Saturday, November 01, 2014

October 2014

The new TV season is in full swing; in addition to adding American Horror Story: Freak Show to my list of regular series, I spent October plowing through Season 3 of Frasier and am currently enjoying Season 4 during lunch hours. On the literary front, this was the month that Volume 17 of Dick Tracy Complete was released; I greatly enjoyed reading the collected comic strips from 1956-1957, and also read an actual print book (see below) while treating myself to two additional John D. MacDonald mysteries on audio CD. Here are the movies I viewed in October:

GONE GIRL (2014)—Author Gillian Flynn’s third thriller novel was the must-read of summer 2012, and I was one of the millions who enjoyed it. Now director David Fincher (Seven, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) offers his cinematic take on this popular mystery story, with a screenplay by Flynn herself. Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike (one of my favorite actresses) portray the ill-fated married couple, Nick and Amy Dunne, in a twisty tale that really keeps you guessing. I doubt many fans of the novel will claim that the movie captures the unique beauty of the novel (after all, we know what all the surprises are), but it’s still an enjoyable movie that should appeal more to those who aren’t already acquainted with the story. (8)

PASSION FISH (1992)—John Sayles’ film depicts the relationship between a recent paraplegic (Mary McDonnell) and her latest nurse (spectacular Alfre Woodard), as they move ever so slowly from an employer/employee dynamic to true friends. This was the first of two movies I saw this month that would have benefited enormously from some judicious editing—it’s a genuine “10” that has been padded down to an “8” because Sayles can’t resist letting the action unfold over 134 grueling minutes. However, there is genuine grace and style in this movie if you can be patient through the slow parts. Somebody should really try to edit this down to about 100 minutes—it could have been something approaching a masterpiece. (8)

THE JUDGE (2014)—Here’s the second worthy but tragically overlong movie of the month. The generally reliable Robert Downey Jr. plays an attorney estranged from his small-town judge father (Robert Duvall). When Mom passes away, Downey leaves the big city (and his big salary) behind to attend the funeral…and then gets ensnared in a local trial when dad Duvall is suddenly on the hook for a murder. It’s half courtroom thriller, half romance as Downey gets involved with a local flame from his past. Some of the action is engrossing, some of it is cliched, much of it is preposterous. Eliminating about 30 minutes (get rid of that asinine hurricane scene!) would have turned this from an 8 to a 9. Downey, as usual, is superb. (8)

COHERENCE (2014)—I took a chance on this indie sci-fi flick because it co-stars Nicholas “Xander” Brendan from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s a weird movie about four couples having a dinner party…but who experience some otherworldly phenomena when a comet passes overhead. Suddenly these folks find themselves in what seems to be a parallel dimension. Or is it? There’s some nice tension and a few real thrills, but unfortunately it pretty much falls apart by the end. Nice attempt, though. Trivia note: shortly after I watched this movie, Nicholas Brendan was making headlines by getting himself arrested in some sort of drunken fight with the cops. (7)

WHIPLASH (2014)—Character actor J.K. Simmons always adds a lot of credibility to any movie he’s in—he’s among the best things in Juno, A Beginner's Guide to Endings, Up in the Air, Extract and numerous other movies. Here he takes a starring role as an instructor/conductor at a music conservatory who bullies his band-member students in a deranged attempt to make them quintessentially perfect musicians. His approach…well, let’s just say he doesn’t place much value on positive reinforcement. In fact, the whole thing plays out like an Army boot-camp movie, with Simmons as the drill instructor. The result is mesmerizing high drama, with one student (Miles Teller) receiving most of the brutality. Suspenseful and engrossing. (9)

BIRDMAN (2014)—Playing a washed-up actor much like himself (his character previously starred in a series of superhero movies, a series that he walked away from…sound familiar?), Michael Keaton tries to inject some life into his career by casting himself in the starring role of a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. When Edward Norton joins the cast and Keaton hires his daughter (Emma Stone) to be his assistant, the sparks really start to fly. As directed by Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu, the film contains occasional elements of surrealism and is shot to resemble one long, uninterrupted take—a neat experiment but occasionally distracting, as I found myself trying to see where the subtle cuts were. (They’re there, but very hard to find.) There are elements of black comedy amid the drama; while it’s not for all tastes, you leave the theater feeling that you’ve just seen something wholly original. The entire cast, including Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts and Amy Ryan, are all first-rate. (9)

EXTRATERRESTRIAL (2014)—There are occasional scares in this horror movie about a group of friends who are menaced by aliens who look exactly like Spielberg’s outer-space visitors in Close Encounters of the Third Kind; it’s moderately watchable most of the time, but ultimately a major bummer. Not bad, but nothing truly special. (6)

THESE ARE THE DAMNED (1963)—I saw most of a butchered version of this on TV when I was a kid; now the full, uncut print is available on DVD. It starts out being a dramatic tale of an American (Macdonald Carey) being menaced by tough street hoodlums led by Oliver Reed in the south coast of England, then abruptly shifts to a bizarre science-fiction story about radioactive kids being held in a kind of government prison. In an interesting twist, I actually read the novel this movie was based on (The Children of Light by Henry Lionel Lawrence) in between short bursts of watching the film—a very interesting and enlightening way of enjoying both versions of the same story. Known simply as The Damned in the UK. (8)

7500 (2014)—This movie has been collecting dust on the shelf for years, and now that’s it’s leaked into international outlets, I can see why it was deemed unreleasable. Spooky, supernatural things are happening on a jet bound from the U.S. to Japan, which is a great setup for a movie—just not this one. The main attraction for me was Leslie Bibb and Jamie Chung as flight attendants, and Amy Smart as a passenger. So at least there’s some very nice eye candy in the cast. Unfortunately, it’s overloaded with cliches, dumb plot points and amateurish direction, and the twist ending is a real eye-roller from the “It was all a dream!” catalog. Still, there’s no denying that Jamie Chung is a goddess. (4)

A GOOD MARRIAGE (2014)—I read Stephen King’s short-story collection Full Dark, No Stars when it came out in 2010; one of the stories was the basis for this movie, but watching it, I was surprised to have absolutely no memory of the plot. Joan Allen (another one of my all-time favorite actresses) is slumming a bit here as Darcy, the wife of Bob, a rare-coin collector (Anthony LaPaglia) who have been together for nearly 30 years. Then, by accident, she discovers that her husband is a serial killer. What’s a gal to do? Especially when one of her adult children is getting married soon? Is it possible Darcy to forgive Bob for the split-personality he blames for killing all those people—if for no other reason than shielding their kids from the resulting scandal? This movie provides the answer, although it moves at a snail’s pace to get there. Thank God my iPad has a 30-second advance “swipe” feature…at 102 minutes, this film seemed twice as long. Also, Joan Allen seems to know this is low point in her career. Mostly a bore. (6)

JOHN WICK (2014)—Going from the dull A Good Marriage to the nonstop action shoot-em-up of John Wick was a pretty dizzying experience. Keanu Reeves is a former hit man who’s just lost his beautiful wife to an undetermined sickness, leaving him grief-stricken. Then some bad guys beat him up, steal his car and kill his dog, making Keanu extremely angry! So it’s a revenge thriller with one of the highest body counts I’ve ever seen in a film. But at least it’s not boring! (8)

ANACONDA (1997)—Fresh from satirizing Godzilla and Sharknado earlier this year, the RiffTrax gang from TV's Mystery Science Theater 3000 has beamed their latest live show via satellite to U.S. theaters in time for Halloween. Their latest target is the famously awful horror movie Anaconda, starring Jennifer Lopez, Eric Stoltz, Ice Cube and, in a career low, Jon Voight, who seems to be channeling Scarface in one of the weirdest bad-guy characterizations of all time. Michael J. Nelson and his gang are in top form, as always. (9)

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2: TOYKO NIGHT (2010)—How I spent Halloween: watching the Japanese sequel to one of my favorite horror movies: Paranormal Activity. I was totally unaware of the existence of this film until a few days ago. Even though it has a Japanese director, writer and cast, they’ve followed the same formula as the other films (and that includes the preposterous idea that people running for their lives in horror never forget to keep the cameras rolling). Although it references the characters from the original movie, the plot contradicts the events of the American sequels that followed, including the domestic version of Paranormal Activity 2. Not a great movie by any stretch, but a reasonably scary movie for viewing on Halloween. (8)


Fahad Khan said...

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Elizabeth said...

Here’s a quote about John D. Macdonald that I often see bouncing around the web (I hesitate to quote from Wikipeida, which we all know is generally stuff we can wipe our asses with, but this seems legit). “Macdonald is by any standards a better writer than Saul Bellow, only Macdonald writes thrillers and Bellow is a human heart chap, so guess who wears the top grade laurels?” That’s from Kingsley Amis.