2014, Craig Johnson
There’s a long tradition in film of comedic actors transitioning into dramatic roles with indies that gravitate towards a grey area in between the two genres, particularly in movies that make sure to hit the Sundance Film Festival before their wide release. From Jennifer Aniston in The Good Girl to Steve Carell in Little Miss Sunshine and beyond, the snowy sidewalks of that Utah town are practically paved with actors looking to get their drama bonafides and while plenty have faltered along the way, this year saw two of the most resoundingly successful achievements in quite some time. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are primarily known for their multiple Emmy-nominated work on Saturday Night Live and after leaving their long stints on the program in recent years they find themselves coming together again in a very Sundance-typical tale of two troubled siblings in Craig Johnson’s darkly comedic, surprisingly abrasive and endearingly heartfelt drama The Skeleton Twins.
At first glance, The Skeleton Twins shares more than a few similarities with another recent Sundance hit, the Oscar-nominated Tamara Jenkins film The Savages. While that feature had the star power of already-certified dramatic heavyweights Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney, it also revolved around two estranged siblings forced by a hospital visit to come back together and sort out their issues, complete with adultery and a wintry setting that made it a perfect fit for that Sundance atmosphere. The Skeleton Twins does great effort at settings its own path, but Johnson and his leads are able to capture the same kind of hilarious, heartfelt and emotionally resonant experience that Jenkins and company were able to achieve and if there’s a film that you’re going to be compared to you can certainly do a lot worse. The Skeleton Twins shares plenty of familiar tropes that we’ve seen in Sundance and indie movies at large over the past decade but thanks to the sharp script by Johnson and Mark Heyman, along with a superb ensemble, it’s able to make its mark in its own very distinct way and has become one of my favorites of the year so far.
We open the film with Maggie (Wiig) and Milo (Hader) on opposite sides of the country, her in New York and him in LA, yet both of them are connected by their dissatisfaction with the state of their life. As Milo blasts Blondie’s “Denis” in his apartment, he slits his wrists and slides into the bathtub, leaving a disturbingly comical suicide note on the back of an envelope on his table. Over in New York, Maggie stands with a handful of pills, a tear running down her cheek and a conflict over whether or not she’s ready to take the plunge. Before she makes her choice she gets the call that Milo’s in the hospital and she heads across the country to see her brother for the first time in ten years. Milo, secretly begging for help while maintaining his “it’s not a big deal” attitude, agrees to stay with Maggie and her husband Lance (Luke Wilson, who delivers one of the most genuinely, effortlessly likable performances I’ve seen in years) back in their hometown and so sets up The Skeleton Twins' basic premise of putting these two back under the same roof and having them work out their issues.
The plot doesn’t get much more intricate than that; the various running narratives are filled in with developments like Maggie’s infidelity with her scuba instructor (played by Boyd Holbrook who puts on an alarming, unnecessary Australian accent) and Milo rekindling an old, formerly illegal, affair with his high school teacher Rich (Ty Burrell in a surprisingly impressive bit of against-type casting) but Johnson’s film all comes down to these two siblings and their dynamic with each other. Casting Hader and Wiig opposite one another was a risky move, given that anyone familiar with the two could go in expecting the kind of romp that you’d imagine two recent Saturday Night Live alums to be heading together, but it’s one that paid off incredibly well thanks to their long history that has developed their relationship in a way perfect for actors playing brother and sister. For years these two were locked in a room together night after night, working out sketches for their live show into the early hours of the morning, and that kind of familial bond only furthered their chemistry in bringing these two siblings to the screen in vivid life.
They may have been estranged for ten years but there’s no denying that Maggie and Milo were raised in the same home and the two pick up exactly where they left off. Whether they’re delivering sharp jabs at the dissatisfied lives they’ve come to inhabit or embracing their similar sense of humor over a rib-busting scene of nitrous oxide use at the dental office where Maggie works (reportedly the only scene where the two legendary improvs were allowed to strut their off-script skills), Hader and Wiig have cultivated a sibling camaraderie that you simply can’t fake and yet at the same time they never fall into the traps that could have come with their years together on a show like Saturday Night Live. They may be two actors known largely for comedic work, but here the two show off their dramatic skill in equally astonishing measure and both have elevated themselves to a point where it becomes clear that they can handle both sides of the tonal coin in perfectly-measured stature.
Wiig has had some difficulty in recent years trying to make the transition to the dramatic side of things in quickly forgotten flops like Girl Most Likely and Hateship Loveship but here, aided by the support of Hader and the strong writing of Johnson and Heyman, she’s able to stretch her legs and fully convince as a woman so troubled by her life and her own self-destructive actions while never being able to properly express them to anyone around her. It’s the best work of her career to date, but the show ultimately belongs to Hader who is a revelation as Milo, a gay failed-actor having to come to terms with the fact that his life isn’t anything near what he had hoped it would be at this point. In one key scene between the two, Milo talks about how their father (who not-coincidentally ended his own life by jumping off a bridge many years ago) once told him when he was a boy that the kids who were popular in high school were only going to see their lives go downhill from there while Milo would flourish once he was able to step out into the real world — the heartbreak comes when Milo, holding back tears, states that he was the one it never got better for.
The Skeleton Twins is loaded with moments that pull on the heart strings in natural, believable ways without ever descending into nauseating “indie drama” quirks that would pull you out of the authentic experience of these two troubled siblings colliding forces with one another and knocking their damaged lives back into perspective. Over the years the two have perfected their self-managed, self-destructive ways to a point where they simply live with their unhappy existence and pretend that everything is fine to such a convincing degree that no one around them sees just how far down they’ve gotten. You can’t hide anything from your siblings though and once the two are back under the same roof it’s only inevitable that this glass house will come smashing down around them. Milo and Maggie stray the line between likable and loathsome, even teetering over into the latter at times, but Hader and Wiig constantly keep you invested in them and the clever, impactful writing makes sure to leaven the heaviest moments with plenty of warmth throughout. The film’s centerpiece, in which the two come together over a lip-sync rendition of Jefferson Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”, is as crowd-pleasing a moment as any you’ll see on screen this year and a testament to the fact that no matter how much Maggie and Milo can dig their claws into one another they will always have a bond that no one can manage to break or fully understand.
2014, Ira Sachs
In the tradition of Make Way for Tomorrow and Tokyo Story, Ira Sachs has brought us a look into the generational divide as seen through the experiences of an aging couple in his newest feature, Love Is Strange. Updating this theme for the modern age, this New York-set character piece opens up on the beautiful ceremony of Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) finally tying the knot after four decades of being together. Soon after, however, George is let go from his job as a music teacher at a Catholic school and financial complications arise that force the couple to ask their friends and family for a place to stay. This results in the two temporarily splitting up (only in terms of their living arrangements) while trying to find a new home, which sees Ben relocated to the cozy apartment of his nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burrows), his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their son Joey (Charlie Tahan) while George crashes with their gay police officer friends Ted (Cheyenne Jackson) and Roberto (Manny Perez).
Sachs and frequent writing partner Mauricio Zacharias set the stage for this touching little film by taking what could have been a somewhat contrived premise and approaching it with such an earnest quality that it never feels forced or manufactured in an attempt to create drama. One of the most surprising aspects of Love Is Strange is the way that Sachs takes something which could have been incredibly plot-heavy and loaded with subplots that are teased along the way and instead turns it into a naturally told story of human beings trying to connect and the way that we can cross lines into each others’ lives. There are no villains, no outwardly menacing characters in Love Is Strange, yet quietly these people struggle in dealing with the intrusions of their friends and family into their every day lives in a way that they had never experienced before. In establishing the relationship between Ben and George, we see two people so familiar with one another that they’re comfortable with all of their flaws and niggling qualities but as the two separate and become acquainted with the lifestyles of others, they become burdens or find themselves burdened by their new surroundings. It’s a familiar story to anyone who has had relatives or friends stay with them or vice versa, and yet Sachs brings it to such vivid, unemphasized life.
There’s an unassuming quality to Love Is Strange that sets it apart from other dramas of its type, ones that would easily find themselves jumping head-first into the theatrics lurking under the secrets that these characters are hiding from one another. Sachs refreshingly avoids any of these journeys into melodrama, which was a welcome treat given that early on it seemed as though the film was opening a lot of subplots that were going to head in that direction. There are clear signs throughout of Elliot having an affair, as well as a largely unspoken realization of Joey’s closeted sexuality, but rather than opening up all of these avenues and trying to cram them into one small movie, Sachs instead elects to tell a story of these people in one specific period of time in their life. Even though the audience can be very aware of these other developments that will eventually more than likely come out and impact the lives of those involved, they’re not for this film to try to artificially conjoin together in a string of big movie scenes — yet at the same time they still influence the relationships between the characters and it’s intriguing to watch them try to ignore all of these signs or perhaps be completely oblivious to them while we are able to look deeper into those hidden layers.
It’s all a reflection of the natural, earnest style of storytelling that Sachs employs and it allows for plenty of alarmingly touching moments over the course of the film. One scene in particular brought me to tears, in which George is suffering through a particularly difficult day and so he travels through the pouring rain to Elliot’s apartment simply so that he can see his love Ben and be held by him. There are very few words exchanged between the two in this scene, and yet Molina and Lithgow have created such a potent relationship with one another that you can genuinely feel the decades of life the two have lived together and the way that they’ve forged an unspoken awareness of exactly what the other needs. The two are barely on screen together, and the movie does an excellent job of establishing them as individual people rather than making it a “relationship movie” that’s only about them in relation to one another, but when they are together you fully get the belief that these two have been together for forty years and have a shared history that we don’t see or hear but can resoundingly feel in the way they communicate and simply exist with one another.
Love Is Strange is loaded with quiet, beautiful moments like this one and it’s a testament to the strength of the writing and Sachs’ seemingly effortless direction that it is able to maintain such a charming, easygoing pace without resorting to any level of superficiality. This may cause the film to feel too slight or insubstantial for some who are instead looking for an indie drama with a lot more punch than Sachs is aiming to deliver, but I found this story to be a remarkably potent one and in the time since my viewing I’ve only grown to look on it even fonder. With a memorable ending that shows us the ways that other people can resonate with us whether or not we demonstrate it to other people, or are even fully aware of it within ourselves, Love Is Strange is lovingly crafted by Sachs and Zacharias and ably performed by his entire cast. This is especially true for his two stars who are deserving of this kind of rich, well-developed material for every performance they deliver but rarely get the chance in their age and industry standing to deliver such quality work. It’s always refreshing to see great actors giving great work when they don’t often get the chance to do so, and refreshing is perhaps the best word to ultimately describe this natural, beautiful and extremely touching little picture.
2014, Wes Ball
Another week, another young adult franchise hopeful hits the big screen. Adapted from the book trilogy by James Dashner, The Maze Runner is the seventh YA film to hit screens in the past twelve months and while it hasn’t hit the success level of Hunger Games or even Divergent, it seems to have effectively avoided the gallows of recent DOA flops like Vampire Academy and The Mortal Instruments. The “unique” hook in this series is that it’s headed by a male lead (Dylan O’Brien) and the marketing wisely played up the action elements of the plot in order to pull in a broader audience that expanded across multiple demographics and brought in young men and women alike. It was certainly a strategy that worked and with the help of surprisingly strong international grosses out of the gate and an economic production budget ($34 million compared to the $85 million of Divergent or the $110 million of the doomed Ender’s Game), no one should be surprised that Fox quickly made the move to announce a sequel for Maze Runner on their schedule for the same weekend next year.
As far as the quality of the film itself — well it seems that The Maze Runner falls in the pattern of these YA movies for me personally in that the ones I actually like are poorly received (Divergent, The Golden Compass) while the ones that somehow skate by with passable reception from critics or somehow even get rapturous praise are ones that don’t work for me on any level. I’m not sure why I keep finding myself coming back to these films with the hopes of receiving some form of entertainment but they can occasionally manage to keep my attention occupied for the better part of a few hours, as Divergent did earlier this year with a well-paced run through its derivative, predictable, franchise-baiting plotline. The Maze Runner doesn’t add anything new to spice up the game, despite its tease of that “unique” quality of being centered on a cast almost entirely made up of young men, but its biggest crime is that for the large majority of its running time it is unrelentingly dull.
These young adult movies have seen some impressive names step behind the director chair but Maze Runner finds itself as the feature debut of visual effects artist Wes Ball and there’s no doubting the fact that this feels like a first-time effort of someone who can’t bring the energy required to keep a film’s pulse moving. Set inside the world of “The Glade”, O’Brien stars as Thomas, a new entrant into this Lord of the Flies-esque society of boys who emerge out of an elevator in the ground to discover themselves stranded alone in a walled-off community with no memory of anything that happened in their life prior to that very moment. In a practically neverending series of exposition dumps over the first act of the film, Thomas is educated by various members of the community on the rules that they have learned to operate with in order to keep the peace between this group of hormonal, angry young men who are desperate for a way out (though oddly they don’t seem to be too upset about their predicament). Surely there was a way to make this necessary divulging of information more palatable than literally doing nothing but having Thomas incredulously ask a bunch of questions and having a character simply explain the answers to him in vivid detail, but apparently Maze Runner's script didn't have the wherewithal to conjure anything up.
As he becomes accustomed to The Glade (the name the boys coined for their setting), Thomas’ curiosity gets the better of him and he yearns to explore the mysterious maze that lurks beyond the walls that keep the boys prisoner. Every day a group of runners go out and try to map out the maze, while returning home before the walls shut at night and leave them caught out there with the ravenous, ridiculous-looking monsters known as “Grievers”. It’s all boilerplate YA nonsense without much depth or care for construction thrown in as O’Brien tries to force emotions and reactions out of an uninteresting character and the script struggles to come up with any real twists to keep the plot exciting. Early on, when The Glade’s second-in-command Newt (played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster) tells Thomas that no one survives a night in the maze it’s like the movie is just asking you to be patient and wait half an hour so that you can get to the inevitable scene where Thomas (surprise!) is left out in the maze for a night and lives to tell the tale.
The first two acts of The Maze Runner play out exactly as you’d expect them to, with all of the various details and requisite dynamics sketched in through the thin characterizations of the group’s leader Alby (Aml Ameen, who along with Sangster are the only actors who manage to escape this unscathed), the rote and relentlessly irritating (for no reason other than drama) group villain Gally (Will Poulter, whose acclaim and popularity continues to baffle me as he turns in another dreadful performance), the trite cliche of the young innocent Chuck (Blake Cooper) and so on. Kaya Scodelario shows up midway through as the first female entrant into The Glade, which you would think could turn into an interesting plot point and a shift in the routine of this society but they do absolutely nothing with it and she quickly becomes background noise. My blank expression over the course of the majority of Ball’s film had me wishing for anything interesting to happen that would wake me out of my practical slumber but once the third act came along and threw the wrench in the system I found myself wishing I could go back to simpler times when this was just a maddeningly dull exercise in recycled tedium.
If The Maze Runner was primarily nothing more than a flat, wasted experience then the final stretch was one so unbelievably insipid that I wanted to scratch out my eyes from watching it. The exposition dumps come back in full force, including one of the most unbearable offered up in the film that wastes one of my favorite actors whose role I won’t mention here as not to spoil it for anyone unfortunate enough to see this film, as they explain the position these boys are in, the “truth” of their predicament and where things are going to go in that inevitable sequel that will soon be threatening our cinemas once again. The idea of some answers to these mysteries could perhaps be enticing if I cared about any of the characters, anything about their world, or the film did anything to ignite an interest in its plot rather than offering up vague teases at answers that never come and do nothing but try to hook the bait in for the next entry. Clearly it’s something that worked for some people out there, as The Maze Runner is bizarrely one of the few YA franchise-starters to earn positive ratings from critics and it did remarkably well at the box-office but for this viewer I can’t ever imagine subjecting myself to another journey down this wretched rabbit hole. When that aforementioned great actor states that this part of the journey is over and it’s time to begin “phase two”, I couldn’t believe that Ball didn’t just have them look straight into the camera and accept the joke that all of them must be in on.
2014, Terry Gilliam
Terry Gilliam is always going to be one of those directors who I consider a personal favorite, even though at this point it’s been a while (almost a decade) since he’s made a truly great picture. Since Twelve Monkeys, his last excellent work, he’s been toiling away in interesting but flawed projects like the entertaining but studio-sliced Brothers Grimm and the chaotic, underrated Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. While he continues to try to raise up his endlessly-in-development-hell adaptation of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (which is back in pre-production again — we’ll see how long that lasts), Gilliam managed to find enough time to churn out another feature, perhaps his smallest yet, titled The Zero Theorem. While taking place primarily in one room, The Zero Theorem also encompasses larger themes of a detailed, technologically advanced world as it sets itself in a future dystopia not dissimilar to the one that Gilliam created in his greatest masterpiece, Brazil.
In fact, Zero Theorem perhaps invites a few too many comparisons to that magnificent picture, to a point where it looks worse by comparison as its unfocused script never manages to have the same kind of pop or energy that Brazil tore up in every frame. While that film had so much on its mind in terms of biting social commentary and riveting entertainment value, The Zero Theorem doesn’t do much of either and finds itself mostly centered on a singular story of one man that stretches itself out far too long. Written by Pat Rushin (his first screenplay), this is the story of a computer whiz named Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), a peculiar man who is assigned by his boss, known only as Management, to crack an equation in order to prove that life itself is meaningless. It’s a weighty premise to base your movie on, but instead of probing into the complexities of such a mission, Rushin’s script opens up a few interesting ideas early on before simply dancing around them for 95% of the movie and then awkwardly trying to wrap things up as ambiguously as possible in the final ten minutes.
As always, Gilliam is a magnificent world-builder in every sense of the word and he constructs Leth’s environment (the film is mainly located in Leth’s home, where he is allowed to take his work once getting the assignment) seamlessly with so much going on, yet never losing sight of his main character and the journey he’s on. With all of its visual splendor and magnificent production design, I can certainly say I never became tired of watching The Zero Theorem but with a script so unfocused I can’t say at the end of it all that I’m entirely sure what the point was. Though maybe for a movie all about a man trying to formulate an equation to prove that life is meaningless that is…the point? I doubt it, because if it were I probably wouldn’t have left this experience feeling so empty. Rushin tosses in a quick and vague resolution in the final act that includes a conversation with Management himself (played in a brief appearance by Matt Damon) which is so on-the-nose in its anti-religious angle that it leaves a bitter taste but at the same time the ideas it brings up are interesting to reflect on.
There’s a lot in The Zero Theorem that’s open to interpretation and I’d venture to say that it’s too open by means of a script that doesn’t have the intelligence to develop itself fully so instead it relies on lazy ambiguity to give off the false impression of deeper meaning. Gilliam’s direction is sincere and helps to keep the film moving along at a relatively digestible pace, but he can’t make up for Rushin’s frustrating writing or the derivative nature of a man honing in on past successes without bringing anything new to the table. If there’s any saving grace for The Zero Theorem it’d be Christoph Waltz in the leading role, who starts off a little too heavy on the tics (thanks to a script that writes in a few too many meaningless oddities throughout to try to make up for its lack of depth) but eventually he forms an emotional arc and sincere investment in Leth that I never would have expected after watching the first act. Overall, as a big Gilliam fan (still), this was unquestionably a disappointment but at the same time there was enough to keep me somewhat interested throughout and not entirely opposed to the experience.
2014, John Curran
In just a few months time, the Reese Witherspoon-starring Wild will likely be a regular in the awards season conversation as it tells the story of Cheryl Strayed’s 1,100-mile solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, but before that film sees its release there is another woman making an even longer journey. In Tracks, director John Curran (The Painted Veil, We Don’t Live Here Anymore) brings to life the true story of Robyn Davidson’s 1,700-mile journey in 1977 across the Australian deserts with only four camels and her dog to keep her company. Taking on the starring role, spending most of her time on screen alone, is Mia Wasikowska who has been dominating supporting roles in a wide variety of films the past few years and now demonstrates that she’s a fully-fledged star with a riveting work that carries Davidson’s epic tale entirely on her well-weathered shoulders.
Mandy Walker’s breathtaking cinematography pays equal attention to the gorgeous landscapes that Davidson treks across as well as her sun-baked, crackling skin that Wasikowska wears as confidently as her own. This year alone has seen the young Australian take on roles as diverse as a punk rock vampire in Only Lovers Left Alive, an irritated object of two doppelganger’s affection in The Double and a recently released pyromaniac in Maps to the Stars, and Tracks offers Wasikowska perhaps her most challenging portrayal yet. Any time you take on the part of a real person you are going to have a bit more pressure on you, and Davidson’s story has seen actors as big as Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman attached to the leading part, but Wasikowska’s performance is as effortless and absorbed as everything else she’s done to date and she owns this movie in every sense of the word. Wasikowska’s made a point of adding her name to the roster of acclaimed independent directors like John Hillcoat, Chan-wook Park and David Cronenberg, but Tracks sees her largely having to rely on her own skills and she cements any argument as to whether or not she’s one of the brightest stars of her generation.
While his leading lady gives her all to make Tracks a memorable story of one woman’s resilience in the face of a great obstacle, Curran and writer Marion Nelson (adapting Davidson’s novel to the screen) struggle to live up to that remarkable performance. They let her down with a relatively tepid film that never quite elevates itself beyond a typical storytelling identity that doesn’t capture the magnitude of Davidson’s journey. There’s something to be said for painting a quiet, intimate portrayal but nothing present within Tracks gets to the meat of this woman or does much outside of that to try and justify its seeming lack of interest in her. Instead, the film merely exists in an adequate but unmemorable space where things happen virtually at random as Curran never establishes a proper momentum or pacing from one scene to the next. Almost every new scene feels like an abrupt shift and the dynamic between Davidson and National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan (played by Adam Driver), who occasionally popped up to document her journey, feels especially underdeveloped in its evolution or lack thereof.
Tracks opens up with a quote from Davidson saying, “Some nomads are at home everywhere. Others are at home nowhere, and I was one of those.”, which is an interesting idea yet for all of the time we spend with her it seemed as though this one line gave more insight to the woman than anything else in the film. A young woman taking on such a monumental endeavor entirely on her own with no training or experience is a fascinating story to be told, yet it felt like Curran and Nelson had no interest in doing more than the bare minimum in bringing the story to the screen. There’s a distinct lack of passion in the filmmaking here and it’s a disappointment given what an intimately-focused epic this had the potential to be. Tracks is beautifully shot and held together thanks to a remarkable performance yet again from Wasikowska, who continues to dazzle and diversify herself, but for such an extraordinary story it all adds up to something that feels bizarrely ordinary.
2014, Joe Swanberg
This summer Joe Swanberg gave us a little bit of Christmas in July with Happy Christmas, his newest feature. Continuing his transition from mumblecore into slightly more mainstream affair (while still sticking to his lo-fi, improvised dialogue ways) that he started with last year’s Drinking Buddies, Christmas sees him reunite with Anna Kendrick while bringing Melanie Lynskey along for the ride. Kendrick plays Swanberg’s sister Jenny, who moves in with him, wife Kelly (Lynskey) and their young son while she’s nursing a rough breakup. As expected, the arrival of this irresponsible and heartbroken 20-something shakes up the quiet domesticity that this couple had formed to raise their child in but through the rocky transitioning Jenny reveals some looming passion in Kelly that sparks her back into a career that she had let slip once she became a parent.
As is generally the case with Swanberg’s filmmaking, there’s not much to Happy Christmas outside of its characters and the actors playing them, but for the first time I found that everyone on screen really gelled together effectively. I wasn’t a particularly big fan of Drinking Buddies, which I felt went the other direction and got too plot-heavy while the more traditionally-inclined actors struggled with Swanberg’s improvisational style (aside from Jake Johnson who was a natural fit) and gave it a put-on, self-aware feeling. I found that especially true of Kendrick, but her awkward introduction to the experience in that picture apparently adjusted her capably for this second go-round as she’s grown a feel for the way things work and raised her game tremendously.
The real star of the show, however, is Lynskey who takes full advantage of having a great leading role to develop a rich character with plenty of depth and emotion — something that she’s not used to having. While she’s done her best and stolen a bevy of scenes in films like The Informant! and Away We Go, Swanberg allows her to fully explore this character and she demonstrates what a largely underused talent she’s been for a long time. It’s also a pleasant surprise to see her speaking in her native accent for a change. Happy Christmas ultimately ends up becoming primarily about the relationship between Kelly and Jenny, who start off on uneasy ground and eventually help each other grow by bringing out qualities they had forgotten were present within them. Kendrick and Lynskey have such a pleasant chemistry with one another, developing this bond naturally over the course of the film and helping to create quite the enjoyable experience.
Swanberg gives the movie a warm type of vintage, home movie aesthetic with intimate camerawork that keeps things relaxed and attentive towards his actors which only helps to illuminate what a comfortable film this was to watch. It’s amusing that they released it in the summer because even without Christmas playing a key role in the plotting (this isn’t your typical “siblings reunite under the same roof for Christmas” movie that you see every year), Swanberg gives it an ambiance that made me want to get a warm mug of hot chocolate and lay under a thick blanket with a fire going as I watched it. Happy Christmas certainly isn’t substantial filmmaking, nor does it strive to be, but Swanberg and his lovely cast make for a pleasantly memorable viewing that made me feel right at home. It all caps off with a perfectly charming ending, along with an after credits scene that keeps the laughs coming — something which the movie does repeatedly over its lean 90-minute duration.
2014, Scott Frank
Ever since Liam Neeson took the world by surprise with his special set of skills in Taken, he’s been on a path of deeply diminishing returns within the action genre. The 62-year-old Irishman has found his career booming in terms of popularity and box-office success that he had never achieved before (aside from brand name franchises, whereas now he’s a legitimate box-office draw all on his own), but from Unknown to Taken 2 to this year’s Non-Stop, the image of Neeson holding a weapon while working his way through some kind of mystery is a frustratingly banal one at this point. At first glance Neeson’s new film, A Walk Among the Tombstones, looks like it could be just another entry in this line of disappointment — after all, the marketing does make sure we get to see a glimpse of him threatening another man on the other end of a phone call. A word of caution for those who would venture in expecting another retread though, as director Scott Frank has a much more somber, methodical affair in mind.
Frank has a long history in Hollywood as the writer of films as varied as Out of Sight, Minority Report and Marley & Me but A Walk Among the Tombstones is only his second feature as a director — odd considering that his debut, the ace noir thriller The Lookout, came a whopping seven years ago. This time around he’s brought a bit of source material with him, adapting his screenplay from the popular novel by Lawrence Block which is itself part of a lengthy series revolving around private investigator Matthew Scudder, portrayed here by Neeson. In Tombstones, Scudder is hired by a wealthy drug dealer (Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens who is everywhere at the moment in his attempt to transition to film) to track down the men who kidnapped and murdered his wife, after he paid them ransom they demanded. Scudder takes some convincing but eventually he dives into the investigation full-force, (too) quickly uncovering a pattern of men, who can't go to the police due to their line of work, being taken for large sums of cash at the mercy of their loved ones.
A Walk Among the Tombstones doesn’t strive to bring anything particularly new to the dark thriller genre and if those of you who saw the trailer felt it gave away the whole plot it’s because there aren’t really any surprises to be found, but where the film does succeed is in the lurking, ominous tone that Frank’s skilled direction brings to the table. Aided by the effectively moody cinematography of Mihai Malaimare Jr. (who recently shot Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master), Frank gives his sophomore film exactly the brooding atmosphere it needs to make it a refreshingly grim neo-noir. Frank’s direction is so on point in establishing his tone as a story to be taken seriously that it’s befuddling how much his script tends to clash with that concept. This is a relentlessly nasty movie (to a fault even) but across the picture there will randomly be insertions of antiquated, awkward attempts at humor that fall flat, along with several campy B-thriller elements to the plot that feel far too dated and very out of place tonally with the direction. You would have thought that Frank would have had a better feel for how to write the picture, given that he was the sole man steering the ship.
In a way, it makes sense that certain elements of the script feel dated, considering that Frank sets the picture in 1999. Bringing us back to fifteen years ago gives the film another unique spin in that we’re taken to a world where technology hasn’t yet evolved to a point where being a detective is essentially meaningless since the world is at your fingertips and even the dimmest investigator can Google their way to an easy resolution. Scudder has to get down on the streets and Frank employs old-school equipment like pay phones and microfilm that feel like they’re taken from another era. Unfortunately, along with this time period comes a rather undercooked background focus on the looming Y2K crisis that feels awkwardly inserted, though not as much as the bizarre turn into a sickle cell anemia backstory that comes and goes with absolutely no relevance. For someone who has written some of the most pointed and razor-sharp noir thrillers in the past two decades it’s frankly bizarre how all over the place A Walk Among the Tombstones has a tendency to be and he doesn’t help himself with a cast of characters who are remarkably uninteresting.
Scudder himself has the potential to be a classic anti-hero with a dark streak and plenty of demons in his past, but Frank’s script pours over them so tediously and Neeson sleepwalks his way through the role to a point where it’s hard to find any level of engagement in this character. He still fares much better than the supporting ensemble though, peppered with the most generic of criminals and street urchin stereotypes who are only drug further down by an ensemble cast that can’t do anything but suffer with the poor writing. One of the most damaging aspects of the film comes in the form of a sidekick Scudder takes under his wing, played by former X Factor contestant Brian “Astro” Bradley, and watching this awful actor deliver dialogue for a homeless black teenager that’s written by a 54-year-old white guy from Florida is alarmingly uncomfortable. To add onto this, there was originally an entire other partner for Scudder played by Ruth Wilson, who shot all of her scenes and subsequently had them cut, which is a real shame considering how nice it would have been to see an actor with talent in the movie. It only would have further benefited the film to have a female character who presumably doesn’t find herself getting raped, murdered or having her breast cut off since there literally aren’t any to be found here and it’s very off-putting.
I’m complaining a lot about A Walk Among the Tombstones and if you want to get down in the dirt, there really is a lot of problems with the movie that can derail the experience for any viewer. Most of them boil down to the messy, unfocused and tonally incoherent script but where the movie succeeds it does so admirably and enough to at least balance out the endeavor for me, if not overcome it entirely. Perhaps I’m being too lenient on Frank’s film simply by virtue of it not being terrible (I was honestly expecting something that was going to rank among the worst films of the year), but I feel that his direction and Malaimare’s cinematography properly enveloped the film in an atmosphere that kept it engaging through all of the many, many faults in the writing. If nothing else, the film gives further proof that Frank has the potential to be one of our great directors since he’s capable of taking something this flawed and making it passable, if not commendable overall. A Walk Among the Tombstones pales in comparison to The Lookout, which actually managed to take a unique concept and fill it with interesting, textured characters while still having a firm handle on a gripping atmosphere, but I hope we don’t have to wait another seven years to see a film with Frank at the helm because he’s proving to be a man with a wealth of talent behind the camera.
2014, Shawn Levy
When their father passes away, a quartet of upper-class white American siblings reunite in their childhood home to attend the funeral and work their way through the emotional baggage that each has built up in their life. When they arrive, their mother (played by an Oscar-winner, in this case Jane Fonda) tells them it was their father’s dying wish for them to sit shiva (despite neither him nor anyone else in the family practicing any religion in their lifetime) in mourning of him and so the family has seven whole days to work out their issues as they’re forced together under the same roof. Sound familiar? Based on Jonathan Tropper’s book of the same name (he also wrote the screenplay for this adaptation), This Is Where I Leave You is like watching a writer who wanted to make a vanilla family reunion dramedy in the shape of August: Osage County, The Family Stone and countless others but instead of trying to create their own world of characters and relationships they instead simply copy and pasted a bunch of the scenes they liked from the best films of this type and slotted them into positions over the course of the movie.
Chances are that when walking into This Is Where I Leave You any viewer who has seen a movie in the past ten years is going to know exactly where every single character, plot and dynamic is going to go by the time the first act ends and while this can understandably turn off a lot of people, for me the film was able to have enough charm to slightly overcome its many flaws and that’s almost entirely due to a phenomenal cast loaded to the brim with skilled actors. The film’s biggest problem is without a doubt Tropper’s screenplay, one which is never able to establish a proper rhythm or tonal balance in its attempt at working in moments of both comedy and drama, instead operating on a jarring system of basically alternating from one comedic scene to a dramatic one then back to a comedic one and so on and so forth for the entire 100-minute duration — a running time which feels like it reaches at least two hours by the time the whole thing is concluded. Though while I place a lot of the blame on Tropper’s shoulders, it must be said that the bland, overwhelmingly unenthused direction from Shawn Levy (he of Night at the Museum and Cheaper by the Dozen fame) doesn’t help matters any. This Is Where I Leave You is Levy’s first ever R-rated picture but you wouldn’t know it since it feels just as safe and predictable as the rest of his work.
What does help, and what edged it over into pleasant but unmemorable territory for me, was the ace cast who are too charming to not let this thing work despite the worst efforts of the writer and director. The central quartet are wonderfully cast in the form of the effortlessly winning Jason Bateman, the enterprise that is Tina Fey, the stalwart Corey Stoll and the ubiquitous wild child Adam Driver. Under the roof with Fonda as their matriarch (a former family therapist who is famous for writing a best-selling book about her children’s personal lives — gag), these four all bring something to the table and as you’d expect each of them is given their own romantic entanglements and various subplots to navigate over the course of the picture that bring along a myriad of other talented actors like Rose Byrne, Kathryn Hahn and Timothy Olyphant. On paper, This Is Where I Leave You has one of the best casts in years and so ultimately it can’t help but feel like a disappointment that they’re given material so pedestrian, which undervalues each of them to one degree or another, but even if it’s not working on a level deserving of a cast of this caliber, the performers on screen are at least able to elevate this picture despite all its cliches, cloying sentimentality and telegraphed subplots. This is a cast that is so good it can sell practically anything and while none of them give Oscar-level work, there isn’t a bad performance among the group (though Fey has a few off moments), with standouts in the form of Bateman, Driver and Byrne — Bateman in particular giving some very solid dramatic work in a rare turn that is more serious than I expected.
To be fair, I’ve always had a personal affection for this type of dramedy that brings a family back together under one roof to mine out their decades of resentments and old habits and so I’m likely more lenient on This Is Where I Leave You than many others are going to be. I can see plenty of people rolling their eyes the whole way through it and while I can’t begrudge any of them for doing so, I had a pleasant enough time with it despite everything working against the film. The screenplay hinders it from the word go, feeling even more paint-by-numbers than I could have anticipated while any moment of unexpectedness ends up being one that takes the movie in a poor direction, with one particular scene involving Hahn’s character being especially uncomfortable and ill-advised. With each main character receiving their own primary arc to work through in order to bring them to the “everyone is miserable but we’re a family and we’ve got each other no matter” resolution, along with at least one B-plot a piece to pad out the running time, it definitely felt like some of the less developed threads could have been cut to trim the fat off this and make for a tighter pace — though that’s not to say that anything in This Is Where I Leave You is especially “developed” either.
Going into the film, I had the hopes that it would be just the right kind of familiar, emotional and amusing family reunion dramedy that would hit me in the same kind of sweet spot that something like Dan in Real Life recently did. That was a film where you could see the direction all the pieces are moving yet despite all of its predictability it’s so unassuming, wonderfully acted and emotionally resonant that it worked for me on a very deep level. This Is Where I Leave You never earns its emotions the same way that film did though, with Tropper’s writing feeling far too often like it’s desperate to try and make you laugh one second and shed a tear the next (or ideally both), letting a quality cast down in terms of not giving them the kind of rich material that would have made this a picture that could have been a long-standing tradition for repeat viewings whenever you’d need to be reminded that all families are dysfunctional. There are so many ways in which Shawn Levy’s film could be easily torn to shreds by anyone who was left with a bitter taste in their mouth, and I genuinely won’t blame or necessarily disagree with people for doing so, but for me all this needed was the right casting choices to bring together an ensemble of actors capable enough of using their charm and warm chemistry to elevate it to something not particularly memorable or even emotional in the way it so craves to be but at least pleasantly comfortable throughout and that’s exactly what they accomplished.
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?
2014, Michael R. Roskam
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.