Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Worst Movies I Saw in 2014

 So the year is very nearly over (which year? check the title, I guess...), and as with every Year End Recap, I like to start at the bottom and work my way up. The Cap'n tried very hard to avoid movies that looked like they'd be a waste of time this year, but that doesn't mean I missed all of the rotten apples. I just didn't feel like talking about all of them, and only one had the dubious distinction of being a "So You Won't Have To". That said, unless I somehow muster up the interest to finish watching Tusk before the 31st (outcome: very unlikely), it's safe to say I've watched the worst of 2014 that I'm going to see.

 One thing you'll notice is the lack of obvious punching bags around the internet: as a general rule, if I'm not at least a little bit interested, I'm not going to see it. So that means no Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, no Transformers 4, no Adam Sandler or Seth McFarlane movie. I didn't even watch Jingle All the Way 2, although I did trick people into thinking they'd be seeing it*. That said, anything that makes this list is something I truly loathe, or felt like time was wasted watching. Or, maybe in the case of one movie, one that made me feel stupider, kind of like Lockout did. But we'll get to that one. Aside from the very worst movie of 2014 - which closes out this recap - there's no particular order to this, just a general cathartic primal scream of "Bad Movie! No Doughnut!"

 Shall we begin? (SPOILER: yes)

 V/H/S Viral - Remember how V/H/S was too long and only had a few good segments, but the frame story was fairly interesting even though why would you tape a Skype conversation and put it on a tape? And then V/H/S 2 was a marked improvement in every way, because it was shorter and the vignettes were more concise and creepier, even if the frame story was kind of a mess? I guess when the time came to make V/H/S Viral - which might as well be "3" based on the end of the movie - everyone involved from the producers to the writers and directors forgot that.

 The wrap around story makes almost no sense until the very end, and aside from an amusing cookout gone wrong, there's nothing but gore for gore's sake until the mysterious van that causes people go turn violent is shoehorned into the V/H/S mythos (such as it is). If clips from the first two films weren't crammed in as cutaways, you wouldn't even know it was supposed to be part of the same series. The "tapes" are abandoned completely, leaving us with a combination documentary / found footage story of a magician whose cape gives him real powers, a trip into another dimension that, initially, looks like ours but really, REALLY isn't, and twenty minutes with the most obnoxious skaters you're likely to meet, who are eventually killed by zombies or eaten by a demon the zombies are summoning.

 Of the segments, the second one - "Parallel Monsters" - by Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes) is the only one worth watching. That said, it's so over the top that you're liable to start laughing at the "reveal" of how the alternate universe is structured. The Day of the Dead / Skater video only gets remotely interesting near the end, when it's clear they can't kill the cult members in Tijuana. Everything else is an absolute waste of time, and I worry that trying to turn the series from a Videodrome-like vibe to a "viral video" ending (think The Signal or Pontypool, but much worse) isn't going to serve V/H/S well.

 Left Behind - Look, I know that the only reason anyone reading this was even considering watching the 2014 remake of Left Behind is for ironic purposes. You heard that Nicolas Cage was in it and then saw the awful trailer and thought "see you later, Sharknado 2!" Well, I have some bad news for you - this is every bit as boring and sanctimonious as the Kirk Cameron Left Behind, and Cage doesn't go anywhere close to MEGA until and hour into the movie. Even then, it's not for very long, because he's just trying to avoid hitting another plane. The worst sin Left Behind commits - worse even than oxymoron-ic internal logic, wafer thin characters, and groan-worthy dialogue - is being boring. Like, really, "geez this thing is still on?," boring. I can't prevent you from watching it ironically with your hipster friends, or convincing yourselves that you enjoyed it somehow, but I'll never watch it again, nor will I subject an audience to it during Bad Movie Night.

 And I made them watch Things.

 Horrible Bosses 2 - Cranpire and I disagree on this, but I found this to be a perfect example of a lazy sequel coasting on the goodwill engendered by fans of Horrible Bosses. The jokes are lazy, the shock value is lazy, most of the three times I laughed came from surprised outbursts of profanity, and even Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day seem to be phoning it in halfway through. They dutifully go through the motions, but it's abundantly clear that the new titular characters (a father / son duo played by Christoph Waltz and Chris Pine) are ahead of them every step of the way, and neither Waltz (barely in the movie) or Pine (in way too much of it) can muster the same sense of pure evil that Kevin Spacey does, literally phoning it in from behind a plexiglass wall in prison. You've seen every good joke in the trailer, and when Jamie Foxx's Motherfucker Jones only made me laugh once - it involves driving through a chain link fence - you know you're in trouble.

 What If - I do not understand this movie. Like, do not get it. Who is What If for? Because it feels to me like this is a movie that would appeal to Men's Rights assholes, who believe that "friend zone" is a real thing they are being subjected to. The moral seems to be that if they persevere, she totally wants you and it will work out, but it's cool to have unrealistic expectations and lash out at each other for interpreting deliberately mixed signals. I genuinely am confused about this film, because it makes a concerted effort to be a romantic comedy that portrays both sides (Zoe Kazan and Daniel Radcliffe) trying to "just be friends," but feel ambivalent about it, make overtures to be more than friends (on purpose, because there are scenes set before and after that reinforce we did not see one of them misinterpreting the other) and then get angry at the other one. Rinse, repeat.

 What is the purpose of this film? I'm being serious, because I've seen some outlandish concepts for romantic comedies, but What If goes out of it's way to represent the concept of "friend zone" as just another obstacle to true love. It would be one thing if it was just Radcliffe's Wallace being a creep, or Kazan's Chantry being totally misunderstood, but the narrative makes a concerted effort to show both of them acting behind the scenes in a way that you know they'll end up together (she refuses to introduce him to her friends, he tries to sabotage her engagement) and then spending lots of time with them not speaking to each other for doing just that! It has all the elements of a romantic comedy: the meet-cute, the dramatic plane flight to profess your feelings, the friends who set them up in secret (in this case, Wallace's roommate and Chantry's cousin, Allan, played by Adam Driver who playing Adam Driver's character from Girls). There's even the whimsical indie rock soundtrack, and because Chantry works for an animation company, her drawings come to life and float around to convey her feelings. But it all feels so unseemly because the message is that you should not respect another person's feelings about your friendship because they are into you and you just have to wear them down. I guess as long as you're Daniel Radcliffe and she's Zoe Kazan, the Men's Rights assholes are correct: just ignore the "friend zone" and keep pushing, because she'll totally realize what a great guy you are.

 In all honestly, I'd love to hear the female perspective on this movie. It feels like a movie made by guys to reinforce a particularly deplorable view of relationships that turns out exactly the day it never would. It's the meanest romantic comedy I've seen in a while, and no amount of saccharine at the end can take away the bitter aftertaste.

 The Expendables 3 - Take everything I said in my original review, and then compound it. This movie does not get better with repeated viewings. In fact, I'm kinda on the Conrad Stonebanks side of things now, because Barney Ross was a chump in the movie.

 Life After Beth - I've seen this in nearly every review of Life After Beth, but sometimes the oft repeated phrase is true: this would have been a pretty clever short film. I could see it playing at festivals, maybe winning some awards, and you'd have the added bonus of keeping the cast in place. But as a ninety minute feature? No, Life After Beth stops being funny a long time before the titular character-turned-zombie (Aubrey Plaza) goes full on undead. The premise is fun, and Dane Dehaan does an admirable job playing the straight man in what I think is the first time he isn't playing a totally sullen jerk (depending on how you feel about him in The Place Beyond the Pines).

 Most of the rest of the cast are there to play one-joke roles, like John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon as Beth's parents. It's not clear why Paul Reiser and Cheryl Hines are in the film at all until their dead parents show up (it's not just Beth who comes back, although the movie takes a while to get to that). While it's always nice to see Anna Kendrick, her part is so insignificant and underdeveloped that you wonder if the film even needed a love triangle. Plaza seems to be having fun as the increasingly unhinged Beth, who doesn't know she's dead and can only be calmed with smooth jazz, but largely speaking, Life After Beth has a lot of good small ideas that do not sustain its running time.

 The Sacrament - It's maybe not fair to put this in a "worst of" list, but I don't feel like Ti West's retelling of the Jonestown Massacre holds up under its own "found footage" gimmick. If you can't sustain your own internal logic, I don't care how interesting the cast can be or what suspense you manage to generate.

 They Came Together - For the first time that I can remember, I found myself thinking (and eventually saying out loud) "I think I hate this David Wain movie." Say what you will about how over-exaggerated parts of Wet Hot American Summer or The Ten are, at least there's some bite to the way they approach their subject matter. Wain, who co-wrote They Came Together with Michael Showalter, brings a sledgehammer to romantic comedies, and approaches the tropes with all the subtlety that Gallagher brings to a watermelon. It could be funny, like Wet Hot American Summer, except there's a lingering sense of "see how funny we are to skewer these movies?" And by that, I mean literally, the characters look at the camera after saying something stupid or cliché to undermine the entire façade.

 It reminds me of how a friend described the difference between Joel and Mike on Mystery Science Theater 3000: Joel was a guy who made the best out of a bad situation by poking fun at movies, but you got the sense that Mike really wanted to stick it to these turkeys. That's They Came Together in a nutshell: a movie that aggressively tears apart every overused rom-com gimmick and then stands there and says "look at what I did; I really gave them what for, am I right you guys?" What's weird is that Showalter already did this in the much better The Baxter, a movie about the guy who the girl always leaves for the lead character. It's a smarter movie, the jokes are better developed, and the execution isn't as grating or obvious, which makes They Came Together all the more baffling. The film even lacks most of Wain's signature non-sequitur moments, the ones that really make movies like Wet Hot American Summer memorable. Instead of "I'm going to fondle my sweaters," Christopher Meloni's character shits himself at a costume party and tries to pretend he came dressed in a robe. That's the joke. I guess the fact that her parents are white supremacists or that his grandmother wants to have sex with him are supposed to be funny in a shocking way, but Wain is far to invested in sticking it to romantic comedies to go anywhere with either setup.

 Were it not for Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler trying really, really hard to keep me invested, I think I might have turned They Came Together off after twenty minutes. The rest of the cast, who includes Bill Hader, Ellie Kemper, Michael Ian Black, Cobie Smulders, Ed Helms, Melanie Lynskey, Jack McBrayer, Kenan Thompson, Ken Marino, Adam Scott, Michael Shannon, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Randall Park, John Stamos, and Michael Murphy, land mostly on the side of "annoying," showing up for a scene or two to mug shamelessly and then exit the film. If you had told me this was the Farrelly brothers follow-up to Movie 43, I'm not sure I would have doubted you, but it shocks me that I hated a David Wain movie this much.

 See No Evil 2 - I'm not going to waste much time talking about this movie. I guess that maybe I thought going from a porn director in See No Evil to Jen and Sylvia Soska (American Mary) could have only have been an improvement, but apparently the only memo they got was "use fluorescent lighting in a hospital and make every hallway look the same." I thought the first movie was underdeveloped on every level, but at least it was grimy. This one is sterile, dull, and the gore is perfunctory. Maybe you could say that it's cool to see Katharine Isabelle (Ginger Snaps) and Danielle Harris (Rob Zombie's Halloween 2) in the same movie, but SPOILER they both die. In fact, forget it, SPOILER everybody dies except Jacob Goodnight (Glen "Kane" Jacobs), who the Soska's can't find anything to do with other than kind of give him a "monster" costume, consisting of a mortician's apron and one of those masks NBA players wear when they break their nose. Forgive me if I sit out the inevitable See No Evil 3, because WWE Films loves to make franchises out of movies that don't need them (*coughTheMarinecough12Roundscough*)

 Lucy - If you hadn't guessed, Lucy is this year's Lockout. It may be the stupidest "high concept" sci-fi / action movie I've seen since, well, Lockout. I guess Luc Besson genuinely didn't understand the "10% of our brains" metaphor, because he literally uses brain percentage as the hook for how Scarlett Johannson goes from normal party girl to transcendent god-like being in ninety minutes. It's a mind-bogglingly stupid movie, in just about every way it can be, and in good conscience I couldn't put it anywhere other than on this list.

 That said, if you have some friends coming over with a case of beer, Lucy is a rollicking good time as bad movies go. Make no mistake, you're going to feel less intelligent by the time it's over, and if you happen to know a scientist (in any field, but I suppose a neuroscientist would be the best), there will be a lot of "wait... no, that can't happen" said aloud. In fact, I can almost guarantee you this will be playing at Bad Movie Night in a few months, possibly with Lockout. I'll see if I can't lower the IQ of the room by a few points. Besson goes all in with audacious stupidity with Lucy, and if you can put aside the improbability of, well, everything, it's a breezy ride of dumb fun. Just don't pretend it's anything else.

 Sin City: A Dame to Kill For - I was just going to link this to my "So You Won't Have To" review from earlier this fall and be done with this terrible movie, but when it came out on Blu-Ray, I read a couple of write-ups from reviewers I normally respect giving Robert Rodriguez a pass for this piece of shit. That I cannot abide. Being forgiving of Sin City: A Dame to Kill for because it has more of a narrative through line than Machete Kills is, to me, unacceptable. It's like saying that Resident Evil 5 is okay because it's not as terrible as Resident Evil 4. No, it's not okay - at the end of either one you feel cheated and that you wasted time that could have been put to better use. Interesting tidbit about Resident Evil 5 and Machete Kills: both are glorified trailers for as-yet-unreleased sequels disguised as a feature film.

 Is it true that Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is better than Machete Kills? Eh, maybe. Does it matter? Nope. Unless you're some kind of die hard Sin City fan that can also somehow divorce yourself from how much cheaper, poorly thought out, and lazily constructed the second film is from the first (let alone the ways it mangles the source material despite that fact that the creator co-directed the adaptation), there's nothing worth watching this for. Nothing. If you really need to see Eva Green naked and don't have the internet, pick almost any other film she's been in. Hell, watch the Frank Miller-based 300: Rise of An Empire, which while also not great, is better than A Dame to Kill For in nearly every aspect. Want to see Joseph Gordon Levitt in a crime movie in over his head? Watch Looper or The Lookout. If you watch Looper you'll even see Bruce Willis giving a shit about his role. For everything else, just watch Sin City. As many problems as I have with the first movie, it still does everything better than A Dame to Kill For.

 I'm genuinely convinced that Robert Rodriguez forgot how to make movies, or maybe just does not care anymore. Maybe he was too interested turning From Dusk Till Dawn into a ten hour miniseries I couldn't finish. The only directorial flourishes in A Dame to Kill For are ones that echo the worst parts of his digital era to the present. This is easily the worst movie I saw this year, and I watched Things twice. This year! At least Things rewards you with this at the end of the movie:

 A Dame to Kill For is one of my favorite Sin City stories, which makes it all the more egregious that Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller butchered it so badly. There's nothing to give this movie a pass for, and I totally feel like it deserves the rotten reputation it has. I don't think critics were overly harsh panning this crap - the negativity is right on the money. Avoid it at all costs, and just read A Dame to Kill For again.


 Next time we'll go up the ladder a bit, discussing some movie the Cap'n liked, or kind of liked. I might save the movies I had high hopes about for its own column, since it'll cover many of the major releases that didn't get coverage at the Blogorium this year. Stay tuned: the top of the list is a random assemblage this year...

 * Instead, we watched Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever, which has the distinction of being either the second best or second worst "talking cat" movie I saw this year, depending on how you feel about A Talking Cat?!?!?

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Blogorium Review: Nightcrawler

 Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is not a human being. He looks like one, or an approximation of one, anyway, but he isn't. The term "sociopath" doesn't do someone like Louis Bloom justice; not only does he not care about anyone or anything not directly connected to his agenda, they barely register as human beings at all to him. At best, they're objects he can manipulate, blackmail, or (in some instances), literally drag around to serve his purposes. We meet Louis Bloom as he assaults (possibly kills) someone who may or may not be a police officer / security guard and steals his watch - a visual metaphor that pops up periodically throughout Nightcrawler, as a reminder of sorts. Louis steals some construction equipment and some raw materials, and sells it to a scrapyard owner (Marco Rodriguez). While he's there, Louis makes his case that he should also be given a job, and doesn't quite register that the owner looks upon him with disdain. Only when he's told "I don't hire thieves," does Louis get the message and leaves.

 This is the protagonist of Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler, the sort of film that makes one long for the days of decent antiheroes like Travis Bickle. It's certainly an interesting film, one that has a few rookie mistakes and a score that nearly cripples the film, but on the whole there's more to recommend than not. That is, as long as you don't mind spending two hours watching a "rags to riches" story where the scrappy young hero is replaced with a total psycho. It's a riveting performance from Gyllenhaal, and the rest of the cast is quite good as well, but I can't honestly say that I'm in any hurry to watch Nightcrawler again. There's a level of cynicism about humanity in Nightcrawler that makes the end of David Fincher's Gone Girl look like Pollyanna by comparison. And how Gilroy gets Louis from a low level scumbag to a truly frightening success story is by no means pleasant.

 By chance, Louis comes across an accident on the highway, and is subsequently introduced to the world of "nightcrawlers": independent videographers who shoot footage of crime scenes, accidents, or likewise grisly occurrences, and sell them to the highest bidder. Right after Louis pulls over, the van for Mayhem Productions pulls up, and the ever inquisitive Bloom grills Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) about what he does. An entrepreneur without a direction, Louis decides he has an objective, and will stop at nothing to be like Loder. Better than Loder. His people skills aren't great: Louis doesn't so much speak to people as he regurgitates business seminar talking points, applying them to himself as necessary. We don't know much about his life: he has an apartment with a TV and a plant, and beyond that, he's a cipher. It's not who Louis is, but what he's capable of doing that Gilroy is interested in showing us.

 In many ways, Nightcrawler follows the narrative structure of a "rags to riches" story almost exactly, only to horrifying ends. Louis buys a camera and a police scanner, makes mistakes, but eventually finds some usable footage and sells it to the lowest rated news channel in Los Angeles. He initiative impresses the news producer, Nina Romina (Renee Russo), although she has no idea what his real agenda is. He hires an intern, Rick (Riz Ahmed), a mostly homeless kid in desperate need of work, and relentlessly insults his inability to do exactly what Louis wants when he wants it. But they make it work: accident after accident, crime scene after crime scene, Louis builds his reputation. He's not above sneaking into somebody's house or moving evidence around for better shot composition. When he arrives at an accident before the police get there, Louis even moves a body in order to get more compelling footage. Ethics don't even factor into Bloom's world, much to the chagrin of KWLA's Frank Kruse (Kevin Rahm), the station director.

 At this point, we should probably be a little worried about where Nightcrawler is headed, although I will admit that I wasn't sure just how far down the rabbit hole we would be following Louis. He refuses an offer to join Mayhem Video and then goes one step further to insure his competition won't be around much longer. He arrives at a triple homicide before the killers have even left, and then spends time wandering around the house filming the bloody aftermath, and then withholds crucial evidence when detectives Frontieri (Michael Hyatt) and Liberman (Price Carson) track the news report to its source - Bloom's newly coined "Video Production Services," a "legitimate news source" as he demands Nina describe it to her anchors. His manipulation of Nina is arguably even worse, as he both emotionally and professionally blackmails her (the former off-camera but the latter very much in evidence onscreen). He takes umbrage to Rick negotiating a salary before a tense high speed chase, which leads us to the ultimate revelation of just how far Louis is willing to go to be the best nightcrawler in Los Angeles.

Gilroy (The Bourne Legacy, The Fall), who wrote and makes his directorial debut with Nightcrawler, does a fine job of showcasing the actors in this seedy, underexplored portrait of LA. It's largely Gyllenhaal's show, but Russo and Ahmed in particular are very good as the dual sides to how an actual human being would react to someone like Louis Bloom. Other characters come and go without much impact - even Bill Paxton barely registers as "the competition," and while the film is technically sound, it often feels inert. Gilroy seems to come to life during the high speed chase towards the end of the film, but Nightcrawler is often too low key, relying on Gyllenhaal to carry the narrative forward, by hook or by crook. The level of cynicism on display calls for something perhaps a little showier, if I'm being honest. Not too much, but there are portions of the middle that drag and lack momentum. I wouldn't consider it unfair to compare Nightcrawler to another writer-turned-director debut, Robert D. Siegel (The Wrestler)'s Big Fan, which covers a similarly troubled protagonist, and is likewise an interesting watch but not a film I'd hurry to revisit.

 More problematic is the score by James Newton Howard (The Happening), which is often jarringly inappropriate. If the direction is low key to a fault, the score is too traditional: there's often no subtlety to the music, to the point I found it distracting at critical parts of the film. If it was meant to be a deliberate juxtaposition between the character beats and the traditional story structure, it doesn't succeed at all. And, barring that, if this is simply what Howard thought fit best with the footage in front of him, he failed completely. If ever a film called for minimalist scoring, it would be Nightcrawler (I have seen reviews that suggested something closer to Cliff Martinez's score to Drive would be more appropriate, and it's a fair point). If anything, the music hurts the film more than Gilroy stretching his wings as a director.

 And yet, I would recommend Nightcrawler on the strength of its performances, provided you don't mind seeing a movie where the evil are rewarded and the good mostly punished, or otherwise relegated to obscurity. The point of view in the film is strictly from Bloom's perspective, so don't be surprised if your impressions of him match the befuddled reactions during points when he does encounter a genuine human being. Louis isn't one, and he's perhaps the least likable antihero in a long line of them, but if you don't mind taking a ride into the depths of darkness, Nightcrawler is a compelling trip downward. Just make sure you have something light to follow it with after you're done. Maybe a Lars Von Trier / Michael Haneke double feature...