Twelve Lessons from the Movies of 2012 – Part 2

Welcome back to the second half of class! Sorry I’m late, I was a bit busy with a little thing called the Global Game Jam (check out my 48-hour project “Sprout”). We’ll examine six more movies today, see what we can learn from ’em, and even give out a few other awards!

Before the break, we learned about following the rules we set for ourselves in Looper, that sci-fi and fantasy should be settings, not plots, from Beasts of the Southern Wild, that we should give audiences a foothold in Holy Motors, that hacking was really dumb in Skyfall, that the creators of Wreck-It Ralph should go fuck themselves, and that in Oslo, August 31st, subtlety trumps heavy-handedness.

Let’s see what else 2012 taught us!

VII) Pick a Damn Focus – Cloud Atlas


Politically-charged examination of the ethics of cloning and clone servitude? Or scene from “Austin Powers: Horny in Hong Kong”?

Cloud Atlas seems like a film whose creators set out with the best of intentions. The Wachowskis and Mr. Tyker appear to have wanted to do something big, pretty, special, and different. Something important. Indeed the scale and ambition of the film are things to behold. But it would ultimately be their ambition that would undo them. Attempting a complicated narrative with a massive array of characters, stories set in different time periods, an intricate script full of studies in philosophy, experimental visual design, genre-crossing and vastly varying styles and tones, characters playing multiple roles, adventurous make-up work, state-of-the-art computer imagery, and even some mysterious supernatural elements.

The film was doomed from the start.

Sure, maybe Charlie Kaufman might be able to pull that off. But the Wachowskis ain’t Kaufman. The main problem comes from the fact that by their very nature many of these things don’t mesh, and any director worth the film his movie’s printed on would know not to try to smash them together. Take the film’s make-up, for example. Changing an actor’s ethnicity or gender with cosmetics has always been absurd, and it immediately puts the work on the level of an Eddie Murphy flick or an SNL sketch. This would be fine for, say, the publisher’s story, which carries a campy tone as a group of geriatrics plan their escape from an old folk’s home. But when you’ve then got the bleak, dark, futuristic world of Neo-Seoul invaded by white people in yellowface playing their roles completely free of camp (at least intentional camp, anyways) things just start to feel wrong in your gut. You feel like something’s off – just like the vivid, clashing colors and styles of Papa Song’s restaurants which don’t fit into Neo-Seoul and intensify that illness in your stomach. Jump back in time to the story on the South Pacific and the filmmakers are apparently trying to say something about slavery and racism. Hold on a sec, didn’t you just have characters in yellowface? And wait, is that an asian woman in whiteface? Difficult to parallel slavery in the past to servitude by clones in the future with the Korean doctor’s 70s chop-socky face in the background. These sort of violent clashes in tone and mood only intensify as the movie continues. The tension and shock of a murder in one story is completely undermined by a campy, almost cartoonish murder scene in another. What should be gripping conflicts in the post-apocalyptic far future are undermined by the ridiculous visual and costume design and the even-more-ridiculous accents. Any relevance to a new character’s arrival in the story is undermined by the feeling the film makers were grasping at straws just to find roles for each actor to play in each time period.

Just like the film’s supposed (and barely examined) message about temporal ties, one begins to draw links between the misinformed decisions made during Cloud Atlas’s creation. For every challenge Cloud Atlas attempts and conquers, there are three or four at which it fails. The film’s 163-minute running time is ironically far too short to fit a crime thriller, a sci-fi action flick, a science-fantasy adventure, a campy British caper, and two historical dramas which philosophize about love, life and death, power and servitude, and fate, span six vastly different visual styles, experiment in make-up including changing race and gender, and each star the same actors. Pick one aspect, maybe two, that you want to focus on. Do these well. Don’t pick a hundred and do most of them badly.

Extra Credit: Also don’t hire Halle Berry. At some point someone decided this woman was a good actress. She’s not. Stop

VIII) Don’t Use Computer Graphics – The Impossible


“Nah, it’s fine, it’s just CG. …Hold on a sec. That’s not CG… ffffffffuuu—”

When going into a movie I generally want to know as little about it as possible. I mostly stay away from trailers for things I actually have an interest in seeing. I don’t want to have a bias because of the writer or director, and I don’t want to know every little thing about the story before I go in. I want to be a blank slate for the film to write on – free of expectations. But since I at least knew The Impossible to be about the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, what I expected was a huge amount of horrible CG and badly directed yawn-worthy action. Something akin to this scene from 2010’s Hereafter. What I got, in fact, was this.

See the difference?

Director J.A. Bayona has been quoted saying it was “crazy” to work with real water instead of creating the waves with CG, but that he wanted the film to be “authentic” (read here). Thank fucking god. Please don’t lose that craziness. There are lots of idiot film-makers out there who still seem to think we can’t see the difference. And I don’t know, maybe the lobotomized, popcorn-shoving, simpleton masses in fact can’t. Can’t see the difference between the aurochs in Beasts of the Southern Wild and the hounds in The Hunger Games. Can’t see the difference between the blood in Django Unchained and the blood in The Expendables 2. Truly can’t recognize the shitty digital puppet flopping awkwardly around the shitty fake motorcycle crash at the end of The Bourne Legacy.

Whether for financial reasons, laziness, or simply because brain-dead directors actually think it “looks cooler”, we constantly get CG where it doesn’t belong. Computer graphics should be hidden, should never be noticeable, and should be used only in cases of impossibility. CG will never be a substitute for reality. It will simply never look good enough. And even if it does, even if the technology some day can replicate organic life convincingly, or can make a spaceship that actual tops Blade Runner, the actors will not be able to follow. They’re only human. Even Ewan McGregor can’t fake seeing the cloning facilities on Kamino.

Extra Credit: While you’re being crazy, feel free to ditch the leading Hollywood soundtrack during the emotional scenes. Highly unnecessary. The story, characters, and acting are more than enough. In these situations no soundtrack can be much more effective.

IX) Don’t Write Shitty Little Brats – The Kid with a Bike


Watch out Samantha, that little ginger shit’s probably got an ice pick to your back.

We, as movie-watchers, generally prefer our main characters to be likeable. It helps us to get invested in their fate.  To care what happens during the movie. A skilled director may succeed in creating a film around an unlikeable character, but this is an uphill battle, and an ill-advised decision. Following on the heels of Neon Genesis Evangelion’s Shinji, The Phantom Menace’s Anakin, and Final Fantasy XIII’s Hope comes a new name in annoying little shits: Cyril, a young Belgian lad who’s been abandoned by his father and put into state care (his mother also absent). While the vast majority of critics found Cyril to be “inspiringly resilient” and “emotionally volatile”, I simply found myself thinking “why the fuck is everyone so nice to this dumb little shit?”

To be fair, Thomas Doret’s performance is excellent, and I’m not comparing him to Jake Lloyd. I wouldn’t do that to any young actor. It’s the direction that’s annoying here. Cyril sprints everywhere he goes, banging into people and things with no regard for anyone around him. He shouts and screams and pushes. He listens to nothing any adult has to say. He bites people constantly and is easily convinced by a drug-dealer to commit aggravated assault. He’s a cornered chihuahua barking and biting and pissing on himself. And yet at every turn adults help him for no reason whatsoever. The adults in this film are saints. I understand that it must be a drag to be an orphan. But this little shit should be in fucking juvenile hall. He attacks his foster mother with a knife and she simply forgives him. Because she loves him, you say? All right, well he also strikes a father and his son in the head with a baseball bat and he just forgives him. No criminal charges. No slap on the wrist, even. What the shit? Ship this little fucker off to the military!

Wait, does Belgium have a military?

Other than the fact that the kid lost his parents, we’re never given a reason to care about him. Realistic? I guess so. But this is a movie, right? One or two scenes of him doing something redeemable – helping the foster mother fix her bike, teaching a smaller child how to ride, chasing down a fucking purse-snatcher – would have helped in making this little shit likeable. As is, I was irritated by the little fucker the entire time. If that was the point, mission accomplished.

Extra Credit: What was that thing on that guy’s neck? Gross. Grab some cover-up from the Cloud Atlas guys.


Mini-awards for movies who had mini accomplishments!


Prettiest Too-Long Movie in Which Nothing Happens

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Gorgeous cinematography, amazing performances, and subtle writing. But with a script this understated, at 157 minutes it’s about 57 minutes too long.


Most Heavily Injected and Shallowly Explored Political Agenda

Killing Them Softly

This decent black-comedy crime flick has some hilarious scenes and an amazing Brad Pitt. It’s also set against the recent presidential campaign as an allegory about capitalism. And it likes to remind you about that.


Best Worst Movie

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island

Yes, that’s Dwayne Johnson holding a miniature elephant.

Why are you still reading this? Go, go watch it now.


We Don’t Fucking Get It Award

I Wish

I weep for you, Japan. I truly do. Your media culture may have jumped the shark years ago, but this film truly marks the end. Please, to save my love for your great country, stop now. Stop making music, stop making video games, stop making dramatic television. Stop especially making film. Just… stop.

Except Beat Takeshi. You’re the fucking man.


Most Abortiony


“Sir, exfils are like abortions. You don’t wanna need one, but when you do, you don’t do it yourself.”


Extra Take this Waltz

Creepiest Fucking Movie

Take This Waltz

No movie made me feel dirtier and hate humans more than Sarah Polley’s self-important hipster flick about quirky artsy 20-somethings in Toronto.

I should mention this beats Austria’s Michael, in which a pedophile keeps a 10 year-old boy sex slave locked in a dungeon in his basement.

X) Don’t Wrap Your Good Narrative in a Boring One – Life of Pi


“Heh, I get it. Wait, three point what?”

Logan and I may have made quite a bit of fun of Life of Pi in the second episode of the Syntheticast, but I will certainly admit that it’s a very clever story. Clever enough indeed that Mr. Martel apparently stole it from another writer…

That controversy aside, Pi’s main narrative is a fascinating one. The idea of being stuck in the middle of the Pacific on a dinghy with a tiger is new and unique and seems to write itself. Comedy, drama, emotion. It’s all there. It’s certainly fascinating enough to stand on its own without the framing of Martel himself interviewing the titular Pi as an adult. I won’t comment on these parts of the book, but when they appear in the movie the entire story’s dragged to a halt as we listen to a sage-like Indian man impart various too-clever tidbits of wisdom on a dull-eyed slack-jaw mongoloid.

While it’s feasible he would’ve angered fans of the novel, director Ang Lee would have been wise to skip this unnecessary wrapping for a much more standard narrative in which we don’t already know the ending. In fact he nearly does this once Pi and the tiger are stranded together and we advance into our second voice-over as teenage Pi documents his experiences in a journal. Believe it or not, I almost even started to forgive the creepy CG tiger during these scenes, because the story-telling is strong and the characters bond well. There’s also some great tension when you think the tiger might just snap and—oh, no there isn’t, because we already know Pi lives. Ironic that such a clever story with such excellent possibilities for nail-biting tension would flat out spoil its end at the very beginning.

This could all probably have been forgiven if older Pi and the writer had had some excellent back-and-forth with smart dialog and in which the two characters grew and discovered things about each other. Unfortunately most shots of the author show him speechless and open-mouthed, have him ask “Oh, you’re married?” after talking to the man for hours, or simply have him say “I don’t know what to say.”

Extra Credit: Despite what I said about the tiger earlier, the animals looked like shit. I hate CG animals. Use real animals. Yeah, it’s hard. It’s called “film-making”.

Extra Extra Credit: Couldn’t we easily have done without the carnivorous island of meerkats? Are we in The NeverEnding Story all of the sudden?

XI) Don’t Cover Your Hero in Shit – Headhunters


No, unfortunately there was not just an accident in the chocolate fondue factory.

It’s rare that I see a Scandinavian film I don’t like. Indeed I can often be heard remarking that the Nords and the South Koreans are the ones to beat in the movie biz right now. But this exceptionally well-received half-thriller half-black-comedy out of Norway was an uncommon miss for me. Something about the film just felt… off. Weird writing, weird story elements, weird artistic decisions, weird usage of violence. It was as if Morten Tyldum saw all the Coens’ movies, and then tried to make his own Coens movie. Without realizing he’s not the Coens. Oh, boy, is he not the Coens.

It would take a lot to fix Headhunters, but here’s one simple tip: don’t cover your protagonist head to toe in human feces for six percent of his screen time.

The weirdness I mentioned appears again in the movie’s comedic direction, as at one point our hero is forced to escape his pursuer by climbing down into the septic tank of an old outhouse and completely submerging himself in the goo. Completely. He breathes out of a toilet paper tube poking through to the surface. He then proceeds to spend the remaining  five minutes of the scene absolutely coated with anal waste. Was it supposed to be funny? It wasn’t funny. In fact, it didn’t make me laugh at all. What it did do was make me think of his face covered in human shit every time he was on screen for the entire rest of the movie. So, thanks for that. Hell, even Slumdog Millionaire at least had the sense to end the scene right away.

I’m not gonna finish with a clever quip here. Just, please, don’t place shit of any sort on your main character.

Extra Credit: Was that Jaime Lannister?

XII) Don’t Write Dumb CharactersPrometheus


“Run in a straight line away from iiiiiiiiiiiit!!”

Well, here we are, last lesson of 2012. Might as well end with a bang, right?

No film disappointed me more this year than Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel. Was it the worst movie of 2012? No. …Well… not quite the worst. It was very pretty, at least. But it was the one that had me and a million other fans crying out in the theatre. It was the one we all wanted desperately to be good, but seemed just a bit… stupid. The one that had stupid stuff from the very beginning, but we just wouldn’t believe it, because this was Ridley Scott and Alien god damnit. But it just got stupider. And kept getting stupider. And stupider. And stu—god fucking damn it I hate this fucking movie.

Since I  don’t know where to start, I’ll just start at the beginning. Here’re a few dos and don’ts for interplanatary travel:

Don’t send a crew of seventeen on a trillion-dollar mission for first contact with alien life.
– Do send a highly trained military force to accompany the crew. Failing this, do at least give the crew some way to defend themselves from possible threats.
Don’t send a biologist who’s terrified of alien life, nor a geologist who gets lost in caves.
Don’t haphazardly observe alien goo canisters.
Do be extremely careful when bringing decapitated alien heads aboard your ship.
Don’t listen to the computer when it casually announces said head is free of contaminants. Because it’s not.
Don’t rig your space suit with a vaporizer. I fully support the recreational consumption of marijuana and even I think that’s a stupid idea.
Do refrain from haphazardly petting alien penis vagina tentacles that spawn from rivers of black alien death goo.
Do announce to your crew members when an alien fish parasite unfurls from your iris.
Do express more than passing concern when the dormant alien canisters you found yesterday are now oozing rivers of black alien death goo.
Don’t approach weird crumpled heaps of your dead crew members who are suddenly at the back door in a weird supernatural heap when that couldn’t possibly be possible.
Don’t be impregnated by aliens.
– If you are impregnated by aliens, don’t perform major invasive surgery on yourself, particularly with only a small spray of local anesthetic.
– If you ignore the last two steps, and are in fact able to remove the alien from your uterus, do make sure to actually kill it rather than leaving it dangling in steak tongs to grow into a giant face-hugger fifty times its size even though it has no sustenance of any kind apparently.
Do arm your trillion-dollar spaceship with some sort of weaponry so its only attack isn’t ramming.
– When your idiot crew has decided to ram the ship, do retreat to your luxury apartment escape vessel with fully automated surgical bed and sweet grand piano, rather than a random one-man escape pod.
– When a giant round space ship crashes to the ground in front of you, and begins rolling toward you on the axis of its circular body, do run the twenty feet to either side rather than being crushed into a bloody stain on its hull by running in the direction of the roll.

I guess that’s about it. All I can think of now, anyways. I love you, Mr. Scott. You made Alien and Blade Runner. Amazing. Now, stop making movies.

It’s time.


Because otherwise this article wouldn’t be complete, would it?
1. Moonrise Kingdom
2. Beasts of the Southern Wild
3. Oslo, August 31st
4. Django Unchained
5. Les Misérables
6. Zero Dark Thirty
7. Michael
9. The Hobbit
10. Excision
1. Take This Waltz
2. Wreck-It Ralph
3. Cloud Atlas
4. Premium Rush
5. Stolen
6. Snow White and the Huntsman
7. Looper
8. The Hunger Games
9. Prometheus
10. Headhunters
1. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island
2. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
3. Resident Evil: Retribution
4. The Amazing Spider-Man
5. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

That about does it for 2012! I regret not getting around to seeing The Master and Amour and Breaking Dawn: Part 2, as I’m sure they too will have lessons for us to learn, but it’s pretty tough to see every movie released in a year. Next time I talk about film it’ll probably be about which directors to watch for in 2013. And which directors not to watch for in 2013. Looking at you, Mr. Phillips.

Until then!

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