2014, John Erick Dowdle
It’s become widely accepted in the movie industry that the weakest weekend of the year is always that of Labor Day and one needs to look no further for evidence of that than the fact that this year’s one new wide release on Friday was the dismal found-footage horror flick As Above, So Below (the almost equally subpar November Man got a jump on proceedings by releasing two days prior though that didn’t help it any). Opening at fourth place in the box-office behind several holdovers, As Above, So Below sees itself added to the ranks of an appalling year for horror films in which not a single one has managed to gross over $35 million domestically (The Purge: Anarchy being the one possible exception though that was really an action thriller), signalling a call for change in a genre that has found it too easy to sit back and rest on its low-budget, high-profit laurels. Found-footage has been one of the quickest ways to sit back and make a few bucks thanks to its low production cost that basically guarantees a profit if you release it on enough screens and while As Above, So Below will probably end up eking a small return, it definitely pales in comparison to the successes we’ve seen in recent years, and audiences should be thanking themselves for that. We deserve a better class of horror.
The nicest thing I can say about As Above, So Below is that it at least isn’t the worst found-footage horror movie to be released in 2014 so far (that honor goes to Willow Creek at the moment) but that’s really the smallest praise I can offer up for it. Ultimately it becomes another tired example of how lazy and derivative horror filmmaking has become these days, something that we’re seeing with increasing magnitude and we the audience deserve something far better. In recent years we’ve gotten fresh takes on old formulas with films like The Conjuring and The Innkeepers that gave me hope that horror wasn’t lost, but 2014 has been a dire stretch of one weak performer after another and I can only trust that Hollywood is paying attention and will see the tide turn in the near future.
The brotherly writing/directing duo of Drew and John Erick Dowdle (Devil, Quarantine) sit at the illustrious helm of As Above, So Below, where the plot jumps off in a much more promising place than it ultimately takes us. Opening almost as an Indiana Jones-type adventure story that mixes real-life facts with mythology and urban legends, we begin with the intelligent and fearless Scarlett Marlowe (Perdita Weeks) giving us the necessary details on the story of the Philosopher’s Stone (yes, this sometimes feels like we’re watching a Harry Potter movie), a mythical bit of alchemy treasure that could be the greatest discovery in the history of mankind if she can get her hands on it. Her father went mad and killed himself trying to find it and she has continued in his footsteps (as you do when someone goes mad and kills themselves), believing that she has finally located it in the catacombs beneath Paris which ominously play host to countless skeletons of dead men and women. Scarlett puts together her team of explorers which include a jilted lover (Mad Men's Ben Feldman), her videographer (The Purge's Edwin Hodge) who is conveniently giving us the forced logic of why this movie is found-footage, and a rogue explorer who's made his reputation on illegally exploring the off-limits sections of the catacombs (Francois Civil). Along for the ride are a few other faces who seem tailor-made to be killed off once the heat starts cracking.
That heat takes a while to build up, but not in the tension-filled way that ace horror directors like to slow-burn their audience with drips of suspense before gunning everything into full-throttle when the final act comes. While As Above, So Below begins with an at least mildly intriguing set-up of plot, once this team heads into the catacombs it quickly becomes yet another rote display of forced jump scares, awkward character interaction and painfully flat acting that forces us to try to believe this is heading in any direction other than where we all know it’s going to go. Things are going to get weird, the signs are all over and of course these characters ignore them because what else are they going to do. There wouldn’t be a movie if they didn’t continue to head further into the dank, cramped tunnels with millions of bones deep beneath the earth, searching for hidden treasure. The city of the dead begins to play its tricks, people start to get hurt and the catacombs reveal a supernatural phenomenon that taps into the darkest fears of these characters in order to start sending them into madness. It turns out that these fearless explorers may have stepped foot into hell itself (the big one) and now their only option is to keep going and hope they make it out the other side. Naturally, not all of them do.
As Above, So Below didn’t come from the increasingly lackluster Blumhouse Production field that’s taken successes like Insidious and Paranormal Activity and run them into the ground repeatedly but it may as well have since it follows the same strand of small promise followed by major turn into the uninteresting and laughably absurd. The Dowdles create a small bit of interest in the first act, follow it up with a relentlessly dull second and close it all off with a third that goes from one baffling twist to another to a point where we reach the end and I couldn’t manage any reaction other than a guffaw and a shaking of the head as I walked out of the theater. In a year made of horror films that have delivered more unintentional laughter than genuine scares, As Above, So Below fits the bill as exactly the kind of low-budget, lower-quality flick you’d see released on the big screen for the Labor Day weekend.
2014, Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez
We waited nine years for….this. It’s been a while since Robert Rodriguez delivered Sin City, a punchy, brooding and refreshingly inventive adaptation of Frank Miller’s noir graphic novel. Loaded to the brim with gritty violence, hard men and the harder women who fool them into thinking they’re the ones being controlled, Sin City came out like a bang and never slowed for a second. By the time the prologue had concluded, with Josh Hartnett’s dashing and mysterious Salesman telling us that he’ll cash the check in the morning, I was hooked and not once did my eyes waver. With the promise of a sequel coming, I eagerly waited and kept my hope alive for nine years, constantly glued to every piece of promising news that Rodriguez, Miller and company fed us to let us know that it was still coming, and after all those years there was only disappointment to be had. It’s easy to say that after nine years of waiting there was just no desire for this movie, no real way for it to live up to the fire that had long since extinguished, but it didn’t have to be this way. I know that I, for one, was still more than willing to believe in a world where Sin City: A Dame to Kill For wasn’t the frustrating disaster it turned out to be.
Nine years is a long time, especially in a movie world where commodities and brand names are born and bled out in a matter of minutes. The original Sin City came out the same year as Batman Begins, the first in a trilogy of Batman movies that has since concluded and will see the character rebooted in less than a year’s time. Since Sin City was released we’ve seen Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy end and two new Spidey films open up a whole new expanded universe for the webslinger. It’s a bold move to wait this long for a sequel to come out, and ultimately A Dame to Kill For doesn’t feel like it holds much connection to the first at all. While some characters have returned, it’s a toss-up over how many are even played by the same actors (Josh Brolin and Dennis Haysbert have replaced Clive Owen and Michael Clarke Duncan, among others) and a good portion of the movie makes room for a whole new roster filled out by the likes of Eva Green, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Christopher Meloni and more. What A Dame to Kill For does try to maintain is that same distinctive, original style that the first film brought to life but it’s no surprise that what felt so fresh nine years ago feels rather ordinary now. In the intervening years since this film’s predecessor there have been plenty of films to use similar filming techniques, chief among them being the other, vastly inferior Frank Miller adaptations of 300 and The Spirit. So that bold new flavor is gone, but surely this old dog could have some new tricks?
Turns out not all things new are good. As happened with the first feature, A Dame to Kill For is composed of four individual stories set in the seedy world of Basin City, but this time around not all of them are brought straight from the pages of Miller’s original source. The titular entry makes up the bulk of the feature and that, along with opening segment “Just Another Saturday Night”, are adaptations but the rest of A Dame to Kill For is made of two new stories scripted directly for the screen by Miller himself. “The Long Bad Night” introduces us to Gordon-Levitt’s cocky young gambler Johnny while “Nancy’s Last Dance” sees the return of Jessica Alba’s Nancy Callahan, a drunk wreck after her experiences in the first film who is now hoping for some good old revenge against the menacing, all-powerful Senator Roarke (Powers Boothe). In fact, “Nancy’s Last Dance” is actually the only story here to take place after the events of the first Sin City and the wonky time mechanics don’t do any favors to the bizarre, incoherent structuring that makes up the bulk of A Dame to Kill For's troubles. While it makes sense that Rodriguez and Miller would want to do their best to find ways to bring back people like Mickey Rourke who were a large part of why the first was such a success, surely if they were going to try they could have come up with something that made the effort feel more with it.
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For largely feels like two men coasting on past success who aren’t remotely as tuned into the material as they used to be. Miller appears to be waning the further he goes along, while Rodriguez has shown plenty of times in the years since Sin City that he has no idea what he’s doing anymore, but this is where things have really hit a sour note for both men as they’ve taken one of their few true successes and sullied its name unforgivably. Even Rourke, so cavalier and dangerous in the first film, shows up here looking like nothing more than an overweight, barely functioning alcoholic version of the man he used to be — practically a symbol for what I imagine the image was like of Rodriguez and Miller behind their overused computers trying to piece together all of the myriad shambles that somehow formed the loose, meandering sack of nonsense that is this movie. Whether uninspired, lazy or just bafflingly misguided (no one should ask Jessica Alba to try to convince as an alcoholic), A Dame to Kill For starts off awkward and never finds a proper footing for the remainder of its runtime.
The titular section is where it does seem for a moment like this film could pull itself together, though even that is awkwardly jammed into the middle of the picture in a structuring mishap that makes it feel simultaneously too rushed and far too long. At first “A Dame to Kill For”, focusing on Dwight McCarthy’s (Brolin here) encounter with the enigmatic Ava Lord (Eva Green, perhaps the one truly bright spot in the piece), hits the right buttons while moving along a bit too fast but by the time it’s concluded and we find our way back into the stories that opened up the film it feels like it has been a lifetime since we last saw Gordon-Levitt’s Johnny beat down on the street swearing his revenge. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the original Sin City but as I recall one of its finest aspects was how well the stories all blended together, despite them mostly being told one after another. Those characters genuinely felt like they all existed in the same world so when their paths crossed it made sense and the opening and closing sections with Hartnett’s character put the exact right stamps on the ends of the piece to tie it all together appropriately. Tone and pacing were something Rodriguez had somehow mastered, yet his handle on both seems to have been lost with his eye for quality dialogue in the years since because neither are on fine display here. The characters and stories here couldn’t possibly feel more removed from one another, no matter how many of them see Rourke awkwardly stumble into frame.
Opening with “Just Another Saturday Night” and closing with “Nancy’s Last Dance”, this sequel comes off like it’s throwing the audience right into the middle of everything and this isn’t at all done in a kind of intentional way that’s making a point. The awkward positioning of “A Dame to Kill For” in the middle of everything where it takes up the large majority of the running time (at least half of the movie, likely a considerable amount more) ends up giving the film the impression that we were really only supposed to see that as the actual movie, whereas the other segments were just awkward trailers jarringly placed on either side with no real care for how it would turn out in a structural sense. A lot of A Dame to Kill For feels like it happens entirely at random, and maybe that’s what happens when you’re so desperate to get a film made that after nine years you end up just throwing stuff at a wall and seeing what sticks. As it turns out, nothing does and so instead all of these pieces just fall to the floor and the viewer is left to try to make out whatever they can from the broken bits that are found lying there. As I mentioned before, the whole “A Dame to Kill For” run is definitely the strongest point of the film and if you can leave your attention squarely on that then maybe you won’t have to walk away with as bitter a taste in your mouth as I did, but even then it’s far too loaded with flaws and lazy filmmaking from Rodriguez and Miller to ever satisfy as a follow-up to what was and still remains a truly great movie. This one’s going to go down as a real kick in the teeth for all the people out there who hold onto hope for sequels that have spent this amount of time withering in development hell. Maybe it’s better to just let these things go sometimes.
2014, Woody Allen
The common perception lately has been that whenever Woody Allen makes a great new film, he follows it up with something significantly lesser by comparison. As a result of his enduring work ethic and ability to drop a new feature each year, not every time at bat can be a success and so for every Vicky Cristina Barcelona there’s a Whatever Works and for every Midnight in Paris there’s a To Rome with Love. I can’t say that I follow the belief in this pattern to the letter that some do, but signs certainly indicated that after the Oscar-winning triumph of Blue Jasmine last year, Allen’s next film — the much lighter romantic comedy Magic in the Moonlight — wasn’t going to be up to snuff. Critics and audiences overall seemed to feel that it fit the pattern, with the film underperforming at the box-office (even grossing lower than the middling To Rome with Love) and being criticized as too slight and telegraphed to be anything memorable. For this viewer, however, Magic in the Moonlight was a welcome change of pace in a summer loaded with one drab, over-produced blockbuster after another and as I walked out of the theater I found a warm smile across my face and the opinion that it’s one of Woody’s best in recent years.
Starring Colin Firth as a magician who is sought by a friend to try and unmask a woman (Emma Stone) parading herself as a mystic who can see beyond the grave, Magic in the Moonlight wears its plot on its sleeve but its predictability belies a genuine charm that kept me delighted throughout its entire run regardless of the fact that I knew more or less where it was going the whole way. For a film about magic and deception there are surprisingly few twists along the way (though the one main reveal was one that I personally didn’t see coming), instead choosing to focus on the back-and-forth interactions between Firth and Stone. When these characters meet, Firth’s Stanley Crawford is of course the cynic and Stone’s Sophie Baker the optimist, but she melts his icy shell and in doing so the film managed to melt mine. In a time where I needed a nice little dose of light, easy summer entertainment, Woody Allen gave me exactly what I was craving and perhaps the timing of my viewing in regards to my personal life enhanced my response but whatever the case may be I was enthralled and delighted with my trip to the south of France circa 1928 with these characters. Whether the film is good or bad, there’s nothing quite like that experience of a summer theater experience with a Woody Allen movie and it’s something I welcome every year.
Chief among Moonlight's top qualities is Firth himself, someone who surprisingly took this long to work with Allen given that they always seemed like a natural fit. He's played these kind of downturned cynics before, but his appeal is in the way he can take this belligerent, morose, arrogant snob and somehow make him so wonderfully charming and begrudgingly endearing; I found him impossible to resist and the film floats along thanks to his endlessly winning work, his best in years. Conversely, I can't say I've ever been a fan of Emma Stone and she doesn't do much to change that here, again falling quite flat in her opening scenes, but her and Firth have a great comic rhythm together that electrifies their scenes. To boot, she does get better as the film goes along and the farcical nature of the plot makes her performance a bit of a performance in itself which could maybe be used to explain her subpar work though I wouldn't buy it. All that said, the inevitable romantic angle that develops between the two does drag the movie down in its inherent eeriness (that age difference, particularly coming from Allen, just can't be ignored unfortunately) and their utter lack of romantic chemistry. They work well as platonic screen partners, hitting dialogue back and forth like old pros, but as a couple playing the game of falling for one another despite beginning on opposite ends of the plot, there's simply not enough magic for me to fall for it.
Still, despite its niggling flaws (the ending in particular leaves things on a bit of a sour, eye-rolling note), I had a marvelous time with Magic in the Moonlight and its enduring optimism hit me on a much deeper level than I was expecting it to. Simple and elegant, it’s easy to spot exactly where the film is going but it moves along so smoothly I never minded the predictable nature of it all and of course it’s gorgeous to look at as one of Allen’s picturesque vacation pieces. Ultimately, what Sophie teaches Stanley and what the film taught me is that finding the beauty in life is something anyone can do, whether it’s in the magic or not. Simply accepting that life is too short and difficult to constantly spend it bitching and complaining, it’s much easier and beneficial for your soul to open yourself up to the basic idea of being happy and that’s a message that has stuck with me since I walked out of the theater. Just like the movie itself, it’s better to simply relax and enjoy what we’ve got going for us, even in the smallest moments. It’s a message that may come across as too slight and sentimental for some, but Magic in the Moonlight hit me at just the right time to win me over regardless of whatever faults it may have along the way.
2014, Richard Linklater
Since making his debut with Slacker over two decades ago, Richard Linklater has quietly established himself as one of the most versatile and unconventional filmmakers working today. Whether he’s using rotoscoping animation techniques, splicing interviews with real people into a filmic narrative or charting a relationship in one brief moment of time once every nine years, there’s no hiding from the fact that like him or not Linklater is doing things that others simply aren’t. As such, hearing that his sixteenth feature release, titled Boyhood, has taken footage shot over the last twelve years and put it together to create a full coming-of-age tale of one boy’s life isn’t particularly surprising for him but it sure is ambitious on a scale we haven’t seen before. Following the young Mason (played through it all by Ellar Coltrane) from ages 6 to 18, Linklater gathered his cast and crew for a few weeks out of every year from the summer of 2002 until the fall of 2013 to put the pieces together, which means that while the director was making eight other films in this time period he always had an eye on this story and its eventual completion.
It’s hard to think about Boyhood without simply sitting back in admiration of the concept behind it and the fact that it all came together to form a cohesive whole at the end of this journey. There was so much risk in bringing together the same actors every year for over a decade, in needing each piece to form one single unit at the end of the timespan, and the fact that it exists is nothing short of remarkable — so remarkable in fact that the mere execution of the film could have threatened to overwhelm the actual quality of the work itself. It’s undoubtedly an attention-grabbing headline, a natural pull for anyone to immediately go to when discussing the film, and it could have made Boyhood feel like nothing more than a gimmick — impressive in ambition but crippled by its technical achievement. Perhaps the biggest surprise of Linklater’s creation is how all of those fears were eradicated early on and not once again during my viewing did I think about all of the intricacies at work in bringing this project to life. While monumentally epic in technical scale, Boyhood's intimate scope and Linklater's natural, centered approach on the tale of this boy and the people who were around him through these defining years is refreshingly removed from the potentially damning pitfall of being handicapped by its attention-grabbing concept.
Trying to find a place to begin this story that feels natural had some tricks on its own, and for the first few years I found Boyhood struggling to form a real narrative groove. The delivery from the cast felt too stilted and artificial, while the time jumps were hard to place as there’s no immediate definition in when they occur (ultimately a crucial benefit to the film and that lack of succumbing to potential gimmickry), resulting in an awkward, jarring effect as they happened. Thankfully this trouble diminished relatively early on, eventually getting to a place in its 150+ minute running time where it became less about being aware of the jumps in time and more about the natural flow of seeing this boy evolve and how the people around him would eventually play into his development, whether he realizes it or not. Linklater makes note to include pop culture staples like what music, video games, books and movies are dominating the public consciousness throughout the years and while the use of this felt a bit too staged and unnatural in the early years, it too was something that eventually grew to be incorporated more organically into the story and became less like something that the director felt was a necessary tool. As we watch Mason grow over the course of Boyhood it’s almost as if we are watching Linklater evolve as well, developing into a more relaxed, natural filmmaker whose direction of this story flows much more fluidly than it does in the early years.
In a lot of ways, Boyhood was an experience that grew on me as it furthered along and I got to see Mason grow from a young boy into a young man while watching his family do the same around him. They don’t show all up in every year, but the looks into the lives of Mason’s father, mother and sister give us an insight into how he becomes the man we eventually see him as and it’s this idea that defines Boyhood more than anything else. Some of the supporting characters could have used more texture, but in a way I like the fact that they didn’t receive much because one of the many great ideas behind the movie unfolding how it does is that it shows the way that people drift in and out of your life, particularly in these formative years. Your best friends when you’re ten may not be in your life when you’re sixteen and even though some characters come off a bit too stereotypical (the angry, alcoholic stepdads in particular), Linklater’s focus on the core family is only further solidified as a result. There are so many people in life who we get to experience only briefly and maybe we don’t know them for all of their complexities, but they can have a part in shaping us all the same. Often times throughout Boyhood there were seemingly innocuous moments that would have me involuntarily recalling things that I had seen earlier in the film, such as the first time we see Mason holding a beer with his friends and I remembered years before when his first stepfather is violently under the influence and throwing a glass across the table at him. These are moments that define us, even if we never give it a conscious thought again.
Boyhood's core remains with the immediate family though, and specifically the way that Mason's parents influence the man he grows into. Already split up when we first meet them, over the twelve years we watch as Mason's mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) struggles to keep it all together and provide for her family the best way that she can without losing sight of herself, while his father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) struggles simply in finding who he is, leaving mom mostly to fend for herself while popping up whenever it works best for him. That makes it sound like Linklater paints Mason Sr. as a bad guy, and he's certainly not a good father for the first stages of the film, but what was refreshing about his development was the way that the script evolves all of these characters over time, allowing us to see them realize their mistakes and grow as a result. Sitting in the final years of the film, both parents feel as fleshed-out as Mason has become, something that we're not quite able to fully see in other films. As we watch the world evolve through the eyes of Mason we see his parents change and his perspective on them grow as a result. At times it could have felt like they were neglectful or selfish but at the end of the day they were doing the best that they could, and seeing Mason's childhood unfold so fully on screen really explores that on an intimate, subtle level that can only be fully appreciated when reflecting on the entire experience.
A child of divorce myself, it was hard for me not to draw some personal connection to Mason’s experience — if not in his personality than at least as a son and in his relationships with both of his parents. As part of that, I found an attachment to his mother, who reminded me of my own, and Arquette’s dynamic performance really demands a wealth of attention over the course of the film. Hawke is commendable but it feels like we’ve seen him do this thing plenty of times before, particularly with Linklater in the Before trilogy, though his character here evolves far more than his Jesse has. It’s Arquette that’s the standout, delivering a strong, emotional, beautiful and powerful portrayal of a woman holding it all together. Even if I didn’t like her last scene on a conceptual level (it felt too convenient and out of touch with how the movie had developed), her performance in it is shattering and it’s hard not to imagine it being played after they say her name at the Oscar ceremony come February. My personal favorite scene of the whole picture, however, would be her penultimate one, which I found to be a far better encapsulation of this character and a small reward that brought a massive smile to my face and perhaps even a tear to my eye. Never an actress I’ve been particularly fond of, it’s amazing to think that over all of her work through the past twelve years Arquette was developing this remarkable portrayal that has finally seen the light of day in its full, lived-in glory.
Ending Boyhood was surely as difficult as it was to begin, with us concluding our journey with Mason as his life continues on without us being able to witness it. Unlike the awkward opening phases though, Linklater finds a perfect resolution here, as Mason serenely ends one phase of his life and looks on towards the beginning of the next. Sitting with a new friend, he ponders on the question of whether the moments seize us or if we seize them, and his realization that we are always in the moment, in the “right now”, is one that feels like an understanding of Boyhood overall. An earlier scene of his father driving Mason and his sister (played by Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei) to a baseball game finds them having a conversation where Mason Sr. wants them to tell him all of the exciting things about their life in the brief time they have together in the car. Mason’s response allows him to see that life doesn’t work that way, with the big moments happening in brief snippets, but that it naturally unfolds and Linklater’s approach throughout the movie encapsulates that idea. Rather than giving us the giant moments of Mason’s life that provide the most automatic emotional triggers, Boyhood is a film that grows with you and takes itself one moment of “right now” at a time. This could have been a gimmick, nothing more than “the movie that was remarkably shot over 12 years with all the same people”, but instead it genuinely felt like I lived with Mason for this time in his life and got to watch him develop through the people around him.
2014, Declan Lowney
Off the bat I should say that while I had always been aware of the character, I had never seen anything with Alan Partridge until checking out the feature film, fittingly titled Alan Partridge (subtitled Alpha Palpha outside of the U.S.). I’ve long been a fan of Steve Coogan though, so this felt as good and accessible a chance as any to introduce myself to his most popular and developed character, one for which he has received many awards, including a few TV BAFTAs. Translating a TV series/character to a big-screen adventure comes with plenty of obstacles and Alan Partridge certainly stumbles into one or two of them along the way, but all in all I found it to be an extremely enjoyable and easy watch with a bevy of wit and hysterical moments.
The thinly constructed plot sees Partridge’s radio station taken hostage by a disgruntled former employee (Colm Meaney) whom he had a part in making sure was fired when a big media conglomerate comes in to take over and can only keep one of them. Instead of being a rip-roaring hostage flick in the vein of The Negotiator or Hostage, Partridge’s film experience (co-written by four other men including Armando Iannucci and Peter Baynham and directed by Declan Lowney) has fun in subverting convention with its peculiar and fame-obsessed leading man. As the police arrive and send Partridge in to be the one to negotiate with Meaney’s Pat Farrell, the thing on Partridge’s mind while his co-workers are cowering is the fact that he’s on the television they’re all watching. Little moments like this keep Alan Partridge delivering consistent laughs even as the shallowness of the plot begins to show signs of wear despite a brief 90 minute duration.
I’ve always been surprised that Coogan hasn’t become a crossover success yet, despite standout supporting roles in several large films along with a couple of leading ones in pictures intended to make him big that never managed to take off. It’s interesting to think that American audiences probably most know him now for last year’s Philomena, for which he more than deservedly earned two Oscar nominations for writing and producing, but I suppose it makes sense that he hasn’t been a hit here comically as his style of comedy skews more directly to the Brit mindset (naturally, the film made 98% of its gross overseas while here it was mostly relegated to a VOD release). Alan Partridge does make an effort to be broader and more accessible for all audiences, which I think it is successful in doing while still maintaining its originality and wit. This is Coogan working on his best comedic level and he sells the picture all the way through, whether it’s in his physicality, his mannerisms or his expert comic timing.
Ultimately, Alan Partridge isn’t something that lasts in the memory long and despite an amusing send-up of Falling Down for the finale it does overstay its welcome by some measure. There’s certainly the feeling that it comes off more as a TV special than a feature and it probably would have been better suited at being just that, with 30 minutes or so cut out, but nevertheless it stands as a pleasant and unique experience. I held a smile on my face all the way through, and whether you take to the film or not will largely depend on your fondness for Coogan or more specifically (I’d assume) your enjoyment of the character himself. There’s a nice supporting turn from Felicity Montagu, but this is really Coogan’s show and he runs it as ably and unconventionally as anyone familiar with the man would come to expect at this point in his long career.
2014, Zach Braff
At the beginning of this year we saw the first major film which was created thanks to Kickstarter, that being the screen incarnation of the Veronica Mars television series. With many possible risks involved and think-pieces dedicated to the mainstreaming of Kickstarter funding for films on that kind of scale, Mars surprisingly kind of faded once it was released but nevertheless was a fun little return to a series I had always adored. Now the summer has rolled around and the second, much more maligned on conception, Kickstarter-funded feature has hit theaters —Wish I Was Here, the sophomore effort from Garden State writer/director Zach Braff. Braff faced a lot of heat when the Veronica Mars success story inspired him to take his own project to Kickstarter and yet its release has seen an equal lack of genuine attention despite all the commotion put into it initially.
As someone who found Garden State to be a cloying, practically unbearable mish-mash of a sad sack leading man getting his manic pixie dream girl to an indie soundtrack while running through the quirk factory like it was going out of style (let’s yell into trash!), Wish I Was Here was at least slightly refreshing in its ability to mature Braff’s vision to a degree. Yes, it feels like Garden State 2 in a lot of ways but it’s a spiritual sequel ten years on and while the soundtrack is still loaded with The Shins and Bon Iver and Braff seems to be playing the exact same character, it also deals with more real-world problems — albeit ones that are only “real world” for people who could be much worse off and don’t really take the time to appreciate that fact. Aidan Bloom (Braff) is a 35-year-old struggling actor (as Braff was in Garden State and in real life) whose cushy, provided-for life is turned upside down when his father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) reveals that his cancer has returned and this time the outlook doesn’t look quite so good. Only seems like yesterday that Braff was returning to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral.
Gabe’s revelation forces Aidan to confront all of the problems that have been building up in his life, from his marriage to Sarah (Kate Hudson), who takes care of him completely thanks to an office job that she detests, to his parenting of young Grace (Joey King), a devoted religious girl who is sent into disarray when she is pulled out of her private school, and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon), a young boy who can’t seem to slow down for a moment. Along with all of that there’s also the story of Aidan’s brother Noah (Josh Gad), a genius who sits on a computer all day inside the trailer that their deceased mother provided him the means to and refuses to confront the fears that lurk inside over the news that his father isn’t long for this world, while Aidan mostly struggles with the ramifications this will have on his own life. For all of its overstuffed characters and excessive amount of needless subplots, Wish I Was Here spends a lot of time just worrying about Aidan and it’s a shame because of all the characters that Braff has written (along with his brother Adam), Aidan is far and away the least interesting. Perhaps this has to do with Braff himself, who as an actor sucks the life out of every scene he’s in, which is the large majority of them.
No surprise then that the strongest moment in the film comes when Sarah visits Gabe in the hospital alone, giving Hudson and Patinkin a chance to bounce off one another in a scene that sees them bring genuine emotion to a sentimentally written script, seeing the former give her best performance since Almost Famous netted her an Oscar nomination and the latter continuing his late-career transition into a forceful supporting screen presence. It’s a shame that we couldn’t get more scenes like this because when the focus isn’t on Braff/Aidan, Wish I Was Here actually stops being a dull and uninteresting affair. Instead, most of my time was spent wondering why I was supposed to care about this man-child who is finally forced to pull his act together when he never should have let himself carelessly be put in this situation in the first place. Wish I Was Here is founded on a lot of problems that could have been readily avoided while it mostly ignores the characters that have a shot at a sincere pathos to them thanks to a supporting ensemble filled with great actors.
It’s not spoiling much to say that Aidan is forced to reconsider his increasingly dire attempt to become an actor and in turn he finds that perhaps teaching is where his true skill lies (thanks in no part to a loathsome scene of him trying to home school his kids as if that’s a thing that just happens overnight with no preparation). It’s an interesting development when looking over the entire film, as you can see in pieces that Braff himself does his best work in allowing his other actors to expand their own horizons and draw their talent out, rather than bringing much out of himself. Since Almost Famous brought her to the spotlight over a decade ago, Kate Hudson has worked with directors as varied as James Ivory, Rob Marshall and Michael Winterbottom and yet none of them were able to bring a performance out of her on the level that Braff gets here. Along with her stellar turn there’s standout work from Patinkin, King and Gad who are all admittedly talented actors already but Braff pulls strong performances out of them, yet as a writer and actor himself he can’t seem to fit the bill.
Wish I Was Here was interestingly sold as a dramedy when in reality it’s much more of a straight drama, almost overbearingly so at times. There’s not much of a sense of humor to Braff’s second effort, and as Scrubs remains the one thing he found a fitting home in it seems like comedy is where he should probably be working. The few bits of humor are hit or miss (I’ll admit that the rabbi on the Segway got me) but at least lend something to spark a bit of energy out of the otherwise overlong, tiresome endeavor. As I mentioned before, there are several subplots that are poorly conceived and even more poorly executed (Noah wooing Ashley Greene’s character at Comic-Con thanks to a terrible costume that somehow wins a contest or the even worse arc of Sarah being sexually harassed at work that ends with a contrived and illogical conclusion) that could have easily been excised to make a leaner running time and perhaps kept the pace more bearable, but Braff’s insistence on stuffing his half-thought ideas in one after another until the convenient happy ending montage means that Wish I Was Here is another soured effort from a writer/director who has no real business being either. Still, at least it’s not Garden State.
2014, Jeff Baena
We’ve reached a point in cinema where zombie comedies are as prevalent and worn out a genre as the straight horror incarnations of the creatures that made them famous in the first place. Zombies are everywhere, whether it’s on TV with The Walking Dead and In the Flesh or in films like World War Z and Zombieland. Even the rom-zom-com subgenre that boomed with the endlessly watchable Shaun of the Dead has seen plenty come in its footsteps, most recently being last year’s Warm Bodies. You can’t escape the undead in pop culture these days, so Life After Beth had an uphill battle in trying to make itself stand out. An independent film screened at Sundance and unlikely to gain a lot of traction among the general populace the way that something like Shaun was able to break out with, Life After Beth is the directorial debut of Jeff Baena (who also wrote it, with his only previous writing credit being I Heart Huckabees) which stars Aubrey Plaza as a young woman who returns to life, much to the surprise of her boyfriend played by Dane DeHaan.
For all of its obstacles, some which it overcomes and some that it doesn’t, Baena’s first movie actually does manage to feel unique among the many other entries in this somewhat stale niche genre. Instead of following the traditional beats of a zombie outbreak or placing us after the fall of humanity, Baena centers everything in a small little community and builds the story from the relationship between Beth (Plaza) and Zach (DeHaan) outward. When Beth returns to life, she initially seems completely normal. There’s no rotting flesh, no hunger for human brains; rather she speaks coherently and is quite confused as to why everyone is acting so weird around her and why her parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon) won’t let her go outside. Over the course of the movie she begins to devolve into a creature more similar to those we’ve seen plenty of times in the past, but it’s a slow progression that allows Zach an opportunity to try and work out the problems that he wasn’t able to before Beth succumbed to a deadly snake bite.
You see, the two had recently broken up and Beth’s passing left Zach shattered, wearing her ugly oversized scarf along with his all black clothing in the middle of summer, sitting by his pool wasting life away. Beth’s return gives him new meaning and he doesn’t want to let this time with her go to waste. The same can be said for her parents, who suffocate her with affection, but what no one seems to really grasp is the fact that this young woman just came back from the dead and they do their best to ignore all the signs that the world is falling apart around them. Baena cheekily includes little hints at things that will develop later on in the film, creating an active universe in the background of this more intimate story of a relationship facing a unique rough patch. There are clever jokes throughout Life After Beth and the cast ably delivers the material, with Reilly and Shannon in particular stealing their scenes. As for the leads, DeHaan continues to be one of the few actors of his age group to genuinely excite me and his unique persona is perfect for something this quintessentially odd, while Plaza is convincing through all the stages of her character’s evolution.
What really sets Life After Beth apart from others of its kind is the way that Baena refuses to play by the rules and seemingly makes up his own as the film goes along. There’s a rambling sensation throughout that makes it feel like it was written on the fly but those little nods allow it to tie itself around nicely in the final act. This niche genre is hard to fully engage in at times (Shaun aside), feeling a bit try-hard and at this point it has grown a little stale, but Baena gives it a new verve that puts it into a tonal area separate from just about anything I’ve ever seen before. That makes it sound more monumental than it actually is, as it’s a very light and inconsequential journey, but it was a tough movie for me to really place, which came with its share of positives and negatives. It took me a while to adjust to Life After Beth's peculiar rhythm but once I did I found it thoroughly enjoyable while at the same time never fully committing to a sincere appreciation for it. Perhaps it leaves things a bit too distant, a bit too removed from a proper structure or anything concrete enough to generate a moving story but at the very least Baena has created a movie that stands out in a crowded market by being substantially more odd.
2014, James Gunn
The last time that we saw the Marvel Cinematic Universe try to launch a new sub-franchise amidst their overlying Avengers arc, Joss Whedon hadn’t yet directed the third highest grossing film of all-time and Steve Rogers was just a scrawny kid living in the ’40s. It’s been three years since Captain America: The First Avenger saw a new series begin, with Marvel resting on their laurels in the wave of post-Avengers success and making note to check in on those in the fold who had already been introduced. We spent some more solo time with Iron Man, Thor and Captain America in the build-up to a new Avengers collaboration and we almost went all the way to next year’s jam-packed behemoth Age of Ultron without seeing a new franchise emerge at all. Not so fast, though, as the final film in Marvel’s “Phase Two” finds writer/director James Gunn taking us across the cosmos into the great interplanetary beyond with a ragtag group of misfits known as the Guardians of the Galaxy.
We’ve seen bits and pieces of other worlds in the Thor franchise so far (along with a small dose in The Avengers) but Guardians of the Galaxy is a whole new ballgame with everything after the Spielberg-esque opening scene taking place far away from the planet we call home. Opening up the universe on a grander scale is something that Marvel is keen to make happen in terms of their long game, but for the time being Guardians of the Galaxy begins by feeling like a fresh new world for this multi-layered franchise to explore and it’s quite exciting off the bat. I’ve made no secret of my fatigue with the same old routine in these movies lately and I was certainly looking forward to seeing a new cast of characters in a whole new environment, something that Gunn and company didn’t hold back on for one moment. With immersive production design, crisp visual effects and effective character creation,Guardians of the Galaxy has no problem introducing us to a new setting with a sense of familiarity but also a rejuvenated spirit that’s been lacking in the overall franchise for the past few years.
This fresh feeling could only last so long though, and after the first half of the picture is over Guardians starts to suffer under the weight of the Marvel machine and begins to show signs of the same flaws that pervade the majority of their pictures to date. While this band of motley anti-heroes — including a human, a mutated raccoon and a humanoid talking tree — provide a much-needed spark of creativity for the universe there’s also the saying that your hero is only as strong as your villain and Marvel needs to thank their lucky stars that this isn’t wholly true. Ronan (Lee Pace) is the antagonist of the piece and for as much life as the Guardians bring, he does his best to suck it all out of the room any chance he gets on screen. The script (co-written by Gunn and Nicole Perlman) saddles him with a bland and underdeveloped world domination/destruction motivation that sets itself in motion around an orb, stolen by Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill (the aforementioned human), that more or less works as a giant MacGuffin to keep the characters moving. It leaves me without any interest in the fight they’re up against and as a result it’s often difficult to garner much enjoyment out of the actual moving parts of the overall film.
When progressing the thin, conventional narrative, Guardians of the Galaxy feels like it’s grinding to a halt but the real juice here is when the core team is allowed to be in a room together and simply interact. Gunn is an unconventional choice to be at the head of a $100+ million franchise like this, having made his name so far as a cult favorite for quirky, vulgar midnight genre flicks like Slither and Super, and when he’s allowed to bring that gusto spirit to his characters, Guardians is able to blossom as a unique vision. Conversely, when he’s saddled with the dull routine of having to leave things open for franchise continuation or deliver another overlong, muddled and tedious action sequence, he seems as bored behind the wheel as I was watching it unfold but it’s in the smaller moments with these characters that you can see a life light up underneath his seat and it’s one that extends fully to the diverse and equally unconventional cast.
Leading the way is Pratt, a man on the cusp of superstardom who has without a doubt made his mark as someone deserving of such a place in the Hollywood landscape. For the first time in quite a while, it is unbelievably refreshing to see a leading man in one of these movies actually feel like he’s having a great time and living it up to its fullest potential. Usually we’re on the sour end of an actor so bland they drag the entire product down or, in the day of brands manufacturing one derivative sequel after another, someone so used to the spectacle of it all that they seem like they’re on cruise control for the whole thing with no real energy. Pratt couldn’t be further from either of these things, possessing a genuine spark and charisma that shows an actor obviously grateful for the chance to be in the position he’s in here and not remotely jaded by the idea of being this kind of guy in this kind of movie. It’s a treat to watch and he has the actual talent to back it all up, setting an example for the rest of the team to follow suit.
Pratt’s Han Solo-esque Quill is a type of hero we’ve seen before (though not often enough lately in this sea of over-serious brooding men) but the rest of the Guardians are quite the rare breed of hero. There’s Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, a green-skinned assassin who enters the movie by attacking Quill on the streets; Dave Bautista’s Drax, a madman on a quest for vengeance against Ronan for the death of his family; Rocket, a talking raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper who was torn apart, experimented on and put back together so many times he has no pity for anyone; and Groot, a massive walking tree whose one repeated line of dialogue, provided by Vin Diesel, is saying his own name. For those used to seeing handsome white men strutting about in tight outfits while saving the world, the Guardians are definitely a unique bunch and Gunn pulls them all together with the kind of chemistry and well-paced banter that resembles the work of Whedon himself. Some of the actors don’t bring a lot to the table, like the former wrestler Bautista, but others just go right ahead and steal the entire show, namely Cooper’s remarkable vocal work that fits in like a glove with the rest of the team despite his process being totally removed from everyone else. All the way leading up to the release of the film, the team behind it were saying that Rocket steals the movie and this is a rare case where they wrote a check that was cashed in full.
Guardians of the Galaxy is at its best when these characters are bantering back and forth, trading jabs and exchanging hilariously abrasiveness dialogue, but when the plot or action sequences try to get moving is when the cracks in its genesis begin to show. As enjoyable as the characters are, there’s so much going on that when the script tries to add sincere emotion or humanity to them it comes off so brutally on-the-nose and cloying that it momentarily puts me off the characters and pulls me out of the energy that had been building up. Guardians is a mostly fun and incredibly funny experience to behold, but for me it ultimately ended up a touch too forgettable thanks to the detriments of the franchise it exists within, one which is feeling more and more like a ride that’s not going anywhere. The need to progress from one film to the next rips out the stakes from any of these things and it’s incredibly frustrating watching everything build to a third act that is once again anti-climatic due to its position as a placeholder until the next film arrives. This franchise feels too much like TV-series filmmaking, but not the kind of toothy, bloody series you find on cable — at least those have some unpredictable, life-altering moves. These movies are just one middle-of-the-season procedural episode after another and while those can be fun at times they can never leave much of a lasting impression when they’re so disposable. There’s enough different about Guardians of the Galaxy to make it stand out momentarily but at the end of the day there’s also too much of the same.
2014, Luc Besson
If there’s one good thing I can say about Luc Besson’s Lucy it’s that in the glut of indistinguishable blockbuster tentpoles, this is the rare summer movie that stands out as being something unique and individual. Unfortunately, that really is the one good thing I can say about Lucy. All those things that make it stand out end up being tallies for the negative column, with Besson’s newest addition to his two-decade-long losing streak being a contender for the worst of his career and certainly one of the worst films I’ve seen so far this year. Simultaneously over-complicated and childishly simplistic with one silly idea that it runs mercilessly into the ground, Lucy only has Besson to blame as the man behind a great movie once upon a time serves as the sole writer and director for this jumbled piece of utter garbage.
Played by Scarlett Johansson, in the middle of a hot streak which will chalk this up as another win regardless of my personal opinion as it takes the #1 spot at the box-office this weekend, the titular figure (I was tempted to call her a heroine but really there’s no one to root for here) begins the movie as a naive innocent thrown immediately into a situation far beyond her understanding. In case the audience wasn’t aware that the man who handcuffs a locked briefcase to her and tells her to deliver it inside a fancy hotel so that he can be paid $1,000 is leading her into a dangerous situation we are ever-so-subtly given sharply cut images of a mouse edging towards a trap and wild animals stalking prey to make sure that we get the idea. This is just one moment of many like across the film, spattered inconsistently, that awkwardly splices in what seems like makeshift National Geographic footage to get across the dire theme that even as humans evolve we are still at our basest form merely animals. A highlight would no doubt be the montage of many different species of animal humping one another to educate us on the reproductive process. It’s hard to tell if these moments are supposed to be played for laughs but either way the only response they received from me were a cringe and a sigh as I waited for the experience to end.
Once Lucy becomes ensnared by a criminal organization (led by the deserving-of-much-better Min-sik Choi), she is surgically forced to smuggle a package of drugs but a kick in the gut forces the drugs into her system and they give her the ability to become in control of a greater mental capacity than that which humans have currently evolved to. Now the movie will tell you the age-old myth that humans only use 10% of our brains and Lucy’s new abilities are a result of her being able to harness more of that, increasing periodically all the way to 100%. Scientifically this just isn’t true but Besson makes sure from the start to establish that Lucy is a science-fiction picture and your disbelief needs to be suspended at the door. I had no problem letting go of that niggling leap from the facts, but Besson takes that goodwill and runs far too long with it, constructing an evolution through Lucy’s abilities that makes absolutely no sense and comes off like a kid throwing a bunch of paint at a wall and calling it art.
Lucy likes to pretend that it’s using some form of science, beginning with a far-too-long lecture from Morgan Freeman’s professor character that I’m still amazed didn’t put me into a deep slumber, when in reality there’s not a moment’s worth of genuine intelligence put into this chaotic mess posing as a thinking man’s action flick. Maybe some can write Lucy off as nothing more than a piece of dumb fun, but I feel a bit bad for people whose idea of fun is sitting through this tortuous endeavor. Even in the most rudimentary terms, Lucy has absolutely no regard for cohesive structure, pacing or form and the lack of any genuine development in the leading character that would get us to root for or be even remotely interested in her as a person is suffered ten fold by the supporting “characters” who felt like they were created as names scribbled on a napkin and established no further than that. Granted, it’s surely not that easy to create meaningful, developed characters when your film is a whopping 80 minutes long but Besson takes lack of depth to a new meaning in his childish, barely-there script that should have gotten thrown out a window several times before anyone thought of turning it into something people would end up watching.
Worst of all, it’s no more than 15 minutes into those 80 that Lucy starts to evolve from these drugs and the moment that she does she becomes an unstoppable force. When I say unstoppable I mean it in the most sincere sense where there isn’t a single challenge for her in the entire universe, making me unclear what the point even was in having a movie where there’s literally no obstacle or genuine conflict the entire way through, creating a complete void in any stakes, drama or energy. Besson’s newest feature takes that losing streak of his to a new level but the amount of arrogance on display is practically insulting to boot. On the first page of Lucy's script he wrote that in order to understand the film you should be aware that “the beginning is Leon: The Professional, the middle is Inception and the end is 2001: A Space Odyssey”. It’s hard to imagine anyone having trouble understanding that the director was going for this (let alone that they needed a guideline) because the stench of him trying to emulate Kubrick’s breathtaking film reeks off the final act. Amusingly the thing it bears the closest resemblance to is the equally dire Transcendence. And I didn’t even talk about the CGI dinosaur.
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.