With the year’s two finest films released in the last two weeks, it’s only fair that we should be now saddled with the very worst of 2012. Thankfully it’s one terrible title among few, and as usual the good far outweighs the bad in the latest batch. Acclaimed classics from auteurs the like of Huston, Wilder, and Coppola are some of the week’s finest offerings, but it’s horror fans who’ll find themselves most well served in this edition, with one of the genre’s most inarguably formidable giants joining the catalogue alongside a trio of iconic classics.
It’s a shame that the worst thing about Abduction—a poorly paced, unwisely scripted, barely acted mess of an action thriller vehicle—is its direction, not least of all because it comes courtesy of John Singleton, whose impressive work in Boyz ‘n’ the Hood made him the youngest person ever nominated for a Best Director Oscar. Singleton’s talents have evidently faded with age, his work here not just devoid of personality, but actively bad, employing queasy zooms and Dutch angles aplenty to add yet further to the headache the film’s narrative leaps inspire. Its concern is high school senior Nathan, whose parents’ murder coincides with his discovery that he is adopted, and sets him on a journey to unearth the identity of his mysterious father. Jason Isaacs’ penchant for punching Lautner is fitting punishment for his lacking leading role; evidently concocted as a showcase for the Twilight star’s ability to handle a film of his own, Abduction is a vehicle going absolutely nowhere. AVOID IT.
The directorial debut of Alejandro González Iñárritu, Amores Perros is sometimes labelled “the Mexican Pulp Fiction”, an unsightly appellation that does considerable disservice to the film’s many merits. Similar only in its episodic narrative structure and sexual and linguistic frankness, Amores Perros—translated roughly as “love’s a bitch”—is a stark assessment of the human capacity for cruelty, and the animalistic tendencies all too apparent in our daily behaviour. The tenderness Iñárritu manages to discover within his often unlikeable characters is one of the film’s strongest and most surprising facets, his interlinked stories of violent brothers and the woman that divides them, a model and her married lover, and an aged assassin yielding no shortage of touching human moments among incessant displays of hideous violence and selfishness. Extremely well structured, devoting time to each arc in turn, Amores Perros is an impressive debut with refreshingly acerbic bite. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Taking his established MTV duo for their first big screen outing, Mike Judge’s film debut is as crude in both its animation and humour as the TV source material, and just as funny too. Beavis and Butt-head Do America delivers exactly what its title promises, seeing the foul-mouthed teens on a cross-country road trip to recover their stolen television, along the way crossing paths with everyone from ATF agents to a pair of assassins to President Bill Clinton himself. The film’s phenomenal box office success earned Judge the opportunity to bring cult classic Office Space to life, a gift unto the world we can all be deeply grateful for. Unashamedly offensive throughout its relatively short running time, Beavis and Butt-head Do America offers some of the best laughs the duo has to offer, its wild and wacky antics sure to appeal to fans and the uninitiated alike. RECOMMENDED.
Soderbergh’s first film for the week, and one of two the prolific director released this year alone, Haywire is a deeply flawed yet gleefully enjoyable romp. Taking accomplished MMA fighter Gina Carano and transforming her into a viable female counterpart to typical Hollywood action heroes, Soderbergh—working with frequent collaborator Lem Dobbs’ script—plays it straight with genre conventions but nonetheless instils a sense of rampaging fun courtesy of his slick directorial design and admirably well-staged action set pieces. Not the finest of actresses, Carano finds suitable support in a sprawling cast of A-listers, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, and Channing Tatum helping sell the story of a jaded ex-operative on the run from her former employer. An ending indebted to Soderbergh’s own The Limey and a handful of storytelling issues hold Haywire back from being anything special, but as a light piece of head-kicking fun, it ticks all the boxes. WORTH WATCHING.
Billy Wilder’s most significant contribution to one of American cinema’s most interesting genres, Sunset Boulevard stands among the finest film noir has to offer, simultaneously a dark and powerful take on the poisonous outcome of ego and a timely evaluation of a faded paradigm. Gloria Swanson’s electric performance is a masterpiece of overblown intensity, bringing former silent movie star Norma Desmond to unforgettable life. As Joe Gillis, the young screenwriter she hires to get her back into the business, William Holden is restrained and sardonic, a performance that complements and contrasts with Swanson’s to immense effect. The film’s replete shadows reinforce Wilder’s dark portrait of a Hollywood stripped of its glitz and glamour, the dehumanising humiliation of long-lost greatness shrouding the story in ruminative elegy. Rarely has a film benefitted from two such strong performances; Sunset Boulevard is a noir classic, as insightful a take on Hollywood as there has ever been. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Strong lead performances dominate The African Queen too, Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn contributing some of their most memorable work to John Huston’s wartime adventure tale. Bogart won his sole Oscar in the role of Charlie, a supply boat captain in Africa whose gruff demeanour affronts the sensibilities of Rose, a missionary who—when her brotherdies in the wake of an attack by German soldiers—is reluctantly forced to flee downriver with Charlie. Bogart and Hepburn work together with abundant zeal, the script by James Agee and Huston offering plentiful pithy dialogue that the pair spout with enthusiastic venom. Exciting to the last, The African Queen easily matches its sense of impromptu adventure in its comic repartee, the inevitable romance reached only after days on end of embittered bickering. Jack Cardiff’s cinematography lends the film an appealing tropical sheen, and makes the cramped confines of a packed riverboat seem all the more imposing. RECOMMENDED.
That Coppola somehow managed to make a sequel to The Godfather that was just as good, arguably even better than its predecessor, is nothing short of a cinematic miracle. That he in the very same year directed another film as virtuosic, accomplished, and masterful, then, might be said to be cinematic Godliness. The Conversation is a brilliant work of unparalleled sensuality, aurally lush and visually sumptuous with painstaking detail. Bearing a tension few thrillers manage to mount, the quiet drama follows surveillance specialist Harry Caul, whose questioning of his own morality finds majestically subtle expression in Gene Hackman’s finest film performance. An unforgettable sequence that crosses the threshold into horror attests both the fluidity of Coppola’s directorial skill and the erratic tonality of inner turmoil; though The Conversation may be the least discussed of Coppola’s astonishing slew of 1970s masterpieces, it’s no less a defining film of New Hollywood. MUST SEE.
As though it wasn’t already a bad enough week for Clint Eastwood, now the very worst of his thirty two films as director arrives on demand. The Eiger Sanction’s failure at the box office prompted Eastwood to cut ties with Universal—who had distributed it and his first three films—and swear to never work with them again, a promise he maintained until Changeling in 2008. A mountaineering adventure set on Swiss slopes, it features Eastwood as typically gruff assassin Jonathan Hemlock, who comes out of retirement to avenge the death of a friend. Various ludicrous plot points—most of them explained in detail by Hemlock’s albino ex-Nazi employer—lead the film to Europe’s most dangerous mountain by way of the Arizonian desert, along the way losing all of Clint’s directorial skill and most of George Kennedy’s dignity. The Eiger Sanction is miles more embarrassing than talking to a chair ever could be. AVOID IT.
Arguably the weakest of Universal’s more iconic monster movies, The Mummy is nonetheless an entertaining affair, seeing Boris Karloff don the fez of Imhotep, resurrected from the dead when a boisterous archaeologist unwittingly reads aloud an ancient spell. Fun as it is, it’s not too difficult to see why The Mummy never received the same handful of sequels as the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein, instead being rebooted several years down the line in the form of The Mummy’s Hand. Karloff is his usually creepy self as the graven Imhotep together with fellow Universal regular Edward van Sloan, offering another of the many memorable roles he contributed to the studio. Directed by renowned cinematographer Karl Freund, who shot Dracula as well as Metropolis, The Mummy makes advisably heavy use of its leading man’s make-up caked face in close-up, his hypnotic eyes engraining his image within the memory of popular culture for eternity. WORTH WATCHING.
Garnering more and more of the widespread recognition it deserves as the years pass by, Charles Laughton’s first and only film as director is nothing short of a masterpiece, blending folkloric fairy tale with Expressionist horror to create a film both harrowing and beautiful. Robert Mitchum’s turn as the Reverend Harry Powell sees him regularly mentioned among cinema’s greatest villains, his determination to find the hidden loot of a former cellmate leading him to marry the now-executed man’s wife and infiltrate his family. Laughton’s imagery is spellbinding, the formal oppression of his monochrome frame compositions making The Night of the Hunter arguably the greatest example of film noir’s visual conventions. If cinema is truly the art of dreams made real, then this is the most vibrant, vivid nightmare imaginable, a haunting encapsulation of childhood fears and religious misdirection. That Laughton’s never found the fortune to make another film is a crime; The Night of the Hunter is among the greatest films ever made. MUST SEE.
Just two short years before giving life to the modern superhero movie and kick-starting a trend that now all but dominates Hollywood, Richard Donner brought his multitudinous skills to horror cinema, crafting a template for all enfant terribles to follow in the form of Damien Thorn. Deftly juggling ideas of parental panic with a supernatural intensity and a fleeting but no less impactful attitude to scenes of gore, Donner made with The Omen a truly essential horror film, its resplendent shadows masking the conflicted face of a brilliant Gregory Peck as the father of Damien, who begins to take serious the terrifying allegations of an apocalyptic priest. A series of memorable death scenes should not be allowed to overshadow the film’s pervasive fatalistic atmosphere, aided in no small part by Jerry Goldsmith’s score. A haunting film that slowly builds toward a brilliant end, The Omen left an indelible influence not just on its genre, but on popular culture and Damiens the world over too. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Boasting some of the most timeless practical effects ever seen, John Carpenter’s iconic Arctic chiller pits a research facility of American scientists against a terrifying alien force with the power to morph into the shape of anything it consumes. Twisted scenes of body horror make Alien look like child’s play, the otherworldly nasties exploding forth from limbs and torsos in gruelling, gory detail. Scott’s film is the obvious point of comparison for Carpenter’s, and while The Thing may outshine Alien in the impact of its visceral visuals, Macready and his team pale in comparison to Ellen Ripley and co. Kirk Douglas is a solid centre for a fine cast, but they lack the same charismatic sense of community that made Alien’s sense of threat so palpable, their personalities less memorable, their various idiosyncrasies less pronounced. Even without the aid of great characters, The Thing is a film of considerable effect and influence, a striking horror that never fails to shock. RECOMMENDED.
The second Soderbergh film of the week met considerably more acclaim than the first, bagging a grand total of four Oscars, including one for the director himself. His fingerprints are firmly embedded in the film’s expressive aesthetic, a heavy use of filters imbuing each of the narrative’s three strands with a distinctive hue. Michael Douglas is perhaps the finest player in a distinguished ensemble, playing the recent Presidential drug policy appointee who is distraught to find his daughter a drug addict herself. The tales of a woman dealing with the discovery that her husband is a narcotics kingpin and the efforts of a Mexican cop to control cartel trade constitute the remaining two thirds of Traffic, which balances its occasionally interweaving threads with confident zeal. An encompassing overview of the war on drugs is of more concern to Soderbergh than crafting the most well-developed characters; Traffic may offer little new to the debate, but it speaks its piece well. RECOMMENDED.
Without doubt the most wretched example of cinematic bilge on offer this year—and no doubt many many years either side too—Madonna’s W.E. is a disgusting show of frivolous vapidity, a moneyed monstrosity that beckons contempt for both its characters and its creators. Parallel storylines tell the not dissimilar stories of Wallis Simpson—the American divorcee who led King Edward VIII to abandon his throne—and Wally Winthrop—a privileged New Yorker obsessed with Wallis’ life, and distressed by her own husband’s undisguised adultery. The potential for engagement is rife in this story of forbidden love, but Wallis’ frustration at being banished from upper class society and forced to speak to “common people” together with Wally’s au fait decision to spend more money than most might see in a lifetime on a pair of gloves quickly sees the two become protagonists more detestably materialistic than sympathetically endearing. Do not do this to yourself. Really, just don’t. UNWATCHABLE.