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 fa├žade - 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...

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