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)