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...

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