Once again. Here we go. As always, in order of what I thought of them. I apologize in advance if my cinematic snobbery is more obvious this time around.
But I Hate It:
There was a lot of hoopla surrounding Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy, The Interview (2014). The hacking, the threats, the pulling-from-theaters, the backlash, the fervent speeches in the name of free expression, yet for all the political brouhaha, The Interview is ultimately just another infantile Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy. All the women are bimbos (entering each scene with our stoner protagonists muttering stuff like, “Bro, she’s so hot. I think I wanna bang her”). All the potential for smart satire sapped, squandered, missed entirely. All humor gleaned copiously from the shallow well of butt-stuff jokes. The special effects aren’t bad and there are maybe one or two lines that are funny on their own, but if you want to be entertained beyond a fifth grade level I’d look elsewhere. How Team America: World Police managed to be 100 times more ballsy, offensive, prescient, culturally significant, and funny is something I’m still processing. Somehow The Interview winds up being less mature in all the wrong ways and the comedy sadly suffers from that. Despite almost threatening World War III, this cinematic enema is truly a waste.
Overtly Christian films are notorious for being awkward, terrible, and, as a result, quite unintentionally hilarious. This is Left Behind (2014). Nicolas Cage staring in an action remake of a dopey Kirk Cameron direct-to-video movie based on a pulpy religious novel series ripped off from a 1970s Christian Twilight Zone type flick called Thief in the Night which was inspired by a surreal bit of modern dogma that gained popularity in the 20th century sounds like it couldn’t be boring, right? Alas, this one is so bland it doesn’t even function well as a so-bad-it’s-good movie, but there are a few scenes that are very inadvertently funny. Nearly every element of production smacks of incompetence yet the absurdity never reaches the sublime like in movies like Troll 2 or The Room. But, I’d sooner watch this with some friends than The Interview.
Big Hero 6 (2014). Go on. Hate me. I liked the energetic animation, a lot of the humor, and the relationship built between Hiro and Baymax, but the plot itself I found rushed, predictable, and weightless while the villain was glaringly absent and the side characters were uninspired. Weirdly, the most uncooked element of this superhero origin story was the superhero part. It’s inoffensive and breezy and kids will like it, but I’ve come to expect a little more from family films. Let’s hope the sequel has a more engaging villain and plot. Not awful, just a yawner.
I feel like all three Hobbit movies have some great costumes, special effects, environments, and at least one decent scene in each of them. Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014) might be the most exhausting and watch-checking outing to Middle-Earth yet. No, I didn’t hate it. And it was a fun surprise to hear Billy Connolly’s voice (he plays the dwarf that rides the pig). I feel the same as I do about Stephen Sommers’ Van Helsing; if it were half as long it would be twice as good. There’s a lot of talent being put into these films, but the action is so planned and drawn out and the drama-y stuff is so hammy with nothing connecting us to the characters that it becomes a slog to get through. Regrettably, I don’t think I’ll be sad if I never watch these movies again.
I’m not the biggest Marvel fan. Having said that, I actually really enjoyed a lot of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). The car chases were excellent and a lot of the on-the-ground fists-punching-faces action was fantastic. I enjoyed the storyline of Captain America on the lam and Shield being infiltrated by Hydra. I liked the stuff with Nick Fury and Dr. Zola and Robert Redford. What killed some of the fun for me was the actual Winter Soldier part and the cartoony fight in the spaceships at the end. The last act looked like all the things that bore me with Marvel superhero movies. It all looks like the same suspenseless mayhem. HOWEVER, the first 2/3 of the movie were so fun and well done that I admit I liked the movie a lot more than I expected.
This one is a re-watch. I remember borrowing this from the library a lot when I was a kid. File this under nostalgia. The Munsters’ Revenge (1981) is really only for fans of the 1960s sitcom. It’s little more than a really long episode and only works if you know the characters already. Poor Yvonne De Carlo is given nothing to do. The positives about this TV-movie is that it broadens their world a little more and gives us Sid Caesar doing accents as an eccentric villain. It also puts Marilyn Munster in a cavegirl bikini and features a new family member modeled after the Phantom of the Opera. If you enjoy the idea of Grandpa (Al Lewis) and Herman Munster (Fred Gwynne) going on an adventure to clear their name (they’ve been framed by robots) and have a high threshold for haunted house puns then check it out.
This was built up for me a lot by a good friend. Enjoying this charming dramatic misfire with some beers is recommended. Eddie and the Cruisers II: Eddie Lives (1989) is a sequel about Eddie Wilson running away from his past as a rock legend. Having survived a car accident decades ago, he changes his identity and becomes a construction worker and grows a mustache. Nobody recognizes him, but soon Eddie (Michael Paré), under the alias Joe West, wants to make music again and forms a band, but there’s just no denying that sound. It’s low-budget, silly, melodramatic, but actually pretty fun and has some good tunes along the way.
The Joy Builds:
Troubled white girl is sad so she goes into nature to get in touch with herself and battle the demons of her past. Yes, Wild (2014), directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and starring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed, isn’t as bad is should be. The cinematography is great and the locations are impressive. Witherspoon and Laura Dern give solid performances. As the story unfolds we are treated to flashbacks that help us get to know her character and motivations a little better. So maybe her problems aren’t the worst, but they’re hers. A good 70% of what made me like the movie so much was the use of “El Condor Pasa” by Simon and Garfunkel.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005) is a fascinating documentary about a man and his battle with manic-depressive order and his artistic genius. The film examines his life, his music, and his problems with compassion and admiration. Daniel Johnston’s illness leads him to fixate of surreal themes and his own perfectionism. Listening to his work and how he recorded much of it, all while hearing from his friends and family, builds him into a kind of legend, making him an even more intriguing and tragic character.
J. K. Simmons is always a fun actor to watch and it was great to see him get the complicated lead character of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014). Fletcher (Simmons) is a sociopathic slave-driver of a jazz conductor. His physical demands and cruel mind games are demented and unacceptable and he tests everything a young drummer named Andrew (Miles Teller) has in him. The film looks gorgeous and it is unapologetic. You will respect characters and then hate them and then wrestle with both feelings at once, trying to decide where the line should be drawn and whether the ending is happy or sad. The truth is, Fletcher has more interest in talent than individuals and even if his results are good, you may forever be concerned about his methods and the ethics of it all. It’s a surprising and strangely challenging little film.
We Climb Higher:
I had never actually watched John Milius’ epic, Conan the Barbarian (1982), all the way through before. As a kid I recall catching snippets on TV…and sometimes confusing it with Beastmaster (apologies). This is one brawny movie. James Earl Jones plays a hypnotic villain with snake-like powers, Sandahl Bergman is sexy and badass, and Arnold Schwarzenegger himself (while struggling with the language) definitely looks the part and rounds this fantasy epic out perfectly. Conan is probably one of the best sword and sorcery flicks out there and it still holds up as an entertaining action adventure today. It also boasts a fantastic score by Basil Poledouris (The Hunt for Red October).
If “El Condor Pasa” influenced my fondness of Wild, then the reggae pulse of Jimmy Cliff in Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1972) definitely had a hand in how I interpret this amateur Jamaican crime drama. It’s a simple story of a guy who wants to make music but becomes a drug peddler on the run from the law. The patois might be difficult to understand, but it adds authenticity and the some of the songs may be overused, but they’re great so who cares? Although quite rough around the edges, The Harder They Come is what it is.
I like Steve Coogan and watching Alan Partidge: Alpha Papa (2013) inspired me to start consuming the Alan Partridge TV series. The film does a great job of delivering clever lines and keeping it broad enough for new audiences. Selfish social nitwit and radio host, Alan (Coogan), gets his friend Pat (Colm Meaney) fired to save his own job, but when Pat loses it and holds the whole studio hostage it’s up to Alan to save everyone’s life…as long as he doesn’t have to apologize or lose ratings. I laughed out loud quite a bit.
The Air is Thinning. The Sherpas are Dying:
Ewan McGregor is hired to replace a recently deceased ghost writer for a former prime minister (Pierce Brosnan) in Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (2010). As the ex-politician is becoming embroiled in a growing international scandal, more secrets are uncovered and the mysteriousness surrounding the previous ghost writer’s death is revealed it seems that our hero is in grave peril. Like a lot of Polanski films, the more you know the more danger you put yourself in. It is a taut, atmospheric, suspenseful, and enigmatic thriller that creeps up on you and pulls you in. Co-starring Olivia Williams, Kim Cattrell, Tom Wilkinson, Jim Belushi, and Eli Wallach.
So, I’ll be honest. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s fever dreams committed to celluloid are not for everyone. Having seen all of his films from El Topo to Santa Sangre, I was ecstatic to see that the 85 year old Chilean surrealist auteur was returning to the director’s chair after a 23 year hiatus. The Dance of Reality (2014) appears to be Jodorowsky’s most personal work. It is a weird, episodic, dreamlike autobiography of his childhood and a fascinating examination of his own father. It is a compassionate, mesmerizing, and uncomfortable work—like most of his canon. He may be old, but he hasn’t lost any of his madness or his fixation with amputees.
I re-watched another favorite from my childhood. Zoltan Korda’s Jungle Book (1942) stars Sabu (The Thief of Bagdad) as Mowgli, a boy raised by wolves. The film is a fine collection of wildlife photography, detailed matte paintings, and questionable snake puppets. If you have a fondness for older films, I’d say watch this one soon. Sabu is as charming as always and Joseph Calleia gives a great performance as the fearful and sinister town leader (and defeated but wiser storyteller that bookends the film), Buldeo. It’s a polished but intimate spectacle. You can tell the Kordas really cared about making quality films.
Michael Keaton plays a washed up superhero actor trying to salvage his artistic integrity by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play based on Raymond Carver in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014). The drum score does not let up and the camera never seems to cut away and we begin to wonder if our protagonist is having a psychotic breakdown as voices and hallucinations from his past haunt him more and more. The performances are all wonderful (Keaton, Emma Stone, and Ed Norton especially) and the style is mesmerizing and builds the tension in a very unique way. The incredible cinematography was handled by the great Emmanuel Lubezki (Tree of Life).
The Mighty Peak:
Even if you don’t fully appreciate Jim Jarmusch’s specific style or sense of humor, you may still appreciate the detailed atmosphere and fine performances in Only Lovers Left Alive (2013). Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are immortal hipsters, or vampires, to be precise. They’ve lived countless years and have become completely detached from the human (or ‘zombie’) world. Rather than highlight the blood sucking antics of sexy demons of the night, the story focuses around how one couple spends eternity and the minutiae of dealing with pesky problems and the logistics of relocating following more serious crises. Mia Wasikowska co-stars as an obnoxious vampire party girl whose immaturity the lovers have waning patience for and John Hurt plays a vampiric Christopher Marlowe. It’s altogether sumptuous, sexy, and slow-burning. Whether your driving around the battered streets of Detroit or stalking the alleys of Tangiers, be on the lookout. There be vampires. One of the most refreshing vampire flicks since Let the Right One In.
John Boorman may have made one of the artiest man-movies with Point Blank (1967). Ultimate screen badass, Lee Marvin, is Walker, a man out for revenge and money. That’s all you really need going in. For a revenge action thriller the movie is quite stylish and ethereal, unfolding like a weird dream. As I watched it I was reminded of Seijin Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (which came out in 1966 and 1967 respectively). I don’t know what it is, but some movies just feel sexy. Co-starring Keenan Wynn, Michael Strong, Angie Dickinson, and Carroll O’Connor.
And my favorite of this bunch is a comedic mockumentary about vampires from New Zealand called What We Do in the Shadows (2014). A documentary film crew is given permission to follow around a group of vampire flatmates (played by Jermaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Jonathan Brugh, Ben Fransham, and newly deceased, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer). The movie is a delight from start to finish with wonderful characters and clever jabs at classic vampire tropes and all of the mundane problems those tropes entail. It’s a brilliant horror-comedy that I look forward to watching again. (For Flight of the Concords fans, in addition to Jermaine Clement, Rhys Darby plays the leader of a pack of well-mannered werewolves.)
Agree? Disagree? What did you see?