2014, David Ayer
In just a few months director David Ayer will be releasing Fury, a heavy World War II drama starring Brad Pitt that looks to be an evolution for the filmmaker who has slowly matured through a string of modern-day Los Angeles-set crime dramas. First, however, there was a blip on the radar that began his year that went by the name of Sabotage. Another in the line of generic crime pictures with vague titles (see: Harsh Times, Street Kings, etc.) and an overdose of testosterone, Sabotage is mainly another attempt at the acting resurrection of Arnold Schwarzenegger. As someone who feels that the former governor never had any business being in cinema in the first place, I have to say I’m pleased that audiences look to be as tired of the man as I am. Sabotage made no impact on the world in its dismal release this March and whether or not Fury lives up to the hope of being a major step forward for Ayer, it will certainly end up being the talking point of his year as opposed to this half-baked disaster.
The incoherent, insignificant plot puts an elite DEA task force made up of TV actors and Oscar nominee Terrence Howard in the line of fire after some dirty money they were trying to steal is lifted out from under them (always easy to root for people who began the movie as assholes). Soon bodies of the team start dropping in unnecessarily graphic ways and having to witness the sight of a man nailed to his ceiling with his intestines ripped out and dripping to the floor is as apt a metaphor as any for the overall unpleasantness of watching this film. Sabotage is relentlessly unappealing, from the overly complicated and nonsensical plot that throws in twists out of nowhere with no understanding of character motivation to the painfully obtuse dialogue that Ayer and co-writer Skip Woods (he of X-Men Origins: Wolverine and A Good Day to Die Hard fame) try to force these mostly untalented actors to push out their mouths. The script is loaded with the same kind of vulgar locker room banter and tough guy machismo that tends to stifle even Ayer’s more impressive works so if Christian Bale has a problem convincingly performing it then you aren’t going to get much better out of someone like Joe Manganiello or Sam Worthington.
Worthington, who is decked out with a shaved head, bleached eyebrows and a Sons of Anarchy goatee that is braided into one long line coming off his chin, is just one of the many examples of why Sabotage is so impossible to take seriously no matter how hard it tries. Schwarzenegger himself is someone I’m never going to be able to buy in a performance, but even talented actors like Howard and Olivia Williams are bogged down by the utter nonsense Ayer has brought to the table. As a director it must sting a bit that after four films in the director’s chair the thing that every marketing team wants to push in order to advertise your work is that it’s from the writer of Training Day, a movie that came out four years before your directorial debut. I don’t think Ayer lacks skill. I have plenty of solid compliments to give Harsh Times and Street Kings and I thought End of Watch was a massive improvement for him, despite the awkward decision to only half-commit to the found-footage aesthetic. Hopefully Fury can mark the maturation that plenty of people, including myself, believe this man is capable of because Sabotage feels like a giant step backwards as it only serves to point out all of his worst qualities as a writer and director.
2014, James DeMonaco
Given that it’s a sequel to one of the worst movies I’ve seen in the past few years, saying that my expectations were low for The Purge: Anarchy would be a gross understatement. Thankfully, this second effort takes the wacky premise that this now-series was founded on and actually engages with it instead of turning into a generic home invasion thriller. Last year’s Purge introduced us to a near-future where America has devoted one 12-hour night a year towards making all crime, including murder (apparently it’s just murder really), legal but it quickly backed out of any of the messy complications and expansive world-building that you would have expected to see. The result was another in a line of self-serious, recycled and tedious home invasion thrillers but writer/director James DeMonaco made the wise decision to up the ante on this second go round by taking us onto the streets and showing us how the many different classes experience the Purge in their own unique ways.
Amidst a sea of masked, hooded and arms-bearing killers we set our sights on five individuals whose paths unexpectedly collide while trying to escape the mayhem. Eva and Cali (Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul) are a lower-class mother and daughter living in an apartment complex that is raided by a group of armored men who drag them out onto the street, intending to place them in a menacing truck armed to the teeth. The ladies are saved by Leo (Frank Grillo), a police sergeant who got himself suited up and was ready to use this one night of legalized criminality to murder the man who killed his son but saw something in these women that tapped into the basic decency at his heart that couldn’t allow him to keep driving by. At the same time, young couple Shane and Liz (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) hop in the backseat of Leo’s car in order to evade a gang of men hunting them down across the city. Together this group forms a bond under Leo’s protection in the hopes of being able to survive this treacherous night. It won’t be easy.
When I first heard the concept for The Purge I immediately mocked it for being the most ridiculous premise ever invented, one that would never feasibly happen in a real world, but the beauty of Anarchy is that it accepts the absurdity of this idea and runs with it. The first film took itself so seriously that it was hard to believe they weren’t pretending this could happen in the real world, but Anarchy seems to embrace an understanding of this world as a disturbingly exaggerated reality which allows it to spread its wings and let the rogues gallery out in spades. By taking us away from the intimate setting of the first with its group of unbearably annoying characters, DeMonaco’s second effort allows us to see a wide array of people who are stuck outside on Purge night whether it’s by choice or circumstance. The poor are forced into hiding, unsafe for the night while the wealthy celebrate in their heavily fortified mansions and pay to have victims brought to them so they don’t have to risk being out on the street where the innocent are hunted like animals and all across town we see the chaos that is flooded down in this one-night war against civility.
Opening up this world the way that Anarchy does allows us such a wider variety of experiences with many different obstacles, villains and setpieces to explore and Leo’s band of endangered innocents is truly put through the wringer over the course of the night. The script constantly keeps the gears shifting, never letting itself get bogged down in one area for too long by shifting the locations and the people that this group are put up against, all under the lead of the magnificently commanding Frank Grillo. Anarchy is by no means a performance-piece (though no one is as bad as practically everyone was in its predecessor) but Grillo, who has been doing standout work in supporting roles for years, really shows his metal as a leading man and makes it easy to root for this guy even when the dialogue paints plenty of familiar beats that you can see coming a mile away. In actuality, just about every big reveal here isn’t too hard to spot coming (it doesn’t help that the trailer gives away one of the biggest that doesn’t come until near the very end) but the great pacing and expanded scale of DeMonaco’s writing and directing helps to maintain Anarchy's engaging appeal over its full duration.
One of the many frustrating aspects of the first Purge was that it played things so narrow that it never allowed room to explore the more troubling social themes that would accompany such a preposterous idea as this. As with practically everything else in Anarchy, DeMonaco improves upon his past mistakes as he takes time to work these deeper layers into the overlying narrative in a way that makes them believable within the context of the world and also at least mildly thought-provoking. That’s not to say that they aren’t relatively shallow and obvious, nor are they helped by the plethora of unnecessary exposition laying out the themes that any audience looking for them would have readily picked up on, but at least DeMonaco makes the effort this time around instead of sitting back in the laziness of the first. It could have been delivered in a subtler way, but Anarchy doesn’t back away from the fact that the much-advertised decrease in unemployment and crime due to the Purge is really a result of the fact that the poor are unable to protect themselves on this night that ultimately acts as a way for the wealthy to eradicate as much of the lower class as possible. In fact, while the focal point of the film is on our group of five there’s a war building in the background that I would be quite interested in seeing DeMonaco expand upon in further installments.
The Purge: Anarchy builds itself very well over the course of its 100-minute running time, escalating events appropriately by throwing this group of strangers into many different environments almost as if they’re playing through a video game (which I’m surprised this concept hasn’t been made into yet). Each level offers a new opponent and a new opportunity to figure out how to survive and escape in order to move onto the next one — a new way to keep moving and survive until morning. There’s a deus ex machina in the final act that would have bothered me more but it’s so badass and wildly embraces the absurdity of this universe that I couldn’t help but love it. After the first Purge the idea of a second entry into this series filled me with dread and not in the way it was supposed to, but after seeing this sequel raise the bar in every possible way I would actually be very intrigued in seeing where they would go if they were to expand it into a trilogy. Hopefully they would continue to open up the world and explore the ramifications of the overall narrative that would likely come into play after the events that occur in the final act of this one. The Purge: Anarchy definitely isn’t a complex or dazzling piece of resonant cinema by any means but as far as summer entertainment goes it absolutely fits the bill and that’s more than I can say for the large majority of what we’ve seen so far this season.
2014, Jake Kasdan
At what point do we have to look at something presenting itself as a comedy and really question if it deserves to be labeled as such? When you realize that the most action your stomach muscles have gotten throughout the film is from the physical pain that the constant, involuntary groans have brought you? When the credits begin to roll and all of the things you could have better spent the past 90 minutes of your life doing flash by your eyes like a wisp of wind? When you get home and can hardly remember anything that actually happened in the movie you just saw? Although perhaps that last one is a trained brain function saving you from the despair of having to relive this experience over again. I’m not sure what I’d try to classify Jake Kasdan’s Sex Tape as in the grand scheme of things, but the most fitting label would probably be nothing more than a giant waste of time.
Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz reunite with their Bad Teacher director for a film that wants to have its cake and eat it too. On the one hand, Sex Tape feigns at the idea of living up to its title as a raunchy, hard-R comedy with a copious amount of sex, violent dog attacks and Rob Lowe doing cocaine. On the other, Segel and Diaz are forced to try and act out a strained arc of having an unlikely situation lead to an adventure which causes them to address the problems in their marriage and assess the person sleeping next to them. Sex Tape wants it both ways but it falls in some unrelentingly dull middleground where its too tame to work as that lewd comedy and too shallow to really convince in any kind of deeper meaning. What happens instead is a clash of awkwardly flat attempts at comedy up against a hamfisted effort at some thematic relevance. Neither works on their own but together its a recipe for banality.
The ridiculous premise sets up the idea that Jay (Segel) and Annie (Diaz), married with two kids, try to rejuvenate their sex lives by filming themselves in the act only to have it accidentally uploaded to all of the iPads that they give out (people do this) and therefore have to go on a wild night’s adventure to make sure that no one sees the tape (this makes sense). It’s one of the more embarrassingly dismal concepts in recent years (saying a lot already) and yet somehow it only gets more idiotic and easily solvable the further it goes along. Sex Tape exists in some weird modern world where the technology is all brand new and super dependable (Segel even gets to make the cringe-worthy comment on how indestructible the iPad is after it goes out a window and still works perfectly) but this man who is so up to date on the latest apps and tools has a baffling lack of education on how to fix their problems using the same technology. He knows just enough to get them in this preposterous situation but not so much that he can fix it without them having to go to extremes for no apparent reason.
This carelessness in the plotting only extends to the narrative which, in its desperation to reach a running time worthy of being called feature-length, has to throw in a myriad of contrivances and every single one sticks out like a sore thumb. The characters are unbelievably stupid for the sake of trying to make the plot work (it doesn’t) and setting up situations for “hilarious” hijinks to ensue (they don’t). By the time Rob Lowe’s character (Diaz’ new boss) is accepting without question the idea that Jay and Annie showed up to his doorstep, with no prior knowledge of where he lived, on happenstance while out trying to get donations for their charity for “kids with oversized kidneys”, the suspension of disbelief has been taken to a level akin to if we were supposed to accept that the Will Smith feature Hancock was a documentary.
For a film set in the modern world and so focused around technology (buy Apple!) that it feels more like an ad than a legitimate movie, the attempted comedy in Sex Tape is bizarrely antiquated. Every joke feels like it’s pulled out of the ’90s and slightly adjusted with the new brand name to make it relevant to the modern culture. The amount of exposition in the script is overwhelming, whether it’s trying to explain the complications of this frustratingly fixable plot or having Jay and Annie lay down a five minute conversation explaining to themselves (re: the poor audience) why they haven’t had sex in a while even though everyone watching is already well-aware of the tired cliche that your sex life goes out the window once you get married. It’s not the only cliche you’ll find in Sex Tape though, as the film is loaded top to bottom with predictable developments that make you shutter at the idea of millions of dollars being put into something so immeasurably lazy.
Interestingly, a lot of my problems with Sex Tape could have been applied just as easily to last year’s comedy The Internship, a film which I found to be somewhat underrated and quite enjoyable. The premise is impossible to digest, the product placement is overwhelming and the script tries to work in a life-lesson theme to go along with its too-tame comedy. While I found that tonal balance far better handled in The Internship, I think the most obvious difference between the two films is in the chemistry between their leads. While Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn have developed a rapport that I never managed to tire of, Diaz and Segel seem like they couldn’t be less interested in one another. Diaz tries very hard to be more vulgar and expressive than any of the guys in the film and it comes off mostly as awkward and desperate, whereas Segel looks visibly uncomfortable with his surroundings; it’s as if he was in his home one day and they started shooting the movie without giving him any script or character description. I imagine that’s not too far from the truth, as Sex Tape runs rampant with weak, obvious improvisations to try and make up for the lack of any genuine humor in the script as written. None of it works.
2014, Matt Reeves
The Planet of the Apes franchise was in a lull after Tim Burton’s 2001 remake failed to impress anyone and put the kibosh on any potential of igniting a sequel. Ten years later, director Rupert Wyatt went back further in time to deliver a prequel about the genesis of this new planet controlled by the simian race — a prequel that became one of the biggest surprise hits of the summer by scooping up $176 million at the domestic box-office along with a healthy dose of impressive reviews. I can’t say that I went along with the praise for the feature, finding it a relentlessly dry experience that sacrificed any depth in its supporting/human characters in order to shine a spotlight on the work of motion capture extraordinaire Andy Serkis. Serkis is undoubtedly an impressive artist, a man who has revolutionized this artform and never fails to amaze with the work that he can deliver within it, but a film needs to succeed on more than just that kind of wizardry and Rise of the Planet of the Apes never came near that for me.
As a result, when the film’s sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, was announced I wasn’t particularly interested but as the cast traded out the bland statues of James Franco and Freida Pinto for far more talented actors like Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Gary Oldman I became intrigued and once the marketing began to kick in I really started getting excited for this new entry with the hopes that it can bring me on board the Apes bandwagon. Matt Reeves replaced Wyatt at the helm, the latter being uncomfortable with the firm release date the studio had set for him, and while Dawn avoids some of the faults of its predecessor it can’t escape them all and opens up plenty of new ones on its own. This summer has been beating down on me hard with an over-saturation in franchise fare that has blurred together to a point where I feel as though I’m watching the same predictable money-oriented concoction thrown on screen one after another and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes just felt like another addition to the stack.
I’m honestly baffled at this point as to how people pick out which of these franchise machinations are the ones worth getting praised and which ones aren’t because so few of them really manage to distinguish themselves yet this year has seen a wealth of sequels and reboots and the like that have received massive acclaim. Dawn at least has a unique hook in its focus on another species and the development of this culture that is co-existing and clashing with our own. I was impressed with the dedication to make the film a good 75% in sign language with subtitles (and it’ll still earn over $200 million domestically, impressively) but walking away from it I can’t help but see this as just another bland, monochromatic, over-serious, overlong and maddeningly telegraphed piece of banality with the only real difference being the apes involved and that again wasn’t nearly enough because aside from the technical mastery accompanying them they felt as weak and played out as the humans. Rise of the Planet of the Apes at least allowed me some sympathy and emotion out of the way that Caesar (played by Serkis) was treated by the caricaturesque humans, but any emotional investment I had in the character was lost here somewhere in the sea of tedium that Reeves and company put me through.
The converse of that is that thankfully the human element engaged me slightly more, thanks in large part to the raised quality of that cast, with Clarke in particular giving a standout performance on the level of any of the actors donning motion capture suits. The most (perhaps sole) interesting facet of Dawn for me was in how Caesar was paralleled with Clarke’s character Malcolm in their mission to try and find peace in a world too broken down by fear to allow such civility to occur. Aside from these two men at the center of the story, the rest of the cast was loaded with actors doing their best but working from a script that crippled them with one-note characters whose progression could be spotted a mile away (not that Caesar and Malcolm’s arcs weren’t any less obvious). I also have to say that I found myself in disbelief by the lack of attention given to women in this narrative — a cast loaded with characters and yet it only contains two women of any import, one of them Caesar’s wife (a criminally wasted Judy Greer) who spends the majority of the movie in bed feeling ill and the other Russell’s Ellie (Malcolm’s partner because the only women we care about are because they’re in relationships with the leading men) whose only duty in the movie is to sit back and give medical aid. It’s not like the men are given a lot to do as they work their way through repetitive character beats and the dreadfully predictable narrative but surely some of these bland parts could have been given to women instead of every single one that didn’t have to be female being a male.
There are plenty of problems with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but for me the biggest has to be the feeling leaving the theater that I hadn’t seen anything remotely significant for this franchise. Yes, it gives us an idea of how things eventually build to war but yet again this is a movie in this rebooted franchise that ends up being nothing more than a tease. Rise came off as a giant, uninteresting prologue with one all-too-brief scene at the end that signaled something more to come but then they followed it up with basically two hours of filler and a conversation telling us that war is coming. Dawn tries to follow the popular Empire Strikes Back sequel formula of going darker and more character-driven in absence of much significant plot development, but it backfires completely as the overly somber tone and unappealing visual palette mixes with the yet-again shallow and wooden character work. I can easily admire the CGI work done in bringing these creatures to life and Serkis has guided a group of actors (standouts including Toby Kebbell and Nick Thurston) to shockingly realized work as apes who feel just as real as the humans they’re up against but how much of a compliment can that actually be when the humans are such simple stock characters? Dawn has a few moments of genuine appeal, including a mesmerizing tracking shot atop a tank in the middle of one of the big action sequences, but there’s so little meat here and so much generic mediocrity that drowns out any small moments of admiration.
2014, John Carney
Two lost souls spurned by life coming together after a chance encounter has been the basic premise of a lot of films over the years, most of them trite and sentimental romantic comedies. In recent years one of the more appealing efforts that could be broadly described this way was Once, a very small musical set in Dublin about a busker and an immigrant who develop a kinship as they write, perform and record songs over the course of the film.Once of course took off in the artistic community, earning an Oscar for one of the songs and eventually being adapted into a stage production which won multiple Tony Awards. Seven years after that film saw its release, writer/director John Carney has returned with a familiar premise on a slightly larger, Americanized scale in Begin Again.
Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is a record producer who reached the top but has been spiraling ever since a rocky break-up with his wife many years ago, leading to almost a decade of not being able to sign a single new artist while his partner Saul (Yasiin Bey) makes their company more commercial and seeks new avenues for profit that are pushing Dan out of the business. Gretta (Keira Knightley) is in a serious relationship with Dave (Adam Levine), a musician whose career is taking off and eventually she realizes that his rise to fame has left her behind. One night in a small, cramped bar in New York, Gretta gets on stage and performs one of her own songs — a tragic, quietly powerful piece that is unfortunately ignored by the crowd who are much more focused on their own conversations to appreciate the artistry right in front of them. Dan, however, is at the bar drowning his sorrows in bourbon but once he hears her begin to play he sees a way to get himself back in the game — finally an artist worth recognizing after all these years.
Thus brings us into the world of Begin Again, a light and easily appreciable film that takes these two charming actors and lets them win the audience over while they take their show onto the streets. After being rejected by Saul, Dan realizes that everything he needs to record an album for Gretta is right at their fingertips and the two, aided by Gretta’s friend Steve (James Corden), enlist the help of a small group of musicians to record every song in a different location around New York. They hit hot spots like Central Park as well as roof tops and subway platforms while putting together this album and rejuvenating the spirit of both characters who were finding themselves wayward in a world that had left them behind. While Once gave us a sort of gritty, homemade interpretation of this kind of story, Begin Again takes on a more traditionally appealing approach that still manages to never stray too far into cliche or sentimentality.
There are certainly moments throughout Begin Again that begin to tread the line, but every time Carney comes close he makes sure to reel it back in, letting these two characters ground this story in something very natural. One of the film’s most prominent themes is not losing the meaning in something beautiful by worrying about what others think and in turn making it more conventional and “crowd-pleasing” just to suit someone else, which could potentially put an odd flavor in the mouth when you look at this film compared to Once. It’s true that the earlier picture felt as though it had more passion in it with that homegrown quality while this one brings a more readily accessible approach and an A-list cast, but Carney maintains an effective delicacy with Begin Again that rarely lets it stray too far towards feeling like any compromise was made for the sake of commercialism. Admittedly, one area where that may fold a tad is in the appearances of Adam Levine and Cee Lo Green which feels a bit too much like stunt-casting and certainly isn’t helped by their awkward, flat performances.
Begin Again is a love story, but not in the way that you’d expect or even that Carney’s script teases it becoming from time to time. Dan and Gretta do find themselves thanks to their relationship with one another, but the most refreshing thing is that it’s not about finding themselves within the other person. It’s about finding your own love in whatever that may be, whether it’s riding your bike away from your past on a lovely New York night or sitting on a bench listening to an iPod with someone you cherish. Carney keeps this relationship platonic, while offering up this beautiful idea of Gretta seeing Dan’s passion and individuality and allowing it to help her realize that she didn’t want a life with Dave and his over-produced, generic top forty hits that are more about the financial gain than the purity of the music. As he did in Once, Carney gives us plenty of hits that will get stuck in your head for days after you leave the theater and each one, recorded on the street as purely as they’ve been created by Gretta, speaks to a resounding genuineness in this woman that won’t be compromised by anyone.
I’ll admit with Once that I found the film impressive but that it paled in comparison to the wonderful soundtrack that accompanied it, one which has lasted in my memory far longer than anything from the film itself. Begin Again certainly has music that I’ll be listening to for years to come, but here the film is equally as strong and a large part of that is thanks to the charming performances of Knightley and Ruffalo. Ruffalo has done this kind of unkempt, shaggy, narcissistic but good-hearted character several times before and he’s as natural and lovable in it as always but Knightley is the one who really helps to elevate this to the next level. As an actress, she’s taken her fair share of lumps from critics who accuse her of only being able to pout in period pieces but here she proves them all wrong with a performance more vibrant and natural than she’s ever been on screen before. It felt like for the first time we were seeing Knightley in a film that allowed her to be something more akin to her own self and boy was it nice to see her smiling so much over the course of the picture. I’ve long been a fan of the actress, but here she has taken things into a new range for her that is so charming and authentic.
The chemistry between the two leads helps drive this to the pleasant place it achieves and maintains for its entire duration, but Knightley also hits a spark with James Corden, whose scenes with the leading lady have a kind of friendly demeanor and cheery ease that makes it hard not to smile all the way through them. Begin Again opens up by showing us how these characters were brought to their lowest points, but it quickly averts dourness by putting them together and allowing them to find their true happiness thanks to a chance encounter in a cramped little bar. Maybe there’s not enough meat here for it to become something truly significant (and there are occasionally moments where you can feel like something was cut that would have taken things, particularly with Ruffalo’s character, to a darker place) but Carney and his cast have put together an effortlessly charming little crowdpleaser that is perfectly suited for this kind of summer release. Amidst the sea of dull, over-serious $150 million blockbusters on repeat, it’s so refreshing to be able to experience something this genuinely pleasant that isn’t trying so hard.
2014, Jonathan Glazer
Do you ever watch a film where you can appreciate everything it’s doing on paper but in the execution it fails to engage you in a way that can allow you to admire the overall work? That’s the best way I can describe my experience with Under the Skin, the latest from director Jonathan Glazer. Starring Scarlett Johansson as an extraterrestrial being who has doned the guise of a human woman in order to seduce and ensnare men in Scotland, Glazer’s picture is a very tonally proficient and narratively light endeavor. However, as this woman spends more time on earth she begins to take on a form of humanity that she has never experienced before. She finds sympathy in an unexpected place and deviates from her designed path, leading her into a spiral of discovering the true nature of those she works for as well as the spectrum of human emotion. Underneath her human suit she begins to harbor more of a soul as well.
It’s certainly an interesting take on what it means to be human and stepping back from the picture and dissecting the arc that Johannson’s character goes on I do really admire what Glazer was going for. There’s a beauty and tragedy in the narrative of this woman, discovering her own sense of humanity after bringing so much cruelty and then finding love only to have her inhuman body betray her. I kept feeling as though I should have been having a more emotional response to Under the Skin in its later stages, but the muted tone lost me too early on and as the character’s path reached its own emotional peak I found myself more and more disconnected with the work. Glazer certainly has a control over his tone (he’s come a long way from his messy debut, Sexy Beast) and for plenty of people it seems to have hooked them in from start to finish, but I found myself struggling to remain engaged after about the half-hour mark. Once the mesmerizing, hypnotic opening sequence was over and we got our initial feel for this woman’s existence on earth I quickly began to find things far too monotonous to a point of tedium. It pulled me away from the film which is where I remained until the final scene; one that admittedly jump-started my interest again, only too late for it to make much of a difference.
In fact, the only scene that did speak to me on a deeper level was ironically an earlier one before Johansson’s character began to evolve. It’s a scene that works tremendously well as a juxtaposition to the one that snaps her into humanity later on. She arrives on a beach and engages her newest prey but before she can lure him away the man sees a family in trouble, caught up in the waters and being pulled out into sea. He goes off to try and rescue them, failing in his mission, collapsing on the shore and ultimately being dragged away by our leading lady. What stings the most is what she leaves behind — the family’s small infant, now orphaned and alone, crying on the beach while its parents drown in the waters so close. Seeing that child left there while Johansson brought this man to his supernatural demise was a chilling sight indeed, one which is contrasted very well when we come around later to a scene that finds her ensnaring a disfigured man, one who is as alone in this world as she is. She finds something to sympathize with in this man and it marks a turning point into something more than alien for her, leading her to let him go and setting her on a course that pushes her on the run from her associates. It’s what propels the final stages of the film’s journey, but unfortunately for me I had already been disassociated by the tedium of Glazer’s directorial choices.
Sitting back and reflecting on Under the Skin, I do tend to appreciate it more than I did during my viewing. Without being stuck in the middle of struggling to maintain attentiveness, I can better respect the themes and arc that Johansson’s character takes, leading to her tragic conclusion in the stunning final scene. Allowing the film’s title to take on a literal form, we see that the skin the title refers to is less about what’s underneath hers and more about what’s underneath all of mankind. There’s a heart and soul beating within every human that this woman simply can’t possess no matter how much she may want to; an attempt at a genuine sexual encounter devastatingly proves this to her earlier on. On paper, Under the Skin is a tragic and emotional journey but on film it’s one that I found impossible to really engage in. Intriguing at times, sure, but only sporadically and not nearly enough to make me appreciate the work overall. I’m not sure if it was Glazer’s monotonous direction or Johansson’s uninvolving performance, but something was lost on me in the bringing of this journey from the page to screen. It’s a shame because I can certainly see how anyone would find it a compelling, unique work. I just don’t happen to be one of those anyones in this case.
2014, Jason Bateman
The most frustrating thing about Bad Words is that it has the potential to be much more and yet it settles instead for something so unmemorable. Jason Bateman’s feature directing debut had a great premise; Guy Trilby is a 40 year old man (Bateman) who finds a loophole in the system and enters himself into a national spelling bee set up for contestants who have yet to pass the eighth grade. The dark edge that it advertises is a perfect bit of against-type casting for Bateman, who is often utilized as the straighter, more put-together type for raucous characters to bounce off of (see: Arrested Development, Identity Thief, Horrible Bosses, etc.) and he always does that well but Bad Words gave him an opportunity to be the one to get down in the mud and make everyone else uncomfortable for a change. Guy wants to be seen as an uncaring, abrasive and vulgar infection rooting its way through the pleasantries that these children and their parents hope to enjoy but almost immediately we’re made aware that Guy is more than just that and it’s a sign of the weakening of this film’s venom that will occur exponentially for the remainder of the movie.
A lot of Bad Words spends its time with Guy developing a friendship with a young competitor named Chaitanya Chopra, who is played by the wonderful Rohan Chand (seen recently in small but vital roles in Lone Survivor and Homeland). Chand practically walks away with the movie, which is a blessing and a curse because it gives a supporting performance a spotlight and a rare example of a young actor doing great work but it also makes Guy one of the least interesting things happening in the movie. Not that there’s so much going on that actually is interesting because the script by Andrew Hodge basically makes it clear where this is going from the very start. Guy’s arc is telegraphed within the first ten minutes, complete with obvious daddy issues and a love/hate relationship with an online journalist (played by the always welcome Kathryn Hahn) — there’s nothing about Bad Words that deviates from a path we’ve seen far too many times before. Even the color palette is remarkably bland.
This isn’t a bad movie by any means. Bateman proves himself a capable director, if not an exceptional one, and I do always like him as a performer. It’s trim enough to never overstay its welcome and even if the revelation of Trilby’s motives can be seen a mile away, there’s another one before that which genuinely caught me off my feet and added a nice surprise to what could have been an otherwise conventional character. But there’s a gooey sweetness at the center of Bad Words that belies the opportunity to do something different for a change and as much as it wants you to believe its crass and confrontational, ultimately Bateman’s film is as tame as they come. It has all the material to provide something with a genuine edge but the script never has an interest in going as far as it wants you to believe it’s going to go. Obviously no one wants your leading character to be one-dimensional but sometimes the bad guy doesn’t need to have a sob story at his heart to make him more sympathetic. Bad Words is too afraid of being unlikable to allow itself to be anything other than unmemorable.
2014, David Wain
David Wain is one of the few original voices working in comedy today, bouncing from mainstream studio pictures like Role Models to more oddball fare like Wet Hot American Summer. His newest film, They Came Together, certainly fits into the realm of the latter (if anything I’d say its closest relative is his more off-the-wall web series Wainy Days) with its self-aware skewering of the romantic comedy genre and the many tropes that are designed within and around it. Joel, played by Paul Rudd, is a big wig at a corporate candy company who is going through a rough breakup from his girlfriend whom he discovered sleeping with his co-worker. Molly (Amy Poehler) runs a quirky little independent candy store that is coming under threat of eradication by Joel’s company. The two are invited by their friends to a Halloween costume party with the intention of setting them up, but on the way there they bump into another, both dressed in Benjamin Franklin costumes, and immediately take a dislike to one another. Things only get worse from there until the two slowly begin to form a connection and wouldn’t you know it they start to date.
They Came Together structures itself as Joel and Molly telling the story of how they met to a pair of friends (played with great reactionary humor from Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper spattered throughout the movie) over dinner and as their story unfolds Wain and company (the film was co-written by Michael Showalter) try to cram in as many daggers to the sides of rom-com cliches as they can in an 80-minute period. There are plenty of laughs to be had in They Came Together, though none of them were too uproarious for me, but the biggest problem with the movie is that it’s ultimately a one-joke premise stretched out to a feature length. This is something that could have just as effectively been a Funny or Die short or a Saturday Night Live sketch (and the low production value gives it more of an aesthetic in that area than a feature), but it’s too thin to really warrant a feature film and it comes dangerously close to pushing its luck. For me, it closed off right before the breaking point but for others it went well past that and I can definitely understand why they would be turned off by it.
As Wain always does when he’s allowed free range to break from traditional narrative form, They Came Together is loaded with odd recurring bits and veers into absurd fantasy out of nowhere at times and it keeps things unpredictable but for every two or three jokes that worked for me there was at least one that fell entirely flat. There’s a gag involving Christopher Meloni soiling himself while wearing a superhero costume that felt so juvenile it belonged in a Seltzer and Friedberg movie as opposed to one with people of this intelligence behind it and a sight gag with a waiter played by Zak Orth having a literal pole up his ass was particularly groan-worthy. Still, there were more than enough bits that hit the mark to keep They Came Together on the side of a pleasant experience for me, whether it was the traditional “guy meets girl’s parents and gets an unexpected surprise” taken to an extreme, the constant use of the “wait!” moment used in movies from all genres or a sword-wielding eleventh hour cameo that made me sit up in my seat. I certainly didn’t love They Came Together and can’t imagine it being something that will last in my memory long but it was enough to keep me relatively entertained for 80 minutes and thankfully didn’t push its luck by extending beyond that.
2014, John Michael McDonagh
The portrayal of priests in cinema has been going on practically since the medium began but with the kind of scandals that have been made public recently there’s now a loaded factor to them that hovers above whether they’re directly addressed or not. Calvary, the second film from The Guard writer/director John Michael McDonagh, centers on a good priest who’s never done any of the type of acts that others in his field have been convicted of but he still has to suffer for their crimes in his own way. With the sharp gallows humor that the McDonagh brothers (John and brother Martin of In Bruges fame) are known for, Father James Lavelle is constantly mocked openly and passively by members of the small Irish coastal town he serves in. He remains a member of the community the same as everyone else and weekly services are held that seem to bring the majority of the town’s small population but he can’t seem to walk around without being reminded in some way of the kind of thoughts that come to mind when people see that collar in the modern day.
This is just one element of McDonagh’s Calvary, a deceptively layered and thematically rich study on this man’s life, but it’s one that comes to play within the very first line as a man sits down in the confession booth and informs Father Lavelle (played by McDonagh favorite Brendan Gleeson) that he is going to murder him in a week’s time. This mystery figure gives the Father the week to get his affairs in orders and what follows are seven days in the man’s life as he interacts with the various members of this societal microcosm. Calvary wisely avoids becoming a kind of thriller where the audience is supposed to guess who the man is, all leading up to a big twist reveal at the end. McDonagh lays out the premise and quickly has Lavelle establish that he knows who the person is but won’t reveal it and so there’s not a lot of attention given to what would have been a rather rudimentary idea. I had my own theory and I was wrong, but Calvary contains so many things far more enriching than a simple whodunnit.
I find it interesting to have seen a lot of people say that they don’t think Calvary should be classified as a dark comedy because they didn’t find anything humorous about it (though they still liked the film a great deal) since I was practically in fits of laughter on a regular basis. I actually thought people may find the comedic elements as being tonally off for such a bleak Irish drama, but it seems that some others didn’t think there were any to be had in the first place. Unlike The Guard, a picture I wasn’t fond of, I felt as though McDonagh meshed the contrasting tones very well here, off-setting the kind of wrenching, dreary atmosphere and somber narrative with some very sharp wit that never feels like it’s being crass, vulgar and offensive just for the sake of shock value. It helps that he’s got a great cast delivering his material.
Gleeson proves an adept lead no matter what the script is calling for and the diverse ensemble around him is built from actors known for all various types of projects, with particularly strong work given by Chris O’Dowd, M. Emmet Walsh and Marie-Josee Croze. Domhnall Gleeson (son of Brendan) has only one brief scene but he is absolutely killer in it as well. At first I did feel that the supporting characters were a bit underserved and I was irritated in the way that we were seemingly supposed to find them as buffoons compared to Lavelle’s intelligent superior but over time McDonagh and the cast fleshed out this world and used that feeling to cultivate a greater understanding of how this man was being seen in the eyes of the people around him. McDonagh frames the movie through the eyes of Lavelle and so instinctively we see him as the good guy fighting all the bad in the world but the eventual reveal of who the mystery figure is opens up a whole new layer that warrants a greater reflection on everything that came before it.
Throughout Calvary we’re looking at a pattern of broken lives who are trying to find something to latch onto — whether or not they seek solace in the words of the town’s good, devoted priest — and Lavelle doesn’t seem capable of truly helping any of them. This is a very modern story told in a classic way, and it reflects the fact that Lavelle is a man trying to lie in a past world that no longer exists. We are constantly, subtly, reminded of things like those religious crimes and the economic crisis that are bringing a general sense of dissatisfaction that’s permeating the majority of society and threatening to reach up and overcome us, yet Lavelle is apathetic to it all — people are falling apart and he’ll lend an ear and some words but at the end of the day he’s just sitting peacefully in his room with his dog, reading a book and seeing the world fall apart as his church stands fine and nothing’s changed for him. Calvary presents this priest as our hero but on reflection perhaps he’s the greatest villain of them all. His daughter, played by Kelly Reilly whose scenes admittedly get a little too repetitive, criticizes him for the sin of omission and it seems that this omission, or indifference, is what finds him in the predicament he’s in.
At the same time, there’s almost a vanity or selfishness in the direction that McDonagh ultimately takes this character. Gleeson does a great job of portraying a man who is resigned to this fate simply because he was told it was going to happen, and there’s a recurring theme of suicide that gives off the impression that maybe he wanted to die but, as he told his suicidal daughter, if he killed himself he wouldn’t be allowed into heaven so he needed someone else to do it for him. Near the end of the film, Reilly’s character brings up a list of famous people who committed suicide and among them is Jesus Christ which brings into greater light the way that Calvary can be seen as an allegory for Christ himself. There are many parallels between Lavelle and the man that offer plenty of room for exploration; how we walks through this world while other people berate him, attack him, eventually beat him up or at the very least use him as a sounding board for their sickest, most perverted thoughts because they know he can’t do anything about it (or perhaps they’re just desperate for him to talk them out of it) and he takes it all.
Every scene in Calvary gives us Lavelle’s perspective, no one else’s, and yet we become privy to every dark temptation, twisted secret and perverted behavior that the people in this town are party to. As a priest, whether it’s from people mocking you, looking for absolution or just aware that they can say whatever they want to you under the guise of seeking counsel and you can’t do anything about it, Lavelle is forced to harbor all of this knowledge in his mind and with that kind of a life it’s no wonder that someone could maybe want out. These aren’t all bad people, but even the good ones are sucked into bad thoughts like murder or suicide, or the one seemingly wholesome figure loses her husband in a car accident while she has no scratch on her and has to continue living. Lavelle is that person with no scratch, but sometimes that’s the hardest part to play. When I first reached the end of Calvary I honestly wasn’t sure what to make of it; I found it interesting but without enough meat on its bones for it to truly make an impact. Strangely I found it sitting with me and as I reflected on it more and more I grew to appreciate it and come to realize the many fascinating, thoughtful layers that McDonagh textures underneath what at first could be seen as almost mundane.
2014, Dean DeBlois
A few months ago I watched How to Train Your Dragon for the first time and was pleasantly surprised by the emotional journey it took me on. The relationship developed between young Viking Hiccup (with a lively, unique voice performance from Jay Baruchel) and dragon Toothless was one that never felt sappy or sentimental but instead developed in an organic way that brought out the similar qualities of both to establish a genuine bond that believably led to the newfound peace between dragons and the Vikings of Berk. Along with that, the film had gorgeous visual qualities (it’s no surprise that Roger Deakins was a visual consultant on both films) and a willingness to go into territory that most animated family films, especially ones looking for a sequel, would be afraid to venture down. It was a film that I hadn’t expected to take me in as warmly as it did, and as a result I was more than eager to see what writer/director Dean DeBlois would conjure up for the second in his desired trilogy.
With DeBlois given the rare opportunity of taking writing and directing duties solo this time around (the first was co-directed by Chris Sanders with Sanders and William Davies also working on the script), How to Train Your Dragon 2 didn’t disappoint any of my hopes and desires. Raising the stakes in every possible way, this successor to a great movie evolves its characters five years (already a move most animated sequels would be too afraid to make) and with that comes an added darkness that follows more in the tradition of adult-targeted sequels like Empire Strikes Back and The Two Towers than something like Despicable Me 2. The truth is that as it develops itself into a franchise, How to Train Your Dragon 2 becomes a more efficient picture on the same thematic level as any other franchise currently in theaters and it does it at a quality level far surpassing the large majority of them. In fact, one of the few complaints I have with this movie is that the few instances of things that seem targeted more towards a kids’ audience felt tonally inappropriate in such a mature environment.
DeBlois himself stated that Empire Strikes Back was a major influence on where he wanted to take things with How to Train Your Dragon 2 and he absolutely nails the level of escalation that he was after. The film further explores the mythology of this universe he’s created (based on a series of novels by Cressida Cowell) and the dragon hierarchy while deepening the characters and darkening the themes. It’s funny that a franchise mainly targeted for a family, kid-friendly audience has more balls than any other big-budget franchise flooding the market right now; they made some bold moves in the first movie but even with that in mind I was surprised and moved by the places they went to here. This is a true coming-of-age story that we are experiencing unfold on screen, watching Hiccup develop from a young, unpopular and ostracized boy into a true heroic leader and How to Train Your Dragon 2 feels like the perfect middle chapter in that transition DeBlois and company are building on screen.
As far as the narrative goes, I’ll admit that there was a stretch in the middle where things were beginning to drag a bit for me. There’s never a moment here where I felt particularly bored, but the film suffers some pacing issues in that it comes off more like a series of large chunks focusing on specific things rather than a fluid whole that moves everything in sync together. A large portion of the movie is devoted to developing the relationship between Hiccup and his estranged mother Valka (voiced superbly by Cate Blanchett) and while they build the relationship well in this time it also puts a halt to the proceedings around it that are vital to either side of this chunk of the picture. Perhaps some of that has to do with the fact that outside of Hiccup, Toothless and now Valka, there aren’t many compelling characters in the movie. Hiccup’s father Stoick (Gerard Butler) gets stronger material here, particularly upon reuniting with Valka, and there’s a great early scene between Hiccup and his girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) but otherwise the ensemble is made up of characters whose names I don’t even care to remember and I began to lose interest whenever they’re on screen.
The big narrative through line of the movie is centered around a new character by the name of Drago (Djimon Hounsou) who has been building his own dragon army for the purposes of conquering the world (I think?) but one of the film’s biggest problems is that his characterization is disappointingly thin and undefined; bizarre for a franchise that’s led by such a rich and interesting character. This is a series of movies that can turn a dragon into one of the most emotionally complex and investing characters I’ve seen in years but they can’t make a villain who holds my interest for even a second and it’s a little tough to get past that. They say that your hero is only as good as your villain and DeBlois should thank his lucky stars that this isn’t true because if it were this movie would have been a dud. Drago does bring the action money though, in the form of a giant battle that jumpstarts the final act and boy once we reach this point things are taken to a whole new level. The final stretch of this movie is as emotionally potent as anything I’ve seen on screen this year and had me practically blubbering at times, while knocking back surprising twists and developing these main characters into something even more complex and lively than they previously were.
Part of me wishes that we had been given more time with Hiccup and Toothless together just being pals the way they were in the first movie, but this is a kind of non-complaint in that it’s something I yearn for but at the same time also know that adhering to it would have damaged the movie ultimately. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is an evolution of this franchise and to repeat the beats of the first film would have taken things in the direction of most sequels (particularly animated ones) that this so refreshingly avoids for the most part. DeBlois knew that they had established this relationship so well in the first movie with the majority of its time dedicated exclusively to that and so he used the sequel to develop Hiccup’s relationship with other characters, particularly the new addition of Valka, and ultimately it’s the final act that brings us all back to the Hiccup/Toothless dynamic that gave me my appreciation for the first movie and they utilized it in the best way possible.
It really is this final act that took How to Train Your Dragon 2 from a place of appreciation to a place of genuine affection for me as they took all of the parts and elevated them even further than where they had been up until then by bringing them all together for the grand finale. There was a place where I was worried that things were going to end with a heartbreaking cliffhanger as the film felt like it was coming to a close, but it came back for one last exhilarating push and knocked the roof off as a result. The reason I tend to avoid or not get too invested in animated films, particularly ones aimed for that family audience, is because there’s a kind of disconnect for me when the characters are rendered on a computer but I don’t think there are too many relationships in recent years as strong and emotionally powerful as the one between Hiccup and Toothless at the heart of this movie and I can’t remember the last time I was rooting for a character as powerfully as I was Toothless in the final stages here.
One of the best things about these movies is the way that DeBlois makes a sincere effort to develop Toothless as thoroughly as he does Hiccup and while the first movie laid the groundwork it’s this sequel that really shows us how their two arcs are following a parallel, intertwined path with one another. Seeing the place where they both end up by the conclusion of How to Train Your Dragon 2, you know that these two are truly inseparable no matter what is thrown against them and it’s a beautiful relationship to watch grow even stronger as the two characters age together. There’s an emotional core to this franchise that few others like it are capable of having these days when so much money is put into making the biggest, loudest spectacle that feels like they’re pushing the redo button whenever they get back into the writing stages. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a genuine step forward in a wonderfully compelling, emotionally rich franchise and I can’t wait to see where the conclusion is going to bring things. I just hope there aren’t any Ewoks.