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.

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