Monday, December 31, 2012

TOP 10 FILMS OF 2012


Of all of the top films that came out this year Spielberg's bio of America's favorite president towers above them like the iconic stovepipe hat the subject is known for wearing.  Life of Pi is mostly spectacle, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is too intimate, but Lincoln feels just right to top the list.  All of the key elements are there for an instant classic in the making.  Daniel Day-Lewis's uncanny performance, the accomplished script by Tony Kushner, the gorgeous cinematography by Janusz Kaminski and the one and only Steven Spielberg at the helm.  That is all to say nothing about the indelible supporting work by Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln.  I would be surprised if the academy doesn't agree. 


The idea of turning one of my favorite novels into a film didn't immediately appeal to me, but I could have rested assured it would be in good hands when I learned that the author himself, Stephen Chbosky, was adapting and directing it for the big screen.  It's clear that this singular coming-of-age tale is Chbosky's baby from the care he takes with its telling.  The unique tone blends pathos, humor and angst so beautifully it feels like a trip back to high school.  The pitch-perfect casting didn't hurt either.  Logan Lerman makes an indelible impression as the forlorn protagonist Charlie, Ezra Miller steals every scene as the outspoken Patrick and Emma Watson can leave Hermione Granger behind for good. 


Another beloved novel adaption that, by director Ang Lee's own admission, seems unfilmable.  However, the genre-jumping auteur has again made the impossible possible.  The story of a boy on a life raft in the middle of the ocean with only his thoughts and a Bengal tiger may feel more intimate than spectacular on the page, but in film form it manages to be both.  With 3D effects and visual flourishes it's easy to lose nuanced character development and, in the wrong hands, it would  be difficult to connect to the characters, but such is not the case in Life of Pi.  We feel Pi's pain, frustration and even his elation.  The effects only serve to punctuate those emotions and enhance the experience.  This is 3D done right!  


With the heavy topics like war and natural disasters in so many films this year it was nice to have a break from all of that with a broad, yet well-crafted comedy.  Channing Tatum (redeeming himself from the awful Magic Mike) and Jonah Hill pair up for a 21st century buddy cop movie that makes the genre feel fresh again.  Other than the basic premise (and some fun cameos) it has little to do with the 80's teen drama is based on and that's probably for the best.  I had to include this film because it made me laugh more than anything else I've seen this year and there is a real plot beneath all of the sight gags and comedic riffing that makes repeat viewing just as pleasurable every time. 



First of all, it's only fair to note that I don't think that Django Unchained is as controversial as many would assume.  Although it's arguable that Tarantino's bold use of the polarizing N-word in other films is problematic, the setting and plot of this particular story justifies it.  Once you get past that it's thoroughly enjoyable.  For Tarantino, a linear plot is a new thing and he makes it work without feeling like anything is missing.  In fact, the real novelty of Django is that, for the most part, it's a straight forward western.  The twist is that it's about an ex-slave, bounty hunter taking out white people before slavery is officially over.  With strong supporting performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson it's one of the most entertaining and visionary films of the year and a nice bookend to Lincoln


When a film has as much awards buzz as this and stars multiple Oscar nominees, it's easy to forget that at its heart it's a romantic comedy, but that's just what Silver Linings Playbook is.  The take on it is so fresh and well executed though, that it feels wrong to group it with the drivel that rom-coms have come to be associated with.  In this crazy-meets-crazy love story two damaged souls come together in the most unconventional way and their obstacles are more complicated than a wacky ex, or an embarrassing secret.  Jennifer Lawrence, once again proves that she is the young actress to watch, Bradley Cooper stretches beyond his fratboy persona and Robert DeNiro gives his best performance in years.  A winner.   


Christopher Nolan, in the final chapter of his Batman trilogy, continues to transcend the comic book movie genre with another sensational, intelligent thriller.  As someone who liked The Dark Knight, but is partial to Batman Begins, I was glad to see the caped crusader rebuild himself this time around and rediscover why his pursuit of justice is so important and symbolic for the people of Gotham.  Also, with the addition of Marion Cotillard, Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt it was nice to see a reunion of the cast of Inception.  Though ending on a high note is probably a good idea, I would trust Nolan to keep the franchise going until Bruce Wayne has little grandbats. 


So, yes the plot was a bit nonsensical, and Anna Kendrick might not have been so believable as the outsider emo-girl, but those absurdities are what make comedies like these work.  Instead of going the route of a typical musical where the characters express themselves through song, the singing is just a backdrop for the story.  It was refreshing to see a girl-power comedy that anyone could love and that didn't get too treacly sweet to stomach.  There are romantic subplots, but the real meat and potatoes is this motley group of girl singers learning to work together and rise above obstacles.  Rebel Wilson's starmaking turn as Fat Amy is worth the price of admission on its own. 


When I heard promos for The Sessions I was expecting writer/director Ben Lewin's story of a polio afflicted writer to be somber and challenging in a typical indie festival film kind of way.  Fortunately, the story is based on the true life experiences of Mark O'Brien, who made up for his physical limitations with a sharp wit and endearing personality.  John Hawkes shines in the lead role having to rely solely on his expressive face since the character spends much of the film in an iron lung.  Helen Hunt boldly bears all as the sex surrogate that O'Brien hires to help him lose his virginity and the always dependable William H. Macy warmly plays the priest he looks to for guidance.  


Wes Anderson's penchant for deadpan, yet emotional comedy always seems to work best when coming from the mouth of babes and the precocious child actors in Moonrise Kingdom are no exception.  Part romance, part coming-of-age story, part adventure, this tale of preteen lovers trying to be together despite opposition from pretty much everyone in their respective lives manages to be funny and adorable without becoming too twee for its own good.  The young actors are right on target and supporting work by the adults, Anderson stalwarts like Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman, are also strong.   

Sunday, December 30, 2012


This past year was odd for me musically.  Most of the albums I was looking forward to were disappointments.  No Doubt's PUSH AND SHOVE and Garbage's NOT YOUR KIND OF PEOPLE had their high points, but failed to recapture their mid-90's awesomeness.  The top artists with the biggest hits, continued to bore me and I got the most enjoyment from artists that were either fairly new (Frank Ocean, Rye Rye), or had been around but I was discovering them for the first time (Gossip, The Presets, Miranda Lambert).  Either way here are the top 5 albums that I most thoroughly enjoyed in 2012 and some highlights from other ones that are still worth giving a listen.  

1. A JOYFUL NOISE - Gossip 

This has to be as close to a perfect pop record as you can get.  On their wonderful previous album MUSIC FOR MEN they went a bit slicker and poppier than their early records, but their evolution to a more pop sound is more fully realized on this record.  The raw emotion, song craft and gorgeous arrangements are what a good pop record should be so their rock roots give it just the right edge (Think: Hole's CELEBRITY SKIN).  Slick and beautifully crafted.  It's soulful, danceable pop at its finest. 

Download: Get a Job/ Move in the Right Direction/ A Perfect World

2. THE IDLER WHEEL . . . - Fiona Apple 

Fiona, our feisty, thoughtful heroine has done it again albeit a bit differently this time.  The expressive strings and whining horns of TIDAL and EXTRAORDINARY MACHINE are replaced with more of the the pounding piano we heard on WHEN THE PAWN... and she threw in some stripped down percussion as well, creating a musical style as stripped-down as her naked lyrics. 

Download: Anything We Want/ Jonathan/ Hot Knife

3. CHANNEL ORANGE - Frank Ocean 

A delicately crafted hip-hop gem of an album.  After his previous mixtape NOSTALGIA/ULTRA showed off his eclectic mix of rock/hip-hop/r&b Ocean took it to the next level with his major label debut.  Guest spots by the likes of Andre 3000, John Mayer and his Odd Future cohort Earl Sweatshirt never dim the shine of the man at the center.  His announcement about his sexuality is at once poignant and rendered irrelevant. 

Download: Sweet Life/ Pyramids/ Bad Religion

4. FOUR THE RECORD - Miranda Lambert

Technically it was released in 2011, but it was too late in the year to make an impact and make the list.  In 2012, it's been on repeat on my iPod all year.  Taking the baton from her plucky country fore-mothers like Loretta Lynn, Lambert has crafted a beautiful set of tunes showing off both her sweet and sour sides and making her all the more relatable in the process. 

Download: Mama's Broken Heart/ Baggage Claim/ Fine Tune

5. GO! POP! BANG! - Rye Rye 

The plucky 22 year-old rapper has been putting out material since she was in high school and this, her debut album, consists of some of those singles in addition to some newly recorded material.  It all adds up to a bouncy, club-banging, burst of energy that is more than welcome among the boring rehashing of dance/pop clogging up the Top 40.  The only misstep is DNA, which feels too familiar. 

Download: Drop/ Hotter/ Boom Boom  

                           HONORABLE MENTION  

PACIFICA - The Presets                            


THE MAGIC HOUR - Scissor Sisters

FANTASEA - Azealia Banks

TRILOGY - The Weeknd




1. Move in the Right Direction - Gossip
2. Let's Have a Kiki - Scissor Sisters 
3. Sweet Life - Frank Ocean
4. Some Nights - Fun. 
5. Somebody That I Used To Know - Gotye 
6. Love Interruption - Jack White 
7. Ghosts - The Presets
8. Gold on the Ceiling - The Black Keys
9. Gangnam Style - Psy
10. Adorn - Miguel
11. Boom Boom -Rye Rye
12. Baggage Claim - Miranda Lambert
13. Anything We Want - Fiona Apple
14. Beez in the Trap - Nicki Minaj
15. I Hate Love - Garbage
16. Settle Down - No Doubt
17. Shady Love - Scissor Sisters            
18. Big Mouth - Santigold
19. My Kinda Love - Emeli Sandé 
20. My Fault - Imagine Dragons

Friday, December 21, 2012


The popularity of shows like Glee, The Voice and X-Factor have made belting out pop hits an unfortunate staple of modern entertainment. Initially, I was hoping that Pitch Perfect, a comedy about college a cappella groups, would skewer the sort of overly sentimental celebration of loserdom that those shows spew out every week, but instead it's right in there with them.  This would be trite and overwrought in the wrong hands, but it's handled in such a fresh and funny way it's easy to just go with it.

When the all girl a cappella group, The Bellas, lose some key members at graduation, returning songbirds Chloe (Brittany Snow) and Aubrey (Anna Camp), have to find some new members to get the team competition-ready in time for this year's regionals (It's ALWAYS regionals with these people!) where they were disgraced the previous year.  The problem is, no 'acceptable' people want to audition for an a cappella group....especially one for girls.  You see, at Barden University the male a cappella singers are gods.  It's like an alternate universe where The Backstreet Boys are The Beatles.  In desperation, The Bellas decide to audition and select some of the outsiders that show interest.  Topping the list (and stealing the movie) is Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson).  Everything that comes out of her mouth is hilarious! This is the star-making role that justifies her recent ubiquity.

Meanwhile, Beca (Anna Kendrick) is a freshman who really wants to go to school in Los Angeles, but she's stuck at Barden, where her father is a professor, working at the campus radio station.  Luckily for her, the scenery is good with her super hot senior supervisor and an apple-cheeked crooner Jesse (Skylar Astin), her co-worker who has a song in his heart for her.  What Beca really wants is to be a DJ, and she's always mixing up beats on her laptop but, in a funny/creepy shower scene, we also find out that she can sing.  Once Chloe learns this she pounces and eventually Beca is a Bella.  From the start she clashes with queen Bella, Aubrey, who wants to stick to the same routines they have done year after year.  The other girls mostly agree that they need to freshen up their sound, but none are brave enough to speak up.  And one, the scene-stealing Hana Mae Lee, can't.  We'll just ignore the fact that their idea of edgy is replacing 1993's 'I Saw The Sign' with 1996's 'No Diggity'.

Director Jason Moore (Broadway's Avenue Q), in his motion picture debut, seems to be going for Bring It On  meets Glee to the point of taking the plot from the former and the mash-ups from the latter.  The fun of the movie however isn't the music, which is cheesy at worst and nostalgically catchy at best.  It's also not the plot which leaves you with more questions than answers.  (Shouldn't they have a faculty coach? Would they even be allowed to do the same routine twice? How did a girl who barely speaks above a whisper make the team?) No, the heart of the movie is the journey the girls take together and the formation of unlikely friendships.  The film manages to embrace everyone's differences in a way that feels organic and not forced.  If you ignore the unlikely plot and just enjoy the plucky spirit of the film it will be the most fun you'll have at the movies this fall.

                                                    8/10  Treble clefs ********


The National Ballet of Canada's ambitious interpretation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is nothing short of magical.  The fantastically trippy source material can be a production designer's dream and nightmare.  Putting together a show this elaborate is exciting to create, but difficult to execute, however, designer Bob Crowley has more than risen to the challenge.

The sparing yet effective use of projection screens was also exceptional.  Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington's projections were seamless and enhanced the dreamlike quality of the piece.  The choreography by Christopher Wheeldon was inventive throughout and the farcical comedic moments were especially well handled.  It is not very often that one encounters a ballet with this much humor and wit.  This, coupled with the wonderfully crafted set pieces and innovative imagery make it an exciting spectacle for children.  The dancing was routinely excellent.  Sonia Rodriguez's Alice was a breathtaking presence and she was matched by Guillaume Cote's Knave of Hearts. The Queen of Hearts was danced with humor and grace by Greta Hodgkinson and Aleksander Antonijevic was a stylish White Rabbit.  The blink-and-you'll-miss-it 3 day engagement will surely leave spectators and dance enthusiasts begging for more.  

The show is here for four more performances at The Dorothy Chandler Pavillion.  Two shows on October 20th and 21st.  Tickets are still available. 

                                                          9/10 Tea cups *********


Like the majority of Tyler Perry's films Madea's Witness Protection has its few charms along with many flaws.  The flat acting and underdeveloped storylines that have become routine are more evident in the comedies.  At least it appears that he is branching out to a broader talent base.  His early films were peopled with his repertory group of actors from his blockbuster plays, but lately he's been casting more seasoned performers.  It worked in The Family That Preys with Alfre Woodard and Kathy Bates, and the casting of Eugene Levy and Doris Robert helps this time (Denise Richards, not so much).

The thin plot involves George Needleman, a lowly accountant (Levy), who finds out that he unwittingly participated in a ponzi scheme that laundered money for a mob family through bogus charities set up by his boss.  Now that the jig is up, George is set up to take the fall and go to jail unless he can figure out how they did it right under his nose.  Guided by his lawyer Brian, played by an out-of-drag Perry, he and his family seek refuge at none other than Chez Madea while they try to keep him from going to jail.  George's mother Barbara (Roberts), his young wife (Richards) and his two kids are rich white folks trying to live incognito in the 'hood.  Twenty years ago that might have been a mildly humorous conceit, but here it feels pretty stale.  There are some funny moments, the best of which come from Perry as Brian's father Joe (brother of Madea) and his interactions with the Needleman's.  Though Madea is the star of the film, Perry is the funniest and most convincing as the mischievous old man.  It's just too bad his subplot doesn't get more screen time (or a real resolution).  Roberts also gets some good laughs as George's senile mother and Levy is predictably awkward and meek.  Richards's role as the beautiful trophy wife should have been easy enough, and under a director with a surer hand it might've been, but in this film, written, directed and produced by Perry himself, she isn't afforded that luxury.  In his defense, Perry is spreading himself pretty thin here juggling those duties along with three acting roles.   By now though, when he should be perfecting that balancing act he's been attempting for so many years, it feels like he isn't progressing.

Madea is, at this point, an acquired taste, but she still has some bite for the most part.  She has become iconic enough on her own that you don't feel like you're watching Tyler Perry when she's on screen and her Madea-isms can still be funny, although they were better in other films.  Despite the fact that the editing is choppy, the music cues feel off and the plot development is glacial for a comedy, if you're already a fan you will probably still enjoy Madea's Witness Protection for the most part, but it's still not likely to be your favorite.

6/10 Stars ******


When watching a Tyler Perry film, it's at once obvious that the director isn't quite comfortable with the medium.  It's evident in the editing, the shot choice and even in the performances he gets out of the actors.  On stage however, it's clear that Perry is more at home.  It makes sense being that he built his brand on his numerous hit gospel musicals in the 90's. It is interesting that none of his films have been adapted as musicals even though he often works with the same actor/singers and has even cast singers like Janet Jackson and Jill Scott in his dramas.  Then again, it seems that the music may be taking  more of a backseat.  The music numbers in I Don't Wanna Do Wrong are so few and far between that you almost forget you're watching a musical during the long stretches of dramatic dialogue.  It is to the director's credit however, that the songs don't feel intrusive when they do show up.  As is typical in Perry's plays the focus of the story is heart and soul.  There are laugh-out-loud moments and life lessons aplenty.  The comedic heavy lifting comes from the leads, quirky preacher Wallace (Palmer Williams Jr.) and his feisty wife Hattie, played to the hilt by Patrice Lovely.  Her tough old lady schtick has hints of Madea, but doesn't feel like a rehashed imitation as played by Lovely.  She also has the strongest solo work on the songs.

Wallace and Hattie have marriage issues that they're hiding not only from the people at church, but also from their adult daughter Yolonda (Kislyck Halsey) who is staying with them while her husband Jamal (Tony Hightower) is deployed in Iraq.  Yolonda is in medical school and we soon find out that she and her sexy study partner Marty (Andre Petri) are more than just platonic friends.  This, of course, gets complicated when Jamal returns from overseas.  Hightower does his best with the one dimensional character he's given, but really shines when he sings.  He has a smooth tenor that belies the tough exterior of his character, but manages to convey the vulnerability better than the actual dialogue.  Petri's Marty is not as strong vocally, but he is handsome and affable in the role of the sensitive other man.

Halsey is unfortunately the weak link in the ensemble.  Her stiff performance doesn't warrant the sympathy the audience is meant to feel for her character's predicament.  Her solo on the title song was also the weakest, but in her defense the key did sound wrong for her.  She fared better in the finale where she sounded more comfortable, but was still outshone by the other performers.  The cast is rounded out by Renee, a friend of Yolonda's played by Alexis Jones exactly as the one note character is written.  Thankfully, her voice is nicely displayed on her solo.  Besides the opener and the closer, all of the songs are solo showcases for each performer, which consisted of them singing while another cast member (mostly Halsey) awkwardly reacted to the lyrics.  The songs themselves, co-penned by Perry and Elvin Ross, were contemporary gospel soul with facile lyrics that were mostly performed well, but didn't necessarily do much to push the story forward or punctuate the theme.  I Don't Wanna Do Wrong doesn't reinvent the wheel by any means, but it does have enough humor and heart to be entertaining.  The sometimes clunky dialogue and broad comedy works much better on the stage and makes for a more satisfying overall experience.

7/10 Stars *******

Tyler Perry's Madea's Witness Protection & I Don't Wanna Do Wrong available now on DVD.