Month: January 2015

The Best of 2014- Year In Review

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The Best of 2014

What appeared at the beginning to be a down year for blockbusters and good films in 2014 ended up an absolute boon for film lovers like me.  From smaller, less recognized gems to the year’s typical blockbuster fare, I can’t help but be rather thankful for all we had last year.

It is time for me to reveal my top 10 list for 2014, as all good and pretend film critics must do.  Feel free to comment with a list of your own, or share this story with anyone that wants to catch up.

10. Inherent Vice The easy comparison to Paul Thomas Anderson’s California stylish stoner comedy/epic farce would be The Big Lebowski, but there are subtle differences that make Vice stand on its’ own.  For one, Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc character’s love for Shasta (played by the stunning Katherine Waterston) grounds the story.  Also, the character names alone would make me love this movie- the aforementioned Shasta, Sortilege, Ensenada Slim, Petunia Leeway, and Sauncho Smilax.  Those names belong to characters in a stoner dream, which, I suppose, is exactly what this is.  Of the ten films on this list, it’s possible that Inherent Vice will be the one I watch more than any of them.  It really is that much fun.

9. American Sniper- Clint Eastwood’s docudrama on the life and times of Chris Kyle is an intense film, executed to near perfection.  Aside from the skewed opinions of many, the film itself is masterful, crafting a linear story of a complicated man.  Allowing your politics to influence how you feel about this film is the wrong choice.  Instead, allow Eastwood’s deft direction to guide you through the experience of not just Kyle, but perhaps our whole military for the past 12 years.

8. Under The Skin- Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel is one of those films- you know, the ones that are more atmosphere than content, that suggest rather than elaborate, that rely on the simplest facial movements rather than unnecessary dialogue.  The shrill strings that accompany the brilliant score by Mica Levi assist in bringing this film to the ultimate tension level.  I also admit to being thoroughly frightened by a particular scene, and even 9 months after seeing the film, it still bugs me.  Some may say this drags on, but I’d say watch it again- it got even better the second time around.

7. Whiplash- Director Damien Chazelle’s semi-autobiographical tale of master and apprentice is an extraordinary battle of wills.  Miles Teller shows what an excellent actor he is when he’s not involved in Divergent nonsense, and J.K. Simmons’ alpha male gives the year’s best supporting performance as, well, a villain.  What truly makes this a great film is Chazelle ‘s ability to place doubt in our mind.  Is greatness truly derivative of madness?  You might say no, but this film brings a great argument to the table.

6: Chef- Of all the 2014 films I saw, Jon Favreau’s Chef may be the one I revisit the most.  The love of food is an important theme, sure, but the life of a brilliant chef, and the relationships he acquires and maintains through the visage of brilliantly prepared food is the focus with this film.  It helps that a man I know and care about is the spitting image of Favreau’s character, and his words and actions certainly call him to mind as well.  Aside from the focus on Cuban cuisine, the film handles family relationships with a real sensibility, especially between father and son.  It’s one of the more enjoyable films in recent memory.

5. Selma- Whether or not Martin Luther King Jr’s family endorsed this or not, this snippet of the great man’s life is a truly powerful and important film.  Director Ava DuVernay transports us inside that moment in our country’s history so deftly that the film never becomes a fluff biopic, nor does it shy away from being critical of King, our nation’s leaders, or the ugly, hateful place America has occasionally been.  It’s also the best looking film of the year, and David Oyelowo, matching Dr. King step for step, gives one of the year’s best lead performances, Oscar snubs be damned.

4. Nightcrawler- Director Dan Gilroy’s moody, satirical melody of  American journalism and capitalism is hard to watch, sure.  The film’s “throwback-to-the-80s” score, the focus on “dirty L.A.”, the take on today’s sexual politics, and the brilliant Jake Gyllenhaal’s manic performance steal the show.  Even Rene Russo deserved awards talk for her portrayal of a news director having to push the limits to stay viable.  This is another one of ‘those’ films- the atmospheric, dark type of comedy that boosts my confidence, knowing that I’m smart enough to understand what it has to say, and mature enough to enjoy the ‘adult’ of it all.

3. Wish I Was Here Zach Braff’s funny and deeply emotional ‘thirtysomething’ version of Garden State hit home for this ‘thirtysomething’.  It’s a crisp study of a character at a crossroad in his life, and the emotion necessary to get someone to transition from one point to another.  The real relationships on display in this film carry it, but on a personal level, I feel Braff is the cinematic voice of my generation.  I simply wish he didn’t need a decade to get what he has to say to his followers.

2. Enemy- Jake Gyllenhaal gives two, yes TWO, Oscar-worthy performances in this “paranoia-du-force” thriller.  Every camera angle, every color wash, every piece of music in this film seems right in place to present a very Hitchcock-style film.  It’s a real shame that critics everywhere forgot about this, but not me.  Denis Villeneuve’s film is nearly perfect- he misleads his audience, or so we think, only to pounce on us in the end.  Few films in the past number of years have kept me thinking “what just happened” as this one does- and that ENDING.  Seriously, just see it, and tell me that it isn’t incredibly thought-provoking.

1. Gone Girl This is a flawless film.  How does a pulpy, Lifetime-esque subject become a masterpiece?  David Fincher, that’s how.  He crafts Gillian Flynn’s script into glorious intrigue, laced with multiple narrations, twists, gore, gender role commentary, and even murder mystery.  It has that Fincher-sheen, that all-too-familiar camera focus, and such a wit that you can’t help but grin, even as awful people are doing awful things.  It’s the best film of the year, and to be honest, it isn’t all that close.

*Honorable mention to: Boyhood, Begin Again, Birdman, The Babadook, Blue Ruin, Interstellar, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, How to Train Your Dragon 2, and Life Itself

Film Review- ‘Into the Woods’ (*1/2)

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"And what do you burn, apart from witches?"  "More witches!"
“And what do you burn, apart from witches?” “More witches!”

Into the Woods   *1/2 (out of 5)

Starring: Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Mackenzie Mauzy, Billy Magnussen, Daniel Huttlestone, Lilla Crawford and Johnny Depp

Written by:  James Lapine (screenplay), based on the musical written by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim

Directed by: Rob Marshall

It would generally be unfair for me to be the one to critique a musical.  I’ve never understood the off-putting way musical characters break into song from seemingly nothing.  However, having been exposed to more of them over the years, including brilliant films like Singin’ In the Rain, I’ve developed a reluctant appreciation for some of them.  Some musicals are centered, have distinctive songs instead of lines delivered as music, and manage to distinguish themselves as cinematic, and not simply a stage retread.

Keeping that in mind, no specific qualifier is really necessary for Rob Marshall’s Into the Woods.  The second trailer showed such promise, wrapped around the theme of ‘innocence lost’.  The film is an entirely different monster.  It fails as a musical and a movie, somehow managing to play for over two hours yet devoid of fun, sensibility, and order.  I know all the cool kids are attempting crossovers and team-ups these days, but the overlay of multiple fairy tale stories muddles this film.  Perhaps the mature themes and subject material work better as a Broadway musical, and live performances gloss over the more sinister overtones.  Perhaps the tangled mess of musical numbers works better when they’re belted out in front of a live audience.  Perhaps Marshall had difficulty finding the movie.  Whatever the truth behind why it failed, it most certainly did, to the tune of one of 2014’s most miserable cinematic experiences.

Despite multiple introductions and various story arcs, the plot really centers around the baker (Corden) and his wife (Blunt).  They cannot have children, so it seems, but have always blamed themselves.  As it turns out, a curse was placed on their house by a neighboring witch (Streep), who’s so bent out of shape about the theft of her garden that she overreacts.  I’ll risk it and say that no “greens” were stolen, and instead she was angry at the father for romancing, but not loving her. She’s so angry that she even sings about how the father ‘raped’ her garden.  The ever-so-reasonable witch offers to reverse the curse, provided the couple go on a silly journey to gather the necessary items to create a ‘potion’.  (spoiler alert- there is no ‘potion’)  The couple must go (wait for it) into the woods for these items, or at least they choose to.  The plot, various songs, and even the title requires it.

The couple crosses paths with a number of other characters living their own ‘fairy tales’.  We have Little Red Riding Hood (Crawford), a precocious pre-teen on the way to her grandmother’s house who cannot seem to ‘stay on the path’, and runs into a ravenous wolf (Depp).  There’s Cinderella (Kendrick), who badly wants to attend the king’s festival, but of course her wicked step-family works to keep her away.  We also have Jack (Huttlestone), who loves his family’s milky-white cow and cannot resist climbing beanstalks.  Rapunzel (Mauzy) lets down her long golden hair so her prince (Magnussen) can romance her but not bother to whip up an escape route.  All of these sad sacks are required by the plot to enter these woods, where evil lurks, and bad decisions prevail.  After considerable thought on the matter, I cannot tell if the music is what prevents me from caring after the character introductions, or the story itself.  Likely a hint of both.  The only one who seems to know what movie he should be in is Prince Charming (Pine).  His charisma, coupled with a surprisingly inoffensive English accent, is the one true strong performance I can point to from the sea of talent present.

Instead of the story that I don’t care for, let me focus on why the movie fails.  For one, there is something altogether vile and reprehensible about the film’s sinister and confusing overtones.  Is this a movie for children (rated PG) or adults?  Singing gleefully doesn’t erase the seriousness inherent in the film’s adult themes.  We’re treated to not-so-symbolic overtones of pedophilia, murder, rape, theft, barrenness, poverty, fear of fatherhood, infidelity, and even body torture.  Naturally, I’m aware that these themes are present in the tales from whence they came, but there is no doubt that the way in which they are presented in the film is a stark contrast to the PG rating.  Never one to be a prude, I’m astounded that Into the Woods was not only given the lesser rating, but was clearly marketed as a family film, under the deceptive guise of Disney, musicals, and the holiday film season.  Perhaps, as I stated earlier, this material works better on stage, and is intended for an adult audience.

I’m also befuddled how director Rob Marshall missed what should have been the central theme, or a common thread all of these tales share at their heart- the loss of innocence, or the desire to protect that innocence. It was obvious to this writer what idea these tales could be united under- so obvious that when the film bothers to acknowledge it for a tiny scene, I recognized an actual film; and a good one at that.  When the Witch visits Rapunzel to warn her to what might be out there ‘in the woods’, we find a sweet, heartfelt, yet sad moment.  The scene works so well that when it abruptly ends and devolves back into nonsense, we’re left wondering why Marshall cannot see what we’re seeing.

I’ve already spoken to why the music doesn’t work.  The songs, should we call them that, are a mess.  Sometimes we get a 4 minute tune, sometimes a 30 second monologue that is sung, but there exists no flow to them, no natural balance of sound.  I’m sure a Broadway or musical lover can tell me about the cadence of stage musicals, or how clever the lyrics are, or how I don’t understand the talent necessary to make them work.  I would retort that the lack of aural cohesion in this film made me wonder how any musical ever works.

Into the Woods may be the most confusing film in recent memory.  It stubbornly refuses to understand what movie it should be, stubbornly refuses to be cinematic in general, and seems to want to speak to only little girls- current and former.  Aside from a minute-long scene that works and some occasionally impressive visuals, it is an overlong, confusing mess of a musical.  I found myself not caring for any character, or finding myself transported at all.  If a supposed whimsical, musical, cinematic fantasy cannot provide whimsy, cinematic moments, fantasy, or a modicum of sensible music, has it not failed to do exactly what it should do?  I think it stands to reason.  Coupled with the clear miss on tone, there isn’t a single thing I can recommend about the film outside of a one minute interlude.  Find that on YouTube.  Skip the film.