Monday, December 31, 2012

Superheroes vs. Khaki Scouts vs. Leonardo DiCaprio: The Top 10 Movies of 2012

   When I watch movies, I look for the moment. For the short time that I have been doing my “Movie of the Year” articles for this blog, the winner has been determined each time by the flick’s ability to take a scene and burn it into my brain. It could be the scene’s emotional power (like 2010’s winner: Toy Story 3) or its raw ambience, shock value, and brutality (in 2011’s winner: Drive—which in hindsight has at least three of four scenes that I will remember for the rest of my life). Whatever the kind of movie, it needs to have the moment, and if a movie wants to be great, it needs memorability through this moment.
   Now, 2012 had a lot of really solid movies, enough to make an honest-to-God Top 10 list (the most Dazz has ever done is three). All of these movies are great, and a few of them have the moment, but as you will see, one has more moments than the rest.

**Minor Spoiler Alert—the following contains a few giveaways, but do not worry, Dazz will never ruin the ending of any flick, because only supreme douchebags do that, like the people on SNL who ruined Sixth Sense, and Andrew from high school who ruined Fight Club, and no, I am not still bitter about it**

10. The Avengers
   Oh, but I did. A lot of folks might have The Avengers higher, and I think a lot of this might be a result of the hype surrounding it, and how it miraculously managed to meet its lofty expectations. Only problem is, with its steep competition this year, this is merely a great superhero movie, and little more. It featured some good action and quality banter between the costumed heroes, but all in all the success of the super-team was never really in doubt, and Loki as a villain never seemed like a serious threat. It was just a bunch of cool people blowing stuff up and looking good while they did it. It may have been fun, but it was lacking in impact. Great superhero movie, but not much else.

9. Life of Pi
   A review of this one in short: the first 25 minutes are a huge collective yawner, but everything afterwards is really darn good. The cinematography and directing is some of the best of the year, and the visuals are second-to-none. This movie, at parts, is an absolute spectacle to watch. It is all made even more impressive by Suraj Sharma’s performance as a first-time actor. You may remember the sheer beauty of this flick, but the lasting impact that it ultimately hopes to achieve might not quite stick the way it wants. Moments that are nice to look at do not a moment make.

8. Looper
   A lot of people called this one “mind-blowing”. It was not mind-blowing. It was inventive, original, suspenseful, and intriguing, but the ending did little to blow my mind. What may have been a moment for a lot of people was thus not a moment for me. Looper was still great because it had solid performances and a unique, exciting plot, not because the ending left my brain looking like a gray milkshake. Sorry. The ending is a good one, and it does well to define the character of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but my mind was still unsatisfied in the blow department (thinking, thinking . . . eh, keep it).

7. The Dark Knight Rises
   Glimpses of a moment start to emerge, but unfortunately for Batman, they are merely glimpses. You loved Tom Hardy as Bane, you loved Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, you loved a heck of a lot of things about Chris Nolan’s last Batman movie. If you ask me, it was the best of the three. The problem was, the one time in the movie that begged for a moment did not deliver. (Minor spoiler!) The dismantling of Batman was extremely well-done, but the dismantling of another key character seemed half-assed. It still pisses me off. This is one of the greatest superhero movies of all time, but it falls just short of absolute movie greatness. Almost a moment, but not quite.

6. Cabin in the Woods
   The lack of any significant star-power (except for Chris Hemsworth, but seriously, the only reason he is there is so he can have sort-of-sex with the blonde chick and then die, so he does not count) might seem to hinder this one from having a moment, but in reality, Cabin in the Woods does not need a moment to be great. This movie’s inventiveness, originality, and successful inclusion of some of the best black humor to ever grace the big screen is what makes it so awesome. If you have not seen this movie yet, it positively demands a viewing. Do not read up on it, do not watch the trailers, just go in with no expectations and watch it. It will be like absolutely nothing you think it to be.

5. Lincoln
   Two of the best performances by arguably the two best actors of our generation simply cannot be overlooked. Daniel Day-Lewis as President Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens both propel this movie to greatness through their killer performances. You might very well have a one-two punch for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor right here. Not to turn this into a two-part man-crush, though, because the ending of this one still pisses me off (Spoiler alert! Go to number four!). Seriously, you would think after showing hundreds of people dying in the battle scene at the beginning, Steven “DGAF” Spielberg would have the decency to let us see Lincoln get shot. You could tell Spielberg was sitting there with two weeks to go on their deadline, and thinking, “Well goddammit, I have to put a little more Steven in it, so let me just take a big, fat, Stevie-steamer on the ending.” This movie could have been number freaking one on this list. But no, Spielberg shot us the finger.
4. Argo
   The first hour is a well-done movie. You are sitting there, feeling alright about everything, but part of you still worries that Ben Affleck is still destined to just botch this one. Then, the last half-hour arrives and the suspense builds and you can taste the moment. It is coming. Right now. But then, it just does not quite make it. Rats. Argo tells the best story of the year, hands down. It is the best historical picture of the year, and as the whole plan is carried out, the suspense build extremely successfully, even though everyone knows what is going to happen. That is excellent filmmaking. Props to Benny. He surprised us all. Argo might not quite reach its moment, but the quality of its performances, the excellent story, and the exceptional suspense make it well worth a viewing. Fantastic.

3. Moonrise Kingdom
   I am suckered into emotional viewing experiences really easily. Toy Story 3 was my 2010 Movie of the Year because it reminded me of all of my childhood toys and instilled an amazing sense of nostalgia. Last year, The Muppets almost stole the show from Drive (wow, is that embarrassing to write) because it was so darn funny and charming and 80s-esque that I could not help but absolutely love it. This year, Moonrise Kingdom was that flick. From the opening scenes of Edward Norton walking through the Khaki Scout camp, I was smiling. The story of the two young kids in love was the most charming cinematic adventure of the year. Our hero in Sam Shakusky brought the whole audience back to a time when love was about hand-written notes and the thrill of sharing an adventure. I might not remember a specific performance or a specific scene, but I will remember the atmosphere. If I was not an even bigger sucker for crazy action, suspense, and "wow moments" than I was for all of the personality this movie has, Moonrise could take the top spot easily. You walked out feeling good, thinking hard, and looking up. If there was a way I could write out a sigh, I would. Man, guys, this movie just . . . just . . . excuse me for a second. That was this movie’s moment: the way it left you after it was over. 

2. Django Unchained
   Guys, I wanted this to be number one really darn badly. It has everything you want: stellar performances (especially from Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Samuel L), high comedy, fantastic action, wonderful characters, a neat story, an interesting setting; it even has a moment. Finally, a moment. Without giving away too much, there is a scene in this movie that sees Leo single-handedly go from giving a solid performance to a downright terrifying, captivating, cannot-look-away, award-seizing performance. It will go down as one of his best scenes ever, period. When you look back on Django, there is a heck of a lot to remember, and the only thing holding it back from being the best movie of the year is the last twenty minutes. Basically, the movie ends but Tarantino decided to dick around for a little while longer (both literally and figuratively—in short, Jamie Foxx’s wang did not need to be in this one, guys). Even so, take the first two and a half hours or so and you have some of the best film out there this year. Absolutely phenomenal. I would see it again in a second.

1. The Raid: Redemption
   One movie this year did it all. One movie kept a consistent tone throughout. One movie alone lacked an extraneous twenty minutes or a botched ending. One movie this year does not just have a moment, but is rife with moments. The Raid: Redemption is the best movie of 2012.
   The plot is simple, a SWAT team has to go into this apartment complex to extract a drug lord. That is it. Things take turns for the worse, of course, but as our particular SWAT member rises closer and closer to the mark, things become much more complicated. The Raid is a fantastic combination between simplicity and unexpectedness. The thing is though, you are not there for the story, you are there to watch some of the best action to come along in years. This is where you find your moments: the scenes that are so badass, violent, or tense that they might go down as some of the best action scenes ever. The first Mad Dog fight, the second Mad Dog fight, the machete scene, the execution scene, the door frame kill, the refrigerator kill, the ambush in the central stairway—The Raid has not just one, but numerous scenes that I will remember for years and years. It is a martial arts movie mixed with a cop movie with a bunch of gunplay thrown in for good measure. A great soundtrack, solid performances, quality twists and turns along the whole way, and straight-up memorability make this the best movie of the past 12 months. Absolute adrenaline. Action fans have to see The Raid—it is one of the greatest fighting flicks of our time.

          What happens next might not be for everyone, but it sure is awesome to me.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Great To Be Back Again--The Hobbit Review

   Do not fear, everyone. The Hobbit is awesome.
   I grew up a huge Lord of the Rings fan. When I was a kid I had all of the movies, of course, but I also had numerous action figures, several special editions, and even a LOTR version or the board game Risk, which I kicked total ass at, by the way. So needless to say, I was pumped for The Hobbit.  My roommate and I went at midnight on Thursday, and I woke up four and a half hours later to fly home and write this review, so buckle up, we are breaking down An Unexpected Journey.
   I think that the main thing I was looking for in the Hobbit was a recapturing of the total buy-in I felt when I watched the original trilogy. That is to say, when I watched the Lord of the Rings movies, everything was so well-done and so fantastic that I was absolutely invested in everything that was going on. All of the lands and peoples and races of Middle Earth had been brought to life in ways that many of us had never seen or experienced before, and the result was a sense of scope and wonder that brought the fantasy world to life. The Hobbit needed to do just that all over again; I wanted to feel like I had returned to Middle Earth. By and large, it succeeds triumphantly.
   The movie opens in the Shire, home of Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who is unknowingly about to embark on, well, an unexpected journey. Most of us know the story. He is swept up alongside Gandalf the Grey and 12 dwarves to reclaim a lost dwarven treasure from Smaug the dragon. This movie serves as the first part of three in that fantastic tale, and it kicks things off spectacularly.
   It would not be possible without a great Bilbo, and Martin Freeman is wonderfully likeable and hobbit-ish as our hero. He may not win an award, but his work here may make him one of the most well-loved characters of the year by movie-goers. If there ever was a perfect Bilbo, it is Freeman. The dwarves are serviceable in their roles, perhaps a little more cartoonish than necessary, but as they are here largely for comic-relief (save two of them), it does not matter. Sir Ian McKellen is his usual extraordinary Gandalf, and as a whole, one has an easy time rooting for the ragtag, bumbling gang of treasure-seekers. The moments when the whole party is onscreen at once are some of the highlights of the film.
   Speaking of highlights, it would not be The Hobbit without some battles, and this is sadly where the movie falls just short. There is plenty of action to be had, certainly, but CGI is used rather heavily in this flick, much more heavily than in the Rings trilogy, and the result can be quite distracting at times. Orcs and goblins, once done with makeup and costumes, are largely computer-generated this time around, and there was the rare moment when I missed the authenticity of old. The larger foes, like trolls, even at times looked less real than in the older movies; it was a little disappointing.
   Also, by nature, the movie lacks a big, impact battle scene. Fellowship had the uruk-hai chase in the hills beyond Rivendell, Towers had the fight for Helm’s Deep, and King had Minas Tirith and the Battle at the Black Gate. With The Hobbit divided like it is, this particular portion was just missing that moment. There is still quite a suitable climax, and fans of the book will know that those moments will expect to come, but it never had that woah moment I was looking for.
   However, I said this movie was a triumph, and a few CGI issues fail to hold it back from being great. The expansion of the movie into three parts now looks like a spectacular move, with all of the additional Middle Earth lore that the writers are adding in (and have set up for the next two movies), this adventure is so meaty that Rings fans will find themselves scouring all of Tolkien’s unpublished works for hint of what is to come. This is The Hobbit you knew, but made better by a bunch of kick-ass stuff mixed in from other legends of Middle Earth. These are blended extraordinarily well into the main storyline, and I was stunned at how seamless it all seemed in the end.
   From the hills of the Shire to the falls of Rivendell, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is an absolute treat. Casual fans of the Rings movies will love the numerous appearances by characters from the originals (our theater cheered when a certain hobbit dropped by), and die-hard readers and watchers will go crazy over the sheer amount of Middle Earth lore packed into this one. An overabundance of CGI does little to detract from the experience, and while Fellowship-esque set-piece sacrifices are made, you know it is all for the greater good of the next two movies (and either way, the riddle scene more than makes up for the lack of a huge battle—guys, it is absolutely perfect). The Hobbit has me excited to return to Middle Earth, and a more charming film experience will be tough to find this year.

   It has been a long wait to see Bilbo rush out his door, but it was sure worth it. An Unexpected Journey earns an 8.5 out of 10.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Dazz's Ten Unwritten Rules for the Gym: Keeping it Classy When You're Working Out

   I have a job now, guys. I work at the gym here at Northwestern, and I must say it is not the worst gig in the world. I change towels, I do the rounds, I keep everything spic and span up on the second floor—that is my domain. Unfortunately, there are a few things that simply do not belong in the gym, things that are considered universal party fouls by everyone in attendance. There are also things that are universal party-makers, if you are into that kind of thing. Lots of things can make or break a workout experience, and as a proud floor monitor at Northwestern University’s finest gym, I have the know-how about all of them.

1. Sweatbands are always in style.
   A little retro throwback to the 70s and 80s never hurt anyone. You can go classic white Nike swoosh like some washed-up tennis player, or you could go neon and be all-out. This is like the gym’s version of the tie (Does that comparison work? . . . Sure). Plus, the alternative is having to look at waterfalls of sweat cascading down someone’s forehead. No thank you. Go with the flow and show off your flow; sweatbands are in.
   Guys, I should actively market this stuff.

2. The guy who suggests “shirts vs. skins” in your pick-up basketball game is a guaranteed douchebag.
   Scenario for you: you are starting your game of hoops, when some snapback-toting bro-monster on your team peels off his tank, “Ok, we’ll be skins!”
   The other team does not care, because they are actually allowed to keep their clothes on. You look to your teammates for help. Everyone is kind of staring at each other, giving the old “Did you bring that guy? No? He came by himself? Well, dammit” look before taking off their shirts. Coincidentally, you notice that the monstrous tool now dribbling the ball successively through his legs, like an asshole, seems to be in decent shape. Surprise, surprise. Because one person cannot stop thinking about themselves long enough to memorize the general appearance of four people, your pick-up game turns into half a strip show for everyone in attendance. Thanks, douche.

3. For the love of God, keep your freaking shoes on.
   There was one day at work when I had to tell someone repeatedly to keep their shoes on while doing squats. Contrary to what you would probably think, the guy was 22, and not five years old. I told him it was a safety issue and the policy of the gym, but in reality it is more along the lines of, “No one wants to smell your stale foot-sweat, amigo, so put the shoes/deflector shields back on and spare the rest of us.”

4. It is acceptable to pretend to like something so as to spark conversation with the opposite sex.
   Another scenario: You are on the elliptical, working hard, because you go for it. That is right, you are standing there, chugging along, going for it, when out of the corner of your eye, you see that the girl next to you has her iPad up on the stand, and she is watching Breaking Bad. She seems nice, looks pretty, you want to chat.
   Then BAM! Problem. You do not watch Breaking Bad, how do you strike up a conversation? You start out slow, like dipping your foot in to test the water. “Hey, is that Breaking Bad?”
   She takes out an earphone, “Yeah! I use my gym time to catch up on it!”
   You, not wanting to blow it, “That’s a great show!”
   Seeing your interest, she gets into the conversation, “Oh my gosh, I know! It’s crazy, right?”
   Magic. You just spouted nothing for fifteen seconds and had a good chat with a nice girl. You know how to follow up? Go home and Wikipedia the crap out of Breaking Bad, that is how. Come back, you are in the know, maybe started the pilot on Netflix because you are savvy like that, and you can keep chatting the next time you run into each other.
   The initial teeny tiny fib? Totally acceptable, with girls or guys. Not the best thing to pretend to like something at all venues, but at the gym, it is totally cool.  

5. Keep your body off of the drinking fountain.
   It still seems that some people, even in their post-adolescent state, still fail to grasp basic water fountain etiquette. Generally, this means keeping your mouth and other body parts off of the water fountain while it is in use. No one wants to be drinking contaminated spit/sweat/water, so can we all do our best to keep hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times? This also means no leaning on the thing while other people are drinking, because then your arm-sweat is on there somewhere, and who knows what else has touched that. It is practically a public restroom on those fountains, anyway.

6. Wipe down your machine like they tell you, for Chrissake.
           Seems dumb, but think about it: you take a spin on the bike, huffing and puffing, doing your thing. After climbing that last metaphorical hill and coasting to the bottom, you call it a night. You leave feeling good that you worked out. You know who does not leave feeling good? The person who used the bike after you and had the pleasant sensation of your freaking butt-sweat soaking through their shorts. Idiot. Wipe off the seat.

7.  Between sets, move away from the machine. 
           Again, we are just talking general gym etiquette here. After you max out on the tricep curls, instead of standing there like a farthead rubbing your “exhausted” muscles, clear out for the next guy. No one wants to see you draping yourself over the bars because your set was so challenging you just cannot muster the strength to pull yourself out of there. People are waiting, dude. And no one thinks you are strong . . . just saying (silence for a moment, looking down at the ground . . . so . . . moving on?).

8.  Yelling is only appropriate in tennis, not squash or racquetball.
   There have been numerous occasions in my place of employment when some patrons on the racquetball and squash courts have suddenly thrust themselves into insane shouting matches as they hit the ball. Since the physical competition is not enough, both persons yell louder and louder, both to showcase their level of effort in making the return and to seemingly attract some mates in the gorilla community. Fun fact, folks: those courts echo really badly, so what seems to you like a private showcase is now a full-on imitation of a haunted choir for the rest of the gym-goers. Tone it down. It is okay on tennis courts because those do not echo nearly as badly, and everyone has sort of accepted the shouting as part of the tennis culture. Squash/racquetball culture is sweatbands (yes) and goggles (no); that is all you are allowed to have.

9.  Everyone can see your “effort face”, so rep it out and deal with it.
           One of the best parts about working at the gym is seeing the crazy faces everyone makes when they go for the maximum for whatever doing. A lot of guys look like they are being force-fed lemons and a lot of girls look like they are doing their best not to grunt, which is probably one of the least-feminine sounds (and words) ever. The best you can do is to just swing for the fences and not try to hide it. We see you working, so we know you do not make that face normally. No one judges you (mostly).

10. In the locker room, use the five-second rule.
   Arguably the most important gym rule of them all. We all know it, but only a sacred few choose to obey. Yes, we are talking about locker rooms, and we are talking about the . . . more experienced among us showing off their . . . stuff, in said locker rooms. It needs to stop. Obviously, I only know what it is like for guys, so maybe girls have it way different, but I can tell that there is nothing beneficiary to anyone about a gentleman walking around the locker room with everything hanging out.
   I understand that in the locker room, everyone is a guy, and we can all be mature adults, but for the love of Christ, do we really need to shower, shave, comb our hair, stand in front of the mirror, put on lotion, and work our way back to the lockers completely naked? Really? I do not need to be taking coat off after a long walk to the gym only to see some middle-aged man-of-confidence stroll around the corner, hands on hips, displaying the pride of the land for all to see. No one needs that. Five-second rule, man. You have five seconds of nudity, the time it takes you to change your pants. Boom. Done. Out of there. Everyone can breathe easy and not stand around ignoring the . . . elephant in the room (. . . ?) while they take care of business. No one has ever understood this habit, and no one ever will. Locker rooms right now have more frontal nudity than 99% of movies out there. Our lives should not be worse than movies.
   Call it the Golden Rule of the Gym. The Five-Second Rule. It needed to be said. At the very least: man-law, and woman-law.