2014, Sam Miller

It’s the middle of a stormy night, your husband is away on a golf trip with his father and you’re at home taking care of your two small children. A large man shows up on your doorstep with an open wound on his forehead. He tells you that he was in a car accident, he left his cell phone at home and he wonders if he could use your phone to call a tow truck. It’s okay, he’s a nice guy, he says he’ll just stay on the porch and you can hand him the phone and shut the door. So what do you do? If you’re Terri Granger, one of the leading characters of No Good Deed, you invite him in of course! Now I can accept that there are some things that require suspension of disbelief in order to allow for a movie to exist — No Good Deed couldn’t be a movie without a little fluffing of reality — but this new thriller from director Sam Miller is one of the most preposterously mental films I’ve seen in quite some time. Terri inviting this obviously-going-to-kill-her man into her home is just the tip of the iceberg. 

I’ve never been a firm believer in the idea of “so bad they’re good” movies, but No Good Deed makes the case for them having some kind of merit on the entertainment scale. For me, if a movie is bad it’s generally just a trying experience but with the right crowd things can get taken to a whole new level and let me tell you that is exactly what I received in my screening of this laugh-a-minute disaster. Granted, everyone else in the theater were generally enjoying their ride through the ludicrous escapades of Granger (Taraji P. Henson) and escaped convict/woman murderer Colin Evans (Idris Elba), but for me, just sitting back and watching their reactions was enough to make it the most enjoyable theater experience I’ve had in years. That being said, that doesn’t mean the movie itself is anything more than one of the worst films of 2014 — a tough bar that’s been set very low already with over three more months left to go. 

Idris Elba and Taraji P. Henson are two great actors who have deservedly cultivated loyal followings in their years of working hard in the industry, pushing against the still unjustly prejudiced limitations that have often left them in roles beneath the level of talent they have at their disposal. While Elba has become more of a prominent figure lately thanks to roles in major films like Prometheus and Pacific Rim along with his work on British series Luther earning him plenty of accolades stateside, he still isn’t quite as big a name as he should be and Henson has mostly been relegated to network television (in the admittedly great Person of Interest and now the less-promising Lee Daniels series Empire) and stereotypical bit roles despite receiving an Oscar nomination in 2008 for her work in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Seeing these two given leading roles in a late-night thriller was enough to get me in the seat with the best of hopes, and clearly there were others of that mindset since the film just established a dominating position as the number one film at the box-office on its opening weekend despite an absolute massacring by critics. 

That slandering is unfortunately well-deserved since both of these actors are giving the worst performances of their careers thanks to material that is so mind-alteringly stupid it absolutely seems beyond the realm of possibility that someone could have sat down and wrote this as a feature film. Aimee Lagos did it though, and the simple premise of a charming, murderous psychopath breaking from the authorities (with such ease) and tormenting a woman on a stormy night is just the entry point to a staggeringly awful, hilariously brief (they couldn’t even make it last 90 minutes, thank god) journey into a hellish nightmare of characters making nonsensical decisions that were clearly only done with the intention of getting themselves murdered. Every character in this movie (there’s only a few of them) deserves the worst punishment they could endure, and being asked to root for them (I think) is a crime of practically biblical proportions. 

The idea of trying to pull for Granger is an odd one since I can’t find it possible to root for someone so bizarrely unqualified for existence on this planet, but what’s even more bizarre is the way that Miller fetishizes Elba to a point where at times it seems like the film wants me to be in Evans’ corner as well. To be fair, you can’t blame anyone for appreciating Elba’s physical form and there’s no shortage of money shots that give the audience a taste of the goods (as much as a neutered PG-13 rating could allow, anyway) but given the fact that this guy has killed plenty of women in brutally violent ways, it all reeks of bad taste. Watching the movie tease a potential extra-marital romance between the two before all hell breaks loose elicited nausea rather than the seedy thrill that Miller and company seemed to be going for — just one of many moments that clearly didn’t land the way they wanted them to. 

That being said, the treatment of Evans is almost a godsend compared to how inconsistently written Granger is and how the movie can’t decide whether it wants to be a damsel in distress chase through the dark night or a thriller of female empowerment conquering the evils of men. The two men in Granger’s life that we see (Evans and her husband Jeffrey) are both monsters in some way (Jeffrey of a less homicidal sort), and so it makes sense that we should be cheering for her to become her own woman and take them both down but No Good Deed's endlessly ill-conceived script spends way too much time making her out to be just another generic woman lost and in trouble for it to make any sense that this movie actually wants me to believe it's some kind of feature about female power. No Good Deed wants to have its cake and eat it too, but instead it serves up an unappetizing slab of garbage and asks you to call it a filet mignon. 

It’s been over a decade since Sam Miller directed a feature film, his last being 1999’s Elephant Juice, and in the interim he’s spent his time working in television with his most notable stint being on Elba’s Luther for multiple episodes. It makes sense that he’s found more of a rhythm on the small-screen because No Good Deed seems like it was made with the idea already in mind that this will be on TNT at 4am within two years’ time. I can already picture some depressed, insomnia-riddled teenager forcing themselves to sit through this nightmare in the late hours of the night and my only hope for them is that it can cure their ailment and give them the night’s rest they desperately need. No one should have to endure No Good Deed, and yet with the right crowd (like the boisterous assortment I was sitting in the theater with) it could also be one of the most entertaining times you’ll have at the movie this year. If nothing else, there’s no beating the utterly baffled reaction to a twist so far gone from the realm of reality it must have been written under the influence of a dizzying cocktail of pills and liquor. 

When you think of movies that are labeled as “needing to be seen in theaters”, the mind automatically goes to epic, visually stunning contributions like Gravity and Life of Pi, but I’d wager that of the movies that have been released this year the one that has most benefited from the theatrical experience for me was No Good Deed. If I had seen this alone at my home it would have been one of the most miserable experiences of my life, but in the theater with a sold-out crowd who were having the time of their lives, they were able to provide enough delight for me to walk out of the theater with a big grin on my face and no regrets about the money I just spent to sit through this horrid production. That doesn’t prevent it from being one of the worst movies I will see in 2014 but that does mean I can safely say it was a pleasure to watch rather than a torture to endure. So that’s something, right? 

F

2014, Michael R. Roskam

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On paper, The Drop had all the right elements to be one of the best films of the year. The second feature from Belgian director Michael R. Roskam, hot off of his cracking, Oscar-nominated debut Bullhead, it’s been adapted to the screen by author Dennis Lehane (my all-time favorite) from his own short story “Animal Rescue” and stars a dynamite cast that is topped by Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, James Gandolfini (in his last screen appearance) and Bullhead's breakout star Matthias Schoenaerts. The plot concerns a Brooklyn bar that's run by Hardy's Bob Saginowski and Gandofini's Cousin Marv and is used at random by the local gangsters as a drop bar for their dirty money. When a duo of robbers hit up the place, many different entities converge that threaten the well-being of Saginowski and Marv, who look to find their way through a difficult time in an area where everyone knows everyone and no one is truly safe. The Drop has plenty of elements typical of many crime dramas that we’ve seen throughout the years, but Lehane’s taken similarly familiar-sounding stories before and made them sing with new depths in works like Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River — novels which were brought to the screen in tremendous fashion. 

Unfortunately, The Drop can’t quite live up to its lofty potential. While Roskam does imbue the atmosphere with a sense of lived-in crime and the nefarious characters that map out the treacherous narrative feel genuine thanks to a convincing ensemble cast, there’s too often that sense of over-familiarity that bogs down the film in a feeling like we’ve been here many times and seen it done much better much too often. It’s never a bad film by any means, but for a long stretch of time it does feel like a resoundingly mediocre one — until, that is, a late in the game reveal that turns everything on its head and elevates the picture to a new level. This big moment, which won’t be spoiled here, is a masterful touch that turns The Drop into a deceptively meticulous picture that builds a lot of little moments up into something special that can only be fully appreciated once you see the full scope of Lehane’s script. It’s hard to go into detail without spoiling the move, but suffice it to say that my disappointment in the picture up to that point was quickly turned on its head in this reveal that changed everything for these characters and Roskam’s film. 

While that turn does elevate The Drop from a mediocre film to a good one, there’s still a bit too much working against it for it to match up to something of the caliber one would expect given the talent of those involved. The plot does resolve itself nicely thanks to this, but it remains a bit messy in bringing all of its dispersed characters together in a cohesive fashion. A big aspect of the film relies too much on a random coincidence which is always a pet peeve of mine, leading to a subplot that could have been removed without any narrative consequence, but at the same time it’s this part of The Drop that gives it a tender heart which allows for a deeper emotional meaning. Early in the picture, Saginowski stumbles upon a small puppy that’s been beaten up and left in the trash can of Nadia (Rapace), a local waitress, and after he pulls it out and the two clean it off they strike up a kinship that is touching and played in charmingly low-key fashion by the two actors. Of course, there was a reason why a bloody dog was in a trash can in the first place, and it’s not long before the arrival of Nadia’s former flame Eric (Schoenaerts) throws a wrench in Saginowski’s carefully controlled life and it’s this aspect of the plot that feels a little too conveniently inserted and rubbed me the wrong way a bit, given where it all eventually leads. 

Lehane’s script expertly measures out its depiction of Saginowski and the way that it drops little hints for the major reveal and the deeper meanings of so many small moments over the course of the film is brilliantly done, and masterfully played by Hardy who has been having a great year, but the other characters could have used more texture in their development. A lot of work is put into making Saginowski a very thought-out character and it pays off tremendously well, though you don’t get the full appreciation until the film is over, but the rest of the cast isn’t as fortunate in getting as memorable of material as Hardy is gifted by the script. Nadia and Eric in particular feel far too much like one-note cliches that you see all the time in these kind of moody crime dramas (the tough damsel with the bad news ex and the ex himself who comes along and threatens the happy new coupling just because he’s a bad guy) and despite Rapace and Schoenaerts’ considerable talent (the latter really has a presence that few actors can match these days), they can’t quite raise up the lacking quality in the writing. Gandolfini also has disappointingly little to work with in his final role (he was much better in last year’s Enough Said), though he does far better than the rest of the cast, barring Hardy. 

The one element that could have perhaps used the most additional work though is the involvement of the police, headed in this case by Detective Torres, played by the vastly undervalued character actor John Ortiz. Torres floats in and out of the picture from time to time, with a nice little touch of recognition with Saginowski in the fact that they go to the same mass every week but have never spoken, and yet there’s never a sense of knowing this character or his place in the world. A lot of times it actually feels like The Drop had scenes that were awkwardly cut out of the film, many of them being ones that I think would have given more room to expand on Torres’ position in this world and his impact on the narrative itself. Yet in order to contain itself to a well-paced running time (and the movie does run itself quite well in terms of never losing focus or attention), things remain primarily centered on Saginowski and for all its faults it is in this character where the true value of The Drop lies. I can’t say I’ve been a fan of Hardy’s acting in previous years, and at first his performance here did feel a bit too tic-y for me to appreciate, but his work hinges on and justifies itself in that stunning moment that proves what an ace performance he’s giving at the core of Roskam’s picture. After taking sole control of the screen in Steven Knight’s Locke earlier this year, this is the second Hardy performance in a row that I’ve found an admiration for and I’m pleased to see the actor taking on more challenging, less obvious characters that allow him to play with and subvert his dominating macho presence in unexpected ways. 

A Brooklyn crime drama with this cast, directed by Roskam and written by Lehane in his first feature screenplay (he’s written some for HBO shows The Wire and Boardwalk Empire) should have been an event film for me, but The Drop ultimately remains a little too undercooked and over-familiar to amount to more than the sum of its parts. Everyone involved does quality work, with Hardy in particular adding another impressive performance to an already noteworthy year, but what’s most disappointing about the film is simply that it had all the right elements for something far more memorable. That being said, hinging itself so fundamentally on that one major moment was something that added great benefit to the overall product and a bit of a risk to everything that came before. On reflection I find myself liking the film more and more as it sits with me, while the experience of watching it had been slightly disappointing up until that point. There are so many little moments of character detail peppered in that can only be appreciated when all is said and done, and in doing so The Drop reveals itself to be slightly more unique than I was initially finding it, but even outside of this deceptively intelligent maneuver there are still a few too many struggling elements for me to be able to stand up and praise it as highly as I would like to. Roskam’s film is one that’s certainly worth seeing, though perhaps not one that will last in the mind as long as it should. 

B-

1984, Ivan Reitman

It may be hard to believe, but I had strangely never seen Ghostbusters in my 24 years of living so I took advantage of its theatrical re-release to make my first viewing of the movie one in theaters. In a way I’m glad I had waited because it was a pleasurable experience after a particularly difficult day. Very amusing throughout with Bill Murray at the absolute top of his game, killing it from beginning to end. I prefer him laconic and he was aces here — just the ideal reactionary, deadpan figure. Harold Ramis and Rick Moranis were also slaying left and right, though there wasn’t really a sour note among the cast. Plus, on a more superficial note, I would do some nasty things to get up in Annie Potts circa 1984. The movie started dragging for me a bit in the final stages when the plot of it all began to take center stage (it felt so unimportant until like the last half hour where it became the main show and it wasn’t very engaging for me), but still made time for the genius reveal of Stay Puft, perfectly delivered by Aykroyd. Real fun movie. And now I’ve got this song stuck in my head forever.

B-

2014, Scott Derrickson

2014 has across the board been a tough year for the horror genre. While recent years have seen filmmakers take minuscule budgets and offer up massive profit in the form of films like Paranormal ActivityInsidious and Mama, so far this year has seen nothing but one giant flop after the next. Some of these films were still able to garner a small profit thanks to their tiny budgets, but it seems like audiences have finally caught on to the recent wave of studios producing horror films that repeat the same tired, lazy thing ad nauseam while laughing all the way to the bank. Audiences have said enough is enough, with no horror film breaking $35 million at the domestic box-office this year as of now (and few remaining potentials to break the drought) and it looks like they’ll be demanding more from the genre in the future which is a welcome relief for things to come. 

If any horror feature this year was going to be the one to break the mold and become a major success, Deliver Us From Evil was set up to be that sole savior. Coming from Scott Derrickson, the director of Sinister (one of those very profitable recent films), Deliver Us From Evil was given prime real estate as a dose of summer counter-programming against the myriad of superheroes, apes and metal carnage that littered the screens. Opening on July 4th weekend, only a few weeks earlier than the major success of The Conjuring last year, there was hope by many that this would not only be a profitable venture for the genre but also a solid movie to boot — something that could imitate the critical and commercial success that led to The Conjuring being one of the biggest stories of last summer. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case. 

While The Conjuring director James Wan took a very absorbing, old-school style approach to his paranormal thriller, Derrickson went the opposite way with this exorcism drama — a rote and frustratingly by-the-numbers tale that elicited more groans than genuine scares. In the marketing for Deliver Us From Evil they made sure to advertise that the film is “inspired by the actual accounts of an NYPD Sergeant”, which is just a fancy way of giving us the same old “based on a true story” pitch that many a horror feature will try using to entice an audience. The thing that they forgot to think about here though was that just because a film is based on a true story doesn’t mean it’s based on a good one. That Sergeant is Ralph Sarchie, a danger junkie portrayed by Eric Bana as a man who finds himself wrapped up in a series of events that can’t be explained by the conventional rules that he has learned to operate under as an officer of the law. 

As strange deaths and attacks begin happening around the city, Sarchie eventually finds that his only option is to team up with a local priest named Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez) in order to combat these demonic forces while brooding and wearing a lot of black and grey because how else are you supposed to fight evil. Derrickson riddles Deliver Us From Evil with the same kind of routine jump scares and absurd, unintentionally hilarious “big moments” that made Sinister such a chore to get through but even more crippling for the film is how impossible it is to take any of these characters seriously, no matter how hard they try. Edgar Ramirez is a great actor but this stereotype of the badass priest is so laughable in conception and it’s hard not to chuckle at the idea of them making this film thinking about the fact that the audience will clearly get how cool he is because the one and only scene where he’s not wearing a black leather jacket is the one where he’s wearing a black duster. He’s a priest but he smokes and drinks and all the women want him so let’s watch him take on the devil. 

Still, as ludicrous as Ramirez’s Mendoza is he doesn’t hold a candle to Sarchie’s partner Butler, who is a strong contender for the worst character of the year. Played by Joel McHale in a bit of weird miscasting, Butler is a guy who lives in the Bronx but wears a Red Sox hat even though he doesn’t watch or care about baseball and isn’t even from Boston, which really says everything you need to know about him in one sentence. Just in case that doesn’t paint enough of a picture for you though, he also eats an apple with a switchblade, has a tattoo of the seven deadly sins on the back of his neck which we get one random shot of for no reason and in one scene at a local zoo he says “fuck you” to a bear. It’s like this movie went out of its way to make these characters as impossibly ridiculous as they could manage and then by inserting them into this context they somehow made them look even worse. 

Deliver Us From Evil was already standing its ground as a horror movie with no genuine horror, but it decided to go ahead and take things a step further by jumping into the realm of unintentional comedy to top it all off. It’s a waste of perfectly talented actors like Bana and Ramirez who are slumming it hardcore, maybe hoping that they were starring in the next Conjuring — that breakout horror smash hit that was actually a good film to boot. Thankfully audiences caught on fast to how wrong that idea was and Deliver Us From Evil barely even made back its budget at the domestic box-office (which was only $30 million, although these days that’s pretty steep for a horror movie when things like The Purge are making $64 million off a $3 million budget). This year we saw one horror film after another open and flop at the box-office with dismal reviews and even worse word-of-mouth, but Deliver Us From Evil was still painted as the one chance for some kind of redemption. Turns out that wasn’t happening since they couldn’t deliver themselves from this atrocious script and generic direction. 

D-

2014, Tate Taylor

Get On Up is a difficult movie to try and write a review for because Get On Up isn’t really a movie at all. As biopics often go (this one chronicling the life of James Brown) the film ends up forming nothing more than a bizarre collection of assorted clips from one man’s life, but Get On Up doesn’t do it in the “greatest hits” way that a lot of films in this genre end up doing. Strangely, Tate Taylor’s film is more like a scattershot assembling of random moments seemingly cobbled together with no regard for coherency, form or appropriate pacing. The chronology here is one of the most absurd and nonsensical I’ve ever seen in a movie, which is especially troubling for something that should have been so straight-forward in its conception, and due to this there’s no way for the movie to ever establish any kind of rhythm or momentum — two things that Brown (portrayed here by 42 star Chadwick Boseman) was all about. 

A little while back Todd Haynes gave us a biopic of Bob Dylan, I’m Not There., which took the spirit of the man and did something entirely unique and absolutely genius with it — that’s not the case here, as Get On Up is more like a half-focused, half-written, half-improvised take on a man whose story should have been much easier to tell than the men behind the film made it seem. Yes, the Tate Taylor treatment is frustratingly tame for someone as sinful as James Brown (coming from the director of The Help this isn’t too surprising) and it could use more energy but the biggest problem here by a large measure is the screenplay, which cripples it from the ground up. In the film’s final stages we see it start to gain an idea of what it wants to be, beginning to try and make some sort of poignant story about Brown’s relationship with Bobby Byrd (played by Nelsan Ellis) but the strained effort falls so flat after a movie that for two hours barely seemed to want to focus on that dynamic, or focus on anything really. I honestly still have no idea what this movie was trying to do. 

Written by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, even with a director as plain and inhibited as Taylor there was nothing that this movie could have done to salvage itself. What’s even more baffling is the fact that earlier this summer we saw another script co-written by the boys, Edge of Tomorrow, that remains one of the very best of the year. One of these films takes a practically impossible-to-work idea and creates a script that is sharp, complex, phenomenally well-paced and coherent while inhabiting a traditionally shallow genre with textured, developed characters who evolve organically and also remember to make it an endlessly entertaining, hilariously aware thrill ride out of a bonkers concept. The other takes one of the most basic, easiest concepts for a film ever and makes it a giant, calamitous mess that never has a hope of establishing any rhythm thanks to a needlessly chaotic timeline along with a heaping of the same stereotypical cliches of supporting characters we always see in this type of film. Given that Edge of Tomorrow also has a co-writer credit bestowed upon Christopher McQuarrie, I think it’s made pretty clear by the Butterworths’ work here who did all of the quality work on that script. 

What’s even more frustrating about Get On Up though is that for all of its many flaws, it has a shining star performance working overtime at its center. Chadwick Boseman gave a tremendous performance in 42 as baseball legend Jackie Robinson and he runs the potential of being typecast as the biopic man here because he’s even better in his portrayal of The Godfather of Soul. He’s got the energy, the soul, the voice, the moves, everything about Brown, down pat and watching him on stage is positively electric. Boseman is dangerous, sexual, amusing, disorderly and anguished but the script has no idea what to do with him. This is an actor who absolutely deserves to be a star but he’s in a movie that doesn’t deserve him one tiny bit. To add insult to injury, it’s almost cruel that after all of those think-piece articles and heaps of praise poured in Taylor’s direction after The Help finally gave great black actresses like Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer roles to shine in after years spent in the industry wasted in these kind of reductive, shallow caricatures of parts that the same man would three years later just put them right back into those exact same holes. Get On Up has a great performance at its core but it’s surrounded by so much waste that it completely drowns him about. 

D

2014, Steven Knight

Chamber pieces are the type of films that always fascinate me, always make me want to watch them and almost always end up disappointing. As far as concepts go, there’s something so interesting in the risk taken by a director, writer and actor in setting themselves in one location and seeing if they can manage to pull off an arc that remains compelling from start to finish and justify itself as a completed unit. Steven Knight takes on both writing and directing duties for Locke, which doubles as both a chamber piece and a one-man show for its lead, Tom Hardy. Set entirely within the confines of his car (barring a very brief introductory scene showing him get in said vehicle), Locke gives us the former Bane and Bronson as Ivan Locke, a decidedly ordinary man whose successful life is built around his family and his work as a construction manager. 

This night is not ordinary for Locke however, as he discovers that a woman he slept with in a moment of foolishness is about to give premature birth to their child and he decides that the right thing to do is to get behind the wheel and head off on the highway to be there for the birth, no matter what the cost. That price unfolds through a series of phone calls and we quickly discover that this is the eve of the most important night of his professional life, a responsibility he’s dedicated to doing his best to manage from behind the wheel while he simultaneously has to expose his misdeeds to his wife and deal with the ramifications of this revelation. It’s a challenging night for Locke to be sure and the challenge is born on Hardy as well, who is the only actor we see on screen for the entire 85-minute duration of Locke. Actors like Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson and Andrew Scott lend their voices as those on the other end of the phone line but Knight has unquestionably put the strength of his film on Hardy’s shoulders and to my surprise the Englishman was able to handle the task with aplomb. 

I can’t say I’ve been particularly impressed with Hardy as an actor up to this point; despite him being an impressive physical presence I’ve found that he too easily gives way to macho posturing and distractingly obvious tics that irritate me and cause me to find his performances too put-on and artificial. In Locke however, Knight strips him of his troubling tendencies (though he does still put on an unnecessary Welsh accent) and forces him to simply sit and absorb the audience in this character, which he accomplishes tremendously well. It’s a very natural, lived-in performance that I didn’t think Hardy was capable of and through all of the potential risks of gimmickry that could have come from the basic concept of the film I think Hardy’s authenticity in his portrayal establishes a believability in Locke as a human being that sells it in a way that a lot of actors wouldn’t have been able to achieve. At the same time, whether it’s through Hardy’s work or Knight’s, I was never able to invest in Locke emotionally as much as I would have liked to, nor was I moved by the journey he goes through personally and maybe that’s why the movie didn’t resonate for me once it was over. Still, at the very least I can finally say there’s a Hardy performance out there that I admired and it gives me hope for the many exciting projects he has found himself attached to in the coming years. 

Any film of Locke's nature faces the dangers of feeling too much like it was designed merely as an experiment (since they often are) or buckling under the weight of having to stretch out what is essentially a one-act, one-man play and make it digestible in a cinematic way but Knight and Hardy managed a great job of rooting this story in the character and the emotions he was going through. Early on there's an unfortunate concept introduced of Locke speaking to his (imaginary) father, looking in the backseat as if the man were there with him, and it's an uncomfortably artificial intrusion on what is otherwise a very naturally designed story. It's perhaps the one big misstep I found in Knight's tightly coiled and intelligently written script, though I can see why he may have found it to be a necessary evil. The audience needed a way to become educated on Locke's backstory and the rationale he created for himself as to why he wasn't able to abandon this child — why he was going to allow everything in his perfectly calibrated life to come unraveling over the course of one night, and we needed to understand that history with his father to get that. I think there were better ways that Knight could have found to make that happen, but this was the one we got and while it does bring a disappointing fault on the film it also doesn't manage to derail it to a point of severe detriment. 

Knight has been a strong writer for many years (with great work on films like Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises) and as a director (this being his second feature after the barely noticed Jason Statham vehicle Redemption) he runs a smooth ship, albeit one that’s a bit busier than it needs to be. Locke is pristine in style and as the car is constantly moving on the road, Knight keeps the camera jumping too much to try and compensate, cutting far too frequently when Hardy’s performance is strong enough that more would have been gained out of keeping a steadier hold on the man behind the wheel. It’s not enough to put a big wrench in the overall product but it’s certainly distracting at times and perhaps is a prime reason why it was hard for me to fully invest myself in this man’s journey through the night. At the end of the day, Locke isn’t a substantial picture or one that resonates too deeply but at the same time it takes a special collaboration of actor, writer and director to take 85 minutes of a guy sitting in his car talking on the phone while driving and make it compelling all the way through. This could have been an experiment gone wrong and many times films of this nature are, but Hardy and Knight make a stable team who are able to build a naturally unfolding story out of one man watching his life crumble around him after he makes a decision and determines to stand by it. Maybe not the most memorable picture, but one that shows potential for Hardy and Knight going forward and I’m intrigued to see where they go from here. 

C+

2014, Anton Corbijn

Whenever a major actor passes away there’s an unfortunate new meaning added on to any of their films still waiting to be released; for anyone watching, there’s an awareness that this is one of the final chances we’ll have to see the work of this talented actor on the screen. It puts an unintended pressure on these films as something that will be representative of the legacy this performer is going to leave behind. Philip Seymour Hoffman was tragically taken from us this past February and at the age of 46 he had already (rightfully) become regarded as one of the finest actors to ever live and arguably the best currently working. Only a few performances were left on his upcoming slate for us to witness alongside the many great works that he had already delivered. While he was in the middle of filming the final two installments of the Hunger Games series, which will be completed with CGI, if Catching Fire was any indication those aren’t going to be anything worth remembering. God’s Pocket didn’t generate much heat after a tepid response at Sundance this year and subsequently was forgotten in an instant upon its formal release. With those out of the question, all eyes for better or worse fell on Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man as the last true representation of the legacy Hoffman was going to leave behind. 

Adapted from an espionage thriller written by John le Carre, Hoffman’s final completed role sees him starring as Gunther Bachmann, a German agent who leads a team hoping to capture and turn a young Chechen illegal named Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin). In their way are the murky politics of many interested parties, ranging from American agencies represented by Robin Wright’s Martha Sullivan to intrepid lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), who is contacted by Karpov and in turn locates Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), a banker whose father had relations with Karpov’s father. As with any narrative le Carre creates, A Most Wanted Man is loaded with heady themes, dense political background, twisting allegiances and the feeling that you can never be entirely sure whether or not you should trust the person sitting across the table from you. The closest allies can become bitter enemies over the course of a drink and in Bachmann, Hoffman demonstrates a man who knows this far too well. Conversations between Bachmann and Sullivan reveal hints at a history where the German was burned by American allies and his distrust towards all collaborative agencies is something that is rooted within him as a result — a kind of burden that he wears like a vest to protect against letting anyone get too close to the information he has. 

When Bachmann’s team discover Karpov’s presence in Hamburg and generate a plan to turn him against a local Muslim who is believed to be involved in terrorist activities, the last thing Bachmann wants is to have more hands in the cookie jar working their own agendas and trying to figure out what they can get out of Karpov. The result is a quiet, restrained tension that slowly builds on the edges of every scene, with Corbijn and Hoffman combining their subtle, considerable forces to add this layer that can only really be appreciated by the time the final frame runs and the credits begin to scroll across the screen. Despite this only being his third film, Corbijn has defined a style that plays to the minimalism of older European thrillers like Le Samourai and The Conformist — films that knew that you didn’t need bullets speeding across the screen to hook an audience in your grasp. As a result, him and le Carre (whose work has led to great films like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold) seemed like a perfect combination, but for Corbijn’s best efforts there are some problems that get in the way of A Most Wanted Man being the great piece of material to match its wealth of potential. 

Adapted to the screen by writer Andrew Bovell, A Most Wanted Man's biggest problems lie in an inconsistent script that finishes incredibly strong but starts off with a troubling first half that rushes by far too quickly without properly establishing these characters or their environment. The first hour is an over-plotted mess that's all narrative movement with no meat, character or texture. Watching it was an almost baffling experience, trying to imagine how someone could go from making a film as meditative and expertly measured as The American to making something that crippled itself with far too many moving parts and not nearly enough understanding of character or setting. I’ll admit I was getting very worried about the film for a troubling amount of time, but thankfully once the script slows down it is able to refine itself quite well and begin to develop into the type of film it always should have been. 

Eventually, A Most Wanted Man starts to ask the questions that it needed to be asking from the start while also taking its characters more seriously by exploring Bachmann’s demons. Wisely though, it never chooses to probe too deeply and instead lets Hoffman do the heavy lifting in bringing his anguish to life. It’s no surprise at this point to see Hoffman be the best thing about a film that he’s in since he had been doing it for two decades now, but he truly is the shining light that keeps A Most Wanted Man burning through even its more unsteady areas. The actor builds an internal understanding of Bachmann that reveals deeper layers within itself the further the film continues and eventually builds to an absolutely shattering finale that is sure to go down as one of the strongest, most devastating of the year. This is a film that feels like it’s all building to one moment, one expletive really, and Hoffman unleashes that fire like it’s the last thing he’s ever going to do on this earth. 

That being said, as good as the actor is at bringing depth to his role it still feels like every other part is drastically under-written and stripped of any understanding beyond what they service for the plot. Issa in particular is an enigma with no real humanity to him, something that removes any sense of emotional investment that could have been garnered from the way that these agencies toy with his emotions in order to further their own agendas. Having read the novel that Corbijn’s film was adapted from a few years back, it’s bizarre how much of Issa’s role they cut out that could have given us a deeper understanding and concern for this character. As far as Hoffman’s legacy goes, A Most Wanted Man is a fittingly powerful note for the actor to go out on in terms of his own performance, but looking at the film overall it’s a case where as strong as the second half ends up being it still can’t manage to take the sting out of the lackluster hour that came before it. 

B-

2011, Michael Winterbottom

Perfectly pleasant, if immediately forgettable. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon have such a winning love/hate chemistry that they manage to find a way for two hours of them simply chatting opposite one another (not so much with each other) to form an entertaining viewing that keeps up a brisk, enjoyable pace throughout. The most pleasant surprise though was the little plunges into more serious matter, particularly in the moments where we see Coogan’s insecurities and deep loneliness manifest as he is forced to spend time by himself. You see that his need for Brydon to accompany him after his girlfriend backs out was a selfish one; a man so reluctant to spend time alone with his own thoughts that he’d ask just about anyone to accompany him. I wasn’t expecting this mostly amiable experience to take on such dark, melancholy undertones but Michael Winterbottom and Coogan handled them wonderfully, adding a slight bit of depth to what was mostly a very on-the-surface and carefree ride. 

C+

2014, Phillip Noyce

While some lucky folk are currently seeing some of the best movies of the year at the Toronto International Film Festival, us regular people are still in the midst of the late August/early September drought at the cinemas. Caught between the crowd-pleasing summer bombast and the shift towards serious-minded fare for awards season, there aren’t a lot of quality options out there and in my desperation for a night out at my favorite place to be I found myself walking into a screening of The Giver. The Regal cinema chain were advertising a Buy One Get One Free deal on tickets for the movie so I figured why not. 97 minutes later I knew all of the many reasons exactly why not. Directed by the far-better-than-this Phillip Noyce (who has done well in pictures as varied as the thoughtful, deliberate Graham Greene adaptation The Quiet American and the blisteringly energetic and entertaining Angelina Jolie-led Salt, his most recent theatrical release), The Giver isn’t the worst film to come out of the recent boom in young adult adaptations but it belongs right in the $5 bin at Wal-Mart that most of these things will be seen hogging up the space at the bottom of in the near future. 

On paper, this adaptation of Lois Lowry’s widely-acclaimed and controversial 1994 book sounded like it had far more potential than most source material that forms the basis for the films in this genre. A passion project of actor Jeff Bridges for two decades, he has striven to get Lowry’s novel to the big screen and it must be such a disappointment for him that the final result was something so drab and typical. In watching The Giver you can see how the novel may have been able to expand on its lurking themes and damning social and political allegories; I haven’t read the novel so I can’t say for a fact that it does though it couldn’t have put in less effort than the film adaptation, written by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide did. Bridges and Meryl Streep continue in the odd tradition of actors like Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, Nicole Kidman and Kate Winslet who have gone from Oscar-approved status to slumming it in this YA affair, lending it a sheen and prestige that it doesn’t come anywhere close to deserving, while as is generally the case the most prominent roles are filled out by talentless pretty faces who are forced to do the heavy-lifting and collapse under the pressure. The pretty boy in question here is the relentlessly wooden Brenton Thwaites, giving a performance that isn’t quite as bad as his work in the earlier 2014 release Oculus, though that’s a tough bar to reach since I’d say that was one of the worst performances I’ve seen in years. 

The Giver is set within the confines of a seemingly idyllic community, one that has established a base of rules that allow for no suffering or chaos. However, this order comes at the cost of the things that make us human — our differences, memories and free will. The community assigns positions for each of its citizens when they reach a certain age and our journey with Jonas (Thwaites) begins as he is selected to become the new Receiver of Memories, which is basically what it sounds like. Jonas begins his training with the current Receiver, who calls himself The Giver (you know, because he’s giving them to Jonas) and is played here by Bridges. As the training commences, the young man is confronted with the horrors that have been committed by mankind over the years and the even darker ones that are being committed by this community under the guise of keeping its citizens at peace. There are a lot of interesting questions that could arise from the loaded material that The Giver offers up with its presentation of this community and the means through which they establish their surface level of a serene existence but instead Noyce’s film takes the most obvious and shallow route by quickly rushing The Giver into a “young rebel tries to save the world” story that goes exactly where you expect it to in the quickest manner possible. 

That lean running time keeps the film from ever getting particularly dull or over-extended but it also contributes to the lack of any deeper layers that The Giver could have filled up extra time with. Given the laziness and recycled manner of this YA adaptation I doubt that with more time they would have done anything of the sort, but sometimes it’s nice to imagine a world where this movie sees all the potential it has and actually utilizes it. There’s a solid cast contained here, despite the bland lead and the occasional sour egg like a hilariously one-note Katie Holmes, and they could have done well with a more challenging film but instead they’re relegated to hitting the same beats over and over again, never stretching far beyond the most basic interpretation of this world and the conflicts that arise when Jonas receives his memories. It should be noted that for a character who is supposed to be the only one capable of feeling genuine emotions, receiving the entire feelings of this community in rapid pace for the first time ever, it’s baffling how Thwaites remains the most unengaging and unemotive presence in the picture. It’s hard to say that anyone in the cast deserves a particularly positive notice, but one bright spot amid the disappointing murk is relative newcomer Odeya Rush, a sort of quasi-love interest and best friend for Jonas who he encourages to skip her injections that remove her emotions and join him on his quest to…save people or something. 

One of the film’s biggest problems is it never really conjures up a significant understanding of Jonas’ arc or the narrative that he travels on, instead letting bizarre and frankly ridiculous leaps of logic jump the plot way further down the line than it seemingly should be at. The biggest example would be the scene where Jonas sees a map that details a wall listed as “The Boundary of Memory” and without a moment’s hesitation he jumps to the conclusion that if he were to pass this boundary it would mean that the entire community would get their memories back. Boundary of Memory could have meant literally anything — it’s such a vague title that no one could know its definition from just seeing the words, yet Jonas stakes his entire quest on a leap of faith that he makes in a split-second, one which occurs so early in the film that you’re then forced to sit for far too long waiting for him to finally make the obvious move of heading on his journey out there. The Giver is telegraphed from the beginning in a lot of ways, whether it’s Meryl Streep’s Chief Elder wigged out and hologrammed in the most obviously evil manifestation or spending scenes in the community’s Nurturing Center waiting for the dark secrets of their baby-weighing procedures to be unfolded and really the most disappointing part of it all is that for an adaptation so seemingly loaded with potential depth and passion the final result was one far too familiar and derivative of a myriad of others in this increasingly dire genre. Noyce’s film isn’t offensively bad in any manner of the phrase, but in a way I wish it had been because then at least something memorable would have come out of the experience of watching it. 

D+

2014, Jon Favreau

After hitting it big with mega-blockbuster Iron Man and then receiving his fair share of lumps with follow-ups Iron Man 2 and Cowboys & Aliens, Jon Favreau has taken his directorial efforts back to a simpler, more character-focused time that recalls his debut Made and his first film as a writer, Swingers. The story of a major restaurant chef (Favreau) who is savaged by a critic, loses his cool, subsequently quits and finds his passion again in operating a small food truck with a close friend and his son, Favreau’s Chef certainly isn’t reaching far to draw parallels with the filmmaker’s own work as an artist. In fact, there were a few times throughout Chef where the “hidden” meanings become so apparent and abrasive, particularly during a meltdown where Favreau’s character Carl Casper violently lashes out at the critic who tore him to shreds, where it begins to cross a line into uncomfortable territory. For the most part though, Chef is a welcome treat from a man who had seemingly lost his way in the big lifestyle of major Hollywood success and that parallel again becomes a bit awkward when you realize that his next film is a live-action blockbuster version of The Jungle Book

Maybe Favreau’s career moves send some mixed messages when it comes to Chef's themes and not-so-hidden subtext, but either way it doesn't distract too much from what is an amiable, if forgettable experience. The added meanings can get in the way of that from time to time, but if Favreau's main goal was to keep a smile on my face through a lightning fast two hours than he certainly succeeded. It's hard not to be having a good time from the moment Chef lifts off, reveling in a soundtrack that’s energetic and nearly as appetizing as the food Carl cooks up. As far as the supporting characters go, they could all have used a lot of work in bringing any kind of development or deeper layers to the film, particularly the few women of the piece, but the film rises on the strength of a young boy. The core relationship of Chef is between Casper and his son Percy (Emjay Anthony) and it’s there that the picture finds a solid groove. Thanks in large part to a winning performance from the young Anthony that steers clear of the typically annoying tradition of movie kids, Percy’s relationship with his father develops touchingly over the course of the somewhat meandering narrative and even if it is a bit cliched it still doesn’t lack for the occasional emotional string-pulling. 

Other relationships are less than impressive, especially the one between Carl and Percy’s mother Inez (Sofia Vergara), his ex-wife who smiles all the time and couldn’t be more willing to do everything she can to help everyone in the movie out. It makes it quite baffling as to why these two ever split up when she’s basically running around trying to make everyone happy all day long in the most pleasant manner possible. John Lequizamo and the man the myth the Bobby Cannavale do solid work in roles as Casper’s employees, while Favreau’s Iron Man alumni Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr. pop up in minor parts as a favor to their director to give his personal little indie movie more visibility. It certainly worked, as the marketing played up their appearances regardless of how brief they are and the movie has netted over $30 million domestically, becoming one of the very few breakout indie successes of 2014 so far. Downey Jr. in particular makes the most of his one scene, a hilariously madcap moment of eccentricities and typically Downey behavior that creates a palpable unease in the most wonderfully raucous way when him and Favreau share the screen together. Their scene is perhaps the only one that lingers long in the mind once this pleasant but hollow experience is over, with the possible exception being a flash-forward ending that feels woefully misjudged and underdeveloped. 

Turns out when you’re writing and directing a movie you can get whatever you want, even if that means having Sofia Vergara and Scarlett Johansson as your love interests while you get to attack the critics who took you down for your fall into the Hollywood machine. You know, the one that you’re heading right back into after making your personal little passion project. I don’t want to come off harsher on Chef than I actually am, because as I said it kept me smiling in spite of all the niggling little criticisms that have come to stronger light for me once I stepped out of the theater. I missed Chef on its initial run at the cinemas and was grateful that the meager offerings of the late August/early September time period allowed it to be re-released for a few more weeks to give me the chance to take a drive and give it a go because seeing it with an audience was certainly a treat for a night out. Chef may not succeed in adding any bite or significant layers in the way that it may intend to at times, but as far as comfort food goes it does everything it can to satisfy the appetite — even if the after-taste may be a bit sour. 

C+