva and Bond is a meeting for the ages and the subsequent run-ins are just as exciting. Even if you’re not a James Bond fan, the combination of action and emotional character development, as well as Roger Deakins’ cinematography, Thomas Newman’s score and Adele’s title theme song make for amazing entertainment.
21 Jump Street. Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller. In spite of what you might be led to believe, this is a fairly good comedy. Sure, it’s not high-class, but it’s still hilarious most of the time. Rebooting the popular late 80s TV show, the cops are played by Jonah Hill, who I’ve seen do respectable work in Cyrus and Moneyball, matched well with “Sexiest Man Alive” Channing Tatum, who is given some of the best lines revolving around his undercover character’s problematic interactions in chemistry class. Dave Franco, younger brother of polymath James, is somehow likeable as a jerky, eco-friendly drug-dealing high school student. Other funny people appear, including Rob Riggle, Dax Flame, Chris Parnell, Ellie Kemper, Caroline Aaron and Nick Offerman. The plot is standard stuff, including a cookie-cutter romance between Hill and Brie Larson, but it’s involving nonetheless.