Wednesday, December 31, 2014

December 2014

I spent two weeks of this month out of the house—first in South Florida for Christmas week, then at my friend Choiwan's house, dogsitting for Olivia, her super-lazy bulldog. I spent a lot of time catching up on 2014 end-of-the-year flicks, but also forged ahead on Frasier (nearing Season 7) and watching the Kids in the Hall DVD box set. This was also the month that I read a lot of short stories by Henry Slesar.

Here's my final batch of movies for 2014:

BLUE RUIN (2014)—For a movie currently holding a 96% “Fresh” rating on, I was surprised not to see this on a lot of “Best of 2014” lists. Macon Blair plays a homeless drifter whose parents were murdered several years ago. When the killer is released from prison, he shifts into revenge mode. It’s a great idea for a movie and executed with an acceptable degree of style and finesse, but Blair plays his character as a guy who’s so aloof that we never truly feel his anguish. There are some cool plot twists here, but it could have been more deeply felt. (8)

STILL ALICE (2014)—Julianne Moore is a wife and mother of three grown children who learns she has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Even worse, it’s a variety that you can pass on to your kids. The movie chronicles her struggles and the difficulties of her husband (Alec Baldwin), family members and friends with this terrible affliction. It’s obviously quite downbeat, but felt more like an infomercial at times than a drama. (8)

SANTA CLAUS (RiffTrax Presentation) (1959)—Those Mystery Science Theater 3000 guys are at it again, and for December they riff on a dubbed version of this terrible Mexican Christmas movie, which shows Santa engaging in a game of cat and mouse with a mischievous devil. As awful as the movie is, the comments by Mike Nelson and crew are typically hilarious. (9)

THE CAPTIVE (2014)—Atom Egoyan’s thriller features Ryan Reynolds as a man desperately searching for his kidnapped daughter and deflecting suspicion that he had something to do with the girl’s disappearance. Rosario Dawson is a cop who only realizes what’s going on when the villain decides to target her as well. Not bad, but could have been much better—a lot of it tests our suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. (7)

FRACTURE (2007)—Anthony Hopkins murders his wife, then challenges prosecutors to prove it in court—the evil genius has hidden the murder weapon very well, and the lead attorneys keep making mistake after mistake. With such an ingenious setup, it would take a performance of abysmal proportions to sink it, and Ryan Gosling is more than up to the challenge. It is absolutely one of the worst performances in a major movie that I’ve ever seen. It’s a pity; besides him, this was a gripping yarn. (7)

BOYHOOD (2014)—Tired of movies that feature flashbacks to the main character’s childhood, and the actor playing the kid looks nothing like him? Director Richard Linklater solves that problem by filming his family drama over a 12-year period, so we see the kid (Ellar Coltrane) grow up before our eyes—a technique used to similar effect in Michael Apted’s Up documentary series. Oscar’s frontrunner for Best Film chronicles Coltrane’s boyhood from age 6 up to 18, so we see him go from wearing short pants to using drugs, graduating from high school, etc. The 165-minute movie takes full advantage of the gimmick; we see his procession of girlfriends, major life events, various marriages by his mother and so on. Linklater does a typically great job doling out the drama; my main problem with the movie was that Coltrane’s character didn’t grow up into a young adult I particularly liked. (8)

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (2014)—Having read the 1992 Lawrence Block novel earlier this year, I had a curiosity about how it stacked up as a movie. The film is a much watered-down and bowdlerized version of the original story, but Liam Neeson is generally entertaining, and although this is kind of a bare-bones version of the story, it’s reasonably entertaining. (8)

WILD (2014)—Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, the real-life woman who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail alone as a way of cleansing herself of various personal dilemmas (heroin abuse, divorce, family tragedy, etc.). The movie ping-pongs between Cheryl’s often trying trek along the trail—blistering heat, snakes, snow and the inevitable human predators—and flashbacks that fill in the blanks of her character. Laura Dern is superb as Cheryl’s mom. Based on Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. A truly amazing film that depicts the extent of man’s—make that woman’s—indomitable spirit. Quintessential and unmissable. (10)

GOOD MORNING MISS DOVE (1955)—This month was all about catching up on this year’s movies, but I forced myself to watch this Jennifer Jones vehicle about an aloof but beloved teacher, her health scare, and how she brings a community together. Rather corny, with a performance by Jones that Star Trek’s Spock would have have found highly logical. (7)

IDA (2014)—This acclaimed Polish film garnered enough rave reviews to make me curious to check it out. On the plus side, it contains some solid performances and a setup I found irresistible: a nun about to take her vows discovers that she’s the daughter of Jewish parents. Unfortunately, even at a mere 80 minutes, it feels twice that long, due to relatively little action and a plethora of interminable scenes where nothing happens—people just sit there looking sad, or walk slowly across a field. Ida would have made a much better short. I will say that it is amazingly photographed: nearly every frame looks like an award-winning B&W image. That alone gives it a +1 on my final grade of (7).

TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (2014)—Belgian directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne have crafted the best film I saw all year, the story of how a woman (Marion Cotillard) attempts to keep her job at a solar-panel plant. This story about compassion and selfishness is devastating, having reduced me to tears less than half-hour in. This soundtrack-free movie, with its uncanny performance by Cotillard, should be required viewing by all directors on how to make a movie. And it should be required viewing for you, too. (10)

CALVARY (2014)—Brendan Gleeson is Father James, an Irish priest who receives a startling confession from a parishioner: He plans to kill Father James in a week’s time as a symbolic gesture (the parishioner having been the victim of sexual abuse by another priest, who is now dead). Over the following week, we meet a bunch of the locals, most of whom do not seem to like Father James. We also meet his grown daughter, conceived before he became a priest; she recently attempted suicide and carries a lot of daddy baggage of her own. Interesting film, but suffers enormously from a lack of sympathetic characters. (7)

THE SPANISH APARTMENT (2002)—This year marked the release of Film #3 in the Spanish Apartment series, of which this is the first. I was curious about it because it features Audrey Tautou (of Amélie fame), but her involvement here is relatively minimal. The film—which is largely in French and Spanish—introduces us to a bunch of foreign-exchange students living and studying together in Barcelona, including Xavier (Romain Duris), who is juggling romantic and professional dilemmas. The residents of the apartment may speak different tongues, but as the film shows, loyalty and love are common languages. Decent comedy-drama. (8)

SELMA (2014)—It’s the end of the year, which means it’s time for a big, solemn Oscar-hogging movie featuring African-Americans. No slavery this time around, so a biopic about Martin Luther King will have to do. I approached this movie with trepidation—it seems like one of those “eat your vegetables” movies where you half-expect there to be a test after the screening. (Lee Daniels’ The Butler was last year’s equivalent, and it also featured Oprah Winfrey.) But although the first half of “Selma” is achingly solemn and very “scripty” (the dialogue just seems obviously written), it gets far more involving, suspenseful and intriguing as it goes along. I was happy to see a movie that humanizes King, and paints an unflattering portrait of Lyndon Johnson that many Americans may be surprised to see. (9)

TOP FIVE (2014)—Comedian Chris Rock is the funniest standup performer alive right now. However, while TOP FIVE proves handily that he is not the most talented actor or director, it’s a moderately enjoyable comedy-drama that wisely takes advantage of the chemistry between Rock and his real-life squeeze, Rosario Dawson. (I never get tired of looking at Dawson on the big screen—I want to see every one of her movies.) Top Five, about a comedian who wants to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor, also features the always-amusing Jerry “J.B. Smoove” Brooks and stunning Gabrielle Union. Rock takes the basic idea of Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories and puts his unique spin on it. (8)

THE IMITATION GAME (2014)—Benedict Cumberbatch portrays Alan Turing, the real-life mathematician and puzzle-solver who saved countless lives during World War II with his expert Nazi code-cracking. The film wisely casts Keira Knightley as a woman on Turing’s team; every film should cast her! (8)

AMERICAN SNIPER (2014)—Clint Eastwood’s biopic is about Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), the expert marksman who became one of the best Navy SEAL snipers in history. Kyle did four tours during the war in Iraq before a deranged veteran shot him dead here in the U.S. The movie goes BANG BANG BANG! and BOOM BOOM BOOM! as an uncountable amount of terrorists are mowed down (along with some of our heroic soldiers, of course), and it all starts to feel a bit repetitive. Kyle is portrayed as a man positively addicted to “defending our country”; as the movie progresses, he starts to care less about his wife and kids, and more about getting back into his tank and picking off the bad guys. Curiously, Kyle’s tragic fate is inexplicably reduced to a caption at the end of the film. (6)

FORCE MAJEURE (2014)—And I close 2014 with this shockingly overrated Swedish movie about a fun family ski vacation in the mountains that becomes miserable in the wake of a scary but harmless avalanche. Mom is angry that Dad went running when things looked grim, leaving her and the kids behind—then their marriage starts unraveling. I found much of the "action" deadly dull in this overlong melodrama. (4)

Monday, December 01, 2014

November 2014

November was mostly a quiet month. As always, it brought a delicious Thanksgiving feast at the Newmans' house, as well as the first chilly days (my air conditioner tends to get shut off in November). My computer's hard drive got fried when we lost power for a split-second earlier in the month; I lost all of my third-party software, but have managed to bring myself slowly back online at last. On the book side, I have now finished all but four Travis McGee mysteries by John D. MacDonald on audio, and am currently halfway through the new Stephen King thriller, called Revival. Working through my TV archives, I polished off Season 4 of Frasier (and am about halfway through Season 5), as well as the first couple of seasons of Kids in the Hall. Oh, and I applied for Obamacare. And that's about all I have to report. Here are the movies I saw in November:

NIGHTCRAWLER (2014)—I persuaded Joan to join me for this dark, creepy thriller about a handsome but sociopathic fellow (Jake Gyllenhaal) who breaks into the TV news business as a cameraman and succeeds by using highly unethical tactics. I believe the film captivated Joan as well as it did me; it seems to be a rare occurrence when we both leave the theater equally impressed by a movie. (9)

THE SKELETON TWINS (2014)—I had heard very positive reviews about this drama about grown siblings (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, both formerly of Saturday Night Live), once quite close in their youth, but having drifted apart over the years. An attempted suicide by Hader's character lands him in his sister's care, and the story (what there is of it) unfolds in her home, with Luke Wilson as Wiig's affable and amazingly accommodating husband. The movie moves slowly but not too boringly; a scene where Hader and Wiig lip-sync Starship's '80s hit "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" is inspired fun. Not a great film, but reasonably entertaining, with excellent performances from the two leads. (8)

BIG HERO 6 (2014)—Like the 2004 Disney/Pixar superhero collaboration The Incredibles—has it really been 10 years since then?—Big Hero 6 is another astonishingly rendered and conceived animated confection, this one based on a Marvel comic book. Some of it has been Walt Disneyfied, of course, but that's not a negative; this suspenseful, funny and downright charming movie is one of the best I've seen all year, bursting with excellent characterization and surprises. (10)

INTERSTELLAR (2014)—Perhaps it was a mistake to see Interstellar immediately after the immensely satisfying Big Hero 6, but that's how the chips fell. For some reason, Christopher Nolan's big-budget science-fiction extravaganza was on my "Most Anticipated Movies" list for 2014, as I evidently forgot about how intensely unsatisfied I was with his earlier hits The Prestige, The Dark Knight and especially 2010's Inception. Chalk up another shattering disappointment from Nolan's imagination (he co-wrote this claptrap). A frightfully overlong mess in which very little makes sense, Interstellar does at least have some decent performances, but I think it will be a long time before I see another of his movies. The one silver lining is how much delicious fun you can have reading blogs with titles like "21 Things in Interstellar That Don't Make Sense." (4)

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (2014)—Cambridge student Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) meets and romances Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones); he makes historic advances in the field of physics but falls victim to motor neuron disease. The movie chronicles his battle with the disability but celebrates his successes in spite of it. It's a modest and educational dramatization of real-life events, most entertaining for Redmayne's incredible portrayal of the world-famous scientist. (8)

CHASE A CROOKED SHADOW (1958)—After a spate of new movies, I needed to escape to the past, and this oldie about an heiress (anne Baxter) menaced by a con artist (Richard Todd) pretending to be her dead brother was a nice diversion to yesteryear. There's an undeniable Hitchcockian quality to the movie, which plays with Alfred's classic themes of identity crisis. It also has a great surprise (although implausible) finale. Still...I enjoyed it. With the great Herbert Lom as a police chief, and an excellent guitar score by Julian Bream. (9)

ST. VINCENT (2014)—Tepid reviews kept me from seeing this Bill Murray comedy-drama, but a strong recommendation from Val Collins inspired me to give it a try...and bravo for her excellent advice! Yes, there is a saccharine, manipulative quality to this redemption story about a crusty old guy (Murray) who develops a friendship with the little kid who moves in next door; together they learn to be better people from each other. OK, so I bought the entire thing from beginning to end and had a tear in my eye by the time the end credits rolled. Sue me! Definitely one of the year's best, and a return to form for Murray. (10)

STONEHEARST ASYLUM (2014)—Based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe, this thriller stars Jim Sturgess as an Oxford Medical School graduate who travels to a creepy lunatic asylum to learn how to care for the inmates...but it seems that the inmates are already running the asylum. That's not really much of a spoiler, as it doesn't take an Oxford Medical School graduate to figure it out almost immediately (so why isn't it obvious to Sturgess?). Once there, he falls for a beautiful patient played by Kate Beckinsale—and what heterosexual male wouldn't fall for Kate Beckinsale? Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine and especially sinister David Thewlis are on hand to make the atmosphere as creepy as possible; it's about on par with the old Hammer Film shockers of the 1960s—not great, but acceptably entertaining if you dig that kind of thing. (8)

THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS (2012)—From the folks who gave us the marvelous Chicken Run (2000), as well as the so-terrible-it-hurts Flushed Away (2006) comes another Claymation-like feature from Aardman Studios, this time about a band of pirates who set out on a seagoing adventure that involves a rare dodo bird. Co-directed and co-produced by Peter Lord (who co-directed and co-produced Chicken Run), this isn't quite as much fun as that perfect film, but it's pretty good, with a lot of exceptional animation, scenery and characters, as well as a healthy dose of gags. Hugh Grant supplies the voice of the Pirate Captain. (8)

FOXCATCHER (2014)—With Oscar buzz aplenty for Steve Carell in a rare dramatic role, I was excited to see this true-life story of John du Pont, the heir to a considerable fortune whose relationship to some wrestlers he coaches (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) takes some rather unexpected turns. Joan and I suffered through 134 minutes of stiflingly boring setup, which finally gets interesting in the final few minutes. Then, bang, it's all over. Through most of the movie, Carell is sedate and low-key, showing us signs that he is slowly (very slowly) losing his marbles. Watching interviews with the real du Pont after seeing the film makes you realize that Carell's characterization of him (including his annoying stop-start speaking style) is fairly spot-on, but there's really not enough in the script to engage the viewer—or, at the very least, us. (5)

SPRING BREAKERS (2013)—Director Harmony Korine's story of how a group of hot college-age girls plunge head-first into a world of drugs and violence is rendered in a much more "arty" style than I was expecting, with a lot of offbeat direction, repeated loops of dialogue and an overall "experimental" feel. James Franco, unrecognizable in cornrows and metallic grill, plays a rapping gangster who bails the girls out of jail after a drug bust and gives them an opportunity to really indulge in some unlawful activities. Lots of drug use, violence and nudity in this tale of debauchery in St. Petersburg, Florida, but it's rather unlike what I had been expecting. Interesting; doesn't really add up to very much, but a great showcase for Franco, whose bizarre performance makes this worth watching. As one critic observed, "If Michael Mann were take a lot of hallucinogenics and shoot a Girls Gone Wild video, it might look something like this." (8)

THE BABADOOK (2014)—Some movies fail to create a truly compelling story, yet do an extraordinary job in other areas. In the case of the Australian horror flick The Babadook—which ultimately is little more than Paranormal Activity meets The Shining—the filmmakers do an outstanding job in the areas of makeup, special effects, artistic direction and a general creepy feel throughout. Actress Essie Davis, as a widow trying to raise her troubled young son (Noah Wiseman), is superb, but I wish there had been more to the movie than a woman becoming possessed by a mysterious demon. I did enjoy the ending, and the children's-book-within-the-movie (also called The Babadook), as created by Alex Juhasz, is absolutely extraordinary—it's the best thing in the movie. (8)

DARK TOUCH (2012)—As with the previous entry, Dark Touch is a horror movie that creates a satisfyingly creepy atmosphere, but delivers even less than its predecessor in terms of story. Basically, an 11-year-old girl (Missy Keating), having been sexually and physically abused by her now-deceased parents, is understandably having some major trust issues with her new foster parents—plus, she has telekinesis (like Sissy Spacek in the fondly recalled Carrie, which this movie definitely ain't). Keating conveys sadness, confusion and fear extremely well, but the movie annoyingly raises more questions than it answers. (6)