Friday, February 13, 2015

Some Other Movies I Saw in 2014 (Part Four: Almost There...)

 Well, gang, we're nearly done. After this roundup, the Cap'n is switching over to individual reviews for the "Best of 2014." I think you'll find that's easier to read, and, also because some of them are already written. Maybe they have been since last year, and you didn't see them the first time around. Either way, thanks for sticking around through these crowded recaps. Just looking back at it, 2014 may be the year I saw more contemporaneously released films than any time in the past. The challenge of writing up all of them - and trying not to include some of the spill-overs from January - has been daunting, to say the least. But we're very close now.

 Is there something disingenuous buried deep within Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard's "documentary" 20,000 Days on Earth? I don't know. There's certainly been talk about how much of the film, about Nick Cave celebrating the titular "event", is real and how much is staged. For my money, it doesn't really matter. At all. Certainly Cave didn't just happen to be driving around while collaborators from his past and present sat in the back seat, chatting about their working / personal relationships. The official synopsis refers to the film as "fictitious." But who cares? When you have a subject as riveting as Cave and a film as well made as 20,000 Days on Earth, what does it matter how the information is presented to you?

 Think of the film more as a meditation on Nick Cave, if you prefer, and not a documentary. Sure, there's some candid footage of Cave and The Bad Seeds recording Push the Sky Away, and there are versions of the same songs being performed at a concert later in the film. Cave visiting his archives, and telling stories about living in Berlin in his twenties, or visiting Warren Ellis (not the writer, but his musical collaborator), and seemingly writing his own life story at a typewriter (see poster) may or may not have been captured so much as composed for the camera. It doesn't really matter. Nick Cave: musician, author, composer, screenwriter, sometimes actor. Partly truth, partly fiction. Just watching him be is worth the price of admission.

 Yes, there's a certain artifice to having Cave drive around with Ray Winstone (The Proposition), Blixa Bargeld, a former member of The Bad Seeds, or Kylie Minogue, with whom he had the biggest "hit" of his career on the album Murder Ballads. He mostly listens as they talk, although Cave grows more animated with Minogue, as the seeming disparity between their perceived "place" in music crumbles onscreen. Similarly, a discussion with psychoanalyst Darian Leader doesn't feel spontaneous in the slightest, but is that necessary when it reveals more about Cave as a boy? It's a glimpse into the creative process of a renaissance man, one who doesn't always grasp - or care about - the significance of what he's doing. He only knows he needs to keep doing it, and we have an opportunity to enjoy the mercurial Nick Cave in as close to unguarded as we're ever likely to get. I don't give a lick how much of it is and isn't carefully composed for the camera: it's a great movie either way.

 One thing you might have noticed that's been missing from this recap - at least since the "good" section started - is the presence of horror films. Science fiction ended up with its own recap, but for a change, I didn't see that much horror this year. At least not new to 2014. I think, technically speaking, everything from Nevermore would qualify as 2013 or before, which is why I'm not sure whether to include The Shower or not. The link to the review is embedded in the title, and it's absolutely worth seeking out (when you can). Until October, it was probably the most enjoyable new horror comedy I'd seen last year. Hopefully 2015 brings the means by which to show it to friends who weren't at Nevermore - the film spent most of last year on the festival circuit, but otherwise there was no way to see it.

 While two sequels - V/H/S Viral and See No Evil 2 - made their way to the "Worst Of" list, there were two that not only lived up to their originals, but in many ways both are superior films. Let's start with The ABCs of Death 2, which is like V/H/S 2 in that it takes everything that worked about the first film, jettisoned most of what didn't, and was more fun to watch. The premise is still the same: twenty six directors each receive a letter from the alphabet, and have free reign to come up with a 2-3 minute short film that conveys a word and, in some form or fashion, death. The ABCs of Death had some interesting entries ("Unearthed" was a good one), but leaned heavily on scatological humor ("F is for Fart" was the tip of the iceberg, it turned out), and then there were the "oh, I didn't need to see that, not ever" letters. Like "Libido" and "Pressure." It turns out there are things you might want to un-see, and several of them are in The ABCs of Death.

The ABCs of Death 2, by comparison, has nothing as traumatic, and I would suspect it would play a lot better with an audience than the first one did. Watching that one at Nevermore, there was a lot of... shall I say, stunned silence as the film went on. There are certainly some "what the hell was that?" parts in the sequel, but nothing you're going to apologize for exposing someone to. The only thing that comes close is the last segment, "Z is for Zygote," which is centered around an already unforgettable image that closes on an even more disturbing note. I know that people don't like "P is for P-P-P-P-Scary!" but I thought it had an unhinged quality, somewhere between the weirder Betty Boop cartoons and Black Lodge-era David Lynch, that worked for me.

 As with the first film, you'll find highlights ("A is for Amateur") and lowlights ("V is for Vacation"), but there's nothing in The ABCs of Death that comes close to 2's "M is for Masticate," a slow motion gross out with a wicked joke at the end. There's also "D is for Deloused," which reminded me a bit of a Brothers Quay short. I'll leave most of the discovery for you, but if you kind of liked the first film, I strongly suspect you'll enjoy this one more.

 Whilst on the subject of sequels, Dead Snow 2 might be more ambitious than even if can handle, but I'm not faulting Tommy Wirkola for going for broke and turning everything to "11." The parts of the film that don't work (the Zombie Defense Squad, mostly) come and go quickly enough, the film is nutty, to say the least, and Wirkola somehow manages to keep the ever expanding story from collapsing in on itself. Here's a portion of the Shocktober Review:

 "Much of that is due to Wirkola's demented sense of humor and ability to acclimate to a larger budget. Dead Snow didn't necessarily feel hampered by its scale, but the sequel opens up in so many different ways that it's all the more admirable he manages to retain the anarchic sense of "anything goes" while not totally losing control of the story. The humor is still intact, and Dead Snow 2 is much funnier in its use of gore as a punch line (in this respect, I'd say it's fair to compare its approach as a sequel to Evil Dead 2). I thought that there was no possible way to use Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" for comic effect again, but its placement in Dead Snow 2 is a great payoff of a setup you likely forgot from earlier in the film. To say any more would be to spoil the very end, which might have you laughing and gagging at the same time."

 I didn't go into Zombeavers expecting it to be any good. This sounds counter-intuitive with what I said earlier in the recaps about trying to avoid bad movies, but I didn't watch Sharknado and this seemed like it might be an acceptable substitute. I mean, it couldn't possibly get better than the poster, or the inherently stupid premise, right? It would quickly get lazy and then I would get bored, like I normally do with Syfy Originals or movies that look like that (*coughTheAsylumreleasescough*).

 So imagine my surprise to discover that Zombeavers is a (slightly) higher budgeted version of a movie like Blood Car or Rise of the Animals. True, this is not a scrappy, home made production - how could it be with a "From the Producers of American Pie, Cabin Fever, and The Ring" on the poster? - but it has the same anarchic spirit of those movies. At times, it's actually as bad as those can be, but what helps Zombeavers (a lot, actually) is that every time you think it's not worth sticking through, something you wouldn't expect either happens or comes out of someone's mouth. Either the film takes a truly unexpected turn - which it does - or one of the characters has a line that evokes a "wait, what?" and you don't mind sticking around.

 I felt like I was in pretty good hands during the prologue, which features Bill Burr and an unrecognizable John Mayer (yep, "Your Body is a Wonderland"'s John Mayer) as drivers hauling around chemical waste and shooting the shit, often in increasingly strange ways. They eventually hit a deer, which leads to a barrel of said chemicals rolling down into a stream and to (dun dun DUUUUNNN) a beaver dam. Because, yes, this is a movie about zombie beavers. Or Zombeavers, if you will. Also, there are three college students: Mary (Rachel Melvin), Zoe (Courtney Palm), and Jenn (Lexi Atkins), who are having a "girls' weekend" in order to forget about Mary's boyfriend Sam (Hutch Dano) cheating on her. But he shows up anyway, with Tommy (Jake Weary) and Buck (Peter Gilroy) in tow, so it becomes a slightly uncomfortable couples weekend. With Zombeavers.

 You might struggle through the "set up" part of the film, and I nearly turned it off while the girls were on the way to the cabin, but some of the lines are so out of left field that I stuck with it. The tone is borderline surreal, from the "is this serious" hunter (Rex Linn) that they run into, to the neighbors near the cabin (Brent Briscoe and Phyllis Katz), who turn out to be way more savvy about kids than you'd expect. And there's a bear, but mostly, it's the Zombeavers. Which look like nothing more than marginally articulated puppets and are hilarious. You see, sometimes a cheap looking monster can elevate a B-Movie from "that was okay" to "that was amazing," and the titular zombified beavers are worth the price of admission. It doesn't hurt that Zombeavers gets even weirder when the "rules of infection" kick in, but the monsters are the stars of the show. Stick around after the credits - which include a song about the movie that puts Richard Cheese to shame - for an even better zombie related pun. If it sets up a sequel, I could be onboard with that, but if not, well played, Jordan Rubin...

 On the opposite end of the spectrum from gonzo creature features is Michaël R. Roskam (Bullhead)'s The Drop, which is a distant relative

 Like Robert Pattinson's character in The Rover, it's hard to tell if Bob is slow and meek, or just wants you to think he is. One night, while walking home, he finds an abused dog in the trash can belonging to Nadia (Noomi Rapace). She doesn't trust him, but agrees to help him with the dog until Bob can decide if he's really willing to keep it. What Bob doesn't know is who put the dog there: Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), a local heavy who claims to be a big time killer. He's also Nadia's ex, and decides to take exception to Bob adopting "his" dog. A robbery at Marv's Bar also brings in the attention of Detective Torres (John Ortiz), although Marv is more concerned about the men he answers to. Torres snooping around, however, could make things very difficult, especially when the Chechens decide that Marv is going to be the drop for the Super Bowl...

 The Drop is a deceptively straightforward film, one that's so low key you might not even see where it's going until all of the pieces fall into place. It's not a big "twist" movie, but rather the sort of film where situations lead characters to hatch schemes that overlap, always underestimating the other guy (or gal). While it was nice to see Gandolfini one last time, The Drop is really more a showcase for Tom Hardy. Marv is a pretty one-note character, but Hardy's Bob is all internalized, all observant, with a hint of something just out of reach. I've heard he's fantastic in Locke, which I have not had the opportunity to see, but Hardy is the big draw in The Drop. The film has a similar "community first" tone to God's Pocket, but is even more ruthless in the way people behave towards each other. But, then again, we are talking about Dennis Lehane, so that shouldn't be too much of a surprise.

 If you prefer your slow burns that explode into bursts of violence a little more Southern fried, may I suggest David Gordon Green's 2014 joint, Joe? It wasn't as well received as Prince Avalanche, but the Cap'n digs it. Yes, it's a bit of a downer, but it has a bit going for it. For starters, David Gordon Green excels when he makes smaller films, as you might have noticed in comparing Prince Avalanche to, say, The Sitter. Secondly, it continues the path of interesting choices for Tye Sheridan, who is quickly becoming a young actor I pay attention to, following him from The Tree of Life to Mud and now Joe. The final factor, I guess, might be the other reason why people were expecting something else, but for me a good restrained performance from Nicolas Cage is always worth checking out.

 Yes, I complained that he didn't really go "Mega" in Left Behind, but that's because it was Left Behind and you only hire Nicolas Cage to be in a remake of Left Behind because you spend your afternoons watching clips of The Wicker Man on Youtube. If I see he's going to be in a David Gordon Green movie playing an ex-con with a temper problem trying hard to set and example for a younger kid, I'm not expecting "Mega." I know that it's hard to believe he can do anything else, particularly in the last ten years, but he was once also considered an actor worth watching not because he went crazy. Leaving Las Vegas is the easy go-to, but I'd also point you in the direction of Bringing Out the Dead. Sometimes, when Cage takes work not because he needs to pay off the T-Rex skull he bought or cover taxes on his castles in Europe, he might get invested in a role and really do something good. Like Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, another movie I bet you thought was terrible. (SPOILER ALERT: It's not)

 Anyway, Cage is the titular character, who runs a probably slightly legally dubious business working for companies who need forests removed. The only problem is that they can't legally do that, so they pay Joe to hire day laborers to poison the trees. It's hard work, but Joe pays well for an honest week's labor and the guys he employs seem to trust him. He has a good reputation among them, even if he's known around town as a guy with a short temper. He's had a few run-ins with the law, and they harass him, mostly because once provoked he'll fight them, drunk or not (but often drunk). He was in jail for a while, and he and his dog get into some trouble at a local brothel (mostly because Joe brings his dog to fight the other dog, or I guess kill it). He's been warned to keep it together by his one friend on the police force, Earl (A.J. Wilson McPhaul ), but it's hard when nobody thinks you're worth it.

 Joe sees himself in Gary (Sheridan), who comes looking for work. Gary is fifteen, and wants to provide for his mother and sister, because his father Wade (Gary Poulter) is a violent drunk. Wade, or G-Daawg, spends most of his time trying to find ways to drink, mostly by stealing money from his son. Wade has a shot to work for Joe, but immediately blows it and goes off to get drunk. It's clear from the first scene of the film that Wade is abusive, but there's a moment late in the film with a homeless man where you see just what he'll do. All to get some hobo wine. Rough stuff. Joe doesn't like what he sees, and admires Gary's genuine effort to better himself. He offers to sell Gary his truck, to help him learn a trade and defend himself, but this isn't the kind of place where improving your station in life is easy. Especially when people like Willie-Russell (Ronnie Gene Blevins) are around, with grudges they're happy to roll over from Joe to his protégé...

 It is true that Joe isn't a fun movie to watch, and at times it's not even an easy movie to watch. The film is based on Larry Brown's novel, and screenwriter Gary Hawkins doesn't make anyone easy to like. Joe is stubborn to a fault when pressed, and it seems like he's incapable of letting it go when a deputy pulls him over. He blows a lot of opportunities to do something better, even as he helps Gary out of a nasty spot, one that gets nastier as the film goes on. I suppose I'm okay with the figurative rebirth metaphor at the end, which one could argue is kind of obvious, but is tied up with a monologue from someone who trusts Joe and his word. So I'll let it slide. Cage is very good, as is Sheridan, and Gary Poulter, who is no longer with us, is a fearsome presence indeed. He was, in fact, not an actor, but a homeless man that Green cast in the film, and he's hard to take your eyes off of when he's onscreen. Joe might not be an easy watch, but I'd say it's worthy of your time.

 No one could accuse the real life Chris Rock of being like his character, Andre Allen, in Top Five. Other than the fact that they both started out as comedians who transitioned to film, there doesn't seem to be a lot of middle ground. Andre Allen quickly sold out and made actions movies where he's the voice of a Hammy the Bear. Rock has been remaking Erich Rohmer (I Think I Love My Wife) and producing documentaries about hair. But this is probably my favorite thing Chris Rock has been involved in since he produced Louis C.K.'s Pootie Tang, and it's the rare comedy that has something to say and doesn't feel heavy handed in the process. Where else can you hear a character argue that Tupac might be a senator if he'd lived, or he might be the "bad" boyfriend in a Tyler Perry movie?

 Andre Allen is a man looking for respect, in spite of himself. He's marrying reality TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), on television, but really he wants to talk about the movie he just made, Uprize. The one about the Haitian slave uprising, that no critic wants to watch. His fans want more action movies. His friends wonder why he abandoned standup after getting sober. And in the midst of this, Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) wants to do an in depth piece for the New York Times. She'll follow him around, dig into his essence, or something that Andre couldn't care less about. But she's not leaving, and bit by bit she starts to break down his defenses. How much of Andre Allen is an act, or a reaction to negative reviews? Does it matter? How much of her prodding is he willing to take? What is she really after?

 While Top Five does take the time to answer these questions, what's arguably more fun about the movie is the cast that Chris Rock assembled for Andre's friends. Most of the film is Chelsea following Andre around New York, where he hasn't been in a while, seeing his old friends. The best of these is an assemblage of SNL talent in an apartment: Jay Pharaoh, Leslie Jones, and Tracey Morgan, and Hassan Johnson, who knew Andre "back when," and are present for where the title comes from. Chelsea asks them to name their top five MC's, and the answers vary based on age and personal preference. She later asks Andre to name his top five comedians, which also an insight into Rock's influences (I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that this is another trait Andre and Rock have in common).

 The "top five" thing only comes up a few times, because it's more about hanging out. J.B. Smoove plays his bodyguard / confidant, Kevin Hart has a cameo as his manager. Cedric the Entertainer plays a purple drank promoter in a flashback. Luis Guzman, shows up as his co-star in Hammy the Bear 3. Romany Malco has a small role as Erica (Union)'s assistant. The legendary Ben Vereen shows up halfway through the movie as an old timer who gives Andre grief for selling out, and who quietly asks him for money before he leaves. When he explains to Chelsea who it was, everything makes more sense. Even Tyler Perry technically has a cameo, thanks to a poster for a Madea movie that I know doesn't exist (yet). Apparently Louis C.K. was supposed to be in the film, but couldn't work it into his schedule. Rock finds a way to include him during a third act trip to a comedy club (one that will be very familiar if you watch Louie), so he's still there in spirit.

 There are at least two celebrity cameos I wasn't expecting, neither of which I'm going to spoil. One makes sense, and happens during Andre's bachelor party (it's actually one of three people, all of whom play themselves and are friends of Rock). The other one is maybe the funniest moment in the second half of the movie, when things mostly get serious. I give a lot of credit to Chris Rock for ending the movie the way everybody assumed it would when you read the synopsis, but not in the way you'd expect it to. Instead it closes on a knowing smile from Smoove when one of the many seeds planted earlier in the film reappears. The film has a lot to say about the state of black actors in Hollywood as well, and I thought it was strange to read some of the negative reviews on IMDB. Some of them seem to be attacking Top Five for not being the kind of movie it's commenting on. The good news is that what it is not isn't as important as what it is, and that's a film you should seek out.

 The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is actually three films: Her, Him, and the hybrid of the first two, Them. The only version I had the opportunity to watch before the recap began (it was actually the last movie I watched in 2014) was Them. From what I've read, writer / director Ned Benson would prefer Them be the one you should watch last, and reviews indicate that Them is the weakest of the three (ideally, they're designed to be seen the way I listed them above), but the choice was to not see it at all or to take what was available. I opted to be able to watch any version of it, and I'm glad I did. Without question, if Them is the weakest version of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, then I very much look forward to watching Her and Him.

 I'm not sure that the person who wrote the quote on the poster and I saw the same movie, but it certainly starts as a romance between Conor (James McAvoy) and Eleanor (Jessica Chastain). Them (and, presumably, Him and Her) moves backwards and forwards in time, in an elliptical fashion, jumping around to suit emotional states rather than narrative. When we meet them, Conor and Eleanor are eating at a restaurant, when he admits that he doesn't have enough money to cover the bill. They decide to pull a "dine and dash" and end up in a park nearby. By the next scene, Eleanor is on a bridge, and tries to kill herself. She's rescued after landing in the water, and Conor comes to visit her in the hospital, but we don't see the conversation they have. Eleanor decides to move home with her parents (Isabelle Hupert and William Hurt) and her sister (Jess Weixler). Conor tries to contact her, but she has no interest in speaking to him.

 We don't know what happened, and won't for much of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. Benson reveals the details of the tragic event that fractures their relationship in small ways over the course of the film, and by the end we know the broad strokes, if not the specifics. I'm of the mind that it's better you not know going in, but it's not going to ruin the film if you read it somewhere. It's not as though the film hinges on why Eleanor decides to leave (that accounts for the title, in case you thought this was a more tradition thriller, ala Gone Girl). Benson is more interested in the way that the couple chooses to deal with her decision, and how it affects their friends and family in the process.

 Assembled around Chastain and McAvoy is a surprisingly loaded supporting cast: Hurt and Hupert are a pointed contrast as Julian and Mary Rigby, who want to support their daughter but don't really understand her. Conor's father, Spencer (Ciarán Hinds) is as distant and withdrawn, in part because his son refuses his overtures to work for him (both are restaurateurs, but Spencer the more successful of the two). Julian helps Eleanor go back to school, where she meets Professor Friedman (Viola Davis), a no-bullshit, straight talker who doesn't want or need another student, but grudgingly takes her in. They bond more outside of the classroom than in, as their life experience overlaps in strange ways. Meanwhile Conor is trying (and failing) to keep his bar / restaurant open, with Stuart (Bill Hader) as his head chef and Alexis (Nina Arianda) tending bar. If, on the off chance, you don't recognize the name Jess Weixler, but her face seems familiar - as it did to me - she was the star of Teeth, a movie I'm quite fond of from 2007.

 Generally speaking, though, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is Chastain's film. Them attempts to keep McAvoy in the story, but it often distracts from Eleanor's story early in the film. When they cross paths again, there's a certain logic to cutting away to what he's doing, but I understand why Her and Him are necessary. Cutting down two 100 minute movies into one that's a little over two hours means a lot is going to get lost, and I can see how the parallel stories would juggle them better. When Eleanor and Conor's stories overlap, I'm guessing, is the bulk of Them. There are moments in the film that feel like something important is missing - like the aforementioned hospital scene - or where we're seeing part of a moment. What keeps Them together is Chastain's performance. Eleanor shuts down at the beginning of the film, and we don't really know much more about her than her parents seem to. Chastain internalizes Eleanor's pain, revealing it slowly, and in tiny moments, but all the while she remains and actress who is impossible not to be riveted by. I find it telling that Benson had originally planned for Eleanor to be a minor part in the story, only to increase the role when Chastain took the part and began asking questions. Them may not be the perfect marriage of two films, but it's certainly one with a lot of promise, and the good news is that there are two more out there with missing pieces. More importantly, I don't have to see them: I want to.

 Finally, I've gone back and forth about where to put Nightcrawler in the recap. In the time since I reviewed it, I've softened a bit on its faults. It's a movie that sticks with me, despite my disdain for Louis Bloom as a protagonist (if ever there was a more appropriate anti-hero, I struggle to think of one). Nightcrawler has, perhaps rightly, been compared to Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole. And, you know what, that's fair. Wilder was accused of being too cynical, and now, sixty years later, Nightcrawler accurately reflects the seedy underbelly of "journalism."

 Still, I can't quite put it in the "Best of 2014" list, as I had originally considered. It's almost there, so close, but not quite. The music may be intentional, but it's nevertheless jarring and often inappropriate, ironic or not. Jake Gyllenhaal's performance is fantastic, and while I'll never understand not nominating him for Louis Bloom, the film will endure long after the snub. I may not love it quite as much as many critics do, but I admire it and remain haunted by what it says about humanity. Here's some of my original review:

"Nightcrawler follows the narrative structure of a "rags to riches" story almost exactly, only to horrifying ends. Louis buys a camera and a police scanner, makes mistakes, but eventually finds some usable footage and sells it to the lowest rated news channel in Los Angeles.[...] He hires an intern and relentlessly insults his inability to do exactly what Louis wants when he wants it. But they make it work: accident after accident, crime scene after crime scene, Louis builds his reputation. He's not above sneaking into somebody's house or moving evidence around for better shot composition. When he arrives at an accident before the police get there, Louis even moves a body in order to get more compelling footage.
 I would recommend Nightcrawler on the strength of its performances, provided you don't mind seeing a movie where the evil are rewarded and the good mostly punished, or otherwise relegated to obscurity. The point of view in the film is strictly from Bloom's perspective, so don't be surprised if your impressions of him match the befuddled reactions during points when he does encounter a genuine human being. Louis isn't one, and he's perhaps the least likable antihero in a long line of them, but if you don't mind taking a ride into the depths of darkness, Nightcrawler is a compelling trip downward."

 Okay, thus ends the long, crammed together version of the 2014 recap. From here on out, it's one entry per film. We are, at long last, at the top of the top, the crème de la crème of last year. Odds are you've noticed certain films missing from certain categories, so you might be able to guess. They should be coming more regularly than the longer pieces, if only because I only have to focus on one film at a time. Also, some of them might already be done, and you maybe missed them earlier this year. Stay tuned...

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