Tuesday, December 23, 2014
A YEAR-END REVIEW EXTRAVAGANZA
By N & M. The time has come to elicit awe from our peers by making our top whatever lists public. Radical-4-ever, we will first present you with alphabetized capsule reviews of films we caught between October and December. (Want to know what we made of films released between January and September? Feel free to go here and order our book The Garden of Culture, which has already been hailed as the best read of 2014 by ten provincial rehab centers.) Here, have a manual: Articles are ignored (look under ‘B’ for The Babadook). No stars for wastes of celluloid; four stars for the absolute cream of the crop. Between brackets: director, country of origin, running time, year. ANNABELLE ★½ (John R. Leonetti. USA. 98 min. 2014) Cast: Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Tony Amendola, Alfre Woodard. Curb your enthusiasm ye who enter here. Annabelle, a movie both inevitable and trite, is a star vehicle for the inanimate doll that appeared in the prologue of last year’s The Conjuring. Annabelle is creepy as ever, but the redundant story lacks scares more sophisticated than audiovisual stingers. Inspired by events involving a Raggedy Ann doll. ANOTHER ME ★½ (Isabel Coixet. UK/Spain. 86 min. 2014) Cast: Sophie Turner, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Claire Forlani. British schoolgirl becomes convinced an evil doppelganger is trying to take over her life. It is. It succeeds. The film ends. Basically an emo version of a Goosebumps episode, padded out to feature length. Boring and repetitive. From the YA novel by Catherine MacPhail.
An animated selfie of the lovely Sophie Turner.
BABADOOK, THE ★★★
(Jennifer Kent. Australia. 93 min. 2014)
Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman.
Amelia, widowed nurse and single parent, is on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Things worsen still when she reads her five-year-old squirt from a creepy found pop-up novel called “Babadook” (an obvious anagram for “a bad book”). Its text and drawings promise Amelia that’s she’s apt to go off the wall and commit filicide. Amelia chucks the damned thing, only to find it waiting for her on the front porch. The Babadook succeeds in scaring and gripping the audience, thanks to Kent’s direction and Davis’s determined performance as Amelia. The bogus ending may give some viewers pause: are we supposed to take it as a parable for grief and domestic violence (Ruth is on the mend, all the while still missing her dearly departed husband and having the sporadic ill thought about her son), or is it a remnant from Monster, Kent’s related short subject from 2005? Despite its minor flaws, The Babadook is the best horror film of the year.
DUMB AND DUMBER TO ★★
(The Farrelly Brothers. USA. 107 min. 2014)
Cast: Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels, Kathleen Turner, Laurie Holden.
Feeble friends Lloyd and Harry team up to locate the latter’s daughter. Late sequel to the 1994 smash hit proves that tragedy can be comedy plus time. We hollered exactly ten times, which is unacceptable for a comedy that drags on for just shy of two hours. Make no mistake, this mediocre mess only exists to give Carrey, Daniels, and the Farrelly brothers a much needed career boost.
EDGE OF TOMORROW ★★★
(Doug Liman. USA. 113 min. 2014.)
Cast: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Brandan Gleeson, Bill Paxton.
Military hotshot Cruise suffers from a quaint condition: every time he dies, he wakes up again on the exact same day. After the initial shock, he embraces the notion that knowledge is power; time is on his side when learning how to defeat an aggressive alien species. But wait, let’s back up and go over the same questions Groundhog Day raised one more time. What exactly is going on? Has time stopped for everyone and is Cruise the only one whose memories and experiences aren’t reset before “respawning,” or does time go on for everybody else and does Cruise wake up in an alternate timeline? How our heads ache. In spite of the usual trappings of time travel stories, Edge of Tomorrow is a lot of fun, with Cruise’s character being the butt of several jokes.
GONE GIRL ★★½
(David Fincher. USA. 149 min. 2014)
Cast: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon.
Gillian Flynn’s novel Go Girl is the kind of potboiler you pick up at the airport and then read at a resort’s poolside, smacking your lips in response to the plot’s scrumptious twists and turns. It doesn’t surprise us that David Fincher’s adaptation has been eulogized as a masterful social satire, but we never understood how Fincher came by his reputation of infallible auteur. Fincher’s output is slick and well-produced, sure, but also in want of personality. So a married gal goes missing and her unfaithful husband seems to know more than he lets on. We wouldn’t dream of revealing the many surprises here, but let us say we thought Gone Girl never fully capitalized on its pulpy premise. Lacking delusions of grandeur, similar films like Malice (1993) and The Last Seduction (1994) are more gratifying.
♫ Don't be fooled by the girl that I lost, I'm still Benny from the block. ♫
With his girl gone, Ben Affleck finds solace in karaoke.
GOOD MARRIAGE, A ★
(Peter Askin. USA. 102 min. 2014)
Cast: Joan Allen, Anthony LaPlagia, Stephen Lang.
The press kit is adamant about referring to this concoction as “Stephen King’s A Good Marriage.” Feels, looks, and sounds like a fifty minute TV thingy padded out to feature length, so we can dig the distributor’s wish to emphasize King’s involvement (he wrote the screenplay based upon his novella). Darcy discovers her husband of 25 years is an mission-oriented serial killer. Her biggest concern is what the neighbors will say. Could and probably should have been something special.
(Alexandre Aja. USA/Canada. 120 min. 2014)
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Juno Temple.
Aja’s film of Horns is every bit as flawed as the entertaining novel by Joe Hill. It starts with a neat-o premise: murder suspect sprouts devil’s horns and discovers that everyone he encounters can’t help but spill the beans on their darkest needs. This satiric concept is squandered away on a predictable, sentimental whodunit. Radcliffe gives a strong performance, and Frederic Elmes’ cinematography is crisp and colorful.
(Christopher Nolan. USA. 169 min. 2014)
Cast: Matthew McConnaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Matt Damon, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley.
In a not-so-distant future mankind has exhausted Mother Earth’s resources. Farmer Matthew McConnaughey is drafted to pilot a spaceship that will enter a black hole and be catapulted to potentially inhabitable planets in other galaxies. Pick a Nolan film, any Nolan film, don’t tell us which one, and we’ll give you our one-word review of it. Ready? The film you picked is frustrating. The trick is that “frustrating” can be applied to anything Nolan ever did, including Interstellar. We’re far from Nolan’s number one fans, but the generally excellent Interstellar inspired us to sit down and have a think about why some people adore him while others call the director worse than irritable bowel syndrome. We came up with two reasons: 1. Nolan’s dichotomous storytelling. On the one hand he wants to ground his films in reality. On the other hand, he likes his tall tales and legends. That’s why Bruce Wayne needs six months to recover from a broken back (realistic) and then simply (re)appears in a city we were told was closed off (a parable about justice being everywhere). Interstellar has its share of such moments. Nolan employed technical consultants to make the story’s scientific aspects as feasible and accurate as possible. At the same time, Nolan asks of us to accept that the survival of the human race rides on finding a new home in a faraway galaxy. (Staying put and building bio-domes would be the bigger hassle, I reckon.) 2. Nolan has a knack for preaching. The Dark Knight had the “criminals used to be honorable people” speech and the ferry business, which tried to convince viewers that incarcerated murderers and rapists wouldn’t dream of hurting civilians. In Interstellar, egghead Brand’s new-age diatribe about love would make a guru blush to the roots of their hair. What we're trying to say is that Nolan invariably appeals to the heart and the mind in equal measure, an approach some find off-putting. Even though Interstellar doesn’t feel its running time, it still doesn’t know when to call it quits. We first thought it was going to have a downbeat ending. The gang went on a mission to save humanity and failed. Shit happens; that’s fine by us. Then it seemed to end on a hopeful note. Okay by us. Then it seemed to end on a somewhat far-fetched, syrupy note. Acceptable. But even then Nolan couldn’t leave well enough alone and tacked on an ending that wraps up everything up in a neat little package with a ribbon on top. Drat! Inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Black Hole, Prometheus, Gravity, and every time travel film that dared tackle the bootstrap paradox.
(Erik Van Looy. USA/Belgium. 108min. 2014)
Cast: Karl Urban, James Marsden, Wentworth Miller.
Five chronic infidels buy a downtown loft where they can schtupp their various lady friends. When the body of a young woman is found chained to the master bed, the lads get busy playing the blame game. What’s worse than a really bad whodunit? A mediocre one, unimaginatively directed and populated by bland characters we couldn’t care less about. What a chore to sit through. Based on a Belgian thriller.
MOST WANTED MAN, A ★★★
(Anton Corbijn. UK. 122 min. 2014)
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe.
I admired Control but didn’t care much for The American; does Wanted tip the scale in Corbijn’s favor? The late Hoffman plays a government agent who goes above and beyond to catch a criminal sponsoring terrorist attacks. Another director may have turned John le Carré’s novel into a conventional spy thriller with exciting chases and a token lovers-on-the-run subplot, but Corbijn’s approach is just as understated as Hoffman’s acting. Good, not great.
(Dan Gilroy. USA. 177 min. 2014)
Cast; Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton.
Whenever a terrible accident happens, Lou is there front row center to videotape the mayhem and then sell the footage to news stations. Our reading of Nightcrawler is a negotiated one; we recognize the film’s satiric elements, but taking potshots at gutter journalism has become redundant. If you have a hankering for media criticism, try To die For or Natural Born Killers. Nightcrawler is first and foremost a character study. “Your problem is you don’t understand people,” Lou’s long-suffering intern tells him late in the film. Could be. After all, the same Lou who attempted to get a job at a scrapyard later responds to someone’s job offer with an exasperated “Why are you talking to me as if I’m interested?” You ask us, the gaunt go-getter understands people all too well. His problem is that he’s a solipsistic misanthrope, one who’s prone to manipulate those around him with the motivational axioms and carefully rehearsed elevator pitches that keep pouring out of his trap. Lou is also a jack of all trades, not a savant longing for the limelight. Had the owner of the scrapyard hired him, Nightrcrawler would have detailed Lou’s ruthlessness in becoming the finest scrapyard employee that ever was. Profit, by the by, is but Lou’s way of keeping score—he seems content enough with his two-room apartment and the “company” of his peace lily. But as soon as the sun drops behind the horizon, Lou’s all set to whip out his camera and do the best job imaginable … over your dead body if need be.
Almost human. Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou in Nightcrawler.
(Stiles White. USA. 89 min. 2014)
Cast: Olivia Cooke, Ana Coto, Bianca A. Santos.
Teen commits suicide after playing with a Ouija board. It doesn’t take her mourning friends long to figure out what really happened, courtesy of newspaper clippings, video diaries, and a biddy dispensing exposition. If you still refuse to accept the ideometer effect as the explanation for messages “coming through” talking boards, wield the planchette blindfolded—your appointed shorthand reporter’s minutes will consist of gibberish. I suppose such rationalizations matter not. After all, delish old wives’ tales have served as the basis for entertaining films before. That said, we urge you to avoid Ouija. It’s a genuinely evil film, greenlighted only because the suits banked on the mere title being enough of a draw. Ticket buyers indeed showed up in droves, only to emerge from the auditorium feeling robbed and overcome by guilt (thanks for enabling a sequel to come through, jerks). After the first fifteen minutes, which are a carbon copy of The Ring, the film quickly becomes a disjointed series of cheap jump scares. Skip it.
SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR ★½
(Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller. USA. 102 min. 2014)
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Eva Green, Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lady Gaga, Bruce Willis, Juno Temple, Rosario Dawson.
Why did this more-of-the-same sequel to the popular 2005 film fail at the box office? Sin City was a big hit and the international movie database listed Sin City 2 and Sin City 3 as Rodriguez’s next projects, but the sequel was placed on the backburner for nearly a decade. Even loyal fans eventually gave up (and grew up) and moved on. The public didn’t care for Miller's The Shadow (2009), and what was once cutting edge in digital background wizardry became something everybody with a green rag can pull off in their sister’s basement. Okay, so that’s one strike against the film: a lack of audience anticipation. Strike numero dos: this anthology simply misses the urgency and schwung of its predecessor.
(Kevin Smith. USA. 102 min. 2014)
Cast: Justin Long, Michael Parks, Haley Joel Osment, Génesis Rodriguez, Johnny Depp.
Once upon a time … shockjock Mitch paid Canadian raconteur Howard Howe a social call and got much more than he bargained for. Inspired by Baron Munchausen and Dr. Josef Heiter, old man Howe walks the walk when he daydreams aloud about using a human body to recreate the walrus he once befriended. The first forty minutes had us glued to our seats, but just as we allowed ourselves a glimmer of hope that writer-director Smith was going to knock it out of the park, he introduced the uncredited Johnny Depp as a painfully unfunny Québécois, and the film became as intolerable a comedy as Cop Out. Smith’s and Depp’s daughters appear as grocery store clerks.
V/H/S: VIRAL ★½
(Nacho Vigalondo, Marcel Sarmiento, Gregg Bishop, Justin Benson, Aaron Scott Moorhead. USA. 81 min. 2014)
Cast: Justin Welborn, John Curran.
Another year, another V/H/S film that has little to do with the outdated video format. The scares are far and between this time, but at least so is the misogyny. Story 1: A struggling magician is gifted a cloak that grants him superpowers. The filmmakers were clearly at a loss how to incorporate subjective camerawork. Story 2: Equipped with ProGo cameras, Harmony Korin’s kids cross paths with devil worshippers and skeletons. Story 3: A professor builds a portal to another dimension and finds a mirror-image of himself and his house on the other side. For what it’s worth, this yarn is the best of the bunch. We should all be grateful that a fourth segment was cut from the film.
WILLOW CREEK ★★½
(Bobcat Goldwaith. USA. 79 min. 2014.)
Cast: Alexie Gilmore, Bryce Johnson.
Remember that annoying Zed character from the Police Academy movies? He went and reinvented himself as an indie filmmaker who makes critical darlings. No, really. His latest outing is this unofficial remake of The Blair Witch Project. No, really. Gilmore and Johnson visit a Midwestern town, interview the villagers about a local legend, enter the woods to shoot a documentary, and start hearing creepy noises in their campsite after sunset. And, yes, these mooncalves do get lost. What annoys me the most about this flick is its quality. It should have been a turkey, but it’s not. There are some decent scares, the acting is good, and there’s one bravura sequence that lasts more than fifteen minutes without a single cut. Now, please, pretty please, can we close the chapter on found footage films and produce something halfway original?
Here’s our top 10 of 2014. Mind you, some 2013 films weren’t released over here until 2014, and you bet your fur we’ve included them.
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
5. Jodorowsky’s Dune
6. 12 Years A Slave
8. The Wolf of Wall Street
9. Under the Skin
Bonus: Films we're looking forward to (some of them against better judgment):
1. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
2. Star wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams)
3. It Follows (David Robert Mitchell)
4. Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick)
5. American Sniper (Clint Eastwood)
6. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
7. Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow)
8. Terminator: Genisys (Alan Taylor)
9. Big Eyes (Tim Burton minus green screens, Johnny Depp, and Helena Bonham Carter. I’m in!)
10. Queen of the Desert (Werner Herzog)