Sunday, February 22, 2015

Cap'n Howdy's Best of 2014: Birdman, Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

 I'm not sure that I had a favorite movie of 2014, but if I absolutely had to pick one, it would be Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman, Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). I told this story to most of my friends, but after hearing people rave about it for weeks after it came out, I finally decided to go see it on Saturday. Beforehand, I watched The Empire Strikes Back, because I hadn't seen it in a while and it's still the best Star Wars movie, no contest. By the time the credits finished rolling on Birdman, I had completely forgotten that I watched The Empire Strikes Back that day. All I wanted to do was find somebody who had seen Birdman so I could talk about it. It's the sort of movie that you want to talk to someone about, something I've seen in practice as friends have slowly gravitated towards Birdman.

 There are many films which inspired Birdman - Opening Night is an obvious example - but I can't think of any that are like Birdman. It's not the fluid camera, designed to appear as a series of single "takes," or the way that Iñárritu toys with what's really happening and what isn't - you can look at Rope or any film with an unreliable narrator for that. It's not the "washed up actor trying to reinvent himself" that sets it apart. Again, nothing about what happens in Birdman is really that novel, but something about the way that Iñárritu constructs the story, the way that the propulsive, seemingly improvised drumming goes from non-diegetic to diegetic and back again, the way that Birdman seems to exist in our world but simultaneously in its own universe. Something ephemeral about the film, that makes it so unlike its obvious cinematic precedents. It's hard to describe, but when you're watching it, you can tell. The sensation is clear: this is not like everything else.

 As plots go, Birdman, Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is pretty basic: Riggan Thomsen (Michael Keaton) is an actor who walked away from a lucrative career in superhero movies, and has toiled in obscurity ever since. He's trying to jumpstart his career by adapting a Raymond Carver novella What We Talk About When We Talk About Love into a Broadway production, which he's also directing and starring in. The play is approaching its preview nights, and Riggan isn't happy with his male co-star, so he may or may not have used his telekinetic powers to cause an accident requiring a recasting. Oh, did I mention that Riggan might have telekinetic powers? Or that he's constantly being critiqued by Birdman, the character he walked away from? None of these things ever happen when other people are around, mind you, but the light did fall that guy's head for no reason...

 His producer, Jake (Zach Galifianakis) is already at his wit's end when Riggan blithely informs him they'll be recasting, but fortunately Lesley (Naomi Watts), one of the female leads, is dating Broadway bad-boy Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), who just happens to be available. He learns fast, has strong opinions about the material, and Riggan likes the challenge, so he joins the cast. He immediately hits it off with Sam (Emma Stone), Riggan's daughter, who's working as his assistant in order to be around her father. This does not appear to be her idea, but it's a place where she can stay sober and under his supervision. Mike and Lesley are having issues, Riggan is dealing with self-doubt about being treated as a "serious" actor, and Sam couldn't care less. On with the show.

 In addition to Opening Night, you could point to Noises Off!, State and Main, or any "theatrical / Inside Hollywood" based narratives, and there are other, stranger references, like the carpet from The Shining figuring prominently into the background, or the similarity of the opening credits to Pierrot le Fou, or Iñárritu's persistent references to Hollywood blockbusters. The elephant in the room is Michael Keaton playing an actor who walked away from a comic book movie franchise, but what's more interesting to me is that all four of the film's "name" stars have been in films based on comic books: Edward Norton in The Incredible Hulk, Emma Stone in The Amazing Spider-Man (she was filming 2 while Birdman was in production), and the one nobody remembers is one of Naomi Watts' first roles was in Tank Girl. That might explain the otherwise out of left field moment between Lesley and Laura (Andrea Risenbourgh), which is very reminiscent of a film Watts is better known for, Mulholland Dr.

 While I'm not entirely sold that it's the case with Watts and Stone, Norton and Keaton are almost certainly playing the versions of their "personas" that audiences assume to be accurate. I've heard that the fallout between Norton and Marvel didn't have anything to do with him being a trouble-making, egomaniacal tinkerer, but that's certainly the perception. Keaton has been working steadily since Batman Returns, but I guess most moviegoers haven't paid close attention to that, so there's a large contingent that believe Riggan Thomsen and Mike Shiner are slightly fictionalized versions of the actors playing them. I do feel like this is an intentional movie by Iñárritu, considering that many of the other actors he name-drops before Mike steps in are current stars of major franchises, but I'm not convinced it's some grand statement about art vs. commerce in Hollywood. At least, no more than it is about the divide between theater and film, and celebrity in general. Yes, it's hard to ignore the literal presence of people dressed like Spider-Man and Bumblebee of the Transformers near the end, but Riggan's conversation with Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) seems to point at a broader argument than "blockbusters are bad."

 Tabitha is the big time theater critic in New York, and she's not shy about telling Riggan she's already torn What We Talk About When We Talk About Love a new one, sight unseen. He's a tourist to the stage, a pretender, leveraging his celebrity against the "serious" world of acting, and he'll be punished for it. He'll be mocked for it. Riggan retorts by tearing into criticism with the same fervor, using arguments that have existed for as long as there has been art and someone reacting to it. I'm not saying either of them is more right or wrong than the other, just that Iñárritu is more interested in exploring the various position within the world of acting and directing and criticism than he is in making declarative statements with Birdman. There's a lot to chew on in the movie, if you choose to, and I disagree with the sentiment that the film is trying to be "clever" and falls short. There have been reviews from people whose opinions I respect that hate the third act or don't feel that Birdman reaches its supposed "goals," but that's fine. People are talking about it, which is good. It's a movie to talk about.

 I have slowly been running out of superlatives over the course of this recap to convey how impressed I am with performances, which makes it difficult to describe just how revelatory Michael Keaton is as Riggan Thomsen. I don't think he's playing himself, and he's onscreen for almost the entire movie, in long takes, propelling Birdman forward. It's really a tour-de-force performance from him, and even if nothing else in Birdman worked, I could watch it just for him. I like how, despite the fact that Iñárritu keeps it ambiguous about Riggan's "powers," Keaton invests completely in Thomsen believing he has telekinesis. Even when he's clearly walking away from a taxi after "flying," he behaves like he soared back to the theatre (this is the part you've almost certainly seen in the trailer). The rest of the cast give what could be argued career high performances as well. Only Naomi Watts isn't given much time to register, but Norton, Risenbourgh, Stone, and Galifianakis are better than I've seen them. Amy Ryan has a small, mostly thankless role as Sylvia, Riggan's ex-wife, but uses her little time onscreen to be anything but the stereotype that part could be. Lindsay Duncan similarly owns what amounts to a cameo as the critic, withering and cynical that she may be.

 There were only a handful of films I saw more than once in 2014: John Wick, Guardians of the Galaxy, Snowpiercer, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I bought Birdman, Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) when it came out last week, and am looking forward to experiencing the film again. And talking to more people about it. If there has to be a favorite, I'm comfortable calling Birdman it. It was a better year for movies than I was expecting, and this one exceeded even that. If 2015 has anything nearly this invigorating, then I look forward to it...

Cap'n Howdy's Best of 2014: Inherent Vice

 Well, let's start the uphill battle that is putting Inherent Vice on a "Best Of" list, because everywhere I look, there's hate for this movie. Like, serious, seething, "how could you like that movie?!?" hate for Inherent Vice. To me, it's mind boggling the negativity surrounding this film, and I've read articles like "How to Make a Movie People Will Walk Out Of" or listened to Red Letter Media snarkily insinuate that anyone who says they "understood" Inherent Vice is "lying" and trying to look cool to their film snob friends. I would say that Inherent Vice is a divisive film, but it feels like there's not much of a divide: everybody hates it, and the people who don't (and I haven't found many) are somehow deluded or outright lying to maintain their "cred".  So I get that you don't like it, but I'm not sure why, and I'm not delusional or trying to earn "hip" points. It's not "Paul Thomas Anderson's worst movie," although I've seen that one a few times.

 Was is because the trailer made it look like Paul Thomas Anderson's The Big Lebowski and it's not? Because it's not: it's Paul Thomas Anderson's The Long Goodbye, but we'll get to that? Is it because of some perceived "impenetrability" based solely on the fact Anderson adapted it from a Thomas Pynchon novel, and you've heard Thomas Pynchon novels are notoriously impenetrable? I suppose it's not going to matter to you that I read Inherent Vice, and not only is it easy to follow, but Anderson dropped two subplots and half a dozen characters, making the movie easier to follow. Was it because most of Doc (Joaquin Phoenix)'s dialogue is mumbled? Okay, I'll give you that one. Yeah, you're going to have to pay attention. It is a mystery, and yeah, there are a lot of pieces in the air for Anderson to juggle. You're going to have to do a little bit of work keeping up, and both the novel and film throw a lot of names at you.

 (The following paragraphs are going SPOIL plot elements in an effort to clarify lingering questions)

 On the other hand, there are only two that are really important: Larry "Doc" Sportello and Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). Throw in Lieutenant Detective Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) if you want, but most of the rest of it is window dressing. The Golden Fang (boat and organization) is pretty much a MacGuffin, but if it helps, it's a government run operation designed to get people hooked on heroin, clean them out, and convince them to work as double agents in the counterculture. That's exactly what happens to Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), who was planning on spending his fortune to make free housing possible. (Anderson drops the part of Pynchon's book where the government also wants him to invest in a run-down Las Vegas casino in order to get a foothold in the area). The entire Golden Fang operation is explained during the scene when Doc and Sauncho (Benicio Del Toro) are in the seafood restaurant.

 I'm not entirely sure why it's hard to keep up with, because in this regard you don't even need to read the book, but all of Doc's cases are tied together: Tariq Khalil (Michael Kenneth Williams) is looking for his associate Glenn Charlock (Christopher Allen Nelson), who is killed when Doc goes to visit the housing development. Glenn's sister, Charla (Beladonna) comes to visit Doc later. Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), left his family to be a government informant, and ended up working for the Golden Fang. Bigfoot's partner was killed by Adrian Prussia (Peter McRobbie) and Puck Beaverton (Keith Jardine), so Bigfoot uses Doc to even the score and then steals the Golden Fang's heroin shipment. Doc uses the heroin as leverage to make a deal that returns Coy to his wife, Hope (Jenna Malone), solving that case. All of this happens in service of putting Doc and Shasta back together, even if "this doesn't mean we're back together."

 Yes, I left out a lot of other characters, but just like The Long Goodbye (directed by Robert Altman, based on a Raymond Chandler novel), many of the supporting cast members are for decoration. It's not really important that you remember who Denis (Jordan Christian Hearn) is other than he hangs out with Doc. Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short) is there to give you some idea of how reckless the Golden Fang is. Penny (Reese Witherspoon) provides Doc with the evidence that ties Coy into the conspiracy surrounding Wolfmann. Japonica Fenway (Sasha Pieterse) exists so when Doc meets with her father (Martin Donovan) at the end, there's history between the two and they don't just kill Sportello. So, yeah, I'm not sure why so many people insist that there's no "there" there, or that the story doesn't make any sense.

 Anyway, I didn't really want this review to just be a defense of the film, because when I sat down to watch it, the negativity hadn't really settled in online. At the time, I didn't know much about it, other than it kind of looked like Paul Thomas Anderson's The Big Lebowski. As the film unfolded, it was pretty clear that it wasn't, that Doc's attitude less resembled The Dude and was much closer to the way that Elliott Gould played Phillip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye. This makes sense insofar as Paul Thomas Anderson has stated that Robert Altman is an influence to him as a filmmaker. Doc wouldn't be like The Dude: he's less befuddled and more playing indifferent, which may be by design or may simply be a side effect of not being sure when he's hallucinating and when he's not. For the record, if Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) is narrating or appears onscreen, he's usually not. If she isn't (for example, the last scene with Bigfoot), there's a chance you might not take everything that happens to be real.

 It took me a little while to get used to that fact, because Doc's laid back attitude tricks you into thinking he's a more reliable main character than he is. As a matter of fact, it makes even more sense for Anderson to expand Sortilège's role and make her the narrator to give us someone more reliable as an anchor at key points in the film. Doc is the focal point, but he's really just another character in his own story, which is why Inherent Vice begins with a shot of Sortilège and then transitions to Shasta in Doc's apartment. What she's saying is, almost verbatim, Pynchon's prose, which Newsom continues to do throughout the film. It's a helpful technique that differentiates Inherent Vice from The Long Goodbye, which drops you in and hopes you can keep up with Gould's even harder to follow mumbled dialogue.

 While I keep going back to The Long Goodbye, a friend of mine feels the film is more strongly linked to Chinatown. Swap out real estate development for water management, and I guess you could make that case, but I think Doc has more agency than Jake Gittes did. He's certainly more in control of his own destiny, and ends up in a happier place by the end, even if the crucial details of the case are totally out of his control - Doc really only helps Coy, and sort of ends up with Shasta again as a byproduct. However, it is better to understand Inherent Vice as a film in the context of those cinematic precedents over an implied connection to the Coen brothers, based mostly on the trailer. Inherent Vice is, quite often, a funny movie, but it's not funny in the same way. Tonally, it's completely different, even if the main character is stoned most of the time. Doc Sportello is not a "slacker" in the same sense that The Dude is, and the grudging respect that Bigfoot has for him (in spite of himself) should clue the audience into that.

 I spent most of Inherent Vice chuckling, at many points because it's not what I thought it was going to be. It's better than that, and despite the apparently rambling narrative, it has a laser focus on what's important. Anderson keeps all of the various characters and seemingly disparate plot threads up in the air with ease, in a way that makes sense when it comes together. It's true that you might need to take some time to digest it, and it wouldn't hurt to read the book, but by no means are you required to. As an adaptation, it boils much of the story down to a useful core, dropping a lot of background detail that help sets up surfer culture in the early 70s in the way that Pynchon could, but that Anderson doesn't have time to. It's the same hazy world that Marlowe was dropped into by Altman (for those of you who haven't seen it, The Long Goodbye the film takes place in the 1970s), with the same kinds of lowlifes looking to make trouble.

 Like Anderson's last film, The Master, I found the performances to be continually engaging. Joaquin Phoenix internalizes most of Doc's mannerisms and reactions, a 180 from his role in The Master (where he played the Id to Philip Seymour Hoffman's Ego). It's sometimes such a laconic performance that you aren't sure when he's genuinely confused and when he's just playing dumb for the client. As much as I enjoyed him, I've found myself leaning towards Brolin's Bigfoot Bjornsen as my favorite role. Bigfoot has the potential to be the most one dimensional character (in the book and the movie), but slowly we realize there's more beneath the surface than "star cop." His phone conversations with Doc are some of the funniest scenes in the film, but also hint at their professional relationship when he's not on duty. The trailer makes a joke out of Bigfoot ordering pancakes at a Japanese restaurant (specifically ordering more in Japanese), but the best part of the scene is when he explains why he eats there. In case you want to see Inherent Vice, I'll let you discover it, but it's a throwaway line that tells you everything you need to know about Bigfoot. Brolin's final scene in the film is... unusual. I choose to chalk it up to Doc hallucinating - it's not in the book the way it happens in the movie - but read it as you will.

 So I know I haven't changed a lot of minds, because this is the internet and well, opinions get entrenched. I still think that Inherent Vice has the chance to grow on people over time, and even if you have to insist it's PTA's "worst" movie, unless you hate all of them, that's not such a bad place to be compared to some of the films I saw this year. I guess 2014 ended up being the year of movies I had to invest a little bit in, to do more work with than the average matinee film. It's been the case with a lot (maybe not all) of the higher end of the recap, and it certainly applies to the last film, which should be coming soon. I can dig it if that's not your thing, and not in a condescending way. I'm not saying that you didn't "get" Inherent Vice, which always reads like an insult that snobs would say, but I am saying that anybody who walked out didn't give it a fair shake. Maybe this will mellow with time. Probably not. Oh well, it's sitting pretty at number two on my list, so it's all good for the Cap'n.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Cap'n Howdy's Best of 2014: Guardians of the Galaxy

 So now it's time for the Cap'n to eat some serious crow. From the moment it was announced until the second I said "ah, what the hell, if people love it this much, I'll give it a shot," there wasn't a person more skeptical of Guardians of the Galaxy than me. There was no way it could work: we're talking about a comic book that nobody read (and even less have heard of) where a talking raccoon and a talking tree are major characters. Marvel had gone from "Dark Elves" to "What the Hell, We're Rich" hubris in no time, announcing Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, and Doctor Strange. Okay, there's no way. Guardians of the Galaxy? The hero's name is Star Lord? Seriously? I don't even read Green Lantern comics anymore, and I've never paid attention to Marvel's cosmic crap. There's no way it could be good. And the trailers didn't change my mind. It looks kitschy, obnoxious, loud, and unfunny. Drop the mic, I'm calling it: failure.

 And now I'm 0-3 when it comes to James Gunn. Somehow, I always doubt that he can make something so impossibly lame sounding be great, and he proves me wrong. Every time. Did I think Slither looked stupid? Yup. Wrong. Along comes Super, and I look at the poster and think "oh, great, hipster Kick-Ass." Totally wrong. So of course I foolishly thought that this time, as the director of a stupid space movie with talking trees, he wouldn't be able to craft a winner. That they'd mute his Troma sensibilities, and the end result would be watered down garbage nobody would like.

 Yeah, and how did that turn out?

 It's true that I'm not the only person surprised that Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the best movies of 2014, but at least I should have known better. Gunn's specialty, it seems, is finding the perfect tone of his movies, one that can comment on how ridiculous genre tropes are without undermining the story he's telling. It's a balancing act that not many directors are willing to try, the obvious exception being Marvel's other cosmic tinkerer, Joss Whedon. At the risk of sounding heretical and thus sending the internet into fan rage, I'm going to give the edge to Gunn, if only because in my limited field sample, he's more consistently successful*. Allow me to make my case.

 (In what might turn out to be a horrible idea, I'm going to assume anybody reading this already saw Guardians of the Galaxy, so the standard "paragraph or two synopsis" isn't going to be here, where it would normally be. Also, SPOILERS.)

 Guardians of the Galaxy, as presented in the film (I've still never read the comic), is an inherently goofy premise. If you want a very quick version of why, I highly recommend you watch the Honest Movie Trailer for the film. Putting aside the "Space Avengers" part, we are talking about a movie with more impenetrable monologues than the Star Wars Prequels combined, about characters we know nothing about, and can barely relate to - remember, Peter Quill / Star Lord (Chris Pratt) has been living most of his life in space. He has a better idea of what's going on than we do, and he doesn't really seem to know or care. Quill can barely remember that the girl he hooked up with is still on his ship. But that's what's great about how Gunn manages the world he's introducing us to - the serious moments, like everything building up to "I'm going to be honest; I forgot you were here" is played in equal parts important and "yeah, I know, this is kind of silly." There were a dozen ways to make the dancing to "Come and Get Your Love" groan worthy, but you know what wasn't? Using a dead space rat as a microphone.

 Mind you, this is all following the "young Peter Quill watches his mother die and is abducted by aliens" cold open, which isn't joke-y and sets the stage for things to come. While it's a completely different kind of movie, Guardians of the Galaxy shares with Captain America: The Winter Soldier the ability to be funny one moment and deadly serious the next. Gunn only uses it when necessary, but in many ways, he does it more successfully than the cheap kills in The Avengers or The Winter Soldier. I mean, yes, he kills Groot (Vin Diesel), but it's more of a sacrifice than a sudden "gotcha!" kill. When Baby Groot emerges at the end of the film, it makes sense that it was something he could do, and something that Rocket (Bradley Cooper) wouldn't realize was possible. Which is weird, because he's a living tree, so why couldn't he? Also, go ahead and be the hard hearted bastard that tells me you didn't well up a little bit at "WE are Groot." Go for it. It's the internet, and you can lie anonymously.

Despite the fact that Groot is Guardians of the Galaxy's equivalent of Minions or Penguins or Disney's anthropomorphized animals that every movie for kids have these days, we care about what happens to Groot because Rocket cares about Groot. And we care about Rocket, which honestly amazes me. I really did not think that I was going to be able to get past the "there's a talking raccoon in this movie," but the animators and Bradley Cooper and Gunn find a way. There's a moment, halfway into the film, where we learn everything we need to know about how a talking raccoon feels about being genetically modified. It's not dissimilar to the fight between Drax (Dave Bautista) and Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), where the real weight of the former's need for revenge clashes headlong into his inability to actually carry it out. Ronan, who up until this point just did a lot of speechifying and sent Nebula (Karen Gillan) to do his dirty work, finally seems formidable. Drax doesn't stand a chance, and that's before Ronan has the Infinity Gem.

 See, that's an extremely nerdy sentence, and I'm not going to lie, I had to double check Karen Gillan's character name. Yet another reason why it's so impressive that Guardians of the Galaxy was not only a hit with fickle comic fans, but also mainstream audiences. It's not quite on the same level of "A Song of Ice and Fire is hit TV show? Seriously?" but we are talking about a movie that introduces us to planets, characters, races, and throws around terms like we're just expected to keep up. And we do! I had no idea that Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula were adopted children of Thanos (uncredited Josh Brolin) or that Nova wasn't just one dude. Seriously, had I known the Nova Corps was the Marvel equivalent of the Green Lantern Corps, I might have hesitated even more. I think the only part of this movie I didn't know because of another Marvel movie (mostly Thor: The Dark World) was Howard the Duck. And let's be honest here, even if you read Howard the Duck, we all know why people remember Howard the Duck.

 But this is what I get for assuming it wasn't going to work. James Gunn pulls a fast one on me again, with a fantastic cast, razzle dazzle effects, smart (and smart-ass) plotting, and damn if I'm not looking forward to seeing more of them. He managed to introduce five major new characters and a dozen or so supporting characters without needing separate movies to do it. No offense, Phase One, but it turns out you can incorporate characters in one film, give them enough time to develop, and still be entertaining without spending two hours apiece with them. And hey, now I know who Chris Pratt is! He's not just the guy who crapped himself in Movie 43 anymore!

 Guardians of the Galaxy did something I didn't think was possible: it handily displaced X-Men: Days of Future Past and Captain America: The Winter Soldier as the best Marvel film of 2014. I'd say "comic book film," but if we're putting it up against Snowpiercer, it's a tougher case to make. It's a breezy, fun movie, one that has a soundtrack and vaguely 80s tone that appeal across the age spectrum, and Gunn even snuck in Nathan Fillion (Blue Alien in Prison), Rob Zombie (Ravager voice), and Lloyd Kaufman (Lloyd Kaufman Covered in Mud in Prison), just to keep his case for auteur in the mix. It might be super nerdy and have a talking tree and a talking raccoon, but dammit, they're fun. It's fun. Way to prove me wrong, James Gunn.

 * It's not an exactly fair comparison, but I do know several people who can't stand Joss Whedon and who had a lot of problems with the see-saw tonal shifts in The Avengers. They also didn't like Serenity for much the same reason, but enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy. So, uh, flame on, I guess.

Cap'n Howdy's Best of 2014: Fury

 People seem to be wary of Fury, and I can understand why. I'm not sure that my reason for you to be wary about it is the same as yours - no one has really articulate the reason they seem surprised that I liked it - but of the movies mentioned in this recap that are "difficult to watch," there may be none more so than David Ayer (End of Watch)'s latest. Someone once described it to me as "the beginning of Saving Private Ryan for two hours," which is pretty accurate. Strip all of the Spielbergian sentimentality away from Saving Private Ryan, increase the tension and violence, and what you're left with is a lot like Fury. In fact, you can strip away all sentimentality, replace it with misanthropy that runs rampant, and throw in the "new guy" in the midst, then slowly break down anything that resembles a human being before the violent conclusion. That, in fact, is Fury.

 The "new guy" in question is Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a typing clerk who is eight weeks into his military experience. Despite his protestation, Ellison was shipped off to Germany in the waning months of World War II, and now he's going to replace the right gunner in the crew of Fury. The tank's crew were the only survivors of a battle with Nazis - the aftermath we see in the film's opening moments - and Sgt. Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt) is in no mood for someone with no experience to join his crew. Ellison's going to have to earn his spot, and that starts with literally cleaning the remains of his predecessor out of the seat he died in. Collier is at least willing to make the best of a very bad situation, but the rest of his crew - Trini "Gordo" Garcia (Michael Peña), Grady "Coon Ass" Travis (Jon Bernthal), and Boyd "Bible" Swan (Shia LeBouf) - don't want him at all. He's a weak link, and they've survived together by being strong, hardened by combat.

 From the outset, Fury is less a "men on a mission" film, and more about the deliberate attempt to "break" Ellison of being wet behind the ears. Collier, who is in addition to his skills as a tank commander, also speaks German, forces Ellison to shoot an unarmed Nazi in the back. Otherwise, Norman is useless to him. And this, we find, is Collier's way of being helpful: he can't afford for the new guy to have a moment of doubt, not when life and death come at a moment's notice. As they travel through the German countryside, clearing out towns, the team's continued abuse deteriorates Ellison's psyche even further. Moments that seem to offer a brief respite are often uncomfortable at best. Take, for example, the closest thing Fury has to a "sweet" moment.

 After clearing out the Nazis hiding in a small town - one marked on the outside by the bodies of people who refused to fight for Hitler - Collier takes Ellison inside an apartment, where they find two women (Anamaria Rinca and Alicia von Rittberg) hiding. Collier brings in some rations, and asks the older of the two to cook while he cleans himself. Things are already at a high level of discomfort when he tells Ellison to sleep with the younger one, or he will, and Norman reluctantly obliges. His rationale, as he explains in German, is that "they are young." Norman's moment of respite is interrupted when Garcia, Travis, and Swan march into the apartment, drunk and riotous from looting. They take umbrage to the fact they weren't invited to breakfast, and proceed to make Collier's imposition even uglier by showing no restraint in their behavior. What did the kid do to deserve this?

 The logical progression of this scene ends violently, but perhaps no in the way you might expect. Ayer is careful to maintain some level of dignity for the crew of Fury, but that doesn't mean that the horrors of war won't take their toll. This is a film where no one gets a break, where stoicism is the only course of action, and there's no time to grieve. Even as the more brutish of the crew (Gordo and Coon Ass, in particular) become more human to Ellison, it's not out of human decency, but a grudging respect for his transformation from rookie to "man willing to mow down Nazis." These men don't need a good man: they need a man who can kill anybody without hesitation.

 Where Fury excels is in its combat scenes, which have an intensity unlike many war films of the past decade or so. Put aside any notions of tanks as slow, lumbering hunks of metal. The showdown between a Nazi Tiger tank and Fury is a white-knuckle affair. The Tiger destroys the other tanks handily, leaving only Wardaddy and his men to stop it, and they do, by the skin of their teeth. It's a victory that feels earned, not one of convenience, and their reaction is less of celebration than of relief. It's the highlight of a film with many such encounters, including a protracted finale involving an hundreds of SS specialists attempting to destroy the crippled tank.

 Ayer does his level best to keep the protagonists from being monsters, despite the fact that it's very, very difficult to find anything nice to say about them. Often, Fury feels like a refutation of the "Greatest Generation," and while the Nazis aren't painted in a positive light, it's really hard to make a case that any of the main characters is much better. Even Lerman as Ellison eventually breaks, and becomes what Collier needs, earning the nickname "Machine." He fights back against their harsh methods, but ultimately, it's an exercise in futility. This is what being on the winning side of a war looks like, according to Ayer. This is not to say that any of the cast aren't pitch perfect in their roles. There's a sense of camaraderie and loyalty among the tank crew, particularly in the way they bicker. Bernthal and Peña have the most thankless roles, as the least likable characters in this, or really any war film I can think of. Lerman is playing, in a sense, the antithesis of his character in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Pitt, I thought, was very good indeed as a man trying very hard to keep it together for his men. Against his wishes, he has to crush someone in order to keep him alive, and in small moments it comes through. It's not the "tic" heavy performance some complain Pitt is prone to, but one that's largely internalized.

 If you want to accuse Fury of anything, it's that Ayer is too willing to "rub your nose" in the horrors of war, of the degradation of the human spirit. There's nothing that comes even close to a respite from people behaving savagely to each other, and if Ayer worries that there's a chance of it, it's time to wipe that out with sudden finality. Seriously, this is the kind of movie that wants you to be very certain that "War Is Hell." It's going to spit in the face of how World War II has been presented for the last 60 years, and that might make people very angry. Know that going in. If that's cool with you, you're in for a tense ride, one that proves that "tank combat" on screen isn't an oxymoron.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Cap'n Howdy's Best of 2014: Snowpiercer

 You might say that I'm being overly lenient with my definition of "films released in 2014" to include Snowpiercer. It is true that Bong Joon-Ho had finished the film in time to be released in 2013, and that a protracted struggle within the Weinstein Company kept Snowpiercer out of theatres until the following year. At the heart of the debate, it seems that Harvey "Scissorhands" Weinstein wanted to cut thirty minutes out of the film in order to make it more "palatable" for audiences. To be honest, having seen Snowpiercer, I'm not sure what parts he thought cutting out of the film would improve it in any way. It doesn't need improving, and there's no amount of editing that could turn this cerebral, at times surreal film, into a crowd pleaser. The failure of the more crowd friendly Edge of Tomorrow is a testament that sometimes, the audiences just aren't going to come in. Eventually they came to an agreement that Snowpiercer could stay at its original length, so long as it only saw limited release. The good news is that word of mouth really made a difference, and like the even more bizarre Under the Skin, Snowpiercer was being talked about, even when it was hard to see it.

 Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, Snowpiercer is deceptively simple in its premise: in an attempt to curtail global warming, climate scientists an experimental compound, which backfires, freezing the entire world. Humanity has been all but wiped out, save for those who managed to board a luxury train designed by Wilford Industries. It was designed to run almost perpetually, and it's the only thing left that can traverse the frozen wasteland. For 17 years, the train has been going, never stopping. The social strata that makes up the remainder of humanity correlates with the sections of the train: the very poor, destitute, who could not pay for their way aboard the Snowpiercer are in the back, and the rich live near the front, in opulence, near the reclusive Wilford, who conducts the train. The back section is tired of the inequity, and Curtis (Chris Evans) finds himself leading a push from to the front - violently, if necessary.

 Embedded into the protein bars, someone has been sending Curtis messages, and with the advice of the former conductor, Gilliam (John Hurt), he thinks that now might be the time. Their only contact from the front of the train comes through Mason (Tilda Swinton), an officious, pompous bureaucrat who loves nothing so much as to remind them of their place. If they can capture her, and get past security with the help of Namgoong (Song Kang Ho), who designed the doors but also has a debilitating addiction to the train fuel's byproduct, there's a chance to confront Wilford* and stop the train. Or better conditions. Or, it depends on who gets there first. One of the interesting things is that despite the fact that Snowpiercer is a metaphor for class struggle and revolution, it's also fairly evident that this doesn't mean everyone has the same agenda. What Curtis wants is very different from what Namgoong wants, and how Gilliam and Wilford respond are fascinating unto themselves.

 Some people, like Tanya (Octavia Spencer) or Andrew (an unrecognizable Ewen Bremner) want their children back. Every now and then Mason takes them up to the front, for reasons no one in the back know, and they never return. Others, like Edgar (Jamie Bell), who were born on the train, want a sense of justice, of agency. They've never known anything but misery, undernourishment, and subjugation. We learn later in the film what life was like in the early days, moments that give considerable weight to character moments at the beginning of the film. Before that, as Curtis and company move to the front of the train, things get weird.

 This, perhaps, is what Weinstein thought he could "help" Snowpiercer with: each section of the train is distinct from the one that came before it, often in truly unusual ways. There's no way to adequately describe the surreal classroom sequence featuring Allison Pill (The Newsroom) as a Wilford Propagandist Teacher. It's not the last time the film is willing to get truly odd, which is saying something about Snowpiercer. Because the structure of the revolution is back-to-front, we often get information (particularly symbolism, like dipping axes in fish guts) before its significance is addressed. What seems like an outré moment becomes, not long after, significant in the larger structure of the world. I still love the point where a large contingent of security guards, led by Mason and Franco the Elder (Vlad Ivanov) and Franco the Younger (Adnan Haskovic) meet our heroes in a long car to battle. It abruptly comes to a halt when the train crosses a long bridge, which marks the passage of another year. The brief celebration (on both sides) and cheers of "Happy New Year" come to an end when Namgoong's assistant / translator, Yona (Ah-Sung Ko) informs Curtis that they're about to enter a "really long tunnel," and only the guards have night vision goggles. It's these unusual touches, which often collide with the brutal, post-apocalyptic reality, that give the film its distinctiveness. Trimming them out in order to "improve" the run time would have robbed Snowpiercer of many of its best moments.

 Without spoiling too much, I'd like to return to the moral ambiguity of the film by briefly discussing the inevitable conclusion when Curtis reaches Wilford (I won't say who does or doesn't make it along the way, but Bong Joon-Ho doesn't hesitate to thin both sides of the herd). There's a customary "talk with the Devil" scene, where our hero faces temptation, but this time, you have to hand it to Wilford. The case he makes is, to be honest, a fair one: what did Curtis really expect to do when he made it to the engine? Is he really going to risk wiping out all of humanity by stopping the train? It was established earlier in the film - in a horrific way - just how long a person can last exposed to the outside world. Wilford has been responsible for some horrible, unforgivable decisions, and it's during his speech that many of the seemingly "weird" moments begin to make much more sense. We've been introduced to everything that's happening in the movie well before we realized it, and the case that Wilford makes, however ghoulish, is pragmatic. From his perspective, as the steward of all of humanity, what else can he do?

 I'm not necessarily justifying either side here - before meeting Wilford, Curtis explains exactly why he's been so hesitant to lead, and what happened in the first few years, and it's not necessarily the sort of story you tell proudly. Evan's face during the monologue is riveting, and the revelations are every bit as disturbing as the discovery of what the protein bars are made of. It's the first of many revelations that contextualize dialogue you'd largely considered to be standard "I'm not fit to lead" conversations earlier in Snowpiercer. In many ways, it's a far more complicated movie than its premise would suggest, and the fact that neither side is necessarily "right" in what they want to do and how they want to do it give more heft to the ending.

 Across the board, performances are high level. Anyone who thinks that Chris Evans can only be stoic and "goody two shoes" need only spend two hours with him as Curtis to wipe that notion away. Swinton and Pill border the closest to "cartoonish" in the film, with Mason resembling a caricature of Margaret Thatcher (by design) and the Teacher being part of what is Snowpiercer's oddest moment. Both serve a purpose in the film, as does Ivanov's largely silent Franco the Elder, who doggedly pursues the rebels up the train. Special kudos to Kang-ho Song (Thirst) and Ah-sung Ko (The Host), who are more than what they seem and whose impact on the story is significant. If there's a missed note in the film, it might be from Emma Levie as Claude, Wilford's assistant, who is underdeveloped to the point of being superfluous, even late in the film. Otherwise, most of the ensemble cast is more than capable of following the story in whatever direction it takes.

 To be frank, I'm happy that we got to see Snowpiercer in its original form. There was always a chance of it lingering on the shelf in obscurity, because of debates surrounding its "palatability" with mainstream audiences. I'm not sure that the masses would or could embrace a film as nihilistic as Snowpiercer is willing to be, but now it's out there for the world to decide. It was a great year for science fiction, and Snowpiercer is near the top as far as the Cap'n is concerned.

 *I'm deliberately leaving out who plays Wilford, because it's more fun to find out, although you're likely to see the name of the actor before you watch the movie. Just not here.

Cap'n Howdy's Best of 2014: The Guest

 Just the other day, I heard someone refer to Adam Wingard's You're Next as "overrated"; it's a sentiment I disagree with, but over the years I have learned that opinions are very hard to change when it comes to movies. Your reaction to a film doesn't exist in a vacuum, no matter how hard you try to "go in blind." There are at least two more movies that will come later in this "Best Of" portion of the recap where I've read reviews that took a film to task for its reputation, rather than the film itself*. It happens, and I'm no different. The Cap'n took a long time to be able to watch Scott Pilgrim vs. the World divorced from fawning internet praise and see on its own merits. I still don't necessarily agree with the notion it's a better movie than Edgar Wright's next film, The World's End, but that's another discussion for another day. I wanted to bring the issue of expectations - justified or not - up because, like You're Next, Wingard's latest film, The Guest, is going to hinge on what you've heard going in.

 In many ways, The Guest is a stylistic successor to You're Next, both in execution but also in Wingard's willingness to play with genre expectations. I would venture that it's an improvement on You're Next in that the first act isn't as wobbly, but how he subverts expectations might be a sticking point for you. Personally, I loved it. Every moment of The Guest made me chuckle, or smile, because Wingard is clearly having fun with the story structure. It's a genre that horror / thriller fans know very well: the "stranger arrives who seems nice but is actually very dangerous" is so prevalent that you can spot it right away in a trailer. So it's a pleasant surprise that The Guest is both exactly what you'd expect, but also not quite the movie you think you'll get.

 The titular stranger in this instance is David (Dan Stevens), a combat veteran who served in a Special Unit. He arrives at the home of the Peterson family, and informs Laura Peterson (Sheila Kelley) that he served with her son. It was his dying with that David go to their home and inform them that he loved them all. Laura is still pretty broken up, and when she realizes that David doesn't have anywhere to go, she invites him to stay with them. From the first moment we see Stevens as David, it's clear he has an ulterior motive. Wingard isn't even trying to hide it, because he knows what we know: this setup can only end badly. And that's when he starts making subtle shifts.

 What I like about The Guest is that, while the family has doubts about David, instead of just insinuating himself and threatening people, he actually does try to help the Petersons improve their lives. Without spoiling too much, David considers it his "mission" to be of assistance to the family, albeit in disproportionately violent ways. The youngest member of the family, Luke (Brendan Meyer), is being bullied by high school jocks, so David follows them to a bar they shouldn't be at and picks a fight. The bullies are grossly outmatched, but they don't know that, and David uses the fact that they shouldn't be there against the bartender calling the cops. Luke is impressed. Similarly impressed is Peterson family patriarch Spencer (Leland Orser), who finds in David a drinking buddy, someone who will listen to his woes about being passed over for a promotion. When the person who got the promotion goes missing, it never even occurs to him the correlation.

 There has to be a suspicious member of the family, even in The Guest, and generally speaking it's Anna Peterson (Maika Monroe), Luke's older sister who works at the diner and is dating Zeke (Chase Williamson), a low level drug dealer. She doesn't trust him at first, but David wins Anna over, until she begins noticing the effect he's having on the rest of the family. And friends going missing, like Craig (Joel David Moore), who might have introduced David to Higgings (Ethan Embry) in order to buy guns. Zeke is arrested, and a gun tied to Craig's death is in his car. Hrm, I wonder how that happened?

 In order to discuss how The Guest diverts from most "cat and mouse" thrillers, I'm going to have to tread into SPOILER territory, so keep that in mind for the rest of this paragraph. It is true that David is not who he says he is, or even possibly "David," but instead of just being any psychopath, it turns out he's a special forces top secret project psychopath. He's trained to remove any evidence once his cover is exposed, and despite his desire to help the Petersons, he can't disobey his training. Instead of strictly being a horror movie, The Guest takes a hard left turn three quarters of the way into the movie and becomes an action film, with David as a sort of Universal Soldier / Terminator force to be reckoned with. By the time Major Carver (Lance Reddick) enters the film, it's transitioned from thriller to full on action, complete with a guns blazing siege on the Peterson home, car chases, and even the standard "how tough is this guy" speech. It transitions back into a variation of a horror film stalk and slash at the end, with a great last line delivered by Anna about how impossible it is to kill David.

 More than the fact that The Guest isn't the movie you thought it was going to be, Wingard makes the film fun. It's much funnier than I was expecting, with more structure than You're Next and a better sense of pacing. There are times when you want David to succeed, in part because it's never clear what he's really up to. Wingard wisely avoids an information dump, so we don't know too much about who he really is or what his long term goals are. Stevens (Downton Abbey) is pitch perfect as the guy who is too good to be true, but even in his misguided, horrible ways, tries to do right by his adopted family until he goes to survival mode. Even at the end, when Anna and Luke manage to overcome him, he tells them not to feel bad about it. He's proud of them. He's a sincere sociopath, and you respect him for that.

 I'm not sure that I've ever seen Maika Monroe or Brendan Meyer in anything else before, but they're more believable young adults than you usually get in this sort of movie. It's always nice to see Leland Orser (Very Bad Things), and while his role is small, it's a good juxtaposition to Sheila Kelley (Lost)'s broken Laura. You almost feel bad for the local scumbags that Williamson (John Dies at the End), Moore (Avatar), and Embry (Cheap Thrills), because they're grossly outmatched, but they seem like all right guys. Too bad most of them have to meet bad ends. Lance Reddick (John Wick) doesn't appear until halfway into the film, when Anna calls in to verify David's identity, but he brings the presence of a grizzled commander, the type that would be sent in to calm down John Rambo.

 All of this is my way of saying that there's a lot to enjoy about The Guest. By the same token, I think that there's a good chance that people will get over-hyped about the film, think that it's the greatest thing since sliced bread, and then come back and say "you idiot this overrated crap is just a lame action movie horror thing!" Meanwhile I see it as the evolution of Adam Wingard as a director, and a clever twist on a genre so worn that it's largely relegated to DTV. I also thought You're Next was very good, and it's definitely a marked improvement on "home invasion" movies with a highly capable Final Girl. There's some overlap between You're Next and The Guest, so if you didn't like the minimalistic, synth-heavy soundtrack to the former, know that there's more of it in the latter. Again, that doesn't bother me, but Cranpire didn't particularly care for it.

 The danger of having "Best Of" lists is that it creates a perception of films that elevate them beyond what I say. It's why I've given up reading festival reviews, and why I might hold back on Nevermore coverage this year - it's a very particular atmosphere that leads to hyperbole. In the age where internet is king, a positive or negative review has to vacillate between "it's the best thing ever" or "what a turd biscuit" with little room for nuance. Point out the flaws in a film and suddenly it's "just okay." Well,  I think that The Guest is a very entertaining film, one that aspires to be fun in the same way that 80s action films are without trying to be just like them. If that sounds like your cup of tea, it's definitely worth seeing, but it's not going to make you breakfast in the morning. Like John Wick, another movie I thought stood out in 2014, it's just a movie. Your mileage may vary, but for my money, The Guest is worth it.

 * The one I'm thinking of specifically is a review of Birdman that's a mixed-positive, largely because the film wasn't as "smart" as it thought it was. Why? Because the reviewer went to see the film framed by the notion that his friends were raving about how smart it was. Similarly, there's a very negative video review of Inherent Vice I saw where one of the commentators insinuates that anyone claiming to "understand" the movie is lying in order to look "cool."

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Cap'n Howdy's Best of 2014: Calvary

 Up to this point, I can't name a movie by Martin or John Michael McDonagh that I haven't really enjoyed. Martin transitioned from playwright to filmmaker with the raucous yet melancholic In Bruges, and followed that with Seven Psychopaths, a quasi-Adaptation for crime movies. John Michael's debut was The Guard, which you may remember made my "Best Of" list a few years ago. His newest film, Calvary, is in no way as funny as The Guard, nor should it be: Calvary is a meditation on faith among the faithless, and when the laughs come, they're tinged with bitterness. Like The Guard and, in many ways, In Bruges, McDonagh's latest rests on the mighty shoulders of Brendan Gleeson.

 Gleeson plays Father James, a Catholic priest living in a small, coastal town in Ireland. The film begins as he sits down to take confession, and as seems to be the fashion for McDonagh, the first line is a doozy. I'm not going to tell you what it is, but you might want to have the subtitles turned on, because the thick accent might cause you not to hear the provocative statement from our antagonist. If you really listen, you can make out who it is, but at the outset of the film, we aren't supposed to know the identity of the man who was molested as a child by a Catholic priest. It wasn't Father James, but this man is going to kill him anyway, to make a point. To him, it doesn't matter if someone kills a bad priest, but if you murder a good one, somebody will notice. He gives James seven days to put his affairs in order, and then meet on the beach to be executed.

 Calvary is not so much a mystery about who is going to kill the Father and whether he can stop it - James seems resolved to his fate, and even if we're not sure, I'm reasonably certain he knows who it is immediately*. The rest of Calvary, broken into days, revolves around his (mostly futile) attempts to help the people in the community. Many of them have abandoned God and have no faith in the church anymore - the molestation scandal weighs heavily as a subtext in the film - to the point where they are openly hostile to him. Veronica Brennan (Orla O'Rourke) is cheating on her husband Jack (Chris O'Dowd) with Simon (Isaach De Bankolé), who might be beating her. When James confronts Simon, he threatens the Father, and Veronica rebukes his offer to help. She likes it, and Jack doesn't seem to care at all. Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran) is a wealthy man who likes to flaunt his wealth, and taunts Father James with promises of donations, in the hopes that philanthropy might help with his depression. Father Leary (David Wilmot) makes inappropriate comments, and doesn't seem to understand his role in the church.

 The closest thing James has to friends in the town are Dr. Frank Harte (Aiden Gillen), an Atheist who regales the Father with horrible stories of human suffering, and The Writer (M. Emmet Walsh), an American who lives in a shack near the sea, romanticizing the notion of suicide in his advanced age. Into this mess enters his daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), whose failed suicide brings her to his home for care. James wasn't always a Catholic priest, as we discover, and his decision to take up a calling after the death of his wife is a sore point between father and daughter. Still, she loves him, and he loves her, but James has no intention of sharing with Fiona what's in store for him. He remains stoic about what he feels is inevitable, and will suffer the indifference of the town to his very existence if it means he can reach one person by the end.

 Calvary is not an easy film to watch: it's a cascade of cruelty, a bitterly funny one at times, but nevertheless a downbeat film punctuated with small moments of genuine human emotion. One of the stories that Dr. Harte tells, during a drunken night at the bar, is so dark, so evil that it causes James to angrily exclaim "why did you tell me that?" It's as though the entire town is conspiring to drive him out, to make him crack, to be what they want all of Catholicism to represent. His church is burnt to the ground: was it the mystery assailant, or just someone else trying to get a rise out of James? Why would someone murder his dog? There's a moment between Gleeson and his real life son, Domhnall, playing a murderer in prison who asks to speak to Father James that's chilling. He shows to reticence, no shades of guilt, only a frustration that he can't remember what he did with his last victim.

 There might be a misstep here or there in Calvary, particularly with James, Simon, and a barkeep late in the film that seems gratuitously violent. A drunken Michael pissing on his art collection goes on a little too long, and subplot involving Leo (Owen Sharpe), the lover / john of Inspector Stanton (Gary Lydon) seems superfluous. Father Leary and Milo (Killian Scott) are underdeveloped characters for most of the film, but it's not the sort of thing that really hurts Calvary. The film is particularly interested in the way that Father James weathers this abuse, this distrust, and how he wants to make things better, one way or the other. It's another impressive performance from Brendan Gleeson, who continues to be an actor worth every moment of your attention. Kelly Reilly is also very good, as the one other sympathetic character in the film. This is not to say that the rest of the cast aren't good, but many of their characters are reprehensible in their words and actions that it's hard to like them.

 Calvary is not a film for everyone, even if it is a fine film indeed. You won't laugh the same way you did with The Guard, which is a film you should already be on your way to watching, if you haven't. Calvary is a test, a less explicit but by no means less vicious attack on human decency, the likes of which are reminiscent of a Lars von Trier film. It's a powerful film, but a painful one, not without its flaws, but most definitely an experience worth undertaking. If you're willing to peer into the heart of darkness to see if a glimmer of light even exists.

* Watching the film a second time, and knowing who the killer is, adds an extra layer to how James interacts with the character throughout Calvary, and while he tells his superior that he thinks he knows who it is, I'm positive that's a ruse to prevent the Catholic church from trying to stop it from happening.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Cap'n Howdy's Best of 2014: Captain America - The Winter Soldier

 Coming into 2014, I must admit that I wasn't very excited with Marvel's schedule. After the pretty good, but definitely "yup, we're going to do Dark Elves and crap like that" nerd-out that was Thor: The Dark World, it seemed like we were in for a year of Marvel spending testing how far a mainstream audience would follow them. Mostly by that I mean Guardians of the Galaxy, which I'll be getting to soon, but I wasn't particularly interested in Captain America: The Winter Soldier either. It had less to do with the premise - which was a pretty good arc in the comic - but more that I just didn't like Captain America: The First Avenger. I still don't, really: it's an assemblage of scenes without any clear narrative structure or, to be honest, stakes, designed to tell Steve Rogers (Chris Evans)'s origin story, introduce the Red Skull and the Tesseract, and then freeze Cap so he can be in The Avengers. It is not, however, a movie that I found to be worth watching again, and I tried.

 Accordingly, I had very little enthusiasm for The Winter Soldier, despite the presence of different directors (Joe and Anthony Russo instead of Joe Johnston) and a focus more on Cap's role in S.H.I.E.L.D.* over trying to sell the "shared universe." That is, to say, more like Iron Man 3, which everyone seems to hate but me, in part because I knew it was a Shane Black movie. Still, I didn't really have any reason to assume that the brothers Russo, veterans of Arrested Development and Community, were any better equipped to make a Captain America movie than the director of The Rocketeer. I also didn't know what kind of Captain America movie they were making - that it would be heavily influenced by 1970s paranoia thrillers, mixed with modern action films, but with slightly more coherent editing. Had I known that, I might have still been suspicious of the directors' background in comedy, but it would have assuaged any lingering concerns that The Winter Soldier would be anything like The First Avenger.

 In fact, The Winter Soldier isn't even anything like The Avengers, which worked Cap into the fold, but sometimes in uncomfortable, ham fisted ways. We're not talking Hawkeye levels of "why are you in this?", mind you, but if you look at the team dynamic, Steve Rogers has very little impact until late in the film, and even then it's mostly Iron Man's show. The Winter Soldier, despite the increased presence of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), is mostly Steve Rogers' show. It's less a film about him adjusting to the present than putting Captain America's "good old fashioned American values" against the modern surveillance / defense landscape. More importantly, it's not necessarily clear that either side is totally right or totally wrong. Fury finds himself the target of an assassination, Cap and Black Widow end up on the run, and the head of S.H.I.E.L.D., Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) has to make a decision about the organization's future.

 To say much more would spoil the movie, and by proxy, the end of the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and on the off chance you're the one person reading this who hasn't been prepping for The Avengers: Age of Ultron, I'll let you be surprised. If there's any character who gets the short shrift in The Winter Soldier, it's the titular character, who is limited to a "Darth Maul" level of screen time for much of the film. When he's onscreen - and for SPOILER purposes, I won't identify the actor - The Winter Soldier's impact on the story is felt, but his overall arc feels more like the beginning to a larger story. That said, he's part of several crackerjack action sequences, handled with aplomb by the Russo brothers. Both are essentially chase sequences: one with Fury, and the other involving Cap, Black Widow, and the man who will become Falcon (Anthony Mackie). Aside from John Wick, they may be my favorite sustained action sequences in a film this year, and I was not expecting that from Marvel. Not only are they well choreographed, but the Nick Fury chase scene is as suspenseful as anything I've seen in a while.

 I noticed that The Winter Soldier has a slight shift in the way that Cap / Steve Rogers is portrayed: Chris Evans adds more nuance to the "good guy" type from The First Avenger and The Avengers. He's trying to fit into the world now, and not just in a way that generate anachronism laughs. The Winter Soldier is frequently funny without relying on "Rip Van Winkle" jokes - although his notebook of pop culture to catch up on is amusing in its own right. The film also bridges the first and second film by having a few returning characters, mostly presented in logical ways. It's a bit sad to see an elderly Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) suffering from Alzheimer's, even if we also meet her granddaughter (Emily VanCamp). Technically that might be a SPOILER, since the film doesn't necessarily address it yet, but instead lays the groundwork for her character as an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. in a few critical junctures of the story. The most surprising cameo has the potential to be the dumbest, as it is the equivalent of the "Bond villain explains his plan" moment in the film, but the audacity behind it makes the scene work. In fact, it's hard to think of a moment that doesn't work in the film, other than maybe the Big Dumb Climax.

 Like Guardians of the Galaxy, and Thor: The Dark World, and Iron Man 3, and The Avengers, and I would argue, even The First Avenger, The Winter Soldier ends with Cap and Falcon trying to bring down three flying weapons of mass destruction before they, well, destroy everything. How you feel about this apparent strategy to end every Marvel film the same way is going to depend on your mileage for this overused finale. It's not any better or worse than the others, and its impact will be felt on the larger Marvel universe in movies we haven't gotten to yet (Ant-Man, how do you feel about the collapse of, uh, SPOILER nevermind). It does seem silly to use this as the backdrop for a moment between Captain America and The Winter Soldier, as the film does end on a series of quieter moments, but maybe the blockbuster comic book movie demands it. I mean, Days of Future Past isn't a lot different, what with its "dropping a stadium around The White House", and while I didn't see The Amazing Spider-Man 2, I sure heard about its Big Dumb Ending.

 Anyway, I was quite mistaken in thinking I wouldn't like Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It's a thriller disguised as a comic book movie, one that's clever and works hard to stay ahead of its audience for as long as possible. A background in comedies, particularly comedies like Arrested Development and Community gives the Russo brothers the skill to convey information quickly without dumbing it down. Instead, they can rely on audiences to pick up hints and foreshadow events without spelling it out again. Characters go through some serious doubt and don't come out unscathed at the end. Now the Russos are going to bring Civil War to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and this is a very good sign of things to come for Captain America. It wouldn't be the first time I was wrong about Marvel's direction in 2014, but I'm glad I resisted my misgivings and watched it. And then watched it again. And then with the commentary...

 * As a side note, it's probably worth mentioning that I had been so underwhelmed by Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. after the first few episodes that I stopped watching, and didn't finish the first season until after The Winter Soldier came out. The back half of the first season is considerably better than the first six or seven episodes.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Cap'n Howdy's Best of 2014: Only Lovers Left Alive

 It's a relief to be able to think of Jim Jarmusch fondly again. As unfair as it is to judge a director I like harshly by one movie, I couldn't get the bitter taste of Limits of Control out of my mouth for a long time, and it inexplicably tainted his earlier films, many of which I really enjoy. For five years, it lingered, festering and rotting, annoying me with an "art-y for its own sake" construction, and I suddenly didn't feel like watching Ghost Dog or Down by Law. There's no "there" there in Limits of Control - the film is strictly an exercise of the director drawing attention to how clever his ideas are, with no characters or narrative to draw from. A lack of narrative isn't especially new for Jarmusch - in fact, it's usually a selling point. But lack of characters? Can you imagine Dead Man without the oddball supporting cast to balance out Johnny Depp? Coffee and Cigarettes at all?

 Thankfully, five years later, Jim Jarmusch returns to characters, and from a most unlikely (for him) literary source: vampires. But I wasn't worried. I can't explain why, but despite the fact that we've been seeing watered down bloodsuckers for the last half decade (or more), something about the idea of Jarmusch and vampires felt right. It was a gamble that paid off, because Only Lovers Left Alive is easily his best film since Ghost Dog and completely wipes Limits of Control off the ledger. Everything that fans have come to expect from Jarmusch is in there: the aimless story, the location as musical backdrop, the off-kilter humor, and most importantly, memorable characters.

 When we meet Eve (Tilda Swinton) and Adam (Tom Hiddleston), we don't know anything about them other than they abide messy abodes. The camera hovers above them, spinning like a 45 as Jarmusch makes his way to their faces, the soundtrack booming. If you haven't seen the trailer, I suppose there's a good chance you wouldn't know they were vampires, at least until Eve leaves her apartment in Tangier to visit a night café. She's waiting patiently for an old friend (John Hurt), and when she says his name, Christopher Marlowe, I guess the jig is up for people going in blind. Yes, that would be "the" Christopher Marlowe, and yes, he's a vampire. He has a nice supply of "the good stuff" that he's happy to share with Eve, but please don't say his name out loud.

 Just writing this, I feel like I'm making Only Lovers Left Alive out to be a very obvious and stupid sounding movie, which it isn't. Jarmusch doesn't play coy about Adam and Eve* - they are vampires, they are old, and there's a lot of unspoken history between them. Taken out of the context of the movie, I could understand how it might sound clever in a bad way, but it's presented so matter-of-factly in the story that it's hard not to take in stride. Eve is so easygoing, and Adam so morose, that you worry they're just going to be "types," but then Jarmusch brings them together and Only Lovers Left Alive shifts into a love story.

 Marlowe asks Eve why she and Adam don't live together if they've been married as long as they have been, but it seems pretty clear when she leaves Tangier to visit him in the U.S. that they have a long history together. They can be together and apart, and Jarmusch doesn't give any explicit reason why they're comfortable half a world away. There's no tragedy or disagreement hanging over the narrative - it just is, and you accept it the same way you do the conceit that they're vampires. Like many Jarmusch films, the why is less important. It gets in the way of what is.

 As he has in the past, Jarmusch sets Only Lovers Left Alive in a city known for its musical history. In this instance, it's Detroit, where Adam sets up shop in an abandoned part of town (the city's current financial calamity is another critical part of the story) and makes music in anonymity. At least, relative anonymity. He has Ian (Anton Yelchin) bring him recording equipment, instruments and, in one special request, a bullet made of wood. That doesn't amount to much more than a MacGuffin, but it's behind what brings Eve back to Adam. He's sick of the "zombies" (what vampires call humans) and is irritated that his music is finding an audience, despite his efforts to mask his identity. She brings him solace, and when the two of them come together, their facades crumble at bit. It turns out that Adam is also something of an amateur scientist and mechanic, who sets up his own sustainable energy for the house and who tinkers with old equipment. During a Skype (?) chat, he transfers the laptop signal to an old television. It's something he enjoys doing.

 Most of the time they drive around Detroit, and he takes her to the Detroit Theater (now a parking lot) and offers to show her the Motown Museum ("I'm more of a Staxx girl," she professes), but Eve is awfully impressed when Adam pulls up in front of Jack White's childhood home. If there's a singularly Jim Jarmusch-y moment in the film, that has to be it, but fans of Mystery Train should enjoy the thematic bridge. Their reunion is short lived, because dreams involving Eve's sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska) turn out to be her way of announcing a visit. Ava doesn't care much about protocol like entering a home without permission and doesn't care much about personal space - she's more than happy to tear through Adam's supply of blood. She's not a very welcome guest, by either of them. It's hinted that they haven't seen her in more than a hundred years, and that it didn't end well "in Paris," and she doesn't seem to have changed much.

 True to form, she wastes no time in aggravating Adam and testing the patience of her sister, who tries to give her the benefit of the doubt. They make quite a trio, with their dark sunglasses and gloves, hanging out at the back of a club watching some band play (at her insistence), with Ian in tow, clueless to what's in the flask they're passing around ("is that Jaegermeister?"). By the end of the following day, she's worn out her welcome and insured they can't stay in Detroit, but they're the "boring, pretentious assholes." Her parting gift, so to speak (other than a SPOILER I'll leave out) is to leave Adam with a broken Gibson guitar from 1905, one that Eve had only recently identified the age of. It's no wonder that he was wary to find Ava had invited herself in the night before. Kids...

 Lest you worry that things get to dour and "goth" with vampires in the picture, you needn't worry: Only Lovers Left Alive is frequently very funny, in an off-beat way. Much of it comes from Adam's source for blood in Detroit, played by Jeffrey Wright. I'd tell you his name, but the setup and payoff of his name tag and the one Adam is wearing is too good to spoil here. When Adam needs blood, he pulls his scraggly black hair back into a ponytail, puts on scrubs, a stethoscope, and walks into the local hospital. The other doctors give him an askew glance, but don't say anything. However, in order to maintain a sense of mystery, Adam puts on his sunglasses when he walks into the blood lab, and he looks ridiculous. Jarmusch holds on the image of Adam trying to look intimidating as if to say, "dude, who are you kidding?" and Wright's character reacts accordingly.

 Yelchin and Wasikowska also provide varying degrees of comic relief, although Hiddleston gets most of the laughs as he tries to humor Eve and handle Ava with anything more than exasperation. His carefully constructed persona collapses completely with his wife and sister-in-law dragging him to a club, and Hiddleston knows exactly when to play the laugh. It would be easy to say he's simply playing a variation on Loki in Only Lovers Left Alive, but I don't think that's quite the case. Adam is more a creature of habit than Loki is, more comfortable in his carefully controlled environment. By the end of the film that environment has been completely shattered, and there's a humorous inevitability to the final shot. Swinton plays the moment perfectly, but that's consistent with her performance in the entire film. As Eve, she carries herself with a natural ease at all times that Adam desperately wants to have. Watching her subtle facial shifts around Ava is also fascinating - Adam is disdainful, but Eve is cautious, nervous even.

 In all honestly, I could have spent another hour with Eve and Adam, but I'm happy to have what's there. Only Lovers Left Alive restores the character to the Jim Jarmusch character study, and you don't mind watching a movie where the main characters drive around Detroit or hang out on the couch most of the time. Really, it's a lot of fun. The soundtrack is great, the actors are having fun, and Jarmusch brings just the right balance of directorial flourish and musical fetishism to the proceedings that I'm having a hard time finding things to complain about. There are more bad vampire movies and shows out there than good ones, it often feels like, so it's nice to add another film to the "positive" category. If you want to see a vampire movie where nothing really happens that you'll enjoy, check out Only Lovers Left Alive. Unless you like sparkly things or need someone to say the word "vampire" every ten minutes. You won't find that here.

 * Jarmusch did not, apparently, intend for audiences to assumed they were "the" Adam and Eve, but the IMDB trivia page erroneously refers to them being based on Mark Twain's satirical excerpts from the "diaries" of Adam and Eve, which ARE about "that" Adam and Eve. Twain also appears as a photograph on the wall of acquaintances in Adam's apartment.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Cap'n Howdy's Best of 2014: John Wick

 I'm well aware that nobody is going to believe me that the Cap'n willingly sat down to watch a new Keanu Reeves joint. After all, I'm one of those Day One Matrix deniers who still doesn't get why everybody is so gaga about the first movie. Technically proficient, fun to watch action movie with pretensions of being high-minded science fiction? Sure, and most certainly to the second part, because if you name-drop Baudrillard in your movie and then he says you missed the point of Simulacra and Simulation... yeah. You know kung-fu. I still laugh when I think about that. Also, it's Dark City a year after Dark City came out. But I'm not here to re-litigate arguments from fifteen years ago. The point is that while I've seen many Keanu Reeves movies (including The Replacements), it's always with a groan or rolled eyes. The Cap'n has always been kind of a jerk when it came to Ted Theodore Logan, especially in his "action" phase.

 But yeah, John Wick. The trailer looked great, and I already enjoyed Man of Tai Chi (directed by and starring Reeves as the bad guy), so what the hell? A good, straight ahead revenge movie usually scratches my itch, and John Wick had a pretty solid premise: a retired hitman (Reeves) loses his wife, his car, and his dog in the span of a few days. The last two happen in one fell swoop, thanks to some Russian mobster (Michael Nyqvist)'s idiot kid (Alfie Allen), who just decides to break in to Wick's house because he wouldn't sell him his 1970 Mustang. Everybody, including his father, is immediately aware that this was a bad, bad idea, because John Wick is something of a legend among hit men.

 There's a stripped down quality to John Wick, directed by longtime Reeves stunt double Chad Stahelski that's refreshing in a way. I don't need every action movie to reinvent the wheel or throw in some crazy gimmick; as much as I find the Fast and Furious sequels entertaining, the ludicrous need to top themselves is funnier than it is exciting. John Wick reminds me a little bit of Payback in tone, but with more aggressive, brutal fights. Stahelski resists the current urge to edit every fight scene to the point of incomprehensibility, and we, the audience, are rewarded with long takes where Reeves mixes in a combination of kung-fu, gun-fu, with a touch of MMA-based grappling thrown in when he doesn't have an option. John Wick is not a man with whom you should mess, and everybody in the film except for Iosef (Allen) seems to understand that.

 After the idiot steals the car, he takes it to a chop shop and is promptly punched in the face by Aurelio (John Leguizamo) for having the audacity to bring John Wick's car to him. He asks him "do you know whose car this is?" and Iosef looks at him like he's insane. When Viggo (Nyqvist) calls later to ask Aurelio why he struck his son, his response to the explanation is "Oh," and he hangs up. Viggo knows his son is dead meat, and with a sense of resignation, he goes through the motion of trying to protect him: he calls Wick (it doesn't go well), he has his assistant, Avi (Dean Winters) put a contract on Wick's head, and he puts the boy in a safe house. But he knows how this is going to end. He even tries to explain it to his clueless son how dead he is, providing as much exposition about Wick's pre-retirement life as we're going to get juxtaposed with Reeves smashing open the floor. That's where the weapons and gold are - he'll need both to find Iosef, and he will find him.

 From there on out, John Wick the movie is a singular quest for revenge, and to facilitate that Stahleski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad (The Package) give us a glimpse into the underground world of assassins, without ever shifting or muddying the narrative. This gives them the opportunity to include a lot of recognizable actors from actions films (and elsewhere) to have a moment or two to shine in the film. Wick goes to The Continental Hotel, a place where hired killers can stay without fear of being attacked, thanks to house rules. It's run by Winston (Ian McShane, Death Race), who's surprised to see John walk back into his downstairs club. Adrianne Palicki (G.I. Joe: Retaliation) plays Jenkins, who's willing to violate the rules of the Continental in order to double the bounty on Wick's head. 

 Willem Dafoe is Marcus, a mentor of Wick's who may or may not take Viggo up on the bounty. The Wire's John Reddick and Clarke Peters play the concierge at the Continental and Harry, an associate of John's who agrees to watch Jenkins. You might also notice Kevin Nash (The Punisher), Keith Jardine (Gamer), Randal Duk Kim (The Matrix Reloaded), Daniel Bernhardt (Bloodsport 2), and Bridget Moynahan (I, Robot) briefly appearing as his dying wife. My favorite cameo is actually the leader of the cleanup crew that Wick calls, played by David Patrick Kelley (Commando). After a botched hit on his house, Wick calls out for a "reservation for twelve," which brings Charlie (Kelley) and two three burly guys in a "cleaning" van who meticulously clean the place up. It follows a scene where a Jimmy (The Newsroom's Thomas Sadoski), a local cop, responds to noise complaints at the Wick residence and finds John, post-neck snapping. Even Jimmy knows not to ask too much, so he nervously says, "you working again?" and then leaves Wick to his business.

 It's Reeves show, however, and he carries the film with a stoic, reserved performance, punctuated only by outbursts of brutal, focused violence. It's not often when you can make a headshot feel that rough, but Stahleski and Reeves work hard to make every blow register, every shot hurt. And Wick doesn't go unscathed - as good as he is, there's a little ring rust, and small mistakes add up over the course of the film. Of course, that leads to one of the best parts of the final fight between Reeves and Nyqvist, involving a knife, an abdominal wound, and a broken arm.

 There's really not much in Reeves' performance that's reminiscent of the wooden line readings I used to dread, and even when he does open up emotionally, it's with a seething rage that's more menacing than comical. Despite being emotionally devastated not once, but twice, Reeves bottles most of that up and give John Wick a steeled determination. His biggest laugh in the film is actually intended to be a joke, but his deadpan reaction to the joke is arguably funnier (it's in the trailer - the laundry scene), but it's supposed to be.

 Nyqvist and Allen are both good, the former more so than the latter, but mostly because Iosef is such a one note character. Despite having to be a Russian for no apparent reason (they're good villains, I guess) the Swedish Nyqvist brings a lot of nuance to a character that could have easily ended up like Rade Serbedzija's in Taken 2. He knows he can't be John Wick, and even in his small moments of hubris, where Viggo thinks he has an edge, there's a lingering doubt. Wick helped build his criminal empire, by doing the "impossible" hit, and he's not a man to try and stop. They have the mandatory final fight - hand to hand, in the rain - but it doesn't feel perfunctory. It's just the only way this can end.

 For me, John Wick feels like the culmination of a new era for Keanu Reeves, one where he's stepped back from doing big, blockbuster Hollywood movies in order to focus on projects he's passionate about. I had originally thought he stepped back after the third Matrix movie, but a glance at IMDB reminded me of Constantine and The Day the Earth Stood Still. One of those I liked and one I really didn't. Take a guess. I guess Street Kings would fall under that umbrella, too, but I think of that more as a first step for David Ayer that made it all the way to Fury this year (more on Fury another time).

 What I'd mostly remembered from Reeves was roles in smaller films that I liked a lot more, like Thumbsucker or A Scanner Darkly. That seemed to me more like the guy who took a supporting role in My Own Private Idaho than the star of Speed or Point Break. He narrated and conducted most of the interviews in Side by Side, and then spent a few years trying to make 47 Ronin happen (still haven't seen that one, but didn't hear great things), and the aforementioned Man of Tai Chi, which is less bombastic and more focused on good action choreography. And good action choreography is getting harder to find these days - just watch an Expendables movie if you doubt that. Maybe culmination is the wrong word - it's more like the "coming out" party for a new era of Reeves, the badass action star, not the one we underestimated because of his predilection for air guitar a long time ago (and, maybe, again).

 I don't always expect or even need action movies to be totally innovative or cutting edge. If you can tell a simple story very well, then that's just as welcome - sometimes even more so. John Wick is a very, very good revenge film, one that doesn't try crazy tricks or editing chicanery. If you're looking for a low-frills, quip-free, meat and potatoes action movie, this is right up your alley. In fact, I find it kind of amusing that most of the negative reviews of John Wick (which there aren't a lot of that I saw) use the fact that it's not somehow "groundbreaking" or "game changing" enough as the reason for it not being good. Oh well, if that's the worst you can say, I think John Wick's going to be okay.

  It gives you a glimpse into a world you wouldn't mind revisiting, with characters that would be interesting to see again. Some of them live, some of them don't, but since John Wick is wholly invented, I wouldn't say no to more films that took place before or after this one. Or, if it's a one-off, like Steven Soderbergh's Haywire, so be it. But I wouldn't say no to more movies with Mallory Kane or John Wick. And if you told me ten years ago that I would welcome more action movies from Steven Soderbergh or with Keanu Reeves, I might have called you crazy. Thankfully, the Cap'n is wrong sometimes. So put aside your inner doubts and see John Wick. It's much better than you're giving it credit for, sight unseen.

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...