Thursday, January 29, 2015

Some Other Movies I Saw in 2014 (High Expectations, Maybe Diminished Results)

 As has been pointed out to me a few times over the course of last year, I didn't review a number of movies that I had been open about looking forward to. In some instances, like Nymphomaniac, I never got around to watching them. When I do, we'll see what happens, review-wise. What happened with many of them was that I watched a movie I was really looking forward to, spent some time digesting it, and realized I just wasn't interested in writing about them. There are a few exceptions - and I will include links when we get to them - but by and large there wasn't much to add to the general consensus. That, or I really didn't want to rain on the parade of folks who really loved some of the films I'm about to cover.

 Bear in mind that it's not that I hated them, but rather that I wasn't blown away by any of them. A few were pleasant surprises, or technically impressive, but I've struggled with recommending any of them strongly. However, it didn't seem fair to recap 2014 and not mention a few of the most anticipated movies, particularly when two of them were nominated for Best Picture.

 On that note, let's start with Boyhood, which I'm not going to pretend isn't a very impressive achievement for Richard Linklater. That said, I think we all know the talking points about how long it took to shoot and the uncertainty about what direction (if any) the story was headed during that time. And yes, it's quite a feat to stick with it for that long, creating a mini-fiction version of the 7 Up series. Some of the transitions in time are quite clever, and it retains much of Linklater's signature "talking about stuff" dialogue that, when done right, is a fine variation on naturalism. When it's done wrong, well, then you have Waking Life. But Boyhood isn't about monologue-ing its way through Life, The Universe, and Everything - it's about the micro moments of growing up, avoiding the easy traps of movies about adolescence. And I give him a lot of credit for that. Linklater manages to keep the Philosophy 101 crap out of Ellar Coltrane's mouth until just before he gets to college.

 And that's about where I'm going to run out of nice things to say about Boyhood, because the movie didn't do a whole lot for the Cap'n. Maybe it was the choices of music at the beginning: a litany of "it's 2002!" that starts with Coldplay's "Yellow," continues with The Hives "Hate to Say I Told You So," and sneaks in Britney Spears before closing with Sheryl Crow's "Soak Up the Sun." I got it - it's 2002. Yup, got it. In Linklater's defense, the choices in music to indicate what year we're in becomes more subtle - it's almost easy to miss Gotye playing in the background at the bar in Austin - but to open the film, I found it off-putting. It actually sticks out more than the "campaigning for Obama" scene or the "what's wrong with the war in Iraq" bowling alley monologue from Ethan Hawke.

 When I watch a Richard Linklater movie, to be honest, I'm expecting a bit of aimlessness - there's less of it than you think in Dazed and Confused, but much of what he excels at is just spending time with people. It's exactly why the Before films work so well; even if they are scripted, it feels spontaneous. Boyhood has a lot of that, but at nearly three hours, I got the impression that he really wasn't sure how or when to end Mason (Coltrane)'s story. Maybe he enjoyed watching the young man that Coltrane grew into, but there are four or five points in the last forty five minutes of Boyhood that would have been more thematically appropriate than when the film does end. Is it in keeping with the "small moments?" Maybe, but considering that Boyhood just tapers off instead of making this ride feel like it was worth taking left me disinterested.

 It has been suggested that because I'm not a parent that I can't really "understand" Boyhood - or, at least, that was the implicit part of a conversation I had with a stranger who liked it more than I did because he saw his son growing up through the movie. While I understand his position, the counter-argument is that I shouldn't have to be able to directly relate with the film in order to enjoy it. I've never been an assistant hotel manager, or been to deep space, or been a hitman whose wife died, but I can relate to and enjoy films with those protagonists. I will say that Boyhood lacks a certain experiential quality to growing up that The Tree of Life has, at least for me. That may very well be an apples to oranges comparison, but there are small moments in The Tree of Life that stirred memories of being young in a way that Boyhood never did.

 Maybe that's not the point of Boyhood - maybe it's more of a "meta" project that condenses something like Michael Apted's "Up" series into a more manageable time frame. It is, in many ways, a spiritual successor to the Before films, which follow a relationship over the course of 18 years. That said, I think that Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight work better as films than Boyhood does. For every fine performance: Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke are both great as Mason's biological parents, there's a wonky performance like Marco Perella as the stereotypically abusive, drunk stepfather. For a film that relishes in small moments, that lacks a real narrative arc, having Arquette marry her teacher, then leave him, become a teacher and then marry her student is less about poetic irony and more groan inducing. Sorry, that's just how I felt about it. I did enjoy Lorelei Linklater as Samantha, Mason's sister, who manages to make an impression despite never having much to do.

 The acclaim for Boyhood has, as far as I can tell, been part and parcel with the admittedly very impressive willingness of Richard Linklater to slowly make a movie for more than a decade. You do literally watch Coltrane grow up over the course of the film, and you watch everyone around him change, too. In that regard, yes, I find Boyhood to be admirable, but I don't know that I really liked it.

 While we're on the subject of "admirable," - and I suppose that will be most of this post - I never really warmed to Gone Girl, despite David Fincher's exhaustive attention to detail. I have a very hard time making the case that Gone Girl isn't a very well made film, or that structurally it's not successful, but like Boyhood, I was underwhelmed when it ended. I haven't read Gillian Flynn's novel, and I know she made some changes in the process of adaptation. If I understand correctly, the ending is a little more cynical, but the ending wasn't really my point of contention with Gone Girl.

 (By necessity, the following paragraphs are going to SPOIL the major twist of the book / film, so tread cautiously if you know nothing about the story)

 If I had to pinpoint the problem, it's actually more of the middle, when we know what's really going on, yet the film seems to lag, dragging the parallel arcs of Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) out while he defends himself from a well orchestrated plan to assign guilt for her death and she makes mistake after mistake while in hiding. The beginning, when you don't know what's happening with any certainty, as Nick is still basically a blank slate and we're learning everything from Amy's diary entries / flashbacks, is riveting stuff. Our only real insight into Nick is through Amy, and it bleeds over (no pun intended) to the way we perceive him during the investigation into her disappearance.

 And then Gone Girl makes a hard right turn, revealing that we've been listening to an unreliable narrator who then tells us that everything we thought about Nick and Amy's relationship is designed to tighten the proverbial noose around his neck. But that's not the problem - actually, it's a great twist to introduce mid-movie, because now it's a question of whether the person we thought we couldn't trust and the person we thought we could are capable of meeting two very different agendas. So why, then, is the middle of Gone Girl so lethargic? I'm not certain that it's because Amy's story in hiding is much less interesting after she reveals her real plan, or that I just didn't buy that she could plan all of this and then allow hubris to drive her to desperation. What happens with Desi Collings (Neil Patrick Harris) serves only to show us what Amy is truly capable of when she feels she has no other option, but isn't it clear how far she'll go when we know that Nick really didn't kill her?

 The other problem, and one I still haven't been able to reconcile after watching the film again, is that we don't really know Nick. What we know about him is primarily from how Amy portrays him in her manufactured "diary," which means that even the "meet cute" and wooing parts could be total fictions. We know he was cheating on Amy with Andi (Emily Ratajkowski), and that his sister Margo (Carrie Coon) loves him, but doesn't necessarily trust him. Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) has her doubts, but Officer James Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) is positive he's guilty. Celebrity lawyer Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry) doesn't care - he likes the challenge and the media attention. But Nick? Well, we spend the lion's share of Gone Girl with him and I still don't have a reading on the character.

 Despite the obvious joke to be made, I don't blame that on Ben Affleck the actor. I think that he and Coon have some great scenes together, and that he does his best to give Nick a fighting chance when the deck is stacked against him. But I don't believe that the way the film ends is something he'd acquiesce to so easily, implied threat or no. It reminded me of the end of Proxy, which tells a similar tale of people desperate for attention. I also didn't like Proxy. And even if Gone Girl is a better made film, I'm still on the fence about whether that mean I should forgive its bloated running time in service of a great beginning, clever twist, and bleak ending. I do like that Fincher tells you almost immediately about Amy's relationship with her husband, just by showing you the board games in Margo and Nick's bar. Attention to detail runs rampant, Affleck's growing biceps aside (hello, Batman), but structurally, Gone Girl doesn't seem to sustain itself. So can I admire its construction without necessarily being crazy about it? I guess that's how it's going to be for the time being...

  The Cap'n wrote at length about Christopher Nolan's Interstellar a few months ago, and much of what I said still stands. Here's a piece of the review, as it transitioned from the positives of Nolan's scope to the failings of its emotional core:

 "If I'm being honest, I would have liked more of the exploring the other planets instead of the part of Interstellar that you don't necessarily get from the trailers: the back and forth between Coop (McConaughey) in space and his family on Earth. Instead of focusing on relativity and black holes, we have to keep jumping back home to see that Murph stills hasn't forgiven her father and now she's grown up and is Jessica Chastain. Murph is working with Professor Brand (Michael Caine0 on how to save everybody on Earth because they haven't heard from the ship in 23-ish years (2 years to Saturn plus another 21 thanks to a disastrous turn of events on the first world they land on). It's here that the Nolan brothers introduce the theme of Interstellar that isn't about exploration: that love may be a tangible concept that transcends dimensions and we just don't understand it yet. Oddly enough, the internet's least favorite person (Anne Hathaway) delivers the best monologue about it, but it leads Interstellar down a path I maybe could have done without. The space exploration was so much more interesting, and the Earth plot isn't."

 One of the other things I did between watching Interstellar the first and second times was to sit down with 2001: A Space Odyssey, which only exacerbates how foolish the climax of Nolan's film is compared with Kubrick's. Coop literally explains everything as it's happening in the "other" dimension, which seems even more ridiculous when compared to what happens to Dave (Keir Dullea) when he reaches "Jupiter and Beyond." I'm not saying that Interstellar needed to be as opaque as the end of 2001, or that Nolan was wrong to appeal to a wider audience, but when it's abundantly clear what sort of movie you're trying to emulate, you have to understand that fairly or not, you're going to be held to that standard. Interstellar's moment of cosmic transcendence is almost comical when held up against 2001.

 Still, I probably have a more favorable opinion of Interstellar than Boyhood or Gone Girl. Maybe it's the apologist in me, or maybe it's a subconscious reaction to the "Christopher Nolan is teh suxorz" kneejerk internet reception to his films. I don't find any of his films perfect, but I have enjoyed almost all of them, the lone exception being Insomnia, and only because I saw the original first. Even within Interstellar is the desire to reach for something greater, to bring a mass audience to something they don't see much in theatres anymore, and that's appreciated. It didn't necessarily work this time, and didn't connect with audiences (it clearly didn't connect with his peers, or whoever qualifies as "Academy Voters") but if this is what qualifies as a notable failure for Christopher Nolan, I can live with that. Would it be a bad idea to go back to something smaller, intimate? I don't even mean Memento; The Prestige is comparatively scaled back when put against Inception or The Dark Knight Rises. We'll see what Nolan has in store next time.

 "Next Time" seems to be an oft repeated phrase for Terry Gilliam fans like the Cap'n: every movie since 12 Monkeys has been pretty to very good, but falls somewhere short of the far he set so high with Brazil. And it's not just comparing everything to Brazil, because I think Time Bandits and The Fisher King are also among the most interesting work he's done, post-Python. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas comes the closest to his mad, glory days, but The Brothers Grimm, Tideland, and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus all feel like there was a great movie in there somewhere, but it didn't quite make it to the finish line. Some from interference, one from an untimely death, and I'm not really sure what to make of Tideland. I always look forward to a new Gilliam film, and always hope that this time "they" - whoever "they" are - left him alone and we get a pure, undiluted experience.

 Which brings us to The Zero Theorem, the first of two movies on this list that I suspect you didn't even know came out in 2014. Like many Gilliam films, I heard about it the year before, waited patiently, and eventually it did have a (limited) release / VOD, and then mostly disappeared. That's not a value judgment on The Zero Theorem (we'll get to that), but what seems, increasingly, to be the case with how his work is going to disseminate from here on out (up next: another stab at The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, which may or may not have benefitted from the decade of being abandoned). If you've seen any of the reviews for The Zero Theorem, you've probably noticed that it's been compared to Brazil, and not always favorably.

 The comparisons are not unfair: The Zero Theorem deals with a man very much in his own world, Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), who refers to himself as "we," or "us" works for Mancom in service of his own agenda. Qohen believes he's waiting for his "call" - in this case, a literal phone call to the apartment he's made out of an abandoned church. In the meantime, he tolerates Joby (David Thewlis), who can't quite seem to remember his name and is an exemplary representative of all "middle management." Speaking of which, Management (Matt Damon) has his eye on Qohen for a high level programming project, one which resembles a video game but is designed to solve mathematical problems. Management wants Qohen to help him solve the titular theorem, with or without the assistance of Joby, Management's son, Bob (Lucas Hedges), and Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), a woman he meets at a party that might have other hobbies. To keep Qohen on track, Mancom allows him to work from home, as long as he consults Dr. Shrink-Rom (Twilda Swinton), a program designed to monitor his mental state as he pursues the impossible task at hand.

 For the record, I've really just given you the set up of The Zero Theorem, a film stuffed to the gills with visual metaphors, which is always just one step away from collapsing entirely under its own weight. Once you get used to the barrage of information - Gilliam takes the concept of micro-news and runs wild with it - the film can be pleasantly entertaining, but it never feels cohesive. I never got a sense of what point Gilliam was really trying to make, but rather he was quite interested in dissecting the way that media and religion and business operate now. Some of the smaller gags, like "The Church of Batman the Redeemer," are quite funny, even if they add nothing substantive to the story. Of course, it's possible that the story itself isn't especially interesting, as we have little doubt of what Qohen will do by the end of the film. Also, once we're introduced to the virtual reality "fantasy" zone that Bainsley brings Qohen into, it's not hard to figure out where everything is going for the idiosyncratic, mostly misanthropic protagonist. Everyone seems game in the cast, and Gilliam's production design is, as always, a feast of details in every direction. But by the end, there's a sort of sensory overload coupled with, "oh, that's the point?" that just doesn't quite work. The Zero Theorem is an almost, but ultimately misses its mark, whatever it was aiming for.

 There is little doubt that The Zero Theorem is a Terry Gilliam film; his stamp as an auteur is unmistakable at this point. Such is true with Wes Anderson, whose distinct style draws praise and groans alike from audience, and who in 2014 doubled down on his cinematic "signature". When I reviewed The Grand Budapest Hotel earlier this year, I closed the write up by saying:

"I will openly admit to a giddy sensation during the beginning of The Grand Budapest Hotel, as I often have when seeing a Wes Anderson film for the first time. As the film went on, I alternated between admiration for the technical aspects of the Auteur and realizing that I was more impressed with the story than I actually enjoyed it. Don't get me wrong, this is not a film that's a chore to watch, nor does it ever drag, but The Grand Budapest Hotel didn't grab me in the same way that some of Anderson's films do. I would be hard pressed to call this a "lesser" film in his catalog, but I can see why it might end up being another dividing line, as The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was. I concede that, for the moment, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a (very entertaining) exercise in form over function. Is it possible that changes the next time I see it (and I will)? Quite possibly. The Cap'n is predisposed to follow Wes Anderson down the rabbit hole - less so his imitators - but it's hard to argue that this is not his most "Wes Anderson"-y film to date, for better or for worse."

 Technically speaking, framing your film for three different aspect ratios is an impressive achievement, but it still surprises me to see The Grand Budapest Hotel alongside the likes of Birdman or Boyhood in the Academy Award nominations. To reiterate: it's not a bad film, and I enjoyed watching it most of the time, but I would hardly put it at the top of any list of Anderson's films. The Grand Budapest Hotel is an exquisite trifle, which might be an oxymoron, but I have a hard time making the case that it is in any way exemplary of the best films of last year. While I do know quite a few people who love it, I also know several people who saw it, said "Oh, so this is just what he does now," and moved on. I don't suspect they - or I - will stop watching Wes Anderson films, or even looking forward to them, but my enthusiasm is slightly muted in a way it wasn't before I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel.

 In the realms of enthusiasm, you will perhaps find the Cap'n no more anticipatory of one with the words "a David Cronenberg film." Despite the fact that he's been mostly in "adaptation" mode since eXistenZ, I haven't seen one from A History of Violence to Cosmopolis that wasn't worth sitting with, digesting, and having conversations about. Even when I didn't love one - as was the case with A Dangerous Method - it sparked conversation and made me want to write about the film. I'm in the minority who really enjoyed Cosmopolis, and have had a number of great discussions about its relative merits with people who truly hated it. So it must be telling that I spent most of 2014 sitting silently on Maps to the Stars. As far as I can tell, the screenplay by novelist Bruce Wagner isn't based on anything, but it has a certain "lived in" approach because of its subject matter.

 Many fans of Cronenberg have lamented his shift away from "body horror" in the last decade, although I'm not sure it's entirely accurate. Yes, we're long past the days of the New Flesh, but I think Cronenberg has moved from exaggerated, external forms of "body horror" and internalized it. One doesn't make a film about Freud and Jung without at least spending some time on the way the mind affects the body. That said, people miss the "gonzo" days of Cronenberg films, and Maps to the Stars isn't going to change that much. That said, there is a fair degree of body scarring, immolation, drowning imagery, and implied incest in his ode to Tinseltown. There's also something I can't recall ever having seen before in a Cronenberg film: ghosts. Maps to the Stars is weird, and that's what I've been telling friends since I watched it. Sometimes because there's not much else to it. It was described to me as "David Cronenberg's Arrested Development," which is probably not inaccurate, but don't go in expecting comedy.

 Cosmopolis alumni Robert Pattinson and Sarah Gadon appear in Maps to the Stars, albeit in smaller roles, one as a driver for Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) and the other as the apparition of actress Clarice Taggart, who haunts her daughter Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore). Havana is lobbying for the role of Clarice Taggart in a biopic, even though in Hollywood she's seen mostly as washed up. Covered head to toe, Agatha's presence in Hollywood is less clear - she arrives from Florida and explains to Jerome Fontana (Pattinson) that she struck up a friendship with a celebrity over Twitter (it's the only "playing themselves" cameo, and I wouldn't dare spoil it) and is here to work. Jerome has a screenplay - who doesn't? - and also works small parts on TV shows. Agatha likes him, but he's a bit superficial. Meanwhile, and seemingly unrelated, we have the Weiss family: New Age Guru to the stars Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), manager mother Christina Weiss (Olivia Williams), and child star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird). Stafford hawks his inspirational books on TV and is also a Yoga instructor / Masseuse to Havana, while Christina tries to negotiate her son's latest sequel while assuring producers his drinking problem is long over with.

 How the three storylines converge becomes apparent fairly early on, especially once the aforementioned celebrity cameo hands off Agatha to Havana as a personal assistant and Stafford and Christina find out about her. Meanwhile, there are all sorts of moments of drug use and self doubt and threesomes with directors, interrupted by ghosts. Havana has her mother instilling doubt into her every move, and Benjie is inexplicably haunted by Cammy (Kiara Glasco), a girl he visited in the hospital for publicity. There are reasons for their hauntings, mostly tied to Cronenberg's dueling fire / water visual metaphors, although it's less important to how the film is than the very real threat that Agatha poses to the Weiss family. It takes most of Maps to the Stars to get around to why she's really in town, and her connection to Benjie and the vacant lot she frequents when not at work.

 By the end, plenty of cyclical imagery and thematic elements have come and gone, with a few accidental murders, and while I suppose it was worth watching, I'm not sure about much else. One must tread cautiously when using the word "weird," let alone "weird for David Cronenberg," but Maps to the Stars is definitely not like his usual output. I find myself on the fence about whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, because while not as aggressively stylized as Cosmopolis, Maps to the Stars does share its "go ahead, try to empathize with any of these people" ethos. Is the self-immolation of a major character supposed to be tragic or funny? The dodgy CGI doesn't help if it's meant to be the former. There's some semblance of comedy in Maps to the Stars, although it's rarely funny. Actually, tonally the film is all over the place, and not to its benefit. Perhaps I've avoided discussing Maps to the Stars because I'm not sure what to say about it. As a result, it's hard to recommend it to anyone other than die-hard Cronenberg fans, and what they make of it is anybody's guess.

 Coming up next, the Cap'n will reflect back on what turned out to be a very impressive year for science fiction, and then we'll move into the final stretch before the Best of 2014. Stay tuned...

Friday, January 23, 2015

Some Other Movies I Saw in 2014 (Part Three: It's Getting Better All the Time)

 Let's kick off this chapter of the "Great Recap of Twenty Fourteen" with the movie that went from being in every headline in December to being the punching bag of January: The Interview.

 I really do find it quite amusing that the negative reaction to the film seems to be based - at least, critically - on the fact that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's comedy about assassinating Kim Jong Un starring Rogen and Franco isn't a biting enough satire of the media or of politics. This, coupled with the somewhat ridiculous overreaction of everybody feeling like they need to see The Interview (because, y'know, 'Murica) emboldened the normally lazy Golden Raspberry Awards to stop just penciling in "Adam Sandler Movie" as their "Worst Picture" and to put The Interview right out front as their leading Razzie nominee. Why? Because people are still paying attention to The Interview, for reasons that are extremely fortuitous to Sony.

 Perhaps you buy into the conspiracy theory that Sony was worried nobody would see The Interview so they put together an outlandish and complicated "hacking" scheme to ensure everyone would want to see the newest Seth Rogen / Evan Goldberg movie. As conspiracy theories go, it's got some legs, because people I know for a fact would never go see Pineapple Express have said to me that they feel they have to see The Interview ('Murica!). The disappointment, I'm guessing, is all in the expectation, because The Interview is exactly what I expected when I saw the trailer and thought "eh, I'll probably rent it." At the time I was laboring under the illusion that Inherent Vice would make good on its promise to be in theatres "just in time for Christmas," so I didn't really give credence to making The Interview our annual Christmas outing.

 To be fair, we still didn't go see The Interview - we saw a movie you'll see much higher on this list - I watched it on demand on Christmas Eve. And, yup, it's a dumb comedy where Franco plays a borderline incompetent guy and Rogen is the straight man. It's a little too long, the beginning meanders way too much, but when it gets funny (shortly after Lizzy Caplan enters the film), things maintain a consistent clip of laughs until the rather violent ending. Trade out Lizzy Caplan's name with Danny McBride, and I think I just distilled Pineapple Express into a review. Or This is the End, which landed in a comparable position in last year's recap. I like them both, but they're not my favorite comedies, and like many entries in the post-Apatow Era, they all share certain pros and cons. There's an over-reliance on improvisation (find one of them that doesn't have a "Line-o-Rama" in the supplements), a ham fisted "we're friends but now we aren't but we will be again by the end" character arc, and a reliance on pop culture references over jokes. In Rogen and Goldberg's case, at least post-2009, this also includes the "wow, that escalated fast" move to extreme violence in the third act.

 This is not to say that The Interview doesn't work, because when it's firing on all cylinders, it's very funny. Don't think that I didn't laugh; I did, but I chuckled a lot, too. It was nice to see  seemingly pointless yet continued allusions to The Lord of the Rings pay off in a way I didn't even think about until Dave Skylark (Franco) points it out to Aaron Rapaport (Rogen) near the end. It almost offset the overdone "honeydick" jokes or Skylark's obsession about whether Kim Jong Un (Randall Park) has a butthole or not. Make no mistake about it, if there is bodily humor to be mined, Rogen and Goldberg found a way to write it into the script, including an appropriately timed shart during the titular event.  But this is not some scathing takedown of media obsession or a penetrating look into the myth of North Korea's leader. This is a dumb comedy that uses easy jokes with relatively good results, and says as much about the media as Rogen and Goldberg had to say about underage drinking, marijuana laws, or the Book of Revelations. And that's it. Not the worst movie of the year, and not anywhere near the best. If you liked Superbad, Pineapple Express, or This is the End, odds are you'll enjoy The Interview. If you didn't, I don't care how patriotic you're feeling, this is not going to be two hours well spent. In this case, track record says everything.

 While we're on the subject of "track record," you'll notice that Magic in the Moonlight follows Blue Jasmine in the "what's Woody Allen releasing this year?" filmography. If you've been keeping up with Allen, at least with respect to the movies he's making, you'll know that since his "return" to making movies people want to watch (let's start with Match Point), there's been a pattern of "really good to great one" followed by "pretty good one that you'll forget he made until someone brings it up." Like Scoop. Remember Scoop? It came out after Match Point, and is an amusing movie about Scarlett Johannson talking to a ghost and solving a murder mystery. It's okay if you only remembered Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the much better movie he made with Johannson and Penelope Cruz two year's later (I'm not sure anyone other than the Cap'n remembers Cassandra's Dream). After Vicky Cristina Barcelona came Whatever Works followed, the not very well regarded "Larry David as Woody Allen surrogate," which I liked a lot more than You Will Meet a Tall, Dark StrangerMidnight in Paris was followed by To Rome With Love, and so on. Ergo, Magic in the Moonlight is a perfectly pleasant, but at best is a trifle. That's not to say that a trifle can't be enjoyable on its own merits, particularly one whose stars are Colin Firth and Emma Stone.

 Magic in the Moonlight is another of Allen's "European" films, this one centered squarely in his favorite period: the roaring twenties. Wei Ling Soo (Firth), is probably not as well known by his given name, Stanley, but his "mystical magic of the Orient" still packs theaters. Stanley also fancies himself a renowned debunker of fraudulent "spiritualists," and when his old friend and fellow magician Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) pays a visit, it quickly turns to Sophie Baker (Stone). Sophie and her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) have been making the rounds in France, providing advice from beyond the grave via the younger Baker's "gifts," and a family Howard is close to appear to be her next "mark"s, so to speak. Stanley can't resist the opportunity to expose her, but the unassuming Sophie may be more than he bargained for. In fact, she might even be the real deal...

 If there's something holding Magic in the Moonlight back from being more than just charming, it's that Stanley is, even to the end, an irredeemable egomaniac. When he's right, he lords it over other characters, but when he's wrong, he still finds a way to make it about magnanimous he is to admit he was mistaken (see the press conference he holds when he finally accepts Sophie as legitimate). It's a romantic comedy where you'd much rather Sophie end up with the "Baxter": the ukulele serenading wet blanket Brice Catlidge (Hamish Linklater), only because Stanley is so full of himself that he firmly believes he's doing Sophie a favor by suggesting they marry. It isn't, I suppose, that he's wrong, but he's so insufferable throughout the film that I scarcely felt like he deserved Sophie, a free spirit who loosens him up, only to make him less appealing. That said, much of the film looks marvelous, as Allen soaks in the French countryside and revels in the hot jazz, clothes, and cars of the era. Magic in the Moonlight is a fun movie to watch, but not one you'll be thinking about for long after. Then again, there's something to be said for well made fluff, even if the taste doesn't linger.

 On the more biting end of that spectrum, I would suppose, is Frank. I've already reviewed it, and depending on your taste for deliberately avant garde music or comedies with a serious dark side (and not always in a way that's funny), it may or may not be to your tastes. Michael Fassbender is something to see, however, acting for most of the movie from behind an oversized paper mache mask. Here's a snippet of the original review:

 "Were I you, I wouldn't go into Frank expecting a comedy, because while it is often funny (or at the very least, amusing), there's a dark undercurrent to the film. The original keyboardist isn't the only person involved in the band that gives up on living, and the contentious atmosphere never softens. While it's frequently an interesting movie to watch, Frank keeps you at a distance until the very end. The last scene brings about some sense of setting things right, but on its own terms, and in the meantime it's hard to find a character to sympathize with. Jon (Domhall Gleeson) transitions from affable to duplicitous not long after they arrive at the cabin, and the other chief option, Frank, is a mystery until late into the film."

 If you don't mind, I'd like to take a moment to address some films which would generally fall under the "kids' movies" umbrella. As you may or may not know, I am still a fan of much of it, but don't watch nearly as many as I used to. In fact, if we don't include the two-and-a-half I'm about to mention, you could argue that the only other children's movie I saw in 2014 was A Talking Cat?!?!?, and it's better that we not discuss that. Still, I did manage to catch Disney's first animated Marvel movie, one of their live action musicals, and a non-Disney movie that should, for all intents and purposes, just be a giant commercial. Surprisingly, then, it's The Lego Movie that I was the most pleased with.

I give much of the credit for this to directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (22 Jump Street), who managed to take a film that should have just been shameless advertising (look at the title, for crying out loud) and make it a fun and often very funny movie that sneaks in some pathos at the end. It even tugged at the heartstrings of this crusty old Cap'n. A first rate voice cast doesn't hurt, and The Lego Movie boast Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Charlie Day, Will Ferrell, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Will Arnett, Alison Brie, and tons of cameos from the likes of Will Forte, Nick Offerman, Jake Johnson, Cobie Smulders, Keegan-Michael Key, Jorma Taccone, Billy Dee Williams, and Jump Street alums Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum and Dave Franco. The writing is snappy, the plot is breathlessly paced, and the CGI convincingly replicates Lego. And I didn't even really want to buy Lego sets afterwards, which is good because I know how expensive they are.

 Oh, and of course there's the song. You know the one. About how conformity is awesome and everything is cool when you do what you're told. What? Am I changing the words or something? That seems like the gist of it. Anyway, you have it in your heads again, unless you haven't seen The Lego Movie, in which case you didn't know that song your friends' kids were singing was from The Lego Movie. So here, watch this.

 Like another Marvel film that came out this year, I hadn't really heard of the source material for Big Hero 6, but I feel I can't be blamed for that, as it comes from the same collective who brought the Disney Channel Ben 10 Alien something or other. No actual offense intended, but other than briefly encountering Ben 10 merchandise at a toy store, I have no connection whatsoever to it. This has little bearing on Big Hero 6, which is still a pretty entertaining movie despite following the "superhero / team origin story" to the letter.

 To wit: Hiro (Ryan Potter) is a young slacker with a gift for making robots, but his lack of direction worries his brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney). Tadashi takes his brother to the institute he studies at, one for young inventors like Go Go (Jamie Chung), Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.), Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), and Fred (T.J. Miller), under the tutelage of Professor Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell). Tadashi is working on Baymax (Scott Adsit), an inflatable robot designed to provide medical care, and Hiro decides to apply himself. Then, after an encounter with businessman Allister Krei (Alan Tudyk) at a convention ends in tragedy, Hiro loses his brother and finds solace in Baymax. They work together as a team to solve a murder mystery, there's betrayal, hurt feelings, and the surprise identity of the villain.

 And yet, despite the fact that you can guess exactly where Big Hero 6 is going every single step of the way, the film manages to be frequently amusing and engaging. Perhaps it's the jumbled near-future world of San Fransokyo, or the design of the characters as hero. Or maybe it's just Baymax, who is easily worth watching the film for. I can't attest to its originality or any novelty in storytelling, but sometimes when you do something familiar well enough, it can carry you through. Considering that one of my favorite movies of this year falls directly into that category, I can't therefore hold it against Big Hero 6, but it's middle-tier Disney / Pixar, and certainly not something I would choose over the likes of Wreck-It Ralph in the future.

 Serviceable is perhaps an unfair way to characterize Disney's Into the Woods, because it damns a perfectly fun Steven Sondheim adaptation with faint praise. I'm trying very hard to separate the film from the stage production, because while I understand the need for many of the changes, it doesn't make me miss the narrator's presence in the second "act" any less. What Rob Marshall (Chicago) chose to do instead makes sense in its own way, and creates a nice cyclical tone to the fairy tale presentation, but the film is decidedly less "meta" than its source. Still, everyone in the cast gives it their all (with the exception, perhaps, of a totally superfluous Johnny Depp cameo as the Big Bad Wolf, which amounts to "Johnny Depp with prosthetic whiskers") and it's always visually engaging. Meryl Streep might not be by Witch (that's staying with Bernadette Peters), but I can't act as though she doesn't do a fine job. James Corden and Emily Blunt make a fine pair as the Baker and his Wife, and Anna Kendrick is fitfully fretful as Cinderella being chased by her Prince Charming (Chris Pine, who I didn't realize could sing). MacKenzie Mauzy and Billy Magnussen make less of an impression as Rapunzel and her Prince, but it's more than compensated for by Daniel Huttlestone and Lilla Crawford as Jack and Little Red Riding Hood. It may not be my Into the Woods, but it's certainly a good starting point for younger audiences, even if Disney tried very hard to pretend it wasn't a musical in the advertising.

 Rather than repost my earlier Godzilla review (with bonus Godzilla on Monster Island coverage), I'll link to the original and include the following excerpt, in case you're fatigued from Into the Woods paragraph-ness:

 "But in all seriousness Godzilla 2014 is pretty good stuff. I give it some grief but generally speaking the monster fights at the end are worth the price of admission. I liked that Edwards decided to show most of the MUTO mayhem from the perspective of the people on the ground, where they lose sight of monsters in the dust or are falling from a carrier plane and can see part of Godzilla as the descend through the clouds. It's a good visual hook for the film and does convey the sense of carnage better than the obvious miniatures in Godzilla on Monster Island. Although those miniatures are pretty funny looking and are actually being smashed (or being burned with a flamethrower, in the case of tanks) I did chuckle every time Strathairn said "Godzilla," which wasn't nearly as often as I'd hoped.. In most ways, the newer film has the better budget and conveys the power and size of Godzilla better, but it also doesn't have Space Cockroaches."

Likewise, I'll provide you with the original review of Cheap Thrills, and tantalize you with this portion, wherein the Cap'n makes an unusual comparison to, uh, A Serbian Film:

"I'm intentionally not telling you how crazy things get because not knowing what's going to happen or how far down the rabbit hole [the characters] are willing to go is part of the fun of watching Cheap Thrills. Like Ti West's The House of the Devil, there is a sense early on that something bad is always about to happen, but [...] (r)ather than simply shoving our faces in the ugly side of humanity for 87 minutes, E.L. Katz makes sure there's also comedy peppered throughout [...] (there's a sequence of events late in the film involving a meat cleaver and an iron that shouldn't be as funny as it is, but a well disguised reveal makes the laughter more hearty).

 Black comedies are notoriously tricky to get right, but Katz threads the needle very well with Cheap Thrills, and does it without ever making what happens seem outside of the realm of possibility. Other than one challenge I can't imagine anyone have time to make up on the fly, everything in the film matches the verisimilitude with which it's presented, which is all the more impressive. Cheap Thrills is a great movie to watch with friends who don't mind a little twisted in their cinema, and you won't have to clean vomit up off of the floor (maybe). I don't think you can say the same about A Serbian Film, so I think I know which one I'd pick."

 And on that note, we'll make an uncomfortable left turn to discuss the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, an actor I've long admired who left sooner than I'd like. If there's any upside (and really, there isn't), there were at least a few finished films in the can we could enjoy, and I saw two of the three this year: A Most Wanted Man and God's Pocket. (I'm going to have to watch the first two Hunger Games movies if I want to see his final films*).

 I knew about the former but not the latter, in large part because A Most Wanted Man comes from Anton Corbijn (Control, The American) and is based on a John le Carré (The Spy Who Came in from the ColdThe Constant Gardener) novel, which would imply a stripped down narrative presented in a low key fashion. Which, in fact, it is, sometimes to its detriment. The film follows Günther Bachmann (Hoffman), a spy operating a small operation in Post 9/11 Hamburg, as he picks up on and tries to intercept Chechen refugee Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) who sneaks into Germany. The US and German authorities are interested in this undocumented Muslim, but Gunther's interest is piqued when it becomes clear he's not radicalized, but is looking to claim the fortune of his father, a Russian general.

Gunther allows Issa to contact immigration lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), and through her, the bank where his inheritance is being kept. The manager, Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), is resistant, but Günther convinces both of them that they can use Issa's money to definitively prove that Islamic philanthropist Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi) is funneling cash into terrorist cells. It's an uncomfortable bargain, but Tommy agrees, Annabel has no choice, and Issa is none the wiser. The only person who concerns Günther more than the German authorities is Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), a representative from the CIA who is more than aware of his previous failure, the one that landed him in Hamburg, constantly begging for more time from the locals.

 After it becomes clear in A Most Wanted Man what Issa is really after, much of the tension tied up with the "post 9/11" setting drains away, and Corbijn's film becomes strictly a character study of a man who has been down on his luck too many times. It barely sustains itself, narratively, and like many Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the ending is decidedly anti-climactic. This is not to say it isn't satisfying or appropriate, or that it shouldn't be inevitable for Günther, but it does rob the film of a certain quality. I enjoyed watching A Most Wanted Man, but not quite as much as I'd hoped. Hoffman is fantastic: sullen, slouched over like a man who knows failure all too well, for whom even sitting up is laborious. Once you work out his accent, it's a real wonder to watch Hoffman work. Wright, Dafoe, and McAdams are also very good in not particularly showy roles. I wouldn't hesitate recommending A Most Wanted Man, but don't be surprised if you feel a bit like Günther when it's all over.

 God's Pocket doesn't stray much further from the concept of "loser noir," if we're talking strictly from a protagonist's point of view. The passion project of John Slattery (Mad Men), who adapted Peter Dexter's novel (with Alex Metcalf) and directed, it's tonally akin to a film like The Drop - which I'll be reviewing in a future part of this series. Hoffman again plays a man accustomed to being browbeaten, not merely for his lot in life, but because of where he's from. Or, to be more specific, where he's not from.

 Mickey Scarpato (Hoffman) lives in the small community of God's Pocket, Pennsylvania, but he's not from there. That's a problem, because the working class of God's Pocket only give any credence to people who grew up there, so while Mickey is married to local gal Jeanie (Christina Hendricks) and delivers meat (that might be stolen) to restaurants around town, he's not of them. He's just there, and if you really ask anybody, Mickey has his father-in-law to thank for the business in the first place. His stepson, Leon (Caleb Landy Jones), is a real piece of work, and when he mouths off one time too many at work, he ends up on the wrong side of the pipe. The workers tell the cops it was an accident, and Jeanie goes catatonic, convinced of foul play and delusional about her son.

 Money for the funeral is going to be tricky, and Mickey knows that Smilin' Jack Moran (Eddie Marsan) either gets his full payment, or else. (The "or else," by the way, turns out to be a cruel and darkly humorous turn late in the film.) His only real friend in town is Arthur Capezio (John Turturro), a small link in the mob chain that Mickey sometimes finds himself involved in. But things do not go so well for Mickey and Arthur, and the death of Leon draws the attention of local newspaper columnist and "man of the people" Richard Shellburn (Richard Jenkins). A barely functioning alcoholic, Shellburn can't resist Jeanie, and the shell-shocked housewife is easy prey for a guy two steps removed from greatness.

 The story comes colliding together over the course of a few days, between Leon's death and his funeral, and carries over just a bit to include Shellburn saying just a little too much about the people of God's Pocket. And then, for good measure, there's an amusing epilogue which may or may not be a happy ending. I had heard that people felt "cheated" that God's Pocket wasn't a dark comedy, which perhaps it was billed as, but instead a character study that grows increasingly desperate. Yes, there are some (mostly) morbidly funny parts, but Coen-esque is not how I'd characterize Slattery's film. That said, if you come in with expectations properly in check, you're really going to enjoy God's Pocket, even if you're just an outsider, like Mickey.

 Finally, I'd like to mention that while I get why so many people are raving about The Skeleton Twins, it seems to the Cap'n like the film gets along largely on the charisma of its leads: Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader. Like St. Vincent, it's a story that's been told so many times that you can see the beats coming a mile away. Take two estranged siblings with a hinted at difficult childhood, reconnect after one or both attempt suicide, and drop the outsider sibling back hometown. There's a rekindling of a torrid love affair from long ago, a marriage that isn't as solid as it would appear, and maybe some other infidelity to boot. Hell, there's even a scene where the titular siblings are mad at each other, but overcome it and rekindle their bond by lip synching to Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now," and you know how I feel about Starship.

 And yet, it's hard to deny that despite some rote, dare I say eye-rolling moments that seem to come along with every film like this from, I don't know, Garden State onward, The Skeleton Twins is worth seeing for Hader and Wiig. It isn't just that they're playing against type - this film just barely qualifies as "comedy" - but that their real life friendship from years together on SNL bleeds onto the screen, making it very believable to buy them as brother and sister. There's a moment in the dentist's office where Maggie (Wiig) works that feels like improvisation. Maggie and Milo (Hader) collapse into uncontrollable laughter, and it's a genuine moment that helps The Skeleton Twins overcome its more predictable tendencies.

 There are a few other good characters in the film: Luke Wilson plays Lance, Maggie's "how did they end up together husband," who despite his role in the story manages to come out as a decent, honest guy who tries to include Milo into their dynamic. Ty Burrell has the second most substantive role as Rich, Milo's former English teacher who has issues of his own, and whose relationship with his former student is a serious sticking point for Maggie. Of course, she has her own issues with monogamy, and the current object of her obsessive infidelity is Billy (Boyd Holbrook), her scuba instructor. Joanna Gleeson has a cameo as Maggie and Milo's mother, and it gives some hint into their dysfunctional family history. But by and large, this is Wiig and Hader's show, and they're certainly worth the price of admission. Bear in mind that The Skeleton Twins is often a very dark movie, one that addresses suicide frequently throughout the film, so don't expect to chuckle your way through the film. We're not talking Heathers, here. Actually, IMDB lists Frank as a "similar" film, and now that I think about it, that's appropriate.

 Next time we'll take a look at some of the bigger releases of 2014 that I was really looking forward to seeing, and maybe didn't end up being so thrilled with. They're ones I get asked about a lot, so we'll take a look and figure out the whys and hows soon...

 * This is not to say I won't or wouldn't have otherwise, just that I haven't seen them yet. People I know and whose opinions I generally trust have vouched for them. I just haven't gotten around to it, yet.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Some Other Movies I Saw in 2014 (Part Two: A Few Better Ones, and Maybe Some Just Okay Ones)

 Picking up where we left off (working our way from the bottom to the top), I quickly realized that there was a movie omitted from Part One that probably should be there, because in no way does it represent a marked improvement from the last round. Hell, it doesn't even really represent a marked improvement from the last movie in the series it closes out, but when you start writing these recaps without a list, these things happen. So let's start with The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

 Or maybe it should be The Battle of the Filler, because it's rare to see a film that is so (comparatively) short seem to totally inconsequential. I don't even really know where to start with the "bad ideas" that went into making two films into three, but it seems like every single one of them is on display in Battle of the Five Armies. Prologue that should have been the ending of The Desolation of Smaug? Check. Inordinate amount of screen time devoted to a character that doesn't exist in The Hobbit? Check. And I'm not even talking about Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly); oh no, Alfrid (Ryan Gage), the weasely assistant to the (quickly killed) Mayor of Laketown (Stephen Fry) has his own subplot that runs throughout the film, one that ends with no apparent rhyme or reason. While I don't like that Tauriel very quickly devolved into the "damsel in distress" during the battle, leaving Legolas to do all of the cool (read: wildly improbable) stuff, at least there's a character arc between her character and Thranduil (Lee Pace), and kind of with Fili (Aidan Turner). Alfrid serves no purpose whatsoever, and why Peter Jackson felt the need to keep him in the film but cut Thorin (Richard Armitage)'s funeral, I may never understand.

 Speaking of Thorin, any trace of development in The Desolation of Smaug goes out the window, replaced by "crazy, jealous Thorin, who covets the Arkenstone" and who suffers from (I am not making this up) "dragon madness." Like Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), and Sauron (Cumberbatch again), the carefully developed Thorin from the second film is quickly done away with. Worse still are the glimpses of who he was in scenes with Bilbo (Martin Freeman) - a tiny smile, the crack of his cartoonish façade - which punctuate chewing scenery aimlessly. After a dream sequence that's going to make the WETA digital team feel much better about King Kong's dinosaur stampede, he arbitrarily changes back to normal Thorin, which is evident not from what he says but because he changes clothes. But the dwarves need to fight alongside Dain (the voice of Billy Connolly, and the second thing WETA might not want to put on their showcase reel), so out they go, killing orcs where hundreds (thousands?) of dwarves and elves could not before.

 The titular battle rages on for most of the film, and it's hard to care about it, because the tactical maneuvering seems largely inconsequential. Cramming in a second orc army from the north to give Legolas a bat to ride on (again, not making this up) is only interesting in that it gives the film its stupidest line, possibly of the entire Middle Earth sextet: "These bats were bred for one purpose: war!" The only thing that might be as silly is the resolution to the Gandalf / Sauron storyline from Desolation, which involves Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee's stunt double fighting the Nazgul in ghost form. It's about as logical as it sounds, and looks even sillier. Then Sauron shows up, Galadriel turns green, and blows him into the east. Gandalf takes off with Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) and by the time they're safely away, he goes from death's door to bloody nose and ready to rally the troops outside of Erebor.

 The other dwarves? Well, if your name isn't Thorin, Fili, Kili, or - to a much lesser degree - Balin or Dwalin, you pretty much don't have anything to do in the movie. At all. Also, we're going to put you in the credits after a bunch of characters from the last movie (including Alfrid), because even Peter Jackson can't be bothered to remember who's who. I suppose it's out of courtesy to James Nesbitt (Bofur) that his daughters don't get their own Alan Lee / John Howe credit sketch, let alone one that shows up before his.

 Have you noticed what I'm not talking about much, or rather, who I'm not talking about? That's right, the title character, and that's because Bilbo is sidelined in this film for most of the movie. Not because he's knocked out (like he is in the book), but because Jackson is too interested in cramming as much of every fight as he can onscreen, whether we needed to see it or not, in order to create bridges to The Lord of the Rings. Bilbo finally works into this plan during the epilogue, which at least neatly ties into the prologue from An Unexpected Journey. The less said about the quickly and haphazardly introduced Legolas, Thranduil, and Strider mid-quel bait, the better. As technically proficient as this film is, I feel like Jackson really failed to stick the landing, and that The Hobbit could have been two films with a hefty amount of extra material for extended editions, rather than three movies straining to maintain the narrative, and ultimately collapsing in the last stretch.

 On to more pleasant things, no? For example, St. Vincent, while totally predictable, coasts along largely on the presence of one Bill Murray at the namesake from the title. He's totally invested in playing a generally unlikeable curmudgeon with a thick New Yawk accent. He starts the film by telling a joke and closes it singing along to Bob Dylan's "Shelter from the Storm," which actually in no way SPOILs the film for you. That is, if you couldn't already figure out how the story plays out, based on the following synopsis:

 Vincent (Murray), is a loner, deep in debt to Zucko (Terrence Howard) for unpaid horse racing bets, as well as being a little behind paying Daka (Naomi Watts), a "dancer" that he sees once a week. He has other obligations which are going unmet, but Vincent's okay with drinking away his problems. A drunken night that leads him to crash his car into his fence and knock over his mailbox is only compounded the following morning when a moving crew for Maggie (Melissa McCarthy), and her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) knock a branch loose from his tree, and landing it directly onto his car. Maggie is trying to start her life over during a nasty divorce, and her new job doesn't give her much time to watch Oliver, so Vincent reluctantly agrees to babysit - but not for free. He slowly takes a liking to the kid, but remains ever the grouch...

 Even with two wrinkles to the formula (why Vincent is nearly out of money and a mid-movie development I actually didn't see coming), you could be forgiven for thinking this is some variation on Bad Santa, Gran Torino, or even this year's Bad Words. Lieberher is actually less precocious than the young co-star from Jason Bateman's film (in particular, I challenge you not to laugh at his reaction: "that's a horrible comparison"), even if the ping-ponging of Oliver's story and Vincent's story aren't always equally interesting. McCarthy is given a harried, mostly non-comedic role, which is interesting in that you see her breaking out of the "type" she's associated with. Likewise Chris O'Dowd, who plays a mostly thankless role of "teacher who facilitates how the movie gets its title." He has a few moments of fun as a Catholic school teacher who doesn't know what to do with the "I think I'm Jewish" Oliver.

 The film is largely Murray's show, and I have no idea how first time writer / director Theodore Melfi talked the legendarily picky actor into taking the role. That said, I'm glad he did, because Murray keeps St. Vincent worth watching, despite the familiarity of plot devices, and when the movie does turn a bit, it gives him an opportunity to show a stubborn vulnerability. St. Vincent is the sort of film that I suspect your parents will like quite a bit (presuming that the people reading this aren't parents, in which case, you will probably really like St. Vincent. And thanks for reading).

 Speaking of movies your parents will like, and maybe chefs, too, there's Jon Favreau's Chef. I already reviewed it, so here's a link to an amiable little movie from the director of Iron Man and Cowboys & Aliens. I don't really have any qualms recommending it, and certainly no more or less than St. Vincent, which are ultimately harmless entertainment for the masses. For the record, there's nothing wrong with that, although the higher the list goes, I guess the more esoteric it gets. Well, other than the Marvel movies... (SPOILER for the end of the recaps).

 I didn't put up separate reviews for Life Itself, Stripped, or Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, because I couldn't think of anything to add to the existing commentary about them. I enjoyed all three, and if you're interested in the history and current struggle of the comic strip or showbiz manager extraordinaire Shep Gordon, or the final year of Roger Ebert's life, they come highly recommended. I would suppose my favorite of the three documentaries was Life Itself, which doesn't shy away from the less pleasant side of Roger Ebert, both during his career as a critic for the Chicago Sun Times but also as he struggles to live without a voice (or jaw, for that matter). It's also a great look into the heart of Chas Ebert, who I knew very little about, and about Roger as a family man.

 But if you're looking for insight into Siskel and Ebert at the Movies, you'll get that, or about his reputation as an egomaniacal young columnist, there's that too. It's a surprisingly in depth story of his life, one that coincided with his untimely death, which happens while director Steve James is working on interviewing Ebert about his fascination with film. Regardless how you feel about Ebert or his role in cultivating the concept of "film criticism" at the end of the 20th Century, it's a worthwhile investment to see Life Itself. Supermensch is also worth seeing in that I had no idea who Shep Gordon was, or how very important he was to the lives and careers of some of the (very) famous people interviewed in the film. Also, it's the first movie directed by Mike Myers that I've enjoyed in a long time, and that's worth noting in and of itself. Stripped included new illustrations by Bill Waterson (Calvin and Hobbes) and also has a rare audio interview with the reclusive cartoonist, along with the chance to put faces to names of people I've long known only for their daily strips. It's a bit more of a niche topic for documentary viewers, but no less worth your time.

It might come as a surprise to you that I'm putting Maleficent further up the ladder than The Hobbit, but while the film is not as especially devoted to revisionism as you would think, it is an interesting counterpoint to Sleeping Beauty, carried by Angelina Jolie. It has one of the most direct "rape" metaphors I can think of in a Disney film: Maleficent is the benevolent young ruler of the Fairy Kingdom, and the king wants to conquer it, so she fights back. Stefan (Sharlto Copley), a peasant turned servant of the monarchy, has known Maleficent since she was a child, and volunteers to kill her in order to ensure he ascends to the throne. But since he still kind of has feelings for her, Stefan drugs Maleficent, and while she's asleep he cuts off her wings to take back to the castle as proof of her death. That, in and of itself, is pretty rough stuff, but the "morning after" scene when Maleficent wakes up and discovers this violation is pretty potent. And as Disney movies go, it's tough to read that many other ways.

 Do I wish that Maleficent as a movie handled things a little more organically, rather than switching Sleeping Beauty around in ways that are more, let's say "convenient"? Yes. It does cast a different light on why Maleficent crashes the celebration of Aurora's birth, but the way that the film reaches around itself to connect the two is at times ineffective. The short version is that, after Aurora (eventually Elle Fanning) is shuttled off with Flittle (Lesley Manville), Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), and Thistletwit (Juno Temple), Maleficent becomes a sort of guardian angel for the girl. The fairies are basically incompetent, and Maleficent, while angry and bitter at Stefan, becomes a surrogate mother for the girl. I mean, how else are we going to get to "true love's kiss"?

 And look, yes it's kind of sweet and certainly makes more sense (SPOILER FOR THE END OF MALEFICENT) that Maleficent wakes up Aurora from the curse and not Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites). I mean, he's only met her once, so take that, Disney Princess narratives! I'm actually more okay with the fact that Maleficent doesn't become the dragon when she comes to the castle; her raven, Diaval (Sam Riley) can change into other creatures at her whim. That he's usually human and generally speaking the conscience for Maleficent in the middle of the movie should be more trite, but for some reason it worked for me. The somewhat cartoonish / unfinished looking special effects, maybe not so much, but I'm inclined to be kinder to Maleficent than I suppose most people were. It seems like a lot of folks rejected the film in principle, which I can understand, but it's hardly the worst case of revisionism I've seen. It's thoroughly mid-grade Disney live action fare - neither as clever as Enchanted nor as, uh, well, I lost myself there. Enchanted and Maleficent are the only ones I can think of right now, and there's probably another, not watchable one in there.

 Speaking of Disney and something you already know, if 2011's The Muppets was The Muppet Movie for a new generation, Muppets Most Wanted is The Great Muppet Caper, but maybe not as good. I'm not sure, which is why I'm going to link Muppets Most Wanted to a movie you're almost certainly never going to hear it compared to again, 22 Jump Street. Yes, that 22 Jump Street. Allow me to make my case...

 Okay, so my distinct impressions while watching Muppets Most Wanted and 22 Jump Street were that I thought both weren't as fresh, as well written, or as fun as the movies they followed. Both films are operating on a "meta" level where they frequently comment on the fact that they are sequels, and make fun of the tropes and pitfalls that sequels often fall into, all the while also regularly falling into said pitfalls. Muppets Most Wanted literally begins at the end of The Muppets, with convenient stand-ins for Jason Segel and Amy Adams (unless they were cool with just being in 30 seconds worth of being shot from behind), which then becomes a song about sequels. If it's also a tongue-in-cheek take on The Great Muppet Caper, that's less apparent, or it's just been a long time since I saw The Great Muppet Caper. The Muppets continue their adventure, taking the show on the road under the management of Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) - pronounced "bad-ghee" - through a European tour that just so happens to coincide with robberies of famous art museums by the newly released super-thief Constantine, who bears a striking resemblance to Kermit the Frog. In fact, all he has to do is remove his mole and put it on Kermit, and our hero ends up in a Siberian gulag run by Nadya (Tina Fey). Can he clear his name and salvage the prison's talent show? Will the Muppets end up taking the blame for Constantine's robberies, and what is he after, anyway?

 Meanwhile, on Jump Street, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are finding new ways to ruin undercover investigations with a higher budget. After a drug bust goes horribly awry, Deputy Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman) sends them back to Jump Street, but to the new, more expensive facility across the street, where Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) assigns them to college. The scenario looks exactly the same as their last assignment (new drug on campus, students dying, find the supplier), so Schmidt and Jenko think they've got it easy. Jenko joins the football team to follow a suspect, and Schmidt investigates the dead dealer's roommate (Jillian Bell) and friends, inadvertently hitting it off with Maya (Amber Stevens). Jenko discovers that he's a natural for the football team and bonds with low level dealer Zook (Wyatt Russell), eventually pledging to the jock fraternity. The partners drift apart, bicker, and assume this is exactly the same case as last time. But this is the sequel, and one of the many wrinkles that directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller and writers Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel and Rodney Rothman bake into the plot is that expectations are a mistake.

 This is, for example, a movie that identifies one of the suspects by his tattoo, which turns out to be his high school mascot. What is it? A Red Herring. Halfway through the film, Jump Street has to make budget cuts because it spent too much on the beginning, which, among other things, leads to a chase scene that we don't see most of (they break a lot of expensive things on campus, but we can't see it - get it?) Not all of it is so obvious, but in a lot of ways I think that the insistence on acknowledging 22 Jump Street is a sequel to a remake that nobody thought was going to be good wears out its welcome. The exception is during the end credits, which rattles through the next twenty or so Jump Street sequels, which take Schmidt and Jenko everywhere from cooking school to space, through cast changes and animated spinoffs, and at least one inappropriate children's game tied to fate of Rob Riggle's character at the end of the first film.

 Similarly, Muppets Most Wanted suffers from trying too hard to be like the last movie without adding anything to the equation. I'm struggling to remember any of the lyrics to any of the songs, but mostly it's just the concepts that come to mind: Constantine singing a vaguely disco song to Miss Piggy, Constantine and Ricky Gervais singing a song about being criminal masterminds. There's a big song and dance number at the gulag with Nadya that also includes a number of celebrity cameos as prisoners (including Jermaine Clement, Danny Trejo, Ray Liotta, and WWE Superstar Hornswoggle). The film has a sort-of "been there, done that" vibe that would exist even if it weren't conceptually similar to The Great Muppet Caper.

 Where both 22 Jump Street and Muppets Most Wanted work best is when the films strip away trying to stay ahead of the audience and just spend time with the characters. There's a twist in Jump Street that has very little to do with the investigation but that is, bar none, the funniest subplot in either film. I don't want to spoil it, but it increases Ice Cube's role as Dickson and Channing Tatum's reaction when Jenko finds out still makes me laugh. I'm not yet sold on Walter as the new addition to the Muppet team, but he does function as a voice of reason during some otherwise contrived character drama. Also, Muppets Most Wanted does integrate its cameos in more logically, and I chuckled at a throwaway line Frank Langella has as a priest during Constantine and Miss Piggy's wedding. Actually, the Sam the Eagle / EU Inspector Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell) subplot might be more entertaining than the main story, as the prison subplot with Kermit frequently is. Fey and Burrell are clearly having a lot of fun hamming it up, while Gervais seems more constrained by the limits of Badguy.

 Ultimately, while I sat through the films feeling like they weren't quite "as good," my lasting impressions of both after they were done, warts and all, is largely positive. I remember them being more enjoyable than I did while I was watching them, and as I've revisited both, generally speaking they're better than I had talked myself into thinking they were. Maybe it was expectations, or reacting badly to the conceit of both, but 22 Jump Street and Muppets Most Wanted are both amusing, at times hilarious films that don't take themselves too seriously. If you liked The Muppets or 21 Jump Street, I strongly suspect you'll have a good time with either sequel. 22 Jump Street has the edge over Muppets Most Wanted, if I'm being honest, only because when it's firing on all cylinders, there are points where it is funnier than the first film, which is no small task. It is a hard "R," so think carefully about sitting down with the kids for a double feature...

 Coming up next: more recaps! More recommendations! Movies I liked even more than these! And also, sometime soon, ones I had high expectations for that may or may not have met those lofty goals. We shall see...

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Some Other Movies I Saw in 2014 (Part One: The Less Worse, I Guess)

 It's fair to say that you might see the first few movies on this list and say "really, _____ made it on your 'Worst' list, but that didn't?" That's fair, I suppose; I could hide behind the veil of "subjectivity" and argue that this is my list, not yours, but the name of the blog isn't "General Cranpire's Den of Filmduggery" (note to Cranpire - that's a great title and you should use it, post-haste), so that should be obvious who the opinions belong to. Spoiler Alert: The Highest Bidder! But yes, okay, it's under a weird criteria that I determined where to stop the "worst of" without including one of last year's Liam Neeson movies (not the one where he fights vampires, I assume strictly from the title). That's how I roll, kids.

 So it makes sense to just get Non-Stop out of the way, and by that I mean mostly just link to my review from earlier this year. It was short enough to sandwich in with Bye Bye Birdie and Die, Monster Die!, so while I didn't hate it, clearly the movie didn't make much of an impression, review-wise: but, looking back at it, it's way longer than needs to be in a recap. This section of the review does seem to sum things up pretty well:

"It's almost ridiculous enough to recommend in and of itself, but the fact that the first half or so is also a decent game of "cat and mouse" works in its favor. In the "Liam Neeson, man of action" genre, it falls somewhere between Taken and Taken 2 - neither as enjoyable stupid as the former, nor as inane and redundant as the second [...] If you're inclined to enjoy movies like this, or saw the poster and said "I'll rent that," you're better off watching Non-Stop than, say, Drive Hard. If you're more predisposed towards, say, Neeson in The Grey, this is not going to be your cup of tea, but if you liked Flightplan... well, um, you liked Flightplan. Congratulations?"

 Fading Gigolo is a movie I'm guessing most of you didn't see, because it came out not long after last year's "is Woody Allen a pedophile or not" row that was everywhere between the Golden Globes and the Oscars but was pretty much gone by the time Magic in the Moonlight came out (a movie I'll be discussing in another part of the recap). At this point I'm going to stop talking about that, because I learned what a bad idea it is to mention the words "Woody Allen" or "Roman Polanski" and "controversy" on the internet. But yes, Woody Allen is in Fading Gigolo. He did not direct it - John Turturro did, along with writing and starring as the titular character, Fioravante. He's a florist, and his friend Murray (Allen) just lost his bookstore and needs money. Fioravante agrees to become an escort with Murray as his manager, in the service of eventually fulfilling the fantasy of Murray's dermatologist (Sharon Stone) and her friend (Sofia Vergara) to have a three-way.

 That's probably enough of a movie right there, but Turturro also includes an entirely separate plot about an Orthodox Jewish woman named Avigal (Vanessa Paradis) who Fioravante falls in love with, much to the chagrin of Dovi (Liev Schreiber), a community police officer. At some point, a council of Rabbis get involved, and it plays out like a bizarro version of being confronted by the mob, complete with Murray needing his lawyer (Bob Balaban) to save him from charges of being a pimp. It's a mostly harmless and sometimes amusing movie, even sweet sometimes, but not something that stuck with me for very long afterward. There's a better movie with John Turturro that will be showing up later in the recaps, so stay tuned for that.

 While we're on the subject of "better movies," I feel like there's a better movie somewhere in Alexandre Aja's Horns. Maybe it got lost in the editing, or maybe it's just inherent in the adaptation of Joe Hill's novel, but the finished product just don't quite work. It's as though Aja made a bitterly funny, black comedy, and also made a more generic, teen-friendly story of good and evil, and then smashed them together at the worst possible junctures. For the opening twenty minutes of Horns, you're probably going to think the movie is great: it has a wicked mean streak, Daniel Radcliffe is spot on as a guy everyone thinks is a murderer, that embraces the horns he grows and the power that comes with it. The way people react, first telling him their darkest fantasies and then acting on them when he says they should, is often hilarious.

 And then we hit the first of what turn out to be several, lengthy, flashbacks, giving us the backstory of Ig (Radcliffe) and Merrin (Juno Temple), leading up to her death - the one everyone assumes Ig is responsible for. Everyone, including his family - played by James Remar, Kathleen Quinlan, and Joe Anderson - is positive he did it and that he's lying, with the exception of his friend, Lee (Max Minghella). The "whodunit" is pretty easy to work out for yourself, even if Aja, Hill, and screenwriter Keith Bunin throw in a number of red herrings. I bet, without telling you anything else, you can guess who the real killer is. That's not the problem, so much as the flashbacks that put the mystery together. There's a massive tonal shift from black comedy to slightly tragic story of temptation and of good and evil (on a biblical scale), and for some reason, ne'er the twain shall meet in Horns.

 I can understand how it might have worked in Hill's novel - which I haven't yet read, but plan to - but as a film, the structure of the story is at times jarring and disruptive. Maybe there was no way to properly balance the two in a film, because Horns alternates between wicked and bland, between clever and obvious, without ever finding a good middle ground. There are some fantastic moments sprinkled throughout the film, and the cast is game for anything, playing both the best and worst versions of themselves as they encounter "evil" Ig, but Horns gets away from them. It's never quite the movie that it could be, so I'm left feeling ambivalent with the end result.

 Speaking of ambivalent, here's a good time to mention Bad Words, a movie people seemed to like a lot more than I did. While it's true that I liked Horrible Bosses 2 less than Bad Words, Jason Bateman is jerk instead of beleaguered everyman was not novelty enough to win me over what is essentially a one-note joke. If Bateman hadn't directed the film and the star was, oh, let's say Billy Bob Thornton, I somehow doubt anyone would even be talking about this, another film in the "bad" series of comedies. (For the record, that review is probably NSFW, just based on the first sentence).

  The best thing I can say about Automata is that it's a better version of I, Robot than I, Robot is. Actually, there are a lot of things to like about the film, which is not-so loosely based on I, Robot, but for some reason the film as a whole is underwhelming. There's little doubt in my mind that the film is trying to skirt by under the radar without people noticing the similarities to Alex Proyas', kinda loud, kinda dumb Big Willie Style / Shia LeBouf CGI action fest, including scaling back to rules of robotics from three to two (and changing one of them to suit the narrative - that robots can't self repair). It's a visual feast, for what I have to imagine was not a large budget (director and co-writer Gabe Ibáñez shot the film in Bulgaria).

 Stop me if you've heard this before: in the future, there's been a catastrophic global weather shift, which caused most of Earth to be irradiated. People live in cramped cities, with some living in zeppelin-like housing units. Robots help humanity, although they've so permeated the culture that they're considered just as useless as any of the other trash (shades of Elysium, if you remember that movie from, you know, last year). Cop Sean Wallace (Dylan McDermott) finds one repairing itself, and blows it away, causing the ROC Robotics Corporation to send insurance adjuster Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas) to investigate. What he finds could change the ROC corporation forever, as well as endanger his boss, Robert Bold (Robert Forster) and his wife Rachel (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) and their unborn son.

 And what does he discover (SPOILER???): that the robots are evolving, some past the point where they require humans at all. But they just want to be free, man. This doesn't sound familiar or anything, so I'm not going to belabor the comparisons to I, Robot any more. You get it. It's a more visually stylish, more sober approach to the story, after Jacq is rescued by the robots (one voiced by Melanie Griffith, who is also another character in the film, and one voice by Javier Bardem, although I didn't realize that until I saw his name in the credits). The ending is kind of predictable, but it feels like there's more at stake than in I, Robot, and that violent ends can and will come to any character.

 So why didn't I like it more? That is an excellent question, and I'm not convinced I can give you a good answer. Despite the fact that it does almost everything I, Robot does, but better, in part by giving is a Neill Blomkamp sheen or grime and decay over everything, there's something strangely inert about Automata. I can't quite put my finger on it, but instead of being invested, I found myself distanced, at times bored. It wasn't that you can see where the movie is going a mile away - that can be said of Horns, too, which is at least partly a fun ride - but that despite all of the effort into making the film look great, Ibáñez never quite makes the humans interesting. Banderas certainly gives it his all, but neither he nor the robots are all that gripping as characters. It's a very nice film to look at, and has a lot of things I would recommend about it, but I hesitate to recommend it over any of the better science fiction films released in 2014. And there were a lot, as you'll see when we get near the top of my list.

 There's a degree to which I enjoyed Batman: Assault on Arkham, one of the better DC Animated films that I've seen in a while. Despite the misleading title (this is, make no mistake, a Suicide Squad movie that Batman pops up in periodically), it's fast paced, sporadically funny, surprisingly violent, and pushes the PG-13 as far as they can with animated sideboob. Being that it's a Suicide Squad story - one tied to the Arkham games, and specifically Origins - the death toll is quite high, including many of the main characters. Unless you're a massive DC fan, you probably won't know many more characters beyond Harley Quinn and Deadshot. Maybe Captain Boomerang, and if you didn't, yes, that's a real thing. It has the odd distinction of having Kevin Conroy as Batman but not Mark Hamill as the Joker (although Troy Baker does a fine job) - also odd because Conroy isn't the voice of Batman in Arkham Origins, which ends with the setup for this movie. It's short, and I'm struggling to remember much more than a few offhand references to The Dark Knight and using the layout of the asylum you'll immediately recognize from the first game. So, uh, recommended?

 On that decisive note, we'll leave it here for now, but there's more. Next time, I'll move a little farther up the list, to mixed-positives that you might want to check out (with some caveats), although I have the feeling that one of them might be more contentious than anything included in this section. Until then...