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...

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